Management and Leadership Lesson From Yahoo

Here’s an excerpt from a NY Times article today about Yahoo shutting down their online magazines:

The editors of the magazines were constantly fighting with the people who ran Yahoo’s home page to get prominent display for their work. The home page editors, relying on reader data and computer algorithms, preferred to run articles licensed by Yahoo from other sites because they drew more traffic.

Recall that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had proclaimed these online magazines a major focus and key to Yahoo’s turnaround.

So….

  • She’s canning the magazines because they didn’t draw enough traffic.
  • The home page refused to direct traffic to them because they got more “eyeballs” from other content.

Cognitive dissonance, corporate style. If she left the two teams to “fight it out,” she abdicated, or didn’t think through her positions, it seems to me. If the home-page team refused, even passive-aggressive style, she didn’t do her job.

Of course, it’s possible the story isn’t true as written. That wouldn’t be a first, either.

What’s the Lesson?

The leadership lesson to take away is this:

If you want something to happen, you have to create the world in which it can happen successfully. Not only must you remove roadblocks, you must make double-sure you don’t accidentally put some in in the way.

The recipes are simple to explicate, hard to pull off.

Traditional Manager-Leaders

  1. Make the goal clear to everyone who touches on the problem, not just the team you’re tasking with a job.
  2. Make sure that you don’t give people competing agendas. Competition is great in the marketplace, but a dangerously multi-edged sword internally.
  3. Measure everyone (not just one team) on the success of the initiative.

Visionary Leaders

  1. Set a clear goal for the organization as a whole, and be vigilant about individual or team goals that conflict.

In this case, if Yahoo (Mayer) really believed in the magazines, then they needed to make that clear to everyone, and not allow the home-page team to pursue a goal in conflict with that direction.

It’s really, really hard to keep your head “out of the boat” (i.e., looking around at the big picture) as a leader, keep your eyes – and everyone else’s – focused on the large, difficult, sometimes ambiguous goals. It’s incredibly easy to get caught in helping your team reach day-to-day objectives, and not realize you’re doing so to the detriment of the project or organization as a whole. Or worse, allowing your teams to remain in conflict because you’re telling them how, not what, or trying to solve team-level issues rather than whole-picture issues.

No matter which kind of leader you are – and both kinds can work – you need to maintain clarity and focus on the big picture.

The Apple-FBI Battle

Wired has an excellent and not-very-technical summary of the Apple-FBI battle. If you’re interested in what’s behind the story – which has been reported quite a bit, not very accurately in many cases – I recommend this summary.

“Beautiful Evidence” – Great New Article From Jeff Bennion

Above the Law today offers Jeff Bennion’s new article, How to Present Beautiful Evidence. It’s well worth reading – and fits right in with my forthcoming book, PowerPoint Slides That Work! Show + Tell for Grownups. My book won’t be available for another two or three weeks, but for now, read Jeff Bennion’s article. It’s terrific.

Key line:

The problem with PowerPoint is that it is convenient for the speaker, but hostile towards the content of the presentation.

I would add that PowerPoint isn’t inherently hostile toward content. Rather, its default mode, bullet points, is speaker-friendly but not audience-friendly.

So ditch the bullet points. Start developing PowerPoint Slides That Work! (Which you can do by ordering a certain book that will be out in a few weeks.)

Adapting to Actual Client Needs

Stores worry that the unscrupulous might steal” the PIN a customer’s debit card by watching that customer enter it on the keypad.

Safeway 2That’s not totally bogus.

Here’s the solution one national chain and their payment vendor came up with.

See the rubber thingy surrounding the keypad? Supposedly, it makes it harder for an observer to see what you’re typing.

Only one problem. It makes it darn near impossible to actually type your PIN, your phone number, or anything else that uses keys other than 5, 8, 0, or backspace. The guard overhangs the keys and prevents you from pressing them naturally.

For the past month, every time I’ve shopped at this chain, I’ve wanted to rip the cover away.

Safeway 1Well, it looks like at least one branch of the chain heard me – and hundreds of others like me, according the the employee I spoke with (off the record, of course). It’s the same new machine, with the slot for chip-based cards, but they tore off the rubber covers at each of their registers.

That’s understanding the client’s real needs.

It’s hard, because I’m sure there are a number of loss-prevention folks telling them they need the covers to stay secure – though I bet they actually need the covers to appear secure, so they can use them as a defense should they be accused of making it too easy on thieves and fraudsters. Nonetheless, these employees, presumably with the support of the store manager, recognized that they’d lose more business alienating customers, and responded to their customers’ needs.

What are you doing in the name of “we have to do it this way” that alienates your clients? Do you really have to do it that way, or are there alternatives you could employ?

There are almost always alternatives. Each comes with some level of risk and some level of reward, including the “safe” alternative (which is never totally safe, with zero risk). Use your project management skills to spot these alternatives, to evaluate them on a broad scale, and then to recommend and take the action that benefits you most in the long term.

(Now if this chain could fix the by-design error in their programming that prevents me from entering my sometimes-get-a-discount customer number before the clerk has rung up the first item, which slows the express lines down significantly when everyone has only one or two items. They don’t want someone leaving a number in a transaction they abandon, say, because the clerk isn’t actually at the register, but how hard would it be to make the machines accept input anytime the register is signed in/active and the previous transaction has concluded?)

By the way, when you shop, just block the keypad with your body. Add your non-typing hand as a shield, if you want a bit more privacy.

What Verb Precedes “Expectations”?

Over at Above the Law, Keith Lee has an interesting and iconoclastic article titled “Manage Expectations Before They Bite You In The Ass.” After an entertaining shaggy-dog story, he gets to the real point – lawyers need to manage client expectations.

Project management is all about expectations.

However….

What verb would you put ahead of “expectations”? Keith uses “manage,” as do most project managers.

Let me suggest a better alternative.

“Set.”

Set expectations. Set them for your clients, your partners, your team.

Managing is damage control. You’re tying to course-correct something that’s already happened.

Sometimes, of course, that’s necessary. But you’ll have far fewer corrections to embark upon if you set expectations up front.

Few litigators let the other side have a free run at their jury. They know the importance of setting jury expectations early (with occasional tactical exceptions). Same goes for your clients and team.

Set those expectations. That’s your first line of defense. Manage them afterwards as necessary, but get out in front when you can. Set expectations.

OT: Rain in Seattle

Ever wonder why it rains so often in Seattle, or if we exaggerate it in an effort to keep the Californians at bay?

visibelar copy

Here’s a satellite photo (visible spectrum) from this afternoon, with the outline of the West Coast superimposed in blue. That river of rain is aimed squarely at the Pacific Northwest, in particular Seattle and Vancouver (BC).

I don’t think we’re going to see ol’ Mr. Sun for a few days….

Cutting Down the Urgency Factor

Over on Attorney With a Life, I’ve got a new article about reducing pressure from outside sources. You need to drop everything and read it now. Read it when you’ve got five minutes, or when you’re feeling frazzled and needing to get back in control of your working life.

New Year, Same Old Bad Leadership Stories

First, happy new year. I’ve been busy working with clients and trying to get my new book to the publisher, but I wanted to check in with everyone.

Interesting story in the NY Times this morning about Marissa Meyer’s leadership style at Yahoo! (The exclamation point is part of their name, not my editorial comment on the story or the company. Yes, it is!!)

“Marissa is the type of boss that makes you feel like you’re disappointing her at all times, so I always feel like I’m on the verge of being fired,” said [Senior VP Jeff] Bonforte…. “It’s never, ‘Way to go, Jeff!'”

If that situation sounds like something your team might say, it’s time to make a resolution to change. Now. Because you’re not getting their best work. Fear motivates people not to fail, until it doesn’t, because it’s unsustainable. Praise motivates people not just to succeed, but to blow past expectations. And it is sustainable.

Too often, for various reasons, we manage by fear. It someones sort-of works, but not nearly as well as creating a supportive environment. To be a better manager, be a leader.

——

On another note, I’m saddened by the passing of David Bowie overnight. I’d been listening to and enjoying his music since 1967, when I first heard his eponymous and totally forgotten/unheard first album (before Changes, Hunky Dory, etc.). So the soundtrack for this morning is a song from that first album, and one from his last.

Of Clocks and Time

My monthly article for Attorney With a Life is available, wherein the way we think about time controls our approach to our days.

It’s a little different. Enjoy.

Volkswagen

The estimable Paul Lippe has a terrific post assessing what might have happened at VW regarding the emissions manipulation and counsel.

(Disclaimer: I know Paul, and we’ve worked together on a couple of things.)

He speculates on the probabilities of various ways this mess might have gone down. The probabilities are not real data, of course, but Paul evidences an understanding of how things work in high-tech that so many commentators have missed.

VW might not be “high-tech” in the sense of Microsoft or Google, but software engineering is a major part of modern vehicles, and it’s likely VW’s software engineering is closer to high-tech that to, say, aircraft design.1

What he gets absolutely right is the high probability that this mess involved only a handful of engineers. If it involved Legal at all, it’s likely the attorney in the loop – in house or outside – lacked a full understanding of what was being discussed. The attorney may have suppressed qualms because of a lack of understanding. I’d add the possibilities that a junior attorney a) didn’t feel qualified to object and felt dumb about not understanding or b) offered guidance but didn’t follow up to see whether it was followed.

We obviously don’t know what happened. I don’t think that’s the point of Paul’s article, and it certainly isn’t the point of mine. Instead, I want to point out the lack of communication and trust between engineering and legal in many organizations, especially in the high-tech world. Each speaks a specialized jargon, and often each is convinced that their worldview is the only one that matters. Obviously this isn’t true for all engineers or attorneys or organizational cultures, but I’ve seen it played out enough to know that it is not at all uncommon.

“This Meddlesome Priest”

Finally, let me add one more scenario I haven’t heard anyone discuss here.

You might recognize the quotation in the heading above. It’s the traditional musing attributed to King Henry II about Thomas Becket, perhaps best known from the wonderful film Becket.2 Is he asking someone to do the deed, or is he simply whining? Either way, four of his knights took it as an order.

It’s not impossible that a senior manager at VW asked, “Can’t someone figure out how we can pass these emissions tests?” Perhaps an engineer took it as an instruction to cheat. Or perhaps someone took it literally, and figured out how to make the cars pass emissions tests.

Using Paul’s scales, I’d give this a 5% or even 10% likelihood, based on my background in engineering, management, and legal departments.

Shouldn’t Someone Have Known?

One opinion I’ve heard, when I’ve talked with colleagues about these possibilities, is that management should have known something was amiss.

Maybe. In fact, probably, but not at all certainly.

Other cars were passing the tests. VW believed in its engineers and expected them to solve previously unconquerable problems. Somehow, they solved this one, too – one which likely got little attention in the thousand things it takes to get a car to market. “Hey, Joe, are we passing those US emissions tests?” “Yeah, looks like it.” “Cool.”

How Do Companies Prevent These Things From Happening?

Ah. There’s the problem, and it’s a hard one.3 There are cultural issues, and communications issues, and too-many-managers-focused-on-their-own-limited-objectives issues. These are very hard problems.

A good, open, thorough, and non-predisposed investigation into how this happened at VW would be a good start – not to apportion blame, but to help understand the genesis and development of the chosen solution to the emissions issue – and how no one caught it.

Meanwhile, kudos to Paul for being a rare writer who has an understanding of how both the legal worlds and engineering worlds work – and how they work (and don’t work) together.

 

  1. I used to semi-joke about three categories of software issues with my colleagues: 1. Can anyone die? 2. Does it touch our fiscal systems? 3. Everything else. VW’s software issues are category 3.

  2. What? You don’t know it? Go rent it this weekend. Seriously.

  3. No, the answer isn’t Legal Project Management. :-)