Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Great interview question

This article suggests that you should always ask
"What do you do in your spare time?"
since it tells you a lot about what the candidate is passionate about.

Now, I have been asking this sort of question in social settings because I am not a great smalltalker -- although I'd like to learn one day ;-) -- and usually asking that question (or what's your passion or hobby) get's people engaged and open up. Unfortunately some people are very obsessional and will launch into long monologues at the sniff of such an invitation, in which case it's time for me to interrupt, excuse myself and go and get another drink (especially in this heat).

Anyway, while I think it's an interesting question, I am not sure that it is that easy to interpret the answers. I would suggest supplementing it with a follow-up when there is no obvious connection:
"What have you learned from full contact macrame [or whatever] that relates to your day-job?"
Let the interviewee do the hard work!

Truth in Parody

If you can't decide whether something is a conspiracy or a stuff-up, assume a stuff-up.

But often the conspiracy theory is much funnier, and just rings truer. Witness this spoof interview with Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ programming language. Snippet :
Bjarne: Well, one day, when I was sitting in my office, I thought of this little scheme, which would redress the balance a little. I thought 'I wonder what would happen, if there were a language so complicated, so difficult to learn, that nobody would ever be able to swamp the market with programmers?

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Distillation of Solution Selling

A few months ago we did a training course on Solution Selling, and yesterday I bought the book. After reading the introduction -- a bit more to go! -- thought that it would be a useful exercise to try to describe its essence in my own words:

Solutions Selling is a codification of smart sales practices by Mike Bosworth dating back to 1983. Originally Bosworth went straight from College to pursue a career in the technical support at Xerox corp., before it was suggested that he try his hand at sales, which he did (at first reluctantly). The book was published in 1995.

A Consultative Approach
Rather than foist your product on an unwilling (or even willing) prospect the Solutions Selling approach encourages you take the buyer's perspective and work with him or her in a non-pitchy way. By the end of the process a decision to buy should be a "no-brainer":
  • the customer should feel ownership of the resulting solution
  • the value should be evident to the customer how the purchase leads to enhanced capabilities
  • these enhancements should be quantifiable, so that the purchase price is justified to other people in the customer's organization
  • the customer should feel personally empowered by the experience and the result
  • the personal relationship with the salesperson should be perceived as positive
Solution selling lends itself particularly well to large complex offerings. For example
  • Service and product combination
  • When you compete on customization and/or integration
However, the principles can be applied on smaller scales as well, exercising judgment about how much and which parts of the process to apply.

Let's divide prospective customers into groups / stages:
  1. Not in target market: No need for your offering(s).
  2. Latent need: Not aware of a need that could be satisfied by purchase
  3. In pain: Aware of the need ("in pain"), but unaware of how your offering can help
  4. Vision creation: The prospect has a vision or a "Solution", ideally including your offering
The key is to be aware of where the prospect is between steps two-to-four, and not get out-of-synch. with the prospect. Classic example: There's no point trying to tell someone that they need your product if they don't perceive it that way.

  1. If the prospect is in group 1, go after someone else rather than try to sell them something they simply don't need. Better to steer them in the right direction and build trust and respect for the longer term.
  2. If the prospect is in group two, use appropriate questioning to get more clarity, but also to move the prospect toward a clear perception that they have a real need (which would move them into group 3)
  3. Quantify the pain, find out who else in the client organization is affected (and go talk to them), find out who has the power to buy, find out which hypothetical capabilities would enable them to address their pain
  4. Two possibilities: They are already heavily leaning towards a competing vendor's vision / offering (you need to realize this, and use FUD to un-sell them and get them to come over to your vision -- "re-engineering"), or use what was learned previously to put forward a jointly-developed vision that they know will give them real, quantifiable value.
The actual Solutions Selling methodology explicitly fleshes out how to do it!

It includes lots of advice and tools including a detailed and distinctive nine-block vision processing model.

Challenges in putting it into practice
Naturally, Solutions Selling is not a panacea (silver-bullet):

In a freely available McKinsey & Co. report (registration required), Solutions Selling: Is the pain worth the gain?, the following points are made:
Unfortunately, our discussions with over 60 solutions sellers suggest that three out of four companies selling solutions fail to see sustainable economic impact.
They suggest that some possible keys to getting Solutions Selling to work well (my emphasis):
First, you have to understand how a solution is positioned in terms of two key variables, customization and integration. This positioning drives the basis of your competitive advantage and - most crucially -the "pain/gain" trade-offs you need to understand.

Then, you have to execute quite differently from a standard product-based go-to-market model in at least the first two - and preferably all - of five key dimensions:
  1. Create distinctive solutions value propositions using customer business metrics, not product price/performance metrics.
  2. Radically change the selling approach, and if necessary, the sales talent.
  3. Price solutions based on total business value delivered, not component features.
  4. Align the entire organization, not just sales, with the solutions opportunity.
  5. Maintain control of all aspects of implementation to ensure end-to-end value delivery.
Solutions selling is not for everyone. But for those who understand and can implement these imperatives, there is tremendous upside.
Comment: The essential dimensions, one and two, on my reading amount simply to properly applying certain parts of Solutions Selling properly (as distinct, I suppose, from paying lip-service).

However, this may not always be simple. The report suggests that on average 2/3 of salespeople with a background in product-centered sales are unable to successfully make the shift to Solutions Selling. They recommend that "stars" be recruited from other areas, suggesting that star-sellers are either:
  • Already doing things similar to Solutions Selling (so the shift is smaller),
  • Are more adaptable than regular salespeople in terms of trying a different approach, or
  • Will be successful independent of the methodological approach adopted by the sales-team!

Solutions Selling is a consultative sales methodology that reminds me a bit of the Getting to Yes school of negotiation in that it aims to move away from negative relations between the two parties (e.g. adversarial, distrust, fear) towards cooperative problem-solving to seek out win-wins.

It has repercussions for the individual salesperson in that it encourages a specific systematic approach, but promises improvements in:
  • efficiently deciding which opportunities to pursue
  • improved client engagement
  • better professional relationships and reputation
leading to conversion-rate, sales figures and referrals. For the organizations that successfully embrace it, better sales performance is anticipated, but the following are needed:
  • Suitable organizational alignment with suitable offerings and pricing
  • Sales and other staff to execute on the approach (or at least most of it)
Granted organizational alignment, it stands to reason that certain organizational initiatives can increase the likelihood of individual and company-wide success when adopting Solutions Selling (and similar approaches):
  1. Training
  2. Mentoring
  3. Recruiting
  4. Technological support (tools that make the tasks easier, help apply essential parts of the methodology appropriately)


Bob Franklin, who programmed up the first electronic spreadsheet, VisiCalc, in 1978 working with Dan Bricklin -- whose idea it was -- has been writing up the history. I found the following inspirational and salutory. How to build a software product:

Design Principles

VisiCalc was a product, not a program. Decisions were made with the product in mind and, to the extent possible the programming was towards this end. In practice it was more complicated as we were designing against the limitations of the personal computers, price point and, most important, what the user could understand.

The goal was to give the user a conceptual model which was unsurprising -- it was called the principle of least surprise. We were illusionists synthesizing an experience. Our model was the spreadsheet -- a simple paper grid that would be laid out on a table. The paper grid provided an organizing metaphor for a working with series of numbers. While the spreadsheet is organized we also had the back-of-envelope model which treated any surface as a scratch pad for working out ideas. Since we were used to working with powerful computers without worry about the clock running, we already had the experience of focusing on the users needs rather than the computers needs.

The ability for Dan and I to work as a team was crucial. While he could've written the program, the fact that he wasn't gave him the freedom to focus on what the program should do rather than how to do it. I could appreciate his reasons and would eventually accept that I had to change code that I had labored over. We were able to find ways to take advantage of the limited space available for the program in deciding what features to include or not include.

The original version put the entry area at the bottom of the screen. By playing with this simple prototype Dan found that it was better to put the entry area at the top of the screen and I made the change to the evolving program.

In addition to prototyping, Dan put together a reference card for users. If we couldn't figure out how to explain a feature on the reference card we would change the program. The original method for copying formulas was too complicated so we just changed the design rather than try to explain it.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Understanding the Financial Crisis

Here's a readable explanation of the Financial Crisis as explained by a former president of the MIT Black-jack team, in terms of martingale strategies, reward systems, and self-deception.

Kids Rule

Over the holidays we gave Ella her own room (formerly the "play room"), and redecorated both her and Jake's rooms in the process.  They didn't really want to be separated, but were appeased when it was pointed out that they could visit each other for sleep-overs.

I felt that they should be able to set the rules in their respective rooms:

Jake's Rules for his Room
  1. Don't take away a train when someone's playing with it.
  2. Don't rip the Thomas and Mr Men and Little Miss books.
  3. Don't break up the track.
  4. Don't interrupt a story.
  5. Be gentle with the lego.
  6. Don't rust the trains, and don't scratch people.
  7. Don't jump on the bed.
  8. Be careful when you wind up the sling bridge; it might break.
  9. Don't come in when I have privacy.
  10. I like tickling, and stop when I want you to stop.
Ella's Rules for her Room
  1. Don't jump on the bed, pillow and doona.
  2. Don't interrupt my books and don't break my boxes.
  3. I like tickling, but stop when I have had enough.
Andi and I are still working on our rules for the rest of the house, but here's a preliminary list:
  1. Mummy and Daddy are the bosses of the house.
  2. No biting, slapping, or hitting.
  3. When you finish your food, bring your plate to the kitchen bench.
  4. Use an inside voice.
  5. No TV on school mornings.
  6. Children must brush teeth and get into pyjamas before getting "bedtime choices".
  7. All family members must support the Collingwood Football club, or leave home.
  8. You get what you get, and you don't get upset.
  9. Remember to put out the bins on Thursday nights.
  10. Full participation is expected during Shabbat blessings, and this includes guests.
  11. Don't waste water; the farmers need it.
  12. A quick game's a good game.
  13. The house must be tidy before the cleaner comes to clean.
  14. Obsessions, such as martial arts, patchwork quilting, trains and fairies are to be tolerated, nay, respected.
  15. Tickle the mickle is the preferred format for tickling.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Read my other blog like a book

I recently added a table of contents page to my other blog, Martial Arts and Modern Life, with section headings available from every page of the blog. It should make that blog much easier to read for the someone coming to it for the first time:

The table-of-contents post appears on the left, with chapter headings and links, but the neat "feature" is the table-of-contents that appears on the top-right of my blog, making it easy for me to navigate, and for readers to get an overview and dive in to whatever interests them.

Already I have had some positive feedback about this feature, and I would encourage others to emulate it for the sake of their readers. It seems to make a nice complement to tags, which are a bit more like an index, and archives, which tell you what's new.

The set-up steps in Blogger (it should be similar for other platforms) are:
  1. Invent chapter headings for your blog
  2. Create the table-of-contents blog entry: E.g., or (nowadays) a page and include your chapter headings.
  3. Tag every heading with using Edit HTML in the blogger editor by wrapping it in anchor tags: e.g.
    <a name='chapter1'>Chapter1</a>
  4. Go through all your old posts and put links to the better ones under the appropriate chapters.
  5. Make a text widget that points to your table-of-contents entry and the chapter headings. The hyperlinks from the chapter-headings take the form
    <a href="">Chapter1</a<
  6. Place the text widget somewhere prominent.
Maintenance is even easier:
  • Each time you add a new post that fits your theme, add a link in your table-of-contents post.
  • Occasionally you may want to add a new "chapter", which involves editing the widget as well, but this should be a fairly rare event once you have your categories straight.
Now I just need to apply the same technique to this blog!