Posts Tagged ‘Intellectual curiosity’

Looking through the turn

June 24, 2019

By Peter Zaballos

I recently started learning to drive a race car, something I’ve always dreamed of doing. 

With the encouragement and support of my wife and all four children, I began taking high-performance driving classes at one of the best driving schools in the country, in Kent, Washington. And I wanted to share what I am learning there, because I’ve discovered that driving a car fast on a race course is a lot like making your way through a career or through life.

When you’re driving a race car, one of the first skills you learn is to “look through the turn.” It’s the habit of having your eyes focused on where you want the car to go, not where it is right now. And it’s super pragmatic. 

When you’re driving a car at high speed, whatever is in front of you is coming at you so fast that if a correction is needed, that correction needed to take place seconds earlier. You literally can’t fix the problem at that point. When your eyes are focused on what’s directly in front of you, it’s called “driving from the hood of the car.” Best case, you’re going to exit that turn slowly, poorly positioned for the next turn. Worst case — you’re going to drive off the track.

So you’re instructed to split your field of view, with the majority of your vision focused far down the road and only your peripheral vision tracking the close-up things. Sometimes that turn ends over your shoulder, so you go into the turn literally looking out the side window while the car is barreling forward through the turn.

And it gets harder still because you really do need to keep track of close-up things coming at you. There is a point where you need to start the turn — called the “turn-in-point” — where you stop going straight down the track and you turn the wheel. You need to do your braking before this point because you can’t brake hard and turn at the same time (and you need to brake hard to get your speed down).

When you turn in, you need to arc the curve of your path to hit the part of the corner that will produce the largest radius turn you can trace — a larger radius means higher speed — so you are also tracking for that critical spot that ensures you are carrying the maximum speed through the turn. You need a telltale mark for this “apex” point.

Finally, as you exit the turn you need to aim for a spot that finishes that largest radius turn you initiated way back at the turn-in-point. This is called the “track-out” point.

And this is not just about that one turn you just negotiated. It’s about considering the entire track and all of its turns and how you think about what will produce the lowest overall time through the course. It could very well hurt your overall lap time to go through a particular turn super fast, because it could send you into the next turn poorly positioned.

At driving school, there’s a traffic cone conveniently placed at the turn-in, apex, and track-out points. But in racing — as in life, of course — there are no cones at these telltale points.

So for every turn on a track, you need to memorize some physical object — a visible patch of dirt, a tree on the horizon, even a porta-potty off to the side of the track — to help you know when to turn in, where the apex is, and where to end your turn. The chief instructor of the school, Don Kitch, has raced in the 24 Hours of LeMans, and said it took him and his two co-drivers a year to prepare for it. They took hundreds of photos so they would know the key telltales of every turn on the track.

Everything I just described about learning to drive a car on a racetrack is also true of navigating your career and living your life. Keep your vision fixed on the long term, but be intentional and precisely aware of the tell-tales along the way.

From a career perspective, every turn on the track is like each job or role you have. The goal is to decide when to take that job, how to maximize your “radius” through it so that you construct the most impactful and rewarding career, and when to “track out” for your next opportunity. 

It’s not about maximizing the results from any one role, but being very intentional about how your progression of roles link and make sense together. It’s why focusing just on compensation or a title for that next job may not, in fact, set you up for the role you really want, two or three career moves later.

So, on the track and in your career, look through the turn.

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Why the numbers in your operating plan are wrong

December 9, 2008

Startup companies begin life with operating plans – the spreadsheets that outline how revenue will be generated and expenses will be allocated. But in the end it’s all a very well calculated guess. So much is unknown.

A phrase I use a lot when I meet with startup companies is “the only thing we know for certain about your plan is that the numbers in it are wrong”.   It’s a disarming statement, it generally sets everyone at ease.  How could you possibly know what your revenue will be in month 33, when you haven’t even shipped your first product?

And it’s true, in a good way. It’s not the values in the cells that are important, but the set of assumptions and principles that underpin the numbers in the cells that are. I mentioned this in my first post. It sounds and is obvious.

Why bother with the plan? Some CEOs I meet take this path, and use their operating plan as a “check off the box” deliverable on the way to getting funded. But if you go there I think you blow right by critical insight about your business. You need that plan, even when you are far off it, to help you understand which assumptions are still valid, and which may need to change.

An example of an assumptions is “we’ll have larger companies distribute our product for us, and each company will deliver 50,000 end users to us”. That’s important to remember, especially if after six months, they’re only delivering 5,000 users.  It’s even more important to understand if this is just a factor of how long it takes to ramp demand (in which case that assumption needs scrutiny) or of it’s because that’s all the demand these companies can produce for you (ditto).

Your plan is a tool that has a limited useful life, at some point your business (and assumptions) change so much you need to pull out (or rather create) a new one. The right tool, for the right circumstances matters, a lot.

If the right tool is critical, the right mindset produces it. Successfully running a startup requires a resilient open mind and cultivating a sense of intellectually curiosity. You need to want to understand the “why” and “how” the numbers in the cells fail to match reality.

So, examining the failure of your plan, and finding the meaning in the failure, enables you to construct new, more valid assumptions, so you can discard the old plan and create a new one. This can be harder than you think, the plan you have now is was slaved over, polished, and is so “done”. But this new plan has a clearly defined lineage connecting it to the old one, and is the new “right tool” for your business.

Missing your plan is different. Plan “failure” is fundamentally different from missing your plan. Missing your plan comes from poor execution, poor discipline and poor vigilance about understanding why you’re not performing to your plan.  It’s still failure, but failure where no meaning has been examined or made use of.  It’s where you end up using the wrong tool, and not understanding, or even knowing, why you need a new one.

Missing your plan is like trying real hard to use that shovel that worked so well to dig the foundation of a house you’re building to hammer the nails into the framing. Sure it might work, for a while, but over time it’s just not going to do the job you need done. Missing your plan is insisting that you just hit the nails harder and faster with the shovel, and not realizing you hold the wrong tool to begin with.

This is why one of my partners coined the phrase “teams that miss plans generally continue to miss plans”. It’s because they don’t realize its their tool that’s wrong, not their intentions or efforts.

The best CEOs I work with are wonderfully disciplined about creating and appropriately discarding their plans. They measure their performance relative to their plan, and they’re vigilant about clearly delineating the key assumptions supporting the plan. When they’ve measured enough to know the assumptions are no longer valid, they revise their plan, and gladly leave that old plan behind. It becomes all about their new plan, and new tool.

Why “I don’t know” is a great answer

November 27, 2008

Here’s a news flash: You can learn a lot about someone by asking a question and seeing how they answer it.

 

That’s so obvious, and we’ve all heard it a million times. I spend a lot of time listening to pitches from startup company CEOs, as well as spend a lot of time with the CEOs of my companies, and in both cases, end up asking a lot of questions.

 

The questions, that’s where the really hard part of making productive use of time is. Anyone who has the ambition and the drive to start a company is generally smart, and has spent so much time on their business that they’re awash in information about it. Anyone who is CEO of a startup is the same way, except they’re not pitching a vision to you, they’re living and managing it. In either case, it’s their job/role to have anticipated the key questions, and have the answers to them.

 

So, it’s hard to ask questions that dig below the surface, that reveal something that hasn’t already been thought of. If you’re lucky enough to have thought of one, it can accelerate everyone’s understanding of the business and the people running it. Conversely if you’re the CEO, when those questions are asked, it will put you in a potentially awkward position. Do you have an answer, and should you have had an answer.

 

This is true about life in general, so while what follows is specific to my job, I find it’s the same calculus with friends, spouses, children, parents….

 

I love it when we get to that juncture and the CEO says “I don’t know the answer”. It’s even better if they then say “there are a number of ways to try and answer it, let’s start….”. Now you’re about to take a trip to a very rich landscape indeed. A landscape where you’ll find out something potentially valuable about the company, about the CEO, and about your ability to work together to solve problems.

 

But there’s another direction that frequently gets taken. When the CEO produces an answer. I choose that verb deliberately. The answer is produced right there, like a big patch applied over a void. The void is hidden, not explored. This is where ego and insecurity hijack intellectual curiosity and drive it right past a tremendous source of opportunity.

It’s where the person being questioned feels the need to have an answer for every question, that somehow exposing that they don’t know is bad or weak.

 

Once you become familiar with the “answer for every question” mentality, it becomes a warning sign of significance. I hate it. It spoils all the fun. Worse, it destroys credibility at an alarming pace, but in a very quiet and nuanced way – because you can’t possibly have all the answers in a company that’s still more vision than substance.

 

And it turns out, the people who most often fall into this trap are the folks who have left the large technology companies to start up a company. It reveals the culture they had to navigate through to succeed in the “big company” world. The problems generally were so well understood you could have and were expected to have all the answers. And if you didn’t, you could “patch and pivot”, loop back, and get the answer – accountability was so diffuse, and decision cycles so long.

 

But what gets missed here is that the answer isn’t important, at all. It’s seeing that juncture where you don’t know the answer – that’s the super valuable piece of information. That may tell you about a core set of assumptions that are off, or an area of opportunity that’s been missed or overstated.

 

I love the landscape that is revealed in not knowing the answer. I love working with people comfortable with traversing it. I love it when a CEO sits me down to talk through a tough problem, and will state the truth: “I know I’m missing something here, help me figure it out”. When I hear that, I know the fun is about to begin.