The story factor

I really like books that make me want to read more/related books to fully grasp the concept. The story factor by Annette Simmons is one such book. Besides being really entertaining and full of cleaver stories, this books gives the readers a framework to develop their own stories.

The book talks about an interesting categorization for the kind of stories you need, to be effective in the business of influencing other people. These are:

  • “Who am I” stories
  • “Why I am here” stories
  • “The vision” stories
  • “Teaching” stories
  • “Values-in-action” stories
  • “I know what you are thinking” stories

The author has a great sense of power of stories and provides a useful check list of how to tell good stories. It talks about the power of stories in terms of influencing the uncaring or apathetic.

And of course the stories!! Below is one of my favorites from the book:

Once, the people of The City invited Mulla Nasruddin to deliver a khutba. When he got on the minbar (pulpit), he found the audience was not very enthusiastic, so he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “NO”, so he announced “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about” and he left. The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time when he asked the same question, the people replied “YES” So Mullah Nasruddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time” and he left. Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question – “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “YES” while the other half replied “NO”. So Mullah Nasruddin said “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the other half” and he left!

I told this story to a management consultant friend of mine about how management consultants are great at getting different groups in a company to talk to each other and he could not agree more.

Once upon a time there was a tiny village cursed by a ferocious monster who blocked the only road leading in and out of the village. Many courageous knights set out to fight the monster but no matter which weapon they chose, the monster with his magical powers would match this weapon with more than double the power.
The first knight, who brandished a club of wood, was flattened by a club twice its size. A second knight tried to burn the monster with fire and was sizzled to a crisp when the monster blew a fire twice as hot back at him. A third knight wielded a sword of steel. He was sliced in half by the monster’s magical sword twice as sharp and twice as long.
The fate of these three knights discouraged any further attempts and the people in the village learned to live with their limitations.
One day, Jack, the village fool, announced that he had a new idea to vanquish the monster. Most people laughed at Jack. Only the curious and the courageous marched out with him, helping him carry food and water to the place where the monster blocked the road.
The monster roared, stretched to his full height, and glared at Jack. The onlookers gasped when Jack grabbed an apple and walked right up to the monster. “Are you hungry?” Jack asked. The monster’s eyes narrowed to slits and he sniffed the apple. When his massive jaw opened wide; one of the ladies fainted dead away before the monster delicately took the apple from Jack’s quivering hand. The monster raised his fist high and brought it down in front of the amazed crowd. Bam! Opening his fist they saw two apples, juicier and redder than the one he had eaten.
In the same way a clay urn of water was replaced with two golden urns filled with water, sweeter and clearer than the first. The people ran to tell the others in the village of this miracle. When they returned Jack smiled and the monster smiled back with enough warmth to convince even the most cynical of the villagers that this monster was now a blessing to the village rather than a curse.

I told this story to my daughter as a way to calm her down and to stop her from complaining about her sister. By the end of the story she had forgotten about what she was complaining about :-) but my hope is that she learned a lesson about being nice to her sister.

Overall, if you are an engineer who is used to thinking rationally and linearly about issues, the story factor, provides you with a powerful way to think differently. Instead of logic that invokes reason in the thinking part of the brain, the story factor seeks to engage and excite in order to make the audience feel your story in the emotional part of their brains.

The three other books I bought (all are great) after reading this book:

Story on!!

Solving hard problems

One of my friends from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) days is starting a company in pharmaceuticals/life sciences space. At a recent IIT conference, he buttonholed me to ask me about the right strategy for his startup.

“On the one hand, I need integration for a seamless deployment, usage and maintenance experience but on the other hand doing integration forces us to work with archaic vendors that don’t want to work with us. It opens up technology issues, business issues and it will show down our go-live deployments.”

Since I was not sure about the specifics of the his product and customer systems, I shared my story about how we handled a similar challenge at Punchh. For those who don’t know about Punchh, Punchh is the last company I founded that is a platform for building “Starbucks like” apps for chain restaurant/retail market.

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In 2012, we had launched our first few pilots without a point of sale (POS) integration but while reviewing the results with one of the smarter, numbers oriented exec at one of the pilot chains, we saw that our engagement rates were not great and re-engagement rates, a key metric for “Starbucks like” apps that Punchh built were downright anemic. To investigate the issue, I decided to spend some time at the location to do some detective work. After a couple of days of painstaking and diligent observing, it became clear that our issue was lack of an integration with the POS system – typically the heart of a restaurant or retail operation. Our lack of integration was not only making it hard to engage the customers, it was also slowing down operations by introducing additional redemption processes.

When I brought this to the team there were a lot of question marks.

“We will never be able to integrate as the POS companies are based on old technology stack and hard to work with”.”We don’t have the resources”.”We don’t even know how many version are out there for each system”.”How will we ever scale this thing?”.”POS companies might view us as a threat and might not want to integrate with us”.”How do we build relationships with opaque and hard to reach POS companies?” etc.

Despite the skepticism we persisted. I brought on a consultant who I had worked with before and who I though would be great at handling the complexity of the problem.

To get things going, we used one of the pilot customers to pressure one of the POS companies to provide us with a system. After some more skepticism and some upfront payment we finally had a license code and a DVD (but no support) to install a system and get an integration going.

It took us 4 weeks to get a working POS system installation – a system where we could do the basics like opening a check and placing an order.

It took another 8 weeks to get the first integration code working. It took so long because we had no support – the only help we could get was from an obscure bulletin board.

And since POS integration needed a whole new backend system, another 8 weeks went to design and build the server components to handle the data coming from the POS systems.

But by the end of 5 months we had something ready to go to a customer site.

Our first customer installation took 6 customer visits – each a 100 mile round trip drive to San Francisco where the customer was – spanning over 4 weeks. During this time we were apologizing constantly to the customer for crashing their systems. The customer still persisted with us – I am not quite sure why – despite all the problems.

Although the first 6 months were painful, we learned a great deal during that period. We were soon onto version 2 and 3 and thinking about replicating the integration with other POS systems. When we tried the POS integration at the original pilot location, the numbers were a lot better. We were finally delivering measurable results to our customers. Now we have over 15 POS integration, numerous POS partnerships and a dominant position in the market.

The thing about solving hard problems is that, while they are painful, if you persist and solve them you might build something really valuable – a strategic advantage or even an entry barrier.

Founders panel at IIT Bay area conference

I was fortunate to attend a recent panel discussion at IIT bay area conference about the blind spots of a technical founder. The panel was moderated by Ramneek Bhasin (NextForce) and the panelist were Kumar Ganapati (VxTel, Virident), Mohit Aron (Nutanix, Chohesity), Rishi Bhargava (Demisto).

Ramneek set the stage for the discussion with something really clever. Instead of building up the panelists, and it was a distinguished panel, he opened with “throwing shoes and sandals at us is not allowed no matter what we say but tomatoes are fine”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 4.48.45 PMThis had the amazing impact of engaging the audience as an equal and humanizing the panel. I see too many panel moderators not doing enough the make the panel approachable and to engage the audience. Kudos to Ramneek for an inspired opening and a great job.

The result of a good opening was a very engaging discussion.

Kumar talked about the importance of hiring well as a startup founder and how its better to leave a chair empty than to fill it with a wrong /”B” player.

I asked the panelist for their secrets of hiring well:

  • Mohit through that hiring engineers is easier than hiring for sales and marketing
  • Mohit’s key to successful hiring is that he takes time to check references
  • Rishi stressed the importance of chemistry and hairstyle test
  • Kumar recommended setting up a process and taking time to ensure that you have the right candidate
  • Panel recommended using a scorecard and being open to red flags

The panel also spoke about finding a co-founder and how its one of the most important decisions in the company. Mohit recommended that the founders not rush to incorporate but instead take time to work with their co-founders to get to know them better.

All in all one of the best panels in a while.

No

I started reading “No” about a year back and I have been re-reading and re-re-reading and … it ever since. Now I don’t want to be Jim Camp’s (the author) booster but to say that this is one of the best business book ever written – is not hyperbole but an understatement. Now I have read a lot of books on negotiations – starting with the business school classic “Getting to yes”, “Negotiating rationally”, “When push comes to shove” and on and on but “No” gets to the real problem with negotiations – which is out of control emotions. The difference between books like “Getting to yes” and “No” is the difference between rational-agent economics (theory based on unrealistic assumptions) and behavioral economics (reality).

Jim Camp, the author, was once a pilot, so its no surprise that a of things he talks about are organized around check-lists and training. The book is really accessible, almost an easy read but it is also one of those rare books that has layers of insights that come into focus upon second or third or more readings.

The first chapter introduces the concept of “neediness” – the real killer in negotiations. It could be need for approval, need to save the relationship or fear of losing a customer. Most of the times, neediness is really because of our social conditioning or a flawed vision of self. To be a good negotiator one must give up neediness. Its ok to “want” a deal but remember you don’t need this deal – or much for that matter.

The book talks about resistance to “No” and how saying “No” is really key to managing your emotions and getting to a good deal. I have worked with many sales people who would never say “No” because “No” is the end, its defeat, its crashing of dreams but Jim explains that “No” is just the beginning, the foundation of any good negotiation. Jim explains that “No” is just a decision in the process and like just flying, you need to focus on the next decision.

One of my favorite chapters is how best to prepare for negotiations. The chapter focusses on how to create a mission and purpose that is rooted in the world of the other party. Having a mission and purpose that is focussed on the other party, helps keep your neediness in control and provides a roadmap for negotiations.

Another great chapter is about asking questions to build vision. As you know, its hard to tell anybody anything. A good way to build vision and drive the process forward is to ask questions that let people see their own problems and potential solutions for themselves. Asking question is another way to reduce the number of words you say – another great step to control your neediness.

There are several interesting ideas and checklists in the book:

  • Find a way to be human – being human lower barriers and increases people’s receptiveness to the vision you are trying to build
  • Repeat important things 3 things – If you heard Trump speak – he always repeats the key points 3 times or more (this is not an endorsement of Trump but an acknowledgement of his skill in the influence business)
  • Be wary of conversations getting too positive or too negative
  • How to create an agenda that can drive a negotiation – everything important should be on the agenda and so should be any baggage that might be the unspoken roadblock in your negotiation
  • How to get to decision makers and bypassing the gate-keepers

Overall this is one of the best business books. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and read it. Let me know if you agree with my flowery review…

Presence

This was a book I had been meaning to read for a while. I had seen the author’s TED talk video in passing some time back and so when I got a chance to read it, I was excited. This books is all about the amorphous concept of Presence. It talks about what presence means, why you want to me more present (I guess everybody wants that), how people evaluate presence, how to fake presence in short term to be more present in the long term etc. Following are the things I liked about this book:

 

 

  • I liked the description of impostor phenomenon. This is apparently a widespread feeling where accomplished people feel like imposters – about to be found out for the fraud they consider themselves to be. A lot of us have experienced this feeling and it was eye opening to see that this is an almost universal thing. Of course there are also a lot of frauds who believe that they are god’s gift to human kind (I am talking about Trump here :-)). Imposter phenomenon is the other side of the confidence game – Check out the review of Maria Konnikova’s interesting book on the subject.
  • I like the concept that to get more presence, we need to give more presence. This means to have more presence, listen and connect and get out of your head and that will make you feel more present. Its a simple idea but just saying hi to everybody you see will make you more present. Amy (the author) does a great job of illustrating this with a story from Boston.
  • I loved the section about body language and power posing. This section talks about the mind/body connection and how striking a powerful posture make us feel more powerful (and when we are more powerful, we are more present). This was the key portion of the book and really explains a lot about the popularity of Yoga etc. these days. The recipe that Amy suggests is that we should strike a power pose before critical meetings or events or performances to be more present. Since reading this section I have been noticing that directors know this and ensure that their actors are power posing in a scene where they are being powerful etc. Below are some of the sample poses: body-language-power-poses
  • I loved the section about the effect of power on human Physiology. It talks about how power posing can increase testosterone levels in human beings. The interesting bit was role of the stress hormone – cortisol – in being present. Low stress level, it turns out, is a fundamental aspect of feeling and being powerful. In organizations the best leaders are not just the ones with high testosterone but also with low cortisol. The research justified the old adage that you want your leader to be the calmest in the room when crap hits the fan. An interesting prediction from the model was that people with high testosterone and high cortisol are going to be ones that cheat in test, organizations and relationships – pretty insightful stuff.

One of the ideas in the book I was not sure about was the idea behind self-affirmation. The books talks about the benefits of self-affirming – which I agree with but proposes self-affirmation by remembering your unique strengths. In my experience the best self-affirmation is done by recalling the humanity and commonality shared with the other people that are making you nervous. Listing your unique strengths sounds a lot like the Saturday night sketch by Stuart Smalley (Al Franken) from a long while back – a sketch Amy mentions  in the book.

Overall this is a 300 page book that has some great ideas. This is also a great read. I recommend buying this book for a flight or a quick once over.

 

The Checklist Manifesto

I first read The Checklist Manifesto a few years ago. I have long believed that written checklists is the only way to drive organizational or personal behavior changes. So when I was struggling with making an effective personal checklist, I decided to re-read it. (Finding out that this is Jack Dorsey’s – Square, Twitter – favorite book increased my enthusiasm for the book).

This book is full of surprises. The first surprise is that this is written by Atul Gawande, who is a doctor.  It turns out Atul is a great writer who can make a dry subject – such as Checklists – into a lively read. But still I would have guessed that this book and subject matter will be best handled by a business executive because the topic speaks to execution and driving behavior changes, but the fact Atul wrote this is a testimonial to universal applicability of the idea behind checklists.

The second surprise is that Atul is able to marshal cross industry examples in the service of explaining the power of checklists – from medicine to construction to disaster recovery to cooking to music concerts to aviation – the book is filled with great examples of checklists in action. Using these real world examples from different industries Atul is able to demonstrate how checklists can be used to solve complex problems involving several moving parts. Atul uses his own experience of creating a checklist for surgical administration to be used across the globe. He talks about how to create a checklist and attributes that make it effective.

The third surprise was the last chapter about the psychology that makes it hard for a lot of experts in different fields to create and follow a checklist. His insights that sometimes the experts believe that having a checklist somehow takes the romance out of challenging and sophisticated tasks such as valuing a company or making an investment or hiring employees, seem right on the money. It also presents the challenges most individuals and organizations must overcome when implementing checklists. Atul points out that most of the mistakes in complicated endeavors can be linked to somebody skipping an important step from a checklist and that having a checklist and the discipline to follow it religiously will likely increase performance and efficacy dramatically.

Overall this is a light and engaging book that is great for entrepreneurs, software professional or anybody involved in a complex group activity. While this book could have done better with more direction on what makes an effective checklist and even providing some actual actionable checklists to try and imitate, I believe if you take the lessons to heart you are likely going to get incredible rewards.  I personally got a great deal out of this book from my second reading. I not only remembered how great a writer Atul is, but I also learned how to make an actionable checklist and was able to apply my learnings successfully to my personal checklist project.

Who?

I recently bought “Who?” based on a recommendation from Atul Gawande who recommended it in Checklist Manifesto. In my experience starting Punchh, this is an area where I made a few mistakes and so I was looking for ideas on what I could have done better. What I got from “Who?” was a whole playbook for effective hiring.

Who?

Who?

In the past I have tried a number of different approaches. I have tried letting everybody on the team talk to the candidate and throwing in a board member for added perspective. After everybody has had a chance, we ask each interviewer to share feedback and to vote on the candidate. Predictably this method yielded mixed results as all interviewers were using their personal judgement which is often dependent on the interviewer’s mood, the meeting the interviewer had prior to the interview and even whether the interviewer had an altercation with their spouse or kids that morning.

At the other extreme I had designed a sophisticated scorecard where we will have 4 interviews where each interviewer will be tasked to evaluate a competency area needed for the job. At the end we will all get together and score the candidate and make a decision. This method again did not work too well as different interviewers had different standards for grading a competency and a complete realistic picture of what a candidate could do was missing.

Who? does a great job of giving you an actionable checklist for implementing an effective hiring process. It starts with recommendation on how to set up a good job description and a scorecard, talks about best ways to source talent, an interview plan (full with specific questions to ask and what to listen for) and a process of eventually selecting and landing the right person for the job.

Randy Street and Geoff Smart are thorough about the process of selecting A players and their checklist seems actionable and complete. In fact, one of the key components of the process, the “Who?” interview is something I have been using for a while without knowing. All in all it seems like a really practical and comprehensive approach to hiring talent. Even though prose is a little bit dry and focussed on the methodology, I highly recommend “Who?” to all entrepreneurs or hiring managers looking to improve their batting average.

An aside for the entrepreneurs: This book has a lot of great ideas for anybody looking for startup ideas. The sourcing of talent (referrals apparently drive close to 70% of hires), managing of the process in a prescriptive way, tying it with performance tracking and review etc. present opportunities for automation in the form of an enterprise SaaS platform.