Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Brave New World of Small Data

If you are like me, you see a bunch of interesting thoughts, blogs and articles every day that you hope to get around to reading. Here’s my answer – 28 seconds of my learning around a topic I have been exploring. If you think the 28 seconds justify reading more, I believe you will get a “useful insight for your day.” Jeff

28 Seconds of Insight on Small Data:

  1. Quantifiable, personal data (what I have labeled Small Data) takes the generalization out of life – “I am pretty active…” is proven to not be accurate when you now understand exactly how inactive you are on a day that you sit in meetings from 8 am to 5 pm.
  2. What gets measured gets managed, especially for goal-oriented people. That is as true in personal endeavors as it is in professional endeavors
  3. Instant and immediate feedback changes behavior. People will play the “game” towards beneficial results (just as they will toward non-beneficial results).

The Deeper Dive Into Small Data
Big Data is the buzzword of the day. Conferences are developed around how to harness Big Data. Consulting firms are building units to help companies integrate Big Data into their operation. CEOs talk about Big Data with their board and how it will revolutionize their business.

I agree about the nature of data and data analytics. The insights that can be derived across massive data sets about the patterns and tendencies of us all are between amazing and a little startling. The amount of data being developed grows at an astronomical amount every data. The impact of data continues to be seen not only in online site like (People who bought X also bought…) but in entertainment with Netflix and your DVR; politics with microtargeting; and across the marketing spectrum. We have moved from a world of mass media to a world of marketing to one. Nate Silver’s book on statistics and their application is still one of my favorite books of all-time (adding the recently departed Tom Clancy to that list!)

But I have become obsessed with what I am calling Small Data – the impact of being able to track things about myself and my life that I was never able to track. Data at an individual level. Data that was never collected in the past that can change individual behavior. That obsession started with a gift of a Nike FuelBand from my previous colleagues as I was beginning my new role as the CEO of Delta Dental.

The Nike FuelBand is a wristband that measures how often and how intensively you move. It tracks not only calories burned through activity and steps as some do, but a custom-developed score called “Fuel.” It also has a functional watch. As you wear it, you can see your activity throughout the day with a light band display and over time when synced with the app on your phone. You can custom set your goal of Fuel points.

My goal has been 2,000 Fuel points. And I was on 53 day streak of hitting 2,000 points (my streak broke a couple of weeks ago on vacation when I came up a few points short, but that is another story).  This is where a goal-oriented, Type A, borderline obsessive-compulsive person discovers the power of real-time feedback regarding activity.

Here’s my defining story: I was at the September board meeting of Delta Dental in Mason City, Iowa. It was my first board retreat and our management team has spent considerable effort to make sure we are prepared to outline a strategy in a time of transformational change in the health care and insurance world. We are at the Park Inn, the renovated Frank Lloyd Wright hotel (which by the way is spectacular). After the second of three days of meetings and a board dinner, I find myself a few hundred points short of my goal. I was currently on a 30+ day streak of hitting my goal. After the dinner meeting, I tell Lisa that I *need* to go for a walk. She is kind enough to walk around the park and downtown Mason City until I hit my mark. Granted, our board is meeting at 8 am in the morning for a significant discussion that I am leading on our future strategy. Yet the Fuel point goal MUST BE MET!

While you might read that last paragraph and laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of a CEO going for a walk to hit a made up goal, late at night, before an important meeting, think about the broader issue. It had become a goal/game that I cared about (my streak). It was better for me to take that ½ hour walk than just go to bed.

Now extrapolate that action to the larger world. One of the largest health issues in the United States is obesity. A particular issue that is gaining needed attention is child obesity. If my children are an indicator of the larger population, they are both digitally wired and love games. The instant feedback loop of points and a goal that needs to be met is important in a digital (and physical) world. Foursquare and others have made successful businesses of around concept. I live professionally in the health care/insurance world, focusing on the dental community. I noticed earlier this year that SonicCare has now made an electronic toothbrush that tracks how long you are brushing your teeth and can download that data to your smartphone. For years the dental community has promoted “2+2” – brush twice per day for two minutes. Sure, I do that…. Really? Let me download that data into an app and show you whether you really do.

There are clearly dangers in Small Data. Personal data should remain personal until I allow it to go somewhere. The economic implications of more data can be significant. Data privacy should be an important part of this. But my learning in my small-scale experiment with Small Data is that when I know my progress in a goal that is important to me (my activity level /health), it allows me to make decisions in the moment that reinforce what I want the large scale result to be. That learning has broader implications for each of us and society at large.

It will be interesting to see where the world of Small Data takes us. What I have learned is that if we can align the real-time feedback into driving actions that help us achieve our goals, we may have unlocked a powerful tool in improving health and well-being.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Summers are mostly consumed with baseball for my family. Both of my sons play Little League and also on local tournament teams. I have helped coach with several of their teams over the years. Baseball is an interesting game to me – it is a team sport and an individual sport at the same time. No teammate can really help the pitcher or batter, but yet defense is clearly dependent on a team.

And when you are 10 or 12 years old it is pretty easy to put pressure on yourself on the pitcher’s mound or in the batter’s box. One of my favorite encouragements from coaches (of which I have done as well) is, "Have fun out there, kid." During one game this year I wondered what that actually meant. There is the pitcher, usually struggling, out there on the mound alone. The pressure of the moment has usually caused the player to over-think, aim the ball and most often, not have the best result. Moving from that point to “fun” is a hard place to get (if you don't think so, trying "having fun" after a horrible golf shot!). In this context, “having fun” really is shorthand for relax, enjoy the game and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

The thought of fun resurfaced in my new gig with Delta Dental of Iowa. I recently became the CEO after 20+ years with The Members Group, TMG Financial Services and their affiliated-companies. I joined the company at an important time in the health care and insurance industry. As I have said to many people, Health Care Reform doesn't wait for the new guy. There is change all around. In my first month, the team was working on the implications of new regulations, the public insurance exchange (now called marketplaces) and our strategic reaction to these changes. It has been a whirlwind and I would say I am having "fun." Challenges abound for sure, but we are charting a new course for the future (as is every other insurance carrier). While things can be stressful at times, I can say that I am having fun.

Lastly David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) posted a blog recently asking, "Are you having any fun?" His point was trying to clear your mind of clutter so you can enjoy yourself when you are not working.

So I have asked myself in multiple contexts, what does it actually mean to have fun? In my coaching of youth sports, I have often had to define fun (or maybe what isn't fun) for the team. I have said that fun isn't screwing around at practice, being silly and doing whatever you want. That might be fun on the playground or outside of our practices. Fun for the team (as least as I define it) is working together towards a goal and accomplishing that goal (usually that means winning). Few players suggest that they aren't having fun as they win a championship. When my Little League team won its first game, you could see the joy from the 10-12 year olds. They were smiling ear-to-ear. When I asked, “Wasn't that fun?” the answer was a resounding "Yes!"

But we can’t win all the time. In every baseball game there is a winner and loser. Sometimes there should be two winning teams; sometimes there should really be none. Great teams rarely have fun just because they win. They have fun because they have performed at the top of their capacity – and usually won. But even losing teams can have fun in an extraordinarily played game. Think of a tennis player who has just lost a close match telling their foe "that was a fun match." Commentators knowing that a special game has just finished saying, "that was a fun game."

So what is fun? And certainly, what is fun for those of us that can’t report a score at the end of every day.

A friend of mine provided a piece of sage advice that I often remember. He said that when you get up in the morning and get into the shower, if you are thinking about problems, you should figure out how to fix them so you can be thinking about opportunities.

I think that is a part of fun in a professional sense – are we chasing after great opportunities or are we grinding out another day? Are we playing at the top of our game or mailing in another day at the office?

As I think about the times when I have had fun for an extended period in a professional sense, a few things come to mind. I was an integral part of a high-performing team. I was engaged in work that challenged the limits of my talent and the talent of the team. I was working a project worth doing. And I could see some result of how our team could be successful.

That being said, not every project, endeavor or opportunity challenges us at that level. It would be hard to keep that pace for months and years on end. And, let’s be honest, everything we do at the office is not fun. Some of it just needs to be done.

But we spend as much time at the office as we spend in almost any other aspect of our life. If, on average, we aren't having fun, then it is probably time to find a new way to earn a living. Not fun in the "go to the (party, park, concert, etc.)" type of fun, but fun where you feel engaged in a pursuit worthy of your talent. I think having fun, to some extent, is a measure of attitude. Some might suggest the banking and insurance industries aren't their definition of fun (shock!). Yet I have made a career of having a blast in both of those worlds.

So in the end I believe that, "are you having fun, yet?" is a question that depends on how you approach it. Are you engaged in something that truly challenges you? Are you a part of a high-performing team? Do you see your work as an integral part of your team/department/company’s future? And do you show up every day with the intention of having fun. As with many things in life, it depends on how you approach your work.

I aim to have fun every day. Do you?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Partnerships are Inefficient… And That’s OK.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Brazil with other credit union leaders to study the SiCredi cooperative financial system (what we in the U.S. would call a credit union or credit union system). They have a federated model much like Quebec-based Desjardins caisse popular (also a credit union system) with a centralized “home office” that can build expertise and scale, but is owned and governed by individual financial cooperatives each with their own individual governance models. In a sense it is like a super-franchise – a common brand but the “franchisees” own the entire system rather than the home office.

SiCredi's president is a gracious man named Ademar Schardong who was instrumental in building the federated model in the 1980s as Brazil re-emerged from the military dictatorship that ruled the country since the 1960s. He spent a great deal of time with our study group explaining how their model works and their impressive growth trajectory in the last decade.

Frankly, I believe their model is genius not only for financial cooperatives but other types of businesses.

It leverages a single brand recognizable to the consumer with local governance of the financial cooperatives spread throughout the southern part of the country. It is very different than the United States where we have 7,000 credit unions and nearly 100 million members but have historically been an afterthought in the larger banking world. This type of federated model is clearly a best practice for cooperatives across the globe.

One of Sicredi’s strongly-held beliefs is that it is their governance model makes the real difference, not the brand or expertise or scale. But it is exactly that governance model that seemed inefficient to me. Each of the 112 cooperatives gets an ongoing say in key operating issues of the system through an assembly process. In some cases, two-thirds of the cooperatives must vote yes for a decision to move forward. Sicredi management explained that these decisions could take multiple years to work through the process. That struck me as out of place. After all, in today’s world, isn't it the fast that eat the slow? In the fast pace of the global economy, is it at all reasonable that a partnership would allow decisions to take that long just so everyone could have their say?

I think, yes.

Partnerships – whether in the form of a true cooperative, a federation, a joint venture, a marketing alliance or some other form – are inherently inefficient. The most efficient form of management is command and control. The old military and factory model is very efficient. One person decides, everyone else implements. “Ours is not to wonder why, ours is to do and die.” Clear. Concise. Easy. And yet, discredited in many ways.  Dictators and autocratic governments have been mostly disbanded or are on the ropes (see Venezuela). Even militaries and factories have moved to more collaborative models. It is possible that the only command and control systems left in operation are public schools, but that is another topic…

Today partnerships are the rage. Collaboration is the word of the day. Books are written and speaking tours engaged on the topic. But why is an inefficient partnership or collaboration better than consolidation and acquisition – thus ensuring one voice and one direction?

In 2001, we recast the mission of The Members Group to “Creating Successful Partnerships.” It was not so much a new concept but an articulation of what our cultural DNA was about. We endeavored to create successful partnerships with our clients, our employees, our business partners and our owners. When we rolled this new mission statement out to our staff, some responded with positive comments. Others said, every company says partnership are important. It was perceived by some as trite. “That's what you put on a trade show booth, not a mission of a company,” someone told me. Yet, in today’s marketplace, I believe a competency of partnership is critical to success.


Because no organization – not the largest company on the planet – can do it all alone. The days of complete integration, the Standard Oil model, are over in the global, technology-driven economy. If I need a data center I can build out one at great expense or leverage the Amazon cloud to be up in a day. If I outgrow that, there are many partners – many specialized in fields like financial services – that can take my business to the next level. I can leverage marketing distribution networks, outsourced manufacturing agreements, application programming interfaces (APIs), management agreements and the like to build a virtual company with real world assets in a fraction of the time it might take many years ago. Some of these are just vendor agreement. But others are much more than vendor relationships, over time they become important strategic assets of the company.

But they aren't efficient. So the question becomes: What level of inefficiency are you willing to live with to gain the advantages of a partnership? Partners have different priorities – often they are managing multiple partnerships. You are always not the biggest fish in the pond. Alignment becomes one of the most important things. We need to have “partnership meetings” or “steering committee meetings” to gain alignment. We create structures to navigate difficulties. And inevitably the cultures between partners are not the same. Strategic decisions take longer, more face-to-face communication is needed, and my way doesn't always win.

The funny thing about collaboration and partnership is this: If you want to partner with me, agree to all my ideas and help fund a portion of the development, THAT’S AWESOME! But usually decisions are a give and take, my ideas meshing with yours. Building on top each other’s ideas to find something that of can work in the market. A meritocracy of ideas where titles matter less and ideas matter more. Those are the successful partnerships.

And one other thing I have noticed. Partnerships are initially built on relationship. My experience is that a few people from each side open the dialogue based on mutual respect (but not always initially on mutual likeability). Without champions on each side, there are always reasons to say no. Someone must want the partnership to succeed. It is another case where it is easier to say no than yes. Without a champion, it is hard to break through the inertia of every day.

But once the partnership is formalized, it has to move beyond the personal relationship. It needs to become a competency of the organization – some companies are good at partnering, others are simply not. In the credit union industry, we are watching many partnerships formed many years ago on personal relationships disintegrate because the next generation of leadership never bought in the way the first one did and there was not a formalization of this competency within the broader organization.

Partnerships are a cultural issue. Are you good at it building them or not? Do you see partnerships as legal agreements and alliances or living, breathing organisms that need care and feeding. The vast majority of partnerships fail and it is rarely because the economic reasons weren't as strong as the day they were formed. Remember OS/2? Probably not. Microsoft and IBM tried to come together to build the next generation of computer operating systems in the late 1980s. But they never trusted each other and couldn't get past years of a distrustful, d├ętente-based relationship. In the payments industry, this type of relationship is being formed in McX, the merchant-based payment network. WalMart is in the same room as Target, with Best Buy and others in the mix. Maybe it will be successful, but to get there they will have to overcome decades of competition and distrust.

So how do you identify whether you will be able to build a successful partnership? Here is my (surely incomplete) list.

Jeff’s key attributes of a partnerships:
  • A win-win – economically and strategically. Do you agree what the definition of success is for the long-term? Can you both articulate using the same language?
  • A history of successful partnerships within the organization. Can your culture accept a minority role as well as a majority role? Can you lead as well as follow? Can you do both within the same partnership?
  • The ability to accept another way of doing something. Do you REALLY believe that your way is not the only way to do it? Does your partner believe the same?
  • The ability to build relationships and navigate through difficult issues. Are you willing to discuss the brutal realities about the good and the bad? Are there people on either side who can mediate issues with the key points of the partnership in mind?
  • A willingness to look to others for new ideas. Do you suffer from not-invented-here (NIH) syndrome, where ideas from the outside are looked at skeptically or does the best idea win, even if from another party?

Near the end of our visit to SiCredi, I said to Mr. Schardong that their governance model seemed inefficient to me. He was nearly offended at the suggestion. He defended the nature of their model as critical to their success. The culture of partnering and this cooperative governance model was ingrained so deeply in the organization that the benefits so outweighed whatever inefficiency might be associated with the process. It was basically a rounding error to him.

He said that “the only reason for the organization (the home office) to exist was to support the system.” Their model of partnership was beyond symbiotic – in that it helped each organism live and grow. It was more like a host-based system – if one part was removed, both would die. It was like saying that your liver really isn't very efficient, so you are going to go a different direction. To survive, it is critical. I left the conversation with a new thought to ponder - is the inefficiency I saw actually a strategic asset? As I have thought about this I believe the next challenge for a fast-growing organization like SiCredi is whether they can institutionalize that core belief beyond a “founder?” Time will tell but my bet is yes. It does seem a part of their culture.

So I turn the question to you: What is your definition of partnership? Does your organization really know what partnerships are about? Are you willing to fight for them, like you would a part of your own organization? Are they a strategic asset?

In a new connected world, I believe partnerships are vitally important. And hard. And most of us aren't very good at them. But with practice, we will be. And if we get better, we will be able to grow and succeed in ways that we might not have imagined.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Win One for the Gipper and Other Nuggets of Advice from Coaches

Now is a great time if you are a sports fan – college football bowl games having just completed (except for this BCS thing that drags on until mid-January) plus the NFL playoffs and the college basketball conference season getting rolling.

Over the years, I have had the great pleasure of listening to a number of college coaches from the state of Iowa talk about their teams and their approach to coaching. With each one of them, I ask one question, “What do you do between games to prepare your team for the next game?” It is a question about how a team moves from a win or a loss in its previous game to focus on the challenge ahead. I think it is a question that goes to preparation in any endeavor – sports, business, drama or music.

Nick Saban made business journal and blog headlines this past summer after a Sports Illustrated article talked about how Alabama prepared for games (click here for article). This was followed up with a sister publication, CNN Money, adapting this for the business world (click here for article). He is entirely focused on “the Process.” I remember watching an interview when he first took the job where he said, “the process will work here.” It was less about the location or the storied history of Alabama football than it was about his process. The process is so scripted that he eats the same thing for lunch every day so as not to distract him with one extra decision in the day that isn't about moving the team forward.

In early November, I had a chance to hear University of Iowa Basketball Coach Fran McCaffrey and his comments reminded me of “the question” I have asked coaches and their answers. I thought I would share some of their wisdom with you. Their comments are paraphrased from my memory and my notes.

Fran McCaffrey, Head Basketball Coach at the University of Iowa

Coach McCaffrey spent a few minutes talking to the YPO Iowa chapter on the floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. To be fair, I will probably remember his graciousness to a family group as much as his Xs and Os (Lisa and our kids were all there, and the kids got to shoot on the practice floor with Coach McCaffrey rebounding).

Iowa was in the middle of a five games in nine days stretch, including a tournament in Mexico. As we entered the arena, the team was working on a drill where they were down five points with two minutes remaining. It was a controlled scrimmage, focusing on executing, then teaching, then executing again. As Coach McCaffrey came over to talk with our group, I was amazed at his attention to the details of the game. Spending valuable practice time in specific situations and teaching game-specific tactics will prepare them for the season to come. I am quite confident there will come a time during this season when the work from that practice, plus the countless practices before and since, will make the difference between winning and losing.

Another thing struck me in his comments. Iowa had just beaten Central Michigan (coached by former Drake coach Keno Davis – see below). Central Michigan had played a five guard offense to throw off the Hawkeye game plan and had kept the game close with the unusual approach. McCaffrey countered with a four guard offense and a number of players that were expected to play significant minutes sat on the bench. He talked about how he would need to spend time with those players to boost their spirits coming into the next game. Handling players who have been successful in the game, and were most often the star on their high school team, is an underrated skill. Coach McCaffrey knew exactly that those players would be disappointed, but he adapted his tactics for that game and to come out victorious.

Learning: Practice must be about learning game-specific situations. Spending time preparing for inevitable scenarios will prepare a team to execute when the pressure is on. Also, adaptability in the face of a surprise game plan is important, but so is the care and feeding of players whose role changed based on the new strategy.

Mark Farley, Head Football Coach at University of Northern Iowa

Coach Farley's most memorable nugget was that his team's weekly preparation was dependent on their opponent for the coming week. He said that if his UNI team was likely better or more athletic than their opponent, they would work on putting in more new plays and schemes. This would make team focus on what they were doing and not get too complacent or overconfident as they were thinking and engaged in a new game plan. If his team was less athletic than their opponent (he mentioned playing a Big Ten team like Iowa), they would work on being crisp and fast by slimming down the playbook and focusing on execution. This provided confidence to the team as they felt they could master what the game plan was and they would go into the game focusing on execution and instinct, rather than thinking about what was coming next.

Learning: Staying fully engaged every week is important for a team and the coach should change the practice plan to keep the team engaged and primed for the upcoming game.

Paul Rhoads, Head Football Coach at Iowa State University

I had the chance to hear from Coach Rhoads at an event just before his first season at ISU. He was working with his players and was clearly focused on building a program. I asked my usual question on preparation and he launched into the answer with the enthusiasm he shows in many situation (see his post-game speech that was viewed more than 150,000 times on YouTube here). His focus was on planning the schedule for his players minute by minute for the entire week. He said that with restrictions on practice time from the NCAA and the complications of students’ schedules, it was important to manage every minute to maximize their preparation. He talked about the complex schedule that had sections for offense, defense, special teams, position meetings and even where coaches should be at every point in time. This discipline allowed ISU to exceed expectations that first year and now has been in bowl games three of the first four seasons for Coach Rhoads.

Learning: You never get back a wasted minute. Time is a precious commodity in preparation and planning is a key element in winning. The logistics of preparation are underestimated.

Keno Davis, Head Basketball Coach at Drake University (now at Central Michigan)

2007-08 was the magical season for Drake basketball. They were undefeated throughout much of the year and won the Missouri Valley post-season tournament. They lost a heartbreaking game to Western Kentucky on a last second shot. But during the season, Coach Davis (who was selected as the AP coach of the year that year) talked about this particular basketball team and the advanced basketball IQ of the team. He said time and time again that it was this particular team that allowed him to implement new offensive scheme, as well as wrinkles that kept opponents guessing. More importantly, they kept working hard, no matter what their record was and how many times they made SportsCenter (which is not a regular occurrence for a Drake basketball player).

The Drake team was not the most athletic on the floor most nights. Most of the players weren't highly recruited but they were a team that thirsted for more. Their enthusiasm for learning never stopped. While they didn't take a magical Hoosiers-like ride through the NCAA tournament, they will be recognized as one of the best Drake teams of all time.

Learning: An unquenchable desire for learning and improving can propel a team to greatness where the whole is certainly more than the sum of the parts.

Mark Phelps, Head Basketball Coach at Drake University

Coach Phelps replaced Coach Davis after the 2007-08 season. He was a well-regarded assistant coach from Arizona State and looked to take the underclassmen from the Davis team on to new heights. I had the opportunity to ask him “my question” shortly before the season started. As I reflect four years later, what strikes me is that most of his answers could have come from the movie Bull Durham, “We just need to get better as a team,” and “We continue to set our team goals and work hard to achieve them.” It struck me that there was no specific philosophy or program that was his at that point. It could have been an off-day, we certainly all have those. However, I would guess after four somewhat difficult years that Coach Phelps would probably answer the question differently today. Coach Phelps brought experience to the job as an assistant, but may not have brought "experiences" to his first head coaching job. I have always sought to distinguish between “experiences” and “experience.” Experiences are the learning events that create wisdom for future challenges. Experience can do this, but a repetitive role for many year doesn't always create the experiences that position a person to adapt to the challenges ahead. These past few seasons have certainly provided many experiences for Coach Phelps that likely have brought learning.

Learning: The top job is appealing to those not there. Most times it is a lot harder than it looks. Wisdom isn't something you can read in a book (or a blog), but the sum of many experiences.


I love asking "my question" to successful coaches. Most often the coach will pause reflectively as the question isn't about the latest opponent, offensive scheme or player controversy. Coaches are experts at their craft, which often goes beyond the Xs and Os. The best coaches are the difference between a team that is a perennial loser and one that begins to win. To be sure, talent matters. But preparation and how coaches approach practices, player development and each game can make the difference.

I will continue to ask the question. In fact, someday I hope to spend a week or month with a team that is known for its preparation – maybe Nick Saban or Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots or Kirk Ferenz and the Iowa Hawkeyes (even as they are coming off a down year). I believe the focus on preparation is key to their success. The approaches of these successful coaches are all slightly different, but there is one commonality – they know exactly what THEY must do to prepare for the upcoming game. That focus radiates to the entire team and in the end facilitates their success.