The Best Praise For a Pro

What it means to be “fire and forget.”


“Fire and forget…”

It’s a term used to describe smart weapons that can lead themselves to a designated target.

It’s also quite possibly the best praise a professional can receive. As in: “He’s fire and forget, put him on the problem and tell him to call you when it’s solved.”

The phrase is worthy of a blog post here because, put simply, it’s something that we focus on developing in our work with our clients.  While the vast majority of our work is focused on working closely with our clients, there are times when data just needs to be found, or interviews conducted, or analysis completed in order to solve a problem.

And that’s where being or having access to “fire and forget” resources can make the difference between professional life and professional death.  Being a resource of this kind means a few things.

It means you are competent.

It means you are reliable.

It means you are trusted.

It means you are credible.

It means you are resourceful.

It means you are responsible with resources.

And, so if fire and forget is the ultimate in professional attainment, why are so many professionals lacking this level of trust?

My answer?  A mis-designation.  We think some people are professionals when in reality they are simply role players.  They have a job, not a profession.  There is a difference.  There are plenty of ways to define what a professional is, but I know of only one good way:

The professional gets the job done the right way. 

But, becoming a professional is a process. Sure, there are some intrinsic aspects of a worker that are hard to coach–how curious they are, how resilient they are, whether they act with purpose or watch the clock–you probably know them.  But so much of being a pro has to be learned.  Show up.  Get results.  Do real work.  All these are marks of a great pro.  But, so is sensitivity.  So is practical judgment.  So is empathy.

You want to gain the highest professional compliment?  You want to be “fire and forget?” Better yet, do you want to retain or hire true professionals?  Start looking at their track record on these attributes.  Start looking for people who act with purpose and judgment, even early in their careers.

Oh, and when your professionals aren’t professionals?  Make the move.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this one…

Strategy That’s Liquid At Room Temperature

Formulating and deploying effective strategy during good times is hard…A few basic practices can help you along.  


One of the fascinating things about most people is their ability to rise to the occasion during times of stress.  For many of us, stressful times create focus.  They foster creativity. They engender a competitive edge.

Apply heat to most of us, and we respond well. Crisis cuts through the crap. It liquefies culture and allows it to flow.

Nobody questioned the need to change when responding to the global financial crisis.  Nobody questioned the need to drastically re-think homeland defense following the 9/11 attacks.  Those things, by themselves, liquefied old thinking.

But a crisis shouldn’t–can’t–be the only way to create strong and responsive strategic discipline.  How do you get all of these really good things–focus, creativity, edge, and responsiveness–during times of plenty?

How do you, in short, create a strategy that is liquid at room temperature?

I’ll describe one way that might work for you and that I’ve seen work well in many circumstances. And, I’ll give you one that probably will work but that is the wrong way.

Strategic Search As A Liquefying Agent

The fundamental mindset underlying strategic discipline is search.  A spirit of inquisitiveness–about one’s flaws, one’s strengths, one’s competition, one’s product, and one’s customer–is the spirit of fluidity that strategic discipline requires.

In your organization, you probably need to build periodic search time into the calendar on each of these aspects.  Sure, you can complete a yearly SWOT analysis and get there to some degree (to be clear, a surprising proportion of business leaders don’t even apply that level of periodic discipline). But, a relentless search for the facts in good and bad times is the catalyst of fluid strategy. Why? because without facts and data, you can’t test hypotheses.

So, how do you get there?

One means of getting there is building a strong and ongoing intelligence gathering apparatus. A fatal flaw of too many strategic plans is that they are built upon fact bases that were crammed for the test.  A far, far better approach is to constantly scan and gather competitive and customer data as a matter of course, and to use periodic strategic planning sessions to draw implications from the data, rather than to try to gin up data and implications at the same time. Investing in just a bit of excess capacity to gather and disseminate good business intelligence can be a godsend.

Another means of getting there is to enlist a broader set of people in the search for insight. A typical corporate approach to strategic planning during good times is to gather a few experts and draw on their expertise on the way to an incremental adjustment to the plan.  Let everyone else keep executing because, well, they are busy with good stuff…

The problem with this approach is it tends to confirm the good times and avoids looking for any canaries in the coal mine.  An approach to creating employee, supplier, customer, and other focus groups as critical inputs to strategy on a periodic basis can keep your strategic plan liquid at room temperature.

Finally, the notion of “liquid at room temperature” has to permeate your leadership culture. If your leaders believe that the good times are permanent, they are much more likely to shut down their search for strategic insights before the work is done.  Your leaders have to install search as a fundamental part of their job, vs. a reaction to poor business conditions.

A method to avoid

That last leadership point brings me to an approach that may work for you, but that is best to avoid.  I’ve been near leadership cultures who use secrecy as a means of manufacturing a crisis mindset.  Leaders were good at masking how good things really were and creating a tense sense of unease among their subordinates…even going so far as to set vastly different performance expectations for subordinates than they set for themselves.  This absolutely created liquidity and creativity when it came to strategic search…

…but it’s an approach that, put simply, lacks integrity.  Now, if you are the shareholder of your business, you may do as you like. However, if you rely on fooling people into a false sense of insecurity, it will eventually come around to bite you.

To wit: the best example of this is when subordinates, spun up into a sense of crisis by goals that they have to attain in order to meet highly inflated “false crisis” metrics, create and recommend options that senior management never seems to act on (because senior management doesn’t have the same compensation metrics and knows that their own life is good).  They conduct a frantic search for options, senior management cherry picks a few and disregards the rest, and subordinates are left to wonder why their superiors don’t share their own sense of urgency–given to them by their superiors.

Do that for a few cycles and people will catch on.

Creating strategy that is liquid at room temperature requires a leadership culture that engenders search, and that builds search into the very fabric of strategic management processes.

Feel free to comment on this below…


What are you good at?

Just another post on playing to your strengths…


I am 6 foot 7 inches tall and a smidgen under 300 pounds; you might not know it to look at me, but I’m not going to be a gymnast anytime soon. While I may dream of being a dancer or a distance runner, it’s just not going to happen.

And, while businesses can certainly make pivots almost as drastic as those I outline above, far too many executives talk about them as though they are simple moves.

In our work on business strategy, I often get asked the question “How do we take our company in an entirely new direction?”

It’s a good question, and one that disciplined managers should always explore, at least periodically. But it’s also one that is fraught with blind alleys and red herrings.


Well, for one, when people ask about what they can do that’s new and different, they’re often in the throes of being seduced by merely what is popular, whether it’s what’s popular in the press or among the management team itself.

The issue is that what’s popular may never fit your strengths—if you’re a 300-pound offensive lineman, you have to ignore the wide receiver who’s getting all the accolades, or at least appreciate both him and yourself for what you both are.

So when companies need to make a significant strategic pivot, the most important thing to do is inventory company strengths, including specific value propositions, talents, expertise, or operational capabilities.

We do this aggressively in our client strategy work. Why?

Because organizations exist for a reason: They exist to deliver on a mission or set of missions that were devised sometime in the past. The organization itself has grown up around those missions, and expecting an organization that has grown up around a specific set of missions to drastically pivot away from many of those missions at once is foolish.  Well, if it’s not foolish, it’s at least naive.

I tend to simplify strategic pivots into three categories:

– Category one is a strategic pivot to a new customer base. This type of pivot requires understanding a new set of customer needs, gathering a new set of insights, and typically adjusting products to meet those needs.

– Category two involves pivoting into new technological fields. This type of pivot typically requires research, product development, and specific new skills in order to deliver on new technologies.

– Category three involves pivots to new delivery models. I typically phrase this as “new routes to market.” This type of pivot may seem easy until you’ve been in a company that has attempted to pivot from a direct sales model to a distributor sales model or vice versa.

Where the trouble starts is when management desires a pivot on multiple categories at once. Pick one category and you have your hands full; pick two and you have the recipe for being overwhelmed; pick three, and unless you’re forming a new company, you’re likely to fail. Why?

Because you have to overcome the inertia of an existing organization.

The innovation literature is rife with potential “solutions” to this multi-category pivot problem, ranging from isolated teams to internal start-ups. I won’t go there with this post, but what I will say is that you must understand whether you’re making a multi-category risk in order to know the risk you’re likely to take in the real world.

Sure, plenty of existing companies have entered new markets with new customers, new technologies, and new distribution models.  But in making that observation, we have to be careful not to ignore a significant survivorship bias–far more companies, I would argue, have failed at multi-category pivots like those described.  So, you’d better watch out!

The good news is, in the business world, a lineman can sometimes become a ballerina–it’s just important for leadership to know what it takes to be successful before starting.

I would love your thoughts on this topic. Please engage below.

Say and Do: Partners In Success!

People hear what we say and watch what we do…


Among the things that people appreciate–whether you’re in professional services, in a corporate organization, or just living life–are consistency and reliability. What you “say” and what you “do” ought to be congruous. Your “say-do” reputation may be the most important reputation you can build.

Anyone who’s been in a leadership position or who has engaged service providers who have inconsistent say-do practices can appreciate this post. If I tell you that I will deliver a product on Thursday at 3 PM and then don’t tell you until the following Monday that the product will be late, you are going to be disappointed. And most people who deliver product understand this–any operator you ask will talk to you about on-time delivery and production schedules.

The issue, however, arises when we talk about services, general delivery, and interpersonal circumstances.

Let me tell you about an example:

I recently had a repair person come to my house to look at an appliance. The appliance required a small part that the repair person committed to ordering and that I was told, on requesting a timeline, would be here within two weeks. The repair person has responded to exactly one request in six weeks, and I am standing here confounded.

This is a true story that is happening right now.

What would you do? I suspect that most of you would say “Fire the repair man!,” and I completely agree. In this case, the appliance in question is not all that important, and I’ve let the timeline run out as a sort of experiment: Suffice it to say, I’m disappointed.

So, when we think about delivering service, whether to out clients, our bosses, or even our spouses and families, what we say and what we do must be aligned. Say-do practices are sacrosanct, but that doesn’t mean that every deadline is immovable.

I’ll give you three examples of delivery via management of say-do.

  • Example 1 is straightforward: I tell you I’m going to deliver and I do it, on scope and as stated.
  • Example 2 is more complicated: I tell you I’m going to deliver, and then I manage timing in order to do so fully. So, I deliver on time–against new time, or on revised time–and otherwise on scope and on quality.
  • Example 3 is even more complex, and generally arises when circumstances of delivery are so ambiguous that quality can’t be guaranteed: Imagine a project that requires market knowledge via primary interviews that may or may not be extremely valuable. In this case, I may revise timing in order to get to the required quality, I may revise scope or quality expectations in order to ensure that expectations are met, or I may just decide the deliverable isn’t worth delivering at all.

Each of these three scenarios has something in common: communication and consistency of commitment and delivery.

The scenario that you don’t see is the one that involves late delivery of a substandard product with no communication. That, my friends, is breaking the say-do rule. No one–not your kids, your clients, your customers, or your boss–wants to hear excuses after the fact.

I would enjoy your comments on this topic. Please feel free to engage below.

What Tesla’s First Autopilot Fatality Teaches Us

What to do when your product kills someone.


Tesla is in a pickle today.

It has a product feature that has killed its user. Now Tesla has to walk the fine boundaries between legal defense, public relations sensitivity, technological defense, and moral culpability.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of a Tesla motorist employing Tesla’s much hyped Autopilot feature.

The motorist was cruising on a divided highway when an oncoming tractor-trailer made a left turn in front of it, clearing enough space that the cruising Tesla drove right under the trailer, removing windshield (and one would assume killing the inattentive drive instantly at that moment) before continuing to cruise into several more collisions.  A diagram of the accident is here.


It’s a straight up oncoming left turn–not some freakish move by another motorist that could not have been judged. And, the Tesla drove right through the truck without seeing it.

That’s scary.

Now, there are a few issues related to the use of new technology that come to mind here, namely that there are risks to using new technology in general, and in particular when it involves moving your body at high speed.  The first people to fly in airplanes faced a much higher risk of death than those of us who partake of air travel do today. It’s part of the process.

But… When the technology is uniformly hyped, results in a fatality, and then its purveyor only defends the technology, then the purveyor is on the hook.

Okay, well, no, probably not legally.  As Tesla not so subtly posted in its blog about this crash, the company immerses the user–every user–in disclaimers about the technology while allowing the user to use it. From the blog post:

It is important to note that Tesla disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgement that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled. When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot “is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,” and that “you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle” while using it. Additionally, every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to “Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.” The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.

That is a mouthful that basically says “use at your own risk.”  And, that’s fine, but to place “public beta” software in charge of multi-ton hunks of metal and plastic moving at 90 feet per second seems a bit…aggressive. And so I’m betting Tesla will face a bit of backlash about the technology.

Which brings us to Tesla’s other defense… the one using numbers. In its blog post, Tesla says:

This is the first known fatality in just over 130 million miles where Autopilot was activated. Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles. Worldwide, there is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles.

And, this is fine, but it’s also indicative of a marketer or PR person using statistics–not a person who understands the stats themselves.

You want to make a fair comparison of the safety of your technology, Tesla?  Great, then let’s do a couple of things…

First off, let’s remove from the 130 million miles cited the mileage merely using active cruise control, because as I understand it those miles are aggregated in there.  That is sure to be a LOT.  That will leave the mileage that Tesla’s are being used with “autosteer” engaged.  That is the technology in question. That means that this fatality came with far fewer miles driven than the company claims.

Second, the company is appealing to the base rates of fatalities as evidence that Teslas on “autosteer” are safer than other cars; but the base rates used are highly misleading.  Okay, so there is a fatality in the U.S. every 94 million miles driven.  That’s fine; but it includes, for instance, people who die from overloading their 1978 Ford Pinto and then losing control after a blowout.  It includes drunk drivers.  It includes people driving old cars, and cars with mechanical deficiencies, and cars with bald tires.  It also includes fatalities where the driver was killed by the negligence of other drivers–not simply their own.

In short, it’s not a base rate that’s comparable for Teslas driven by sober drivers on divided highways. That rate is different, and likely less flattering for Tesla.

The correct base rate starts with the rate of fatalities of people driving brand new luxury automobiles.  And, that matters. In the chart below, you see the car models with the lowest driver death rates, and the models with the highest rates.  Tesla isn’t in league with the Kia Rio or the Hyundai Accent (two cars that happen to have drivers who die at high rates). To suggest it is so is to pad the PR.

The correct base rate also includes cars on divided highways, and where the dead driver was the inattentive one who drove into an avoidable accident.

So what?

First, the facts are actually not likely to be in Tesla’s favor even though Tesla has attempted to lead with facts.  The legal case probably is in Tesla’s favor, but it’s not clear the moral case will be…because:

Second, I’m betting that Tesla drivers, like the one in the unfortunate crash incident, are using this nascent technology and expecting that it will not run them broadside into a tractor trailer.  The hyperbole surrounding the tech, and the feel good ego boost of owning a six figure investment in new technology, likely clouds judgment.

Third, when it comes to new products, it’s probably too aggressive to put highly dangerous equipment in people’s hands and call it a “public beta.”

As someone who is a fan of the prospect of self driving cars but who had no idea the aggressiveness of Tesla’s placement of this technology onto actual roads, I’d say it’s time for them to go back to the drawing board.

One fatality does not make a new product category go away, but Tesla faces a very fine line between legal defense and technology evangelism.  When your product kills someone, especially when it kills someone during a routine circumstance where the technology should have obviously worked, resorting to bad statistics and legal disclaimers is a bad idea.

The right thing to do is to fix the technology, not to spin its goodness.

As always, caveat emptor. And be careful out there.