A few months ago, I joined a company called Imagine Learning that makes software to teach kids English. One thing I love about the company (it’s my second time working for them — yeah, long story :-) is that they choose a book each year, purchase a copy for every employee, and encourage them to read it. Last year’s book was Good To Great by Jim Collins which I was asked to read during my first few weeks on the job.
In short, the book is really good. The principles can be applied in non-work settings, to any group of people working toward a shared objective. The biggest downside is that, to be useful, those principles must be adopted by the leader of the group. The CEO of Imagine Learning is an advocate, which is one of things I like best about the company.
The principles, in the order in which they need to be applied, are:
- Leaders who are ambitious for the success of the company over themselves.
- Getting the right people into the company (and the wrong ones out) before making other decisions.
- Honest assessment of the present combined with optimism about the eventual future.
- Exclusive focus on a single idea at the intersection of passion, economics and being the best.
- Freedom and responsibility within a disciplined system.
- Selective use of technology to accelerate success.
Some excerpts should help illustrate why I like the book so much.
You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. (p13)
The purpose of compensation is not to ‘motivate’ the right behaviors from the wrong people but to get and keep the right people in the first place. (p50)
Put your best people on your biggest opportunities, not your biggest problems. (p58)
The entire management team would lay itself open to searing questions and challenges from [people] who dealt directly with customers. (p72)
Focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other organization is the only path to greatness. (p100)
The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline. (p121)
Mediocrity results first and foremost from management failure, not technological failure. (p156)
If you want to build an enduring and financially successful company, I don’t know of a better place to start than Good To Great.
My friend and former co-worker Matt Ryan recently commented on the impending death of Novell Forge. A message on the Novell Forge site confirms that Novell will be shutting things down soon. I can corroborate some of Matt’s story as I was on the Forge team for about a year during its heyday.
But what really interests me about the situation are the implied instructions on how to neglect a successful product into a slow death that can be blamed on the product itself.
- Avoid rewarding or recognizing any of the people involved. Even better, reward someone else.
- Do not feed its success. Withhold funding, staffing and career growth opportunities.
- Provide poor support. Delay fixing problems.
- Set unrealistic goals and expectations. Blame the product or team for failure.
- Find excuses to kill the project. Focus on the negative in all meetings with executives.
This was a particular worry at Mozy when it was acquired by EMC. They promised that EMC did not want to be the lumbering elephant that accidentally squashed its shiny new purchase. And it was true. But we worried about accidental squashing anyway.
It has been two years, and I have seen projects and executives come and go. Though I do not believe it was intentional, at times it felt like Mozy was being neglected. But the core of Mozy has remained strong and continues to grow.
Based on my experience, here is what to do to keep a successful product moving forward:
- Execute anyway. Deliver a quality product in the face of neglect.
There is precious little a neglected production team can do other than produce. I heard something once I have always remembered: nothing succeeds like success. It is much harder to produce in the face of neglect, but it is also nearly impossible to ignore or argue with.
Mozy is clearly not perfect, but despite occasional neglect it continues to provides a valuable, profitable service. Working with smart people helps. Working for smart people helps. Working with people you like helps. Working on something you care about helps. Working with cool technology helps. But over time, delivering a useful, profitable product is what matters.