Grown-up games

Colonistii_din_catanPlaying is an essential activity for human development. By playing children develop skills from the simplest to very complex ones. But the role of playing is not limited to childhood, on the contrary, it transitions to adult life and it continues to be part of human life until the end. I dare to say that the one who forget to play from time to time, give up a great personal development tool.

For example, last week I rediscovered a game that I loved to play a few years ago: Settlers of Catan. It’s a game with relatively simple rules, aiming to colonize an island with roads, villages and towns. The island is composed of hexagons with resources (wood, brick, iron, wheat and sheep) and the island’s banks have commercial ports that offers certain benefits. At each round one player rolls the dice and all players can get the resources they have in the neighbourhood, if their number on the hexagon correspond to the dice.

Settlers of Catan stimulates the development of certain skills and I want to emphasize two of them, with significant impact on your career or business success. The first one is positioning. In the game, it is essential that you position the first two settlements in such a way to have a better chance in collecting as many resources as possible. The second element is the development strategy that you choose. Depending on the position you’ve managed to occupy on the board, you must choose the right strategy to effectively exploit the resources you get. Common sense things but with major implications.

Let’s see first how these two aspects can be translated to career and business. What is the meaning of positioning and what are its implications? Like in the game, positioning involves choosing the place where you will perform your activities, where you will bring value. Of course circumstances will greatly influence the positioning but, depending on how well you chose your position, you will be able to better use your own resources: time and skills. This will determine, in large measure, the success in many areas of life. Why so few manage to position themselves correctly? Three key elements are necessary for proper positioning: understanding the environment, understanding resources (skills) and goal setting. The problem is that none of the three is simple. It would take too long to discuss each one in detail so I will devote some future articles for detailing.

I was saying that the second key element of the game is strategy development. Depending on the position you are in, proximity of resources and commercial ports and depending on opponents movements you must choose the game strategy that will allow you to maximize the resources that chance offers your. That’s exactly the same in real life. Most of the times you can’t control the environment, you can’t control what people do and you can’t control the events that occur along the way. But, depending on the context and on your goal, you have to develop a strategy. You must choose the path that will lead you from the point where you are to the goal you want to reach. But this is not easy. On one hand it involves a constant effort of researching and understanding the environment and, especially, a constant effort to refine your goal. Why refining your goal for? Because of two reasons: the first reason is that there will always be forces (outside or inside of you) that will try to derail you. These forces range from laziness, to well-intentioned people with different viewpoints, to malicious persons who don’t wish you well. The second reason is that as you approach the goal, the details become clearer and it is necessary to elaborate your goal. It’s like you see a city from a distance and you decide to get there but when you get closer you see that it is composed of streets, buildings, parks and it is necessary to precisely choose the destination.

I briefly described two skills that can significantly impact our careers or business and that we can learn by playing. Sure that these two skills can be learned in different ways, but experimentation in real life will certainly involve a much higher price. So, happy playing!

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The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker – Book Review

About the Author

Born in Austria in 1909, Peter Drucker is one of the most influential business writers of the 20th century. He taught management beginning with 1950 until 2005 (when he died) at New York University and Claremont Graduate University. He wrote more than 30 books on business and management, most of them translated in over 20 languages. BusinessWeek Magazine called him: “the man who invented management”.

Book description

The first edition of “The Effective Executive” appeared in 1966 and it was republished several times since. If most of the management books are on how to conduct other peoples, this book is about how to manage ourselves. The focus of the book is on the executive, or decision maker, and what he or she must do in order to be effective.

In the first part of the book Drucker clarifies 3 essential aspects:

  1. who is the executive
  2. why effectiveness is a vital subject
  3. what is effectiveness

The second part of the book, the largest, describes thoroughly the 5 habits that determines the effectiveness of an executive:

  1. understand and control his time usage
  2. focus on contribution and results
  3. build on his own strengths and on the strengths of his superiors, colleagues and subordinates
  4. focus on the areas where superior performance leads to outstanding results
  5. make effective decisions

My favorite quote

Effectiveness, in other words, is a habit; that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned. Practices are simple, deceptively so; even a seven-year-old has no difficulty in understanding a practice. But practices are always exceedingly hard to do well. They have to be acquired, as we all learn the multiplication table; that is, repeated ad nauseam until “6 x 6 = 36” has become unthinking, conditioned reflex, and firmly ingrained habit. Practices one learns by practicing and practicing and practicing again.

My Comments

I will not get into the details of the book, as I don’t want this review to replace reading the book. By contrary, my goal is to make you curious enough to read it. This is why I will briefly comment only on two topics:

Who is the executive

The correct identification of the decision makers within an organization must start from a key concept, namely, from responsibility. This will help avoiding the trap of automatically putting equal between managers and executives (decision makers). Why would it be wrong? Because Drucker is saying that not all managers are decision makers and decision makers are not all managers. Then, what is the correct definition of an executive? Based on the concept of responsibility, we can see that a modern organization needs two types of characters in positions that involve responsibility, authority and decision-making capacity: The Manager – meaning the person managing a group of people who are his subordinates – and The Individual Professional Contributor or, the knowledge worker, as Drucker likes to call him.

So, in the modern organization, a manager or individual professional contributor is an executive if by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results. This may be the capacity of a business to bring out a new product or to obtain a larger share of a given market. It may be the capacity of a hospital to provide bedside care to its patients, and so on. Such a man (or woman) must make decisions; he cannot just carry out orders. He must take responsibility for his contribution.

Building on strengths

Any person, object or situation has both strengths and weaknesses. As a result, there are two ways on which we can act: cover/correct weaknesses or exploit strengths. What is the correct path? Drucker says that, in order to get results, you must use all available strengths of your partners, superiors or of your own. Performance can only be build on the strengths and, therefore, harnessing strengths is the only purpose of the organization.

Why is this idea so important? Because there is a bad tendency, especially when it comes to personal assessment, to look for ways to remedy the situation when someone concludes he has weaknesses in some area. The idea to correct is not wrong in itself but the purpose of the correction must be the right one. There is no universal genius and nobody should try to be good at everything. Correction must be aimed at controlling the negative effects (damage control). A very interesting book on this subjects is “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham.

Unlike other practices that determine effectiveness, harnessing strengths, is both a practice and an attitude. If we discipline ourselves to look for the potential of a person or situation and not for the weaknesses, we develop the habit of identifying and building on strengths.

Conclusion

Although written in simple words and easy to read, the book is not superficial. It is not the “5 steps to effectiveness” kind of book. It is a competent analysis that manages to make tangible a vital concept for an executive. With clear ideas and eloquent examples, the book worth reading and I recommend it to every person aspiring to a position of responsibility.

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Apple is loosing the supremacy

This posts starts from an article I recently read, according to which, Apple was granted with a patent on using applications during calls. I have never been an Apple follower and most probably I will not become one very soon. Although they have very good and stylish products, I believe their force is coming from the way they managed to educate the market and to create a consumer culture. A culture that is almost exclusively based on user experience. I’m not sure if it was based on deep understanding of the consumer or it was based on intuition, but what Steve Jobs did was a work of a genius. I appreciate him very much for this and there a a lot of stuff to be learned from him.

What is staggering for me is that I (almost) never heard an Apple user saying that he or she chose an Apple product due to its capabilities, although we are in the context of highly technological products. All the time people are asking me: is this a good computer? Does it worth the money? But I never got this question regarding an iPad, or iPhone, or any other Apple product. The acquisition of these products has all the time to do with the experience. The only brand, that I know, that works on the same principle is Starbucks. Very rarely I heard somebody going for a Starbucks drink because of the taste. The coffee is good, no complains about that, but the choice has to do, again, with the whole experience Starbucks is offering.

In this conditions, why I do believe Apple is slipping downward? Of course Steve Jobs is not with us anymore and this will have for sure an impact but that’s not what I have in mind. Of course Android market share is increasing but this is more an organic growth than a revolution, and it has to do with the maturity of the software platform and hardware terminals available on the market.

My mind sticks to the article I mentioned in the beginning. Lately, Apple started a war with everybody. Of course they have to protect their innovations but this sounds to me like a guerrilla war that Apple cannot win. They had a few years advance in the field but the competitors, like Samsung, HTC, Motorola and even Nokia, the sleeping giant, are getting closer (at least). If Apple is fighting all of them (publicly), they will undermine their innovation leader position they have in the eyes of the users. I think this is very wrong.

At no tine their success relied heavily on the technology. Sure, they had to produce excellent products, otherwise nobody will pay the money, but their great skill is to translate technology into human experience. This is their greatest strength and, in my opinion, they should stick to it.

I don’t think Apple can gain anymore market share. I even think they will lose a part of it, mainly some of the users that bought Apple because of the technology. But Apple has a strong core or users that do not care some much that the competitors got on the same level or beyond. They should continue to do improve where they already are the best. Buy the way, Samsung understood very well the power of Apple and produced some very good commercials to hit them.

For sure in one month or one year the Apple Store will have the same good position in the shopping mall and most probably people will still wait in queue for the next release, but, their world domination chapter is close to the end (at least this one). They will be only one of the many players in the market.

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Relationships and Influence

Year 2011 is running out fast and it’s the time for evaluations. In this period, the majority of the companies are organizing different sort of events for customers, partners or employees. Thousands of emails are being sent and the managers are sending the “standard” holidays messages to their subordinates. Unfortunately the majority of these actions are superficial, they are party of the business etiquette. Everybody knows it and people don’t really pay to much attention to these messages.

Although, I consider appropriate to communicate appreciation and last week I had an interesting thought related to this subject. What if I take this business practice to personal level? I am thinking to the people I related to this year, which of them influenced my life in a considerable way? Who helped me grow? Who brought positive changes to my life? I like categories so, I split the influence in 3 categories: personal, spiritual and professional. Now, I have to choose the VIP for each of these chapters and to find the right way to show them my gratitude.

Going one step further, I have to ask the following question: Who did I influenced this year and in what way? Is anybody a better person also because of me? Did anybody achieved success, be it personal, spiritual or professional, with my support? One of the problems of our society is the lack of good models, the lack of valuable human landmarks. Even worse, the models and values heavily promoted in media are non-values.

We are social beings. We can develop in healthy way only in the presence of other people. I think we should seriously consider the relations we have. We have to evaluate them and evaluate ourselves. We need to limit the negative influences on us, we have to treasure the people who lift us and I believe it is a wonderful thing to show them our appreciation. And, I also think we have to learn to be models for the people around us. We are responsible for the influence we are having to the world around, be it good or bad. I encourage you to think for a few minutes on this topic when you’ll evaluate year 2011. Happy holidays and many blessings for the year to come!

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Videoconferencing for businesses

I worked several years in a position that required me to travel quite frequently. I enjoyed the opportunity to visit many places that I would have never visited on vacation, but I also had to accept disadvantages not always easy to overlooked. Those who travel often for business purposes are aware of these disadvantages: broken plans, frustrations of the family, life or health risks, fatigue, missed important moments, etc..

In the last weeks I worked on a project about the benefits of videoconferencing solutions for business. Besides the direct benefits to companies such as cost savings, flexible and homogeneous teams or shorter time to market, there is an particular added benefit for the employees: improved quality of life. How is this happening? There are two main directions: support for teleworking and avoiding a significant part of business travel.

At least in theory, teleworking opens an unexpected opportunity for employers to recruit from anywhere, being able to choose the best resources on the market. We are not there yet, at least not widely, but the opportunity to regularly work from home is used frequently as a benefit offered to employees. One thing worth mentioning is the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the employee, which, at least in terms of work ethic, must deliver a similar quality of work as the activity conducted in the office. In this context, videoconferencing is a great tool that can help maintain team cohesion while its members are located in different points. I even know departments leaders who chose the videoconference as a permanent replacement of the weekly status meetings with the team leaders.

Most often we think of videoconferencing as a replacement for travels to countries at the end of the world. The advantages are obvious in this case, but why looking so far when the examples are right under our eyes? I do not know how many of the people working in big cities see love to go from one to another company’s headquarters, located at the opposite end of the city. Many times I lost 2-3 hours in traffic for a discussion of 10-15 minutes. It is frustrating, costly and it’s not environmentally friendly. From personal experience I know that face to face discussions are necessary in some cases, as phone conversations often distort the message. However, even if not considering telepresence, full-size video conferencing that creates almost a natural experience but is very expensive, I think that in 9 of 10 cases requiring eye contact, meetings could be successfully replaced by a videoconference.

To be clear, when I say videoconferencing, I’m not referring to Skype. Skype is a nice tool for personal use, but it’s not applicable to business. Experience provided by this kind of tool would not raise to the required level. Videoconferencing for businesses must meet strict requirements regarding the quality and high availability of the service.

I am not for the total replacement of human contact with technology tools. They lack the social component and distort to some extent the message, but when the situation allows it, I recommend using tools that make life easier and better balanced. Instead of 2 hours lost through traffic, I prefer to have one hour in the park:)

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Pen and paper

I do not know how many of you are familiar with the phrase “Death by PowePoint”. In a few words, it’s the terrible boredom that the audience of a slides based presentation must endure most of the times. As my brother said one day, many presentations have the “Point” but are lacking the “Power”. Not long ago, while looking for some materials needed for a presentation I found a very interesting book, “Presentation Zen” written by Garr Reynolds, which, in fact, I highly recommend it to those who want to improve their preparation and public presentation skills.

The book contains numerous interesting ideas but I will focus only on one of them. One of the chapters referring to the preparation phase has the name: “Planning Analog” and it starts with what Steve Jobs said, about 20 years ago, while talking about personal computer potential: “What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” The question is: in design phase, is the computer really like a bicycle for our minds? The author’s answer, in the context of slides preparation, is negative.

At the beginning I was a little surprised by the idea of using pen and paper in the ideas design phase as I know there plenty of software applications on the market claiming creativity enhancement. What’s the reason for this idea? I found two answers based on my own experience:

  1. Any program that I used was created by a different person with different thinking patterns, and, because of that, it will direct my creativity in a very specific way. In other words, my thoughts will have to adapt to the model the program is providing me.
  2. The computer became an instrument used in too many activities: communication, creation, entertainment, work and so on. Personally, I find it difficult to focus as all the time something else will appear that distracts me, either online or offline.

As you have in front of you only a sheet of white paper, both problems disappear. It will be just you, together with your thoughts. As the mathematician Christopher Zeeman said: “Technical skills are the master of complexity while creativity is the master of simplicity”. The simple act of placing ideas on the paper is natural and very powerful. Of course, once your thoughts took shape and from chaos a clear line of ideas appeared, the computer becomes an excellent tool. Used with skill can save many hours of hard work and many precious resources. But in the creation and design phase, it just doesn’t seems to be the right tool.

One interesting problem comes to my mind: for the generation that was born with a PC in their home, will the situation be the same? It’s likely to be different. The human beings have an stunning capacity to adapt to the environment and, probably, the new generation will loose the appeal for pen and paper. But for us, the ones who learned to write on paper before even seeing a keyboard, the magic of these simple, but so powerful instruments remains: pen and paper.

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Social networks influence on career

We live in a hyper-connected world. Communications technology has changed the face of many industries and one of the areas significantly influenced the jobs market. Most of us enjoy the benefits of online recruitment sites through which we have access to almost all possible and impossible jobs available today in the world. There are also websites where you can find employees feedback on the companies they work for. Obviously, these are exaggerations, especially negative ones, but if you can read between the lines you can create a pretty good picture about the company you want to work for.

From the employer perspective, I would say, it is more difficult to discover what kind of people apply for your positions. There are classical techniques that companies use when recruiting: interviews, referrals, psychological tests, technical tests, etc.. But there is always an error margin in selecting an employee and its not uncommon to get unpleasant surprises. However, we are experiencing an major shift in the recruitment process. Employers began to receive unexpected help from the Internet and, in particular from social networks.

The results of the survey in 2010 published by Jobvite showed that recruiting using online social networks has become a primary channel for companies looking to hire. 83% of respondents say they already use social networks for this purpose or will do it soon. Among the most commonly used social networks the top three are: LinkedIn, used by 78% of companies, Facebook with 55% and Twitter with 45%. For more details, check the free report on Jobvite website.

Only Facebook already has over 500 million active users, with 50% of them accessing their account daily. As much as our existence is increasingly going online, it will get easier to create the personal and professional profile of someone based on the information about that person available on the Internet. Web 2.0, based mostly on user-generated content, can be your friend or your enemy in seeking or keeping a job.

Obviously ,there are information about you on the web which you can control and information that can’t control. Here’s what you can do:

1. Be careful of what comments and what statuses are you posting online.
2. Avoid as much as possible to post online critics about your bosses or colleagues.
3. Avoid uploading inappropriate pictures and if your friends do that in your place, ask them kindly to delete them.
4. Configure your social networking profiles so that your approval is required for any comment or tag on the photos before being made public.
5. Builds a consistent online image. Do not try to appear eager for adventure on Facebook and  highly reliable on LinkedIn. It will not work.
6. Ask for recommendations where this is possible. It is good to have different recommendations: bosses, colleagues and subordinates. Don’t forget that you should also prepare recommendations. Be honest and creative.
7. Make sure that the information you put  in the resume will not be contradicted by the information available online. You will lose credibility.

The Internet has made the world becoming one large community. Basically, everyone “knows” everybody. It is difficult to hide and that, after all, is not a bad thing.

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