Book Depository: The Grid

The first edition of Matt Watkinson’s book hasn’t been out for long. In this review, I’m deliberately not giving away much away about the model, although you can get more information from his site. The book’s worth a read, though: I’d recommend you find a copy if you’re interested in knowing more.

Spare a thought for managers. After being assailed by the seven habits of highly effective people, they’ve had to learn the five dysfunctions of a team, and how to wear the six thinking hats. They’ve sat exams on the thirty-odd rules for winning friends and influencing people. And that’s before they’ve reached the maze of psychometric systems. Whenever an occupational psychologist or PPE graduate from The Guardian tosses a fresh paperback into the fray, off tramps the executive team to a Home Counties barn to hear all about today’s mnemonic. Management, too, must have its fads.

Those books I flippantly cited share a perspective on how to come together as fallible, sensitive human beings, to engage with emotion but not to be controlled by it, and to cooperate. So much is written about this because ego-driven organisms need constant reminding. What we haven’t yet had, but we desperately need, is a self-consistent guide to untangling the collective insights we contribute into a coherent strategy that is explainable, defensible, and good for our business.

The cognitive load of business decisions is enormous. Most people retreat to their own specialisms under such pressure, but this is dangerous: decisions have consequences that affect organisations in ways that we continually fail to anticipate. There are well-trodden books on this pathology in other arenas of endeavour: The Checklist Manifesto, Thinking Fast and Slow, and so on, but the favourite best practices in surgery and aviation are a decade or two ahead of the art of management.

The Grid (uppercase ‘G’ for the title; lowercase ‘g’ for the tool) is an attempt to address this problem. It presents a system for thinking about the business as a whole when making choices. The exposition of the grid is interwoven with real cautionary tales, where complacency or poor groundwork by well-regarded leaders resulted in expensive, high-profile cock-ups. There are also positive lessons: tales of clever but difficult manoeuvring saving companies from disaster. Versions of these stories exist for businesses of every size and kind: the ones in this book tend to be very recent (the bones of Edsel can rest in peace), but it’s clear that failures can be post-rationalised back to the dawn of time. What matters is anticipating them before it’s too late.

Part checklist, part canvas, the grid looks almost too simple. On one axis are the three parties that a decision will affect: customers, the market (in this case, other companies such as rivals, distributors, and suppliers), and the organisation itself. On the other axis are the three categories by which the viability of a business is measured: its desirability, profitability, and longevity. The nine pigeonholes where the categories intersect are the grid, which is all that you need to consider. Each pigeonhole contains a checklist of three items. That’s twenty-seven things in total — a lot to remember, but the idea is that this data is organised. You start in one position in the fully-formed grid, and dance around it until you’ve looked at a decision in terms of every relevant part of the business it could affect. You mark the things that might be problems in red, and work out what to do about them, gradually minimising the amount of red ink until it’s small enough to deal with.

It’s really that simple. Well, almost: the book is nearly 300 pages long, and most of this is commentary about what is meant by the subheadings in each pigeonhole, and how to understand them. These ‘deep dive’ pages concern the clarifications, footnotes, anecdotes, and lessons. They furnish breezy tutorials of the accounting, marketing, and product-related terminology for those who aren’t already generalists. This was clearly a difficult but necessary courtesy: it’s one thing to say ‘look after capital expenditure’ (which Matt does: it sits in the space where ‘organisation’ meets ‘profitability’). It’s of limited use, though, until you’ve satisfactorily explained to an autodidactic marketer what capital expenditure is, and why a company’s books are balanced in the way they are. Matt does this adeptly.

Where some of this material is simplified to the point of absurdity, the author confesses that his cavalier examples are dumb for the purposes of brevity, and then cuts straight to the point. He has enough respect for the subject and the reader to judge this trick about well enough. The examples are well-referenced, and written in the snappy journalistic style familiar to readers of modern management books. While the synonyms for ‘company’ wear occasionally thin, Matt steers just the correct side of Jeffrey Archer when describing a business once again as an ‘icon’, ‘phenomenon’, even ‘behemoth’. However, that I’m judging a management book by its cover-to-cover readability means that he’s already pushing standards that these books rarely set for themselves. Matt’s joy for his subject and his humorous, knowing flourishes impart a refreshing charisma and self-awareness that seldom coexist in much of this literature. His occasional bitchy parentheses are a delight.

The genius of the grid, as with any explanatory system, is its method of abstraction. The effort it took Matt to concoct the grid is explicit in the introduction, and implicit elsewhere. Twenty-seven headings are all you need. That it doesn’t matter that these tabulated things are, in reality, nested, interrelated, recursive, fly out of their pigeonholes, sit behind other things, obscure one another from time to time, and cannot always be fully characterised or understood in a real enterprise, is stated but doesn’t always matter. The central tenet of this book is that all the horrendous complexity of a business decision can be laid upon the grid like a spatchcock chicken, visible at once holistically and reductively. At first, this seems extraordinary and magical. It’s so far withstood my whataboutery, and there is no shortage of better-placed people queueing up to tug at its threads, so we’ll soon learn if anything is misplaced or omitted. I’ve printed out the twenty-seven headings and stuck them on the inside cover of my workbook as an aide memoire, and I’ve never done this with a management manual before. The Grid deserves repeated attempts to attack it. It will get them, and has a good chance of prevailing.

What’s less good about this book? It’s hard to fault its research even in my own area, but specialism is what your company will need. Without trustworthy domain experience, you can’t check the information you put into the grid. You might not otherwise know whether to write on it in red ink, green ink, or no ink at all.

The section on legal compliance, for example, is where an expert can add light and shade. Yes, larger firms have specialist teams that make the demands of meeting a territory’s rules part of their fixed costs; yes, they can even negotiate sweetheart deals with governments if they’re powerful enough both to broker them and to weather the backlash that follows. At the other end of the scale — something Matt doesn’t mention — obscurity is also a strength.

Once upon a time, I was working for a company whose rivals were hit simultaneously by multimillion dollar fines by the FCC for first offences of mislabelling products. We were too small, and our infractions too minor, for them to care. A company will often evade a regulator’s radar until they are big enough. Compliant and appealing product packaging and labelling, for example, are actually very hard for any company to nail. There’s no point in a regulator litigating an upstart into the dust, unless they’re posing a danger to life and limb, the native economy is threatened, or they’re so flush that it’ll make a decent difference to the exchequer. Perhaps it’s in bad taste to publish the advice that laws apply mostly to those in the middle, but it’s been said in print before, and needn’t be seen as a problem. My industry supports hundreds of home-build enthusiasts selling their own little electronic music toys outside product law, because their margins and costs afford no other way of working. The grey market is where innovation often starts, and where tomorrow’s legitimate CEOs come from. If our governments shut down these operations, cultural movements and would-be entrepreneurs would disappear forever. It’s all data that fits the grid, but you still need the right person at the table to hand you the correct colour of felt tip.

Where he’s on his own turf, Matt writes most persuasively and fluently. There are some beautiful set pieces, such as the discussion of power play at the start of the ‘bargaining power’ chapter. His coda on the relationship between running a business and learning to surf assimilates a personal passion without seeming at all indulgent. And now I know that Windows 8’s breaking of the ‘Start’ button is called a strong habit intrusion, I’m going to be using that term every time I see an example of it, until designers scream at me to stop.

My wife, one of the best hole-pickers I’ve ever met, points out a limitation of the grid over untidier table-based systems such as the Business Model Canvas, or the upstart Lean Canvas variant: the grid is a best fit for incremental business decisions, where you understand your position, and can trust your data. Shall we make this product, or that product? Shall we spend on a campaign, or an acquisition? What needs to be in place this year, and who do we need to watch? If your tenure begins, as many do, with a shaky foundation: building a tech company from scratch, merging two disparate organisations, or fixing an old-school enterprise that hasn’t made a profit in a decade, the grid might be too granular, and not the first resort. Otherwise, you’d quickly be overwhelmed with dubious data unless you switched either to intuition, seeing the problem as one requiring a visionary backed up by strong discipline, or by going back to first principles and redrawing the company around the scraps that already function. Only then would the grid make its outing, to confirm the robustness of your next steps.

All this considered, the only thing that’s wrong with The Grid is what’s missing on purpose. As Matt explains at the beginning, the grid determines how you turn information into a decision: not how to read the data, or how to carry out the plans you make. What you don’t find in the book are thorough treatments of technology strategy or culture, although the stories are there. It doesn’t account for the role of visionaries in your business; the art of persuasion, compromise, and execution; how to communicate a plan to subordinates; the extent to which change in any company is limited to what politics and culture will permit. The danger with this book, then, is that its readership will be those who pick it up because they have a desire to embrace complexity and follow the evidence. They’ll love this book as I have, will grow from its lessons, and may run brilliant businesses of their own but, with the ability to learn and assimilate, they might not have needed the grid. The cautionary tales that The Grid retells are mostly the consequences of hubris, which no amount of analysis will ever avoid. If the information your company needs is purposely ignored or suppressed; if your power structures were set up so that feel beats fact; if the people who would check your excesses are locked out of the boardroom because they bear inconvenient news, then The Grid won’t help you, and neither will anything else. For the rest of us, it’s a refreshing, authoritative manual for business design, and the most comprehensive planning tool of the many I’ve seen.

(In case you missed it, the Amazon link is here.)

Book Depository: Primal Leadership

This book, by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, boasts a handful of plaudits on the back cover. There’s one copy at ROLI and it wasn’t well-thumbed.

If you’ve been assigned a team, and had to steer everybody through the maelstrom of adversity, distractions, and competing opportunities that circumstance will generally chuck your way, this book argues that there are two broad categories of approach. First, the resonant approaches, which are great for teams that are already motivated and capable. Then, the dissonant ones, which are best applied in determined bursts to teams or individuals who aren’t.

Experienced leaders of quality will naturally pick an appropriate style for the circumstance, although different people will have different favourite tools.

The book suggests that there are four resonant styles:

  • Visionary. Persuading the team to buy into an audacious long-term strategy.
  • Coaching. Orienting people to the organisation’s goals, individual by individual.
  • Affiliative. Encouraging harmonious interpersonal relationships to exist within the team.
  • Democratic. Soliciting individual opinions and perspectives.

and two dissonant ones:

  • Pacesetting. Applying aggressive individual targets and grinding these out of the team.
  • Commanding. Providing direction without supplying rationale or getting buy-in.

They are all suitable under certain circumstances and problematic under others. The democratic style, for example, will paralyse an organisation if its survival depends on making quick decisions. Coaching can fail if individuals’ styles don’t match those of the coach, or for people who need regular, detailed feedback and excessive contact hours.

Dissonant styles are great when you think people have lost motivation or are underperforming. They are engaging and can actually help reconcile people with their work, but there’s a risk of damaging the morale of those who feel rewarded when they’re given greater autonomy (most engineers I’ve met are like this).

Much of the rest of the book is about building emotional intelligence through coaching, introspection, and honest solicitation of feedback. Emotional intelligence is the thing that tells you which tool is best to deploy at a given time. There are a few pages explicitly on not being a dickhead, as it’s a poor long-term strategy — but how many tech CEOs, with their shareholdings and their eyes on a lucrative exit, are interested in building companies to last these days?

There’s also a section on why leadership can fail with even the best of styles and intentions. These reasons will be familiar to anybody who’s read MSP or received training in programme management: lack of executive buy-in; failure to align with the culture; failing to motivate people to understand why they need to change their behaviour.

A leader must be part of the team, so that bad news and drifting goals do not get withheld from them, and also so that respect can naturally be cultivated. However, leaders must also be visibly removed from the team. They are concerned about wider priorities, and the relationship of their team to the others, so they must not become engrossed in the minutiae of fine-grained problems and tasks. This is a hard balance to maintain.

Essentially, if you live to learn, you love what your company does, you’re genuinely interested in the welfare and dynamics of your team, and you’re supported by a functional mentorship scheme, you’ll be all right without this book.

At a little under 300 pages, it’s another seam of great information that might have been written as a twelve-page pamphlet, if only they’d removed all the flaccid case studies that people seem to think are needed in a book like this. This book’s volley of supporting stories are so generalised that they are neither memorable nor convincing. Added to this padding is the occasional foray into neuroscience. Without any central thesis about how neural anatomy relates to emotional intelligence, this ends up reading like the marginal scrawlings of a New Ager: it’s all amygdala here and occipital lobe there, and then a digression about radiating spiritual harmony.

So I suppose I’m fortunate that I found this book so hard to digest.

Putting together a new standard

The topic I jettisoned from my talk about MPE at last week’s conference was my thoughts about what makes a good Working Group, as I didn’t want to imply any criticism of the MIDI Manufacturers Association or its members.

As Chair of the MPE Working Group, I neither presume that I can pilot harder projects through technical and diplomatic adversity, nor will I tempt fate by attributing much talent to what might just be beginner’s luck. All I know is that, over the years, I have seen a couple of things.

Some time in the past, I sounded off about what is wrong with MIDI, and every now and then I still do, but always with a veneration for a standard that has managed to age so gracefully while seeing off so many rivals.

The HD Working Group has been meeting at least weekly for more than a decade now to define a successor to MIDI, and we’ve all been waiting, reading, and preparing. It’s not been an easy journey, and HD has recently stumbled at one of the last hurdles. The MIDI Manufacturers Association functions as a democracy of individual companies, and getting a new idea ratified means convincing important stakeholders that they will benefit from your changes and not be threatened by them.

This has always worked for small changes. But a wholesale replacement for MIDI must be non-disruptive, and a non-disruptive replacement is a paradox. After ten years of development, the HD spec is more complex and intimidating than MIDI, there’s no straightforward compatibility between the two, and it’s too new even to be clear how it’ll be used. MIDI has survived nearly 35 years being meddled with and patched up — MPE is just the latest way of doing this.

The HD spec would fix a lot of our problems automatically and for good, but it’s in a tricky place. Every passing year, the tweaks to the old spec gain some ground on the new, and the case for the new diminishes.

Either in its current or a modified form, I want HD to thrive. It seems that there are a few options open to the Working Group to keep it alive, all of which might work, in varying shades of palatability. Some of these are happening, and some aren’t:

  • Keep working on the market model, convincing the company representatives who intend to vote ‘no’ that it’s in their interests to vote ‘yes’.
  • Allow companies to start commercialising the draft specification without permission, on the basis that the first few compatible products will create a small ecosystem, prove a market for HD devices, and establish a commercial case without frightening incumbents.
  • Encourage software framework developers to add implementations of HD to make it easier for third parties to assimilate.
  • Approach a different standards body, such as the USB Implementers Forum or the ISO, to ratify the specification as a standard that is independent of MIDI, and bring it back to the MMA as a fait accompli. This might be less hard, but risks destroying the MMA by driving it into irrelevance (or making it look like this is the intention). Doing so could alienate much of the industry.
  • Go back to the drawing board, and work out a roadmap where MIDI 1.0 can be turned into MIDI 2.0 by backwards-compatible steps, each of which will require a little work in exchange for some exploitable advantages. For example, MIDI 1.1 could mandate full-speed USB, assume bidirectionality by default, revise its note model to support MPE, respond to the System Exclusive Device Inquiry message, and abandon Polyphonic Aftertouch (the messages for which might then be reappropriated at some point in the future). All of these have clear commercial value, ease communication with computers, and pave the way for a ten-year plan of improvement. The new spec gets chucked away, but not the underlying vision, which is actually the important part. Who, after all, knows what the market will need by the time MIDI 2.0 sees the light of day?

The last one would, of course, be terrible. HD isn’t at this stage and I hope it doesn’t reach it. For what it’s worth, though, here is my conclusion from what little I’ve seen of Working Groups.

Creating a new specification is just like software design …

  1. Have a short attention span, because you never know which way the industry will turn tomorrow.
  2. Surgically fulfil specific, identifiable needs.
  3. Always have an up-to-date implementation so that the spec makes sense.
  4. Engineers have enough to learn. Resist the temptation to change established practices. Even if it hurts a bit, make the old spec fit new requirements.
  5. Put something out within a year, or two things will happen: the world will forget you, and the sunk cost fallacy will sink its teeth in. In other words, hardly anyone will volunteer to junk more than a year’s work even when it’s the right thing to do.
  6. Capture neat ideas in a roadmap, and leave space to put them in, but promise as little as possible. Non-essential features should be marshalled into a to-do list for a future spec. They may never be needed in practice, so don’t burden early adopters with them.

… Except for the bits that aren’t.

  1. Keep the door open. Never work in secret or limit discussion. These days, being courteous and responsive to keyboard warriors is part of your marketing campaign. However —
  2. Don’t let your guests take over. Good specifications need clear ownership, so limit scope and limit control.
  3. In this industry, don’t sell your spec for money, as it will need all the help it can get. People have grown very accustomed to getting stuff for free.
  4. Make it really easy. Great documentation isn’t enough these days: people expect TED talks, code libraries, unit tests, and preferably source code for a working demo.
  5. Persistent and contrary people will drive you crazy along the way. It may not look like it, but many of the people that work you the hardest will turn out to be your greatest friends and advocates. Like you, they want this specification to meet their needs and succeed in the wider world, which is why they push back so hard. Do all you can to understand them, be unfailingly polite and positive, and go out of your way to accommodate them if that’s what it takes to keep them on-side.