Taking The ‘How Can I’ Approach

September 8th, 2015 / Comments Off on Taking The ‘How Can I’ Approach

Too often, we hear the phrase, “you can’t” and worse, we adopt the idea, “I can’t.” But we all have more capabilities than we think we do. In the workplace, oftentimes, we manage to be average instead of inspiring people to be excellent. This is such a waste. People are not at their best when all that is demanded of them is mediocrity. People are at their best when they are engaged in something challenging and important that carries purpose and meaning.

I’ve seen incredible things happen when people are inspired to work hard and given the opportunity to make a difference. I call these miracles. We experienced several at eBay EBAY +0.00%. In 1999, when I started, eBay had some very sizable technology issues, including one 22-hour outage of its whole service. It was a very public and embarrassing debacle. Traditionally, companies dealt with these problems by freezing the site, implementing a policy where no changes or additions would be made until the site was stabilized. They hid out and worked under the radar. We took a different approach; eBay was growing fast so we had to innovate fast and continue to make the site better. We had to not just solve what was wrong, but we had to constantly get better.

We implemented a four-prong approach to fixing the problems. First was stability: how to make sure that we had stable and redundant systems. Second was scalability: how could we ensure we could get ahead of the massive growth that we were encountering. (I was horrified when I learned that we only had three months “headroom”—meaning three months capacity before we would outgrow our infrastructure.) Third was velocity: we needed to be unorthodox and ship lots of innovations while being stable. Fourth focused on cost: we needed to do more for less.

Executing the solution all came down to a collaborative approach. I encouraged our partners to work with us in a way that they had not in the past. For example, we were using Sun servers, and as a way to motivate our vendor to be a real partner I suggested they carry our availability as a metric for executives’ bonus plans. This had never been done before, but it worked for both parties and later Sun adopted this model with their top 10 customers.

The team was fabulous, we worked extremely hard and we turned things around in record time. We chose to implement a distributed architecture, which enabled us to achieve scale and stability much more quickly by distributing the database to many different servers as opposed to one. We also made major in-roads on search and became world class at innovating on time and at high velocity without impacting site availability. At the time, it was unprecedented to be able to fix the site and keep it running while simultaneously adding new features, functions and capabilities.

eBay wasn’t the only place where I saw miracles happen at work. In particular, when a job is in jeopardy I’ve seen extraordinary things achieved. One time, when I was working as a network director at Quantum, a disk drive manufacturer, we had a pressing deadline to get long distance circuits and technology infrastructure into new factories that were coming on line. Every telecom vendor said they could not meet this deadline. We couldn’t accept this because it would cause significant delays that would cost us sizable money.

I called a meeting with all the vendors to address the situation. I explained that the suppliers who were willing to find a way to work with us would build a long and profitable partnership with our company. I then challenged them to find a way to help us. All it took was for one vendor to raise his hand and say he could do it. The others followed, all committing to find a way to make an exception. We delivered the project on time.

When I was at Gateway Computers I was tasked with negotiating circuit pricing from MCI. I worked for an executive who was formerly the President of AT&T T +0.00% and he was convinced (correctly so) that we were getting burned by MCI. He instructed me to get better pricing from AT&T—he thought that was the easy and obvious choice. Getting anything from MCI would be “impossible,” he said. I knew it would be quicker and require less effort to get the cost reduction from MCI, even though it had previously refused to lower its rates. I flew to North Sioux City, South Dakota and met with our representative. No one in the office was expecting much from me, or this field trip.

“I know we are getting killed; how are you going to fix it?” I asked. The representative said he couldn’t fix it so I escalated.  The MCI execs were all certain they were going to lose our business and their contract allowed them to charge what they were billing until the contract expired. I explained to them that they were going to lose our business unless they dropped our pricing immediately to the current street prices. I also told them they would be in the best position of all the bidding vendors to win the bid inasmuch as they were the incumbent. They wanted to know one thing: what I would do if they weren’t the winning vendor down the road?

I told them I would commit to giving them back half of the savings if they were to lose the bid. (Our annual spend was around $70 million dollars and it should have been around $50 million.) In response to the plan I suggested, they immediately dropped their price by $10 million dollars. With that, they got to keep our business. We saved money, and we also saved my boss embarrassment because AT&T later backed out of the bidding.

Every day I don’t think about what I’ve been told I can’t do and instead I am inspired by what I can achieve. People thought no one could or would walk on the moon, or get fingers to grow back, or talk to anyone in the world in real-time through the computer.

There’s never been a better time to change the way you think. Replace every ‘‘I can’t’’ with ‘‘How can I?’’ This might sound like semantics, this shift in thinking will bring whatever you want to accomplish much closer to reality. Things that you thought would take six months might take six weeks, or even six days. It’s much more rewarding to be inspired by all that you can do rather than to be afraid that you can’t.

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