Category Archives: Cross-Functional Leadership

Avoiding Death by A Thousand Cuts

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Inside view of a watch

Since you can never create more time, be sure that you are not wasting it here.

Time.  You never seem to have enough of it and it is the great equalizer of companies of any size whether they realize it or not.  In a startup, you have a limited amount of time to get everything done so that you have a strong product launch before your funds run out and your investors are on to the next thing.  In a larger company, time is just as crucial but the consequences of wasting it are less apparent.  Without a sense of urgency, established companies can slowly sink into mediocrity after weak or failed product launches, poor BD and other important growth enhancing activities.

The biggest time waster of all at any size company is the useless meeting 
Startups will become established companies so establishing a sane and productive meeting policy at the beginning will save you from this death by a thousand cuts (meetings).

If you are looking to drive success at your company, here are some things you can do to assess the effectiveness of your current meetings:

  • Do the math:  How many people attended the meeting (N) x average hourly salary (S) x length of meeting in hours (H) = $ cost of the meeting (N x S x H).  For example:  A meeting of 5 people for one hour would cost you $500 if the average salary rate were $100 /Hr.   Was this meeting worth it?

Use this calculation to help eliminate useless meetings from your schedule and to negotiate yourself out of them with your supervisors if possible (sometimes this discussion can lead to the transformation of a useless meeting into a useful one).

  • Establish a policy of providing a meeting agenda with each invitation:  – This simple step helps to reinforce the policy of hosting only purposeful meetings.  This discipline also has the beneficial effect of reducing the number of meetings in total as well.  Having difficulty preparing an agenda for a meeting is the first sign that it might not be important enough to schedule.
  • Less is more: When conducting a meeting where decisions are needed – think, what are the fewest number of people we need to invite – then communicate to the rest of the team.  The more people that are in the room, the more opinions there will be and ultimately the more difficulty there will be to come to some consensus.  When key decisions are being made, feedback from a broader set of people and other important inputs should have been conducted earlier to provide the information that the final team needs to make a good and timely decision.
  • Watch behavior:   How many people are checking their cell phones, tablets or laptops during the meeting?   Did those people really need to be there?  A meeting that holds true value for the participants will also hold their attention.  If what you or others are doing on your computer during a meeting is more important than the meeting, perhaps you should have sent your regrets instead.  This behavior can also be a good indication that it is time to wrap things up (Not every meeting needs to occupy the entire time scheduled to it).
  • Watch your own behavior:  Finding yourself wanting to check your messages or put the final touches on your presentation might be signs that you are not spending your time appropriately.  You should be working on those things with all of your brain rather than attending this meeting.

Take home message
You can’t create time but you can prevent it from being wasted by establishing a meeting and communications policy that makes the most efficient use of everyone’s time.  If you are at an established company, use these tips to boost your own and your team’s productivity.  If you are at a startup, use these insights to make sure that you are getting every bit of value out of everyone’s time and effort as well as to establish the culture and habits that will keep your organization lean and mean as the company successfully grows.

Picture Credit:  JD Hancock via photopin cc

International Team Leadership: A Real Life Case Study in How Not to Be the Ugly American

Dartboard with flag darts

Cultural sensitivity is like getting agreement to the same set of rules for a game. Once you have mutual understanding, you will work together and succeed as a team.

By :  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Taking the time to meet with and understand the culture of your international partners goes a long way to boosting you entire team’s efficiency.  The following case study demonstrates the value of cultural sensitivity when leading an international team.

Case Study:  (some details intentionally left vague to provide anonymity for those involved)

Senior executives at company headquarters in the US wanted to have several new products commercialized from a company that they recently acquired in Scandinavia.  The effort was to be led by a US-based Project Manager with R&D, Operations and Finance team members split between the US and Scandinavia.  This product was originally being commercialized by the Scandinavian team alone prior to the acquisition.

Soon after project kick-off, the effort began to run into delays and missed deadlines.  Team members would be absent from critical meetings, deadlines would be frequently missed and resentments seemed to be growing.  This was a project that was on its way to a spectacular disaster.

How we saw them
The US members of the team seemed to feel that all of the project problems were coming from the Scandinavian side.  We would send them plans, proposed work solutions and data.  We felt that we would either hear nothing in return or there was an extreme lack of urgency.  We felt that there must be some resentment among our Scandinavian colleagues since this project leadership had been imposed on them and that they were actively looking for ways to sabotage the project.

How they saw us
The technology and science behind the product we were commercializing had all come from years of work that was originally done by the Scandinavians.  They felt that the US side of the team was arrogant and pushy.  We were seen to be constantly questioning the quality of their science and imposing unrealistic deadlines. To them, the US team seemed to be bent on placing the blame for delays and problems on them.

Getting back on track
The project leader traveled to the Scandinavian site and spent time getting to know each of the individual project members.  Several meetings with the US part of the team where held while the project manager was with the Scandinavians to begin to rebuild trust across the entire team.   This allowed for some mutual understanding to be made between the US and Scandinavian team members and also helped to establish a way of working together that both sides supported.  We finally became one team with a single purpose (Our Team).  Ultimately, we all successfully commercialized our product on time and within budget.

Some Lessons Learned:

  • All meetings were held in English.  The Scandinavians seemed perfectly fluent in English so it was with some surprise to learn that their own confidence in speaking and understanding English was low.  Their slowness to respond to questions and demands for information were not being delayed by a willfulness to obstruct the team’s progress but more from a fear of either providing the wrong information or not looking competent.
  • The culture of the Scandinavian team was to work by consensus.  On the other hand, individual initiative was rewarded and appreciated on the US team.  Someone being singled out for a particularly good job was a good thing for a US team member.  The same thing was seen as embarrassing and even offensive to a Scandinavian team member.  This is why the US style of giving ownership of parts of the project to individuals was not well received by our Scandinavian colleagues.
  • National pride was extremely important to the Scandinavian team members.  In the US, individual achievement and a successful commercial launch for the company were rated much higher than national pride (this in spite of all of the hoopla around ‘Made in the USA’).  With the US now owning the company, a successful product launch was no longer seen as important since this was not perceived as a success for their country.  Regardless of these differences, both cultures prized success for the team.  Once everyone felt that we were all on the same team, we worked hard together to succeed together.

The ultimate outcome
Once both sides of the team learned more about the cultural differences between them, new ways of working together that respected these differences got the team back on track.  Ultimately this project was able to launch earlier than expected.  Simply imposing the project management style that had worked well in the US on our Scandinavian colleagues resulted in a dysfunctional team.  The value of making the effort to understand the culture of the people that you will be working with is not only good advice for international teams but also for domestic teams as well.

Some Tips for Managing International Teams:

  • Plan some travel in your budget – Ideally it is best for there to be an opportunity for all of the team members to meet face- to-face at the beginning of the project.  If this is not possible, make sure that at least the team leaders can spend time working with the international team in person.
  • Alternate meeting times to accommodate time-zone differences.  Nothing is as arrogant as forcing your international team to stay late or get up early just so they can make a meeting that is within normal working hours for you.
  • Many things can be done remotely once a connection has been made and trust established.  Build trust and understanding early to leverage the effectiveness of this way of working.
  • Take the time to find out what motivates your overseas colleagues as well as what they might find offensive.  Paying attention to these details can make all the difference between a successfully executed effort and a disaster.

Picture Credit:  © Starfotograf | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

The ABC’s of Building a Startup A-Team

White tulip with many red tulips

Building a strong team goes far beyond reviewing credentials. The best candidates will have expertise that complements and personalities that blend well with your culture.

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D., and Sarah Cardozo Duncan

The quality of your team is the most critical factor for achieving success with a startup company.  How you and your team work together, how crisis is handled as well as how opportunities are uncovered and acted upon are all functions of your team.  Building an ‘A-team’ is easier said than done.  The easy part is finding candidates with the skills and expertise that you need to complement the existing team.  The hard part is determining how well this person will fit into your existing team.  The key is to find the individual that has both the expertise and is aligned with your culture.  In short, the candidate with the best match with your company’s culture and personality will make the strongest addition to your team.

Why is this so important?
There is not a lot of slack in the budget and timeline for startups to grow from the ‘great idea’ stage to becoming a ‘great business’.  It can take 6 months or longer to find the right candidate for your team.  During this time you and your team will be spending effort evaluating resumes, interviewing candidates and other activities to get this need filled.  Once you have hired your new colleague, it can take another 3 – 6 months or longer before they are fully productive.  If you hire the wrong person and they leave (they resign or you let them go) you will have to start the process all over again.  This results in further costs, and delays as you and your team are tasked with finding, vetting and hiring a new person leading to further delays to achieving business milestones.

Here’s how to get it right (The First Time)

A.  Conduct a self-assessment of your company’s culture:
The best way to insure that you will be happy with your new employee and they will be happy with you is when the company culture and the personality of the candidate are a fit.  You need to have a clear understanding of what your company culture is before you start to evaluate candidates.  Your answers to the following questions will help you to determine this (There are no right or wrong answers).

  1. Is your company’s organization chart flat (few layers, everyone reports to a very small number of leaders) or vertical (lots of layers, junior members report to more senior members and they in turn report to members that are more senior to them etc.)?
  2. How are decision made?  Everything must be approved by the CEO or is authority more delegated with only the most critical decisions requiring input from the CEO.
  3. How quickly are decisions made?  Are team members empowered to make decisions that will move the company forward even when there might be some incomplete data or are there often delays to either get more information and/or get consensus from a group.
  4. What is your tolerance for risk?  Comfortable taking chances or only accept options that are well proven and/or where most of the risk has been mitigated.
  5. What is the noise level in the office?  Do people tend to get up and meet with their colleagues or do they prefer to instant-message or e-mail each other.
  6. Who has authority to approve expenditures?  Only the CEO or C-level executives or is this authority more broadly delegated (within limits) throughout the team.
  7. What is your work environment like? Is it Traditional (regular office hours i.e. 9 – 5) or progressive (as long as the work gets done on time, employees have flexibility with their working hours and can work from home some of the time).
  8. Do you view your employees as assets (company well-being depends on them and investments in each employee ultimately benefits the company) or expenses (salaries are the largest expenditure; need to minimize this as much as possible).
  9. How do you invest in your employees? Do you encourage and pay for professional conference attendance, courses and workshops, provide career development, etc.?

B.  Assess each candidate’s fit with your company culture:
Provide some structure to the way that you conduct your interviews.  Ideally the CEO should be the last person that the candidate meets (the CEO should be checking in with the other interviewers throughout the day and can then focus their questions accordingly.  Putting the CEO last allows for more time flexibility and will also avoid getting off schedule during the day).  Each person that interviews the candidate should try to figure out whether they think this person would be a good fit with the team based on the culture assessment you previously conducted.  There should be at least 4 or 5 standard questions that everybody asks.  For example:

  1. Tell me about yourself? (This is a great open-ended question to help get the ball rolling and will provide you with material for follow-up questions)
  2. Why did you choose this for your profession? (Passion for learning, for the prestige, for the money)
  3. Where do you see yourself in the short-term and long-term (do they see working for you as a step in their career path, do they want to stay at the bench or branch out into other parts of the business)
  4. What do you think we will gain by your working here?  (This is a good one to see how much they have thought about how they can contribute.  This will reveal how much they have researched your company and also how confident they are in their ability to help you)
  5. Do you have other interests? (Here is where you will find out if you have a workaholic or a more balanced person on your hands.  They don’t need to follow the same sports teams and have the same hobbies that you or your team have, this just allows you to get a fuller picture of what type of person you are meeting)

C.  Review interview notes, rank candidates and tender offer (reasonably quickly): 
Have a review meeting immediately after the last candidate interview while impressions are still fresh.  The team member (ideally the immediate manager of the candidate) should lead this meeting and also take meeting minutes (these will be crucial during the ranking and selection stage).  Get feedback from each of the interviewers on the following:

  1. Did they actually answer the questions your asked?
  2. Did the candidate seem confident?  Too confident (cocky)?
  3. What was their body language like?  Did they sit rigidly in the chair or did they slouch back?
  4. Where they dressed appropriately?
  5. Did they seem prepared and know about the company, the position and its needs?
  6. (for first interviewer) Where they on time?
  7. Did they ask good questions?
  8. Did they seem enthusiastic about joining the team?
  9. Did they ask for the job?

Next, review the answers to the 4 or 5 standard questions and look for consistency.  Ask for any further impressions, comments or concerns and ask each person if they could see them fitting in with the team or not (gut feel).  You should be evaluating at least 3 – 4 candidates or more.  A few days after the last candidate interview, the meeting leader should distribute the meeting minutes from each of the follow up meetings via e-mail and ask the team to rate their first second and third choices by e-mail (you will get better feedback this way than in a meeting).  If there is unanimous support for one candidate, make an offer.  If not, you should discuss whether the highest ranked person would be a good fit and see if you can reach agreement.  If not, you will need to interview more candidates (better to take a bit more time now for this than to face the consequences of hiring the wrong person).

Picture Credit:  © Rossco | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

The Successful Life Science Company: Three Tips to Insure You Survive Your Success

By: Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Keeping your expanded team well informed, supported and rewarded will insure the continued growth of your company.

Keeping your expanded team well informed, supported and rewarded will insure the continued growth of your company.

What do you do when things start to go well?  Sounds like an odd question but it is something that every Life Science entrepreneur should consider even in the early days.  It is very easy to lose sight of the intangible contributions of your early team as you start to have some compelling profits and the company is growing.

The early days
When you are just getting started, you will have a small but very passionate, focused and solid team.  (If you don’t have this, you soon will not have a business at all).  You can easily sit around the same table at lunch and share what is going on, your ideas for what should happen next and anything else that concerns the company.  Furthermore, everybody is more than willing to put in the insane hours and total commitment it takes to build your company’s success.

What happens when you start to see success?
You and the team have launched your first product or service and you are beginning to see revenues and maybe even some profits.  At this point you and the early founding team may have added a few more people but it is still possible to squeeze together in the same room.  Whether you realize it or not, the culture of your company is by necessity changing.  With the growth of your company, the way that you communicate and get things done needs to scale as well.  This is where some processes and procedures come into play.  Ad Hoc worked well when it was just three of you.  This cannot work as the team grows.  There needs to be communication between the R&D and Sales & Marketing teams but it would be a waste of time and resources to call all of you sales people in for every R&D meeting and vice versa.

Nurturing the goose that laid the golden egg
At the start, everything was about getting your first product or service to market.  Now that you have successfully launched, you need to grow and expand profitability by boosting sales with your commercial team, reducing costs with your operations team and begin and expand your market reach with ‘follow-on’ products (or services) by launching your next product development effort and/or business development efforts.  You need many more hands to get this all done and so the team will now grow significantly (sometimes doubling and tripling in size).  Many will bemoan the loss of the ‘small company feel’ but if you hope to be successful transforming the company from its startup roots, this  is essential.

The easier part here is to start to adopt some of the tried and true processes and procedures that are often associated with large established companies (you just need to scale these down to fit your company so that you don’t import a bunch of bureaucracy).  The hard part is maintaining a positive culture.

Keeping it ‘real’ with the new team
Your company works best when everyone’s individual goals and aspirations are well aligned with the company.  In the early days, only those people that shared your passion and vision would have joined as founders.  By definition you are all aligned and that is partly because you will each individually be successful if the company is successful (financially, better reputation, etc.).  Later employees will often not be well aligned as they do not have the same interests and passions as the founders (the link between their personal success and that of the company will usually be weaker).  However, the company will do best when it can utilize all of the talents, intelligence and ideas of everyone on the payroll.  Get this right and you will see a continued positive impact on the bottom line.

Tips for Boosting Innovation as Your Company Grows:

  • Adopt empowering HR policies.  Consider why someone at the bottom of the compensation scale would want to share their good ideas with the company.  Perhaps there is a monetary reward, opportunity for promotion or other benefit that would encourage this and other employees to ‘go the extra mile’.
  • Nurture a culture of respect and fairness.  A company where employees can share their concerns without being afraid of repercussions is critical.  So is taking care to recognize excellence in the company and to reward it frequently.
  • Maintain excellent communication with the troops.  There is confidential stuff for sure (but share as much as is appropriate).  As the company grows, you may wish to have quarterly ‘State of the Company’ meetings (both in-person and remotely with those in the field), a company newsletter and other tactics for sharing how the company is doing on a regular basis.  This will allow everyone to better connect what they are doing as individuals with the ultimate fate of the company (kind of like in the ‘old days’ when the three of you founders plotting over a pizza at lunch).

Picture Credit:  © Pakhnyushchyy | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

Alpha Evaluations: Going from Great Science to Great Products

OK sign made by hand

Give your customers what they want with great alpha testing.

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Why do alpha testing?
Alpha evaluations, also known as alpha testing, can be a crucial way to reduce the risk of launching a product that will not be accepted by your customers.  When alpha testing is done well, this can provide crucial insights on how well your final product is going to be valued by customers and what is not.  A good early understanding of these product attributes will save you considerable effort and expense during your product development.   Essentially, this effort will tell you how to best transform your innovative science into products your customers will want (and purchase).

Alpha evaluations are:

        • Run by R&D not Product Management
          • These efforts should provide R&D with the insights they need to make changes to the product performance and/or feature set.  Further R&D may be necessary if the current prototype does not meet the performance expectations of your target customers.  Remember to keep product management in the loop during this effort though.
        • Tests of very early prototypes to gauge customer acceptance of proposed product
          • For software products, consider creating a mockup of what the software will be like using PowerPoint slides.   You walk the evaluator through what each tab and feature might be like very quickly with a minimum of up-front effort.
          •  For reagent products or kits, don’t worry about any fancy labels or packaging.  Prepare some samples and use them with your tester.  It is important not to just send them to the tester and ask for feedback but really to work side by side with them in your lab or theirs to maximize getting the most relevant feedback on your current concept.
          • For instrumentation or equipment, bring ‘bread-board’ version or other mock up prototype to tester’s lab or invite them into yours, for the evaluation.  This does not need to be ‘pretty’ and not all of the functionality needs to be in place.  You want to get feedback on the core function of your instrument or equipment to see how well they accept it.
        • A source of customer insights that will change your final product
          • Unlike beta testing, changes to the product will be made based on alpha evaluator feedback.  Be sure to get feedback on the desired (or expected) performance characteristics of your proposed product (e.g. acceptable linear dynamic range, sensitivity limits, through-put, ease of use etc.)

Important safety tip
Beware the danger of this effort becoming a research project (leading to time and cost overruns not to mention confounding your commercialization plans).  Alpha testing is not feasibility testing or discovery research.  The goal of this effort is to see if the current concept for your product will be valued by potential customers.  At this point, it is assumed that the underlying science works.  Set specific goals for what you hope to learn and stick to that.

When not to do alpha testing
Alpha evaluations may not always be appropriate.  If you are making a better version of an existing product (yours or a competitors) alpha testing is most likely not needed since you already have plenty of information on what customers like and don’t like about the current offering(s).  Use alpha testing when you can’t easily answer “yes” to this this statement.

“The design of my current product offering will meet or exceed the expectations of my customers.”

© Simonkr | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

5 Easy Steps to Effective Brainstorming

By Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

Brainstorming is a little like crowdsourcing today, getting as many opinions and inputs from a group of people to solve an issue. When done poorly this turns into a creative waste if time.  But if done correctly, this can be a transformative force for change resulting in not only new ideas but actionable steps toward achieving your goal.

Step 1:
Create and send an agenda that clearly states what you expect to achieve and how the meeting will be conducted to participants.  The following is an example of what you should include:

Example Agenda for First Meeting:

  • This meeting will be to discuss how we will … (e.g. boost sales by 20%, solve technical problem A, identify the next killer application, etc.)
  • Introduction of issue – 5 min (You)
  • Brainstorming session – 40 min (All)
  • Identifying next steps and meeting wrap up – 15 min (You)

Note:  By sending out the goal of the brainstorming session prior to the meeting, the participants will have a chance to think about this on their own prior to the meeting which improves the quality of the ideas.

Step 2:
Start the meeting by writing the identified goal on a large piece of paper or in the center of a large whiteboard or PowerPoint slide and circle it. Be sure to let everyone know that the meeting minutes will be used to begin formulating an action plan and to set priorities for any follow-up brainstorming meetings (there should be at least one more) and that the final fifteen minutes of the meeting will be used to identify actions to be taken.

Step 3:
Lead the brainstorming session by asking for major areas that need to be considered. Write these topics around the central circled goal and circle them as well.  Then ask for what should be done at each of these focus areas by asking for 3 or more and for each of the sub-categories.  This should be linked to each of the subcategories.

Note:  Make sure that you ask someone else to take minutes for the meeting including the names of all attendees.  The meeting leader should be moderating the session, updating the figure on the board/screen and keeping the team on track and on time.

Network diagram after first brainstorming meeting showing concept relationships

Sample brainstorm meeting graphic after first meeting. Identified goal in center white circle, first level major areas in blue and second level details in yellow.

Step 4:
Take a picture of the diagrammed feedback from the brainstorming session and send this along with the meeting minutes to all participants.  Ask each of them to select the top 3 subcategories that they think would have the best chance of achieving the circled goal in the center of the figure.

Note:  This is a critical step since not everyone is comfortable speaking out in a group setting and this will allow you to get unbiased feedback from the quieter participants.

Step 5:
Take the top two or three highest priority sub-categories to use for a follow-up meeting to build the plan.  This meeting should only include those team members that will be important to completing the goals of each of the sub-categories identified from the first meeting.
This meeting will start with a slide with a subcategory on the top of each.  Under that will be each of the 3 or more actions that the team identified from the last meeting.

Example Agenda for Second Meeting:

  • This meeting will be to identify everything that needs to be done to achieve the goals in the subcategories we identified at our last meeting. – 5 min (You)
  • Cycle through each of the actions for categories and identify all tasks and actions that will need to be done to insure success. – 40 -45 min. (All)

Use the feedback from the second meeting to create a plan to solve the original problem.  Creating an actionable plan will insure that you and the team will get the most out of this exercise.

This method will allow a team leader to garner the best thinking from their team on a given issue while keeping this from devolving into a useless diversion.  By keeping the agendas clear and with the group and individual inputs to this exercise in place, you will be able to get better, more thorough input and ideas for moving things along.  By breaking this process into two meetings, you will get the widest number of opinions at the first one and end up with a focused and prioritized plan of action from the second one.

Network diagram showing connections between topic, tactics and tasks

Sample brainstorm meeting graphic after second meeting. Feedback from the first meeting indicated that Tech Support was the highest priority and this branch was selected for the second meeting. Identified goal in center white circle, first level major areas in blue and second level details in yellow. Actions needed to achieve the second level details (yellow) are shown in red.

Taking This to the Next Level
There are professional software tools to facilitate brainstorming. (Brainstorming Software Review) These tools make the visual diagramming process fast and easy  and often allow direct conversion of the ‘mind map’ to lists in Excel, Gantt charts and meeting notes.

Picture Credits: © Andrew Johnson | UpStart Life Sciences