Keep Your Eyes on the Prize [Two-Minute Mentor #9]

Focus on What You Want to Achieve Many of humankind’s greatest feats are accomplished by people who have a singular desire that becomes the foundational element for everything they do.

The 13th-century Turkish poet-philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, undoubtedly the most celebrated mystical poet in the Islamic world, purportedly advocated being absorbed in the task: “There is one thing that we all must do. If we do everything else but that one thing, we will be lost. And if we do nothing else but that one thing, we will have lived a glorious life.”

Don’t Have Too Many Irons in the Fire

  • Ask yourself this question: “What is my one thing—the singular objective that could make the most positive impact and meaningful shift—either on the present moment, or on my life as a whole?”
  • Just as the comical and wise Jiminy Cricket accompanies Pinocchio on his adventures serving as his official conscience, have a persistent voice persistently prompting you, “Are you doing your thing?”

Focus on What You Want to Achieve

The ability to prioritize, focus, and achieve is one of the most useful skills you can master. Learn to focus fully on the task at hand, and shut out everything else. As I mentioned in my world’s shortest course in time management, focus on things that you must do and avoid everything else.

It is truly amazing how much possibility, joy, and fulfillment you can add to your life when you shift your mindset to realizing and focusing on your one thing—in whatever timeframe you’re taking into consideration.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

Coca-Cola Executive Donald Keough’s “Ten Commandments for Business Failure” [Book Summary]

Coca-Cola executive Donald KeoughDuring a remarkable business career of 60+ years, Coca-Cola executive Donald Keough (1926–2015) developed an inspiring lecture on leadership failures. At the prompting of Warren Buffett, a former neighbor and friend, Keough published his lecture as Ten Commandments for Business Failure.

Keough worked for the Coca-Cola Company for 43 years and rose through the ranks to become its President and COO. Following retirement in 1993, he served on the boards of Coca-Cola, Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and many other organizations.

At Coca-Cola, Keough steered the company’s global product expansion and directed its iconic brand image and enviable distribution network. He became the business world’s most celebrated non-CEO leader.

Keough gained reputation as the public face of Coca-Cola’s 1985 New Coke misadventure—he delivered an on-TV mea culpa (see YouTube video) and announced the volte-face reinstatement of “Coca-Cola Classic.”

Donald Keough’s Straightforward Analysis and Leadership Lessons

'Ten Commandments for Business Failure' by Donald Keough (ISBN 1591844134) Keough’s Ten Commandments for Business Failure is a predictable, yet insightful—even if circuitous—exploration of ten (and a bonus) leadership mistakes.

  1. Quit Taking Risks: “Failures, for all the valuable lessons that they teach us in hindsight about management blunders, are simply risks that just didn’t work out. Such miscalculations, costly though they might be at the time, are part of the price of staying in business. As Peter Drucker pointed out nearly fifty years ago, it is management’s major task to prudently risk a company’s present assets in order to ensure its future existence.”
  2. Be Inflexible: “Flexibility is a continual, deeply thoughtful process of examining situations and, when warranted, quickly adapting to changing circumstances. It is, in essence, the key to Darwin’s whole notion of the survival of the fittest. … Most recalcitrant business leaders would certainly never actually characterize themselves as inflexible. More than likely they would pay lip service to a philosophy of change, expressing the usual platitudes about how they embrace change and welcome it.”
  3. Isolate Yourself (i.e., Be Out of Touch): “One of the traits of many of the legendary builders of business was that they had an uncanny ability to know and relate to their employees at every level … if you isolate yourself, you will not only not know what you don’t know about your business, but you will remain supremely and serenely confident that what you do know is right. Isolation, carried to its most extreme form, tends to breed a sense of almost divine right.”
  4. Assume Infallibility: “The infallible we-know-best attitude of management has caused many companies to ignore reality and miss opportunities … If you want to increase your chances of failure, deny the possibility that you are not always 100 percent perfect in your judgment. Ignore the fact that sometimes others do know a thing or two. … So, if you want to fail, pose as an infallible leader.”
  5. Play the Game Close to the Foul Line: “Business finally boils down to matters of trust consumers trust that the product will do what it promises it is supposed to-investors trust that management is competent-employees trust management to live up to its obligations. In recent years we seem to have quite a few smart, energetic people who have evidenced a rather fuzzy view of the right thing.”
  6. Don’t Take Time to Think: “Time to think is not a luxury. It is a necessity. As Goethe noted: “Action is easy; thought is hard.” Yet action frequently-in fact, more often than not-takes on a life of its own. We pay homage to reason, but we are held hostage to emotion. We are, after all, feeling creatures, and in the excitement of a particular endeavor once the ball is rolling, it’s difficult to stop.”
  7. Put All Your Faith in Experts and Outside Consultants: “The narrow perspective of what appears to be genius is often the inverse of wisdom.”
  8. Coca-Cola Company's COO Donald Keough with Investor Warren BuffettLove Your Bureaucracy: “As [Warren] Buffett said, “It’s unbelievable how much bureaucracy can build up in businesses, particularly those in which you can pass almost all of your costs to the consumer.” … On the hazards of bureaucracy: at their worst, they cannot only impede success, they can also precipitate disaster. … The more cooks there are in the kitchen, the greater the chance that bureaucratic decision making will either be deadlocked or the decision will become an exercise in group wishing. … Ultimately, a bureaucracy can become so dysfunctional that there is literally no one who can rain on the parade. The team can never make anything approaching an objective decision.”
  9. Send Mixed Messages: “Sending mixed or confused messages to your employees or your customers will jeopardize your competitive position, and result in failure.”
  10. Be Afraid of the Future: “The most serious problem with great pessimism is that it is absolutely paralyzing. People are so afraid of dire consequences that they throw their hands up in despair and do nothing. Fear of the future guarantees that the future will be a failure. … To aspire to any kind of leadership in business you simply have to be a rational optimist. One optimist in a sea of pessimists can make all the difference.”
  11. Lose Your Passion for Work-for Life: “A major component of happiness in the business world is finding something you love doing, whatever it might be, and then finding a way to do it. To have success you have to have a high level of unadulterated desire to get up and go to work. … The easiest way to develop an inner passion in a business setting is to focus all your mind and heart on four aspects of your world: your customers, your brands, your people, and, finally, your dreams.”

Words of Wisdom from a Distinguished Corporate Executive

Donald Keough was the public face of Coca-Cola's 1985 New Coke misadventureAmong the myriad offerings of “rules for success” volumes, books such as The Ten Commandments are distinctive for their memorable business stories and examples. Keough’s candid analyses include narratives as captivating as the historical origin of Coke, the commercial history of the xerographic machine, the Coke-Pepsi rivalry, Coca-Cola Company’s ownership of Columbia Pictures, and the New Coke debacle. When asked in an interview if New Coke was worth the risk, Keough famously replied,

I wouldn’t want to do it again. But it was an enormous learning experience, and oddly enough, it turned out to be positive for the Coca-Cola Company. Our sales increased when we brought the original formula back. The reaction from our customers was overwhelming. Once we realized that we had made a mistake, I went on television and simply said that we don’t own this brand, you do. You’ve made it clear that you want the original formula back, and you’re getting it back.

Henry Ford and Model TIn the chapter on flexible and adaptive leadership, Keough blames Henry Ford’s stubbornness for the flagging market share of the Model T vehicle. During the mid-1920s, the industrial triumph of his mass production system and the commercial success of the Model T blinded Henry Ford to a budding customer penchant for cosmetic customization and convenience features. Electric starters, for example, were starting to be perceived as essentials and not as luxuries. Keough argues,

Henry Ford reportedly said, regarding the Model T, “They can have it in any color they want, as long as it’s black.” For a long time that was just fine. But then people began to get tired of the black tin lizzies. Yet even as America was roaring into the 1920s with bigger, faster, fancier, brightly painted automobiles, Henry Ford kept insisting that the Model T, essentially unchanged since 1908, was still what America wanted and needed and he was not going to change his mind. Inevitably, upstarts like Chevrolet and Dodge began to erode Ford’s market and seriously challenge the company’s dominant leadership. At last, more rational minds prevailed and Ford admitted the need to produce a better vehicle. After shutting down his main plant for six months, he successfully launched the Model A in 1928. But Henry Ford’s inflexibility had brought the company to the brink of disaster and cost it a competitive edge that it has never regained.

Recommendation: As a fast read, Donald Keough’s The Ten Commandments for Business Failure is worthwhile for its many nuggets of business history. Even though many of his cautionary lessons are not entirely unexpected, some are insightful. The “play the game close to the foul line” warning about values and ethics is especially thought-provoking. Keough writes, “The fact is, if you play on the edge the organization will step over the line from time to time. It is inevitable. Warren Buffett says: ‘Play to the center of the court’.”

Book Summary of “Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!” by Nicholas Carlson

Over the holidays, I finished reading journalist Nicholas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! This interesting book offers an account of Yahoo’s steady slide towards irrelevance and Marissa Mayer’s early tenure as CEO.

“Complex Monstrosity Built Without a Plan”

'Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!' by Nicholas Carlson (ISBN 1455556610) Carlson devotes the first third of the book to explaining Yahoo’s beleaguered history and how years of mismanagement and strategy negligence got Yahoo into the mess that Mayer inherited as CEO in 2012.

The second third is about Mayer and her brilliant career as employee number twenty at Google. In 2010, her career allegedly stalled because Mayer got sidelined after conflicts with other luminaries within Google. Relying broadly on anonymous sources, Carlson portrays Mayer’s intense nature and her personality contradictions: in public settings, Mayer is brainy, glamorous, confident, articulate, and approachable. However, in one-on-one settings, Mayer is a self-promoting, dismissive, calculating, tardy, inquisitorial individual who avoids eye contact. “There was nothing especially abhorrent or uncommon about Mayer’s behavior as an executive,” Carlson writes. “She was headstrong, confident, dismissive, self-promoting and clueless about how she sometimes hurt other people’s feelings. So were many of the most successful executives in the technology industry.”

The last third is devoted to Mayer’s initial efforts to turn Yahoo around. Within the first year at the helm as CEO, Mayer motivated Yahoo’s beleaguered workforce, launched the redesign of some of Yahoo’s major sites, and made acquisitions to make Yahoo relevant in the mobile, media, and social realms. Carlson also describes Mayer’s bad hiring decisions, habitual tardiness, tendency to micromanage, tone-deaf style of communication, and dogged devotion to establishing the universally-despised practice of tracking goals and stack-ranking employees.

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Anybody who follows the internet content industry understands that the principal question regarding the then-37-year-old Mayer’s recruitment as CEO was never whether she could save Yahoo. Rather, the question was whether Yahoo can be saved at all.

Yahoo has been a mess for a long time. For early consumers of the internet, Yahoo’s portal was the internet—from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, Yahoo was the number-one gateway for early users of the internet who wanted to search, email, or consume news and other information. Then, Yahoo floundered as the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft redefined the consumer internet and content consumption. Yahoo’s successive managements struggled to identify Yahoo’s raison d’etre and failed to set it apart from the up-and-coming websites. Yahoo’s management also fumbled on opportunities to harness the popularity of Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Sports, and Yahoo Finance to get advertising revenues growing again.

Mayer’s Arrival Was Too Late for Yahoo

Marissa Mayer could not succeed in reviving YahooMayer came to Yahoo with extraordinary credentials, drive, technical savvy, celebrity, and charisma. Her tenure was centered on answering the single question, “What is Yahoo? What should become of Yahoo?”

The odds of Mayer succeeding to revive Yahoo as an independent internet content company were very bleak right from the beginning, because Mayer took on an increasingly irrelevant business with very little actual or potential operating value—either as an internet content company or as a media company. Carlson appropriately concludes,

Ultimately, Yahoo suffers from the fact that the reason it ever succeeded in the first place was because it solved a global problem that lasted for only a moment. The early Internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo was the Internet. Then the Internet was flooded with capital and infinite solutions for infinite problems, and the need for Yahoo faded. The company hasn’t found its purpose since—the thing it can do that no one else can.

Since the publication of the book in December 2014, Mayer has dedicated her leadership to selling Yahoo’s core internet businesses and its patent portfolio. Yahoo is expected to then convert itself into a shell company for its investments in Alibaba (15.5% economic interest) and Yahoo Japan (35.5%.)

Recommendation: As a fast read, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! is great. Beyond Nicholas Carlson’s gossipy narrative and his pejorative depiction of Mayer’s management style, readers of this page-turner will be interested in Yahoo leadership’s strategic and tactical missteps. Particularly fascinating are how Yahoo missed opportunities to buy Google and Facebook when they were mere startups, the rebuffing of an acquisition bid from Microsoft, a lack of strategic focus, the leadership skirmishes with activist investors, the revolving door at the CEO’s office, and an Asian-asset drama.

Leadership Lessons from the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Avon’s Andrea Jung / Book Summary of “Beauty Queen” by Deborrah Himsel

When companies do well, their CEOs are often heralded as outstanding visionaries and brilliant innovators. In particular, when macroeconomic conditions are favorable, these CEOs are sheltered from scrutiny because the spoils of their success deflect attention from their leadership shortcomings (see my previous article on how success often conceals wickedness.) When the tide turns, however, the leadership deficiencies are exposed for all to see. The CEOs are the first to get the blame, even if they may not merit it.

Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of Andrea Jung. Beauty Queen divides Jung’s tenure as the CEO of cosmetics company Avon from 1999 to 2012 into two halves: Jung led six consecutive years of double-digit growth initially and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. Alas, Avon has never since recovered—its numerous restructuring efforts have failed, and its strategic and financial performance has severely deteriorated.

The Rise of Andrea Jung and Avon (1999–2005)

'Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung' by Deborrah Himsel (ISBN 113727882X) Promoted at age 41, Andrea Jung brought glamour, charm, and personal style to her CEO’s role. She quickly reshaped Avon’s image and articulated a powerful purpose for the company. She injected energy into a decaying cosmetics brand and pushed Avon into new profitable markets in China, Russia, and other countries. When Jung became CEO, 60% of Avon’s sales were in the United States; by 2011, only 17% of sales were in the United States and 70% were in developing markets.

Jung’s revival of Avon’s fortune catapulted her fame; she became one of America’s most recognized chief executives. Fortune magazine named her one of the most powerful women in the world. Jack Welch recruited her to General Electric’s board of directors.

Beauty Queen attributes this initial success not only to Jung’s inherent strengths in marketing and branding, but also to her right-hand person Susan Kropf. Kropf was a brilliant operations person, who balanced Jung’s acute lack of skills in running the day-to-day operations of a global company.

The Fall of Andrea Jung and Avon (2005–2012)

Avon’s sales started to slow down in 2005. And, Susan Kropf’s exit in 2006 corresponded with the dawn of Avon’s misfortunes. Andrea Jung never replaced Kropf; Avon was left without a chief operating officer.

As Avon started to struggle, Jung’s inadequate operations experience became a serious liability. A streak of self-inflicted problems resulted in strategic and operational disasters that took a huge financial toll and resulted in a flight of Avon’s top talent. Jung failed to deal effectively with failures of computer systems in Brazil, inadequate inventory and supply-chain management, poor management of working capital, and a staggering bribery scandal in China.

Jung’s lack of expertise to deliver results went up against her bold projections about the business’s future. Straying from Avon’s door-to-door direct selling roots, Jung experimented with a direct-selling channel, but quickly abandoned her strategy of running Avon retail stores. Her attempts to start baby-goods and other new product lines foundered after just two years. Avon’s many acquisitions failed; a silver jewelry company (Silpada) that Jung bought for $650 million had to be sold back to the original owners for $85 million.

Avon never recovered from the blunders that Andrea Jung presided over

Avon Beauty Products After Jung’s several turnaround efforts had failed to take hold, she resigned in 2011. Her replacement, former Johnson & Johnson executive Sheri McCoy, has since struggled to turn the company around.

The bribery scandal in China impaired Avon. In 2014, Avon settled the case with the Justice Department and the SEC for $135 million. To boot, Avon not only spent $350 million on legal fees, but also lost ground in the burgeoning cosmetics market in China.

Avon’s market value fell from $21 billion (1-Mar-2004) at the height of Jung’s success to $1.1 billion (15-Jan-2016). The company’s stock price fell from $44.33 to $2.50.

Lessons from Andrea Jung’s Leadership Style at Avon

Some of the most instructive leadership lessons from Beauty Queen are,

  • “Studying the trajectory of the Avon CEO is a great way to learn leadership. Andrea’s career … offers invaluable lessons about finding the right balance between substance and style.”
  • “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.”
  • Leaders should know when to go. “If Andrea had departed in 2008, she would have left with her reputation and halo fully intact … CEOs that are successful early on often err on the side of staying too long.” [See my previous article on why leaders better quit while they’re ahead.]
  • Companies should pair up their leaders with deputies who have complementary skills to offset the Achilles’ heels of the leaders.

Recommendation: Skim through the first six chapters of Beauty Queen for an informative quick read on Andrea Jung’s rise and fall at Avon. Thumb through the next five chapters for an uninteresting discussion of broad leadership lessons and action lists in dry PowerPoint style.

Don’t Push Employees to Change

Don't Push Employees to Change One of managers’ most common complaints relates to their failure to persuade their employees to change.

Having high expectations of employees can lead to bitter disappointment. The frustration that comes from employees not wanting to change causes many managers to focus on their employees’ negative qualities. Such an attitude makes it easy to find errors in employee behavior, leading to more disappointment—even resentment.

Even when an employee wants to change, he often fails to because he is pulled in two directions: by a motivation to change and by a motivation to maintain the status quo. Since change is seldom as easy as we think it will be, the motivation to maintain the status quo often triumphs.

The real reason employees (and people in general) don’t change is that underneath each employee’s commitment to change, he has an underlying, even stronger commitment to something else, as identified his intrinsic motivation.

Employees Resistant to Change For instance, an employee who expresses a desire to earn a promotion may avoid tougher assignments on his current job because he may be anxious about not measuring up. This employee may not even be fully aware of his own opposition. Therefore, managers are best served by understanding what truly motivates (and limits) each employee—i.e. his elements of intrinsic motivation. Only then can managers, through coaching and feedback, impel the employee to change by channeling the levers of extrinsic motivation (rewards, salary raise, fame, recognition, punishment) through one of the employee’s elements of intrinsic motivation.

Idea for Impact: Trying to change people will result in frustration and futility. Employees may change for a short time, but unless they have a compelling reason for change, they will go back to their natural state. Managers must temper their expectations about changing employees. As the Buddha taught, one way to lessen disappointment in life is to learn to lower your expectations of others.

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Every manager should make employee retention a priority and regularly inquire, “How many of my star employees would leave my organization if they could?”

Employee turnover can be expensive. Managers must find and hire replacements, invest in training the new employees, and wait for them to get to up to speed—all while suffering productivity shortfalls during the transition. The more talented an employee, the higher the cost of replacing him/her.

Here’s what you need to do to keep your star employees around.

  1. Identify them. Find key attributes that distinguish top performers from average performers. Then rank your team against these attributes and identify those employees who are critical to your organization’s short- and long-term success.
  2. Perform salary and compensation research within your industry and offer an attractive-enough benefits package. Beyond a particular point, compensation loses much of its motivating power. Consider flexible work arrangements.
  3. Understand what your star employees value and help them realize their values and regard their work as meaningful, purposeful, and important. Often, the risk of losing employees because their personal values don’t correspond with the team’s values is far greater than the risk of losing them because of compensation.
  4. Get regular feedback from your star employees. Ask, “What can I do as your manager to make our organization a great place for you to work?” Let them tell you what they need and what they like and don’t like about their jobs. Adjust their assignments and their work conditions accordingly.
  5. Invest in training and development. Give star employees opportunities to develop their skills and increase their engagement and job security. Hold frequent and formal career discussions to determine employees’ goals and aspirations and coach them.
  6. Give your star employees the autonomy, authority, and resources to use their skills and do their jobs in their own way.
  7. Keep them challenged and engaged. Make work more exciting. Set aggressive, but realizable goals. Move your star employees around into positions in the company where they will face new challenges and develop critical skills. Employees would like to be challenged, appreciated, trusted, and see a path for career advancement.
  8. Appreciate and give honest feedback regularly. Make timely and informal feedback a habit. Don’t disregard employee performance until the annual review. Help employees feel confident about your organization’s future. Earn their trust.

How to Prepare an Action Plan at a New Job [Two-Minute Mentor #6]

Winning at a new job by preparing a plan for action

Meet with all the people your new role interacts with—bosses, peers, suppliers, internal and external customers, and your employees.

Inquire what they expect to see you accomplish in five weeks, five months, and five years. Ask,

  • “What should we continue to do?”
  • “What should we change?”
  • “What should we do?”
  • “What shouldn’t we do?”
  • “What are the two or three levers that, if pulled correctly, can enable us to make the biggest impact?”

Synthesize their responses and prepare a one-page “plan for action.” Keep it as simple as possible for all your constituencies to understand and buy-in.

Communicate your proposals across your organization: “Here’s what I heard from you. Here’s what I think about it. Here’s our list of priorities and an action plan.”

For more guidelines on preparing an action plan, see my article on doing a job analysis; it’s part of my three-part (parts 1, 2, 3) series of articles on how to write a job description for your present position.

Five Principles of Career Success from Intel’s Andy Grove

Andy Grove of Intel, born András István Gróf in Hungary

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, passed away earlier this year. Grove was arguably the most influential tech executive the Silicon Valley has ever seen. He achieved fame and success in his adopted country and provides an outstanding modern-day immigrant success story.

Modern-Day Immigrant Success Story

Born András István Gróf to a middle-class Jewish family in Hungary, he survived the Nazi occupation by taking a false name, hiding with Christian families, and escaping the heartbreaking fate of half a million Hungarian Jewish people. After the war, when the Russians occupied Hungary and installed a repressive Communist government, Grove’s father was forced to take up menial work despite having been emaciated from torture at a Nazi labor camp.

During the brutal response to the anti-Soviet 1956 Hungarian Revolution following Stalin’s death, Grove’s family hid themselves in a coal cellar whilst Soviet artillery shells destroyed their neighborhood. Grove joined a flood of people who took advantage of the pandemonium to walk across the border into Austria. He fled to the United States in 1957, arrived in New York with less than $20 in his pocket, and settled in with relatives.

Andrew Grove with Intel Founders Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce As a child, Grove was afflicted with scarlet fever and an ear infection that left him nearly deaf. In spite of his hearing impairment and an inadequate knowledge of English, he studied chemical engineering at the City College of New York and graduated at the top of his class. Grove learned to lip read and then deciphered his notes after class. He recalled to The New York Times in 1960, “I had to go over each day’s work again at night with a dictionary at my side.” He then earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Berkeley and joined Fairchild Semiconductor. When his managers Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce left Fairchild to start Intel, Grove went with them as director of engineering.

High Performance Management and Paranoia

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Intel evolved swiftly. As President and later CEO, Grove brilliantly led Intel’s strategy and operations, established a near-monopoly on CPUs, and played a central role in the PC revolution. During this tenure as CEO from 1987–98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. After relinquishing his role as Intel’s CEO in 1998 and as Chairman of the Board in 2005, he mentored prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Grove was famous for his rigorous, no-nonsense, confrontational, non-hierarchical management style; his approach still dominates the Silicon Valley culture. He zealously demanded high performance. In 2004, the Wharton School him the most influential business leader of the past quarter-century, over Microsoft’s Bill Gates, General Electric’s Jack Welch, and Walmart’s Sam Walton.

Grove was a conspicuous voice for reason in the immigration, offshoring, and jobs-creation debates. He was also a prolific author and public speaker. His autobiography Swimming Across (2001) recounts the first 20 years of his life—from childhood in Hungary up until his move to California. His other autobiography, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996,) describes how companies should deal with emergent competitors, transform themselves, and perhaps change the nature of the industry itself. Forbes magazine calls it “probably the best book on business written by a business person since Alfred Sloan’s My Years with General Motors.” High Output Management (1995) explained how to maximize productivity and has become a cult classic in Silicon Valley. One on One with Andy Grove (1988) compiles his “Dear Abby”-style newspaper Q&A column on work- and career-advice.

Five Principles of Career Success

'One-on-One With Andy Grove' by Andy Grove (ISBN 0140109358) Wrapping up One on One, Grove summarized his advice on career, management, and leadership with five suggestions:

  • FIRST—and this is very important—enjoy your work. It’s impossible to like all of it. Sometimes you’ll chafe under its unrelenting nature, other times you’ll be bored, but overall you must enjoy it. I am convinced that most people will like their work if they can see that what they do makes a difference and if they approach their work with a bit of zest, maybe even playfulness. Doing so introduces a bit of levity when it’s most needed and leads to camaraderie.
  • SECOND, be totally dedicated to the substance of your work, to the end result, the output; not how you got to it or whose idea it was or whether you look good or not.
  • THIRD, respect the work of all those who respect their own work, from vice presidents to sales clerks, from maintenance technicians to security officers. Nobody is unimportant: It takes all levels and all jobs to run a functioning organization.
  • FOURTH, be straight with everyone. I hate it when people are not honest with me, and I would hate myself if I weren’t straight with them. This isn’t an easy principle to stick to. There are always many reasons (better to call them excuses) to compromise a little here or there. We may reason that people are not ready to hear the truth or the bad news, that the time isn’t right, or whatever. Giving in to those tempting rationalizations usually leads to conduct that can be ethically wrong and will backfire every time.
  • And, ALWAYS, when stumped, stop and think your way through to your own answers!

Finding Potential Problems & Risk Analysis: A Case Study on ‘The Three Faces of Eve’

The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

Risk Analysis is a Forerunner to Risk Reduction

My previous article stressed the importance of problem finding as an intellectual skill and as a definitive forerunner to any creative process. In this article, I will draw attention to another facet of problem finding: thinking through potential problems.

Sometimes people are unaware of the harmful, unintended side effects of their actions. They fail to realize that a current state of affairs may lead to problems later on. Their actions and decisions could result in outcomes that are different from those planned. Risk analysis reduces the chance of non-optimal results.

The Three Contracts of Eve

'The 3 Faces of Eve' by Corbett H. Thigpen and Hervey M. Cleckley (ISBN 0445081376) A particularly instructive example of finding potential problems and mitigating risk concerns the Hollywood classic The Three Faces of Eve (1957). This psychological drama features the true story of Chris Sizemore who suffered from dissociative identity disorder (also called multiple personality disorder.) Based on The Three Faces of Eve by her psychiatrists Corbett Thigpen and Hervey Cleckley, the movie portrays Sizemore’s three personalities, which manifest in three characters: Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane.

Before filming started on The Three Faces of Eve, the legal department of the 20th Century Fox studio insisted that Sizemore sign three separate contracts—one for each of her personalities—to cover the studio from any possible legal action. For that reason, Sizemore was asked to evoke “Eve White,” “Eve Black,” and “Jane,” and then sign an agreement while manifesting each of these respective personalities. According to Aubrey Solomon’s The Films of 20th Century-Fox and her commentary on the movie’s DVD, the three signatures on the three contracts were all different because they were a product of three distinct personalities that Sizemore had invoked because of her multiple personality disorder.

Idea for Impact: Risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process.

Postscript Notes

  • I recommend the movie The Three Faces of Eve for its captivating glimpse into the mind of a person afflicted with dissociative identity disorder. Actress Joanne Woodward won the 1958 Academy Award (Oscar) for best actress for her portrayal of the three Eves.
  • The automotive, aerospace, and other engineering disciplines use a formal risk analysis procedure called “failure mode and effects analysis” (FEMA.) FEMA examines the key risk factors that may fail a project, system, design, or process, the potential effects of those failures, and the seriousness of these effects.

You Can’t Develop Solutions Unless You Realize You Got Problems: Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem Finding is an Undervalued Skill

Problem finding plays an important role in creative thinking

Problem finding is one of the most significant parts of problem solving. However, it tends to be an underappreciated skill. Many managers naively consider it strange to encourage employees to look for problems at work: “Why look for new problems when we’ve got no resources to work on ones we’ve already identified?”

Many courses and books on problem solving and creativity overlook problem finding. Many educational resources tend to assume that problem solving really begins only after problems have been identified.

Problem-identification lead to the invention of the ballpoint pen

Invention of the Ballpoint Pen by Biro Brothers The story of the invention of the ballpoint pen demonstrates the importance of problem finding. Had the inventors not recognized a problem with the existing writing instruments of their day, they would not have developed their invention.

In the 1920s, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro spent much time proofreading and checking for errors in others’ writings. To communicate these errors to the authors, Laszlo could not use pencils because their impressions fade quickly. He tried using a fountain pen, but the ink from the fountain pen dried slowly and often left smudges on paper.

Laszlo observed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly and left the paper smudge-free. When he tried using that ink in his fountain pen, however, the ink was too viscous to flow into the tip of the fountain pen.

Laszlo then collaborated with his chemist-brother Gyorgy Biro to invent a new pen tip consisting of a ball that was enclosed within a socket. As the ball rolled inside the socket, the ball could pick up ink from a reservoir or cartridge and then continue to roll to deposit the ink on the paper. The Biro brothers thus invented the ballpoint pen. The company they created is now part of the BIC Company. The ballpoint pen continues to be called a ‘Biro’ in some countries.

Often, creativity is the outcome of discovered problem solving

Greek Philosopher Plato famously wrote in The Republic, “Let us begin and create in idea a State; and yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.”

One reason we fail to identify problems is that we do not stop to think about improving various situations that we encounter. Very often, these problems are directly in front of us; we need to consciously identify them and convert them into opportunities for problem solving. Instead, we tend to take inconveniences and unpleasant situations for granted and assume they are merely “facts of life.”

  • The grain mill was not invented until somebody in antiquity identified the ineffectiveness of two hours of pounding grain to make a cup of flour.
  • The world’s first traffic lights were installed around the British Houses of Parliament in London only after somebody thought of the problem of traffic congestion. In other words, up until the problems from congestion were identified in the 1860s, no one attempted to systematically consider how the problem might be solved.

James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine

  • James Watt invented his seminal separate-condenser steam engine after discovering an interesting problem with the Newcomen steam engine. In 1763, when Watt was working as an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow, he was assigned to repair a model of a Newcomen engine for a lecture-demonstration. Watt initially had difficulty getting the Newcomen engine to work because its parts were poorly constructed. When he finally had it running, he was surprised at its efficiency. Watt observed that the engine was constantly running out of coal because the constant heating and cooling of the cylinder resulted in a large waste of energy. Watt then devised a system whereby the cylinder and the condenser were separate. This led to his invention of the “steam engine” (or, more precisely, the separate-condenser steam engine.)
  • As I mentioned in a previous article on the opportunities in customers’ pain points, crispy potato chips were invented only when Chef George Crum of New York’s Saratoga Springs attempted to appease a cranky customer who frequently sent Crum’s fried potatoes back to the kitchen complaining that they were mushy and not crunchy enough. Decades later, Laura Scudder invented airtight packaging for potato chips only after becoming conscious of customers’ complaints that chips packaged in metal containers quickly go stale and crumble during handling.

Finding and defining a creative problem

If problems are not identified, solutions are unlikely to be proposed

It pays to keep your eyes open and look at inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Don’t ignore these merely as facts of life.

Curiosity, intrigue, and motivation influence problem finding (and problem solving.) One of the easiest ways to develop your skills in problem finding is to ponder at anything around you and wonder why those gadgets and contraptions were ever invented. Analyze carefully and you’ll learn that the first step taken by the inventors of these objects was the identification of the problems the objects were designed to solve.

When you look around various objects in your life, think about what life was before these objects were invented. What problems could these inventions have solved? Why was the zipper invented? What problems motivated Bjarne Stroustrup to create C++? What was internet search like before Google? How did commerce transpire before the advent of coins and bills and money?

Some people make a career out of problem finding. Managers who want to know if their organizations are running efficiently frequently hire consultants to look for problems that managers do not know exist in their businesses.

And finally, if you want to become an inventor or an entrepreneur, try to start with problems you already have in your work or in your life. Ideally, identify problems shared by a large number of people to increase the probability that your inventions will be put in widespread use.

Idea for Impact: A creative solution to a problem often depends on first finding and defining a creative problem. Very often, the solution to a problem becomes obvious when the problem has been properly identified, defined, and represented.