Strength is the Source of Challenge

20150314_152304I arrived in Sydney yesterday and have been reminded of a valuable lesson in my first day. I’m here visiting the global headquarters of Avoka Technologies. As I explained in a previous post, I am the VP Client Services North America at Avoka, and while my team is all in the US, there are many people I work with on a daily or weekly basis here in Australia. The office is in a northern suburb of Sydney called Manly. Sydney is deep into Sydney harbor, which has a lot of mini-peninsulas. This is relevant to the rest of this post, so I have included a map here so you can see what I mean:


I flew in, and took the train to the Sydney wharf, and then took a ferry to Manly. A friend, who lives in the area, met me for lunch and took me on a walking and driving tour around the area that I have circled in red.

I had a great time being shown around and educated on Sydney and Australia. One thing that came up is how difficult it is to get around the Sydney area because of all the waterways. The bridges and tunnels available create a bottleneck for getting across the water, thus making traveling from one place to another more difficult.

What is interesting is that all the water, and how much coastline you get from all the bays and mini-peninsulas, is one of the most alluring and attractive characteristics of the area. There are so many coastline cliffs, peaceful bays, and rocky outcroppings with amazing views:




I come across this all the time – strength is also the source of challenge. My friend mentioned a lesson he learned about this from his dad when his career was early on. When he was having difficulty with some people he was managing, his dad asked him to think about what their greatest strengths were, and helped him see that their greatest strengths were on the other side of the coin to the challenges in working with them. I have found this to also be true as I have worked to make myself better at what I do. Where I need to improve and my biggest strengths are mirrors of each other in important ways.

When looking to overcome any challenge, the first thing I do is look at the strengths available that can be used as resources in rising to the challenge. I take this approach when dealing with issues in organizations, relationships, technology, individuals – anywhere, really. I have noticed the pattern of challenges arising from strength in all of it.

I invite you to consider the relationship between your greatest strengths and your biggest challenges, and see if it is useful.

Turning Into The Skid


When there is a problem that needs to be dealt with – it helps to think of turning into the problem to solve it. This works in all cases as far as I can tell, and is especially helpful with more systemic issues.

The metaphor to keep in mind is that when you are driving, and your car starts to skid, what you do not do is steer the car away from the skid. What you do is to turn into the skid – steer the car into the direction of what is causing you to be out of control. If you look closely at the picture on the right, you can see that is exactly what the driver is doing – turning the front wheels into the direction the back of the car is skidding.

Now translate that metaphor to a work, family, or personal issue you are dealing with. Think of turning into the problem, rather than steering away from it. Hopefully this gives you a new picture of how you can cope with, and ultimately solve, a persistent challenge in your life.

For example, at ILANTUS, the Identity Management market is in the middle of mass disruption – cloud, mobile, and social are changing the way employee, customers, and partners are accessing information to do their jobs. ILANTUS has recently made a concerted effort to turn into the skid – we have initiated a “Transformation Program”, to see how we can take advantage of these emerging trends, rather than trying to get the business to move in the same direction it has been the past five years, and resist the changes.

Much appreciation to my teacher, Steven Young, who used this metaphor during a workshop I helped him facilitate in February, to assist someone through a difficult challenge in their life.

At Last – Yoga in India

After 16 years of practicing yoga, quite diligently at times, I have had my first practice in India. I arrived in Bangalore at 1 AM on Tuesday morning. First I practiced relational yoga all day at my company’s Bangalore office. And this morning, a solo physical/meditative practice.

I haven’t written many posts lately – this is my first for 2013. I started a new job that has been an all encompassing endeavor. I am the VP Services for an identity management “next generation systems integrator”, as we like to call ourselves – and we are living up to that calling.

We have an office in Bangalore, and two-thirds of my team work here. I run the Delivery Services group – responsible for the successful delivery of our one-time project based work. Over the twelve years we have been in business, we developed some of our own intellectual property, and just this year started to market and sell those products. I provide a lot of strategy and planning to that end of the business as well.

I addressed the entire office (about 75 people) with what I’m doing at ILANTUS (the company I now work for). Our goal is to meet the demands of the American business technology consumer. The strategies we will follow to achieve this are: 1. Increase Quality, 2. Become a Learning Organization (learn from what we’ve done before and each other), 3. Execute in Smaller Batches with Shorter Cycles.

Quality for us has two components – technical quality and interactional quality.  To get to interactional quality – increased flow and understanding of information between employees, our customers, and our partners – we are focusing on how we can execute in Smaller Batches with Shorter Cycles. This creates more feedback, and gives the opportunity for adjustments / improvements in how we interact and what we are doing.

And when I’m talking about interactional quality in the workplace, there is more than a good chance that the lessons will be extrapolated into other aspects of our employees’ lives. It’s all about making the world a better place. And that too, is what yoga is about.

Which brings me to this morning – it’s Wednesday morning in India as I write this. I was awake at 5 (I can thank jetlag for that). I took a walk around downtown Bangalore. I got back to the hotel and found the eighth floor gym, with wonderful views of the city and surrounding mountains. No one was there. A yoga mat was folded on a large wicker basket. I accepted the invitation and had absolutely delightful yoga in India.

The Right to an Opinion

I have been on a consulting engagement since I got back Thailand in November. I have learned many things on my first independent gig. I’ve also discovered some new policies I have for operating in the world. One of the most important is that I only express my opinion when I have a right to one.

To give some specificity to this, take my current engagement. I was brought on to help put services around some specific products. So, when it comes to services processes, or services pricing, I have been readily offering my unsolicited opinion. But when it comes to things like the structure of the organization, it is not my place to offer my opinion unless asked.

At a more subtle level, I was talking to the CEO, Binod Singh, a very conscientious leader who knows everyone in his organization. I had been on assignment for about three weeks. We were discussing some changes that needed to be made. He told me how I should go about initiating those changes inside the company. I said “that sounds like a good idea”.

I was explaining this interaction to my friend and mentor, Steven Young, and he pointed out that I couldn’t really know if it was a good idea or not, since I knew very little about the company or its culture. Not only had I not been there long, but the company is 95% Indian, which is different than anything I’ve been in before. Putting it another way, I didn’t have a right to an opinion about how to take the action Binod suggested.

Now, my positive intention in saying “sounds like a good idea” is to tell Binod that I was on board with his approach. But when looked at carefully you can see that it actually comes across sounding a little foolish and arrogant. Binod did not react negatively to my saying it. But I think that even if only at a subconscious level, it did not serve me to pass judgement on his direction to me.

So, the question then becomes, how can I appreciate Binod for the advice without judging that which I have no right to judge? Any of the following could do: “thank you for the direction”, “I appreciate the advice”, “thanks, I”ll do that”. There are many more.

Next time you’re planning with someone, I invite you to try this for yourself. Recognize when you have a right to an opinion, and only give one when you do. Could you imagine what the world would be like if everyone did this in their marriage…

Organization Dynamics: Chain of Demand vs. Enablement Chain

I was talking to the VP of Engineering at another local start-up in Boulder yesterday. In the conversation, I asked what metric their board was focused on. He listed a few – total revenue, revenue per seat, subscription revenue vs consulting revenue. Then he said that a majority of the board meetings are spent with the executive team asking the board questions and the board offering to assist in various ways.

We talked about how this differs from a board that uses their time with the executive team to make demands and give orders to the exec team. We discussed which way the ask is going. Is it going down the org chart or up (if you can consider the board as being above in the org chart).

And of course, this impacts the way all the asks in the reporting structure of the organization go. In the organization, is there a “chain of demand” effect where execs make demands of managers, and managers make demands of front-line employees? Or does the ask go in the other direction, where front-line employees ask questions to their managers to be able to do their job better, and managers ask questions of the execs, etc… I think of this later category as an “enablement chain” within an organization. Because the managers are there to enable the front-line employees to do the best work they can, and the execs enable the managers to best enable the front-line employees.

Of the companies I know, those that are more on the enablement chain side of the spectrum have happier employees, stronger growth, and more longevity. The studies I hear and read about suggest the same.

Drinking Water on the Road

I consider myself a bit of health nut, and one of the consequences of that is I like to drink good water whenever I can. I also am environmentally conscious and don’t like the idea of buying bottled water everywhere, because of both using the plastic, and the transportation cost (carbon footprint) of shipping the bottles of water (they’re heavy). One of the times I’m challenged around this is when I fly and stay in hotels.

What I have found is that hotels almost always have a filtered water or 5-gallon dispenser in their fitness rooms. So, I travel with my water bottle, being sure to empty it before going through airport security (sometimes this means gulping water down while taking off my shoes to get through). My first stop when I check-in to the hotel is to fill up my water bottle in the fitness room. I then fill it up before I go to sleep at night and before I leave the hotel for the day’s activities. This way I drink good clean water and avoid the environmental and business expense costs of drinking bottled water.

And if I do wind up buying bottled water on the road, one of my purchase decisions is to find bottled spring water from as local a source as possible. So, if I’m in Houston I would choose Ozark Spring water from Texas before buying Dasani filtered water bottled in Georgia.

One Definition of “living on the edge”

I like yoga. I’ve been practicing steadily since 1995. I’ve had some good teachers in my life, and one great one. Sofia Diaz. She makes yoga about your life and in her classes I have learned many things about myself and the way the world works. I was practicing in my living room the other morning and something that she often says entered my head. It has entered many times before, but this time I made a connection between it and how effective I am at getting things done, being creative, and building the best relationships I can.

“Yoga begins at the point of failure.” On the yoga mat it means staying in asana (loose translation: a given yoga pose) until you can stay no longer. Your body starts to give up, but more relevant and salient is your mind starts to give up. When I start to feel the point of failure, I often think of it as being on the edge.

Back to the other morning. In approaching the edge of my asana, I realized that’s where change happens. That’s where you grow. It’s where you create. It’s where you connect. In my yoga that morning, I started connecting that to other aspects of my life.

For example, I collaborate a lot in my life and my work. I also lead and facilitate a lot of collaboration efforts. When I’m talking to others about a plan of action or brainstorming ideas, if I stay where it’s comfortable, I can get to something that will work. But if I can stretch my understanding of the problem at hand and reach toward others and their ideas, the collaboration can go much further and the output will be levels above.

The added bonus about getting to the edge is that whatever you do there, not only is it better, it gets done faster. The double bonus is that you feel great when you are there. There is nothing but you, the others in your awareness, and what you are creating.

Now, back to that morning yoga in my living room. Moving through asanas, I let my mind sit with the concept of always being at my edge. “Wow, I would get a lot done, I’d be doing it all really well, and I would feel great all the time”, I thought. All of the sudden the phrase “living at your edge” made a lot more sense.

My mind then wondered how could I get to the edge more often? How could I stay at the edge? How could I get myself back to the edge when I got too far away? By that point, I was in savasana, the final yoga asana called “corpse pose”, where you lie on the floor on your back and spend no effort on anything. The edge of letting go. I let the questions go. More about this in future posts.

Email Signatures – Always On

One thing I find irritating is when I’m in an email conversation with a new connection and it’s time to talk live, instead of continuing the back and forth, and I can’t find their phone number. This happens rather frequently when people choose to not include their signature when they reply to or forward an email. If I don’t have their contact stored (and it is common that I’ll want to call someone new who is not in my contact list), then I have to search my inbox for an email that they originated that contains their signature. Either that or send another email asking for the phone number, and wait for their reply. I know we’re only talking about minutes of extra time. Still, why spend minutes on a task that you shouldn’t need to.

Every email system I’m aware of has an option to include signatures in your reply. Granted, this can also get annoying when you have an email thread that has gone back and forth ten, twenty, thirty times – and there are as many signatures at the bottom. However, I think the usually dead weight at the end of that chain (that doesn’t get in the way) proves it’s worth when everyone’s contact info can be found easily within that thread.

I encourage everyone to include signatures, even on forward and reply, to be more courteous to your new connections when it’s time to move the conversation from email to live voice.

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

My friend and colleague, Jonti McLaren, turned 40 two weekends ago. At his birthday party in Palo Alto, I had an educational conversation there about a theory Aristotle developed about how to connect to and persuade an audience. The discussion took place with an old time friend, Larry Hagquist, and Jonti’s wife’s high school mentor, named Gene. Both are high school teachers, and coach programs that require public speaking skills.

Larry coaches Poetry Out Loud, where teens compete in spoken poetry. He sent me some links of his students on You Tube . This is not slam poetry, with it’s oscillating vocals that reminisces of rap music (of which, some I quite like). Instead, this is clearly spoken classic poetry meant to enrapt the audience in the message. He also coaches the school’s debate team.

Gene coaches Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA), an organization to mentor teens in becoming future business leaders. High school teams engage in service opportunities, attend leadership conferences, and compete in local, state, and national events.

Neither had met each other before. What they explained to me is such common knowledge in speaking and argument creation that they were able to explain it to me co-creatively, without missing a beat. Developed by Aristotle, the idea is to capture an audience, you must appeal to their ethos, pathos and logos.

Ethos is in the realm of ethics. The idea is that you have to show up to your audience as someone who has authority on the topic to which you speak. Why should your opinion count? Pathos is in the realm of passion. You have to syntonize with your audience’s emotion. If the people to whom you are speaking are not engaged emotionally, they will not be able to relate to what you are saying. Logos is in the realm of logic. If your argument is not reasonable, it will not rule the day.

For me, it’s like saying you have to show up, connect to your audience, and make sense. For any given situation, there are specifics in these three realms to be aware of and to exercise. It also seems there are ways to exercise in these three areas, even if not creating a specific presentation or argument.

For ethos, I can practice being in my personal standing. Confidence and clarity in purpose, not to say that I need to be clear about all the detailed steps I take every day, but clear in my purpose for the day, my purpose for this life. I can practice pathos in my close relationships – connecting to my loved ones at an emotional level. And logos I can practice in my ability to solve problems logically and reasonably in my day-to-day life and work.

I recognize it’s not that simple, but it’s a good start, I think, and I would like to know what anyone else thinks about the matter.

Stop Internet Censorship – Protect Innovation

Below is a post I wrote for the Symplified blog:

There are bills currently making their way through congress that, if passed, will seriously effect Internet use and will have negative effects on technology innovators — both companies and individuals. This post gives a brief description of the bills, how they negatively impact technology innovation and society at large, and lastly what you can do about it.

Basics About the Bills

They are the Senate bill Protect-IP Act, and the House bill Stop Online Piracy Act (also known as the E-Parasites act) and are very similar. The positive intention behind them is to reduce piracy of copyrighted information on the Internet. Sounds good so far. The problem is how they do it. If you’ve got 4 minutes, this video is a great summary.

Since most piracy takes place outside the US, and the government can’t do anything to shut down the actual site, these bills give the government the right to legally require any infrastructure providers with US operations to block Internet access to these sites, and any websites to remove links and imbedded content. And, if they don’t comply, the companies and sites could be shut down. It also allows for entities to sue each other to remove links, embedded content, etc.

Why this is Bad for Innovation

These bills would put restrictions and create huge liabilities for any site that employs user-generated content, as it is impossible to control everything that any user is going to post on a site. There are already controls in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to protect copyrighted content, as pointed out in this Wikipedia article, and these recent bills take it too far. Google has been opposed to these new bills. Facebook, Twitter, and eBay have also recently publicly called out against them.

Fred Wilson (a prominent VC in NYC), has a great post on these bills. Even if a web technology company is not guilty, just the fact that they may have to pay huge lawyer fees to defend themselves against frivolous lawsuits could be enough to ruin them. The big companies are better able to handle lawsuits like these, but it would crush a 3 person start-up. And that would make venture capitalists less likely to invest in a new Internet technology innovation. Fred also points out that it is the technology sector that is creating jobs in America today, and bills that stunt technology innovation are bad for the economy. We need more jobs and technology is one place that is providing job growth today.

Why this is Bad for Everyone

If passed, these laws would enter us into government censorship like that in China today. While not as extensive or far reaching as China’s current laws, it’s certainly a path that leads in the exact opposite direction of freedom of speech. The Internet is one of the biggest catalysts for change and innovation we have. We should make sure it stays that way.

What You Can Do

You can go to the American Censorship website to send a letter about SOPA. You can also visit Fred Wilson’s blog post and use new technology from Votizen that turns your comments on his post into a letter about the Protect-IP act to your representatives. Last, spread the word. That’s what the Internet is all about anyway, right?