Category Archives: Management

Handling Conflict with the “Disagree and Commit” and “New Information” Principles

In every executive team there are going to be times when people don’t agree on certain important strategic or operational decisions.  Some examples:

  • Should we split SDRs inbound vs outbound?
  • Should we map SCs to reps or pool them?
  • How should we split upsell vs new business focus in mid-market reps?
  • Should CSMs get paid on upsell or only renewals?
  • Should we put the new buzzword (e.g., AI, ML, social) into the release plan?
  • Should we change the company logo ?

The purpose of this post is to provide a framework to get decisions made and executed, without certain decisions becoming a form of weekly nagging at the e-staff meeting, a topic of discussion at every board meeting, or worst of all, a standing joke among the team.

The Disagree-and-Commit Principle

The first time I heard disagree-and-commit I thought it was corporate, doublespeak garbage.  What the heck did it mean?  I’m supposed to go to a meeting, say that I believe we should go left, get overrun by the group who eventually decides to go right, and then I’m supposed to say “sure, everybody, just kidding, let’s go right.”  How disingenuous — everybody knows I wanted to go left.  How controlling of the establishment.  How manipulative.  This is thought control!

“You may disagree, but you must conform … (wait, was that our outside voice) …  you must commit.”

(Recall my first professional job was as at a company we referred to as The People’s Republic of Ingres.)

Let’s just say I missed the point.  My older, wiser self now thinks it’s a great, but often misunderstood, rule.  (And that’s not just because now I am the establishment.)

Here’s a nice definition of disagree-and-commit from The Amazon Way via this blog post.

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

I always missed two things:

  • I took commit to mean change your mind (or “get your mind right” in the Cool Hand Luke sense). It actually means committing to execute the decision wholly, i.e., as if it were the one you had voted for.  You can’t undermine or sabotage the decision just to prove yourself right.  This is a great rule.  People aren’t always going to agree, but if you want to work at the company, you must execute our decisions wholeheartedly once they are made.  There is no other option.

 

  • The obligation to disagree.  I love this part because some people lack the courage to speak up in the meeting, and then want to passive-aggressively work against the decision and/or attempt a pocket veto by going to the person who was in charge of the meeting and saying, “well, I didn’t feel comfortable saying this in the meeting, but, ….” Such behavior creates a potential paradox for the executive in charge — particularly if she agrees with the pocket veto argument.  Does she overrule the group decision based on the new argument (and reward dysfunctional behavior) or does she stick with a decision she no longer prefers in order to avoid incenting pocket vetoes.  In my opinion, in 95% of the cases you want say, “Sorry Joe, I wish you’d said something in the meeting because that’s an interesting point, but the decision stands.” Worst case call another meeting.  Never, ever just overrule the decision.

Explicitly embracing the disagree-and-commit principle is one great way to end endless, nagging disagreements:  we met to discuss the issue, we came to a conclusion, I know you didn’t agree with it, but you need to commit to execute it wholeheartedly.  (Else we’re going to have a conversation about insubordination.)  We want a rational culture.  We debate ideas.  But we need to make and execute decisions, and you’re not going to agree with every one.

The New Information Principle

But what if the issue keeps coming up anyway?  Perhaps via periodic serious requests to reconsider the decision.  Perhaps through a series of objections coming from someone not responsible for executing the decision (so “commit” is less relevant) — but who just can’t stand the idea.  Or maybe someone has a personal ax to grind (e.g., I know we’ve talked about this before, but can we please relocate the office) and who just won’t take no for an answer.

The problem is if you always shut down these requests, then you risk creating a big problem with corporate agility.  On one hand you want to shut down the constant nagging about adding data mining capabilities from the data mining zealot. On the other hand, you don’t want to make the subject taboo because maybe your top competitor launched a new data-mining addition last month and it’s hurting you in sales.

So, the principle is simple:  if you want to re-open discussion on something we’ve already decided, do you have any new information that wasn’t available at the time we made the decision?

If the answer is no, we’re not re-opening it here, and we can do at either next quarter’s ops review or next year’s strategy offsite (pending prioritization against other topics).

If the answer is yes, find out what the new information is, and then decide if it warrants an immediate or deferred re-examination of the decision.

With this principle you can keep a firm hand against those who won’t give up on an issue while still being open to new information that might cause the need for a  valid re-examination of it.

Don’t Let Product Management Turn Into “The Roadmap Guys”

At many enterprise software companies product management (PM) ends up defaulting into a role that I can’t stand:  The Roadmap Guys*.

Like a restaurant with one item on the menu, the company defaults into ordering one thing from product management:  a roadmap pitch.

  • “The VP of PM is in Boston and Providence this week, can she visit some customers and do a few roadmap presentations?”
  • “Hey, there’s a local user group in NY this week; can PM do a roadmap pitch?”
  • “There’s a big customer in the executive briefing center today; can the PM do a roadmap?”
  • “As part of our sales cycle with prospect X, we’d love to get PM in to discuss the roadmap.”
  • “We’ve got a SAS day with Gartner next week, can PM come in a present the roadmap?”

You hear it all the time.  And I hate it.  Why?

From a sales perspective, roadmap presentations are the anti-sales pitch:  a well organized presentation of all the things your products don’t do.  Great, let’s spend lots of time talking about that.

From a competitive perspective, you’re broadcasting your plans.  If you’re presenting roadmap to every prospect who comes through the briefing center and at every local user group meeting, your competition is going to learn your roadmap, and fast.  Then they can copy it and/or blunt it.

But what irks me the most is what happens from a product management perspective:  you turn PM into “the talking guys” instead of “the listening guys.”  Given enough time, PM starts to view itself as the folks who show up and pitch roadmaps.

But that’s not their job.

PM should be the listening folks, not the talking folks.  Just like sales, PM should remember the adage:  we have two ears and one mouth; use them in proportion.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we changed the five previous bullets as follows?

  • “The VP of PM is in Boston and Providence this week, can she visit some customers and observe how people actually use the product?”
  • “Hey, there’s a local user group in NY this week; can PM break off a small focus group to ask customers about how they use the product?”
  • “There’s a big customer in the executive briefing center today; can PM come in and interview them about their impressions on evaluating the product?”
  • “As part of our sales cycle with prospect X, we’d love to get PM in to discuss what specifically they are trying to accomplish and how the product can do that?”
  • “We’ve got a SAS day with Gartner next week, can PM come in and hear from Gartner about what they’re seeing in the market and in their interactions with customers?”

So every time you hear the word “roadmap” in the same sentence as “product management,” stop, pause, and think of a better way to use the PM team.  Sure, there are certainly times when a roadmap presentation is in order.  But don’t default to it.  Keep your PM team listening instead of talking.

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* I’m using “guys” here in a gender-neutral sense like “folks.”

Kellblog (Dave Kellogg) Featured on the Official SaaStr Podcast

Just a quick post to highlight the fact that last week I was the featured guest on Episode 142 of the Official SaaStr  podcast produced by the SaaStr organization run by Jason Lemkin and interviewed by a delightful young Englishman named Harry Stebbings (who also runs his own podcast entitled The Twenty Minute VC).

In the 31-minute episode — which Harry very nicely says was “probably one of his favorite interviews to record” — we cover a wide range of my favorite topics, including:

    • How I got introduced to SaaS, including my experience as an early customer of Salesforce in about 2003.
    • Challenges in scaling a software business, learned at BusinessObjects as we scaled from $30M to $1B in revenues, as well as at MarkLogic and Host Analytics.
    • My favorite SaaS metric.  If you had to pick one, I’d pick LTV/CAC.
    • Why simple churn is the best way to value the annuity of a SaaS business.
    • The loose coupling of customer satisfaction and renewal rates.
    • Why SaaS companies need to “chew gum and walk at the same time” when it comes to driving the mix of new and renewal business.
    • User-based vs. usage-based pricing in SaaS and how the latter can backfire in disincenting usage of the application.
    • My thoughts on bookings vs. ARR as a SaaS metric.  (Bookings is generally seen as a four-letter word!)
    • Why SaaS companies should make “the leaky bucket” the first four lines of their financial presentation.
    • Why I think it’s a win/win when a SaaS company gives a multi-year prepaid discount that’s less than its churn rate.
    • Why I view non-prepaid, multi-year deals as basically equivalent to renewals (just collected by finance/legal instead of customer success.)
    • Why it’s OK to “double compensate” sales and customer success on renewals and incidental upsells, and why it’s OK to pay sales on non-incidental upsells to existing customers (don’t put your farmer against someone else’s hunter).
    • Why you can’t analyze churn by analyzing churn and why you should have a rigorous taxonomy of churn.
    • My responses to Harry’s “quick fire” round questions.

You can listen to the podcast via iTunes, here.  Enjoy!

 

Are You a “Challenging” or Simply a “Difficult” Direct Report?

Most managers, save for true sycophants, want to challenge their boss.  Few managers want to be puppet yes-people to the boss.  They’ve worked hard to get where they are.  They bring years of wisdom and experience.  They want to push and challenge.  But many don’t know when or how.  More importantly, they don’t know what they don’t know.

How often do you think you’re challenging the boss when he/she thinks you’re just being plain difficult?  Challenging direct reports keep their positions and rise with the organization.  Difficult ones get jettisoned along the way.

There are two great ways you can figure out how often you’re being which:

  • Think of things from the boss’s perspective
  • Ask the boss

Think from the Boss’s Perspective

Bosses want to get things done.  Things generally fall into two buckets:  easy and hard.  Easy things may still entail a lot of work and planning, but there’s nothing really conceptually difficult or unknown about them.

Running the company’s presence at a tradeshow you attend every year might be a lot of work, but I’ll consider it easy for this conversation because that work is known.

Deciding to terminate a problem employee is easy.  (Note inclusion of word “problem.”)  If you see a problem, the adage goes, everyone else has probably already seen it for months and the damage done is more than you know.  This decision is hard from a personal perspective — I’ve never met anyone who enjoys terminating people.  But firing someone who routinely misses deadlines, training sessions, and team meetings isn’t hard in this context.

Launching the new version of a product is easy.  Yes, the positioning may be hard, but managing the overall launch process is easy.   It’s hopefully done a few times per year.  Yes, it’s a lot of work and planning, but there’s nothing conceptually difficult about running the process.

Difficult direct reports make easy things hard.  How?

  • Complexification.  When you ask someone the time you discover that there are three types of people in the world:  those who tell you the time, those who tell you how to build a watch, and those who tell you how to build a Swiss village.  Simplifiers go far in organizations, complexifiers get stuck.
  • Lack of follow through.  Bosses want to talk once about a project, agree to it, and then have it get executed.  As my friend Lance Walter always said bosses want “set it and forget it” direct reports.  If you have a question, come ask.  But otherwise I assume you are tracking our agreed-to objectives and they’re going to happen without me having to check and re-check.  Ditto for feedback given along the way.
  • Drama.  Difficult directs tend to take things personally.  They turn criticism of work into criticism of them.  They view a heavy workload as dramatic sacrifice and not a prioritization problem.  They are sensitive to criticism, defensive when questioned or given feedback, and often unable to separate bad performance from bad intent.

The result is that over time the boss starts to loathe the idea of meeting with the direct report which results in a downward spiral of communication and relationship.

Challenging direct reports keep easy things easy.  They get shit done without a lot of supervision, complexification, or drama.  On the flip side, challengers don’t just go along for the ride when it comes to inherently hard things like fixing a break in the sales pipeline, selecting company or product strategies, or working on a competitive campaign strategy.  They weigh in, sometimes challenging the majority or consensus view.  They provide good arguments for why what everyone else is thinking could be wrong.  Their selective Devil’s advocacy helps the company avoid groupthink and the organization make better decisions.  And they do this without going overboard and positioning themselves as the resident contrarian.

Simply put, when you say something to the boss or in a meeting, imagine how the boss will react and then count the ratio between the following two reactions

  • God, what a pain in the ass.
  • Wow, I hadn’t thought of that.

Ratios above 1.0 indicate you are a net difficult direct report.  Ratios below 1.0 indicate you are a net challenger.

Ask the Boss

Since knowing is always superior to guessing, I’ll give you a set of good questions that can help you figure out where you stand.

  1. If you had to rank your direct reports from top to bottom in terms of difficultly, would I fall above or below the median and why?
  2. Can you please list 3-5 things I do that make it difficult to manage me so I can work on them?
  3. To what extent do you find me difficult/contrarian for difficulty’s sake vs. genuinely challenging ideas and helping the company reach better decisions?
  4. When it comes to strategic debates do you feel that I sit on the sidelines too much, participate too much, or strike a good balance?
  5. If there is a pattern of skipped/cancelled 1-1’s (a sign of avoidance) or higher frequency 1-1’s with other directs, then ask why?

Sycophants know they are sycophants.  Challengers usually know they are challengers.  The risk is that you are a difficult when you think you’re a challenger — and that rarely ends well.  So think about, ask, and take appropriate measures to correct the situation.  Before your boss doesn’t want to talk to you anymore.

Detecting and Eliminating the Rolling Hairballs in your Sales Pipeline

Quick:  what’s the biggest deal in this quarter’s sales pipeline?  Was that the biggest deal in last quarter’s pipeline?  How about the quarter before?  Do you have deals in your pipeline older than your children?

If you’re answering yes to these questions, then you’re probably dealing with “rolling hairballs” in your pipeline.  Rolling hairballs are bad:

  • They exaggerate the size of the pipeline.
  • They distort coverage and conversion ratios.
  • They mess up expected-value forecasts, like a forecast-category or stage-weighted sales forecast.

Maybe they’re real deals; maybe they’re figments of a rep’s imagination.  But, if you’re not careful, they pollute your pipeline and your metrics.

Let’s define a rolling hairball

A rolling hairball is a typically large opportunity that sits in your current-quarter pipeline every quarter, with a close date that slips every quarter.  At 2 quarters it’s a suspected rolling hairball; at 3 or more quarters it’s a confirmed one.

Rolling Hairball Detection

The first thing you need to do is find rolling hairballs.  They’re tricky because salesreps always swear they’re real deals that are supposed to finally close this quarter.  What makes rolling hairballs obvious is their ever-sliding close dates.  What makes them dangerous is their size (including an accumulation of them that aggregate to a material fraction of the pipeline).

If you want to find rolling hairballs, look for opportunities in the current-quarter pipeline that were also in last-quarter’s pipeline.  That will find numerous bona fide slipped deals, but it will also light-up potential rolling hairballs.  To determine if an opportunity is  a rolling hairball, for sure, you can do one of two things:

  • See if it also appeared in the current-quarter pipeline in any quarters prior to the previous one.
  • Look at its stage or forecast category.  If either of those suggest it won’t be closing this quarter, it’s another big hairball indicator.

The more sophisticated way to find them is to examine “stuck opportunity” reports that light-up deals that are moving through pipeline stages too slowly compared to your norms.

But typically, the hairball is a big opportunity hiding in plain sight.  You know it was in last quarter’s pipeline and the quarter before that.  You’ve just been deluded into believing it’s not a hairball.

Fixing Rolling Hairballs

There are two ways to fix rolling hairballs:

  • Fix the close date.  Reps are subtly incented to put deals in the current quarter (e.g., to show they’re working on something, to show they might bring in some big sales this quarter). The manager needs to get on the phone with the customer and, after having verified it’s a real opportunity, get the real timeframe in which it might close.  Assigning a realistic close date to the opportunity makes your pipeline more real and reminds the rep that they need to be working on other shorter-term opportunities as well.  (There is no mid-term if you fail enough in the short term.)  The deal will still remain in the all-quarters pipeline, but it won’t always be in the current-quarter pipeline, ever-sliding, and distorting metrics and ratios.

 

  • Fix the size. While a realistic close date is the best solution, what makes rolling hairballs dangerous is their size.  So, if the salesrep really believes it’s a current-quarter opportunity, you can either reduce its size or split it into two opportunities (particularly if that’s a possible outcome), a small one in the current quarter along with an upsell in the future.  Note that this approach can be dangerous, with lots of little hairball-lets flying below radar, so you should only try if it you’re sure your salesops team can produce the reports to find them and if you believe it reflects real customer buying patterns.

Don’t let rolling hairballs pollute your pipeline metrics and ratios.  Admit they exist, find them, and fix them.  Your sales and sales forecasting will be more consistent as a result.

How to be Passionate without Being Self-Righteous

I can easily think of a dozen cringe-worthy times in my career when I look back and say, “wow, I must have appeared to be a self-righteous idiot when I said thing X.”  Let me thank anyone on the receiving end of those statements for their patience.  I now get it; I understand.

Look, I’m all for passion in business.  I’m all for speaking up.  One day I’ll write a book called “Management by 1970s Bumper Stickers” and the first chapter will be on this sticker:

questionauthority

I enjoy questioning authority — ask any of my old bosses. As CEO, I like being questioned.  Good CEOs don’t fear questioning because you typically end up in one of two cases:

  • The point raised has already been considered in making the decision, and explaining the rationale behind that helps the organization understand the decision and increase buy-in to it.
  • The point raised has not already been considering in making the decision and results in either changing or not changing the decision. Either way, the decision is better because we either find a better decision or another reason to support the existing one.  (As long as you beware confirmation bias.)

As CEO, your job is to get the right answer and make the best decisions, not to think everything up yourself.  Pride of authorship should have no place in CEO decision making.

Most people get questioning correctly.  They don’t assume things.  They’re not accusatory.  The simply ask the question that’s on their mind without a whole lot of overtone.  Every once in a while, however, I find someone who gets it all wrong and appears, as I did back in the day, to be self-righteous and dumb.

Let’s start with an example from one of my favorite old sci-fi movies, Soylent Green.

 

What a great scene.  But imagine if everyone knew that already.  Imagine how stupid you’d sound if you were delivering all those messages with all that same drama.

Imagine Hatcher saying, “Yes, yes, Detective Thorn, everybody knows that.  And boy are they tasty.”

You’d look pretty self-righteous.  And you’d look pretty dumb.  What rock did he crawl from under?  Everybody knows that Soylent Green is made out of people.

So what’s the best way to question authority?  Here are some tips.

  • Assume there is information that you can’t be told.  “We need to buy company X, why can’t anyone else see how critical that is, why won’t anyone listen to me?”  Now imagine the company tried to buy company X last quarter and they wanted 3x more than we could pay.  But no one can tell you that because the whole thing is under non-disclosure agreement.  Should you raise the point?  Sure.  Ask the question respectfully and lose the assumption (and overtone) that you are being ignored.

 

  • Assume there is personnel information that you don’t know.  “The HR department is failing and nobody over there can get the job done — why isn’t anyone doing anything about this, and why won’t anyone listen to me.”  Now imagine that the HR manager is already on a performance plan and 30 days from being terminated.  No one could ever tell you that.

 

  • Assume there is a bigger picture conversation that you’re not privy to.  “Why are we giving the new head of Engineering control over Product Management and making the job EVP of Products instead of SVP of Engineering?  Product Management was working fine, we don’t need to make this change, why won’t anyone listen to me.”  Now imagine the company has been struggling to hire a new head of engineering, the CEO is under big pressure to do so, and an extremely well qualified Engineering candidate won’t join unless he also gets Product Management.  No one’s going to tell you that in a Q&A forum.

 

  • Don’t ignore constraints.   Some of the most self-righteous rants I’ve heard completely ignore practical constraints on the business like a lack of talent, a lack of money, the need to keep paying customers happy, or product constraints related to compatibility.  Now, yes, sometimes great breakthroughs happen when people challenge constraints — but never pretend they don’t exist.  It’s not a great strategy for our company if we can’t execute it.  Maybe it’s a great strategy for some other company, maybe not.

 

  • Don’t trivialize execution.  Ideas are easy.  Execution is hard.  So when asking questions about ideas, don’t act as if they are free or if we could just get started with two people.  Yes, sometimes, great things start out with tiny investments — a $60K outsourced Twitter connector ended up serving as the genesis of Salesforce’s huge Social Enterprise strategy.   But often projects just end up dead because they were never properly resourced in the first place.  Execution is hard.

 

  • Don’t forget biases introduced by your personality type.  I stumbled into this great post the other day, What Everyone Desperately Wishes You’d Stop Doing, Based On Your Myers-Briggs Personality Type, and I just love the entry for ENFP — “Expecting everyone to be as excited as you are about today’s new BIG EXCITING PLAN when we all know you’ll have forgotten all about it by this time tomorrow.”  Look, some people are natural executors and others are natural idea generators.  Know which you are in assessing if you’re being ignored.  Is authority refusing to be questioned, or do you just have 10 ideas a day in a startup environment when the company needs to focus on one or two?

 

  • Don’t be naive.  Bob Waterman, co-author with Tom Peters of the legendary In Search of Excellence, was on our board at ASK, and one day he came down to hang out with the troops at the Friday beer bash.  I remember asking him (before I got my MBA) something akin to, “do you really believe all these green Harvard and Stanford MBAs should run companies or would businesses be better if everyone worked their way up.”  The man had an MBA from the Stanford and worked at McKinsey.  He must have thought I was the biggest idiot on Earth.  My spider-sense told me I’d done something wrong.  It was right.  He muttered something and walked away.   An opportunity wasted due to naivete.

I’m a big believer that the more someone knows about how a decision got made, the more they will agree it.  That’s why, as part of my management style, I spend a lot of explaining decisions to people.

That dumb corporate decision to prioritize X over Y might make more sense to you if you knew all the circumstances about how it got made.  Sometimes there’s a missing piece to the puzzle that makes everything make sense.  Sometimes you can be told about that missing piece.  Other times, you cannot.  But don’t assume it doesn’t exist, nor trivialize matters of focus and execution.

 

Blocking the End Run: Eleven Words to Reduce Politics in Your Organization

People are people.  Sometimes they’re conflict averse and just not comfortable saying certain things to their peers.  Sometimes they don’t like them and are actively trying to undermine them. Sometimes they’re in a completely functional relationship, but have been too darn busy to talk.

So when this happens, how do you — as a manager — respond?  What should you do?

“Hey Dave, I wanted to say that Sarah’s folks really messed up on the Acme call this morning.  They weren’t ready with the proposal and were completely not in line with my sales team.”

Do you pile on?

“Again?  Sarah’s folks are out of control, I’m going to go blast her.”  (The “Young Dave” response.)

Do you investigate?

“You know my friend Marcy always said there are three sides to every story:  yours, mine, and what actually happened.  So let me give Sarah a call and look into this.”

Do you defend?

“Well, that doesn’t sound like Sarah.  Her team’s usually buttoned up.”

In the first case, you’re going off half-cocked without sufficient information which, while emotionally satisfying in the short-term, often leads to a mess followed by several apologies in the mid-term.  In the second case, you’re being manipulated into investigating something when perhaps you were planning a better use of your time that day.  In the third case, you’re going off half-cocked again, but in the other direction.

In all three cases, you’re getting sucked into politics.  Politics?  Is it really politics?  Well, how do you think Sarah is going to feel in when you show up asking a dozen questions about the Acme call?  She’ll certainly consider it politics and, among other things, there’s about a 98% chance that she will say:

“Gosh, I wish Bill came and talked to me first.”

At which point, if you’re like me, you’re going to say:

“No, no, no.  I know what you’re thinking.  Don’t worry, this isn’t political.  It’s not like Bill was avoiding you on this one.  He just happened to be talking to me about another issue and he brought this up at the end.  It’s not political, no.”

But can you be sure?  Maybe it just did pop into Bill’s mind during the last minute of the other call.  Or maybe it didn’t.  Maybe the reason Bill called you was a masterfully political pretext.  Can you know the difference?

So what do you say to Bill when he drops the comment about Sarah’s team into your call?  The eleven words that reduce politics in any organization:

“What did Sarah say when you talked to her about this?”

[Mike Drop.]

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(Props to Martin Cooke for teaching me the eleven words.)