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A review of the new Jim Collins book “Great By Choice”


I admit it. I’m a total Jim Collins fanboy.

Ever since my friend Paul Salazar first introduced me to the book Built to Last back in 2002, I’ve been a willing member of the cult of Jim Collins. During my time at Red Hat, we took some of the ideas from Built to Last as inspiration for the process we used to uncover the Red Hat values. Then we later employed many of the principles from Collins’ next book Good to Great as we further developed the Red Hat positioning, brand, and culture.

Check out this picture of my copies of Built to Last and Good to Great, with little Red Hat Shadowman stickies marking the key sections I refer to the most. (I’m such a nerd.)

While many of the Big Concepts (TM) expressed in these books may initially seem a bit cheesy and Overly Branded (TM), I’ve come to love and occasionally use some of the terms like BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), the Tyranny of the OR, Level 5 Leadership, and my longtime favorite The Hedgehog Concept. Why?

Because they are just so damn useful. They make the incredibly complex mechanics behind successful and not-so-successful organizations and leaders simple and easy for anyone to understand. They are accessible ideas and you don’t have to be a former management consultant with an MBA from Harvard in order to understand how to apply these principles to your own organization.

I’d go so far as to say that over the past fifteen years, no one has done more than Jim Collins to democratize the process of creating a great organization.

So when I found out that Jim Collins had a new book coming out, his first since the rather dark and depressing (but no less useful) How the Mighty Fall in 2009, and that he’d been working on this new book with his co-author Morten Hansen for the last nine years, I was ready for my next fix.

I finished the new book, entitled Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All a few nights ago, and here are my thoughts.

This book comes from the same general neighborhood Collins explores in his previous books (I’d describe this neighborhood as “what makes some companies awesome and others… not so much”), but instead of simply rehashing the same principles, this book explores a particularly timely subject. From Chapter 1, here’s how Collins and Hansen set up the premise:

“Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? When buffeted by tumultuous events, when hit by big, fast-moving forces that we can neither predict nor control, what distinguishes those who perform exceptionally well from those who underperform or worse?”

In other words, what common characteristics are found in companies that thrive when the going gets wacky? (Times like, for instance… right now.)

In this book Collins and Hansen clearly did an immense amount of research to answer this question. In fact, as with Built to Last and Good to Great, the appendixes at the end “showing the math” for how they reached their conclusions take a third or more of the book.

Their research led to a set of companies that they refer to as the “10x” cases because, during the study period, these companies outperformed the rest of their industry by 10 times or more. After looking at over 20,000 companies, the final organizations that made the cut were Amgen, Biomet, Intel, Microsoft, Progressive Insurance, Southwest Airlines, and Stryker.

Now you may look at this list, as I did, and say to yourself, “Okay, I get Southwest Airlines and Progressive Insurance… but Microsoft????”

Well, as it turns out, the period they were studying wasn’t up until the present day. Because this research began nine years ago, they were studying the companies from 1965 (or their founding date if it was later) until 2002. So in that context, the choice of Microsoft makes a lot more sense. In 2002, Microsoft was still firing on all cylinders (believe me, I remember).

I won’t spoil the whole book for you, but Great by Choice has an entirely new set of Big Concepts (TM) that will help you understand the characteristics that set these companies apart from their peers. This time around, we are introduced to:

-The 20 Mile March: Consistent execution without overreaching in good times or underachieving in bad times.
- Firing Bullets, Then Cannonballs: Testing concepts in small ways and then making adjustments rather than placing big, unproven bets (basically akin to the open source principles of release early, release often and failing fast). But then placing big bets when you have figured out exactly where to aim.
- Leading above the Death Line: Learning how to effectively manage risk so that the risks your organization take never put it in mortal danger.
- Return on Luck: My favorite quote from the book perfectly articulates the concept: “The critical question is not whether you’ll have luck, but what you do with the luck that you get.”

Many of these concepts come with an awesome allegorical story to illustrate them. That’s the great thing about a Jim Collins book: you can’t always tell whether you are reading a business book or an adventure book. In this case Collins (who is also an avid rock climber himself) shares tales from an ill-fated Everest expedition, the race for the South Pole, and a near death climbing experience in Alaska interspersed with specific stories from the businesses he is profiling.

Overall assessment: The book is a fitting companion to Built to Last, Good to Great, and How the Mighty Fall. Simple, accessible, easy to digest, and with some very actionable key concepts that you can immediately put to use. And, unless you read all of the research data at the end, you’ll find it to be a quick read that you can likely finish on a plane trip or in an afternoon.

So go on, pick up a copy and let me know if you agree.

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Are the “Best Companies to Work For” really the best companies to work for?


The other day I noticed that the application deadline to be considered for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list is this week. My company is too small to be considered for this honor (you must have at least 1000 employees), but I always pay close attention when the rankings come out, and I’m sure many of you do as well. On the 2011 list, the #1 company was SAS, followed by Boston Consulting Group and Wegmans (see all 100 here).

The organization that does the ranking, The Great Place to Work Institute, has been running this competition for years and has a rigorous process for selecting the final list.

Yet when I read the articles written about the top companies or browse the list in Fortune, I always feel like something is missing. I finally put my finger on it:

I believe the evaluation process is benefit-heavy and mission-light.

What do I mean? When I read about the top companies, most of the emphasis seems to be on the salary and benefits offered to employees; which companies pay the most and have the best or most unusual employee perks (life coaches, wine bars, or Botox anyone?).

But the section of the report I want to see is nowhere to be found:

Which companies are doing things that matter?

  • Which companies have a noble mission or purpose and are helping make the world a better place?
  • Which companies have a bold vision and are leading innovation that is changing the world?
  • Which companies are doing such amazing or interesting stuff that they are attracting the world’s top talent?

You see, I’m not someone who would find a company a great place to work because it offers a big paycheck and fantastic benefits. I need my work to be personally fulfilling. I need to feel like I have a chance to make a difference, to do something great.

I don’t think I’m alone.

Previously, I’ve written about something I call cultural fool’s gold, my term for an organizational culture built exclusively on entitlements.

If you want to test whether you work in an entitlement-driven culture, just ask a few people what they like most about working at your company. If they immediately jump to things like free snacks and drinks, the work-from-home policy, or the employee game room, you may have a culture made of fool’s gold, an entitlement-driven culture.

If instead they say things like these:

  • I believe in what we are doing.
  • I love coming to work every day.
  • I leave work each day with a sense of accomplishment.
  • I am changing the world.

you probably work in the only type of organization I’d personally ever consider—a mission-driven organization.

So the big question I’d pose to the folks at the Great Place to Work Institute:

Should there be a “best places” list for those of us who not only want to work someplace great, but want to do something great?

Maybe the Institute should consider a new list for those of us who demand more from our workplaces than big salaries, comfortable benefits, and free Botox injections?

Perhaps it could be called Best Places To Do Great Work or Workplaces with Purpose for People With Purpose or something like that?

The world has changed. I think many of the people graduating for our universities today will demand more than just great benefits from their employers. They’ll want to do meaningful work and be a part of a community of others looking for the same.

Personally, I hope to see the way we rate “the best places to work” in the future change to accommodate people like me.

What do you think?

[This post originally appeared on opensource.com]

Three tired marketing words you should stop using


Over the years, I’ve had many people label me as a marketing guy just because I help build brands. I don’t like being labelled, but I particularly don’t like that marketing label. Why?

In my view, traditional marketing sets up an adversarial relationship, a battle of wills pitting seller vs. buyer.

The seller begins the relationship with a goal to convince the buyer to buy something. The buyer begins the relationship wary of believing what the seller is saying (often with good reason). It is an unhealthy connection that is doomed to fail most of the time.

What’s the alternative? I believe companies should stop trying to build relationships with those interested in their brands using a marketing-based approach and instead move to a community-based approach where the culmination of the relationship is not always a transaction, but instead a meaningful partnership or friendship that may create multiple valuable outcomes for both sides.

How do you do this? Consider beginning by eradicating three of the most common words in the marketing vocabulary: audience, message, and market.

So you better understand what I mean, let me attempt to use all three of these words in a typical sentence you might hear coming out of a marketer’s mouth:

We need to develop some key messages we can use to market to our target audience.

Yikes. So much not to like in there. Let me break this one down.

Audience

You hear companies talk about their “target audiences” all the time. So what’s wrong with that?

The word audience implies that the company is talking and the people on the other end are listening. This sort of binary, transactional description of the relationship seems so dated to me.

Certainly in the glory days of advertising where companies had the podium of TV, magazine, and newspaper ads, the word audience was more appropriate. After all, no one ever got far talking back to the TV set.

But in the age of Twitter and Facebook, companies must respect that everyone has the podium. Everyone is talking, everyone is listening.

Where most marketing folks would use the word audience, I often substitute the word community. By thinking of those who surround your brand as members of communities rather than simply as ears listening to you, you’ll already be on your way to a healthier, deeper relationship with the people who engage with your company.

Message

The word message bothers me for the same reason. It is such an antiquated, transactional term. When a company talks about “creating messaging” or “delivering targeted messages” I start thinking we should call the Pony Express.

I believe the move to a community-based approach begins when you quit worrying about “delivering messages” and begin thinking about sharing stories, joining conversations, or sparking dialogue.

These are much better ways to communicate authentically in a collaborative world.

Market

Perhaps the word that bugs me most is market (used as a noun or a verb) and its related friend consumer. Companies that think of people interested in them as consumers or markets take what could become a multi-dimensional relationship and whittle it down to one dimension: a transaction.

If you think of someone as part of your “target market” or a “consumer” you are making your interest in them abundantly clear. You want them to consume something. You want their money.

But what if there were more that people who are interested in your brand could share besides just their money? Perhaps they have valuable ideas that might make your company better? Perhaps they’d be willing to volunteer to help you achieve your mission in other ways?

When you stop thinking of the people that care about your company as consumers or a market, you can begin to see opportunities that you would have been blind to before.

Want an example? Look anywhere in the open source world. Sure there are buyers and sellers, but there are also lots of people bringing value in other ways. Developing code. Hosting projects. Writing documentation. The list goes on.

So let me be the first to admit these three words are the tip of the iceberg. Moving a company from a marketing-based to a community-based approach to building relationships will take more than changing a few words. It will require you to embrace new media, new skill sets, and a totally new way of thinking.

But you have to start somewhere.

Do you see other things that may need to change as we move from a marketing-based to community-based approach to building brands and companies?

I’d love to hear your ideas.

[This post originally appeared on opensource.com]

De-bucketizing the org chart


Over the years, I’ve picked up an unhealthy understanding of the language of business. Years of sitting in big corporate meetings will do that to you, unfortunately.

Here at New Kind, my business partners will still call me out for talking about “action items,” saying something is in our “wheelhouse,” or jumping straight to the “net-net.”

But perhaps the business term I love to hate the most is the word bucketize, which I’d translate as “to organize into broad categories.” Common usage might include statements like the following:

“I’m going to bucketize these requirements.”

or

“We’ve bucketized the skillsets we need for this project.”

It’s not just the word that I dislike either, but the entire concept of bucketizing things, which often means taking complex relationships and oversimplifying them in order to fit into broad buckets designed to hold everything except much meaning. Bucketizing often puts things into silos (another favorite business word), destroying valuable connections between ideas, tasks, or people ending up in, well, different buckets.

Perhaps the most egregious example of corporate bucketizing for me is the typical corporate org chart, which looks something like this.

In most organizations, each person sitting at the executive table has their own employee bucket. As an executive, you are often motivated to fill your bucket with as many people as possible, because the more people you have working for you, the more power you control in the organization.

The problem? The org chart is an oversimplified, semi-fictional construct.

It rarely represents an accurate view of the complex web of working relationships found within an organization where people in different buckets communicate and work with each other all of the time. Yet, even though it is mostly fiction, the org chart often creates real power for executives to wield.

[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]

The open source organization: good in theory or good in reality?


On occasion I get the opportunity to speak publicly about some of the things I’ve learned over the years applying the open source way in organizations.

In almost every case, when the Q&A session arrives, I’m greeted with at least one question from a poor soul who loves the idea of applying the open source way to management and culture, but doesn’t think it would ever work in his/her specific organization. Usually the comment is accompanied by some horror story about an evil co-worker, hierarchical boss, crappy HR policy, or some other impediment that would cause the open source way to fail.

And the sad truth? These folks are probably right. Many of these concepts wouldn’t work in their organizations.

So why do I waste my time talking about things that may not work in many organizations? Two reasons:

1) hope

2) the wind

Hope

Let me be honest. I’ve never run into a perfect model of the open source way in practice (if you have, please point it out to me!).

There are clearly some organizations that have figured out how to build open source principles into their DNA better than others. Wikipedia is a good example. The Fedora Project is another. Still, my guess is the people who are deeply involved in those projects on a daily basis would probably be able to show you some warts, places where old-skool practices are still evident.

We’ve set our company New Kind up as a corporate lab for the open source way. But we can’t make a case for perfection here either. We are still learning and prototyping.

So why not be more realistic? Why not give up and accept that some of these principles work better in theory than they do in practice?

Simple: I have hope.

What gives me hope? Two things. First, I have seen first-hand many examples of great things that happen when open source principles are applied within organizations. From the collaboratively-designed mission of Red Hat to the work of Fedora marketing team, I’ve personally witnessed the power of open source principles in action.

Second, I believe in the pursuit of perfection. Why not aspire to create better companies than we have today? What do we have to lose? I don’t know that we will ever see a perfect open source company. But by pursuing perfection, we are likely to get a heck of a lot closer than where we are today.

[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]

Are you building a community or a club?


I’ve never been much for clubs. When I was young, I made a lousy cub scout. I wasn’t a real “joiner” in high school or college either (just enough to get by) and I still don’t get actively involved in many professional associations today.

But I’m a sucker for a noble mission. I find myself getting drawn into all sorts of things these days. Good causes, interesting projects, even big ideas like the reinvention of management all share my extra attention, brainpower, and resources.

I love to contribute to things I believe in.

So why don’t I care much for clubs or associations? They are typically groups of people who have come together to support a common purpose. Right?

I believe many of these groups have fallen into the trap of losing touch with the core purpose that brought the initial group of people together in the first place.

They have lost their raison d’etre.

In the beginning, most clubs start off as communities. In fact, the definition of a club is “an association of two or more people united by a common interest or goal.” Which is pretty similar to this definition of a community: a “self-organized network of people with common agenda, cause, or interest, who collaborate by sharing ideas, information, and other resources.”

So what goes wrong? How and why do clubs and associations lose their sense of purpose?

First, let’s take a quick look at how a community might grow in an ideal setting. Watch the short animation below before you read on:

[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]

Is your culture made of gold or fool’s gold?


When I hear people talk about how awesome their organizational culture is, I often find myself wondering what sort of “great” culture it is.

For me, great cultures fall into two categories: entitlement and mission-driven. Those “best places to work” lists don’t usually make a distinction, but I do. Here is the difference:

Entitlement cultures

The surest sign of an entitlement culture? When someone tells you why they like their work, they give you an example of a benefit not related to the work itself. Some examples:

I get on-site daycare.
I get free snacks and drinks.
We have great health benefits.
We have a flexible work-from-home policy.

From what I’ve observed, entitlement-driven cultures resonate most with people who have a deeply held desire for safety, security, and quality of life.

Mission-driven cultures

It’s no secret that I believe organizations with a strong shared purpose, mission, or vision beyond the bottom line have a huge advantage over those that don’t. I was able to witness the power of a mission-driven culture first hand at Red Hat, and I see these cultures all of the time in the both the open source and design worlds.

Ask someone why they like working in a mission-driven organization, and they are likely to say things like these:

I believe in what we are doing.
I love coming to work every day.
I leave work each day with a sense of accomplishment.
I am changing the world.

My personal experience has been that mission-driven cultures resonate most with people who have a deeply held desire to find meaning in their work above all else.

Can companies have both cultures at once, and be both entitlement-driven and mission-driven? Absolutely!

And a culture where people believe in what they do and enjoy safety, security, and quality of life is the best kind, right? Let me be controversial:

I don’t think that is true.

[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]

Brand positioning tip #10: repetition is the secret ingredient


When I was at Red Hat, I sometimes got questions from folks who wanted to know the secret to Red Hat’s brand success. First off, I’d always say you don’t grow a $1 billion technology company on brand alone. We sold great products. We treated our customers and developers well. We had a revolutionary business model. Those kinds of things are the bedrock of a successful brand.

But if I was to point to one “secret” thing I think had a big impact on the brand it would be a very simple one:

We said the same thing. Over and over. For years.

For me personally, sometimes I said things so many times I was just as sick of hearing myself as others were.

When people would come to me and ask if they could make a tan hat to give away at tradeshows rather than a red one, I would always repeat: “But we are Red Hat.” We brand folks would always be the ones to bring up the company mission, values, and culture. We’d steer conversations back toward the open source way when they went astray. When my colleagues and I would speak about the culture and brand in orientation, we’d tell the same stories, show the same videos of Bob Young and Matthew Szulik to new employees year after year after year.

When it comes to brand positioning, the biggest mistake you can make is to invest your time, money, and energy in discovering your optimal brand position… and then give up on it before it has a chance to do its magic. Building a great brand has to be done over time and, to paraphrase Jeff Bezos of Amazon, there are no shortcuts.

I’ve worked with a lot of creative types over the years, and most of them love to come up with new ideas. Heck we all do. But sometimes the thing that makes you stand out when everyone else is saying something new is to say something… well… old.

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Is the word “community” losing its meaning?


Poor words. As they get more popular, as we give them more love, we also keep trying to shove in new meaning to see if they can take it.

In the technology industry, this happens over and over. Take “cloud computing,” which used to mean something pretty specific and now means essentially “on the Internet” as far as I can tell. Outside the technology industry, take “news,” which also used to mean something, and now is a muddy mess of news/editorial/advertising.

We’ve even been accused of muddying the term “open source” here on opensource.com (a debate I love to have—there are smart opinions on both sides: protect the core vs. extend the audience).

So when I read a recent post by Gartner analyst Brian Prentice entitled Defining & Defending The Meaning Of “Community” – An Open Source Imperative, I was familiar with the lens he was looking through already.

Brian’s argument? According to his post, community used to mean “a collection of people whose defining characteristic is shared participation.” I might add “and a common purpose or vision.”

But now the word community is often being used to refer to any ol’ collection of people. From the article:

[Read the rest of this article on opensource.com]

Five questions about building community with Chris Blizzard of Mozilla


I’ve always been a fan of the Mozilla Foundation, and not just because of the Firefox web browser. As catalyst for some of the great communities in the open source world, Mozilla is something of a recipe factory for what to do right when it comes to building community. As it turns out, Mozilla’s Director of Developer Relations, Chris Blizzard, is a long time friend of mine.

In fact, this is not the first time I’ve interviewed him– my first Blizzard interview experience was back in 2002 when Mozilla 1.0 came out and he and I both worked for Red Hat.

I spent some time with Chris to discuss his experiences and learn more about community-building the Mozilla way.

1. When I first met you ten years ago, you were a Red Hat employee with a day job keeping the redhat.com website up and running, and, even then, you were hacking on Mozilla for fun in your spare time. Now you run developer relations for Mozilla, and you’ve had some other amazing experiences, including working on the One Laptop Per Child project, along the way.

It strikes me that you are a great case study of someone who has achieved success in the meritocracy of open source by doing good work. Knowing what you know now, if you were starting from ground zero as a community contributor, how would you get started?

That’s kind of a tough question because I don’t have that perspective anymore. I know too much about how these communities operate to be able to answer that with the fresh face of someone new to a project. But, honestly, I think that that if I were to guess I would say find something that you’re passionate about and just start working on it. My own case is instructive.

[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]

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