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The Art of Getting Things Done

by Paul Roberts Photographs by Larry Hirshowitz, first appeared: Fast Company issue 35 page 162 For more than 30 years, whether coaching executives or advising cabinet secretaries, Larry Smith has practiced the art of getting things done. Here is his action plan.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------For more than 30 years, Indiana native Larry Smith, 64, has practiced the art of getting things done. Whether teaching public management at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government ( where he begins class by writing on the board, "Knowing it ain't the same as doing it -- old Hoosier saying" ); acting as counselor to Secretaries of Defense Les Aspin and William J. Perry ( who presented him with the Distinguished Public Service Medal, the Department of Defense's highest civilian honor ); advising nonprofit organizations on moving their ideas into the public light; or working as a coach to high-tech senior managers, Smith has mastered the difficult art of translating ideas into action. A case in point: In the early 1980s, Smith's skills in thinking and doing triggered military reform in Congress, a movement that examined many of the fundamentals of national defense and, in doing so, reshaped the way in which U.S. defense capabilities were delivered. We asked Smith what it takes to move from idea to action. Here, he discusses six reasons why organizations often fail to execute their ideas -- and six solutions to change that. The problem: No actionable proposition. Time and again, says Smith, companies fail to think of great ideas as "actionable propositions" -- that is, as things that can actually be done. "Often, managers don't stop to ask what result they're trying to produce," Smith says. "It's not clear, for example, what market segment they're going after or what product they're really offering. I once heard a quote that speaks to this point: 'The first thing we forget is what we're really trying to do.' " Often, says Smith, the problem goes beyond forgetting what you want or how to get it. "Typically," he says, "we don't know what result we want in the first place -- let alone how we are going to achieve it." The solution: Start by defining a concrete desired result, and then work backward. Map out the entire execution process, from conception to delivery, and then put an experienced operator in charge of each step. Be especially clear in defining the relationships between operators. The problem: No alignment. Even actionable ideas will fail if they don't match up with your company's other goals, says Smith. Today, many companies find themselves facing conflicting interests: dominating a fast-growing e-market versus hitting Wall Street-influenced profit targets. To have a chance of achieving both of those goals, every idea must fit within a company's already-expressed intentions. "It's a variation on an old Henny Youngman joke," says Smith. " 'How do you like your new idea?' 'Well, compared with what?' " The solution: "You have to stress-test your idea," Smith counsels. "Your map of how to execute a new idea should expose any problems that the idea might cause for other business goals or practices." You can then adjust your goals to support the new idea, time the idea differently -- or drop the idea altogether. The problem: Missing pieces. Even well-thought-out, actionable ideas will be stalled if your organization lacks critical elements, such as the domain knowledge necessary to apply a new technology. Companies routinely underestimate what it takes to execute a new idea. "With a truly new offering to an unfamiliar market segment, everything from engineering to the way that you make deals can be different," Smith says. The solution: Inventory all "dependencies," or pieces necessary to execute your idea. Then determine what you lack and -- if the idea is still feasible -- build it, buy it, or hire it. The key is to have not just available resources but also

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"disciplined self-analysis." Says Smith: "You need to be able to step back, see what you need, and then admit it if you don't have something." The problem: No integration. Even with a great idea and the right organizational pieces, you still won't be able to execute your idea unless those pieces collaborate effectively -- unless you have "operational integration." Often, says Smith, execution fails because it "depends on a group of people working together who are not used to working together, and who have completely different incentives." Sales teams, for example, are often at odds with research or engineering employees. The solution: Recognize that an organization's structure can impede teamwork. Power often resides in business leaders who are not always committed to the execution of a new idea. To change the game, says Smith, create a "virtual swat team of trusted agents who have proxy, who know their part, and who will commit to executing the idea." The problem: No battle captain. Since new ideas often come without an organizational home, says Smith, they usually lack a champion. And yet, moving an idea through the organizational gauntlet to reality requires entrepreneurial leadership. The landscape of companies is littered with good ideas that died because they were orphans. The solution: If you genuinely want to carry an idea forward, designate a battle captain who is clearly responsible for that idea and who is authorized to make it happen. The problem: No moral courage. Smith cites a lesson of Ulysses S. Grant: "Grant used to say that he knew officers who would risk their lives in battle, but who lacked 'the moral courage' to make decisions for which they would be held accountable." In today's corporate environment, new ideas are inherently risky -- so much so that even corporate mavericks fear taking on something that might flop. "People want someone else to make the decision," Smith says. "And absent that, they will just sit on an idea." The solution: Make it clear that your organization values risk taking. Align incentives so that those who make big things happen get big rewards, while those who try to make things happen but fail aren't flogged. And when someone does fail, says Smith, "hold that person up as a model -- as someone who had the courage to try." Contact Larry Smith by email ( ).

Why Can't We Get Anything Done?

by Alan M. Webber Photographs by Larry Hirshowitz, first appeared: Fast Company issue 35 page 168 Stanford B-school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has a question: If we're so smart, why can't we get anything done? Here are 16 rules to help you make things happen in your organization.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------These days, people know a lot. Thousands of business books are published around the world each year. U.S. organizations alone spend more than $60 billion a year on training -- mostly on management training. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on consulting. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 MBAs graduate each year from U.S. business schools. These students presumably have been taught the skills that they need to improve the way that companies do business. But all of that state-of-the-art knowledge leaves us with a nagging question: Why can't we get anything done? It's a mystery worthy of a business-school case study. If we're so well trained and so well informed, then why aren't we a lot more effective? Or, as Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton ask in their useful book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action ( Harvard Business School Press, 2000 ), "Why is it

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that, at the end of so many books and seminars, leaders report being enlightened and wiser, but not much happens in their organizations?" To answer that question, Fast Company talked to Jeffrey Pfeffer, 53, the Thomas D. Dee Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Here, Pfeffer offers 16 rules that explain why, despite so much knowing, there's so little doing -- and what you can do to get something done in your company. 1. Doing something requires ... doing something! One culpable party is the literature of knowledge management -- almost the cult of knowledge management -- that has grown over the past few years. Advocates of knowledge management as "the next big thing" have advanced the proposition that what companies need is more intellectual capital. While that is undeniably true, it's only partly true. What those advocates are forgetting is that knowledge is only useful if you do something with it. The reason that we've fallen into this knowing-doing gap is this: Doing something actually requires doing something! It means tackling the hard work of making something happen. It's much easier and much safer to sit around and have intellectual conversations, to gather large databases, to invest in technical infrastructure -- and never actually implement anything. Compare all of this knowing with the good old Yankee ingenuity of the past -- or even with Bill Gross's idealab! of today. Around the turn of the century, Edison Labs was a place filled with people who were tinkering and doing. Thomas Edison did more than create great inventions; he built a place where people tested their ideas, occasionally blew things up, and then tried again. The closest thing to that today is idealab!, which, in spite of its name, isn't just about ideas. Idealab! is a fabulous example of an organization that not only has ideas but also tests those ideas and turns them into action. It's the same spirit that existed at Edison Labs. But unfortunately, most companies today are too far removed from that spirit. 2. Would you let a great talker perform heart surgery on you? Today, there are experts on everything except how to get things done. And we reward that expertise -- in the IPO market, in the academic world, and in the job market. For example, there's no question that the stock market has had an influence on the business shift from doing to knowing. The market has made it eminently clear that it is willing to pay -- and pay well -for ideas. Whether you can actually execute those ideas or not is irrelevant. Today, there are countless companies that have come up with great ideas but can't implement them. But the market still rewards those companies. The educational establishment must take some responsibility for this problem. Think about what business schools do: They train people to talk about ideas. But the one thing that business schools don't do is train students to do anything. Ask yourself this question: Would you undergo heart surgery if the surgeon had been trained in the same way that business-school students are trained? Imagine that the surgeon had sat around in medical school discussing heart-surgery cases, watching heart-surgery videos, and listening to great heart surgeons talk about what they did -- and now you're lying on the operating table, that surgeon's first real patient. Would you actually let that surgeon cut you open? I don't think so! The truth is that business school is all about talking, not doing. And what's one of the top jobs that B-school students take when they graduate? Management consulting! I've always found the job market to be perplexing for this reason: You can be a plant manager -- actually have what it takes to run a plant -- and make $80,000 to $100,000 a year. Or you can talk about plant management and make twice that. Why do people get paid more for talking about things than they do for actually doing them? The message from the job market is that it's more important and more valuable to be clever than it is to have the ability to make something happen.

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3. Do you think that you can outthink the competition? The good news is that companies are beginning to recognize that it's not only critical to know; it's also very important to do. We've been through the phase in which every company thought that it could outthink the competition. And, in fact, companies were able to outthink the competition -- for a while. But today, the advantage that you get from outthinking the competition lasts an incredibly short period of time. Put simply, the speed with which your competitors can copy even the best idea has increased much faster than the advantage that you get from having come up with that idea in the first place. Look at what's happened with patents: The economic life span of most patents has decreased. The time lag between coming up with an idea, introducing that new idea to the market, and having it copied has decreased. And that's happening in a variety of industries, both in products and in services. So while having knowledge is useful, it's not sufficient. It gives you much less competitive leverage than it once did. 4. Doing means learning. Learning means mistakes. If companies genuinely want to move from knowing to doing, they need to build a forgiveness framework -- a tolerance for error and failure -- into their culture. A company that wants you to come up with a smart idea, implement that idea quickly, and learn in the process has to be willing to cut you some slack. You need to be able to try things, even if you think that you might fail. The absolute opposite mind-set is one that appears to be enjoying a lot of favor at the moment: the notion that we have to hold people accountable for their performance. Companies today are holding their employees accountable -- not only for trying and learning new things, but also for the results of their actions. If you want to see how that mind-set affects performance, compare the ways that American Airlines and Southwest Airlines approach accountability -- and then compare those two airlines' performances. American Airlines has decided to emphasize accountability, right down to the departmental -and even the individual -- level. If a plane is late, American wants to know whose fault it is. So if a plane is late, what do American employees do? They spend all of their time making sure that they don't get blamed for it. And while everyone is busy covering up, no one is thinking about the customer. Southwest Airlines has a system for covering late arrivals: It's called "team delay." Southwest doesn't worry too much about accountability; it isn't interested in pinning blame. The company is interested only in getting the plane in the air and in learning how to prevent delays from happening in the future. Now ask yourself this: If you're going to be held accountable for every mistake that you make, how many chances are you going to take? How eager are you going to be to convert your ideas into actions? 5. Have no fear. One of the most pervasive emotions in the American workplace today is fear. The reason that there is so much fear is that everybody wants to build a learning organization, but nobody actually wants anyone to learn. Learning requires tolerating people who make mistakes. Learning requires tolerating inefficiency. Learning requires tolerating failure. Learning requires letting people try things that they've never done before, things that they probably won't be very good at the first time around. Look at a company like AES Corp.: It's completely out of control! At AES, people are doing things that they've never done before, trying things that are beyond their existing abilities. Now, either you can ask, "How can they do that?" or you can ask, "Why doesn't everybody do that?" The only way that people can learn is by doing things that they've never done before. If we do only what we already know how to do, then we won't ever learn anything new.
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6. Learning comes at a price. Pay it. The truth is that there's no easy way to encourage people to learn. You have to accept the fact that there's always going to be a trade-off between proficiency and learning. Learners are never as proficient as experts. So learning comes at a price. The price is that the experts might not get to use their expertise and that the learners might make mistakes. Go back to AES. At AES, everyone thinks like a businessperson, and thousands of people are able to do lots of different things. But the company pays a price for that -- and the price that it pays is the cost of all of that learning. If you genuinely want to build a learning organization, you have to be prepared to make the necessary trade-offs and to pay the price. 7. Who me? I saw nothing! Honest! Another side effect of fear is that it absolutely retards the flow of information inside a company. So you have this anomaly: Companies pat themselves on the back as knowledge-management businesses, but because nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, nobody inside those companies knows what the hell is going on. A famous quote by producer Sam Goldwyn sums up that point well: "I want everybody to tell me the truth -- even though it costs him his job." Yet another side effect is that fear causes individuals to focus only on the short term and on their own survival. I used to teach a case study about a company that made brakes for airplanes. The case described a chain of events in which workers ultimately falsified the performance of the brakes: They filed papers that falsely attested to the brakes' capabilities. I asked my class a question: Why would you falsify documents when you know that there is absolutely no chance of the problem going undetected? Sooner or later, somebody's going to fly in a plane, the brakes are going to fail, and the problem will come to light. It's inevitable! So why lie? The answer is that if there's enough fear in the workplace, you don't worry about what's going to happen eventually. You don't even worry about what's going to happen tomorrow. You worry only about today: Can I get through today? 8. Talk ain't cheap. It's expensive -- and destructive. Companies often confuse talking with doing. They think that talking about doing something is the same thing as doing it! That planning is the same as doing. That giving presentations is the same as doing. That making reports is the same as doing. Or even that making a decision to do something is the same as doing it. All of those errors occur with alarming regularity in companies today. Mistaking talk for action is worse than just a simple error: Talk can actually drive out action. Studies about the way that meetings actually work demonstrate that negative people are perceived as being smarter than positive people -- that is, being critical is interpreted as a sign of intelligence. You see this attitude in business all the time: The fastest way for me to seem smart is to cut you down. So you come up with an idea, and I come up with a thousand different reasons why that idea won't work. Now everyone sees you as dumb and me as smart -- and we've created an environment where no one wants to come up with ideas. 9. Decisions, by themselves, are empty. The other trap that companies and people fall into is confusing making a decision with making something happen. First, we become obsessed with making the right decision -- which becomes a major obstacle to trying something to see if it works. Then we forget a simple fact: that a decision by itself changes nothing. A decision is the beginning of the process of doing, not the end of that process. And so we work at making good decisions. Did we make the right decision? Did we have all of the information that we needed to make the decision? Is it possible that a better decision could have been made if better information had been produced? Well, it's always better to make a good decision than a bad decision -- but just making a decision doesn't change anything! Did you implement the decision? Did you actually do anything?
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10. Oh no! Not another program! One of the biggest enemies of getting something done is the dreaded "P" word: "program." Whenever you hear that a company is about to "roll out a program," it's not good news. It suggests that the company is about to spend all of its time worrying about the content of the program, rather than learning by doing. David Kelley, founder and CEO of Ideo Product Development, has it right: "Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects." No matter how smart you are, you can't preplan everything and then roll out your program. What you want to do is to try some stuff and see what happens. And by the way, "enlightened trial and error" is the perfect antidote to the cynicism that exists in many organizations whose people have seen programs come and go. I recently visited a company whose CEO is famous for coming up with a new program every year. One year it's Six Sigma, the next it's Total Quality Management, the next it's customer satisfaction. Every year, that company's troops go through a bunch of plans and processes. And in the end, they've learned to do nothing at all. 11. Why do we do it that way? Um ... Another huge obstacle to doing in companies is corporate memory: The memory of "how we've always done things around here" substitutes for "doing things the right way around here." The root, again, is fear. People don't want to make mistakes, and the best way to avoid making a mistake is to continue doing things exactly as they've always been done. Companies get trapped in a kind of circular logic: "We do what we do because it's the best thing to do. And it's the best thing to do because it's what we've always done." After a while, what was originally adopted as a means to an end becomes an end in itself. There is no function that is more culpable in this regard than human resources. In company after company, the human-resources department puts into place a whole bunch of policies that undoubtedly started with good intentions. But in time, those policies, which originally were just a means to an end, become ends in themselves. And nobody remembers what outcome those policies were actually intended to produce. What you end up with are sacred cows -- things that you take for granted; processes, practices, and rules that you think will help you get things done. In reality, all they do is get in the way of getting things done. 12. Professor Otis Redding will now address the class. There's an old saying in business: What gets measured is what gets done. What's happening today is the flip side of that. Measurement has become a tyranny that makes sure that nothing gets done. I've developed what I like to call the Otis Redding Theory of Measurement, which is named for his song "( Sittin' on ) The Dock of the Bay." In that song, Redding sings, "I can't do what 10 people tell me to do, so I guess I'll remain the same." That line sounds as if it could be about companies' misconceptions about measurement. Companies have managed to convince themselves that, since what gets measured is what gets done, the more they measure, the more stuff will get done. Last summer, I met a woman who works for a large oil company, and she told me that the company has 105 measures for which she is responsible. So I asked her, "How many of those 105 measures do you pay attention to?" Her answer? "None." Because in the end, she's measuring so many things that she doesn't pay attention to any of them -- 105 equals zero. 13. Sure, it's a measurement -- but is it important? Here's another measurement problem: You can measure the wrong things. General Motors is a perfect example of this; it's measurement central. GM can tell you about everything having to do with a car's outcome: how much of every kind of material went into a car's manufacture,

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how many defects it has, how many hours of labor went into making it. The company has about 1,000 measures of outcome. But what GM doesn't have ( yet ) are process measures. And without process measures, you don't know where to intervene to change outcomes. Measurement can, in fact, be crucial to achieving the right kinds of action -- but you must do the right measurements. 14. Pogo would be proud! Another piece of corporate behavior that prevents companies from implementing good ideas is ugly internal competition. American business has fallen in love with the idea that the best way to get people to do things well is to have them compete with one another. That mind-set derives from a sloppy sports analogy: People run faster if they run against someone else. That may be true for track, but when it comes to learning, people learn best when they're operating in a mode that is less competitive. Companies that adopt internal competition as their operating style might as well post as their corporate mission statement that famous saying from the comic strip "Pogo": "We have met the enemy, and it is us." I remember talking with the people at Southwest Airlines shortly after its leader, Herb Kelleher, was the subject of a "Fortune" article on what makes a good CEO ( "Is Herb Kelleher America's Best CEO?" May 2, 1994 ). The reaction inside the company was, Now we're in trouble. Because when a company becomes that successful, people inside that company start to pick at one another. And what Southwest employees ended up saying to me was, "Thank God for the United Airlines shuttle!" It took a little of that good old external competition for Southwest to remember that the real adversary is on the outside, not on the inside. 15. What do I do? When do I get started? So what's the remedy? The remedy is to do something! San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci once said, "I never wear a watch, because I always know it's now -- and now is when you should do it." If you want the future to be better than the present, you have to start working on it immediately. Remember: What you want is better than, not optimal. Your job is to do something today that's better than what you did yesterday. And to do something tomorrow that's better than what you did today. 16. Make knowing and doing the same thing. The challenge for companies -- and for individuals inside those companies -- is to build a culture of action. The best description of the knowing-doing gap that I've ever heard came from a woman in one of my executive programs. She said, "Benchmarking is very popular today -but companies benchmark the wrong thing. They benchmark what other companies do, when they should be benchmarking how those companies think." In the retail world, companies benchmark the Men's Wearhouse. The Men's Wearhouse pays people on commission. And if employees sell more than $500 at one time, the company pays them a bigger commission. Other companies have adopted that system. But what other companies don't do is look at the underlying thinking that drives that system. Founder and CEO George Zimmer had a great insight that is the key to the success of the Men's Wearhouse. He started with a question: Where is the power in retail? Most people think that the power in retail is in buying the merchandise -- that if you want to rise to the top of retail, you need to be in buying. But Zimmer had a blinding grasp of the obvious: You don't make money when you buy the merchandise -- you make money when you sell the merchandise! If you adopt that idea as the basis for how you run your company, what do you do differently? You put more emphasis on store operations. You put more emphasis on training your salespeople. If you look at everything that Zimmer does at the Men's Wearhouse, you'll see that it all connects back to one fundamental idea: that in retail, selling is the key to success.

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Here's another example. Southwest Airlines is premised on another blinding grasp of the obvious: People do not pay to sit in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. People pay to get from once place to another. It sounds simple, but it's very hard to get people to have the courage, the wisdom, and the insight to see beyond what everybody else is doing -- and to take notice of the obvious, unexamined, and unacted-upon truths. One final insight: For successful companies, there is no knowing-doing gap. There is no difference between how they think, who they are, and what they do. Alan M. Webber ( ) is a Fast Company founding editor. Contact Jeffrey Pfeffer by email ( ).

Getting It Done
by Paul Roberts Photographs by Larry Hirshowitz, first appeared: Fast Company issue 35 page 146 Yes, you can outthink the competition. But now it's time to outdo the competition. Meet a set of expert implementers who can show you what it takes to move from idea to action.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------Let's all open our new-economy hymnals and sing together: Ideas are the source of competitive advantage! You can outthink your competition! The team with the best ideas wins! Amen! But ... Isn't it also true that ideas are perilously short-lived? That even the best idea has a miniscule half-life? That your precious intellectual capital can easily be begged, borrowed, or stolen? Now let's turn the page and join in singing the next verse: Nothing is more important than getting it done! Today, implementation is the real source of competitive advantage! Even the best idea is only as valuable as your ability to execute it! The team that executes first wins! How important is the flawless implementation of a great idea? Well, just ask Kevin Ulmer, president and CEO of Pavonis Inc. In 1987, federal scientists were struggling to launch the Human Genome Project, an ambitious mapping of the entire human DNA sequence. Ulmer, now 49 ( and who, at the time, was a molecular biologist living in Cohasset, Massachusetts ), knew that getting the DNA sequence right would translate into designer foods, drugs, and other enormously profitable products. He also knew that the federal project was hindered by terminal slowness. He came up with a brilliant idea: Start a private genome project, crack the code fast -- and make untold amounts of money. Ulmer's idea was a killer one, but his flawed implementation destroyed it. Instead of getting started fast by using off-the-shelf gene sequencers, Ulmer decided first to develop his own sequencing technology, so that he could crank out DNA code more efficiently. The decision proved his undoing: While Ulmer struggled to achieve perfection in his venture, SEQ Ltd., his rivals used existing sequencers to break the DNA code and win first-mover advantage. The result: Competitors such as Human Genome Sciences Inc. and Incyte Pharmaceuticals dominated the field, garnered venture capital, and made hundreds of millions of dollars selling their information to food and pharmaceuticals companies -- while Ulmer barely limped along. Looking back, Ulmer, who left SEQ in 1997, sees clearly the flawed execution that unhinged his brilliant idea. "I should have used the technology that was available," he laments. "If I had done that from the start, I would have been years ahead of the pack."
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Ulmer's tale is becoming more and more familiar. Ideas are critical. Innovation is the mainspring of the new economy. But as more and more companies compete in ideas, the game changes to competing in the implementation of ideas. In this next stage of competition, getting an idea gives way to getting it done. So how to close the gap between thought and action, between idea and execution? As the following examples demonstrate, how you get ideas done is just as much a matter of individual style, company culture, and character as how you generate those ideas in the first place. What counts is your commitment to implementation. After all, an average idea brilliantly implemented always beats a brilliant idea left unexecuted. Just ask Kevin Ulmer.

Hello Asia: Planning to Get It Done

It's day three at the corporate retreat, and the crowd at the rustic Santa Cruz, California country club is not what you'd call celebratory. Since April 1999, the Redwood City, California-based startup has been smashing its way into the Asian e-market with an ingenious business-to-business Web strategy: By offering free email service, attracts subscribers, who are then lured to the sites of its Asian corporate partners through a program called "AsiaRewards." The program gives subscribers points for visiting corporate-partner sites -- points that can be redeemed for such merchandise as books and electronics. Growth has been phenomenal: The one-year-old company has more than 500,000 subscribers, nearly 100 corporate partners, 95 employees, page after page of good press, and one of the largest firstround investments ever -- $20 million -- for an Internet company of its kind. And yet, in spite of all of this success, HelloAsia's employees will spend nearly every minute of their retreat not engaging in beer busts and team-building hijinks typical of Silicon Valley but working on the most mundane of corporate chores: grinding out precise business plans to guide the company's operation for the next six months. Beaming like a proud Boy Scout troop leader, cofounder Henry Ellenbogen, 27, rattles off the "blueprints" that he's been handed by the company's functional teams. His marketing team, for example, has laid out exactly how many new customers -- and in what markets -- the company should reach in the coming year. The team knows exactly how many new local partners are needed to ensure growth and how to recruit those partners. Team members have scheduled promotional gigs, settling on each event's theme and time line. They've even scheduled a series of progress reviews. This, Ellenbogen says, is what execution looks like. Think of HelloAsia as a toddler in a business suit -- more a mature, operationally focused oneyear-old than a nimble startup with a monthly growth rate of 50% and a staff with an average age of 31. According to Ellenbogen, a tall, shambling man with dark hair and John Lennon specs, "fast planning" is no oxymoron. The key to HelloAsia's rapid implementation is distilling the company's plan into a highly detailed process that puts everything on paper before anyone makes a single move. "A lot of startups think they're too dynamic to plan," says Ellenbogen, who dreamed up HelloAsia with Harvard Business School classmate Chih Cheung, 29, who is also the company's CEO. "They say, 'We're growing too fast to follow a plan.' But we didn't feel that we had a choice." The complexity of HelloAsia's product and the stakes that the company is playing for place a premium on execution -- and on the careful planning of that execution. Asia's online base is ballooning at a staggering 80% a year, and by 2002, it should hit 50 million subscribers. By 2004, the Asian market will carry $32 billion in commerce. It's a delicate dance in any environment, but HelloAsia has made it even more dicey by setting its sights on four very different Asian markets: Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan. That means creating and coordinating four different strategies around the same business model and core architecture. And, naturally, speed is critical: HelloAsia isn't the only startup to have recognized the potential of the Asian emarket. So Cheung and Ellenbogen have had to roll out four launches simultaneously -- and flawlessly.

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Like most fast-moving tech companies, HelloAsia relies heavily on a bright, motivated workforce that uses the usual startup formula: Solve problems, add value, earn equity. But unlike most startups, HelloAsia achieves effectiveness through a highly structured organization. Cheung and Ellenbogen are following a traditional -- and therefore, by today's standards, a nontraditional -- business model: HelloAsia channels its employees' boundless creativity and energy through a meticulous planning process -- one that breaks every project into components and assigns each component to teams and individuals. Those teams and individuals know precisely how their pieces fit into the overall strategy, and they confer regularly to make sure that they are on task and on target. "Sure, we're decentralized, empowered, and all that," says Cheung, who spends much of his time in Asia pitching his company. "But we're trying to build an extremely complicated business, and without a central plan or vision, we'd be running amok." Cheung and Ellenbogen aren't just spouting theory; they've learned the importance of careful planning the hard way. Before cofounding HelloAsia, Ellenbogen spent four years working with U.S. Representative Peter Deutsch, a Florida democrat, as the youngest, most Internetsavvy chief of staff on Capitol Hill. A born strategist, Ellenbogen quickly saw that lawmakers who didn't start planning their reelection campaign at least nine months before election day found themselves unemployed the following year. Cheung, a former financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, learned a similar lesson while working with Ellenbogen at Crimson Solutions, an online-recruiting service. At Crimson Solutions, Cheung saw firsthand what happens when a bunch of overachievers go to work without a strong central plan. "Everybody ends up pulling in opposite directions, and nothing gets done," says Cheung. "You need a strong overarching vision and a plan to make things happen." And how do you achieve that? In the course of ramping up HelloAsia, Cheung and Ellenbogen have uncovered five rules for successfully moving from idea to implementation. Don't move until you know exactly where you're going. It may sound obvious, but these days, it's almost heresy: The new economy invites companies to set off with limited planning, relying instead on energy, brains, and flexibility to fill in the details later. That, say Cheung and Ellenbogen, is a recipe for disaster. They insist on having a plan for every detail, no matter how long it takes. Their employees -- all of whom are energetic, smart, and flexible -- establish two or three core goals and then list the elements, or "key results," that are required to meet each of those goals. Strategize globally, but plan locally. In preparing for their first big rollout last year, Cheung and Ellenbogen knew that they couldn't prefabricate every detail for marketing events in four markets -- especially markets as diverse as Korea and Singapore. Instead, they broke the central strategy into smaller plans, allowing each market to draw its own blueprint. To start the process, an executive team identified and refined common goals and themes, such as introducing the company and its concept. Local teams then took those goals back to their respective countries, where they worked with PR agencies that were familiar with local marketing practices. Within weeks, the local teams had drawn up highly detailed strategies for their rollouts -covering everything from market goals and message themes to program budgets and performance measures. Those blueprints were then presented at a conference in Hong Kong, where they were analyzed and compared against the overall company strategy by the executive team before being approved by Cheung and Ellenbogen. Says Ellenbogen: "On the one hand, you need clear, functional goals with precise guidelines. On the other, you need local implementation, which means empowering people at a local level." Don't make a move until all of your people know their places. At the start of each new project, Cheung, Ellenbogen, and other managers make sure that all employees know precisely what their role is -- and isn't. Employees have considerable leeway in meeting their goals as creatively as possible, but they must stay within their roles. For example, David Chen, VP of sales and
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marketing, had free rein when designing the marketing plan for the Hong Kong launch. But he was not responsible for -- or even allowed to work on -- projects that fell outside of his role: designing the site's technology, recruiting local partners, or implementing product delivery. Rigid roles allow for a surprising degree of creativity. At the same time, they keep expectations clear, encourage productivity, and, perhaps most important, reinforce a companywide sense of focus. "All of our people are overachievers," says Cheung. "Their natural tendency is to try to do whatever needs to be done, regardless of whose job it is." That may be an admirable tendency, but acting on it can throw off a schedule and create delays -- a fatal weakness in an industry where speed to market is just as important as product quality. Write it down. For all of HelloAsia's cutting-edge communications technologies, the company is a memo writer's haven. Every aspect of the company's strategy is put down on paper and distributed, as are all tactical, day-to-day operations. Meetings cannot begin without a specific, written agenda and do not end without an equally specific action plan that clearly outlines who is doing what and when -- which is then put in a memo and sent to all meeting participants. The best-laid plans may need to change. Cheung and Ellenbogen have no problem modifying plans -- or changing them altogether -- provided that it's done right. Every week, the four markets' team leaders conduct a teleconference with their executive teams to assess whether new developments justify midcourse modifications. And twice a year, the entire company gathers to assess company progress, to analyze successes and failures, to adjust the next year's goals, and, of course, to put the following year's plan in writing. But discipline, planning, and foresight don't always come naturally to a workforce steeped in the spontaneous just-do-it attitude of the high-tech world. So Cheung and Ellenbogen spend a lot of time reinforcing a culture of planning. The result is a startup that seems mature beyond its years. "We decided to take care of the basics up front," says Ellenbogen. "That way, all of that energy that you get from being a startup is just a bonus."

BGI: A Model of Effectiveness

On the 30th floor of a San Francisco high-rise, Bill Drobny, 37, is performing managerial psychoanalysis. The manager of strategic projects at Barclays Global Investors is on the phone with project manager Angela Page, 30, who is in Toronto supervising the online launch of a huge new financial product. Things are going well, she says. She's hitting all of her deadlines, and the launch date is a go. But something is bothering her. In a soothing, friendly voice, Drobny begins asking questions about the project. He starts with some of the standard items on the project checklist -- easy-to-gauge items, such as scheduling and team rosters -- and then gradually shifts the conversation. "How does it feel to you?" he asks. "I'm totally stressed," Page admits. "Why?" asks Drobny. "I don't know," she says. "I'm under all of this pressure, but objectively, everything is going smoothly." "Maybe not," says Drobny. "If a project feels uncomfortable, then something's probably wrong." When it comes to getting things done, every project and every task consists of equal parts objective metrics and subjective feelings -- a lesson that is deeply ingrained at BGI, one of the world's largest and most conservative managers of indexed mutual funds. At a company that prides itself on its superb financial skills, top managers also appreciate the fact that a flawless execution requires a doctorlike sense of every project's shadowy innards. Over the past two years, BGI's managers have developed a model of a successful, healthy project -- a kind of Gray's Anatomy for getting things done. By applying that model to their own projects,

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managers can diagnose problems, gauge whether talent is being correctly deployed, and, says Drobny, "even determine whether someone has a project at all in the first place." The key to BGI's approach is a sharp and well-defined separation of responsibilities. According to BGI, any project can be broken down into five functional roles, each of which represents a specific task: the project sponsor ( the company principal who holds the project's purse strings ), the business owner ( the day-to-day decision maker ), the project manager ( the deadline expert ), the technological and functional staff, and the support staff. BGI managers are quick to acknowledge that, on first glance, their model looks like a parody of a management-seminar handout. But, they say, don't laugh. It works. Most successful projects have followed this model, Drobny says, and most failed projects have violated it -- by trying to eliminate a functional role or, more commonly, by trying to combine two different functional roles. The model's power, he says, "comes from letting people step back and see their projects from the outside." BGI has learned that the perspective that its model provides is almost as important as the model itself. Over the years, the 29-year-old firm, which manages $786 billion in retirement funds, gradually developed an extremely conservative culture, one that favored lengthy, in-depth analyses. "We're not a culture of risk takers," concedes Diane Lumley, 37, the company's manager of client relations. "We don't think that it's a great thing to make mistakes and learn from them, and we do punish failure." But BGI's "risk control" produced a crippling paralysis: The firm became so cautious that projects weren't getting out of the blocks, and the firm met its deadlines only when it hired outside consultants to serve as project managers. So Drobny began probing the anatomy of BGI projects, and he soon discerned a pattern: In case after case, two job functions -- project manager and business owner -- were being lumped together and handled by the same person. Sometimes, that person was the business owner -- a firm principal with financial expertise but with few specific skills in managing projects. In other cases, it was the project manager -- an employee who, though efficient, lacked the necessary qualifications or authorization to make expert decisions. In both cases, the result was the same: inaction. As soon as a project hit a snag, Drobny says, business owners tended to default to their professional comfort zone -- expert analysis -- and, in doing so, delayed the project. And when project managers needed to make a tough decision, they either made the wrong decision -- because they were operating beyond their expertise -- or they slammed on the brakes until they could find a qualified decision maker. The firm was losing time -- and the confidence of its teams. "When you're just a 'project manager,' and not an 'expert,' no one believes that you know what you're talking about or trusts that you'll make the right move," says Jennifer Campbell, 30, a principal and project manager at BGI. "So everything takes longer." It was clear to Drobny that a successful project needed both a business owner and a project manager. Separating those two roles would free up business owners to analyze options and would allow project managers to focus on deliverables and deadlines "without worrying about having to make decisions," Drobny says. Although initially Drobny focused on project managers and business owners, he soon discovered other functional roles -- such as sponsors, technological staff, and administrative staff -- whose contributions were also overlooked or misunderstood. Take, for example, sponsors. Sponsors ensure that a project has adequate funding. Just as important, they make sure that the project fits with the firm's strategic objectives and is therefore less likely to be abandoned after it is launched. Yet Drobny discovered that many projects were being started without a clearly defined sponsor. The same was true of business owners and project managers. "You'd ask who was filling these roles," says Drobny, "and people would say, 'No one.' " BGI's project taxonomy has given the firm a model that it can use as both a proscriptive and a diagnostic tool. Managers with an idea for a project can use the model as a sort of checklist to
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make sure that they have all of the necessary elements before beginning implementation. Those with a failing project can match their experience against the model to figure out what went wrong. "You can walk right through the chain," Drobny says. "Running out of money? Maybe you don't have a strong sponsor. Missing deadlines? Perhaps you don't have a distinct project manager." Not surprisingly, BGI is trying to do a better job of cultivating project managers and of keeping their function "clean" of other work. "People who do well in their jobs are asked to manage projects, but too often, they're also expected to keep working on whatever it was that they were doing before," says Heather Davis, 29, BGI chief of staff and a former project manager. "So you need an owner who can be your advocate when day-to-day business gets in the way." Finally, the model adds an important time element to project work: Managers can use the model to judge where they are in a project's life span. Each role has not only specific duties but also a specific duration, and sometimes that time line can be the source of anxiety as a project progresses. In the case of Toronto project manager Angela Page, for example, Drobny determined that she had no exit strategy -- no one to take on her duties after the product was launched. "She knew that she had met her deadlines," Drobny says, "but what was bothering her was that she also knew that there was no one to step in and take over her duties after she left. Projects don't last forever, and if you don't have an exit plan, you don't really have a project."

Intel: Implementation Keeps on Rolling

In a crowded conference room at Intel Corp.'s Hillsboro, Oregon facility, Sandra Morris, 45, is overseeing a weekly ritual called "Go-No Go." As VP of finance-and-enterprise services and director of e-business at Intel, Morris is responsible for wiring the chip maker to hundreds of customers and for automating $15 billion dollars in sales each year. It is, perhaps, Intel's most important project ever, and today, Morris is checking its status by asking managers from each group -- from IT and sales to quality assurance and customer support -- whether they will have their part done by deadline. "We're a go," says one manager. "Go," says the next. The word is repeated as Morris goes around the table. Then it happens: The manager for the tech group says, "No go." There's a brief silence, but Morris smiles and nods. "Okay," she says. "What do you need to make it a go?" Management by checklist may sound like yet another symptom of Intel's famous obsession with control. But for Morris, and for others whose job it is to get things done, such a seemingly rigid protocol is actually the key to making this big, layered company move with the fluidity of a startup. When it comes to execution, says Morris, effectiveness is less about getting people motivated and projects started than it is about keeping the process moving in the right direction -- no matter what unanticipated obstacles may arise. Intel calls this "rolling implementation," a productivity juggling act that requires the company to practice constant managerial vigilance and flawless communication, and to have the capacity to adjust short- and long-term goals quickly if necessary. Indeed, when Morris and her team began, they had no idea what much of the final product would be like. "We knew that some large portion would be very, very right," says Morris, "and we also knew that some portion would be wrong and would have to be fixed. And we had to be able to live with that." The results are impressive. In January 1998, Morris was given six months to Web-enable a secure, customizable ordering system that, by year's end, would handle $1 billion in annual sales. Morris's team not only made the July 1 deadline, but it also met the $1 billion goal -within 15 days of launch. By the end of 1999, Morris and her team had automated one-half of Intel's $30 billion in annual sales. So how do you roll out rolling implementation so that it doesn't get away from you? Follow these basic rules that Morris and her team have come up with.

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Constant supervision. To succeed, Intel's e-commerce strategy required the company to coordinate dozens of internal groups across various geographic zones. To make that happen, Intel created a "program office" -- a central headquarters that is run by a senior manager and "staffed" by managers from all involved internal groups and regional offices. For the ecommerce rollout, the program office had 15 managers, covering everything from sales and marketing to it, and a total staff of nearly 300. The program office not only planned the project and determined each participant's role; it also ensured that the groups were communicating with one another. As a result, Morris says, "what the people in the trenches were doing lined up with the executive vision." As the project moved forward, the program office gauged progress, sized up all developments and obstacles, and determined whether changes needed to be made and what those changes were. Constant awareness. For Morris, the more team members know about the project, the more they can focus on essentials, ignore noise, and do whatever it takes to maintain momentum. "These are huge, complex products," says Morris, "and everyone has to understand what's going on to keep them moving forward." Most high-tech companies divide projects between two groups: a customer-focused sales-andmarketing team and an internally focused engineering team. Intel's program-office approach ignores old boundaries and reassigns territories. Engineers become partners with sales-andmarketing people -- a cross-fertilization that yields real benefits. Engineers gain a marketer's sense of which Web features are important to customers. At the same time, marketers don't pitch products that Intel engineers can't build. Says Morris: "Now our businesspeople can say to our engineers, 'I have an idea for a new feature, but I want to know whether it's going to be easy or hard for you guys to do.' They learn to look for ideas that have the lowest technical impact and the highest customer impact." Constant action. At the core of rolling implementation is seamless activity, which Intel achieves with a nonstop stream of meetings. At the outset of the Internet rollout project, for example, the program office held a "Map Day," during which it laid out overall goals and communicated what those goals would require from each group. "Map Day is the first time that all of the groups gather and everyone hears about the project's ramifications on everyone else's area of expertise," says Morris. "Mostly, what you find out is everything that you don't know yet." As the project develops, the meetings continue. The program office hosts regular Go - No Go sessions, at which group leaders report their status on mission-critical tasks. And weekly -- or, during the project's final stages, daily -- each group holds a GOST ( "get our stuff together" ) meeting, during which members discuss progress and obstacles, ask questions, and, if need be, send up a help flare. According to Morris, Intel workers dislike meetings as much as most people do, so the company has developed techniques for running meetings that are themselves models of effectiveness. For Map Day and Go - No Go meetings, team leaders determine what will be discussed. More important, participants aren't penalized for saying things that others don't want to hear. "Honesty is critical," says Morris. "People need to see that when they say they've got a 'no go,' the response isn't 'Why not?' but 'What do you need?' "

LifeMinders: Doing It by the Numbers

"Where's your hypothesis? Where's your data? Where's your proof?" It's 10 AM at LifeMinders Inc., a Web-based reminder service based in Hernon, Virginia, and co-founder Steve Chapin is in full laboratory-scientist mode. For the past hour, Chapin, 37, has been arguing with his creative team over what to title the subject of a new marketing email that will go out to the company's more than 12 million subscribers. It's a big deal; in a way, it's what the whole business turns on. Founded in March 1999, LifeMinders reminds subscribers about everything from birthdays and anniversaries to the release date of a new CD by sending them an email, in which the company includes paid advertisements.
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Which is why the company's performance can depend on a single email subject line. The subject must sound appealing, or subscribers will hit "delete" instead of "open." In their search for the perfect subject line, Chapin's people have been trying to top one another with their best material. At first, Chapin watches the process like a patient professor. But then he interrupts to ask whether anyone has actually confirmed these great ideas with data. Heads shake, and Chapin sends the team members back to their PCs. "Test, test, test," chants cofounder John Chapin, 34, Steve's brother. "A person with an idea and no data is just another ..." He pauses and smiles. "Well, just another person with an opinion." If fast implementation is the name of the game, the folks at LifeMinders believe that they've found a precision formula -- a business version of the scientific method used in research laboratories. Like scientists, the Chapin brothers and their 150 colleagues work not by "feel" or "gut instinct" but by testing cold, hard data. Every idea, no matter how brilliant it may seem, must first be turned into a hypothesis and then tested on a small customer segment. If the data comes back positive, then the idea can be unleashed on the rest of the world. "Our approach to the world is iterative," explains Steve Chapin. "Build, learn. Build, learn." Better still, the Chapin brothers have found a way to instill their method with a kind of thrilling urgency. Using everything from weekly pep talks to strict deadlines -- no project can take more than three weeks to complete -- LifeMinders has managed a surprising number of successes in its first year, including a near-flawless series of launches, a $60 million IPO in November 1999 ( and a follow-up offering in February that drew $87 million ), and revenues that exceeded analysts' predictions by 70%. On the surface, a scientific business model might seem to be a bizarre approach for the breakneck, seat-of-the-pants world of e-commerce. Yet it's perfectly suited to the LifeMinders product -- a service that never forgets. Customers sign up at the company Web site, fill out a profile, and then receive email messages reminding them of key dates, plus customized information on goods and services. But it all comes back to designing email that is useful and appealing, which is where the science comes in. Using Web technology, LifeMinders not only tests emails before sending them en masse, but the company also continues to gauge the success of email after it has been sent out. The company knows, for example, precisely which messages are opened and by whom. That kind of feedback guides employees in creating their next wave of messages. Both Chapins are veterans of exacting methodology. John was a systems engineer at consulting giant Electronic Data Systems; Steve, a Naval Academy graduate and a Harvard MBA, managed credit-card databases at First USA. But LifeMinders has allowed the two of them to turn rigorous testing methodology into an organizational model. Indeed, from the minute that new hires walk into the building, they hear the mantra of 'test' at every turn. At meetings, ideas and hunches are automatically framed in terms of testable hypotheses. "One of the first things that people have to learn to do here is how to think of everything in terms of hypothesizing," says Steve Chapin. "You have a great idea. Now, how can you test it?" After a hypothesis has been framed, and a test has been run, everyone focuses relentlessly on results. At LifeMinders, all kinds of data are openly displayed on huge sheets of paper hanging from office walls. "When I first arrived at LifeMinders, I couldn't believe they left that kind of information in plain view," says Tim Hanlon, 42, former senior VP of marketing and communication, who left LifeMinders in February to do consulting work. "But that's the point: To see how the company is doing, you need input from everyone." In fact, for all the intensity of the methodology -- and the 70-hour workweeks that go along with it -- the near-obsessive focus on tests and data has created a remarkably open, friendly, relaxed culture. For example, because all ideas are judged objectively using hypotheses and tests, workers can be fearless about offering up their ideas and concepts. In the same way, failure is transformed -- from a personal shortcoming to the neutral outcome of an objective test. "As long as you continue to learn from something, it's not a failure," says John Chapin. "Failure is when
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the process stops moving forward." The scientific method also gives workers the ammunition that they need to speak out: Because the focus is on projects and results, even the newest hire can push back when orders from above conflict with data. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the Chapins' method, however, is the sense of urgency that it instills in the company. Steve's insistence on a three-week limit on all projects, for example, has not only forced his teams to be disciplined; it has also taught them the art of the trade-off -learning when to compromise on details in order to meet the larger goal of meeting a deadline. Recently, team members who were working on a seven-day weather-forecasting feature realized that they couldn't meet their deadline. So they scaled the idea back to a five-day forecast -- and got it done on time. LifeMinders's method has succeeded in turning scientists into activists. On any given day, half of the company is in a state of eager anticipation and suspense, waiting for the results of the latest market test. This may be LifeMinders's biggest achievement: distilling effectiveness into a single, measurable result. "We have a bottom line and market goals, just like everyone else," says Steve Chapin. "It sounds like a cliche, but when our people work late hours, they do so not for 'success' in the traditional sense. They're looking for truth -- and they're looking for it quickly." Paul Roberts ( ) is a writer living in Washington state. Visit ( ), Barclays Global Investors ( ), Intel ( ), and LifeMinders ( ) on the Web.

Sidebar: Frictionless Commerce

Going Fast by Slowing Down One of the candidates for the finance position at Frictionless Commerce Inc. had looked so promising. Stellar credentials, a great track record, and flawless social skills -- just what was needed by the Cambridge-based business-to-business startup, whose product, a sophisticated value-comparison engine, lets users comparison-shop online in over 150 product categories. But then cofounder and chief technical officer Robert Guttman, 30, introduced the candidate to the company's administrative assistant, and everything fell apart. "She treated our administrative assistant like a servant, rather than like a peer," Guttman recalls. "It wasn't a huge deal, but it was enough to tell us that she wouldn't be a good fit." At Frictionless, whose search engine guides shoppers through the popular Lycos Web site, the key to getting things done fast is knowing when to slow down -- especially when it comes to hiring. No matter how brilliant your idea may be, one wrong hire can set you back or even knock you out of the game completely. Too many Internet companies give in to the "temptation to grow as quickly as possible and by whatever means possible," observes Guttman, who founded Frictionless in June 1998 with three fellow MIT business-school graduates. "We decided to make sure that we had the right kind of people in place first." For Frictionless, the "right kind of people" are those whom cofounder and president Alex Kleiner, 32, calls "builders" -- bright, passionate, tech-savvy candidates with the capacity to look beyond short-term gains and help create an awesome organization. And while such criteria are hardly unique, Frictionless takes its time finding just the right folks -- and manages to do so without killing itself in the process. The key: a self-service recruitment process in which candidates not only help select themselves but also begin job training while they're still undergoing the interview process. From the moment that candidates make contact with the company, they're training to work there -- a system that not only saves time but also finds recruits who fit the Frictionless model, well, frictionlessly. "Knock on wood," says Guttman, "but so far, turnover is zero." Visit Frictionless Commerce on the Web ( ).

Sidebar: The Role(s) Model

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In the course of analyzing why so many of their potentially good ideas went unexecuted, the managers at Barclays Global Investors, a San Francisco-based retirement-fund manager, came up with five distinct roles that every project must have in order to be successful. Sponsor The money partner -- the principal or upper-level executive who controls the dollars and lends credibility. If you've got a sponsor, it means that your project has been checked against company goals. What to watch out for: slow death. Sponsorless projects tend to run out of support halfway through implementation. Business owner The line executive who has the authority to make day-to-day decisions. Owners are project champions: They have the expertise, power, and incentive to drive a project. What to watch out for: endless meetings. Projects without owners are rudderless; they lack direction or drive to reach the finish line. Project manager The mechanic -- the person whose sole responsibility is bringing in deliverables on time. The PM doesn't need to know everything; that's the owner's job. Project managers' only tasks are to meet deadlines and to make sure that owners have the resources and information that they need in order to make decisions. What to watch out for: crash and burn. Projects without project managers do not get done. Functional-technical people The nuts-and-bolts experts who do the actual content work of the project. What to watch out for: start and stop. When owners and project managers must step in, it leads to endless delays. Support staff The bench -- backup project managers and functional-technical people who can be called upon if a project loses a person or needs more resources. What to watch out for: panic. If a project lacks support staff, any problem can quickly spiral out of control. To learn more about the Barclays Global Investors role model, contact the company by email ( ).

Hey, I Have an Idea!

by Curtis Sittenfeld Photographs by Peter Ross, first appeared: Fast Company issue 35 page 288 Creativity is what happens in between thoughts.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------For a brief period last winter, my role as a Fast Company writer took me to a place that neither my undergraduate transcript nor my resume could have taken me: the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Okay, so I was a business-school student for just a few days ( I probably won't hear from the recruiters at Intuit or Goldman Sachs anytime soon ). But as a temporary observer in BUS G341, Michael Ray's "Personal Creativity in Business" course, I was able to experience a class so popular that enrollment is generally limited to second-year students.

The Sweet Sound of Creativity

Class started with Ray playing a tape of a musical collaboration between Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma. "That's an example of what one can do with one's inherent gifts," Ray told me and
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my 50-plus classmates. Then he attended to a little housekeeping: "Did someone leave these in the last class?" he asked, as he held up an enormous box of crayons -- which are actually required material for the course's various drawing exercises. No one claimed them.

A Look Inside Myself

Next up was meditation. "Close your eyes," Ray instructed. "Take full yogic breaths. Let your breath breathe. Let your tongue relax." It occurred to me that I might start drooling. "Creativity is what happens between thoughts, between breaths," Ray continued. "Don't worry about doing any of this right. There is no right way." Someone to my left was jiggling his leg. I opened one eye to look at the offender and then peered around the room -- and was embarrassed to find that I was the only peeker in the entire class, including Ray himself. "Think of a time when you came up with a solution to a problem," Ray said. We had arrived at the heart of the meditation. Unfortunately, what was going through my head was not a recollection of a triumphant creative moment but -- inexplicably, relentlessly, and loudly -- the lyrics to the popular Cyndi Lauper song of the 1980s "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." I planned to keep this shameful information to myself. However, the next thing I knew, the meditation was over, and we were pairing off to share the details of our creative solution. I let my partner, business student Kathryn Elliott, go first. She described the time that she'd inserted a complicated graphic into a presentation for another class. Then it was my turn. A long pause ensued. At last, I had no choice but to confess to Kathryn that I was unable to remember a time - any time, ever -- when I had come up with a solution to a problem. Ray called the room to order. "Because of this exercise," he announced, "you've admitted to someone else that at least one time in your life, you had a great idea." I wanted to crawl under my chair. My inability to recall one single good idea weighed heavily on me. A former staff writer for Fast Company, I'm now a graduate student myself -- in the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. That means that I'm getting my master's degree in writing fiction. If I've never had a creative thought before in my life, what hope do I have of producing the great American novel?

Driving Toward an Idea

A week after visiting Ray's class, I made a seven-hour drive alone between Ohio and
Iowa, and I told myself that I would not get out of the car until I remembered a time when I'd solved a problem. Finally, one came to me: A few Christmases ago, I was unsure of what to give my sister Jo, who is known within our family for the inventive presents that she gives the rest of us. What I'd come up with, after some soul-searching and a night parked in front of the TV, was that I would get her a T-shirt like the ones worn by the camp staff in the movie Dirty Dancing -a movie for which Jo and I both have a mortifying fondness. Across the front of the shirt, I would print the camp name: "Kellerman's." Across the back, I would print the movie's most famous line, uttered by a smoldering Patrick Swayze: "Nobody puts Baby in a corner." My sister loved the shirt ( though whether she wears it in public is a subject that we don't discuss ). Eureka! Now I can say it -- too late for Professor Ray's class, but not too late for hundreds of thousands of Fast Company readers: At least one time in my life, I had a great idea.

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