90 Percent of Everything Is Crap

Learning this one adage can release you to focus on what matters.

What’s the difference between a performance culture that focuses on the positive and one that focuses on the negative?

It’s okay to focus on the negative—the misses and the missteps—in defining performance, but success doesn’t live in the negative.

Here’s a funny observation: When we are down on people and processes and investments and strategies, we focus on what’s not performing.  We find the flaws.

You’ve probably seen it in play.  You read the performance review of a person who’s out of favor, and it’s rife with articulation of the negatives. “Fails to do this, avoids this, lacks this, shirks that.”  We become so quick to criticize based on flaws that we don’t realize something critical: Doing so is a losing strategy.  Why?  Because 90 percent of everything is crap.  This phrase, commonly known as Sturgeon’s Law, implores us to evaluate things based on their strengths, not their shortcomings.

Even the best of performers have a flaw, or ten.  If you focus on the negative aspects of people, strategies, and performance, you will inevitably find them, no matter where you search. So the most honest appraisal of anything is to look at the peak of its performance.  It’s to look at the 10 percent of a person’s work that reflects their best effort—what reflects their best performance—and then to compare and act.

I’ve witnessed talent processes that have clearly focused on strengths, and I’ve witnessed others that focused on flaws, but one thing stands out:  Talent systems that focus on flaws reject more good talent than those that focus on strengths.

Why? Because when their talent ecosystem focuses on flaws, business leaders who take on the hardest assignments run the highest risk of being fired, regardless of their intrinsic talent. When the same leader is in a talent ecosystem that focuses on strengths, their tough assignments become opportunities to show strengths that are not evident in other circumstances.  At worst, a very strong manager in a tough situation gets reassigned, not resigned to the dustbin.

The same can be said for strategy.  A strategy that racks up a few losses early can be thrown out when flaws are the focus, but long-term success depends on defining strengths, not avoiding weaknesses.

So, 90 percent of everything is crap.  Knowing that, focus on the strengths in the people and concepts around you.

The Try Something Different Trap

You want results, you just don’t know how to get them. So is it okay to just say “try something different?”

Ever work for a manager who liked to play the “bring me a rock” game of leadership?

You know the story—it goes something like this: The manager says “bring me a rock.”  The “rock” may be a report, or a client lead, or a process. You “bring the rock.” And the manager responds with, “No, not that rock…bring me a different rock.”

You get it?  The manager—not leader, manager—is playing a visionless game of trial and error, only it’s your trials and your errors.

Bring me a rock management can manifest itself in many ways. Some that I’ve witnessed include managers who use phrases like:

“I don’t know what the answer is, but keep trying.”

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

“What have you already tried? Well, then don’t do that anymore.”

These are brilliant inklings that the manager lacks vision or even a hypothesis of a vision.

In leadership, you and I always have to have a point of view. While we have to avoid embodying the definition of insanity by allowing our people to repeat the same actions while expecting different outcomes, we also need to ensure that we provide at least a hypothesis of what the different actions are.

Otherwise, we are just a warm body…

An officeholder…

A bureaucrat…

That’s fine if your job is to observe and report, but it’s not okay if your job is (ostensibly) to create value. Any bureaucrat can issue orders to “try again.”  It takes leadership and vision to enter the fray and bring a point of view.

Take care not to play bring me a rock. It’s demoralizing to the people around you, and it reflects more poorly on you than you will ever know.

The Alchemy of Apple’s Strategy

Apple created a culture of freedom and playfulness out of a product philosophy of absolute control. It was all about trust.

If I told you about a regime that was run by a notoriously secretive autocrat who locked out all democratic suggestions or changes and brutally suppressed the press, would you link it to the Dalai Lama?

Mohandas Gandhi?

Nelson Mandela?

Jackie Robinson?


I’d have to agree. When your mind turns to suppression, control, and dictatorship, you certainly don’t think of people who represent broken barriers, peace, and freedom.

So how did Apple under Steve Jobs take an approach that was straight out of the totalitarian playbooks and turn it into the most celebrated consumer strategy of all time? How did Apple back up—earn, if you will—its association with the trailblazing freedom fighters above, writ large in its “Think Different” campaign?


Trust is what allowed Apple to turn the grayest iron curtain of strategies into the most golden consumer product reputation possible, and trust is what enabled the alchemy of Apple’s strategy. That’s the genius of Apple over the past 20 years.

But Apple is only part of the story here.

The larger story is about why and when control can be exercised over customers (and other followers like employees, vendors, and partners). Control is an expression of power, and power, in the commercial world, is something that is derived from consent. It’s derived through trust.

Consider some of the ways Apple exercises its power:

  • Apple exercises a fanatical commitment to controlling the customer experience – a bit of corporate DNA born directly from the personality of Steve Jobs. Apple tightly controls the product, its customer interface, what peripherals work with its products, and what software runs on its products. It maintains a closed ecosystem.
  • Apple tightly controls messaging, going so far as to sue young bloggers who speculate too correctly about the next product release.
  • Apple is renowned for its aggressive supply chain management, at times driving suppliers out of business through punitive control.
  • Apple uses its massive media appeal to aggressively and maniacally extol the “next great thing” from its own pipeline and subtly denigrate the features its competitors roll out. Who (above a certain age) can forget the “been there, done that” meme from Apple acolytes when Windows 95 launched…?

But this authoritarian behavior comes with a promise: an exceptionally clean (and generally delightful) customer experience. That’s the promise—a distinctive and exceptional experience. And so far, it has been a credible one.

Consumers cede control to Apple and, in return, Apple has delivered on its promises. Like many movements that start small, Apple’s resurgence started with roughly 5% of the PC market – a core group of fanatical followers who had ceded control years ago. Today, an astounding proportion of mobile, music, and computer consumers have bought into the strategy of ceding control and relying on trust.

Apple’s strategy has been one of offering consumers overwhelming simplicity, the message being: Simplicity sets you free. But as we’ve seen, simplicity comes with a tradeoff: a loss of choice.

The Concept

The reality is that Apple has illustrated a very valuable, stable approach to customer engagement and strategy. The degree of control a company seeks to apply to its customers’ experiences successfully relates directly to how much trust the customers have in the company.

I highlight successfully because plenty of companies have tried to control all aspects of customer experience without trust and failed. You can only pursue this strategy for a short while. Companies (and as you know, I relate these concepts to leaders as well in most of my writing) that attempt a high control strategy with low trust must either build trust quickly or stop. Such a strategy is an example of an unstable equilibrium. Customers (and followers) leave you when you are in their kitchen too aggressively and without welcome.

Throwing all this into a matrix (because who doesn’t love a good matrix?) we get something like this:


These lessons apply to management and leadership as well. As we gain more trust, we can take more control, but when we lose trust, we lose our ability to exert control. The uniqueness of the experience we provide is both a route to building trust with those who matter and a route to highly profitable relationships.

What’s the message for executives thinking about their business, talent, or organizational strategy? Well, it’s pretty simple:  You can be an autocrat, but you’d better have the trust of those around you that that outcome will lift all boats, or else you won’t build anything enduring.

The takeaway: Don’t forget trust.

5 Experiences You Need

My career has been shaped by 5 core experience types. Perhaps those just starting out can get something out of these reflections.

I’m fortunate to have held many jobs over my lifetime (actually, growing up, I was “encouraged” to earn money). Fact is, things like shoes and gas cost money. I’ve held the following jobs in my short life (things that the Social Security Administration would know I’ve done…):

Farm worker (corn picker, potato grader, possibly not-so-legal farm truck driver)

Lawn mower

Roadside watermelon salesman

Retail sales associate

Ice delivery boy




Material handler

Loan processor

Investment analyst

Professional athlete

Production planner

Financial advisor

Cold caller



Venture capital analyst

Management consultant

Corporate strategist

It’s a lot.

Now, before you say what a friend of mine said last weekend—”You sure have kicked around a lot in your career,” you must understand that necessity is the mother of work. I grew up with a healthy ambition to play sports coupled with limited sources of funds. The seasonal reality of the sports I played meant that I would cycle through work and sports in a periodic manner—finding a new job every few months through high school and during the summers in college to keep money in my pockets.

I’m blessed because of it; it gave me perspective. So I figured I’d share a reflection on what I think are the best experiences I’ve had from that long litany. I don’t mean the best in terms of my resume—I mean the best in terms of roles that taught me how to want to be a better professional.

I’d argue that these are 5 experiences that you need in order to grow as an effective but empathetic professional.  This is all, of course, one man’s perspective.  They are:

1. Sales. Any kind of sales

You haven’t really lived until you’ve cold called. As a relative introvert (when it comes to work style), I absolutely hated the notion of reaching out to people by phone or door to door, but  I also got a lot out of having had to do so. Once you have called on people and endured a healthy, consistent stream of rejection, you learn that being an A student really isn’t worth much in the real world. The real world is messy.

It’s also healthy to have had to sell things that are easy to sell. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to sell watermelons roadside during part of one summer in my teen years. It was a product that sold itself (although it never hurt to break open a melon and give people a taste).

As you get older and/or as selling gets more intricate and complex, the experience you gain from selling early on—the experience of influencing and dealing—becomes valuable in every environment. I’ve never seen a truly effective CEO who had no sales in his DNA. Do it. Sell something.

2. Personal service of any kind

Waiting tables is an example of a formative experience that anyone should have. When you provide a service in real time that people will reflect on, assess, and compensate in real time, you become attuned to other people in ways that I’m not sure you can find elsewhere.

There are all kinds of personal service jobs that fit here, ranging from the elite (concierge) to the important but more menial (shining shoes). What they have in common is the need to live up to another person’s standard at least once in your life. The value of that empathy, even if it’s merely learned and not intrinsic, is exceptional.

3. Work with a deadline

Having to work until the wee hours or through significant pain to deliver on a deadline is a formative experience. Learning to manage around deadlines as a writer, analyst, consultant, or delivery boy means learning how to assess a situation in terms of resource needs, capacity, timing, and costs.

Deadline work also teaches you to manage pain. Nothing taught me that better than football games. When you play ball, the game kicks off not matter what state your body is in, so you get ready, and you deal with the pain.  I always appreciated what I recall famous football coach Bobby Bowden once said about an injured player of his:

“He’ll be in pain, but we have a ballgame, and pain don’t matter.”

Deadlines can be tough.  Learning to answer the call regardless of pain is valuable.

I’m learning as I age that there are generational differences with respect to deadlines. I’d go so far as to say that there are some age cohorts in the workforce (ahem…millennials) who have, as a stereotype, significantly less appreciation for the urgency and precision that deadlines can demand. When those people mix with others that are more delivery oriented…they lose. Understanding what deadlines are and how to commit to and manage around them comes from critical experience.

4. Work that requires you to write

I first became a published author when I wrote an article entitled “Venture Capital in the Not-So-New Economy” while moonlighting for a consulting firm in 2001. I was volunteered to write a series of blogs (under deadline, surprisingly enough) for BusinessWeek Online while in graduate school, and now I write for fun. I have always found the absolutely necessary habit of stopping, structuring, and thinking when writing to be instrumental to my later career. Clarity of thought is a rare thing—I always strive for it, and sometimes I achieve it. Writing as a job and as a hobby is a fantastic developmental pursuit.

5. Work where there is no safety net

I still have in my file cabinet (somewhere) a two-year contract with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. There is likely no more pure meritocracy in the for-profit world than an NFL roster. You either produce, or you are cut. You tend to know where you stand right away, and  I certainly did—I lasted a few preseason games, and I was cut. I “failed.”

But that failure has made the rest of my career a cakewalk.

I spent more than 7 years as a client service staffer (that is, on the tip of the spear) at the world’s most renowned professional services firm. That firm is known as much for its brand and talent as for its “up or out” career development policy. There was, once again, a distinct feel that you either perform or you will be cut. While the environment was more humane than the NFL, this model was high pressure. It was a social contract understood by all. It made you sharp, and it created focus.

Once you’ve worked without a safety net woven out of bureaucracy, cronies, and obfuscation, you realize and recognize more and more of the bad behaviors that come from rent seekers and moochers. You also notice the really bad ones—the ones who tell everyone else that it’s a meritocracy while really just politically and financially feathering their nests. Their safety nets start to entangle their morals.

I’ve had the joy of diversity in the work that I’ve done. I’m so thankful that my life circumstances have afforded me the opportunity to work everywhere from a tractor to a delivery truck to a storeroom to a boardroom. I’m truly lucky.

I hope my perspective can be of help to you.

Independence Day and Leadership Tyrannies

Maybe the Declaration of Independence has some seeds of wisdom for those of us who would govern or follow within even the smallest of enterprises.

It’s Independence Day in the U.S.

And, while many Americans revel in the holiday by drinking, eating, gathering, and–yes–blowing a few things up (I know I do); it’s good to remember the underpinnings of the holiday…Namely a few, disgruntled subjects who decided that enough was enough.

There’s a lesson in the Declaration of Independence for those of us who lead and govern other people.  That lesson applies whether we are governing as a part of an actual government or governing as a leader in a company or other bureaucracy (a term used in the real sense, not the pejorative).

Those British subjects who decided it was time to vote with their feet, their fortunes, and their futures knew that it wasn’t without risk.  But the words placed in the Declaration ring throughout the years, and perhaps throughout your own head as you lead.  They should ring throughout your head if you are led by a despot, a tyrant, or a jerk.

To wit:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Kind of applies to your life as a professional and as a citizen, right?

As someone who has lived his professional life as a consultant to top management and as a corporate executive, I’m utterly sensitive to old irony of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” The Declaration gives a model of what leaders and “subjects” need to watch out for in its list of grievances against George III.

I’ll pick a few, you read the rest.

The “Yes Men” brought to you by George III:

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

The imposition of corporate taxes through time, compliance, and worthless initiative:

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

The squashing of entrepreneurial spirit:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.

And, of course, the mercenary manager or consultant as proxy for direct tyranny:

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

I figured I’d write this not to make light of the Declaration of Independence or of your and my own personal circumstances as leaders and followers, but to make a parallel to a nearly forgotten time when a land’s wealthiest people decided that their leader had done enough to merit severing of ties; and when a leader who was possibly not as despotic as the Declaration declares lost a treasure trove of talent and resources through insensitivity and stubbornness.

If enough was enough for those subjects of Great Britain, what’s your threshold as follower?

On the other side of the coin, if enough was enough for the King to lose the colonies, what are you doing as leader of your own realm that is driving away the most valuable of your people and resources?

It’s worth pondering.

For my fellow Americans:  Happy Independence Day.  For all my other friends, connections, and readers, it’s worth reading that most extraordinary of political and philosophical documents for what it may mean to you.

I welcome your comments.