Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: "7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis" (Bill George)

(Originally posted by The Popped Kernel on

In "7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis," Bill George not only leaves his readers eagerly anticipating their defining moment, but also provides them with an effective blueprint to seize it. That’s the value of the book – it’s proven and practical guidance for a leader amidst crisis. In effect, you’ve got to know what you’re passionate about, pursue it, and have integrity along the way. Only then will you have a chance as a leader to attain legendary success.

Bill cites many companies and leaders to support each of his lessons. With a focus on breadth of examples over depth, Bill’s convincing power is rounded out by his authority in the field. You’ll do well to heed the advice of a man who’s been CEO of the world’s largest medical technology company (Medtronic) and is now a Harvard Business School professor and internationally renowned expert on leadership.

The book is a quick read. It’s simple in language and structured in thought, if not a bit didactic in tone. It seems written for the executive on the go, who wants concepts now and will figure out the details later. It’s a non-intimidating, easy read that begs re-reading over time.

In the end, if you’re looking for Shakespeare, don’t read this book (though that likely wasn’t ever Bill’s intention). But if you’re looking for timeless leadership advice in practical form, from someone who’s been there, then get yourself a copy.

Bill’s 7 Lessons – more detail for each you can find in Jessica Lipnack’s book review – are:
1. Face reality, Starting with yourself
2. Don’t be Atlas; Get the world off your shoulders
3. Dig deep for the root cause
4. Get ready for the long haul
5. Never waste a good crisis
6. You’re in the spotlight: Follow True North
7. Go on the offense, Focus on winning now

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Web 2.0: Conference of Insights and Inspiration

Delightful and inspiring, the 2009 Web 2.0 Conference in New York City was rife with success stories, entrepreneurial spirit, and wicked-cool concepts (Did you know that your email contacts are each worth $948, according to an IBM research team?).

In addition to our previous Conference entries about entrepreneurship and design, we learned about…

… the importance of collaboration,
“Do what you do best, link to the rest.” – Tim O’Reilly of The O’Reilly Radar. As applicable as it is in the context of social media, it’s really applicable to just about anything. Focus on your core competency, partner for the rest. Good leaders do it when they delegate. Obama did it on the road to the White House. It requires a clear recognition of what you’re good at and what you’re not… and the confidence to admit it to yourself and others.

… the difference between an audience and a community,
“The difference between ‘audience’ and ‘community’ is which way you turn the chairs.” – Chris Brogan, Mayor of Twitterville and author of Trust Agents. We love this visual. It reminds us to interact with, not just talk at, our users. Without this understanding, it’s difficult to develop a following.

… what Wal-mart and the mafia have in common,
“What do Wal-mart and the mafia have in common? They conquered distribution!” – Chris Brogan (again). Whether we’re talking about web content or merchandise or, in the mob’s case, drugs, it’s the same. If you want to amass influence, you’re better off running a system, not inputs to it. Run Google or Digg, not Reuters or the AP.

… why the internet is like junk food,
Dana Boyd, PhD, researcher at Microsoft, had some fascinating (if not too many) insights to share as one of the Keynoters (she spoke faster than most people’s brains function to fit a PhD dissertation's worth of content into about 15 minutes). She analogized internet consumption to food intake. Her research shows that people consume content based on stimulation, not necessarily what is best for them. We click on stories and sites about gossip or sex or violence, just as we crave sugars and fats in food. They’re stimulating, if not addicting. If not careful, she warns we’ll develop the psychological equivalent to obesity. There can be such a thing as too much internet stimulus, which in turn is bad for society. Obesity is a drag on collective healthcare costs; internet over-stimulus a drag on collective intelligence. While she didn’t provide solutions, we were left interested in finding some and at the very least thought-provoked... "psychological equivalent of obesity"... brilliant.

… and entrepreneurship some more.
How would Kevin Rose (Founder of Digg) and Jay Adelson (CEO of Digg) start a company today? By being “scrappy!”

They advise doing what you want to do with the resources you have (or are easily available) and go from there (Kevin himself started by renting server space for $99/month). They had more to say on the topic:
  • Do your own PR. Throw your own parties. Contact press directly.
  • Hack the press. If you can’t reach a top writer at a top media property, target a junior writer there.
  • Meet influencers. Don’t be afraid to meet people of consequence for your business.
  • Prototype on your dime. Everything is so cheap today that you don’t need funding in the beginning. Prove your concept on your own – you can do it with thousands, not hundreds of thousands – then go get funding to take it to the next level.
  • Partner when time's right. Partner when you can’t do it all anymore.
  • Release fast and often. Speed is the name of the game. As reinforced by Rashmi Sinha, CEO and Founder of Slideshare, it’s the main advantage small players have over big ones.
  • Iterate often. Continually improve your product or service. The more it incorporates user feedback, the better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said (as Chris Brogan referenced at the conference): “Go where there’s no road and leave a trail.” Kevin Rose and Jay Adelson did it with Digg, countless and untold others are doing it right now. Are you one of them? (If so, let us know. Comment below or email us at

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Driving Change through Design

Gentry Underwood, of design stalwart IDEO, spoke to a group of us at the Web 2.0 Conference in New York City about Social Interaction Design, “SxD” as he visually presents it. That’s the official (eye-glazing) description anyway. It’s really about building something that moves people to act.

Of the nine principles that Gentry presented (listed in full at bottom), we found three principles particularly compelling. He was entertaining in presenting them, and we were left thought-provoked and inspired by their implications.

Design for delight
When we’re forced to do something, we do it either begrudgingly or not at all. So, what if what we had to do (or should do) was made fun? That’s the idea behind The Fun Theory. From the global environment to personal health, The Fun Theory is proving that fun, innovative design can make us do those things that make our world and ourselves a better place.

Take the Stockholm subway system. In many stations, the escalator and stairs are right next to each other. Many people take the escalator. The motivator is stronger: easy. But in one station, designers turned the stairs into a piano: Walk one step, play a note (Think classic movie Big). The new motivator – fun – was strong enough to increase the number of people taking the stairs (over the escalator) by 66%.

Just imagine the possibilities. If simple design moved people to take better care of their bodies, what else can it move us to do? What if we applied design to some of our most pressing problems? Terrorism and battlefield insurgencies? Dependence on foreign oil? Healthcare? What barriers might we be able to overcome?

Remember we’re a heard species
At the Sasquatch music festival in George, Washington, a guy danced, by himself, for days. People took video of it. They laughed and scoffed. He continued, unfazed. While many were debating what drug he was on, he danced. He became somewhat of a fixture. He also remained on the fringe. Until something curious happened. After days, another guy joined him – albeit, uncomfortably. In the shadow of his friends’ judging glances, he kept it light, making it clear he was participating in the joke, not becoming part of it, occasionally looking back at his friends, laughing. He left, then came back shortly after, as another joined. Still bare, at three dancers, they continued.

Ultimately, several others joined. Almost immediately, several more. The tipping point reached, screams – of approval – started… and continued. Louder and louder. People started running from where they were to join. Running. What once was uncool, they now couldn't wait to be part of. Within less than a minute, literally hundreds of concert-goers joined, arms in air, reveling in the experience… together. The original guy gets kind of lost, almost forgotten. But there’s no denying he started it all. While people stared, he just carried on, doing what he loved. With that, he started a movement.

Do you ever feel like you’re getting nowhere with your business or your career or your message? This video is a reminder that while it may feel like nobody cares (or perhaps worse, like people are laughing at you), if you believe in what you’re doing – if it just feels right – and you keep at it, then people will likely come around to follow. Seth Godin wrote an entire book on the topic; he called it Tribes.

(Separately, but related, we’re reminded of Gary Hamel’s talk at the World Business Forum: “Explore the fringe,” he strongly advised, “The future always starts there.” Organic foods, personal computers, equal rights – they were all fringe movements until a tipping point was reached and they became mainstream.)

Empower evolution
As humans, we’re creative, resourceful, and adaptive. Whether we have the right tools or not, when we’re committed to making something work, we’ll figure it out and do it... in a way nobody would have thought possible.

Case in point. Bangkok, Thailand. What at first looks like a train rolling through the slums quickly turns into a bustling market. You’ve got to see it to believe it.

This video reminds us that we shouldn't feel discouraged when we lack the tools to do something. It encourages us to figure something out with what we have.

While we’re a herd species, we shouldn’t be underestimated either. We’re capable of extraordinary things. Gentry’s stories tell us that with a little bit of thought, an understanding of what we love, and strong commitment to it, the potential for design to change the way we behave (for the better) is huge.

Gentry's nine priciples in full are:
1. Satisfy key stakeholders
2. Making something mandatory = Bad design
3. Design for delight
4. Simplify as much as you can, but no more
5. Smooth all friction on the path to participation
6. Help the indifferent decide
7. Remember we’re a herd species
8. Watch for unexpected consequences
9. Empower evolution

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Social Media Entrepreneurship: A Case Study

We recently caught up with Rashmi Sinha at the Web 2.0 Conference in New York City. Her company, Slideshare, is an interesting case study in entrepreneurship and social media. It’s also a story of passion, hard work, and adventure. One of our favorite of her quotes: “Never be afraid. Just do it. Fear is the biggest killer.”

Slideshare was launched in October 2006. 5 half-timers worked on it then. 22 full-timers (and 3 contractors) work on it now.

Stages of Growth
Stage 1. Utilitarian-driven purpose site for people to share slides with others
Stage 2. Online community comments and rates content AND visits those who upload slides
Stage 3. People uploading slides realize Slideshare's power as a distribution channel – a way to get more people to their blogs, websites, etc. The business explodes.

Attracting Users
Michael Arrington at Tech Crunch heard about it (from a well-placed Slideshare contact) and wrote about it. Traffic to Slideshare spiked significantly. If you can’t get Michael Arrington to write you up (he was one of Time Magazine's 2008 most influential people in the world), then, as Kevin Rose (Founder of Digg) said in an earlier conversation, reaching out to a junior writer at Tech Crunch can be effective. (Rashmi agrees.)

11 Lessons Learned

1. Solve one problem. Stay focused. Slideshare was growing fast, but the money-maker was a previous product. The company ultimately had to give up the previous product to focus on Slideshare (even though money-making power of Slideshare was not yet proven - that takes guts and faith).
2. Speed is critical. When you’re small, speed is your advantage against the giants. Slideshare launched in the shadow of Google Docs and Google Spreadsheets. Google Powerpoint was next. People asked, “What are you going to do when Google launches Google PPT? They’re going to kick your ass.” Slideshare wasn’t concerned because they were smaller, more nimble… and they were share-based, not author-based like Google.
3. Ideas are dime a dozen. It’s really about the execution. Everyone has the same ideas. Unique ideas are rare.
4. What to build. Products we use ourselves.
5. How to launch. Slideshare put it up, gave it to friends, and collected feedback. They built enough to get concept across, but not so much that it was fleshed out completely.
6. Focus on users, not competitors. Focus. On. Users.
7. Don’t spend too much time on business develop. In year one, Rashmi was advised (and highly recommends) to not talk about business development ideas with other companies. Big companies will come to you and want you to develop something. They will have a team of people on it. You won’t. They will have time to explore ideas on how design and backend will work for their specific company. You won’t. You’ll want to focus on your company, not others' (at least at first).
8. Use metrics to make decisions. For web-based businesses, metrics are abundant. Identify the ones critical for your business, track them, and incorporate into the decision-making process.
9. Hire design engineers. Developers are important, but an intuition of or experience with design is critical, particularly as design becomes increasingly critical to business.
10. Find your community. Who do you care about? Figure it out and get close to them. For Slideshare, there are two main constituencies: People who upload and People who view. Slideshare has decided to focus on the those who view, to optimize the experience of the users. They're already giving distribution to uploaders, so they're focusing on simplicity for the user (e.g., not offering animation on slides, even though uploaders want it, because that would not keep it simple for users)
11. Outsource complexity. Outside of your competencies, outsource when you can.

Other Interesting Tid-bits from Rashmi
- Business media sites are easier to monetize than consumer media sites.
- Hire people, not from school, but from open source community.
- All angel investment came from Slideshare users - the company emailed them and they responded, some of them handsomely. Mark Cuban, internet billionaire and sometimes-controversial owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, was one of them.

At the End of the Day
Rashmi speaks passionately about Slideshare - from that time in the beginning to the things they're working on now. You can tell she is driven by a passion that gives her comfort and confidence in saying things like "Just do it" "Fear is a killer" "We weren't worried about Google." She's clear on who her core audience is: the end-user. It's this passion-driven clarity that has allowed her company to pass up many lucrative business opportunities (e.g., enterprise software) on behalf of their end-user and remain successful, if not moreso because of it. Once again it's clear: Follow your passion, and the rest will follow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bill George: Play Your Game, Not Theirs

We recently spoke with Bill George, widely known for his classic book on leadership, True North: Discover your Authentic Leadership. He's also a Harvard Business School Professor and the former, storied CEO of Medtronics, the world’s largest medical technology company (think pacemaker). You can see him at the World Economic Forum in late January as a panelist on leadership.

Bill is not your typical CEO or Business School Professor. He doesn’t shy away from ideas of vulnerability, self-reflection, or even counseling. In fact, he sees them as sources of power, not weakness.

Bill preaches about the importance of knowing who we are (awareness), being open about it (vulnerability), and sticking to it (commitment) in the choices we make in life and as a leader. It’s when we do these things that we’re strong enough to resist temptations of “short-termism” – that is, the temptation of immediate gratification over the more sustainable long view.

Take the recent economic meltdown. Bill believes it was caused, not by sub-prime mortgages, but by “sub-prime leadership.” Too many people got caught up in the short term, more concerned about keeping up with the corporate Joneses and meeting Wall Street expectations than with the long-term health of their own companies. Bill is convinced that “if you play Wall Street’s game, you will destroy your company.” Look at Citibank, AIG, and countless others.

That said, it’s difficult to not play the game. Does a leader really even have a choice? What can one leader do in the face of such powerful forces as competitive pressure, fiduciary responsibility, and Wall Street expectations?

Bill’s response is simple: “Just don’t play [the game]. Just say no.” Simply say “we are in the business of building long-term shareholder value” and go about doing it. That’s what he did at Medtronic. And the long-term health and strength of the company has benefited greatly. Not right away, but in the end, when it matters.

There’s a personal parable in all of this. In our career choices and lives in general, we’ve got to be strong enough to take the long view over the short one. We’ve got to know who we are, be honest about it, and make decisions from there, decisions that lead to sustainable personal growth, not dramatic falls.

Taken together, Bill’s philosophy is a virtuous assault on conventional wisdom, a wisdom – propagated by mainstream media and corporate culture – that tells us to “[try] to make a good impression and not show them who you really are.”

He is not na├»ve, however, about the difficulty of defying conventional wisdom. In fact, he says, “If you share your vulnerabilities and weaknesses, you figure you won’t get hired. And maybe you won’t. I think that’s the problem."

So how do we overcome this problem, the powerful forces against being who we are? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t clear. It’s a matter of personal choices and values. Bill admits that we can reach success if we play the short-term game or hide who we are. But the chances of it being sustainable are slim. It will likely lead to a fall, more precipitous and more probable than if we played it right.

Bill’s view on failure is similar to that of luminaries we’ve already spoken to – it’s more a blessing than a curse. The key is whether we learn from it or not. Bill believes, “early failures are one of the greatest learning tools you can have.” We try hard not to fail early in our lives and careers. But the earlier we fail, the earlier we learn and the more we avoid self-destructive behavior later on. Bill reminds us that “the greatest failure of all [is] the failure to take risks to be who you are.”

When we do fail, Bill implores us to not simply blame others and move on, but rather, look internally. Own it. Make the necessary changes. And then move on. Stronger.

Listen to our full interview with Bill to find out more about him, including:
- His personal epiphany
- His relationship to luck
- His view of social media
- His take on Bill Clinton and Sandy Weill

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

World Economic Forum: High Profile Thought

The World Economic Forum is the world's premier gathering of the most influential movers and shakers in business, politics, and international affairs. Each year, the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bono, Queen Rania of Jordan, Vladimir Putin, and several other high-caliber personalities descend upon Davos, Switzerland to grace the Forum's stage. The event is exclusive (attendees must be invited) and committed to discussion of and reflection on pressing global issues.

We recently watched Bill Clinton at the 2006 World Economic Forum (You can too, here). Clinton spoke for 50+ minutes, in Q & A format, with the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Professor Klaus Schwab (in the front row sat Senator John McCain, actor Michael Douglas, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and technology pioneer Bill Gates).

These five quotes caught our attention.

1. “If you['ve] got enough self confidence in who you are and what you believe in, you ought not to be scared to talk to anybody.”

This is helpful advice to anyone looking to succeed: Be confident and connect with people; good things will likely follow. The context of Clinton's words takes it even further... that connection with others, open dialogue is the way out of conflict. He was referring specifically to US-Iran relations when he said this. But it's just as applicable to us, as individuals, in our daily lives whether with our boss at work or partner at home. Human connection, through open dialogue, is the closest thing we have to a panacea for conflict.

2. “Insurance losses from natural disasters in the last decade are three times [larger than in] any previous decade, in common constant dollars, which is another argument for the reality of climate change.”

Climate change is bad for business. Some may say this is nothing new. And perhaps it's not. But it's just as true now as it was in 2006. And perhaps, the more we can present the climate change challenge in stark and real terms such as business loss, the sooner we reach the tipping point for lasting change.

3. “Not every failure is a defeat.”

Time and time again, the successful people we talk to and hear from frame failure positively. Bill Clinton is no exception. At the World Economic Forum, he cited his efforts to reform healthcare not as failure, but as necessary trail-blazing for the next attempt at fundamental reform to be successful. Pat Lencioni talked about failure as a necessary course-adjuster and character-builder, that thing which guided him to his rightful path. The examples go on.

4. “America always does the right thing - after exhausting all other alternatives.”

Citing the humorous Winston Churchill, Clinton propagated the view that America is a source of good in the world, even if we don't get it right the first time, all the time. Hearing this in the wake of Iraq and amidst the current reality of Afghanistan makes Churchill's words particularly resonant.

5. "There is nothing so difficult in all of human affairs than to change the established order of things."

Clinton used Machiavelli's words to call out reality in blunt terms. What interested us even more than Machiavelli's quote was Clinton's follow up as to why changing the status quo is so difficult: "... because the people who will lose are certain of their loss and those who will benefit are uncertain of their gain." Certainty. We know that financial markets place tremendous value in it. But so too do political ones.

In Conclusion
Clinton closed with a recommendation to read Max Weber's 1918 essay entitled Politics as a Vocation. In it we'd find Weber extolling the virtues of pragmatism over ideals, compromise over convictions. Perhaps, it simply reflects Bill Clinton's Machiavellian approach to politics. Perhaps, it reflects reality. Perhaps, it's both.

One thing we know for sure is that there's no higher profile a place to hash it all out than at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Popcorn: The Success Metaphor

This blog's namesake - "The Popped Kernel" - presumes that we're all kernels. Some of us have popped. Others of us have not. Why? Why are some people successful and others not (yet or at all)? That's the question driving the very existence of The Popped Kernel. One place we can find some answers is in the culinary treat itself.

Type "The Popped Kernel" into Google and the second link asks us Why do some popcorn kernels not pop? The question might as well be: Why do some people not pop? The answer is equally applicable.

Kernels don't pop if the conditions aren't right. The kernel itself must have the right stuff - it can't be too hard (if it is, it can't pop ... unless moisture is added). Kernels must be put under the right amount of heat. Too little heat, they won't pop. Too much heat, they'll burn. Once popped, it must cool down to avoid burning to the touch. Only then can it be enjoyed. If left idle for too long, the popped kernels become stale. Only do they become enjoyable again when conditions for their well-being are reintroduced - warmth, moisture, perhaps some added flavor.

We can draw a few lessons about success from our understanding of what kernels need in order to pop (and stay enjoyable):
1. Set the right conditions - environment is critical.
2. Don't be too hard - approach success with open arms not clenched fists.
3. Turn on the heat - the right amount of motivation drives success.
4. Don't stand idle - Stay active and keep focused, else risk becoming stale.

What do you think? Can you think of other parallels between popcorn and success? Do you completely disagree? We'd love to hear. Comment below. Or write us at

Monday, November 2, 2009

Commit, and Providence Moves Too

Today marks our one month anniversary. In the spirit of what The Popped Kernel is all about, we wanted to offer you a quote. It's about passion, commitment, and possibilities. Attributed to Scottish mountain climber, W.H. Murray, it comes from Bill George's latest book, "7 Lessons for Leading in Crisis."

"Until one is committed there is always hesitancy,
The chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness...

The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help that never otherwise would have occurred...

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!"