Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Finding the Bottom Line

On the last night of the Imagine Cup[1] presentations, the judges gathered after each round to discuss what we saw, what was memorable, and what was missing.  We all took notes during the student talks and demos, and we asked as many questions as we could.  We wanted to be sure we understood the project details, why it would be successful, and what impact it would have. It was hard work, and very rewarding work.

Imagine Cup Winners, Lincoln Center, NY

An Idea in a Sentence

Between one of the early rounds, one of my fellow judges suggested asking the students if they could describe their core idea in one sentence.   We agreed.  During the Q&A for the next team, he posed the question, and got a long run-on sentence in reply.  It was not memorable.  Why is it so hard for the twitter generation to sum it up in a few words?

The Tag Line Game

During my consulting days, we developed and exercise to write a mission statement on a bumper sticker (the manual version of about half a tweet).  During the exercise, we called out memorable tag lines for products and asked the team to reply with the company name.  Here’s an updated version of the quiz for US readers to try; can you name the company?[2]

1) Think outside the bun.
2) Can you hear me now?
3) I'm lovin it!
4) Think.
5) Think Different!
6) Like a good neighbor...
7) 15 minutes can save you 15 percent ...
8) You’re in good hands with...

The interesting thing about this game is how quickly the group can name the company, and how fast the list grows with other memorable tag lines.  Can you say the same for your organization’s mission statement?

The Elevator Pitch

I recently learned of the Elevator Pitch Competition that a number of universities run.  If you search YouTube for that title, you’ll find a dozen entries.  The one that caught my eye was the 2010 Utah State winner, Josh Light.   In less than two minutes, he presents a clear and compelling business case, with the why, to whom, the how, and for how much. Brilliant!

What do you do…in seven words

A new LinkedIn group caught my eye the other day.  It asks members “What you do in exactly seven words.”   The answers are interesting:

“Helping senior executives to achieve more” (6 words),
“Develop strategy, realize benefits from outsourcing/off-shoring”
And the tongue-in-cheek stab at reductionism:
“Avoid summing myself up in seven words”

My friend and colleague James Mapes has an exercise where he asks his audience to list 15-20 qualities about themselves, and then cross off 5, then 5 more, until you are left with the one you value most.  This is less about reductionism than it is about gaining the focus of what is most important among the good.

The Umbrella Word

A few years before, another friend asked me “what’s your word?”
“My word?”
“Yes, your word.”
She said, if you had to choose a word under which you could talk about who you are, what you do and are passionate about, what would that word be?

I’ve told this story to a few colleagues and it was clear that the question is a provoking one.  Martha ran from the table saying “I need to go to the ladies room to think about it!”  When she came back, she sat down calmly and said “words.”  What I do is about “words,” finding out what people’s stories are.  She is owns an executive recruiting firm.

I wrote about this umbrella word exercise under a pen-name in 2007.  For me the word is connections, which you can read about in the article comments.

Strategy on a Page

IFRC is a writing culture.  In addition to the leading work we do on the ground and mobilizing communities of volunteers around the world, we produce thoughtful papers on ideas, research, case studies and strategy.  When I joined the organization, I sat down with my boss and outlined a series of “IT Think” papers to start the dialog about technology strategy. From that came a 30-page vision paper, and a 30 page strategic plan.  But when it came to engaging the senior management team, what caught on was a one-page summary of Q&A’s about the strategy.  It became my strategic flyer.

Tweet the Suggestion

Returning to the Imagine Cup, judges are asked to give the students written comments as part of the scoring.  This is an opportunity to tell the students how you think their presentation could improve. This form of coaching is one of the most important things we do. Student teams have come up to me later in the competition and asked "what did we do wrong?" "What was it the held us back from the next round?"  Some judges write paragraphs while others write a few lines.  In the early rounds, the judging captain needs to extract a few lines to pass on to the teams moving on to the next round.  It's a tough editing task in the early going.  18 teams move on to round two, and each have seen 4 judges. Do the math.

Software Design Judges, Imagine Cup 2011

Taking a cue from the web generation, our captain asked us to tweet him our best suggestion for each team. That helped. And it shows an important point that is memorable for students and judges alike: what's the most important thing you want your audience to remember? To act on? When you do this well, you both win.

[1] My 2011 Imagine Cup Blog entries start here: http://eghapp.blogspot
[2] The answers are,
1)       Think outside the bun.... Taco Bell
2)       Can you hear me now?.... Verizon
3)       I'm lovin it!.... McDonald's
4)       Think..... IBM
5)       Think Different!.... Apple
6)       Like a good neighbor.... State Farm
7)       15 minutes can save you 15 percent.... GEICO
8)       You’re in good hands with... Allstate

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Imagine Cup - Day Four

One of the things we are asked to do as judges is to pass on to the student teams some tips on how to improve their presentations.  The number one item I noted in most of the reports was the need to provide the basics of a business model.  Solving a problem with a cool application is not enough.

Here are three basic questions to answer:

1) How much does it cost to deliver your application?  What are the upfront and one-time costs, and what are the recurring costs?
2) What is the size of your potential market?  Is it a million individuals or four country governments?
3) What are your sources of revenue?  Keep in mind that in the nonprofit sector, the users are often not the ones who are the payers.

If you can't answer these questions about your project, it will never move from the cool to the viable.  In the for-profit world, profits may rule; but in the nonprofit world, we look for community and economic sustainability.

Group Photo on Ellis Island

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Imagine Cup - Day Three

Foursquare CEO and entrepreneur, Dennis Crowley, told the students a few days ago that their great idea may not be at the right time yet.  Ask any comedian and they will tell you that timing is everything.  And I believe a comedian once said that all things come to he who waits... provided he works like crazy in the meantime.

One of the teams I judged today was back for the second year.  They had a new idea,they learned from their experience, and they were wiser. They made the final round this time.  We asked another team when they began their project--last September.  The teams that made it to New York had worked long and hard, even while "waiting" for a second chance.

We narrowed the field in the software design category from 18 teams to 6 today--just 10% of the teams who made the finals in Imagine Cup this year.  For those who like doing the math, we started with 350,000 applicants.[1]

As one of about 40 judges in software design, I saw only a hand-full of the teams that made it to the final round.  But I saw far more good ideas.  So to the teams that did not make the final cut, take a page from Steve Ballmer's keynote: be tenacious, ideas matter!

[1] I've written about this competition as an incredible funnel of innovation and ideas.  And I've seen first hand that there's also an opportunity for the teams to learn from each other.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Imagine Cup - Day Two


Bill Cosby tells an amusing story about dropping a favorite hat in a public bathroom, into the porcelain receptacle. He fished it out with his comb, washed it a half dozen times and hand-dried it until it was wearable again.  He went to such great lengths because he had a lot of "time-in" on the hat, he had worn it through thick-and-thin.  He didn't have much time-in on the comb, so he tossed that away.  

Watching the students present their projects, I was taken by how much energy and preparation they made to create their applications and their presentations.  It was evident how many had put the "time-in" to develop their idea into something that works, solves a problems and has an interesting story.

Malcolm Gladwell described the "rule of 10,000" in his study of successful "outliers," those who had achieved huge success.  The legends of technology, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Scott McNeeley and others, had put in 10,000 or more hours of work, learning and experimenting, before they started their companies.  They had a lot of "time-in" on their ideas.

One of the teams I saw had an interesting variation on the "walkathon," tracking how far users walked and how much CO-2 they saved, via a phone app.  When they reached a threshold, a sponsor would donate funds to the charity of their choice.  Fund a cause and save the planet--a nice mash-up.

Thinking about this pedometer-on-a-phone, I recalled a colleague who set a target on his pocket pedometer to walk 10,000 steps a day.  After years of walking, he is still fit and trim in his 60's.  The thing about walking is that it's easy to get started, it takes a step at a time, and the goal is achievable if you put the time in.  That sound like a reasonable approach for incubating an idea into a something that changes the world.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Imagine Cup - Keynotes

Last night was the opening ceremony for the Imagine Cup competition. It was a night of memorable speeches, flags waving and arm-pumping cheers--a good foretaste of the main event next Wednesday night.  

We heard keynotes and welcomes from Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO), Jon Perera (Microsoft General Manager of Academic Programs), Aurther Vanderveen (CEO, Office of Innovation, New York City Department of Education),  Jeffrey D. Sachs (Professor at Columbia University), and Dennis Crowley (Foursquare Co-Founder and CEO).

Here are some paraphrases of their remarks.  Can guess which one goes with which speaker?

  • Never have the problems been larger; never has the power of technology in our hands been greater.
  • The three most important things I learned are: ideas matter, find your passion, and be tenacious
  • There is this incredible joy of problem solving
  • Your homework assignment is nothing less than saving the planet
  • Going from success to failure to success to failure teaches you one thing: never give up
  • Your great idea may not be at the right time yet
Drop me a note if you get stuck on this quiz. (The transcripts are here.)  I'm off to hear the first round of student presentations next.  I'm excited and expecting great ideas!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Imagine Cup - Day One

Arriving in Time Square in New York City, one cannot help but have a sense of awe.  Those new to the city stare up as if goldfish eyeing a rain of light on the pond above.  Traveling the maze of escalators and elevators in the Marriott Marquis, I see the groups of students walking in t-shirt groups of their country's colors. I say hello to the team from Brazil, take a photo of the quartet from Serbia, admire the indigo of New Zealand.

There is something else in each of their eyes, even beyond the jet-lag and wonder; it is a look of expectation, the expectation that something great is going to happen and they will be a part of it.  I am here to catch that as surely as a yawn travels through a gaggle of late night revelers.  Something great is going to happen!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Tech Talent 4 Good

I recently attended the launch of the Microsoft and AIESEC Tech Talent 4 Good student intern programme at the Microsoft Executive Briefing center in Brussels. I had proposed a similar programme to Microsoft a year ago, and so was asked to speak to the initial class of students and participate in a "Day in the Life of an NGO" panel. Here is a brief outline of my remarks:

What are the qualities needed for working in an NGO?
  1. Passion - you have to believe in the mission
  2. Triage - not all the good can be done
  3. Patience - on decisions; consensus is messy and takes time
  4. Forgiveness - rather than permission
  5. Openness - immerse yourselves in the conversations
Others mentioned listening skills, relationship skills and sense of humor

What were my career choices that brought me to the nonprofit word?
  1. I'm on my 3rd of 5 careers (See Charles Handy on careers in the post-modern era)
  2. Why? A shift from success to significance
What is strategic IT for nonprofits?
  1. The Relevant IT Manifesto; technology more for:
            a) delivering program scale than support
            b) as the glue for communities
            c) working together more than solo
            d) the field than for HQ
  1. The IT Strategy Pyramid: Get out (of lights-on tech), get in (to beneficiary tech), move up (to more mission-moving tech.)
Where has there been progress?

  1. Wiring the Village – we have taken the connections out the countries where we work, now to the branches and project areas
  2. Collaboration – we are working together on projects, and trusting centers of tech leadership
  3. Emergency Response – we have taken ICT from rapid connecting of relief workers, to shared networks and connecting survivors

What is possible and exciting about the future?

  1. Everyone is less than 2 degrees from being connected – world population of 6.9B, 5B cell phones with 20-30% as two phone users, means 4.4B mobile users
  2. The mobile users in emerging and emergency relief countries are the new connectors – In Haiti 10% reach 100%
  3. Consumer tech as more relevant than corporate tech for the vulnerable, and the organizations who work with them

My Advice for students?

  1. Go to the far country, a hotbed of innovation – the IFRC App Inventory case: discovering 53 volunteer management applications in our national societies, not in HQ
  2. Your experience is not the world’s experience – Why? Imagine Cup case: No sense of limitation
  3. No rules, no limits: get it done – the case of Shawn Ahmed: free agent philanthropy

What are the relevant stories?

  1. Naomi Fils-Aime in Haiti – “Life is very difficult: [cholera and hurricane] messages help me protect my family” – the IFRC SMS program
  2. The starfish story revisited – think big, start small, but get started!

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

A Relevant IT Manifesto

Here is a draft document that I hope invites some debate and discussion.  It is clear to me that if we connect the dots, nonprofit IT cannot follow in the footsteps of corporate IT without crippling our organizations over the longer term.  The experience at NetHope, an organization I helped found ten years ago, is that there is a better way: based on trust, sharing and collaboration.

Toward Relevant IT – A Manifesto[1]

We are uncovering better ways of applying technology to solve problems of emergency relief, development and conservation by working together at home and in the field. Through this work we have come to value:

·         Working as one group more than as individual solo organizations;
·         Technology as a means of moving missions[2] and delivering program scale more than delivering support services;
·         Technology as core to connecting our communities, field workers and beneficiaries to the rest of the world more than simply an optional peripheral service;
·         Developing for those who deliver programs in the Field more than those who work in headquarters;
·         People and interactions more than processes and tools;
·         Piloting and testing locally more than adopting what works for headquarters.

While there is value in all of the items on the above continua, we value those on the left hand side more.  We believe these emphases allow us to have the greatest impact on our members’ missions and, in turn, on individuals, wildlife and the environment where our members operate.

* * * * *

Guiding Principles behind the Relevant IT Manifesto

We follow these principles:

1)    Mission-Moving Projects.  We believe that technology matters. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have impact on the work we do as international Non-Government Organizations (NGOs).  Our effectiveness as NGOs depends on our ability to effectively use technology both to build capacity and provide new venues for the work that we do.  Most importantly, we believe ICT can move missions, which is the most strategic application of ICT to which we can aspire.
2)    Good Enough Applications.  Small is beautiful, faster to change, and fit for purpose.  In developing our systems, we seek to increase our technology agility and not get trapped by ubiquitous systems that increasingly NGO’s cannot afford to implement or upgrade.
3)    Shared Services.  Sharing resources stretches and enhances what we do as individual organizations.    And what we do individually can be shared for the good of all.   We support what a small group of members can do as well as what we do for the larger group.  Each is an opportunity to learn and benefit our individual missions, while sharing the risk.
4)    Lights-Out Infrastructure.  To get into mission moving applications, we need to get out of basic IT operations. We need to shift the IT agenda from "lights-on" technology to “impact” technology.  This means trusting others who are in the business of providing infrastructure to be our data centers.
5)    Increased Experiments.  Rapidly changing environments and economies demand innovation, new ways of doing things, and more experimentation.  In times of stress, organisms vary like mad, with pilots, prototypes, and trials.  We believe in partnering more, to “pilot” together and share the risks as well as the rewards of innovation.
6)    We believe we learn by collaborating.  While technology can facilitate collaboration, we believe in face-to-face conversation for building relationships. Insights come through the dialog.  It also comes by doing projects together.  To accomplish this we partner with leaders from governments, donors, business and education. By dialoging and debating with the best minds from inside and outside our organizations, and challenging each other with ICT and other innovations, we can develop new ways of working that benefit those most in need.
7)    We are mindful of our audience.  Using the IT Strategy Pyramid, we are aware of four orders of technology: Beneficiary, Program, Operational, and Infrastructure applications.  The IT strategy is different at each level, and each has an audience with differing though related needs. They need to be a part of our IT team at each step of our work.
8)    We believe in building for the Field.  The field workers delivering our organizations’ programs are our primary clients.  Our IT solutions must work in the most remote and challenging parts of the world.  In this, field workers are our most important teachers and critics.  We seek to deliver technology that improves program design, delivery and impact in the Field.  Demonstrating measurable impact is the building block for what we do.
9)    We have a strong bias for action.  This is especially so for emergency response work, where speed is paramount.  It is also true for the pilots we run and prototypes solutions we build; we learn from the doing.  We believe that the secret to success is often “getting started.”  Lessons learned help us become better prepared. We are therefore impatient to see early results and indications of what will work and what needs to be improved.  And getting to what works is a primary measure of our progress.[3]
10) We value Trust above all else.  Trust comes through open dialog and working together over time.  This means trust in working with each other as members and NGOs and with our corporate partners, funders and vendors.   It also means we value each other’s expertise and have the humility to seek and accept approaches and solutions outside our individual organizations.   We trust the small group as well as the larger group to get their work done.

[1]For a comparison document, from which lessons have been drawn, seen the Agile Manifesto, here: .  A sample Agile principle worth pondering: “Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.”
[2] Each NGO has an impact-based mission statement, such as IFRC’s “to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity” and Oxfam’s “to fighting poverty and related injustice around the world.  IT leaders at NGOs must constantly ask how technology is helping to achieve this mission.
[3] Nonprofits refer to this as program pilots that are repeatable and scalable (for greater reach and across multiple countries.

"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."