The Fierce Competitor

Lions do not concern themselves with the opinions of sheep. - Unknown

If you look up the word competitor in the dictionary, you will find the following: “a person who takes part in a contest.” That struck me as odd, as I believe competing is about much more than participating. If I think about the times in my life/career where I am really competing, I lose track of time. I become engrossed in the outcome. My preparation is greater than the performance of the competition. And the end result is winning. After all, we play this game of life and work to help others and to win. That requires an edge and a ferocity, well above the norm.

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Andre Agassi tells a great story in his autobiography:

My father says that when he boxed, he always wanted to take a guy’s best punch. He tells me one day on the tennis court: When you know that you just took the other guy’s best punch, and you’re still standing, and the other guy knows it, you will rip the heart right out of him. In tennis, he says, same rule. Attack the others man’s strength. If the man is a server, take away his serve. If he’s a power player, overpower him. If he has a big forehand, takes pride in his forehand, go after his forehand until he hates his forehand. My father has a special name for this contrarian strategy. He calls it putting a blister on the other guy’s brain. With this strategy, this brutal philosophy, he stamps me for life. He turns me into a boxer with a tennis racket. More, since most tennis players pride themselves on their serve, my father turns me into a counterpuncher- a returner.

That mindset is well beyond that of “a person who takes part in a contest.”  That is the edge that we need to find.

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Urban Meyer talks about types of competitors. Here is my adaptation, based on what I see in the business world:  

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If you ask yourself what level you really are, you might be scared by the answer. The first step to getting where you want to be, is to acknowledge where you are today.

There are four sources of edge, created by fierce competitors: 1) Learn faster than your competition, 2) empathize with stakeholders more than your competition, 3) communicate more effectively than your competition, and 4) be willing to fail more than your competition. (Adapted from Morgan Housel post.)

Everyone can find that extra edge. You have to step into the moment.

Creating a Culture of Data

Real success in using artificial intelligence only comes after establishing a data-centered culture.

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Using and exploiting artificial intelligence is a goal for many enterprises around the world. Of course, before you can begin working with the cognitive technology, a number of steps must be taken.

For starters, AI requires machine learning, and machine learning requires analytics. And to work with analytics effectively, you need simple, elegant data or an information architecture. In other words, there is no AI without IA.

Although seemingly laborious and complicated, these steps are not the biggest impediments to embracing AI. Real success in using AI comes down to an organization’s ability to adopt a culture that is centered on data.

Don’t discount culture

Culture can be one of a company’s most powerful assets or its biggest obstruction. In this case, having met with thousands of enterprises over the years, the reality is that most enterprises do not have a data culture.

In fact, many do not even know they need one. Sometimes, ironically, current cultures can cloud an enterprise’s ability to see the need (they can’t see forest for the trees). In other cases, organizations are aware of the need but paralyzed by the perceived – or real – complexities.

Regardless, this must change.

Ben Thompson, the business and technology analyst and author, once wrote, “Culture is not something that begets success, rather, it is a product of it.”

If an enterprise has not had visible or material success with data, how could anyone possibly expect it to form a data culture?

Our mission is to make data simple and accessible to the world.

We are enabling companies to sow the seeds of a data culture, with a practical approach to achieve a successful outcome. Said another way, we are enabling organizations to do data science faster.

When that occurs, the results are tangible, the benefits are clear and the power of data is unleashed.


A different ROI

I once heard that the difference between a data science project and a software engineering project is that with the former you have no idea if it will actually work. Even if you are a staunch fail-fast supporter, that is too much of an unknown for many people.

Most organizations that make an investment want some understanding of how they will generate a return on that investment. I understand that is not the Silicon Valley mantra, but most enterprises are held to a different standard of ROI than Silicon Valley. It’s not right or wrong. It’s just different.

High certainty and modest returns are preferred by many enterprises over a more aggressive approach. In economics, we call this tolerance for risk-adjusted returns.

My observation is that most of the time invested in building and deploying machine learning is not spent on algorithms and models. Instead, it is spent on the most mundane of tasks: data preparation, data movement, feature extraction and other similar activities.

These are a necessary evil and the place where most risk in a data science project resides: Garbage-in/garbage-out leads to low certainty.

AI is fundamentally about using machine learning and deep learning techniques to enable applications built on data. Every organization that seeks a data culture has to pick a place to start.

Deep learning will make certain data available for the first time. If that creates momentum, with a high chance of success, start in that place. For other organizations, better predictions and automation will beget a data culture.

Regardless of which path you choose, the objective is the same: Do data science faster.

This article originally appeared on the IBM THINK blog and was republished with permission.

The AI Ladder

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Ford drove the first automobile down the streets of Detroit in 1890. It would take another 30 years before the company streamlined production and made cars available to the mass market. The obvious lesson: Sometimes technology has a long gestation period before we can scale it for everyday use. But, digging a bit deeper, there is a more profound lesson.

Over the first hundred years of the self-propelled vehicle, manufacturers established essential building blocks — standard components like the combustion engine, steering wheel, and axle. These building blocks enabled scale, which led to wider adoption. And, as is often the case, the building blocks catalyzed complementary innovations, which then helped improve the building blocks.

Read the rest on VentureBeat.

The Chief of Staff

"You are not made a leader. You decide to become one." - Chris Fussell

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I hired a Chief of Staff in January for the first time in my career.

Previously, I believed that having a Chief of Staff/Executive Assistant was a sign of weakness (i.e. you couldn’t keep up without someone helping you) and/or hubris (i.e “Look at me, I have an assistant!”). I also thought it was a poor use of capital (financial and human). I was wrong. 

I realized that my previous beliefs were incorrect for 3 reasons:

  1. A great Chief of Staff can positively impact the organization, perhaps more so than they impact the leader they are directly supporting.
  2. It’s a tremendous opportunity to develop talent in an organization, by giving them a broader view.
  3. It’s an investment, not an expense. 

Succinctly said, a Chief of Staff role is more about helping the organization than a single leader. That’s a huge responsibility. That being said, there is no real standard for how these roles are utilized. I have seen some organizations treat them as secretarial roles (get coffee, etc), others as more transactional (briefing documents and scheduling), and others as a strategic adviser. 

But, if the 3 justifications above are correct, I believe we should give more thought to defining a standard for the role.

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In the book, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams, Chris Fussell writes about his role supporting General Stanley McChrystal. When McChrystal first asked him if he wanted the role, Fussell responded:

“Sir, I don’t think anyone in our community dreams of being an aide, and it's certainly never a position that I’ve sought. That said, I’ve felt something change in our organization over the past few years - we’re running differently, and better. An opportunity to see behind the curtain and understand how this is working...well, that’s fascinating to me.”

This response highlights not only his curiosity, but his desire to have an impact in a role that may otherwise be marginalized as an ‘aide’. Aptitude is important, but attitude is even more important. And, this is the right attitude to bring to the role.

Fussell goes on to share a framework for a Chief of Staff. It is four quadrants, with each one representing a different phase of development of the individual and their impact on the organization. He suggests that the Chief of Staff starts in quadrant 1 and develop clockwise. Some will reach quadrant 4, others will not. The quadrant that one reaches does not necessarily indicate their effectiveness. The framework presciently distinguishes between responsibilities that impact the Leader vs. the Organization. See here:

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While the specifics in each quadrant will vary by organization, leader, and the individual that is Chief of Staff, I believe its a great starting point for a standard.

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My experiment worked out very well. The individual ‘graduated’ in October, taking a key operational role in the organization. There are 3 things that stick out about this person:

  1. His written communication skills were exceptional. Clear, concise, fact-based, and thoughtful.
  2. He earned the respect of the organization through impact, not ‘networking’.
  3. He made our team better. 

I am now convinced that the Chief of Staff role is valuable. The standard for every organization will be different, but this framework is a good place to start.