People, Staffing, and Steve Blank's SuperMac Series

  • April 17, 2009
  • Scott

I’ve been trolling on Twitter recently – meaning, I’ve started following a few people, just to see if anything interesting crops up.  I haven’t really felt the urge to post to twitter, but I thought I’d see what kind of wisdom arrives in 160-character tidbits.  One thing I immediately don’t like – all the links are reduced by tinyurl to very small URLs – but this also has the effect of making it harder to tell if someone is sending you a malicious link of some sort (even by accident).  Twitter accounts can be hacked after all.

So yesterday I had my first real “hit” on twitter – meaning, the first time I saw something that was really of interest and value that I would want to turn around and share.  It was a link to one of Steve Blank’s articles on “SuperMac” – relating his experiences as Chief Marketing Officer (or VP of Marketing) of a graphics board company that focused on the Mac market.  Honestly, who cares about the graphics market of 20-30 years ago, right?!  But the lessons are not technical lessons, they’re more about understanding the customer and leading your team.

In  “Strategy versus Relentless Tactical Execution”, Steve makes a fantastic case for why execution matters, and also points out one of the most common mistakes college grads make when interviewing:

Just as an aside, over my career I must have interviewed scores of business school graduates (some from the very fine universities where I now teach) who would say, “I want to do strategy.”  Well yes, I understand that, but this is a startup, what else do you want to do?  “I just want to do strategy.”  Those were very short interviews.  The “strategy” of learning who SuperMac’s customers were, what solutions they needed and what our repositioning would be was a three month effort.

The tactical execution took three years.

Note, if you want to do “strategy” (which is a fine endeavor) and nothing else, you have just defined your career as one in large corporation or in a consulting firm.  Stay out of startups.  Tactics mean tenacious and relentless execution measured in years.

On the technical side of the house, the analogy is “Design” instead of “Strategy”, and tactical execution in the technical world largely consists of coding.  I did at least a hundred college technical interview screens each year for 5 years+ at Trilogy when I graduated from college.  And one of the things I learned was that when a college grad started selling me on their design and architecture skills, versus their coding skills, it was a huge red flag.  Of course, when I was a college graduate, I could have easily made the same mistake, assuming that my knowledge of software design and architecture made me desireable to a company, and up to that point, assuming that almost anyone much older than me didn’t know as much about software as I did (in the general population, that was probably true, but not within the specific software company population!).  To succeed as a software engineer or technical consultant, you have to have the personality that will allow you to focus on the relentless execution of the plan.  As you gain experience, your voice in the plan (the strategy, the design) will increase.

In his next article on SuperMac, “Building the Killer Team – Mission, Intent, and Values”, Steve further pounds the table on some principles of leadership that I think are critical:

  1. Titles are not your job.  Your job is defined in terms of what you are expected to accomplish for the company and how you further the goals of the company.  Some of Steve’s examples of people in his group defining their job in terms of their narrowly-written title are pretty amusing.
  2. You have to give your team a mission- something bigger than “set up the trade booths.”  The mission for his marketing team was pretty specific – growing sales by a specific amount, at a specific margin.  But it could have easily been written a little bit more high level, with some bullet points for the specific year’s financial targets.  Given that mission, the team members and leaders can make better decisions about how to get from here to there – and about prioritizing the mess of work that might be in front of them!
  3. Accountability.  Steve describes a world where deadlines in his marketing department were not met. Consistently not met.  And no one was surprised- there was always an excuse.  Finally, he tells them no more excuses for missing commitments – that you can ask for help or work it out ahead of time, but no more showing up on due date with hat in hand full of excuses.  I think this is not as frequently a problem in consulting organizations:  our customers are going to demand a certain level of accountability from us.  But I have seen that this is often a problem in Marketing organizations – precisely because there usually isn’t a customer picking up the phone when they miss.  As a result, it takes more internal discipline and willpower to create that sense of accountability.

Look for more in this space on staffing thoughts.  Because I think part of what Steve gets at is the motivation behind working – the “why” in Why we go to Work.  At this stage in the growth of BP3, we think about the why’s a lot.

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