Thursday, February 4, 2010

Know when to walk away

As with poker, so it is with life.

My brother gave me a poker book for my birthday a while ago. Every student of business or human behaviour should study poker. One particular concept that the book makes is that of an hourly rate. If you are playing poker for money, then you need to find the right level, where you can expect to win enough to justify your presence at the table. The same is true of a business venture, or even at an individual level, how you spend your professional time. If you are working on a collection of projects, then the expected pay off from those projects needs to be worth your while. If you reckon the likelihood of a payout multiplied by the probably amount, then that's your rate. If it's not worth it, then you need to do something about the probability or the size of your payout.

Similarly, your odds will work out over many hands, so the more ventures you have, the better. If you're staking it all on one big pot, then you had better be lucky. As the man said: you have to know when to fold 'em.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Knowledge is power

It is often said that we live in the information age: anything you need to know is just a click away. At the same time, we have a knowledge economy: so called knowledge workers are amongst the highest paid people. Surely there is a contradiction here? If everything you need to know is easy to find, then why do you need people whose work, and whose worth, is based on knowing things?

The difference is best illustrated by the old story of the engineer, called out of retirement to examine a troublesome machine. After considering it for a while, he marks a chalk 'X' on the faulty part, and submits a bill for $10,000. When asked for a breakdown of this amount, he provides the following: "$1 for the chalk mark; $9,999 for knowing where to put it". The bill is paid without further question.

The hardest thing that I ever do is to think properly. Make that second hardest - the hardest is to get someone else to think. That's why I like the Schopenhauer quote that I use from time to time: "The task is not to see what nobody else has seen. It is rather to see what everybody else has seen, and think what nobody else has thought." So what? Well, my core point is that you cannot get experience from google, nor can you get innovation from a book. By using individuals who know their stuff, you tap into their knowledge, yes, but also their perspective and imagination. Someone who has been around the block a few times will see things that others don't, and will recognise when to apply a process and when to look for something new. Methodologies are useless when the situation is unique.

This is the kind of work I want to do: a difficult problem that needs a great solution. If you've got this, then call me!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Two things

A theory I read somewhere holds that on any topic, there are only two things that matter. Everything else is a side effect or a result of those two things. Hence, for management consulting, my two things are:

1. Without good implementation, the best ideas are useless.
2. At some point the client takes over.

This is another way of saying that whatever you do must work in the real world - the greatest idea is nothing if the business can't make it happen. This is one reason why the best ideas are sometimes the simplest.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


New business ideas no. 27: a finishing school for South African managers. The changing face of business in South Africa sees the old guard and the new mixing in boardrooms and restaurants across the country. While a young black man who was the first in his family to go to college may struggle with which glass to use the first time he is in an expensive restaurant, the old white man will struggle with the new norms of business – those tricky handshakes and a different social interaction. I think what we need is a buddy system – pair up the old and the new, thus helping each to manage better. Of course there’s a limited timeframe – the dinosaurs will soon be extinct, and the old norms will be as odd as running round to open the car door for a lady.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Getting better all the time

I'm a perpetual student. Although I haven't studied full time for a while, I try and learn from people I am around - in a work and social context. It means that I sometimes find myself deconstructing situations - "how did my wife manage to get us a discount there?" - in an effort to figure out better how things work.

A rich source of learning is my colleagues. I am lucky enough to have worked with a wide variety of very smart and interesting people. One guy in particular springs to mind. He was a fellow consultant in London, had put himself through business school by working as a motorbike courier, and always kept an eye open for the next opportunity. Every time he was in a visible situation, such as presenting to a client, he corner someone whose opinion he valued and ask one question: "three good things; three bad things" - about what he had just done. It's a great question because it forces you to think about his work, and it pushes you into a balanced reply.

Come to think of it, he was probably using it to teach me as much as to learn about himself. Devious bugger.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Red red wine

Here's an idea. Being an enthusiastic iPhone owner, and also an enthusiastic wine drinker, although more of a gourmand than a gourmet, I was musing yesterday on how to combine the two. When touring the winelands around Cape Town, wouldn't it be useful to have an app on the phone that would guide you to them? It would make use of the GPS functionality, knowing where you are and where the wineries are, and it would be able to mark ones that you had previously identified. You could perhaps filter your results by those with highly rated wines, or child friendly facilities, and make notes on the wineries as you went.

All of the data already exists in the exhaustingly comprehensive Platter guide - even the latitude & longitude of the wineries. Combine this with user generated ratings and comments, and winery generated additional information, such as pricing, and you've surely got a winner. If they don't do it, somebody else will, surely. Just remember to cut me in on the action - in wine if you like.