Yahoo! – Some Thoughts on Regaining Former Glory

Yahoo Building Photo

I try my best not to call out particular companies in my writing though from time to time I have done so. I do so when only absolutely necessary to make a point that I would like to make, basically because it’s not great business to have people (or entire companies) upset with you. Also, though I work for enlightened people who have given me freedom to express my personal ideas through presentations, blogs podcasts, etc., I don’t want to strain that relationship. As always, the thoughts expressed here are my own and not necessarily endorsed by my employer.

Yahoo Building PhotoCaveats aside, I wanted to address something that has been weighing heavy on my mind. I have found that expressing myself through writing has a tendency to clear my mind so you can view this blog as a form of self-therapy. My topic this week is the fall of a company I (still) have a great deal of affection for, one that I continue to support. To me this company “was” the internet and their rise and past prominence represented what was best of Silicon Valley. More troubling is their subsequent lack of direction and downfall represents what can be thought of as the worst of Silicon Valley. I am not the first (and will not be the last) to weigh in on the tragedy that goes by the name of Yahoo!

I have often stated that when a company has hit “rock bottom” (as in my previous blog) it is time to acknowledge some core truths about their business and, only then, can the healing process begin. There is much to heal at Yahoo! I speak not simply about financial concerns. Although these are paramount, in many respects financial difficulties are merely the symptoms of much larger problems, for instance, confidence in Yahoo! as a brand. While many, myself included, continue to use Yahoo!, it has, for some time, lacked the cache’ that brands like Google, Facebook, Apple (and even Microsoft) have. Not only does it not seem to have a particular direction, if it had some direction, that direction would not be seen as “cool”.

rocket photoThis begs the question as to what direction should Yahoo! take. This is where I believe Yahoo! has squandered some opportunity because I believe that the only mission worthy of enticing talent back to a failing enterprise must be a bold one, a moon shot if you will. To date, Yahoo! appears to have taken no real bold moves (with the exception of over spending on Katie Couric). Their competition, the ones “eating their lunch” have – Alphabet (formerly Google) has multiple moon shots, including self driving cars, Elon Musk is in Fremont forging a new future of electric cars and rockets, Apple is rumored to be developing their own car, etc. Technology IS talent and talent will go where it is inspired. I thought of this the other day when I attended an event at AOL. Tell someone that you attended an event at AOL and the first thing out of their mouth is “you mean they are still in business?” Yahoo! will be the same in very short order unless they can change perception. To me that will begin when they find their own “moon shot.” It will not happen anymore with only incremental change.

I remember reading somewhere that the problem with Silicon Valley is there is a tendency to solve the problems of no longer living with your mother. There are a ton of startups not taking on the larger battles society is facing (and many like global warming that society is currently losing). I think there are two lessons for Yahoo in this; one, they must begin acting more like a startup, and two, they must be a startup that is actually solving problems whose solutions will be meaningful and impactful to society at large.

collegeWhile there are a number of societal problems Yahoo could choose to tackle, like global warming or clean and safe drinking water, let me suggest one that I feel would be a good fit – education. In fact, I have a great name for it, Yahoo University (or as my wife affectionately calls it – Yahoo U). Why education? Yahoo is now primarily a content provider so a great deal of infrastructure is in place to begin solving the problems of the current educational system. I think that smart acquisition or partnerships with a number of companies operating in this space (think Khan Academy and the various coding bootcamps) could give Yahoo University an advantage. It would certainly have name recognition (which is one of its few convertible assets outside of Alibaba).

Attempts to solve the problems of education for the way we work today have been made by many parties, but no satisfactory solutions have been made. At issue is creating education that is actually useful to the general populace in positioning them for gainful employment in our quickly shifting, knowledge-based economy. Traditional classroom education has suffered because it still dictates “what” to learn instead of “how” to learn. For example, what good is it to teach someone Objective C when it is no longer being used or desired in the real world? What happens when the world has moved on to Swift? The real issue is to teach someone how to teach himself or herself to learn Objective C so that when they need to learn Swift they have the skills to teach it to themself. In other words, we must move away from content for content’s sake and teach the mental agility necessary to survive. Technology has existed for sometime to solve this particular issue yet we have done little to use technology for this goal. Instead we have used the technology to shovel content. It’s as if we teach people to drive a Ford and when given a Chevy they cannot drive it.

moneyWhile I could rant more on this topic, I feel it is important to also address how one would go about making real money from such an endeavor and how Yahoo can reinvigorate its sagging stock prices. It would be most obvious that Yahoo University could borrow the model from existing online educators such as the University of Phoenix, but this would be a mistake. Anyone paying attention to this space would know that the fortunes of private sector online educators is bleak. I, myself, worked for the Apollo Group, the parent of University of Phoenix and personally know some of the problems that have crippled them over time – things like over-reliance on government-backed student loans, high tuition costs, students with high debt and poor prospects of repaying debt, etc. Online education was a brief success and made some wildly prosperous – just not necessarily the students.

stock marketI propose a more radical solution for Yahoo University – free education. But how can you make money providing education for free? You can, if the education you provide actually has a value to the world at large. I propose that students entering courses that have a good prospect of being placed in real jobs be given a free education with the stipulation that Yahoo University be reimbursed when they student is placed in a job related to their education. This aligns the motivation of the educator in doing what is necessary to provide marketable skills and the motivation to actually ensure that the student get a job! Being in the staffing industry I know that a properly educated and placed individual can provide enough compensation on the back end to justify the expense on the front end. In talking with my friends in software development, this is exactly what is happening in countries outside the United States with H1-B candidates taking the jobs that could be filled with Yahoo University graduates.

As to the issue of stock value, I think that taking this course of action will make it much easier to increase shareholder value. If I were the CEO of a company on the course described above, I would take my argument not only to Wall Street but to Main Street. The incredible societal value of providing free and meaningful stock marketeducation and job placement would inspire investor outside of Wall Street. While I am the last to wrap myself in the flag, there is certainly not only something not only highly practical to this plan, but something downright patriotic in solving American problems with American citizens. I don’t find it hard to imagine that people would want to purchase shares of a company that had such a unique and worthy vision. Of course, it would not hurt that as Main Street bought shares that Wall Street would join.

I do not know Marissa Mayer and it may be that where Yahoo! is now has nothing to do with her leadership. She may be the most competent individual on planet earth (we all know she was successful at Google), but what matters is perception, and right or wrong, the perceptions of Marissa Mayer are predominantly negative, both with the public at large and within the employees (and ex-employees) of Yahoo! I cannot see how Yahoo! could make the necessary transition without removing the current CEO.

I guess you can file this blog under the title of a modest proposal. I wish Yahoo all the best and I am sure that there are many others who agree and would like to see this once proud company bounce back. If you, dear reader, agree, I would suggest that you take the time to share this post with others, like this post, or feel free to leave your comments. Perhaps the folks at Yahoo will take notice. Perhaps if they did they might find something valuable as they face the tough times ahead. At the very least one can hope.

On Death and Dying and Agile Transformation

death and dying

I was recently involved with a large scale Agile transformation and noticed what I thought was an interesting correlation, jotted down a note to blog about it and then promptly did nothing for a very long time. Usually these blinding flashes of light quickly lose their luster and find themselves relegated to the bottom of the blog backlog, never seeing the light of day, but this particular one reignited my attention as I sat down to write my newest blog.

ideaMy earth-shattering insight was that any organizational transformation, which obviously includes an Agile transformation, involves the very same stages that were first identified by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. For those who were sleeping through Psych 101, Kübler-Ross proposed that there are a series of stages that are experienced by survivors when faced with the death of a close friend or relative. These stages could be experienced linearly but also in no particular order, but that everyone would go through the five stages she recognized through her work with terminally ill patients.

The five stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Though the model was originally created to explain the stages of grief following the death of a loved one, it was later expanded to encompass the grief stages associated with any major loss like the loss of a job or income or divorce / end of a relationship. It is my opinion that these stages can also be applied to the loss of a treasured idea. In fact, I think these stages are better explained by the death (loss) of a cherished idea since love, attachment, etc. are all associated with mental constructs (ideas). Our world is merely the sum of our mental perception so the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or loss of a relationship are nothing more than the loss of an idea.

Once we understand that the grief stages are in response to the loss of an idea, it is not a great leap to apply this to any company transformation. It is well known that there are some who will readily embrace change, but there are a great number that see any change as a threat. What is the nature of the threat? I think that either consciously, or more often subconsciously, the threat is to an idea that one has grown to “love” and that there is a very real fear that if this idea were replaced that its death would cause grief. In my experience with a great number of agile transformations I do tend to see the five stages that Kübler-Ross outlined.

sadnessThere is certainly a large share of denial when I have tried to help companies become more agile. There is never a shortage of people who will defend the status quo and insist that the current way of creating software (nearly always waterfall) is already successful and that there is no need to bring agile. The minds of the people in denial are closed to any external threat to their enshrined beliefs.

I also see a great deal of anger during transformations. People have loved their ideas for so long that they are like a member of the family. How dare you agile folks try to kill off my favorite processes? I will do everything in my power to try to stop you, railing at the purveyors of such dangerous ideas.

I see my share of bargaining too. If we cannot outright defeat the new ways, we can at least try to keep as many of the old ways intact. Maybe we don’t have to kill off all the waterfall phases. Maybe we can keep the phases, but just do them in shorter time frames. Maybe we can just do this “agile” thing for development and leave the rest of the sacred cows not slaughtered. I don’t have to give up my old way of thinking or deal with the death of my ideas, is there not room for both?

As new ideas begin to take hold, I have also seen my share of depression. People have viewed the world in one way for so long that once their ideas are shown to be outdated or not optimal, they begin to look forlorn and some even begin to despair. With waterfall gone, how am I to complete a software development project?

handshakeAnd finally, if the company has the intestinal fortitude to stick it out through the first four stages, you will finally get to acceptance. No with your new idea having taken hold, it probably won’t be long before you will have to go through it all again with another new idea. I think the more that we realize that changes our ideas result in the death of old ideas and that the death of old ideas will result in some recognizable stages the more we will be able to quickly move through those stages and adopt new ideas more readily.

Postscript: Interestingly enough, when I had just finished the above blog, I did some research to see if I had written on this subject before because it had seemed eerily familiar. I could find no blog that I had published on the subject, but I may have written about it before and not published. What my research did find was that I am not alone in my link between the Kübler-Ross model and Agile. I have found other references to this on Mindstorm, and Agile Helpline. While I do not recall reading these blogs prior to my current blog and it is possible that we have all come to the same insight independently, I reference these here just in case I did read them at some point and perhaps forgot. Regardless, the fact there are others who have written about the very same topic leads me to believe in the concept’s applicability.

Post Postscript: This blog represents my 100th blog post under the website. While this is mostly symbolic and my 100th blog post will not guarantee me syndication (like a sitcom), it is still a moment to celebrate. Many thanks to everyone who has given support over the years! Stay agile my friends!


You Can Be Right or You Can Be Successful


I recently had lunch with one of my friends and we spoke about some issues that one of his teams was having. As a new team, they were still in the storming and norming stages and they were having some fairly heated discussions around some philosophical issues of software development. For those not familiar with software development you might think there is not really anything to get all worked up about, in which case you would be surprised at the level of intensity some folks have. The discussions the team was having bordered on “a holy war” and there appeared to be little hope for compromise.

I asked my friend a simple question, “would you rather be right or be successful?” This question is one I like to use and is a variation of the quote “you can be right or you can be happy” which I have, until I did the research for this blog, incorrectly attributed to Dr. Phil McGraw (for those who care, the quote is from Gerald Jampolsky). Basically, there are times when we can be right and we can be happy but often we have to make a choice. The same applies to success at work. There are times when we can have it all, but sometimes we need to choose whether we wish to be right or effective.

Recently there has been an outbreak of measles in the United States due to the fact that some parents have not been vaccinating their children. The reason these parents were not vaccinating was due to false science that has since been refuted. In other words, the truth is unequivocal; vaccines do not cause the reactions that anti-vaccination parents fear. These parents are 100% wrong.

Since these parents are 100% wrong and not vaccinating children can lead to adverse health issues in the community, it makes sense that public health officials would try to change the minds of the “anti-vaxxer” parents. They did try. Their first approach was to try and convince the parents by presenting the scientific facts. They theorized that by knowing the true facts, people would make the correct decisions. That effort failed. It seems that merely presenting facts did not change peoples’ minds.

succes04If presenting facts does not work, public health officials concluded the reason for the resistance was emotional and that emotional arguments would be more effective in convincing parents to vaccinate their children. That effort failed as well. (For a more details analysis see

This was surprising. Furthermore, not only are people not convinced by facts or emotion, but that when presented with factual or emotional arguments, the anti-vaxxer parents in the study were LESS likely to vaccinate their children. Evidence suggests that once someone has a strong belief in something, anything (or anyone) contradictory to that belief is seen as a threat. People who are threatened will cease to listen, much like a child will put a finger in their ears. People will erect walls to keep you out.

Knowing this, should we just give in to despair? Of course not. We need to stop trying to be right, whether presenting factual or emotional arguments, and concentrate more on being successful. The question is – what works in convincing people with strong beliefs to change their position? There is something that has been shown to work, something that lowers peoples’ walls and defenses and that thing is listening.

Instead of telling or implying people are wrong, we need to take the time to ask them about their position. We need to stop threatening them. Given the space to explain their position, people will not only feel less threatened, but also they will have to defend their own position and when tasked with defending their own position, people will slowly be able to see that they might not be the experts they think they are. This is where the walls and defenses are lowered so that other arguments might be entertained and listened too. Furthermore, showing respect to individuals and spending time with them will also make it more difficult to not listen. We listen to our friends not our antagonists.

A study of midwives in India found that arguments did not work with them either. What did work was “the rule of seven touches” which marketers know well. You must have meaningful contact and get to know someone (seven touches) before they are willing to trust and listen to you.

succes03This applies to my work of transforming companies from waterfall to agile approach. While I may be 100% correct and it may make me feel good to be right, by presenting my viewpoint as THE way, I will not meet my objective. If I choose to be successful then I must take a different approach. I need to get to know the people involved, understand their concerns, not threaten their ideas, but allow their defenses to be lowered by listening to their ideas and then, and only then, if my ideas are truly right will I have the chance to convince them of or, better yet, guide them to the truth.

In the end you can be right or you can be successful. You can’t always be both.

Accenture Ends Annual Review (and Admits Earth Orbits the Sun)


Recently I read an article from the Washington Post titled “In big move, Accenture will get rid of annual performance reviews and rankings” which was in a section called “On Leadership”. I like my headline better (though it has probably blown any shot I had to work at Accenture).

To classify this as somehow a bold or “big move”, place it in a section titled “On Leadership” only highlights the complete lack of scientific understanding of what actually works and does not work. This is not leadership, but a damning indictment of the lack of leadership in the workplace. The real issue is this is “big news” and it takes companies so long to not only admit the obvious, but to act on overwhelming scientific evidence suggests some of their unquestioned practices are utterly wrongheaded.

orbitIn the case of annual reviews we have such a wealth of evidence they do not work it is amazing so few companies have actually done away with them. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, states

…performance reviews are rarely authentic conversations. More often, they are the West’s form of kabuki theatre – highly stylised rituals in which people recite predictable lines in a formulaic way and hope the experience ends very quickly.

Pink’s book has been out for six years now, but it is based on scores of science that was conducted years and decades prior to its publication. We don’t need to look farther than W. Edward Deming, who wrote way back in 1986, in his seminal book “Out of the Crisis”, that annual reviews are “Deadly Disease #3” and

The performance appraisal nourishes short-term performance, annihilates long-term planning, builds fear, demolishes teamwork, nourishes rivalry and politics… it leaves people bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior. It is unfair, as it ascribes to the people in a group differences that may be caused totally by the system that they work in.

whyWhat amazes me most about this annual “kabuki theatre” is everyone intimately involved with the system (managers and front-line employees) literally hates this process. Even if the people at the top of the company bury their heads in the sand when it comes to real, scientific evidence, how can they fail to acknowledge the tidal wave of anecdotal evidence from their own people?

Steve Jobs was once asked how he learned to run a company in his early 20s since he had no formal business training. His answer sheds a great deal of light on why only 6% of fortune 500 companies have gotten rid of annual reviews and rankings though the evidence is overwhelming that they do not work.

You know, throughout the years in business I found something, which was I’d always ask why you do things. And the answers you invariably get are, “Oh, that’s just the way it’s done.” Nobody knows why they do what they do. Nobody thinks about things very deeply in business. – Steve Jobs – The Lost Interview

So, if Jobs was right, as I believe him to be, then a plausible explanation would be that even highly compensated CEOs are unable to properly ask the “why” of things or perhaps top-down control has led to a culture where why is not asked out of fear or complacency. I would guess the CEO of Accenture, since he is quoted in the article, was the decision maker of the “big move.” While he might think himself progressive since he is on the vanguard with respect to his peers, the more appropriate “why” to ask would be “why did it take so long?” and “why haven’t others made the change?” or maybe “which CEO will be next to admit that the world is indeed round?”

Type Three and Four Errors – Solving the Wrong Problems Flawlessly

covered wagon

For some reason, I find myself attracted to statistics and probability. This is one of the reasons I love the books of Nassim Taleb, anything that Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt of Freakonomics fame write, the social economics work of Dan Ariely, etc. Most recently I was doing some research and ran into the work of Ian I. Mitroff and Abraham Silvers and “The Error of the Third Kind (E3)”.

Because I had read so many books that have statistics and probability as themes, I was familiar with Type One and Type Two errors. Type One errors can be defined as incorrectly detecting an effect that is not present. Type Two errors, on the other hand, occur when one fails to detect an effect that was present. However, Type Three and Type Four errors were new to me.

An Error of the Third Kind (E3), as presented by Mitroff (and others), are those where the wrong problem has been not only proposed, but it is solved flawlessly so that it has the perception of being correct. Mitroff states:

The vast majority of books on management contribute to E3 because they imply that managers already know what their important problems are, for example: how to downsize in the most efficient way, how to improve chances for success in the global economy, how to install the correct Total Quality Management program, how to design the right reward system and so on. In each case, the unstated assumptions are that the essential problem the organization is facing is downsizing, global competitiveness or whatever it may be. While the assumptions may be correct, they are so crucial to formulating a problem correctly that they deserve to be challenged in the strongest possible way by asking tough questions.

puzzleThis type of error reminds me of the argument I often hear from clients that “we have always delivered” or “waterfall has worked for us for years.” The real question that needs to be answered is not if one has “always delivered” it is “what has one always delivered?” If, in software development, the code is difficult to maintain, if it has a great deal of technical debt (for example, only concentrating on on-time delivery), can it really be said that one has delivered successfully?

When someone mentions “waterfall has always worked for us”, I believe this is an example of Type Three error. The real question – has waterfall been optimal? The example I always give is that the covered wagon was successful for transportation, but when I look out the window of a plane, I don’t see any crossing the prairie. In the case of those applying the values and principles of agile properly there is little doubt as to which is the airplane and which is the covered wagon.

Type Four errors may be even more insidious. These are sometimes better known as HiPPO errors (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). These are seen in companies where top down hierarchical control is the norm. In their book, Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others Into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely, Mitroff and Silvers state:

The Type Three Error is the unintentional error of solving the wrong problem precisely. In sharp contrast, the Type Four Error is the intentional error of solving the wrong problems…

The Type Three Error is primarily the result of ignorance, a narrow and faulty education, and unreflective practice. In contrast, the Type Four is the result of deliberate malice, narrow ideology, overzealousness, a sense of self-righteousness, and wrongdoing.

By allowing others to improperly frame the question, a troublesome groupthink is created that allows many people to solve the wrong problems precisely.

As companies go down the road to Agile transformation, it is helpful to understand the Type Three and Four errors so that we don’t fall into the trap of solving the wrong problems flawlessly.

Patterns, Anti-Patterns and Pilots – Guidance versus Governance

scientist and microscope

In the past, I have proposed that an agile transformation should follow “three pillars of success – Structure, Practices and Governance.” This was a concept I decided to borrow from something I read in the past. It made sense at the time that to successfully transform we need to change structure (build good teams, etc.) and adopt new practices both at the framework/process level (ie Scrum) and for software development (ie TDD, Continuous Integration). It was the concept of governance that, while it seemed to make sense, gave me some pause.

It didn’t take me long before I began to understand why I was uncomfortable with “governance” – primarily because governance seemed too top-down and heavy-handed. It seemed a holdover from the very school of thinking our transformation was trying to change. Perhaps it bothered more so because governance was something easier to implement via the PMO (and something that people were too comfortable with).

governance imageIt wasn’t that governance isn’t needed – even the games we play need rules. It would be chaos indeed if the length of a football field, number of downs or number of players changed from game to game. However, elevating governance seemed to embolden attempts by people in the organization to dictate even the smallest minutia. It was as if governance gave implicit authority to make every team run a west coast offense instead of concentrating on eleven players on each side.

Once governance lost its cache, the question remained as what to replace it with. It made sense to pick a word with a more appropriate servant-leader feel. “Guidance” became a much more palatable alternative. This was better, but it didn’t provide everything needed because there were some rules that would need to be followed. After a brief flirtation with the concept “Governance and Guidance”, in the end, we settled on “Guidance and Tools” as a replacement to the original concept of “Government.” The reason for this was that most of the “rules” revolved around reporting and the tools support necessary to some basic reporting.

Once we settled on the concept of guidance, a definition of guidance was needed. Over time, a working definition emerged that was referred to as:

Patterns, Anti-Patterns and Pilots

Not only does this option have alliterative qualities, but it also allows for a much greater environment for teams to self-organize and experiment. The process is simple. There are certain things that we know to generally work well for teams. One example is Behavior Driven Development (BDD). This would be considered a pattern. It would be a practice that is not only highly recommended, but would be fully supported by the organization from a training perspective for teams that wanted to try it. The key is that this practice would not be mandated. Each team has the option to choose and would be supported in their decision, but not every team would choose to (or have the maturity to successfully) implement. I often tell my teams, while I think driving is great there is a reason I don’t hand my car keys to my nine year old.

scientific methodThe second category would be anti-patterns, which are defined as those things that teams have tried but there is consensus that these have not worked. In other words, something becomes an anti-pattern when multiple teams have tried something unsuccessfully. In addition, there are things our experience as agile coaches and scrum masters have shown to not be effective which are added to the list. One example would be splitting stories between offshore and onshore for the same team. In practice, the anti-patterns begin to look a lot like a “scrum but” list.

The final category, pilots, is where the power resides. This category that allows teams to freely experiment with different ways of doing business without a great deal of pressure. The approach is empirical like the Agile Manifesto. Try something and see what works. There is no failure – only data.

The team identifies these experiments during retrospectives and is free to experiment on anything that is neither a pattern nor anti-pattern. These experiments follow the scientific method in that they have an identifiable hypothesis. The outcome from this experiment (usually lasting a single iteration) is either that the experiment has proven successful in which case it can be elevated to a pattern, the pilot did not achieve the desired outcome or the experiment needs to gather more data.

In the end, after changing from “Governance” to “Guidance and Tools” and outlining an approach to using Patterns, Anti-Patterns and Pilots, I found myself much more comfortable with the underlying “three pillars” approach of our agile transformation. I believe the new approach was better aligned to the underlying Values and Principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto. And, more importantly, I noticed that organization itself seemed more comfortable with the agile transformation and the teams were much more empowered to self-organize.