Silicon Valley State of Mind, a blog by John Weathington, "The Science of Success"
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    Welcome to a Silicon Valley State of Mind, thoughts tips and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "Silicon Valley's Top Information Strategist."

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Silicon Valley State of Mind

Tips, thoughts, and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "The Science of Success."

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Archive, April 2013. Switch to list view

    Posted by on in Program Management

    Blackouts remind me why I’m not a devout agilist anymore. My block in San Ramon had another one if its infamous blackouts a few days back. And just like the last major blackout we had, my productivity only decreased a tiny bit; I was certainly able to accomplish all the critical things on my plate, including an important client deliverable that was due that day. At worst, blackouts are a nuisance for me; they don’t really slow me down because I’m prepared. However, that wasn’t the case in the early part of this century when I was a born-again agilist. When it comes to execution, Aristotle had it right with his golden mean—you must find a good balance between the two extremes of classical waterfall and agile.

    The ideology of agile management proscribes advanced planning, even when it comes to risk management. The way agilists handle risk—like everything else—is very empirically. In agile execution, there’s the concept of yesterday’s weather wherein the belief is that today—for all intents and purposes—will be like yesterday. So, instead of formally analyzing risk, agilists just assume they’ll crank out as many widgets in this cycle as they did in the last cycle. Axioms like this allow them to forego much of the upfront planning that classic (i.e. waterfall) managers would necessarily undertake. That’s all fine and good—until it’s not fine and good.

    The reality is this: Murphy is far too mischievous to be that consistent. Tuesday I had power all day long, just like Monday, Sunday, and Saturday. However, on Wednesday I had no power from about 6:00pm until about 3:00am the next morning. That’s nine long, dark hours if you’re not prepared. This is one big area where agile execution simply falls short—I don’t care how passionate you are about the ideas.

    Fortunately for me—long before Wednesday—I stocked up on candles, lanterns, tap-lights, flashlights, portable light-bulbs, and most importantly batteries of all shapes and sizes. Kim and I actually had a pretty nice time that night after I finished up my work. The house was well lit, we ordered some food from a local restaurant, and we watched TV together on the iPad by candlelight (and battery-powered lanterns).

    Don’t get me wrong; I’m still very much in the agile camp for most scenarios. However, like Aristotle would probably say today, you cannot be a die-hard fanatic on one style or methodology. That’s why the consultant’s standard answer to any question is, “it depends.”

    Don’t let your zeal for agile put you in a blackout without batteries.

    Tagged in: agile execution risk
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    Posted by on in Leadership

    We planted some beautiful Hibiscuses (Hibisci?) earlier this year and with the amazing spring that we are experiencing here in Silicon Valley, the blooms are just enchanting. As a Hawaiian, these flowers have a special meaning for me—they are the state flower of Hawaii (okay, the state flower of Hawaii is actually the Yellow Hibiscus, but these are close enough). Now, when I step outside, I’m often transported to my favorite spot on on Waikiki beach, the house in Pearl City where I lived with my family as a teen, or the beautiful grounds of the Hyatt in Maui where my wife and I were married. This all comes from a simple flower. Symbols have the power to be transcendent in the message they convey to your big data strategy team.

    Symbols are objects, acts, or events that convey a special meaning. I was talking with a colleague yesterday who did some consulting for Apple, and she mentioned that contractors and consultants had badges with muted, grey apples; whereas, all the employees had bright, colorful apples. This and other rituals made her feel like an outsider.

    Along with rituals, stories, and the infamous grapevine; symbols are a component of your organization’s informal system. Your informal system exists whether you like it or not and has greater power than your formal system (e.g. mission, vision, stated policies) to influence the people in your organization.

    As a leader, the most important thing you can communicate to your big data strategy team—both formally and informally—is your support. What symbols do you have in place for this? Here are some questions to help you figure that out:

    • Do you hand out special awards to them?
    • Do you have special ceremonies for them?
    • When they walk around campus is their status on the big data strategy team conspicuous and respected?
    • Does your office layout make you accessible?
    • Do they feel comfortable approaching you for help?

    The symbolism in your company is working for you or against you. It’s up to you to figure out which force is in play and make adjustments if necessary.

    So, while you do that, I’ll take some time to smell the … Hibiscus.

    Aloha!

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    Posted by on in Leadership

    If you’re invested in gold, you may be experiencing a bit of anxiety. The precipice gold fell off this month makes the fiscal cliff look like a street curb. At the beginning of the month, an ounce of gold was worth about $1,600, and now it’s struggling to stay above $1,400. That’s a tough reality for someone who was recently worried about the US dollar and turned to gold for a safe place to invest. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people investing in gold based on sophistic reasoning. It’s important to check with trusted advisors before making important decisions.

    The dirty truth is that people in the inside think most gold investors are pretty ignorant. They’re saying that dumb money is pushing up the price of gold—and I believe they’re right. Although common lore says that gold is a good investment to hedge against the US dollar, it’s a trading instrument that works like anything else. When gold is popular—for whatever reason—people buy it and the price goes up. When people get scared, they sell their gold, and the price goes down. If a lot of people get scared at the same time, they all sell at the same time, and the price plummets. This is what happened a few days ago.

    The key here is that most financial analysts knew this—the joke is on the gold investor who didn’t know better. It’s important to surround yourself with trusted experts and turn to them before you make any big moves. Otherwise, you might end up holding fool’s gold.

    Tagged in: experts leadership trust
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    Posted by on in Leadership

    It’s Sunday night and I’m relaxing with Kim: indulging on our favorite weekend past-time—reality TV. My new favorite reality show is Bar Rescue. If you watch Bar Rescue and you know anything about me, that shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Bar Rescue features Jon Taffer, a veteran in the nightclub and bar industry, who specializes in turning around bars in a nosedive. Each episode chronicles Taffer’s attempt to save a bar that’s heading for disaster. Here are 9 things I love about Taffer and his approach:

    1. Taffer uses both bar science and common sense in his interventions.

    2. Taffer doesn’t intervene until the bar owner asks him for help.

    3. Taffer always starts by observing the situation with his own eyes.

    4. Taffer has been involved in hundreds and hundreds of bar ventures—experience matters.

    5. Taffer delivers the brutally honest truth at every turn.

    6. Taffer genuinely cares about improving each owner’s bar and it’s conspicuously authentic.

    7. Taffer brings in other specialists after he understands the bar’s salient challenges.

    8. Taffer stands his ground with his recommendations, regardless of the owner’s receptivity to his ideas.

    9. Taffer continues to measure the bar’s performance for several months after his intervention is complete.

    Jon Taffer’s a real pro—there’s a lot to learn here.

    Okay—now back to the mob wives reunion.

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    Posted by on in General Comments

    With all the high-tech, analytic software tools that I play with on a daily basis, one of my favorite tools is actually my shoe horn.

    It is a gorgeous day in Silicon Valley today, and I’ll be spending part of it at lunch with a good friend Julian, who I met when I was consulting for PayPal. As I’m getting dressed, I realized how often I use my shoe horn, and it made me think about why this is a great tool. Great tools are simple.

    I see a lot of companies choosing the wrong tools for their strategy. I’m one of the key contributors on TechRepublic’s Big Data Analytics blog, and someone made a comment the other day on one of my posts indicating that executives are erroneously trying to use Big Data to solve everything. He’s absolutely right; I see the same thing. It’s a very expensive mistake; Big Data resources are not cheap.

    The bigger problem with most Big Data tools is that they’re complex. Sure, data scientists know what’s going on, but from the executive perspective, it seems like an alligator that you need to feed with fancy technology and fancy people. This isn’t good.

    In fact, in many cases, you can get to where you want to go without big data. Most companies don’t even have their small data under control. And even if it makes sense to use big data for your strategy, you don’t need to dive straight into the deep end of complexities that you don’t understand.

    If at all possible, keep your tools simple. Sure, I can hire a team of professionals to design a fancy, electronic device that will get my shoes on in sub-second time—but I’ll just stick with a shoe horn.

    Tagged in: big-data strategy tools
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    Posted by on in Operational Excellence

    Because of my experience and credentials as a Six Sigma Black Belt, I’m often called into companies to help them improve a process that shouldn’t be improved. I was recently on a Six Sigma effort where the process was so broken we couldn’t even establish a baseline. That’s a good clue that you’re heading down the wrong path. You cannot improve a defective process—you need to replace it.

    Most people identify Six Sigma with process improvement (i.e., DMAIC[1]); however, there is another part of Six Sigma that deals with process development (i.e., DMADV[2]) called Design for Six Sigma, or DFSS[3] for short. Although the two look similar side-by-side, the execution is very different. For instance, both have a measure phase following their design phase; however, with DMAIC a key goal of the measure phase is a baseline; however, with DMADV that goal doesn’t exist. Instead, you’ll focus more on obtaining a crisper understanding of how the new process will be measured.

    To decide which path to pursue, ask yourself whether you have an efficiency problem or an effectiveness problem. For instance, if the process works okay; however, the results are coming out too slow, you have an efficiency problem that requires DMAIC. If however, the process doesn’t work at all, you have an effectiveness problem that requires DMADV, which is more along the lines of process innovation.

    Trying to improve a dysfunctional process is like changing the oil in a blown engine. It doesn’t make any sense. Before you start a process improvement effort, make sure you first have a process to improve. If you don’t, it’s best to just start over with a new process.


    1. DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control; and represents the major phases of a Six Sigma process improvement effort.  ↩

    2. DMADV stands for Define Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify; and represents the major phases of a Six Sigma process development effort.  ↩

    3. For most intents and purposes DMADV and DFSS can be used interchangeably to represent process development using Six Sigma techniques. For those who care, DFSS is more of objective-based characterization and DMADV is more of a process-based characterization.  ↩

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    Posted by on in Strategy

    How many management consultants does it take to change a light bulb?

    Well, it depends; let’s first understand why you feel light bulbs are necessary.

    (I’m kidding)

    Actually, I had a light bulb moment yesterday—literally. We have a small chandelier in our entry way that blew its last bulb this past weekend, so my first order of business was to shed light on the situation (pun intended). Once I got up on the ladder, I realized I had a situation. I could not reach the light bulbs because there was a grey, metal diffuser in the way. It’s there so that people upstairs looking down don’t get blinded by staring directly into the bulbs. The only solution that came to mind was to remove the large, heavy, glass base of the contraption. So that’s what I did.

    Before long, I was screaming to my wife for help. I’m balancing on the third step of a ladder holding a heavy, delicate ornament in one hand and the knobs that hold it in place in the other. Fortunately, Kim quickly came to the rescue and I was able to change out the light bulbs without breaking my neck.

    Later that day, I stopped into the lighting store where we bought the chandelier and told my story to the owner. He patiently waited for me to finish my story, smiled, paused, then explained to me that I should have removed the diffuser—not the huge glass bowl at the bottom.

    Good information not only increases strategic effectiveness and efficiency, but it also reduces risk. I talked about this yesterday when I was commenting on the awful bombings at the Boston Marathon. In my chandelier episode yesterday, I got the result I was looking for—light where there was no light. However, I could have arrived at the same result with much less risk, had I known about removing the diffuser instead of the base.

    I’m not making that mistake again. Fortunately, I see the light now.

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    Posted by on in Strategy

    I’m still struggling to process how anyone thinks it’s okay to set off a bomb in the middle of a crowd of innocent people over a difference of ideals. I was in the dentist’s chair this afternoon when my wife sent me a text succinctly detailing the awful Boston Marathon bombing. I couldn’t believe it—and still can’t. It’s unfortunate that a plot like this actually succeeds; however, I’m thankful for all the terrorist plots against our people that don’t. Although I talk a lot about using information for strategy and innovation, information prowess is also a powerful tool to mitigate critical risks.

    It’s hard to notice non-events because they aren’t conspicuous; however, it’s remarkable to think about all the terrorist plots that were attempted and failed. Our intelligence agencies work with our enforcement agencies around the clock to monitor and intercept all the crazy schemes devised to harm and kill Americans. At times like this, President Obama reminds us, our friends, and our enemies how serious we are about justice around these matters. The combination of leadership and information prowess keeps critical risks from surfacing. The unfortunate event in Boston today is the exception that makes the rule.

    All strategy is vulnerable to the effects of critical risks—not only those that involve Big Data or some other form of information exploitation. Your degree of analytic capability has a direct impact on how well you mitigate these risks. You can see this in action with Santam, South Africa’s largest short-term insurance provider. With big data and predictive analytics, Santam was able to save millions that were previously lost to insurance fraud.

    Mitigating critical risks is an important part of any leader’s strategy. If the stakes are high enough, it may make sense to assemble a big data team for the sole purpose of making sure nothing happens. Regardless, take some time today to see where advanced analytics might neutralize your biggest risks.

    My sincere condolences to those affected by the Boston Marathon bombings

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    Posted by on in Strategy

    My wife just bought me a great cookbook by Faye Porter called, At My Grandmother’s Table: Heartwarming Stories & Cherished Recipes from the South. When I’m not out helping executives turn their chaotic data into strategic wisdom, I’m often found in the kitchen or the backyard cookin’ up something good. I love to cook and I like to experiment with new ideas; but I absolutely love old-fashioned cooking (methods and recipes). Although you must always be innovating, some of the best ideas come from the wisdom that precedes us.

    For instance, look at the way I define Big Data for use in a competitive business strategy:

    Big data is the massive amount of rapidly moving and freely available data that potentially serves a valuable and unique need in the marketplace, but is extremely expensive and difficult to mine by traditional means

    I opened up TechRepublic’s Big Data Analytics Blog with my seminal post, Big Data defined, wherein I systematically explained this definition using the underpinnings of Michael Porter’s five forces analysis. Although Porter put out these ideas in the 1980s, they’re still relevant for academic discussions on strategy and for evolutionary derivatives as I did with defining Big Data for strategic competitive reasons.

    With all the charm brought about by the novelty of Big Data, it’s easy to lose sight of the the past—this is a mistake. We have a wonderful repository leadership and management theories and ideas that date back to Taylorism in the early 1900s: and all the way back to the history of time if you study leaders qualitatively. Bringing these ideas current is a talent you should embrace.

    Now, I’m off to embrace Grandma Elizabeth Robertson Smith’s Crumb Top Apple Pie.

    Have a great weekend, everybody!

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    Posted by on in Leadership

    A few hours in Fry’s Electronics gives me powers beyond belief. I spent the whole day yesterday meeting with clients in Campbell and Sunnyvale. An unexpected call at around 4:00 PM put me on the 880 Freeway at around 5:00 PM when it’s in parking lot status. After inching my way to Mission Boulevard, I decided to stop off at Fry’s Electronics—my Fortress of Solitude. I entered tired and weary from a long day of meetings and emerged with the vigor to conquer Mount Everest (okay, maybe I’ll start with Mount Diablo). Burnout drains talent; understanding how to recharge your analytic team is vital to getting the most from them—both in productivity and loyalty.

    Like most analytics, I’m an introvert (INFJ for those who understand what this means). If you lead and/or manage a team of analytics, it’s important to understand how introverts work. There are many misconceptions. Contrary to popular belief, introverts like being in social settings, have no problem voicing their opinion, typically have a great sense of humor, and can be very fun to hang out with.

    The accurate distinction between introverts and extroverts is where their locus of energy lies. Introverts revitalize when they’re alone. They’ll function fine in a social setting; however, their battery is draining quicker than extroverts. If you put them in meetings all day or extended team-building exercises, they will quickly burn out.

    To protect your analytic team from burnout, schedule downtime for them: especially on the heels of extended and extensive social interaction. A field trip to Fry’s Electronics from time to time might not be a bad idea either.

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    Posted by on in Leadership

    Are you getting enough iron in your leadership diet? In deference to the recently departed, and former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, I’d like to address leading with an iron fist. Thatcher personified this idea so well, she leaves behind a legacy of being the “Iron Lady.” Forget about individual body parts, to many her whole being was iron! She’s known and remembered for her convictions—something that I see critically absent in today’s leadership.

    I blame the sociologists who study leadership for this phenomenon. The recent trend in leadership is servant leadership where leaders are advised to become a servant to their followers. It’s especially rampant out here in Silicon Valley, where nothing gets decided until everyone—including the janitor—is okay with the decision. This is nonsense. Not only does it take way too much time, but it’s simply not effective.

    If you need to make a decision, you don’t need a committee or a Kumbayah session with your group. Just get some good information. Information can help you stay your ground when your convictions are being challenged. Many times analysis contradicts conventional wisdom, allowing you to draw insightful but controversial assumptions. If your hunch is validated by data analysis, many naysayers will just refute your analysis—it’s not for them, it’s for you. You must believe in your decisions—and that takes more than analysis—but it’s comforting to know that the data is on your side.

    If you’re under fire for your beliefs—don’t fold, just get some good information. You don’t need to become the Iron Lady; a fist or two will work in a crunch.

    —Rest in peace Prime Minister Thatcher and thank you for showing us how to fight for what we believe.

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    Posted by on in Operational Excellence

    I woke up this morning a little late because I couldn’t hear my iPhone alarm. When I got up, the alarm looked like it was ringing; however, I couldn’t hear anything. It has been working fine for years; now suddenly I’m having problems. It started happening around the same time my podcasts started having trouble syncing. I still love my Apple devices; however, for the first time, I’m really questioning the quality of their products. If you have a brand that communicates excellence; you must be diligent in making sure you maintain that level of excellence.

    Like it or not, your brand adjusts with the quality of your offering. Legendary management consultant Alan Weiss explains that a brand is a uniform recognition of quality that occurs whether you like it or not (Weiss, 2002, p. 4). He’s absolutely right, so you must constantly assess your brand, as it might not be what you expect. The name of my company—Excellent Management Systems, Inc.—is not arbitrary. I deliver excellent results for my clients—all the time. You don’t have to take my word for it, I have plenty of testimonials that say the same thing.

    Here are three steps for maintaining a brand of excellence:

    1. Decide and communicate what you’re excellent at. You don’t need to be excellent at everything. I’m not a world class soccer player or an accomplished opera singer. Understand where your excellence is and narrow your communication to just that.

    2. Instrument your excellence. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Make sure you clearly define what excellence means and collect and monitor the information with metrics.

    3. Control your excellence. Know—in no uncertain terms—when your excellence is waning and have contingency plans in place to get things back on track before they get too far out of control.

    I still have full faith and confidence in Apple; they’re miles ahead of anything else that’s out there. However, there’s doubt and caution where there wasn’t before. If you’ve already established a brand of excellence in a certain area, people expect you to maintain it. Don’t let them down.

    References:

    Weiss, A. (2002). How to establish a unique brand in the consulting profession: Powerful techniques for the successful practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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    Posted by on in Strategy

    We’ve recently been entertaining some uninvited visitors in our cement pond. A couple of months ago, a cute avian couple landed in our swimming pool to hang out for the day. I knew it was a couple because male ducks are much more colorful than females. At the time, my wife felt compelled to feed them; they ate well, feasting on our 9-grain bread and stoneground wheat crackers. Well, the word got out, and now our pool is a popular hangout among the duck community. Although it was a bit surprising at first to be greeted by ducks in the morning, the truth is—they were here before we were here. Survival requires adaptation.

    I had this epiphany a few months back when I saw a band of coyotes emerge from a nearby creek. It startled me at first, then I quickly realized that there were children playing at the grade school a block away that would not be thrilled to have coyotes join their fun, so my wife immediately called the school and I called animal services. That’s when I received my education. After assuring me that the coyotes were no threat, the gentleman kindly explained to me that we moved into their territory—not the other way around. The wildlife around here has had to make some significant adjustments over the last few decades to accommodate the disruption we call suburban progress. It was an unwelcome change for the incumbent fauna; however, survival requires adaptation.

    To survive today, leaders must focus on keeping their organizations adaptable. Martin Reeves and Mike Deimler, partners at the Boston Consulting Group, assert that today’s companies must adjust their strategic focus from building out one strong competence to learning new things quickly (Reeves & Deimler, 2011, p. 137). I agree, provided your organization is suspect to wildly changing external conditions. This ideology ostensibly flies in the face of traditional strategy planning where a long-term vision is articulated; however—for some companies—survival requires adaptation.

    If you’re trying to run a company where the rules of engagement keep changing, think about where your focus is. To be successful on a traditional program, you must firmly focus on what will be delivered; however, to be successful on an agile program, you must firmly focus on how it’s being delivered—with a deep respect for the effect change will have on the evolution of your product and how this change will be managed.

    Take some time to evaluate your environment. If you sense radical disruption, you may want to focus more on adaptability than your articulated vision. This doesn’t mean abandoning your mission—this is your reason for existence. However, a radically changing external environment has engendered a different attitude in leaders who are running successful organizations. If this is your situation, adaptation is your only answer. If ducks and coyotes can do it, I’m sure you can figure it out.

    References:

    Reeves, M., & Deimler, M. (2011). Adaptability: The new competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review, 89(7/8), 134-141.

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