Synching Team Mindsets through Creative Invention

The health newsletter of Dr. Weil has an interesting piece on how musician’s brain waves synchronize when they play songs together (“Musicians’ Brain Waves Are Also in Tune“). A researcher at the Max Planck Institute looked at electrical activity in the brains of pairs of guitarists and found that two regions of the mind show high degrees of brainwave synchronization when they play an improvised song together.

I’m a jazz/rock musician (guitar, drums, keys, a bit of bass and vocals) who long ago decided I’d be more productive applying my creativity to business collaboration and marketing. In other words, I wasn’t even close to the brilliance some of my friends displayed as musicians, and opted for a business career plus a classic-rock band of mid-life guys in in my basement instead. But I’ve been continually fascinated by replicating the creative environment and satisfaction of music in business environments.

“In the Groove”

A takeaway from the study, in my opinion, is that creative, right-brain thinking creates an alignment of invention and emotion that makes it fun for people to work together and to create new, breakthrough ideas. I’ve only dabbled in classical music and the fine arts, but my hunch is that the more real-time improvisational the art, and the less structured the roles, the greater potential for mental alignment. Jazz works this way, group improvisational comedy, probably dance, and even high-performance tennis doubles.

Happy Hours as Invention Opportunities

A way to leverage this is to find a time each week for people to set aside their pressing to-do’s, and just brainstorm about business opportunities. In one of my businesses, we made this the Friday afternoon pizza hour. The really good ideas for business improvements and new products came also exclusively via these sessions – it was the only time where people had permission to think outside their roles, stop worrying about their obligations or speaking out of turn, and pose a zany theory to see where it led. One person was assigned to capture the notes (today I would commit them live to a Wiki, chat board, or feature-request log, and if you’re really ambitious in a distributed company, you could try having people contribute in a Twitter feed). The drinks usually associated with happy hours are completely optional (and probably not permissible in many businesses). Jelly beans work fine.

Team Productivity Enhancers – What Works…

Three other discussion threads in the same vein:

– I’ve read reports comparing team productivity in two scenarios. In both, a team is given an important business challenge to resolve. In scenario one, a team is told to go off individually, spend an hour or more researching the issue and coming up with ideas, and bringing them to the table at the next meeting. In scenario two, the team is asked to work on the problem only in group meetings. The findings about which created greater results were, that while the individually-prepared team gave “good” responses to the problem more consistently, the team only interacting in groups created breakthrough solutions that addressed more fundamental issues or new opportunities. They were able to think beyond the initial problem and invent a vision. This didn’t occur 100% of the time, so you are taking a bit of a chance with group brainstorming, but where you are creating new ideas without a driving deadline, this approach is much more effective.

– There has been a lot of talk about how Google gives their employees 20% free time to brainstorm and create/test new inventions (see the NY Times and Fast Company). Empowering people to not only create ideas, but to develop them is powerful. And, it’s relatively easy in the software industry, where the cost of pilot production and posting something to the Web is small. However, based on experience at another major West Coast software corporation, it can get out of hand. Too many individuals can start posting too many ideas for the company to manage; creating redundant projects and unsanctioned competition between divisions and executives; and spinning off lots of unprofitable activities. A few techniques allow you to balance innovation, entrepreneurship and directional control in these situations:

  1. First, document all ideas somewhere. The mere fact that someone’s idea is being recorded gives the mind positive reinforcement, and individuals/teams start taking more time to explore more ideas.
  2. Second, have a prioritization process for the ideas. I think it’s too much for any individual to have complete discretion to pursue any ideas. The best approach is to have the inventor/evangelist need to demonstrate the business case for the idea before spending more than a few hours on it. This teaches engineers and other technical types to think about ROI as a prime organizational driver. The education takes time but is well worth it for organizational productivity – again, aligning people in the same mindset. For other companies with a more time-pressed or hierarchical style, I’ve experienced monthly meetings for the entire department (or if small enough, the entire company) where the best ideas submitted that month are highlighted, the creator is given a small award/reward, and management commits to reporting back in 4 weeks on exactly what they will do with the idea.

– Third, there’s an interesting trend toward crowd-sourcing invention, where the vast resources of talented people on the internet are encouraged to contribute en masse to projects, ranging from highly-technical R&D and licensing projects (e.g. the company Nine Sigma), to online resources such as Wikipedia type databases of cost-saving solutions for small businesses. There’s the potential to rethink business invention and the consulting industry through crowd-sourcing. A colleague of mine, David Gusick, is pursuing this path at Extreme Collaboration.

“Have a Nice Day” – By Creating Something with Others

If all of the above is time much to absorb for your hectic business day, I leave you with this “stop and smell the roses” thought from Dr. Weil in his newsletter blurb above: “To my mind, [the Max Planck Institute] study highlights one of the great joys of playing music, one voiced by many musicians: a sense of self-transcendence. Playing music together creates a rare chance to step outside of ourselves and our small concerns and join our minds wholeheartedly with others in creating something no individual could make alone. Seen in this light, creating beautiful music is simply a wonderful byproduct of a larger reward – connecting deeply with other human beings.”

When the worlds of business and music collide.

When the worlds of business and music collide.

The Unique Role of Strategic Advisory Boards

Business advisory boards fill a unique role in strategy and implementation, whether your company is crafting a new product line, identifying cost-cutting measures, pursuing mergers and partnerships, or changing the mix of staff skill-sets. Private equity and venture capital firms especially the ROI of applying specialized executive talent to rev-up progress at an operating company, typically through a 100-day plan.

My conversations with growing (and struggling…) businesses, investment firms, lawyers, consultants and individual executives suggest that advisory boards are powerful, long-term strategic tools if you invest in managing them well. However, many firms don’t know where to find outstanding board members or relegate them to two-to-four meetings a year and a few phone calls. And, online advice about creating these boards is surprisingly generic (the highest-ranked advice-oriented links about ” strategic advisory boards, how to create” on Google are at AllBusiness.com and at Stengel Solutions).

Over several blog posts, I propose ways to use advisory boards better and interview leaders in this area.

Advisory Boards Are Not Your Usual “Boards” or “Consultants”

Strategic advisory boards are unique business support system. I define them as:

  1. Non-employee teams serving senior management
  2. With extensive experience and special expertise in sectors / functions that affect a business
  3. Meeting together over years, though they can and should focus on urgent business decisions over the course of several months for the best impact
  4. Compensated

They differ from:

  • Boards of Directors, or fiduciary boards, which take on the responsibility and liability of being responsible for the financial well-being of a company’s shareholders and for evaluating the chief executive. Boards of Directors are required for public companies, but they often are populated with influential individuals with powerful connections or access to investors, rather than industry specialists. BoDs also are expensive to staff, costing five-to six-figures per member per year, to offset the increasing amounts of time and risk fiduciary board members take on. For public companies with divisions that need strategic help, or private companies that need broader business input without being evaluated on a management hire/fire criterion, strategic advisory boards are more valuable.
  • Consultancies, whose pyramid-like team structure and billing rates make them suitable for critical projects of one to several months requiring deep analysis, but less so for ongoing guidance about growth opportunities and trouble spots.
  • “Friends of the firm,” a category in which I include advisors who aren’t compensated for their input. Usually these relationships are developed ad hoc, based on chance meetings or existing relationships, where the company’s leader or evangelist convinces the businessperson to lend their name and be on a few phone calls in exchange for light cache. Though these individuals may receive an Advisor title on the web site, without careful selection of a group of complementary skillsets and a commitment to exploring issues at length with the firm, they usually have limited impact.

Achieving an Effective Board

High level considerations when building an effective and worthwhile strategic advisory board include:

  • Compensation model. I found, through my prior business Circle of Experts, that a modest amount of cash goes a long way in getting the attention of potential advisors, and a little equity on top (a fraction of a percent) keeps their minds engaged even when not attending meetings. The total cost of many advisory boards, meeting regularly, helping with multiple decisions in detail, can be less than that of a single senior employee and less than 1-2% of equity for a start-up.
  • Information sharing. Too many advisory boards meet semi-annually, and beyond that are contacted individually by phone. That’s because the company’s management team has a lot on their plate and lose track of the time investment needed to support the board. Anyone who has been in a consulting field realizes how critical an understanding of a business’s culture, it’s operating metrics, and competitive context is to making effective decisions. Therefore, advisory boards can benefit from a light “information portal” where they can read a summary of relevant news and data, post ideas for discussion online immediately or in-person at the next meeting, and track results of programs.
  • Evolution. For strategic advisory boards, some members will prove useful advisors over years, while others will be a best fit for specific projects. Both members and the company should explicitly discuss how their needs change and set 6 to 12 month reviews of their relationship. This makes it easier to switch to a looser “stay in touch” commitment , while introducing new talent.
  • Facilitation. Good advisory boards are comprised of a range of personalities, experiences that interact with management to come up with new solutions. But this isn’t easy. Think about staffing a consulting team where each member worked at a different firm, in a different location, put in an “all members are equal” starting situation. Instead, effective boards explicitly establish and regularly refine their rules of engagement, including scope of responsibility (for example, is management open to the board proposing new programs or highlighting company problems that management hasn’t put on the agenda), conflict resolution (including the acceptance of vigorous debate and approaches to re recognize and address personality conflicts), meeting agendas and between-meeting time commitments. This facilitation itself takes a special skillset and experience base.
  • Commitment. All of the above point to a shared commitment to exchanging information, researching opportunities, and improving process that has to occur during and between meetings. The board needs to be thought of as a strategic weapon, focused on top-of-mind questions, rather than a “nice to have on the website” marketing tool to be worth creating. In turn, some members will want to contribute even more time to your business, for example, editing a investment prospective or QAing a major implementation plan.

Next… Managing Board Dynamics

In an upcoming post on this topic, I’ll be interviewing Dr. Robert Fisher, board member of the Science and Technology Corporation at University of New Mexico, Founder of the Center for Medical Democracy (a consortia of leading advisors on healthcare policy) and CEO of Fisher Leadership Strategy about his experience making boards work.

Outsourcing Sales & Marketing Support

Today’s economy makes it more important than ever for sales people to be productive. With fewer purchases happening, it’s simply not acceptable to waste any sales time on tasks that don’t involve interacting with businesspeople to create a new relationship, guiding a project or identifying new needs. This situation especially applies to sales people with limited corporate support, as well as services franchise owners, independent consultants, entrepreneurs and business development professionals and independent sales representatives.

Freeing up your day – from inexpensive-to-free tools and cost-effective support

I’ve been experimenting with a variety of free or inexpensive Web 2.0 tools and inexpensive, outsourced labor to eliminate as much unproductive time as possible from my work as a consultant. The goal is to achieve 90% or more of my time on direct sales and creating business offerings for my clients. The web tools will filter and deliver information to you, but it’s still a problem to screen out the irrelevant news, move that information to your personal file system, and fix administrative issues like PC problems or travel set up. With outsourced labor costs on Elance and Odesk dropping to $5/hour for simple tasks like data entry, and $15 to $50 for higher value business research, administrative assistant, and technical support, you can combine web tools with labor to complete your outsourced sales environment and achieve a compelling ROI – whether paid for personally or by your company.

Where do you lose selling and relationship management time?

Consider the following tasks. Ask yourself how much of your day they take up. Include in the estimate “disruption time” – that is, the extra time lost from getting to the heart of intense prospect/client conversations when you have to switch frequently to read emails of questionable value, enter data into systems, etc.

  1. Identifying qualified prospects through web research and online chat boards. Then, researching their industry, company situation and key contacts, as well as social network referrals you can use for a warm lead.
  2. Prioritizing your queue of new calls and follow-ups each day, and bundling together meetings at nearby companies when you travel (not to mention printing maps and booking hotels).
  3. Entering contacts and prospect/opportunity status in your CRM system.
  4. Finding quality networking events to attend, researching the attendees and following up with those you spoke to with an email thank you. Furthermore, finding events and webinars you and your company should speak at or have a booth for.
  5. Drafting proposals, especially locating a relevant template from similar work and entering basic information like the signatory contact.
  6. Staying abreast of your clients’ industry by reading email newsletters, picking quality blogs, loading podcasts on your MP3; then actually reading these sources to find the most relevant handful of stories each day that will improve your sales outcomes. This helps you sell more intelligently and come up with reasons to get back in touch with hesitant prospects, beyond “just checking in…”
  7. Entering expenses, fixing your PC/Mac or getting VoIP and VPN to work from your remote office, re-ordering business cards and supplies, and other office administration.

I estimate that at least 1/2 of the week is consumed with these tasks by many salespeople, including productivity lost by getting back into focus after a disruption. Now, what if you had a virtual sales assistant that took care of almost all of these for you and you could just follow a queued-up daily plan for client interaction?

Let’s see how close we can get to this ideal situation. The next several blog posts will cover each of these areas and demonstrate how you can put together the tools yourself, or use a service to do it.

Finding networking and speaking opportunities

For example, I have been using the services of AtHandz, an Internet research outsourcing firm, to identify speaking event opportunities for an attorney client of mine that wants to expand her clientele. After defining the industries and event criteria for desirable speaking slots, I’ve had AtHandz find compile event calendars and association lists; find over 50 events for which my client is a relevant speaker (and there should be no cost to speak); enter those events in a spreadsheet with details on the organization, event/speaking invitation process and contact; create Outlook business cards and draft email inquiries; and update my status by reading BCC’s of email correspondence. When there’s a positive email response, I make the initial call to the organization. If and only if there’s a mutual fit, my attorney client joins a second call to create the deeper relationship. It’s even much easier for your support staff to read about and filter networking events where you want to attend, meet people and collect business cards, than it is to find speaking opportunities.

The next blog posts will look at the hardcore sales tasks of identifying and research prospects, setting up your daily call queue, as well as administrative support such as my quest for quality desktop PC support at under $25/hour.

Outsourcing for marketing and job hunters, too

The same approach to combining free or very inexpensive Web 2.0 tools with inexpensive, outsourced labor can also work for the marketing function and even for job hunting. Marketers need to engage in the conversations on the web which now involve their product, and filtering these conversations take a lot of time (even with Google Alerts). Job hunters, by definition solo workers, can have their job search time consumed by filtering through the email alerts from job boards, entering contacts into Outlook, tracking which openings to follow up with and reading news and articles with ideas for their future. In both cases, individuals need to spend just a little in order to raise their productivity and value quite a bit. Outsourcing marketing and job search support will be covered more in future posts.

Practical Tools for Law Firms to Expand their Clientele and Mindshare

I’ve been asked recently to present to law firms (in NY, CT and DC) on practical ways to improve their online presence, and combine this with traditional relationship building methods. The result is this presentation, which describes specifically how to polish a LinkedIn individual or company profile, obtain speaking opportunities and be quoted in articles with minimal effort, and use surveys and low-key events that allow industry executives (who are your potential clients) to mingle.

The steps require between 1/2 hour and 2 hours a week for your partners who emphasize business development. The range depends on whether you want to be simply “credible” in your online presence, or “facilitative” in blending networking and outreach with online activities, as shown on my slide about the efforts & results continuum from “Simply Present” to “Online Leader.”

For those attorneys and practices that still are challenged to find time to build their presence and relationships, online marketing consultants (there are talented independent consultants these days so less need to hire a firm) can make it easy and cost-effective to draft content and research speaking/article/outreach partners, while leaving the final sign-off and interpersonal communications to you.

The slides can be viewed here:

How Lawyers Can Grow Billings Using Online Networks and Internet Marketing

I’ve been engaged lately in several projects for attorneys and law firms, with the objective of expanding their business clientele through an online presence. Consider it “LinkedIn and Beyond for Lawyers.” An online presence — in social networks, blogs, webinars — has become more acceptable, even expected, for attorneys in the last few years.

  • LinkedIn, the largest networking site for professionals across industries, has over 750,000 lawyers and legal services providers with profiles.
  • The American Bar Association site lists over 5,000 ‘blawgs by lawyers.
  • Specialized communities are sprouting. LegalOnRamp is an online network exclusively for corporate general counsel to interact with each other and law firms; featuring more-than-cursory articles, a wiki to freely publish documents, survey results and industry data; and an active Ask the Expert section.

Where’s the benefit? The most common question for those starting to focus online is: “What do I get out of it? I created a LinkedIn profile but haven’t gotten any inquiries.” Of course, your results vary with effort. Consider a few common objectives:

  • You want to maintain contact with affiliates and other lawyers that will refer business to you. In this case, a profile for each professional, inserting the bios from your web site, is a good start on LinkedIn. Once these are published, you can request connections to your colleagues already on LinkedIn. Xing is a comparable social network emphasizing Europe and Asia and Plaxo is another recommended service with 40m subscribers, in which you receive updates about colleagues’ change of contact information. You can also publish quick thoughts or new to all your colleagues on these sites, which will complement regular emails and holiday cards. This assumes you have a solid electronic contact database. For this, Microsoft Outlook is a good start, with Microsoft Business Contact Manager or Avidian’s Prophet to enable contact sharing in a midsize firm, or Salesforce for a larger, multi-office practice (see this LinkedIn Question & Answer Chat about the best contact manager for a small to mid-sized firm). Creating your LinkedIn presence can take less than an hour in this minimal approach, with cleaning up your contact database being the major task. However, the result is that people who know and appreciate you will find you more easily, not that new prospects will seek your counsel.
  • You want prospective clients that are evaluating your practice to find a solid web presence. Here, you’ll want to polish your professionals’ LinkedIn profiles to include a bio written in an approachable first person. Change the standard “Ms. Doe is a patent lawyer representing firms of all sizes…” to include specialties (“I have worked extensively with both manufacturing and non-manufacturing technology entities, such as universities and the NIH“) and benefits (“I… help clients execute on strategies to leverage the value of their IP“). Then, add at least 20 links/connections to clients and colleagues; a photo and a vanity LinkedIn URL with your name, and have several clients publish short testimonials for your work (which you can propose in draft form and have them revise). This may take a few hours but puts you into the realm of credible online presence, beyond your web site.
  • You want prospects you’ve met to keep you in mind. For this case, minimally consider a quarterly e-newsletter with updates on law in their industry, and your publicly-known cases. One effective approach is to orient your content by industry of your client, rather than by legal domain — which few lawyers seem to do. A pharmaceutical client, a telecommunications company and an e-commerce startup use different language to refer to their intellectual property needs — one speaks of protecting an new product pipeline, another defending its technology and the third seeing a competitor copy their online brand. For them, it’s insufficient to state on LinkedIn that “I serve all industries” and leave it at that, or to write about patent /trademark activity across multiple industries. Free or for-fee webinars, or local lunches work well, as does joint presentations with complimentary service providers, such as a local private equity fund or networking association.
  • You want to solicit new business interest through your online presence. This is where substantial time is needed, because so many lawyers are attempting the same thing. Only a few per domain of expertise can break through the clutter, so you’ll want to strive for the frequency and depth of content that only one or two other firms can match when you search Google. You can accomplish this by writing white papers that help clients, or being the most frequent and insightful blog on a particular topic such as food and drug law, as well as a public speaker. Also, consider creative and even bold offers, such as Clock Tower Law’s offer of a free trademark registration for a startup. And combine online initiatives with local business development, such soliciting speaking engagements. One of my clients and I are working with a cost-effective outsourced service to find and monitor industry events for speaking opportunities, and having an executive assistant at the law firm propose the practice leader as a speaker.

Finally, be aware of how others are writing about you on the web. ZoomInfo compiles career biographies of anyone who has had a professional profile published on the web. Two lawyers I tracked shared first and last names (their middle name differed), but very different track records and some information had been confused between them by the automated system. You can fix this by claiming ownership about your data and correcting it. A site such as Vault.com lets prospective employees write about their experience with your firm. One firm I was tracking had a strong presence on Google, ranking 5th when I searched for “NY intellectual property law firm.”  Yet on Vault, the first comment to appear was from a paralegal job candidate who wrote “If you [even] speak English, they will hire you,”  and another candidate said “the place is in shambles.” Not an attractive situation!

In sum, it takes little effort to get online and stay in touch with those who appreciate your reputation. Actually building your reputation online takes more time, but there are intermediate steps that allow you and your firm to match your business development goals with time availability.

For more thoughts, see the powerpoint I’ve posted below about how law firms can grow their revenues with Web 2.0 technologies. This is an update of a presentation I made a little while ago to the New York County Lawyers Association.

Composing Music Collaboratively

Sites for posting and sharing music have democratized the music business to the point where any aspiring artist or band can get their music heard. The downside, of course, is with so much music freely available, full-time musicians are finding it more difficult to make a living. The NY Times has written a state of the industry piece, “Songs from the Heart of a Marketing Plan,” about how more musicians are creating tunes designed for licensing in commercials and movies, rather than taking chances on developing a unique identity.

There is another exciting, and growing, upside to music sharing on the web ? the ability for musicians to collaborate online, with others around the world to create new sounds, songs and even bands. I heard the creators of Indaba speak recently. Founded by a pair of modest early 20-somethings, Indaba has put together an easy to use and compelling site for posting tracks – a bass and drums groove; a piano and voice demo, etc; – and inviting others to layer on more sounds – guitar, a better voice, electronic percussion – to build music across borders. Now that the site has become more intensely useful with online track editing and project management, contests with the Berklee College of Music, plus negotiation over copyright use, it’s gained thousands of users and support of artists such as Third Eye Blind who are allowing musicians to remix their basic tracks even before their album comes out.

Then there’s Share My Lyrics, which is encouraging people to post complete lyrics or just snippets, get feedback on their skills, write lyrics together and sell them.

Music could be the easiest art form to create collaboratively online, given the way one person can layer a musical concept on top of the framework of other people’s tracks within minutes. But the same concept can be applied to any art form that can be digitized – manipulated digital photography, video, fiction, poetry, even dance – with the right editing tools. See NPR Radio’s Jan.5 story on wovels– novels on which readers vote an direction for next weeks’ chapter installment and DanceForms for PC-based dance choreography software that no doubt can be translated to a Web 2.0 platform.