Where’s Your Roadmap

If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get lost.

I advise some companies on strategy, helping the owners figure out where their business is today, and where they would like to see it in 5 years. These two pieces of information can then be used to devise a road map for success for the business – we can plan what needs to be done in order for the business to reach its ultimate goal.

On occasion, I’ll encounter resistance toward adopting a map – especially when the business currently is successful at what it does. This is mindful of the following story:

A businessman is on vacation in the Caribbean, when he sees a fisherman come into the dock at noon with a few fish. He approaches the fisherman and asks why he ends his day so early. The fisherman responds:

“I get up early and head out fishing. By noon I’ve caught enough fish to support my family. I sell the fish, take a short siesta, spend some time with the family, and spend some time with my friends.”

The businessman asks, “Why don’t you fish all day, and earn more money. Pretty soon you would be able to buy another boat, and expand your business!”

The fisherman asks, “But what then?”

“Why, you could keep expanding until you have an entire fleet of boats!”

“And then?”

“You could sell directly to the resellers with that kind of volume – you could open your own fishery!”

“And then?”

“You could hire a manager to run the business and retire and live off the company! You could spend your time fishing, taking a siesta, and spending time with your family and friends.”

The story illustrates that sometimes, the end goal might bring us back to where we started from, and so we could avoid a lot of work by just staying where we are. If the goal is just money, then this is what often happens.

A business, however, is concerned with profits for another reason – usually expressed in the mission statement of the business. The goal is therefore not circular in nature. As such, this story does not apply.

If a business aims to get somewhere, then it can plan a route. It can measure progress. It can make sure it does not get lost along the way. But if the business has no aim, then it can spend years wandering in circles. It’s failure to move in a targeted manner can bring it to a state of irrelevance as its industry passes it by. Mistakes can be made repeatedly as no clear goal exists.

Is your business wandering around in the dark? Or does it have a clear vision and goal, and a map to get there?

Life is a Roller Coaster

I listened to a talk this afternoon in which the speaker started off with a single statement:

We all screw up on occasion.

While that’s certainly true, it seems that some people are more prone to errors than others. Some people seem to have the Midas touch, with everything they come in contact with turning to success. Others seem to struggle at every turn.

While I would not dare to say that we are all presented with the same opportunities, I would venture to propose that what truly sets apart those who are considered to be a success is how they handle those opportunities with which they are presented. J.K. Rowling, in one of the Harry Potter books, makes a statement:

It’s our choices that determine who we are, far more than our abilities.

That is to say, talent is only a small part of who we are, with the choices we have made, how we have chosen to respond to challenges and opportunities being what truly defines our character.

When we encounter a blunder of our own making, we can choose to handle this realization in multiple ways. We can fret over what might have been, over the loss that occurred as a result. Or, alternatively, we can move forward and take the lessons learned from the mistake to prevent a recurrence, and to better equip ourselves for the next challenge in our path.

In a recent discussion, I was asked whether, in my opinion, successful people are more lucky than others.

My answer was similar to the opinion expressed above – that it is not so much which opportunities are presented to a person that will shape their destiny, but rather how they respond to such opportunities that they encounter. A successful person has learned to treat each mistake, each failure, as a learning opportunity at a minimum, and has often learned to extract success from what others might have considered to be a foregone conclusion.

How about you? How do you react to a mistake? How do you react to an opportunity? Are you taking the chance to learn and experience? Or are you focusing on what might have been, or what you wish had been?

Quiet Work and Make Work

One of my first tasks at my new job was to set up source control and a test server for the client. Previously, the client had relied on their development company’s servers to provide this, but with their new approach of bringing all the development in-house, it was necessary to create these environments.

The creation of these servers, however, is not particularly satisfying work. It involved buying the appropriate hardware, installing some software, and configuring a few scripts. As the only developer currently working on the system, there was limited satisfaction in completing the tasks – there was no other person who would actually notice the work that I had done.

However, I did not find the work to be tedious, for the following reason – it was all necessary. A sign of a job well-done in this case is the fact that it was not noticed by anyone. The job satisfaction is in the fact that no one did, in fact, detect that I had done any work. At the same time, I had the realization that sometime in the future, others will be appreciative of my having done this work properly.

Contrast this with what has been termed make-work, where the purpose of the work is to keep people busy. The result of the work may be noticed by others, but it is neither necessary nor permanent. For example, a report might be requested in order to keep someone busy, but at the end of the day, the contents of the report may become quickly irrelevant. Additionally, it may be that the report itself is never read.

Assigning people to make-work is disrespectful to those asked to do it. While it keeps them busy, it also shows that there is little respect for the person’s skills and time. While people do like to be idle, they like even less to have their work disregarded, and to do work which they know will be disregarded.

If you find yourself assigning people to work for the sake of keeping them busy, you might be better off asking those same people what they would rather be doing – make-work, or to be left to their own devices until necessary work becomes available.

I Missed It

I just got back from a trip to Israel a few days ago. Knowing that my internet access while away would be limited, I wrote the articles to be published while I was away before leaving. Prepared for jet lag on my return, I also wrote a couple articles for the days after my return.

Today, as you may have noticed, this article was published about an hour late.

I’ve written before that one of the best things you can do for your site is to provide regular updates, and on a schedule. Since January 1, 2010, I’ve posted an article Monday through Friday at 7:45 AM Toronto time. Holiday? I posted anyhow.

I kept this aggressive schedule by always posting in advance, usually several days before the article would be made public. It took the pressure off.

Today, I ran out of articles. I was tired last night, and didn’t realize that there was nothing scheduled for today.

Keeping a schedule is one thing. Remembering to look at your schedule is quite another.

Time management techniques will talk about priorities, making lists of things to be done, of organizing your day, and of keeping a calendar. But if you don’t remember to look at those things constantly during the day, it won’t help you to have any of that.

Protecting Data

When it comes to data, most people are aware of the importance of protection – we are constantly reminded to select secure passwords, not to share them, to make them difficult to guess. But what about making sure the data doesn’t get lost?

I’m currently in the middle of setting up a development environment for my new client, and had to go through this exercise. It is just as important to ensure that the data continues to exist as it is to ensure that the wrong people cannot access it. Depending on the state of the project, in fact, this concern might be greater than preventing unauthorized access. For example, during initial development of any large application, it is critically important that regular backups be made. That way, when something changes so drastically that it negatively impacts the project, you still have the ability to go back to a previous version of the project.

This segregation of changes, and the ability to retrieve older versions of data, results in the following simplified structure (this is for a programmatic project in particular):

Production

This should be backed up as often as it changes – that is, the programs should be backed up whenever a change is made to the Production version, and the data should be backed up on a daily basis at a minimum.

Testing (Quality Assurance)

This environment is for the purpose of ensuring that the changes being made to the Production version are complete and stable – essentially, a last check before making the final push to production. As such, it may have minimal amounts of data, or at least, data which does not change frequently. A normal backup schedule here would be to create a version every time the programs are changed, and to back up the data at the same time.

Testing (Integration)

This environment is usually undergoing frequent changes, often several times per day. Backups of such environments should be done on a schedule, often daily. However, this can often be bypassed by merging the backups for this area with those being done for the source code for the project, as discussed below.

Development

This is the responsibility of the developers working on the project, and should generally be done as often as major changes are being made to the project. However, the discretion of the developers is usually sufficient to be relied upon, though this will often only be sufficient once the first loss of data occurs. We learn the hard way, but we do learn.

Source Control

No program should be developed without source control to ensure that versions of the project, especially when involving multiple developers, can be kept up to date across all developers. As well, this will usually be the means that versions of the program are being pushed to the different regions – developers start from what’s in the code repository, Testing (Integration) uses this as a basis, Testing (Quality Assurance) takes specific versions from here, as does Production. As a result, the code repository should be backed up at least once a day, as without this, in the event of a system loss, restoring all information becomes exceedingly difficult. Additionally, source control provides not only a view of what the code looked like at a particular point in time, but also how it changed over time, making the locating of bugs which are introduced a little easier to do.

Summary

It is only with a proper backup system that you can ensure that you are able not only to prevent a total data loss from occurring, but also that you are able to ensure that in the event of the loss, that you can restore your systems to the point immediately prior to the loss. Naturally, the backups need to be protected from unauthorized access, but it is the fact that they exist, preferably in a location distant from their origin, that ensures your business’ ability to continue its operations even when the unexpected happens.

All About the Product

With the growth of social media over the last few years, more companies are coming to the realization that creating a reputable business that attracts customers is about more than the product. There is now a demand for interaction – consumers want to know who they are dealing with, and they want to be treated as individuals.

That’s not to say, of course, the quality is no longer an issue. It’s just no longer the only issue.

In the past, the greatest issue a company had to deal with was the quality of their product at an affordable price. Businesses had to deliver results, but could be completely impersonal.

This has, perhaps, given rise to the Hollywood representation of bankers, doctors, and so on. We can envision such characters with impersonal stereotypes. Think about how, in Ocean’s Eleven, Brad Pitt impersonated a doctor, and yet, no attention was drawn to him because the profession was not a portrayed as a personal one.

This is no longer the case. A doctor will now find himself being researched on a site such as Rate MDs, similar sites exist for other professions (my latter years of university had courses selected only after vetting the instructors on Rate My Prof). Questions are bounced around cyberspace like a spastic reindeer on an ice rink getting feedback, not always factual, usually opinionated. However, the result of this is that businesses have been learning to address impressions as well as reality.

I recently had occasion to express this thought in a formal setting. One person’s perception must be treated as reality when discussing it with them. As an example, I might assume that Brand X is inferior in quality to Brand B. Whether or not this is true is not really relevant – to convince me to purchase Brand B, you must start by dealing with my own reality.

Being successful as a business is now about so much more than just the product – it’s about the experience of working with the company. It’s about perceptions, and about interactions. The sooner a business figures out this concept, the sooner they’ll be able to understand what it is their potential customers are looking for and provide it to them.

Promise to Deliver

I ordered Chinese food last week, and my fortune cookie read:

Only promise what you are sure you can deliver

Of course, this is common sense, but as with many of the articles on this site, that’s exactly what I discuss. After all, common sense isn’t all that common.

All too often, we are tempted to make a promise, because it will bring us something. In fact, for many small businesses, we grow because of it – we act like we’re bigger than we are, because it’s the only real way to get to the next level.

Often, however, we will discover that the promises made are beyond our ability to deliver. The motivator for the promise is no longer relevant, but delivering on that promise is.

You now have a choice – admit that the promise cannot be honored, and arrange an alternative. Or persevere, and figure out a way to deliver the expected result. At the same time, you must learn from the event as to what you can and cannot promise, so that you don’t end up in the same situation again. It is not uncommon to see someone who fails to deliver on a promise to do so repeatedly, since they have not learned from their earlier errors.

More importantly, you need to learn not to promise too much in the first place. You may want to act larger than you are to help grow your business, but there’s a fine line between acting bigger, and promising bigger.

As an example, I may be capable of delivering a product of comparable quality as a larger company, in the same amount of time. But I cannot, and do not, promise support 7 days a week, 24 hours a day because I cannot deliver on such a promise. In general, I try to understate my ability to deliver, which helps ensure that I do deliver on my promise, and can, on occasion, exceed the promised expectation.

How about you? Do you promise more, less, or exactly the same as what you can deliver?

Universal Imaging

In a recent article about my choice of photo for my online presence, I discussed the fact that one of the criteria I had for the image was that it be universal. I wanted something consistent between the various sites I’m on – that if someone is looking for me, they will always see the same picture.

This applies beyond just a photo of a person, though. It applies to the entire image of who and what you or your business are.

Your image, or brand, is that which will evoke the desired reaction from people. If you have a chain of coffee stores, for example, you will want to brand consistency (just look at Tim Hortons as an example of a really consistent cup of coffee). If you’re a tailor, you want to brand a perfect fit.

In your business, when choosing a brand, you need to look at both what you’re known for, and what you would like to be known for. Often, the two are not the same, but hopefully, neither is patently false about your business.

Once you’ve decided what those two ideas are, you need to create some sort of image that will help people recognize you (what you’re known for) and generate the reaction you’re looking for (what you want to be known for). The result of that is the image you need.

The other factor you need is an image that can be portrayed in a variety of media without significant deviation from a common theme. For example, an image that revolves around motion won’t make a good newspaper ad, while have lots of text in your image makes for something difficult to portray as a TV commercial.

Once you’ve selected your image, adapt it universally in your business, and give it a chance to provide feedback. An experiment with your image can take months before its effects are clear, so patience is a required factor here.

What do you consider to be your brand? How have you managed to get it portrayed in various media?