This is the fifth installment in my Culture series. Excellence is the model we strive for, Truth is the mirror that keeps us on course, Agility is how we get there. But we need something else. We need an engine to move us forward, regardless of the challenges we face along the way. That engine is confidence. Performance is impossible without confidence.
Know yourself. The dictum “Know thyself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν) was apparently carved into the rock at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for the benefit of visitors who had come to consult the Oracle (priestess) there and hear her prophesies. Today we think of the word ‘prophesy' as meaning predicting the future, but in fact the origin of the word is the ‘spokesperson or advocate of the gods / God’. Prophesy is in fact the act of explaining the true state of the world through divine knowledge. In ancient wisdom: a person’s future is a function of their Fate and their Fate is a function of who they are, here and now. So a visit to the oracle was in fact a voyage of self discovery. To understand your future, understand yourself. To change your future, change yourself. Only through self-knowledge can we achieve true confidence. To trust the world around us, we must first trust ourselves.
Be prepared. It is natural to feel a lack of confidence if you don’t feel ready to tackle the challenge ahead. To change your future, you need to change yourself. If you lack the technical knowledge to do something, go learn it! Read up, ask others, take a course, experiment. If you are wary of meeting with a customer, make sure you understand their business and our offerings thoroughly. You create value when you connect the two. We fear what we do not understand. Thorough preparation is perhaps the single best thing you can do to improve your confidence heading into a situation. Have a plan, ask questions, study up, equip yourself! Curiosity builds confidence.
Practice! To learn a new sport you know you need to practice. When you first start to ski or skateboard, for instance, you wobble around. This is mostly due to a lack of confidence. I have seen people fall over when basically just standing on skis because they so fearful of the new environment. In the US Navy SEALs, instructors apparently routinely tell recruits: “You are capable of 20 times more than you think you are!” We literally hold ourselves back because we feel we cannot do something. Only when we push our own envelopes do we realize that we are in fact capable of 20X what we thought. Build experience to build confidence.
Have respect, not fear. There are many dangerous things and situations in the world, an encounter with which might lead to an unacceptable outcome. Fear is the instinctual tool we have to manage the risk of danger. Fear generally drives us to fight or flee. But fear has negative side effects: shaky hands, weak knees, upset stomach, chills. Worst of all, it can cause paralysis (the proverbial 'deer in the headlights'). To avert this, replace fear with respect. Have deep respect for risk. Understand it, manage it, and don't take it lightly. But do not let it manage you.
Be proud, not prideful. True confidence is not puffery. It is not boastful. We all know people who project
a very confident demeanor yet they clearly feel just the opposite, compensating for an actual lack of inner confidence. True confidence comes from within, and it is very hard to act with real confidence externally if you lack confidence internally. As humans we all need positive feedback, and part of our partnership with each other is to help celebrate the success of others. But we should all be driven fundamentally by being proud of our accomplishments within ourselves. If we are dependent on the accolades of others, that is being prideful and is not confidence.
When in doubt, do something. "The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." (Walt Disney). It is generally advisable to have a solid plan for success for starting out, but sometimes things are not clear up front and you risk running into analysis paralysis. Sometimes it is easier to just get going and make a course correction as you start to see the lay of the land more clearly. If you manage your risk by taking an agile approach, then you can have confidence that a course correction will not be very costly. That experimentation is the heart of innovation.
This is the fourth installment in my Culture series. Agility is how we get things done effectively and efficiently. It is the best way for us to reach Excellence and relies on our focus on Truth. It enables performance.
Break work into small batches. The utter core of agility is to break tasks down into small batches, in fact into the smallest viable unit, and get that batch done 100%, review, learn, adjust plans if necessary, and then move on to the next small batch. This simple approach allows us to dramatically lower the risk of projects -- improving both quality and time to market -- by giving us continuous opportunity to learn and adjust along the way. “Big bang” projects, where you toil for a long period of time before having anything to show for it, are almost destined to fail. The ‘small batch’ approach is the heart of the Lean movement, which is just another way way of looking at Agile. Not only do you want to keep each batch small, but you should strive for utmost simplicity in the whole project. That is how you move fast and light.
Be Antifragile. Agility is by its nature Antifragile. The continuous Agile process of learning from the past, taking in new inputs from the present, being able and willing to change course, and back up when you’re headed down the road, is the heart of why biological systems can resist entropy and in fact grow strong in the face of adversity. Agility / antifragility naturally give you optionality, which is a powerful form of leverage.
Try stuff out. When you have a small batch mentality, it is easy to try stuff out. Each ‘try’ is of limited cost and risk, and the payoff is innovation. Making lots of small controlled experiments, perhaps in parallel with multiple teams, if that’s feasible, and then having the discipline to choose the best option and walk away from the others, is how real innovation takes place and shows the critical link between innovative thinking and agile execution.
Think like a startup. Sometimes the blank canvas can be the biggest impediment to getting started. Constraint & necessity are the mothers of invention. Need drives innovation drives creative thinking, not the other way around. So embrace the constraints and challenges that confront you — they may be the catalyst you require to do something extraordinary. And don’t waste resources. In a startup, you are highly constrained by many things, but most obviously by money to invest. You have to be frugal. It’s not different in a large company: having lots of money does not mean having unlimited money, and you still have to prioritize and make wise choices about where to place your bets. Put in the effort to not waste money on the little things so that we have more to put against the stuff that matters.
Be Scrappy. Leverage what you have. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Stand on the shoulders of giants. Progress in the world is largely incremental (even when it takes an unexpected direction) and builds on what came before. Likewise, tap into the collective intelligence, creativity, and experience of those around you to help accelerate your efforts and get that critical feedback before your next iteration. That’s the power of partnership.
>> Culture, part 5: Confidence
Part 3 in my Culture series. If Truth is our Mirror, then Excellence is our Model.
Care! Quality is caring. As Robert Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Quality is “a feeling of identification with what one’s doing.” There is no duality between who one is and what one does. There is truly no other way to achieve excellence than to care, personally and deeply, about what you are doing. And caring forms the foundation of trust.
Delight the customer. To achieve excellence, you must know what that excellence means. In business, that is to delight your customers. If our customers are truly delighted, that is your excellence. And this is the foundation of your partnership with them.
Pay attention. Excellence is about the big picture, but it is also about getting all the details right. When you step into a beautiful hotel, you can instantly distinguish it from a middle of the road hotel by the attention to detail that pervades every aspect of decor, comfort, and service. It is a holistic experience.
Be committed. Don’t settle. Keep pushing. Excellence is really hard work. Michelangelo said, "If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” The difference between excellence and mediocrity is often how unwilling someone is to settle for the quick and easy road.
Be agile. An unfinished thing cannot be excellent. Excellence comes into being when a customer is delighted. So, while we always strive for the utmost quality, remember that done is better than perfect. Finding that balance is an art in itself. Break work into small excellent batches and get one completely done and delivered before working on the next.
Be creative. Delighting someone often includes going beyond expectations and pleasantly surprising them. Bring the unexpected into your excellence. Understand thoroughly what delights the customer, but then also go one step beyond. That is the heart of innovation.
Invest in yourself. To do excellent things, you must be excellent yourself. This of course applies to your attitude, but also more concrete things like your skills and your ability to get stuff done. Harness your curiosity to learn new things every day. Keep your skills on the leading edge and figure out how to bring them to the service of excellence. Get rest, eat well, get exercise, take long walks, meditate in some way, strive to keep your day from being chopped up by meetings and other distraction so you have big blocks of time to get into flow. This is fundamental to your own performance.
Invest in your people. Same as above applies to the people you manage. Help them stay on top of their game and give them the right environment in which to practice excellence.
Have fun. Excellence is hard but should feel incredibly rewarding and enjoyable. If you are frustrated, that will show in your work. Turn frustration into inspiration to do something about it, but truly enjoy every moment that you practice excellence.
>> Culture, part 4: Agility
Second post in my Culture series, which lays out a small collection of ways of being related to the cultural theme of Truth.
Be open. Put your cards on the table. Let people know what you are doing. Invite more eyes on your projects and plans and accept the feedback of others. It is how we become better. Given uncompromisingly sincere feedback to others, including your superiors, and invite open honest feedback on yourself, no matter uncomfortable. That is how we become better. Truth is our mirror. Being open is fundamental to trust, given and earned.
Be curious. Relentless curiosity it fundamental to your ability to get to the truth. What do our customers do? What do they want? What delights them? What do our products and services do? Why are they valuable? How can I connect the dots? How does this work? Why do we do things this way? What if we did them differently? What if we did them really differently? Would that be better or worse? This looks better, but I am not sure — can I try it out easily and become certain one way or another? Curiosity fuels innovation.
Listen. What are people telling you? What are they really telling you? What do they mean? Listening to and hearing our customers is vital to our ability to succeed. Likewise, listening to and hearing our colleagues is vital to our ability to collaborate. Listening is fundamental to the idea of partnership.
Watch out for blind spots. We all have them, and they trip us up. Our biases make us see the truth differently than what it really is. Be aware of those blind spots, seek feedback from others to help you identify them, and challenge yourself to make sure you do not fall into them. And remember that other people have blind spots too — you have to watch out for their blind spots as much as your own or you might both be drawn down the wrong path.
Look up and down. Like many things in life, problems and ideas have multiple layers to them. We tend to come into initial contact with a problem or idea at some random layer. We need to dig down to the root causes and up to the big picture to really get a full view and appreciation for what we are dealing with.
Look around. Engage in lateral thinking and look for related problems and ideas. Are they connected to the one you are looking at? Is there a bigger picture here? Do they inspire innovative thinking? How does your truth relate to the truth of those around you? Are you playing a 'broken squares game'?
Think clearly. We need analytics as well as data! Use your brain to reason things through. Challenge yourself relentlessly to make sure you are truly following logic and sense. Assume the opposite of what you think and see where that leads -- do you get an inconsistent result when you do that? Don't speculate -- find out!
Be persistent. Don’t give up! The truth is really hard to get at, much harder than most people realize. But once you are there, things become light and easy. Be relentless in your pursuit of what is true. Don’t accept what you hear at face value. Probe deeply, constructively challenge yourself and others, including authority. Persistently pursuing the truth is critical to your and our performance.
>> Culture, part 3: Excellence
There is a construct of human experience that I have long been aware of. I call it "the Model and the Mirror".
The Model is an ideal that we wish to emulate, who we want to be, how we want to act. And of course the Mirror is the reflection of who we are today, how we act right now. These two concepts work together to guide us on the path to where we need to go. I see this construct all around me, in a variety of guises.
Never forget we have blind spots, constantly be on guard for them, and make sure to catch a glance of yourself in the Mirror from time to time to help you find and overcome them.
I strongly believe that we should all treat each other with trust and respect by being open about plans and motivations. You and I should be united in common purpose by sharing a single agenda: doing whatever we can to best serve our customers and therefore our business.
If you disagree with me about how to best serve our business, OK, we can argue about that until we reach
a common conclusion. But if one of us has a different agenda, then we are no longer working together to serve our customers and therefore the company. We are engaging in politics, and politics is corrosive and destructive.
It's not easy to be open and honest all the time. There is a real need for nuance and finesse in communication: you can speak the truth in a way that builds confidence or a way that destroys confidence. But fundamentally we should all be striving towards the truth and doing our personal best to put it on the table.
Say what you feel and do what you say.
In my opinion, the top three factors driving company success are:
1. Right People
2. Right Culture
3. Right Mission
in that order. The right people are the foundation of anything. It is always all about the people. Right people can operate well within a range of cultures. Great culture + wrong people doesn't work. Right people plus right culture, and I think you can do anything. Put the right mission on top of that and you are set up for maximum success.
So culture really matters. But what is culture anyway? The term was apparently first used by Cicero in the phrase 'cultura animi' meaning the 'cultivation of the soul'. Cultivation here is very much in the agricultural sense — it is all about growth. Culture is fundamentally about getting better over time, and the right culture is the fertile soil in which the right people succeed and prosper.
That ‘soil’ is the set of values and ambitions we have that we believe will make us better, that will allow us to grow and prosper. These beliefs, values, and ambitions guide our behaviors which in turn produce the successful outcomes we strive towards.
In short, culture is a shared way of being for a group of people that allows them to grow and succeed. The shared aspect of culture is central to it. It’s not a culture if one person in a group has one set of values and ambitions and the person next to them has a completely different set. Humans beings are at our best when we work together. We defend better, we hunt better, we build better, we educate better. Collaboration is in our very nature. But to do it effectively, we must be in sync with one another, and our shared culture is the best tool we have to ensure that we are in sync and working towards common purpose.
So what is that ambition we strive for? At the highest level, I believe people want to win. That is our driver. Now, different people will have a very wide range of views on what ‘winning’ means to them in their lives overall. But in a corporate setting, I would suggest there is probably a more cohesive view on what winning is: creating and delivering products and services for our industry better than anyone else, in turn delighting customers more than anyone else, and in turn being appropriately recognized and rewarded for that accomplishment. And we probably all want to feel that we are growing as individuals, feel proud that we treat other people decently, that we are making the world a better place, and having fun (enjoying what we do and the time we spend at work). So our culture should be the fertile soil that allows us to attain that form of winning.
Stay tuned for a series of posts in this blog to summarize a few core cultural themes plus some specifics about what I mean by each, with the goal (as always) of trying to incite some discussion and debate among all of you who read it...
Culture, part 2: Truth
Culture, part 3: Excellence
Culture, part 4: Agility
Culture, part 5: Confidence
Culture, part 6: Service
Culture, part 7: Leadership
Culture, part 8: Passion
Culture, part 9: Collegiality
As buy-side and sell-side firms continually search for new ways to gain insight into the markets, they are turning to an ever-widening array of data: new forms of financial data (prices, fundamentals, etc) and also non-financial data (weather, parking lot occupancy, etc) that are financially-relevant. I am working with a number of clients who are looking for new "alternative" sources of financial and financially-relevant data. If you have a novel data set that you believe should be of interest to financial firms, please let me know about it.
“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” -- Japanese Proverb
During my career, I've had the good fortune to run a number of businesses. I've brought a variety of products to market and have managed countless projects. Through all these activities, I've learned that success fundamentally boils down to two main, interlocking, things: vision and execution. You need both to succeed.
Vision is a crisp and clear understanding of what it is you are trying to do. Everyone on the team needs to be clear on what the vision for the business, the product, or the project is, and they need to be in agreement about it. If the vision isn't clear or compelling enough to get everyone on the bus, then you will fail.
Execution is making the vision reality. It needs to be constantly guided by the vision, constantly moving towards it without getting pulled off track by side-shows and distractions.
Channeling Thoreau, the poet Mario Quintana wrote, "Don't waste your time chasing butterflies. Mend your garden, and the butterflies will come".
Likewise it can said that success (of any variety) is the natural consequence of creating the right environment. It is not something you can go at directly. For example: if you become someone who is obsessed with providing delightful products and services, you will provide delightful products and services. If you provide delightful products and services, then you will delight customers. If you delight customers, they will buy more from you and your revenues go up. If your revenues go up, your stock price will go up. Focus on what you need to be, and the butterfly will come to you.
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