Winning at All Costs

This is a bit of a follow-up to my recent post Don’t Promote for Performance .

After decades with an ever increasing focus on success, not only in commercial environments, we have all become so accustomed to it, that it feels strange to even take a step back and reconsider the approach. To be clear: I am not advocating a model where competition in and of itself is considered bad. Having seen what socialism had done to Eastern Germany, I am certainly not endorsing this or any similar model.

You may have heard the expression Pyrrhic Victory, which stems from an ancient battle (279 BC) where the winner suffered extreme losses that affected their military capabilities for years. Today it basically means that there had been too high a price for achieving a certain goal. And we see this all the time in today’s world.

Inside organizations it usually manifests as so-called “politics”, whereas I think that back-stabbing is a more suitable term in many cases. Someone tries to get something done at all costs, burning bridges along the way. This happens pretty much on all levels, and all too often people don’t even realize what they are doing. They are so focused on their target (usually because there is money for them in the game) that all “manners” are lost.

You probably had that experience, too, where someone treated you really badly, although they actually needed you in the process. This either means they are not aware of their behavior, i.e. there is total ignorance or simply a lack of self-reflection. Or they believe that by virtue of hierarchy you will have to do as they want now and also in the future.

Overall I think that such actions show unprofessional behavior. Firstly, these folks are basically advertising themselves as ruthless egomaniacs, which is becoming less and less acceptable. Secondly, as the saying goes, you always meet twice in live.

This is not to be mixed up with making an honest mistake that upsets people. Everybody does that sooner or later and I am no exception. If it happens to us, we are angry for a while and then move on. Also, in those cases people will mostly apologize once they realize what happened. For me this is simply civility and it is a vital component for an efficient (and probably also effective) way to interact socially.

The bottom line is that people who don’t treat their coworkers in a decent manner, inflict a lot of damage to the organization. If superiors then look the other way because “the numbers are ok”, they send a clear message that such behavior is actually desired. The outcome is what is called a toxic organization. Would you like to work at such a place?

A Techie’s View on Marketing

As a very technical person I have a somewhat unusual view on marketing. I do not buy into the “utterly useless” verdict that some technical folks have on marketing. But I also think that, probably just like us techies, some marketing folks overrate the importance of their domain. And I should probably add here that this post is written with enterprise software as the product category in mind. So naturally, a lot of the details will not match low-price consumer products.

In a nutshell I think that it is marketing’s job to attract (positive) attention of potential buyers. This can happen on several levels, e.g. brand or product marketing, online and print media, etc.  It also often includes special events and being present on trade shows. And last but not least, a relatively recent thing is called developer relations, where hard-core technical people are the specific target audience.

All these activities have the common goal to present a coherent and positive message to the (prospective) customer. The different stakeholders have vastly different demands, because of the perspective they take on the product (in this writing that always means services as well) and their background. So, put simply, they all need a message tailored to their need, which, at the same time, must be consistent with all the other versions for the other target channels.

On a high level that is not such a big deal. But at a closer look the different messages should not only be consistent but also be linked together at the correct points. Imagine a conversation where you just told a VP of logistics why your product really provides the value you claim. If you are then able to elegantly look over to the enterprise architect and explain why the product fits nicely into their overall IT strategy, that is a huge plus. And if you can then even bring the IT operations manager on board, with a side note about nice pre-built integrations with ITIL tools, you have done a really great job.

Some people will probably say that the hypothetical scenario above goes beyond marketing. I would say that it is beyond what a typical marketing department does. But the interesting question is where the content for such a conversation comes from. Is it the marketing department that employs some high-caliber people that are capable to bridge the various gaps? Or is it the sales team that has prepared things as an individual exercise (which often means that it is a one-off)?

The choice will greatly influence at least two critical KPIs. Cost of sales and lead conversion rate. The former is rather obvious, because it is about re-use and efficiency. But, as it is so often, the latter is much more critical because here we talk about effectiveness. Or in other words: It hurts much more if the deal is lost after having spent thousands of Euros or Dollars, than if we had to pay an additional 500 bucks to have an additional presentation be made that secures the deal.

This is in fact one of the things where in my view too many people have a predisposition for the wrong thing. Many will gladly jump onto how something could be done better, cheaper, etc. But relatively few will take a step back and ask whether it is the right thing to do in the first place.

The critical thing is that the various marketing messages are consistent with one another and, much more importantly, with the post-sales reality. Putting “lipstick on a pig” is not good marketing but somewhere between bullshitting and fraud. And the most precious thing in customer relationship is trust. So unless you need a deal to literally survive the next few weeks, you should resist the temptation to screw your customer. Word gets around …

Corona Virus: Looking Ahead

Over the last couple of days we have been seeing a slight shift in the discussion around Corona virus. More and more people are talking about the mid- to long-term implications for our lives, be it on the private level or related to economic consequences. Either area will have to undergo long-lasting changes in behavior, until we have proven medication and vaccination.

The following argument is made based on the numbers we know for Germany as of this writing, and those data contain quite some uncertainty. As to other countries, I think my points are universally valid at their core, because it is next to impossible that such a disease will “behave” differently between countries. Yes, each country is at its own point in time with regard to how many people are infected. Also, the speed at which the virus spreads and therefore the number of fatalities vary due to different measures being invoked etc. But I have a hard time believing that otherwise things will be drastically different.

The core question for most people (and companies alike) is how long things will need to be as they are now. So far measures have been introduced in a pretty incremental way, rather than a big bang approach. The reason for that, as governments have emphasized over and over again, was that decisions had to be made “as we learn new facts” about Corona. While not wrong per se, the latter is certainly not the only rational for doing things this way. More importantly, it introduced people to those radical changes in small doses. There is the saying “nobody likes surprises” and I think this is behind most of the communication we have seen. First things are publicly debated as future possibilities for a while, so people can get used to them. And only after that they are made “rules”. In general this makes a lot of sense, simply to increase acceptance.

Chances are that we will see a “few” more such announcements. The next ones will probably focus more and more on what needs to happen before we can increase direct contact/interaction again. The immediate concern must be to limit the risk of infection. And here the current consensus, meanwhile, seems to be that wearing face masks is of critical importance. Finally I would like to add. Because for too long there had been official(!) statements that masks do not really help the broader population and should only be used by medical personal. This is one of the dumbest arguments I have heard my entire life! Either masks help or not (assuming you know how to use them correctly). This was nothing but a really stupid way of saying “we do not have enough masks”.

To develop a rough understanding where we are in the overall process, we need to think about how many people have already been infected. Early figures (and I have not seen an update on this for a while) estimated that 60% to 70% of the overall population will eventually contract the virus. Here in Germany, if we assume that six to ten times more people are infected than have been tested positive (currently around 125,000 of 83 million), that means less than 2% of the population have caught Corona so far. In this light it is safe to assume that we still have some way to go.

As to what all this means for the next couple of weeks, my guess is that as soon as enough face masks are available some restrictions will be lifted. The focus will likely be a combination of things to boost morale and help the economy. What will probably stay in place are recommendations to still limit contacts as far as possible. So for all businesses, where this mode of operation is possible, that will mean working from home for a long time to come.

Corona Virus: Question What You Read

Strictly speaking, this is post is not necessarily related to the Corona virus outbreak. But articles about the latter certainly increase its relevance a great deal. What I want to write about today is how we should deal with everything we read. Most things will also apply to TV, YouTube and other media, but the narrative will stick to articles for readability.

If you read something it is important to be aware about its nature (e.g. report vs. opinion), the author, and where it got published. These are all factors (and there are more) that have influenced the content, so you need to take them into account. At the end of the day the reason for publishing something is typically either money or politics. People that create content have a goal and they rarely disclose it openly.

For YouTube videos it is often money and in traditional newspapers we typically see an endorsement for a certain political position. And the latter can regularly be seen for TV as well. For me, when I create posts for this blog, it is the fun of writing and the surprise how articles turn direction while I work on them. Because writing is the tool to structure my thoughts and discover a topic. (For those who are more interested in this, please watch the video linked in Larry McEnerney: The Craft of Writing Effectively; it is quite long but really worth it.)

So it is your job to read between the lines, do some research, and develop an overall picture. It is this picture then, that defines the context in which the content has to be seen. And now it gets really interesting. Because you need to watch out for unfounded claims that mask themselves as objective truth. Often these will be thrown in almost casually, but then used to construct a whole chain of cause and effect-relationships. And those will, miraculously, support the author’s opinion. Surprise, surprise.

Once you have come into the habit of doing this, it will open your eyes and you will see many things in much more nuanced way. All of a sudden you identify the weak link in the line of argument. And you can then think about whether this invalidates the author’s position completely for you. Or you still agree with the verdict, but see that no proper argument has been delivered to support it.

Corona Virus: Disable Video in Calls?

With so many people working from home these days, the use of video calls has exploded. I personally think this is a good thing, because it changes the nature of calls dramatically. They move things closer to a personal interaction, which is a huge plus. The downside of this is an increase in the use of network bandwidth. Hence some people suggest to disable your video while not talking.

I would like to propose a slightly more nuanced approach. To me disabling the video while listening can be appropriate for meetings that are about content. If someone is sharing a screen so that people can discuss the current state of some work item, there is indeed little value from six small faces at the bottom of the screen.

But increasingly folks use video calls for social purposes, like the famous virtual morning coffee round. And here things are different in my view. As in the physical equivalent, there are people who dominate the discussion and those who mostly listen. The second group is just as important as the first, and not seeing their faces would be a great loss for the purpose of the call. So for this kind of meeting I recommend to leave video turned on at all times.

Corona Virus: Priorities

Pretty much everything in life is about priorities. If someone tells you “I did not have time to do XYZ” it actually means that XYZ was not high enough on their list of priorities. Setting priorities is critical whenever there are limited resources to allocate, or conflicting goals to balance. And naturally this becomes much more important under circumstances like we have them now with the fast-spreading Corona virus.

What I find irritating is how often the “comfort” of people seems to play a role in discussions these days. Because it is nothing more than loss of comfort, if people cannot leave their home whenever they like. Instead, the wording in such discussions is often along the lines of “people cannot endure such ‘isolation’ for an extended period of time”. Really?

My grandparents  fled their home at the end of World War II on foot with a small child and nothing more than they could carry. And today we have so many people living in a war zone, who experience things that I don’t even want to think about. That is endurance!

So where is the problem if someone needs to stay at home in order to help save lifes? Are we so selfish a society that my pleasure is worth someone else’s health or even life? Because that is what the decision to stay at home or not is about at the end of the day.