Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

Small business planning

Posted by A Friend on 27 April 2009

Small Business Some people aspiring to start or get into a small business, especially those with available equity, often take proper business planning for granted. A proper business plan is typically required when applying for a business loan, but some people who do not need to apply for such loans may also tend to forget about the business plan, often to their detriment.

Take the case of Elsa whose eldest daughter Terrie was graduating from college. Like any good parent, Elsa was planning to give her daughter a good career start, and she thought getting her to manage her own business was the way to go. Problem was Elsa never had a background in business herself, so she did not really know where or how to start.

Elsa’s sister Brenda, on the other hand, married a local businessman and it just so happened that they had a small internet and arcade gaming business that they no longer had time to manage; or so they said. So they approached Elsa and suggested that it may be a good idea for her to purchase the business from them, with the eventual goal of getting Terrie to manage it after she graduates.

Elsa looked at this gesture as a benevolent offer from her sister and she gratefully accepted it without much thought. Meantime, Brenda offered for Terrie to work in the business part time to both learn how to run it, as well as have some idea of projected cash flows. The business was fairly simple to run, and cash flow was also reasonable.

What Elsa and Terrie did not know was patronage in the business was in fact declining, something that would have been readily apparent had they looked at historical revenue and profit records. They also did not know that a lot of the equipment used in the business needed constant replenishing, monitoring, and maintenance.

Elsa bought the business from Brenda in good faith, thinking that her sister was doing her a favor. But Brenda was in fact only disposing a business off that was already in its early stages of decline. It was only a year later that Elsa began to realize that she might have been taken advantage of by her own sister. Two more years later, she was forced to close the business down.

Roger is a slightly different case. He is Asian, and he comes from a fairly well off family of small business owners. He also just got married, and he and his wife Marcy are looking to start a business of their own.

But while the young couple has enough financial capital to start their own business, they could not really think of a good business idea. In the end, they decided to start small and low risk by buying a coffee shop franchise of a well known global brand. The only problem is despite the brand being popular globally it was fairly new in Roger and Marcy’s market.

However, instead of doing their own research to determine the feasibility of the franchise, Roger and Marcy relied heavily on information provided by the master franchise holder, which were all very positive. That and they also went to various religious temples and performed rituals asking gods and ancestors for blessings.

One ritual was to ask basic yes or no questions of the ancestors. To determine the answer, they will throw flat incense sticks in the air with labels on both sides. If the number of incense sticks landing with the right side up is more than those landing with the right side down, then the answer to the question is yes; otherwise, it’s a no.

The quirky thing about this process is if you are not satisfied with the answer, you can ask the ancestors again and again, like a child begging a parent for ice cream before dinner until the elder relents. Suffice it to say that Roger and Marcy did not leave the religious temples until they got all the blessings they wanted to start their own coffee shop business. The coffee shop business lasted less than two years.

Posted in Case Studies, Small Business | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Waffle of the month

Posted by A Friend on 22 April 2009

Waffle Some of our more regular and observant visitors might wonder what the WOTM category is all about. It actually stands for “waffle of the month”, and it’s the license we give ourselves to go a bit off-topic every once in a while. We did promise in our very first post that we’ll “keep the waffling to a minimum”, so readers can expect the waffling to just only be once a month.

Joining Twitter

We joined twitter last month. We joined merely because everybody seems to be talking about it, but over a month on, we’re still not quite sure how to use it most effectively. Our preliminary conclusion is twitter – social media in general, in fact – can potentially be a great business tool, but it may not be for everyone.

So while twitter can and should be included in marketing mix considerations, we probably won’t lose too much sleep if we can’t make it fit into our model. A possible folly is for people to just latch on to it because it seems to be what people are talking about these days and lose a lot of resources just getting it to work right for them.

Playing with site look and feel

We are still constantly playing with the look and feel of the site. We added, and then removed, a tags widget on the left sidebar as it looked too cluttered for our taste. We added Clustrmaps at the bottom of the right sidebar, mainly to give us a (free) indication of where our visitors are coming from. We did not expect visits from China and India to be so high, at least relative to the rest of the world; but thinking about it now, it probably makes sense just with their sheer volume of internet users.

We also added the new WordPress twitter widget on the right sidebar. This widget is fairly new and WordPress seems to still be working on some kinks here and there. But we trust Wordress to eventually get this right, so we’ll just leave it there. Last but not least, we’re experimenting with comment threading, another fairly new feature provided by WordPress.

“Sample Us” page

Just introduced this week is a new “Sample Us” page. The page contains links to seven previous posts, intended to give new visitors a feel of what this blog is about. The page is probably a bit unnecessary at this stage, considering that the blog is only a few months old.

But we received some feedback that the top menu bar looked a bit barren with just two items there, and we just could not think of anything else to add. We aim to update the page with different sample posts at least every two months so longer-term, we think it will prove good value for new visitors.


Finally, one of our workmates found out last year (by spying on our email) that we subscribe to the Dilbert daily strip, and she thoughtfully gave us a Dilbert desk calendar for Christmas. It was our first time to have a Dilbert desk calendar, so we really appreciated the gesture. And then we found that the strips in the calendar are two years old (we even read an exact same strip we have plastered on our wall)!

Posted in WOTM | Leave a Comment »

Scope creep of a different kind

Posted by A Friend on 17 April 2009

No End in Sight Scope creep is often the bane of every project manager’s existence. High on project managers’ hate lists are the project sponsors, business process owners, and end users who seem to think that there is no time limit to the introduction of new requirements. This, while at the same time querying why the project takes so long to finish and costs so much to complete.

However, there are some project managers who not only tolerate, but sometimes even spearhead and encourage, scope creep. This typically happens when a project manager also wears the account management or business development hat. So while their project management side may want to complete the project on time, scope, and budget; their account management or business development side aims for more revenue and continuous work.

Take the case of Simon, who was enterprise applications manager of a large multinational firm. The company was implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) system that was to be rolled out globally, and Simon was leading the pilot implementation. The pilot had a fairly generic scope, the aim being was to deliver the solution to all locations and customizations done at country level.

This was good enough as a starting point, but Simon kept introducing module after module of additional requirements that extended project timelines and bloated project budgets. Simon argued that the scope creep was necessary to ensure the quality of the finished product. In truth, Simon only wanted to ensure that his department’s budget and personnel are maintained, if not increased.

Simon’s initial attempts to expand the pilot’s functionality easily passed the change request process. But the module expansions not only extended timeline and budget requirements, these also introduced various layers of complexity that likewise introduced additional deployment risks that required mitigation. And often, Simon’s risk mitigating action was the introduction of yet more components to the pilot module.

The scope creeping exercise eventually got out of hand, as what was supposed to be a six to twelve month pilot project had entered its third year with no clear end in sight. Alarmingly, Simon was still introducing additional, “risk mitigating” requirements. Not only that, he grew to become more and more adamant and insistent on these change requests. Ultimately, management decided that the only way for the project to be completed was if Simon was let go.

Simon was quite well known in the industry, so he did not find it difficult to find a new job after his dismissal. His next assignment was as a contract project manager with a national electricity distributor. The company was looking at building its own custom CRM solution, as most of the products offered in the market looked too expensive and complex for its requirements.

Even before Simon joined, the project had already been budgeted and scoped, with the charter and statement of work already approved. Simon arrived at the commencement of business blueprint, and his initial task, aside from slowly taking over the management of the project, was to facilitate the workshops with subject matter experts (SMEs) and key users.

A mere four weeks after joining the project, Simon started questioning the project’s scope and pointing out what to him were big gaps between the proposed solution and the business’s requirements. His points were initially taken on board, and he was given significant leeway in re-scoping the project.

But then, two months later, Simon was still documenting requirements and conducting workshops, with no clear end in sight. This frustrated the project sponsor, as it became apparent that Simon was not only allowing the SMEs to introduce additional requirements, he was actually encouraging them to, without regard to the limited resources allocated to the project. Another month of yet more workshops later, Simon was advised that his services were no longer required.

On the surface, project managers like Simon either hold scope restrictions in contempt, or have a high level of customer orientation; it’s likely that neither of these is true. Rather, it’s more plausible that the likes of Simon just want to ensure their indispensability by continuously churning out work requirements. As with Simon’s case, this can sometimes backfire badly and can lead to them being dismissed rather quickly.

Posted in Case Studies, Project Management | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Expert excuses

Posted by A Friend on 13 April 2009

No Excuses A natural inclination of people who make mistakes at work is to first deny making the mistake, then deflect, and only admit the mistake if there is no other way out. Most novices who have not mastered the craft of making excuses are easily found out. But some are real experts at doing this. And some of these expert excuse givers are also the real life experts that we often rely on to do the job.

Take Rachel for example. She is a lead developer for an offshore outsourcing company and often finds herself involved in multiple projects at the same time. She is both very knowledgeable and efficient, and has an established reputation of being able to deliver solutions in very short timeframes. Rachel’s problem is she sometimes over-commits herself, and when faced with challenging situations and she is found to have some shortcomings with her delivery, she is often very quick to make excuses.

Once, she was required to deliver a fairly simple automated batch update program for an offshore client. The client’s lead business analyst came from a development background, and while they estimated the work to be completed within two to three days, they generously gave Rachel a week to complete the job. Unfortunately, because of Rachel’s conflicting commitments, two weeks had passed and Rachel still was not able to deliver the piece. The client took her to task for this, and she made an elaborate web of excuses about how the development was not so simple as initially outlined and how there was no functional specification given. The client’s view was the development was so simple that it did not even require a detailed specification.

Another time, again because of conflicting commitments, Rachel rushed the release of a small change request to a development through a productive environment without properly testing it. It turned out that while the update addressed the change required, it also caused some other functionality to be lost. The client took Rachel to task for this, and rather than just admitting that she did not do proper regression testing, she blamed the client for not having any test scripts and not providing a functional resource to help her. The client’s expectation of people at her level is they can do their own test scripts.

Charlie is a slightly different case. He is an in-house senior business analyst for a global manufacturer. He has been with the company for over ten years and for most of the time, he has been involved in turnkey organizational change projects. So Charlie’s expertise cuts across the organization, and he is often called upon to work on projects requiring complex process changes.

Like Rachel, Charlie often finds his time and attention divided between multiple projects. And while Charlie is a proven doer, he is known to hog all of the work and is not very good at delegating. So more often than not, Charlie finds himself spending anywhere between 12 to 16 hours a day working. The company understands this and is generally understanding of Charlie’s shortcomings. In fact, it is common for team members to shield Charlie from criticism and make excuses on his behalf.

In situations when his teammates can no longer make excuses for him and his mistakes are pointed out, Charlie is known to have a very short fuse and is quick to throw a tantrum. He engages in emotional blackmail and will promptly point out all of the hard work that he has done and the long hours that he has spent working. Without saying it outright, Charlie is communicating that because of his workload, no one should be faulting him, even when he is at fault.

Technically, Rachel and Charlie are right and are entitled to the excuses that they make, as they should not be expected to work the ridiculous hours that they are doing. However, it is also Rachel and Charlie’s responsibility to make sure that they only accept work that they can handle. Once they accept the responsibility for a piece of work, they should also accept the level of scrutiny that goes with it.

Experts who are wont to making excuses are generally the high maintenance types in organizations. They know that they are a valuable commodity, and they take advantage of, sometimes even exploit, this knowledge. They are both an asset and a liability. They crave for and embrace recognition, but they find it hard to accept accountability.

Posted in Accountability, Case Studies | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

9 model business blogs

Posted by A Friend on 9 April 2009

Model Samples Following on from our post on pretend online gurus, we thought it might be good to present our readers with a few examples of what we believe are model business blogs. For blog readers looking for value, these can be looked at as benchmarks of what to look for in monetized blogs. For business bloggers looking to monetize their blogs, these can serve as standards to aspire to.

Two common themes you will find from the samples: (1) these bloggers appear to have already established reputations in their offline lives and their blogs just serve as extension channels; and (2) they provide a lot of free, useful content for their readers. We also deliberately picked blog authors who provide at least some content downloads without the opt-in requirement to their mailing lists or newsletters.

Chris Anderson
Tom Asacker
Seth Godin
Scott Ginsberg
John Moore
Tom Peters
David Meerman Scott
Rajesh Setty

    Rajesh Setty is an entrepreneur and author, and blogger. Of the bloggers that we have listed here, he is our favorite. For no reason other than his messages resonate to us the most. Rajesh provides a lot of freely downloadable resources, including his book, “Beyond Code”, in its entirety.

Bob Sutton

There are other notable business blogs and bloggers out there. Our purpose of citing the above nine is not so much to provide a definitive list, but to present a starting point, and perhaps a benchmark. And of course, if there is a business blog or blogger you have a particularly high regard for, please leave a comment and let us know.

Posted in Blogging | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Two girls in the cafe

Posted by A Friend on 4 April 2009

Girls in the Cafe One of our few personal indulgences is a lazy weekend brunch. We have been regularly going to this small café just a short stroll from our place in the last two months, and every time we ordered the same thing: bacon and eggs on toast, special request for the eggs to be scrambled, and a long macchiato.

We have had two ladies serving us alternately depending on the time and day, and the way they have gone about their business has been an interesting case study on good customer service and taking personal responsibility for us.

The first appears to be no more than 18 years old and is most likely a full time student waitressing part-time for extra pocket money. We observed that she is a very efficient worker and seems to know her way around the café very well. We actually half expected to confuse her with our order as it was not in the menu, but we were pleasantly surprised when she got our order right first time.

She made a mistake the second time we placed the same order with her: she took our money and order right, but she failed to tell the chef that we requested for the eggs to be scrambled. The scrambled eggs were really just a preference, so we let this pass without even mentioning the oversight.

We got her again around two weeks later, and we placed our usual order. To our surprise, and without our prompting, she said that she felt really bad about getting our order wrong the previous time. The mistake was not really a big deal to us, but it obviously was to her. Not only that, she remembered us, and she remembered to apologize. We were suitably impressed.

The second lady is more mature, probably in her early 40s, and she appears like she’s a career waitress. In contrast to the young girl, this one seems unsure of herself, and she totally got lost the first time we placed our “special” order with her: she actually had to ask around whether the order was possible, and we had to even tell her how much it cost (she charged us a dollar less).

As with the younger lady, we did not really mind the small inconvenience. This was after all a small neighborhood café, and it might have been possible that our request was not so common. We did not even mind when she repeated exactly the same mistake on two other occasions.

However, just last weekend, she stumbled again. This time, she actually got our order wrong, and instead of giving us the bacon and eggs on toast, she only gave us scrambled eggs on toast, a different item on their menu. We brought this to her attention, and she promptly took our order back to the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later, with our correct order. Then she said: “Apologies for that, it was the chef’s mistake.”

It was clearly her mistake. She took our order, so she knew exactly what it was. She would have given the order to the chef, and even if the chef got it wrong, she would have had the opportunity to immediately correct this before taking the food to us. She did not do this, and instead of just unreservedly apologizing, she decided to put somebody else in trouble to cover her own inadequacy.

The two girls are a contrast of each other. The former is a quick learner, is customer focused, and takes personal responsibility. The latter does not seem to learn from her mistakes, does not remember her customers, and is quick to blame others for her own shortcomings.

This story also shows that good customer service and taking personal responsibility knows no age boundaries. These can be learned at a very young age on the one hand, but can also be totally missed by more mature aged persons despite their years of industry experience on the other.

Posted in Case Studies, Small Business | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

12 early signs of leadership potential

Posted by A Friend on 30 March 2009

Potential Early this month, in our post about good performers failing as leaders, we alluded to a view that not all good followers, performers, and managers can become good leaders. In fact, some people – and some are very good performers – dread becoming “the boss” (see “The Boss Trap” for a good and concise case study).

Good performance in an existing role should not mean an automatic promotion into a new role, especially if the new role requires someone who does not want to become a boss to be the boss. In our experience, the selection process for leadership promotion continues to be wrongly heavily weighted against current performance.

While current performance should continue to be part of the criteria, we believe the identification of leadership attributes should have a heavier weighting. Provided below is a list of early signs of leadership potential that we believe should figure prominently in any leadership consideration.

    1. Future leaders have initiative. They are quick to identify things that need to be done, and proceed to just do these, with minimal prompting and supervision. Should they be stuck with not a lot of productive things to do, they ask for more work. They do not wait around and are not contented to just be fed work and instructions.

    2. Future leaders take ownership. They run with the tasks given to them and take responsibility for their completion. They do not go around asking how things should be done every five minutes, they just do. They are not afraid of making mistakes.

    3. Future leaders listen to others and seek advice. This should not be confused with the pest asking questions every five minutes because they are afraid of making mistakes and taking ownership, and wants to be guided every step of the way in completing their tasks. Future leaders understand that there is so much that they need to learn, and they act like sponges to new insights and ideas. Future leaders seek role models and mentors; they are thirsty and hungry for knowledge.

    4. Future leaders have an independent mind. They may not know everything and may ask around for people’s insights, but they have their own mind and draw their own conclusions. When mentoring a future leader, a good sign that you are in the right track is when you have regular “agree to disagree” sessions.

    5. Future leaders are passionate and opinionated. They have views and causes that they feel strongly about, and they do not shy away from sharing these (bonus points if these are contrary to a mentor’s); these do not even have to be work related. This shows that they are not fence sitters or brown nosers; and they are strong decision makers.

    6. Future leaders share their knowledge. They understand that the more they share, the more they get back, and the better it is for everyone. Knowledge hoarders are generally the types who are insecure of themselves or their position in organizations; they should not be leading.

    7. Future leaders recognize their limitations. They know that they cannot possibly know and do everything. They are not loath to revealing their weaknesses, and even strive to ensure that these are addressed by surrounding themselves with people who have strengths in their problem areas.

    8. Future leaders seek help. This is very closely related to the previous two items. Future leaders seek help because they lack the skills and competency, because there are others who can perform better, or because it is an opportunity to share knowledge around. Future leaders do not seek help to palm off tasks they do not want.

    9. Future leaders accept mistakes. People who take task ownership will invariably make mistakes – lots, even. Future leaders readily admit the mistakes they make, learn from these, and move on. They do not make excuses.

    10. Future leaders avoid putting blame on others. While future leaders readily admit mistakes that are theirs, they are often protective of others. What this means is while a mistake is acknowledged, finger-pointing is generally avoided. Future leaders are quick to claim the mistake as “ours” or “the team’s” rather than singling an individual out.

    11. Future leaders assume informal leadership roles. They do not need to be formally assigned a leadership role or title; they just naturally assume the role. We should stress naturally: they do not do it to score extra points or gain an advantage over their peers. They assume the role for its own sake, not because of some implied reward.

    12. Future leaders inspire performance. A future leader’s passion, drive, and commitment are contagious. They inspire others around them to perform, and they often bring out the best in everyone included in their sphere of influence.

If you are managing someone who exhibits more than half of the above traits, you have under your wing a potential leader. Nurture them, keep them, challenge them.

And if there are other potential leadership attributes you know about or look for in a candidate, please leave a comment and let us know.

Posted in Leadership & Management | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »