Archive for April, 2008
Here’s the annual conference I’d love to attend:-
“The World Conference on Failure”
20 Business and World Leaders honestly and openly discuss
the decisions and actions which contributed to their significant
business and political disasters/failures/catastrophes.
…but which for obvious(?) reasons it will never be held.
Why would I want to attend this type of conference?
We don’t learn one tenth as much from success as we do from failure. I don’t have anything but life experience to back up that statement, yet I know for certain that at some level it could not be a truer observation about how the world works. Success drives us in a single direction, and while the positive feedback is nice, it doesn’t motivate us to grow and change.
Failure on the other hand is an itch that demands scratching and forces us to explore alternatives.
You could argue that if we study the success of others, then we can emulate them and create our own success. That’s true up to a point, but the real secret of success is not found in learning how to follow a ‘recipe’, but in learning how to respond to a changing environment. When we look at success, it’s easy (relatively) to pick out what they did ‘right’, but much more difficult to understand how they avoided doing the ‘wrong’ things.
By studying failure, it’s possible to explore the specific actions that contributed to that failure, and delve into why those responsible were unable, (unwilling?) to avoid those actions. Learning how to avoid problems, how to avoid the common and uncommon traps, is the skill which enables us to chart our course when the success ‘recipe’ falls short.
What types of failures?
One of the failures which jumps immediately to mind is Motorola’s $6B investment in the Iridium phone which they eventually sold for a mere $25M… the mind boggles at the size of this mis-adventure. The question “How could this possibly happen?” if honestly answered, might actually justify the multi-billion dollar fiasco IF we could use the answer to avoid similar disasters in the future.
Obviously, people have looked at this fiasco and made their observations public, but what would be more informative is honest commentary from the people actually involved in the event. What exactly were they thinking? What motivated them? What honest mistakes did they make?
And… what mistakes did they make, that with 20/20 hindsight they now recognize as totally avoidable – mistakes that were generated not by the facts in front of them, but by the human flaws within them.
This personal perspective on failure is the real value the “Conference on Failure” would offer, it’s also of course, why such a conference will never become a reality.
Admitting avoidable failure isn’t something we do very well, and if/when we do muster the courage to tell the real story, we are immediately the target punishment of some sort, usually in the form of lawsuits.
And courage is necessary if we’re to honestly discuss our failures. I’ve deliberately chosen ‘loaded’ words to describe ‘failure’ when I use terms such as, “disaster”, “flaws”, “fiasco” etc. etc.
Why would I frame the topic this way? Because this is the framework of perspective that we wrap around the stink of failure. Speaking of any personal “failure” is incredibly difficult. Look at “The Room that Eats Speakers” posted a few days ago in this blog. Admitting, as a professional speaker, that I have ‘messed’ up was not done lightly… chances are it will cost me future business. Being honest, usually does involve a personal cost, but the benefits are worth it if others can learn from those mistakes and learn from them.
We can come close to the “Conference on Failure”
We can, when pushed, talk honestly about failure. During the discussion around Y2K, the IT disaster we sort of avoided, (if we can consider a $300B+ expenditure ‘avoiding’ a problem) there was much discussion about how/why we self inflicted ourselves with this problem. There was general agreement that the key component wasn’t technical. It was human short sightedness – there were other good reasons to do what we did – but the real problem was that we, the entire IT industry, didn’t take the long view.
One of the more popular category of TV shows on the Discovery and History channels are those that examine, from an external viewpoint, the reasons behind various types of accidents. From crashing Planes and trains, to crumbling tunnels and towers… each catastrophe has something to teach us.
Perhaps we can’t have the individuals involved in the big events explain what they were thinking, but we can shift some of our attention away from self congratulatory stories about ‘what made us a success’ to the more difficult and telling recollections about ‘what made us fail’ and with some careful attention, some compassion for those courageous enough to talk unveil themselves in public, and a little bit of effort, apply those insights to future endeavours.
If you’re looking for “The Room that Eats Speakers” you’ll find it just below this article.
The article I posted yesterday was warmly received by almost a thousand meeting planners, so I thought it worthwhile to continue the theme for a day or two – here’s an article specifically for past, present and potential meeting planner clients.
1) Content first: Decide who you want to speak for your conference based on the value of their message and their ability to enthral your audience, not on their reported ‘fee’.
Once you’ve decided who you want as your keynoters, then negotiate with them.
Negotiation Lesson 101:
Make at least one counter-offer to anything that anyone proposes.
Negotiation Lesson 102:
If what they are asking is way above your budget, then come clean…
tell them your budget. Don’t be ashamed of it, just let them know it
your budget will NOT insult them.
Remember, fees are not cast in stone (regardless of what anyone says), stealing an idea from Pirate pop culture “they aren’t ‘rules’ they’re more like ‘guidelines’”. Believe it or not, speakers value more than just money, but at the same time remember that ‘exposure’ is not always a selling point. People can die from exposure.
2) The Clock is Ticking: Stick to the schedule. You’ve paid the speaker mega-bucks to speak for you for an allotted time. If you want them to do the best possible job for you, give them the time you promised them.
Professional speakers will never make your job more difficult than it already is: They will never never never speak past their allotted time. Please, please, please do the same for them. Protect the time you gave them, to do their best for you they need that time. (Although they’ll do their best with whatever time you actually give them.)
Yes, you guessed correctly! There’s some personal history here. What do you do, when you travel to the other side of the world and the 90 minute keynote is ‘trimmed back’ to 20 minutes because of avoidable delays? You do your best – knowing that they got far less than they paid for.
3) Listen to your Audience: Hand out speaker evaluation forms, read them, and pay attention to what they have to tell you. Feedback is gold, never miss the opportunity to bend down and pick it up.
4) Hug (=Squeeze!) your Speaker: Within reason, extract everything you can from your professional speakers.
a. Are they willing to meet with your breakout session speakers the night before
and offer some speaking hints and tips from the professional?
b. Are they willing to do an executive breakfast/dinner session with key members?
Board members? Student members?
c. While they’re with you, could you get them to give an additional presentation
for the local board of trade?
d. Will they do media interviews before the conference?
e. Will they provide a follow-on article for your newsletter? Web site?
f. Will they contribute books and materials for draws?
g. Will they do a book signing in the exhibit hall? At one of the vendor booths?
Not all of the above will be possible, not all of it will be for free, but a speaker who wants to create a long term relationship with your association will be more than willing to do one or two or three of the above. It costs nothing to ask.
5) Dark Speaker Secret: Even though I speak for a living… here’s a dark secret. Speakers – regardless of their fee, content or style – do not make your meeting a success; they merely add an experience for your people to discuss. Make sure you include enough networking time in your conference. Running from speaker to speaker is not a conference, it’s a marathon.
6) Google is your friend: When anyone gives you client references, they offer you the names of clients who are certain to provide good feedback; this is not a secret, it’s obvious. So… get onto the Internet, Google the speaker. Speak to some folks they haven’t provided as references.
7) Lucky Number Seven: And finally? If a speaker has done a great job for you? Write them a knock your socks off letter of thanks/reference, and spread the word to your peers on how they helped make your meeting a success.
Speaking should be a win/win/win proposition. A win for the meeting planner, a win for the audience, and finally — a win for the speaker.
I wish you all the best on your next meeting.
Here’s a Catch-22 that affects all of us, we learn best from failure, but the last thing we want to discuss are our failures. In the spirit of sharing, I’m going to discuss some personal professional ‘failures’.
Some background, not as any sort of self promotion, but in an effort to position the context of this article. I’m a keynote speaker. I’ve spoken for more than a quarter of a century and have a reputation sufficient to take me to 37 countries and have me invited to speak at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In short, I know what I’m doing, I do it well, I’m a bona fide professional.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t failed to deliver from time to time. Not often. Three times to be exact, in more than 25 years.
The first time it happened I wrote it off as ‘the fault of the audience’ … what can I say? It was early in my career and didn’t realize that it’s never the fault of the audience.
The second time? It was a presentation I was giving for the first time… I wrote that failure off to not having the timing down, and suspected that the flow of my talk wasn’t perfect. Better than my first excuse, but as we shall see, not the real reason.
The third time? I knew it wasn’t the audience. I’d grown out of blaming others for the quality of my work. Nor was it a new talk, it was one I’d given hundreds of times, and I’d presented it as I always had, but despite my knowledge of the topic, my passion and delivery – the presentation fell flat, and I died on stage for the third time. If it wasn’t the audience, and if it wasn’t ‘me’ – then why did I fail? As a speaker – that’s an important question. The answer is an important one for any meeting planner.
Each time I failed, I had the same sense of never once connecting with the audience. With that as the only thing in common that I could easily remember – I sat down, took pen and paper and wrote down everything I could reconstruct from my memory about those painful experiences. The result is this little bit of sharing.
Cavernous rooms – Exhibit halls are not the best rooms to speak in. The 50ft ceilings swallow all but the best sound systems. They place a great distance between the speaker and the listeners.
Elevated podiums – When the podium is 3ft or more off the ground? Then you’re guaranteed to be far away from the audience, not only with respect to distance, but psychologically as well. Here’s a made up formulae to consider, the difficulty of creating rapport with your audience, increases as the square of the distance between you and the listener. I’ve nothing but my experiential data to back that up.
Open space in front of podium – A tall podium usually causes the first row of seats to be 20-30 ft from the podium… They have to be that far back or they’ll get a crick in their neck looking up to you! This adds more space between the speaker and the audience. At one of my failures, there was literally enough space for a pipe band between myself and the audience. I remember them well as they marched out and I marched up to my guillotine.
A wide centre aisle – if the room is large, the temptation is for a wide central aisle – meaning that if the speaker stands in the centre of the podium, then he/she is speaking to blank space all the way to the back of the room!
Wide rooms vs. deep rooms – some rooms are wider than they’re deep. This means that listeners to the left and right of the speaker are further away than those all the way at the back of the room. For a speaker to make eye contact with those on the left, requires that we turn our back to those to the right. AND if we’re wearing a lavalier microphone? Then you MUST turn your shoulders in the direction you’re speaking OR the mic won’t pick up your voice.
Rounds vs. Rows – If a room is filled with round tables rather than rows of seats, then 300 people or more are scattered over a few acres… being spoken to by a tiny speaker far away in the distance? Eye contact? You’re lucky if you can see the speaker… sooo… the meeting planner solves the ‘problem’ by…
Cameras and large screens – and in doing so they deliver the final death blow to the valiant speaker. In order that the audience can see the speaker, they’ll bring on the camera… which requires lighting… which ensures the speaker will never even see the auidience through the glare of the lights.
Now, I’m well aware that large audiences forces some of the above onto the meeting, but when they ALL converge at a single meeting then the risk of failure is high. As I thought back to each of my three failures? All of the above were in play, I was doomed from the start.
As I’ve grown older, and spoken more, I’ve grown wiser. This week I was presented with the room that eats speakers. But! I now recognized the beast. I was able to make some changes – both in the room layout (minor changes) and in my presentation (more minor changes)… I’m told the meeting was a roaring success. I’d beaten the monster. It didn’t eat me this time.
The key? Know that certain rooms pose more of a challenge. If possible? Change the room, if not? Then be aware of the room, know the threats, embrace them and respond to them. (But change something in the room… the room layout is not fixed in stone.)
Okay… I’ll admit it publicly. I’m nothing but a kid at heart. I’m continually astounded by the world around us and tend not to take things for granted. I received a fax yesterday and despite it being an almost ancient technology, I watched with sincere amazement as an image magically appeared out of the little black box, sent to me by a wizard many hundreds of leagues away. (ok, it wasn’t a real wizard. Remember this is a kid writing this article!)
To me, the world is a fairy tale. Did you know that planes can fly? I mean those BIG planes, the ones that weigh hundreds of tonnes. The speed down the runway and make a magical leap into the sky. And more to the point. They stay up there! Must be them wizards hard at work again.
For someone who believes he’s living in a fairy tale, I also read fairy tales. They were around long before user manuals and quite frankly contain more information than most of the poorly written documentation that’s supposed to educate us.
Have you read the fairy tale about stone soup? If you have, then the wisdom it contains just might make you a better manager of technology.
Making stone soup is an old tradition. First you need a stone. Not just any old stone. A smooth stone, river washed until it’s about the size of a large goose egg. Make sure you don’t get one that’s covered in green algae, otherwise your soup will taste foul.
Place the stone in a soup pan and fill with water until the stone is covered by about 2 inches of water, and bring to a slow boil. Taste it. You’ll notice it tastes like hot water. So far? Not very impressive.
Now it’s time to bring out the flavour of the stone. This is not a simple task. A stone is hard and unyielding, it’s not going to present you with flavour unless you find the secret of extracting its natural juices.
First you must dice up some carrots, about 3 or 4 large carrots should be enough. Then 2 potatoes, washed, sliced into1 inch cubes. (Leave the skins on, being close to the earth already, they have a natural affinity to the stone and will entice it to give up a hearty flavour.) Now slice up a beef steak into similarly sized cubes. Finally sprinkle the brew with salt and pepper to taste. Let simmer for about an hour and viola! A hearty stone soup!
Warning! If you try to make stone soup without using the above instructions for extracting the flavour then all you’ll have is a lot of boiling water.
Now stones and sand are mostly silicon, and most technology managers know computers are also mostly just silicon. So we have the beginnings of a metaphor. (work with me on this, I’m working under a deadline here!)
What brought all of this to a boil for me (so to speak.) Was a conference I was fortunate enough to facilitate for Hewlett Packard many years ago. HP had achieved something significant, and was using this meeting to demonstrate that accomplishment. They’d placed some 82,000 PC users onto a ‘Common Operating Environment.’
Those working in a corporate environment know how difficult it is to implement any sort of standards into any niche of their computing community. Getting 1,000 users to use the same word processor is an achievement. Getting 82,000 users to follow any type of standard is nothing short of a miracle.
Here’s the catch. I know a market full of IT managers who’ll want to buy HP’s ‘technology‘(read ‘stone’ for those having difficulty with the metaphor) They’ll ask how much this PC COE costs. They’ll want to buy this stone from HP and they’ll expect the same remarkable results. They’ll want to make HPs stone soup, but won’t want to follow the instructions.
This observation applies equally well to dozens of other technologies from ERPs, to CRMs, from Client/Server environments to Knowledge Management systems to comprehensive Data Warehousing strategies.
They’ll spend the money, buy the stone, put it into their environment and turn up the heat. They’ll expect soup… All they’ll get is hot water. What they need to do to get the benefit from the stone is add the extra ingredients. eg. Leadership, Management, Change Process Control, Planning, Training, Marketing, and of course… Patience.
The IT industry is afflicted with a brain eating virus for which there is no known cure. The medical term for this highly contagious disease is Argotism. The incubation period of the disease ranges from one to eight hours, at which time the subject becomes highly, and permanently, contagious.
The primary symptom of this incurable malady is the ability to speak for hours at a time without uttering a single comprehensible sentence. A secondary symptom is the uncontrollable desire to display incredibly complex visuals using the most sophisticated technology available.
At first it was thought these visual manifestations of the disease, were failed attempts by the patient to overcome the impaired ability to speak plain English. However, extensive content analysis of more than 10,000 visuals has uncovered no evidence to support this hypothesis.
While medical experts admit to similarities between Argotism and certain aspects of Tourette syndrome – in particular the uttering of coprolalia – they have, as yet, found no biological connection between these two conditions.
Scientists are baffled by the contagion vector. The primary methods of disease contagion are typically inhalation, ingestion and physical contact. Argotism ignores these vectors and is instead, spread through the auditory and visual systems. The World Health Organization (WHO) headquartered in Atlanta, GA admits that this method of infection will lead to a global pandemic unless a cure, or at least a vaccine, is found.
Early onset of the disease is identified by a subject’s inability to raise a hand above their head and voice the words “I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Could you please explain it to me?”
In the advanced stage of the disease, subjects repeat the phrases which first infected them, but which they still don’t clearly understand.
(In the interests of not spreading the disease further, this author does not wish to represent any of the “active” phrases in this article. Luckily there is one phrase which has lost most of its ability to infect, which will serve as an example of the virus. Please read it carefully and if you sense the urge to use it in conversation in the next 24 hours, please report immediately to your nearest medical facility. The phrase is “Web 2.0″.)
While it is possible to become infected after a single exposure to Argotism, it usually takes repeated exposure before the subject demonstrates full blown Argotism and becomes a carrier.
A recent WHO study found that being in the presence of a superior when first exposed to Argotism, greatly increased the risk of infection. This increase in the risk factor is assumed, though not yet verified, to stem from our natural reluctance to admit ignorance to management.
While there is no known cure for the disease, there is evidence to suggest that those already infected with Curmudgeonism, or those equipped with a technological advance known as a “BS Detector” (origin unknown), are highly resistant to all known strains of the Argot virus.
An additional finding which has researchers puzzled, is that all the inhabitants of, and everyone from, the state of Missouri are immune to the disease. While stumped by this finding, researchers do believe this anomaly could eventually lead to a cure for Argotism. The researchers are currently herding thousands of Missourians into medical facilities for extensive testing.
Citizens are warned the most likely places to contract Argotism are technology conferences. The most virulent strains of this disease are usually found in the keynote presentations. Members are urged, if they must attend these breeding grounds of pestilence, to bring blindfolds and earplugs to reduce the chance of infection.
There is another home remedy proving useful in isolated cases. Prepare a small tape recorder loaded with the sentence, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you just said. Could you explain what you meant by that?” When a presentation drops into incomprehensibility, you know the presenter is falling into an acute attack of Argotism and is entering their most contagious stage. Before you lose consciousness, press the PLAY button on the recorder and hopefully this will jolt the presenter back into a temporary state of comprehensibility, perhaps long enough for you to escape into the hall.
© 2009, Peter de Jager – Peter is an inoculated Keynote speaker and Management consultant, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org – This article first appeared in Computer World Canada 2003. Sadly – as of this posting, no progress has been made in the search for a cure. We are beginning to lose all hope.