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An Ode to Frugality

May 4, 2017

Frugality includes all the other virtues – Cicero

God created me to realize my vision on a shoe string budget… not to be cheap, stingy, or miserly… but clever in the application of resource. Frugality is the genius of accomplishing much with little. In remembrance of my Calvinist upbringing, I can make a penny weep tiny copper tears as my nimble fingers stretch its shiny orb to cover a heaven of needs.

I cash starved BluPanda for years, raising only enough capital each month to pay the bills, with nothing left over for new hires. I got the idea from my children, who are what I call cash-insentitive. If I give them $20, they spend it, but if I give them $50, they spend it. I think that startup companies operate the same way. If you give them cash, they’ll find some way to spend it and each additional dollar is spent with decreasing wisdom… a sort of decreasing marginal utility of cash.

My theory is that entrepreneurs should only raise as much cash as they can responsibly spend (which is often less than they think that they need) and should measure their own early-stage performance like gas mileage or a golf score: the ratio of progress to cash. But we rarely seem to do that. The thirst for more capital is real and intense and sometimes silly, and makes me wonder when the size of a man’s… uh, capital raise…  became the early stage measure of success. Cash is entrepreneurial coke. We raise more cash so that we can hire more people so that we can raise more cash so that we can hire more people. Wheeeee!

Ironically, we live in an era in which capital is less necessary than ever before. When I look at my income statement, I see lots of small operating costs that used to be large capital expenditures coupled with ongoing staffing costs. I remember spending $500K to build a small server room for a company that I ran in the late 90’s, then staffed that server room with something like 9 FTE’s. Now, I spend about $500 per month on Amazon Web Services. Wow.

Digitally-enabled cost savings aren’t limited to hardware, they creep right into staffing and operational efficiency.  Free digital platforms like Youtube, Hubspot, and WordPress (plug: I have a new Management Automation blog coming soon!) are my marketing department. I can create and distribute video presentations and educational posts to prospects and clients all by myself. With these tools, I can do the same work that once required a five-person department in my prior company.

My genetic disposition toward frugality has become a fanatical obsession with the elimination of capital expenditures and a general abhorrence of hiring. Our most expensive assets are laptops, and our entire production and delivery platform is low-cost, and cloud-based. Each time that we thought about hiring another person, we either adopted a free or low-cost technology, like Hubspot, or we pushed non-core work off to lower-cost, more capable third-parties, often in our customers’ organizations.

As a result of all of these free or low-cost substitutes for capital expenses and / or avoided hires, BluPanda’s cost structure is dominated by personnel costs, those personnel costs are quite small and they haven’t grown much over time. We are now beginning to scale into the market and noted a significant additional advantage stemming from our frugality: leveraging technology solutions has made BluPanda a far more scalable organization than a labor-driven organization would have been. We have high operating leverage, meaning that many of our costs are relatively fixed as revenue grows, the very thing you need to achieve margin growth.

We tout small teams because they avoid cost, but small teams have an important secondary benefit: they are more cost efficient than large teams. Fewer people mean fewer meetings. Fewer meetings mean more actual work gets done because less time is needed to coordinate. I can’t begin to estimate the number of meeting-hours that we have avoided by keeping our team small long past the point where we were expected to hire more people.

For example, at BluPanda, we have design meetings that we call White Boards. They’re limited to three people and focus on three things: (1) maintaining a consistent product / market fit, (2) pounding out new product designs, and (3) creating the corresponding marketing materials. It’s a beautiful example of Organizational Minimalism.

The cost of coordination, i.e. meetings, are margin killers. The cost of keeping people on the same page increases non-linearly with the number of people on the team. Entrepreneur.com posted an article called, “The Science Behind Why Small Teams Work More Productively,” the meat of which is about the number of communications links that exist on a team of N people. Quoting the late Harvard  psychologist J. Richard Hackman that, “Big meetings usually wind up wasting everybody’s time,” the article goes on to point out that the number of communication links among a team of N members equals N (N -1) /2. It’s non-linear. The article posits that management can be viewed as the work required to handle all of these links. Intuitively and mathematically, smaller teams mean less time spent managing work flow, more time spent generating output, and less cost per unit output as management costs are reduced.

In addition to keeping our own team small, BluPanda has excelled at pushing large portions of our workflow into external organizations who are better at it and less expensive than we are. One of our primary missions is to bring Management Automation to any hospital, anywhere in the world, yet we lacked any real connection to hospitals outside our immediate circle. Rather than taking on this job ourselves, we began working with the US Commercial Service, a group within the Commerce Department, that markets US companies to prospective foreign partners and clients through their offices in 75 countries around the world. Last year, they helped BluPanda to identify a French co-development and co-marketing partner to help us to enter the French market. This year, they are helping us to market in Brazil, Austria, and the Nordic Countries. So far, their total fees have been $400. Yep.

My genetic obsession with frugality aside, I began to develop these organizational strategies during our Competitive Strategy course with Pierre Azoulay and Scott Stern. One of the course papers was entitled, “Creating Competitive Advantage,” which analyzed the relative economic performance within several industries. I was struck by the following quote, which I now hold as Gospel, “A firm is said to have a competitive advantage over its rivals if it has driven a wide wedge between the willingness to pay it generates among buyers and the costs that it incurs – indeed a wider wedge than its competitors have achieved.” 

BluPanda’s variation on the second half of this theme, the costs that we incur, has been to search for and to choose wherever possible low-cost, highly scalable alternatives. We take an entrepreneur’s view of constructing a startup company’s strategy by searching for advantageous options in each of the segments of  the value chain in which our firm participates and sometimes pushing activities upstream or downstream when they can be more efficiently delivered by others. “Creating Competitive Advantage” as well as excerpts from the book, “Economics of Strategy” impressed upon me the notion that a start-up firm purchases its strategy by paying the costs associated with each choice, as represented in the expense portion of its income statement. Targeting choices that are both low-cost and highly scalable leads to a cost structure that grows as little as possible with revenues.

Our pursuit of frugality made frugality itself a strategy, akin to Walmart’s pursuit of ever-lower prices. What started as Calvinist waste-not, want-not philosophy led BluPanda to an unexpected Global Strategy that I will discuss in a future post. The resulting capital efficiency also led us to stay with angel financing long after the Friends and Family round . All of BluPanda’s capital has come from angels,  primarily physician leaders who helped to shape our products and introduced us to visionary customers. BluPanda will likely achieve profitability without raising a dollar of venture financing.

Frugality includes all the other strategies.

-R.

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The Resolute

April 28, 2017

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…

The Great Gatsby

Like the first crocuses of spring, yet four years later, I’ve reemerged from winter’s snows and a long, long entrepreneurial journey in which we’ve rethought and remade a company in the beautiful likeness of my many almost-learned lessons from MIT.

It will be four years this June since I graduated from the EMBA program.  I stopped writing about my experience as an EMBA shortly after parting ways with many of you in front of that great dome and walked away with Cynthia and two of our boys who had come to see me graduate. We went home, I hung my diploma on the wall and wrote one last post in which I made vague promises to write again, to tell you how things went, to send you a postcard when I got there…

I’m here now. It’s really cool. We have cookies and self-actualization. And I want to share it with you a post at a time.

I came to MIT because I wanted to automate the management of healthcare facilities all around the world. As a robotic scientist, I was well aware of just how powerful robotics and AI technologies had become and even more aware of how slowly they were making their way out of the lab and into practical use.

To put the snail’s pace into more recognizable form, 26 years ago, I started my doctoral research on a DARPA self-driving vehicle program at the Robotics Institute, which in recent years finally emerged in Uber, Tesla, and other commercial vehicle programs. This new generation of robotics technology is particularly powerful; in many ways we now have the ability to embed human-like intelligence into any object. Vehicle programs are easy for folks to grasp, since most of us drive and can understand just how hard it is to drive a car, but this same class of robotics technology is broadly applicable and I wanted to see it applied to the management of hospitals.

Robotics has historically had a rather limited impact in healthcare, focusing almost entirely on surgical robots and pharmacy applications. By contrast, robotics technologies have successfully automated the management of production and processing facilities across dozens of global industries. I came to MIT because I needed help. I understood how modern robotics technologies could be applied to manage hospital operations, but I needed to understand how to build a company that could scale the delivery of that technology across the globe. That’s what we’re doing at BluPanda and I’m fully ready to credit the EMBA program with making our work possible. As advertised, the EMBA experience is transformative. MIT delivers, occasional tears notwithstanding.

Change, like dating after 40, is not for the easily discouraged. You have to want to change and you have to be fully prepared for a thousand no’s before you get to that first yes, and then the second yes. We are resolute and full of purpose and must resolve within ourselves that we will leave behind every doubt and build instead an organization that transmits that resolute purpose to the world. But we’re also weak, and change is hard, and the way isn’t always clear, and it costs more money and takes more time and there are more dead ends than we imagined when we set out all resolute in our purpose.

One of my favorite MIT lessons is JVM’s story of hikers lost in the Pyrenees with little food, little water, but fortuitously, a map. They carefully plan their descent while waiting for the snow storm to clear, then set out, initially following their plan, but soon deviating along the way until they discover a small village, where they find shelter at an inn. While warming themselves around the fire, one of them discovers that their map was not of the Pyrenees after all, but of the Alps.

When I hung my diploma on the wall and headed to work at BluPanda, I didn’t know where to start… or rather, I knew way too many places to start. I wanted to experiment with all the delicious possibilities that MIT had presented… all at once… but sensing that we might all die in an avalanche of confused change, we instead concentrated on three things. First, we took on any work at any hospital that was interested in automating the management of any process. Second, we worked on scale… we questioned every part of our organization with the end goal in mind: how would we deliver this to any hospital, anywhere in the world? And third, we cash starved the company… on purpose. We only raised enough cash to keep the doors open and, like an ascetic monk, forced ourselves to minimize our dependence upon cash, locking in an incredibly tight cost structure in the process.

These three goals became our hikers’ objectives; learn, scale, and be frugal were our food, water, and shelter. Once we set out and started our work, things happened along the way, we created opportunities by aggressively engaging with hospitals and capped costs by steadfastly refusing to hire more people. Ultimately, we created a new healthcare IT platform that is able to automate the management of virtually any healthcare process on about $6.5M in total capital. In a larger sense, we’ve created a company that is now channelling some 30 years of robotics research into the efficient management of hospitals and other healthcare facilities. We are still young and small and have far to go, but we’re here and our first successes give us great optimism that we can impact the global healthcare system. No small goal and entirely in keeping with Sloan’s tradition.

So I’ve rededicated myself to this blog with the new mission of documenting those four years and sharing the connection between BluPanda’s emergence as the first competitor in a new segment of the healthcare IT industry and lessons that I learned as a MITEMBA.

-R.

 

 

The Quiet Mind

June 14, 2013

My friend, the things that do attain
the happy life be these, I find;
The riches left, not got with pain,
The fruitful ground, the quiet mind…    Henry Howard, after the Roman poet Martial.

I have come home to the farm and find my mind all unquieted as I struggle to fill the MIT void. The day after commencement, I hung my diploma on the wall right under my doctorate. For the next several hours, I busied myself with many little nothings, sending emails, scanning legal documents, preparing for my staff meeting, each task helped me to avoid facing my life after MIT.

I once read a Buddhist author’s musing that the ultimate anxiety is to lie upon the ground and stare up into the nighttime heavens on a clear and moonless night, losing oneself in the innumerable stars and immeasurable blackness of space until suddenly and with a great start one senses at the very core of one’s soul that ultimately one is entirely alone in the Universe. The few days after Commencement were a close second on that anxiety scale.

I thought it would be much different and more relaxing, but as the routine of the last 20 months dissolved last weekend,  I found myself  unprepared to doing anything of value and completely incapable of simply relaxing. I rechecked my diploma  a half-dozen times, just to reassure myself that I had indeed graduated. I wish I was making this up, but it’s  true. Graduating has been too surreal of an event for me to accept; even as I write this, I still have the nervous sense that there’s another reading, another assignment, another team project that somehow I’ve forgotten to complete. It can’t be over.

I’ve had a recurring dream for the last 20 years in which someone discovers that I didn’t actually complete some high school mathematics course, which somehow invalidates all of my college degrees unless, like Billy Madison, I return to high school and pass the course. I’m sure that I’ll have some MIT-induced inadequacy nightmare wherein I dream that I have to return to Boston because I didn’t use all of the frameworks in my Go-Lab report, or I forgot to take Ops II, or that all my Systems Dynamics loops were reinforcing, any of which somehow invalidates my MBA.

There’s a certain absurdity to the academic routine, which I know all too well, having spent nearly my entire adult life with at least one foot continuously in a University. Education is a neatly packaged good with a curriculum and a schedule. Clear objectives, relatively clear assignments, and grades to indicate degrees of success. I’ve come to believe that most education programs work because they offer a introspective retreat that allows us to tap into the more creative recesses of our minds… Nelson’s blue box, as it were.

My problem right now is that I don’t really want to leave MIT’s blue box behind, in fact, I’d like  to move my blue box stuff into my red box. I’d like to see the lessons that I learned at MIT become habitual in my daily work. That’s an enormous challenge. As Nelson says, change is incredibly difficult because real change requires us to form different habits. To quote Nelson’s Law:

Organizational change efforts don’t produce change unless someone in the organization actually does something differently. – Nelson Repenning 

Nelson’s Law finds its roots in the Book of Isaiah, which we all remember from our religious studies as the central tome of ancient change management:

“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” – Isaiah 48:19

Isaiah is a bit more of elegant than Nelson, but the sentiment is the same. To be fair, Isaiah did get published in the Bible, which is pretty much the ultimate peer-reviewed article, especially given the incomparable poetic beauty of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Maybe it would help if Nelson shouted “Behold!” while holding a grizzled staff high overhead immediately before quoting his law. “Behold” is at once captivating, authoritative, and declarative, but somewhat out of style, though I do think that Nelson is the Nixon who could go to that China, so there may be some hope of seeing that kind of retro-Testament in a post-modern Song of Sloan.

“Remember not the former things…”

So, I’m working to form new work habits that will methodically draw every relevant lesson from MIT into my work flow and, by extension, into my company. I’ve started with a new EMBA habit that I call the MI3. Each time I take on a new work task, I start by looking for at least three lessons from  MIT  that I can put to use. The old work habit was to dive into each task and try to finish it as quickly as possible. The MI3 work habit will be to reflect on the EMBA tool set that now resides in my mind and try to identify three skills, frameworks and / or approaches that will deliver a better outcome, more efficiently… then dive in. Here is a secular example.

I am negotiating a contract with a new client for Disruptive’s healthcare subsidiary, BluPanda. In the week leading up to Commencement, I sat back and reflected on what I learned in the EMBA program that could help lead to a better outcome for both BluPanda and this client.

First, I drew from lessons in 15-s09 Advanced Communications for Executives with Neal Hartman. I took a survey at the beginning of the course that helped to identify my natural communications style, which is the Innovator style. The insight for people with this style is that we tend to be very good at defining and describing a Vision, but lacking in communicating exactly how that vision will be achieved. The prescription for Innovators is to work on developing so-called Producer communications skills so that we are better able to answer the client’s bottom-line-oriented How questions.

This particular issue came up because I kept hearing my client champion tell me that the client’s management team didn’t understand how we would produce results, how our robotics technology worked, how we approached the problem… lots of how questions. I realized that this was related to my communications style and that I could apply Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle to write a short, structured paper that answered many of these questions. In writing this paper, I gained a lot of insight as to how the client thinks about adopting our technology… these insights are now spilling over into some rethinking about how we can deliver our products in ways that require substantially less effort on the client’s part. Nicely done, MIT.

Second, I reviewed my notes from 15.712 Power, Influence and Negotiation. This course provided several measurements of my personal negotiating style that helped me to understand my strengths and weaknesses. I know what I do well, and what I tend to do poorly. I thought about how those issues would affect the upcoming negotiation and what I could or should do about it. This was enormously helpful, as it created a set of personal negotiating goals. Just as importantly, I reviewed my notes on the negotiating process and developed a framework for BluPanda to use to help guide us through discussions with the client. Without revealing the specifics, basic concepts like focusing on enlarging the pie prior to discussing how to divide it, seeking compatible interests and looking for logrolling opportunities will all help to avoid positional negotiating. In this last week, I’ve spent a lot of time with my counter part negotiating the rules for the negotiation in ways that, thus far, we are  finding mutually beneficial.

Third, I’m going back to the basics of finance and project NPV in building a cash-flow model to use in the upcoming negotiation so that I can calculate the impact of each negotiating point. This is clearly not something that I would have known how to do before the EMBA program and I like it especially because it grounds the negotiations in rational financial terms, which should be very helpful in understanding the costs and benefits of each term and the conditions under which we should just walk away, while preventing ego and emotions from overtaking the talks.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

The promise of the MITEMBA is that it transforms already successful executives. To date, I have written primarily about the experience of the MITEMBA program itself: what it was like to apply and attend the program, the impact on my family, and the transformation that I experienced during that 20 months of my life. But the real story of the program should be about what MIT helps me to accomplish with my company, Disruptive Robotics, as our team works to apply advanced robotics technologies to Improve the Human Condition. I think that we have an incredible opportunity ahead of us with BluPanda’s robotic management platform for healthcare… and the story of how the MIT experience contributes to what promises to be an enormous social impact is yet to be told.

As my mind begins to Quiet, I promise to continue to share the MIT experience with you. Let’s see how truly Disruptive and transformative this Sloanie can be.

-R.

Quo Vadis?

April 5, 2013

Just got admitted to the class of 2015…your silence here has me worried about what I’ve gotten myself into!

– A comment left on my blog… Name Withheld

It’s true. I have been quite silent throughout most of the second year. It’s been a very different experience. One that I’ve found far more difficult to chronicle than that of the first year. Let’s start in the middle.

Last month, I went to Rome to work with my GO-Lab client. Global Organization Lab is the EMBA program’s Grande Finale in which students take on a global client with a compelling real-world problem and attempt to address that problem using all of the skills learned throughout the EMBA program.

I know what you’re thinking. Rome. If that sounds fabulous, romantic and dreamy to you, I’m here to assure you that it was. Our client asked us to review operations in four of their offices, so while my partner Charlie and I were in Rome, the other members of our team were in Abu Dhabi, Singapore, and Australia.

Charlie and I brought our wives with us. Rome is too romantic to see alone and Charlie and I don’t quite “like like” each other. The plan was that while we met with our client, the wives would tour the Vatican, see the ruins of Ancient Rome, and max out credit cards on expensive Italian shoes that are NOT imported to the United States and therefore are unavailable to any of the other women in their social circle. Jealous! This last goal was deemed crucial to the success of the trip.

Turns out, however, that Charlie and I had the BEST HOST EVER! So, rather than sitting in an office discussing organizational structures, he taught us that when in Rome, one must do business in the Italian style: by building personal relationships through shared experience. Over the next couple of days we dined with Hollywood directors (or at least sat at the next table), took behind-the-velvet-ropes tours of the Vatican, private tours of Ancient Rome, and generally explored 2500 years of history… Ancient Egyptian obelisks, basilica upon basilica, fountain upon fountain, Mussolini’s Balcony, the Spanish Steps and the Wedding Cake, each site frenetically obscured by hundreds of stylish, high-heeled women driving Vespas with erotic abandon. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where Giulia Farnese lived…

It was fabulous.

Business was conducted over dinner, which starts at 7:30pm and progresses uninterrupted until 11:00pm each night. Our host made a strong case for the superiority of Italian culture. We managed to complete our interview, gather our data, understand his issues, and formulate options, but did so in an atmosphere of understated elegance. For the first time in my life, I felt just like Audrey Hepburn.

And so I haven’t written. Partially because I have been taking it all in. Not just the trip to Rome, but the entire second year MIT experience. The first year is easily parsed and described. It’s a series of classes, each of which builds some functional skill, together with the immersive experience of really deconstructing yourself. Questioning your career, your motivations, your base psychological drivers, your definition of success… even perhaps in my case, the very purpose of my existence. But that kind of deconstruction hasn’t been my experience of the second year.

Certainly I’ve taken more classes, built more skills and gained more insights. But, starting in December or so, I began to feel a strong draw back to my own company, my management team, my clients, and my family. I really struggled as I tried to figure out how I could possibly bring back the innumerable lessons learned at MIT and apply them in a meaningful way. I’ve learned too much and I just can’t seem to communicate it all. That has been the source of my silence: indecisive contemplation. I’ve acquired an incredibly valuable education that I really don’t know how to use.

On the Appian Way (Via Appia Antica) less than a mile outside the gates of Rome, the Church of St. Mary in Palmis marks the spot where the Apostle Peter, fleeing from Rome, saw a vision of Christ and asked, “Domine Quo Vadis?” – “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” whereupon Peter finally accepted his martyrdom and returned to Rome. The Church of St. Mary is quite small and modest in its adornment, especially by Roman standards. It’s really not much more than a simple country chapel. But its spiritual power is real and palpable. As Charlie prayed at the kneeler, I lit a candle and stared at Peter, hung upside down on his cross.

I have been at MIT 18 months. Quo Vadis? Where are any of us going? I’ve been silent because I am trying to divine an answer to my own question and it hasn’t come easily.

We arrived in Rome the day after the installation of Pope Francis. There are now two popes in Rome. New Pope, Old Pope. City Pope, Country Pope. Working Pope, Retired Pope. All throughout the city and probably generally throughout the world, many are trying to come to grips with a leadership structure that has never really existed before. Two Popes on friendly terms. It’s puzzling.

Old R entered the Sistine Chapel one morning to simply look around. And the beauty and complexity and sheer genius of Michelangelo affixed me in absolute wonder.  And New R came and held me by the hand. And together we took in the story of Moses, and the story of Jesus, and the creation of all Creation, and the coming Last Judgement of Christ. Old R had read these stories many times over the years, for these stories are well known. But, as New R explained… these are not stories. This is who we are together. There is from whence we came… and this is where we go. And with that New R rose and left the Sistine Chapel… But Old R stayed behind, seated on a marble bench, smiling up at the Cumaean Sybil.

There are stories of what we will become. And there are moments in which we become. And the moments become the stories and then leave them behind. At MIT, in the first year there are many stories. And in the second year, there are a few moments. And the beauty is in the leaving.

-R.

Finding my Lost Voice

December 3, 2012

“I’m a little pencil in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

– Mother Theresa.

I lost my voice months ago when I suddenly stopped writing about the EMBA experience. I was useless as a writer. I could no longer distill my experiences into a cohesive story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. After the summer’s crash, I wandered off for awhile. The details – this assignment, that project, this final, that simulation – had cluttered up my mental purpose… gummed up the works, leaving my original intent in joining the program an unrecognizable memory.

I live on a farm and will often wander in the woods alone with my thoughts. Perhaps that’s all I’ve ever done throughout the entirety of my life… wander through the woods as I repair the illusion of purpose that strings together sets of life events that are more likely random, disconnected, and quantum. Can I not simply do a thing without needing to feel God’s presence in the act? God does not play dice with the Universe. Stop telling God what to do, Albert.

The oppressive, intolerable heat of the summer term’s workload broke with the first rains of autumn. As I walked along in the Cambridge rain, I could no longer remember the physical sensation of heat, only vague impressions of how it once made me feel. The fall term’s workload was easily half of the summer term’s. I began to think less about MIT and much more about my company. But, not thinking about MIT is a Zen-like trap that simply brings MIT back to mind…

Publilius Syrus, best known for his observation that a rolling stone gathers no moss, suggests, “You should make a woman angry if you wish her to love.” Publilius doesn’t really translate well into modern sexual politics, but neither do I and however impolitic it is to say, I think he’s right. As a corollary, if you’re a woman and I’ve just angered you with my writing, you are in love with me.

Publilius knew something about MIT.

Wandering about in the woods, far away from MIT, the irritations clear away. One forgets what sleep deprivation feels like and just remembers how one felt about being sleep deprived. Forgiveness creeps in, followed stealthily by rationalization. MIT meant well, of course. MIT was simply trying to provide me with an elite graduate management education. Edward HAD to be cruel when he left Bella so that she would be angry enough to forget him… especially after that incident with Jasper. That was the second time she almost died! And as Nick Lowe teaches, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind in the right measure.

My love for MIT has once again blossomed. The roots were deep and weathered the heat of that imperfect summer term. And now, I think, my voice is beginning to return.

-R.

 

MIT made my wife cry…

September 15, 2012

Only Nixon could go to China…

Two months have passed since I last blogged about the MIT EMBA experience. I wish that I could write to you about a summer vacation or time otherwise spent with my family, but it simply did not work out that way. Although this blog evidences my considerable enthusiasm for and pride in the EMBA program, there is an imprecise resentment that I harbor over the impact that the program has had on my family that makes me a little less of a fan.

There are a few themes that you’ll find in my writings. I speak often of the sheer volume of work in the program, using metaphors as varied as the King James Bible and steamrollers. I write regularly of my own personal transformation, for I am undoubtedly a more commanding and more able executive. And I relentlessly recommend the MIT EMBA to prospective students.

My opinions on all three matters remain as deep set as they have been throughout the program. In fact, I will go so far as to predict that when the MIT EMBA program is finally ranked (as you may know, the program won’t appear in US News & World Report and other rankings until it has graduated at least 3 classes) it may well knock Wharton from its pedestal. This is the most senior program by both average age and work experience; it is far more selective that Wharton (25% admissions vs. 45%); 40% of students already have advanced degrees; 83% are director-level and above and nearly a quarter of the class are C-level and above… plus, well… it’s MIT.

And now to China…

One of my classmates recently coined the term “The EMBA Discount Rate” to refer to the conversion between the faculty’s estimate of our workload and the reality of our workload. In general, the students take the faculty estimate and double it. We started doing this with final exams in the first year, when the faculty would tell us that the exam was designed to take 3 hours and then give us 6 hours to complete it. Without fail, I always took between 5 and 6 hours to do the exam. For awhile, I thought that maybe I was just the “slow one” in class, until beers at Champions last winter had everyone telling essentially the same story… “Wow! I almost ran out of time on that (Econ, Accounting, etc.) final.”

This trend of underestimating the student’s workload peaked this summer. Officially, the summer term is an 18 unit term, compared to the Fall and Spring terms, which are 28 and 29 units. The EMBA ’12 class had told us (the ’13’s) that summer wouldn’t be too bad. It was a vague, but hopeful sign that the load might lighten a little. You may recall some of my prior blog entries where I write about EMBA mirages… those moments where it seems like a break might be just around the corner, yet hope constantly revealed itself to be an illusion born of wishful thinking.

The summer term was not a mirage… it was a bloodbath. It was the most horrifically overloaded period that I’ve experienced in the EMBA program to date. It was awful. I am tempted to claim that it was immoral, but it lacked the kind of conscious and purposeful malice normally associated with evil. No, this was an accidental bloodbath, not an intentional one. Sort of like forgetting to fill up the gas tank before setting out to drive across Death Valley… Oh, wow… sorry. Jeez… It was an accident, but we’re still dying in the desert out here.

I try never to blog about any topic that I haven’t heard corroborated by my classmates. My original purpose with the Disruptive Sloanie was to truthfully record the actual experience of the program. I feel a very real responsibility not to go off on personal tangents… I tend to use lunchtime conversations as a way of making sure that my perspective and experience is shared by at least some of my classmates.

There were two separate conversations that led me to believe that I was not the only soul who felt that all was not right with the EMBA workload… that somehow, we were flying this aircraft well beyond its summer term design limits. I’ll call the first conversation the “Unhappy Other Talk” and the second one the “Cardiac Care Talk”.

Our drama begins July 1st, when I completed the Data Models and Decisions final, two days after I had finished the Financial Management final. We slid through the July 4th holiday and returned to Cambridge for the July 12-14 weekend session and two more of MIT’s truly differentiating courses: Operations Management and Systems Dynamics. This is where MIT earns its Blood on Concrete reputation.

The core of the Operations Management course is a factory simulation, which runs for 6 days, 24 hours per day. Your team of three people must manage the factory, making decisions about when to purchase capital equipment, manage inventory, forecast demand, and so forth. It’s important to note that it runs for a full work week, 24 hours a day, while you are working at your real job, not while you are in Cambridge. In that sense, it’s like an intense version of the high school class where you have to bring home a baby doll and care for it to simulate what life would be like if you had a child. Except that you can’t get your mother to help you out by running your simulated electronics manufacturing facility because, although she can feed a simulated baby, she probably can’t do demand forecasting worth a hill of beans.

July proved to be a perfect storm when the first Systems Dynamics homework, which required developing a causal loop model for your real-life company, was sandwiched between the 6 day factory simulation and a second Operations Management revenue management simulation homework… all while my real company was launching a new product in our first pilot hospital near Pittsburgh.

Foolishly, I had set my wife’s expectations based upon the EMBA ’12’s advice that summer would be lighter than the prior 10 months. This proved to be a grave error on my part. Cynthia developed plans wherein I would take the family to Kennywood, Idlewild Park, picnic on the farm, go to church, and all manner of other family oriented activities, none of which came to pass. The denouement came near the end of July, with my wife sitting sobbing in the living room chair telling me that it’s like I’m “no longer here”… I just sit in my chair, oblivious to the family, working on my laptop for days at a time. It had all of the heartrending drama of a man caught having a mid-life crisis, but without the joys of illicit sex with a doe-eyed coed. All I got was a ton of homework…

Back in Cambridge on August 3rd, I found myself sitting around a table listening to my classmates telling me nearly identical stories. One of my classmates, upon hearing about Cynthia crying, told me that his wife had similarly said that he was “no longer present in their marriage…” One by one the other guys around the table copped to incredibly similar stories. The real pain of the EMBA program was being inflicted not on us, but on our wives, as we were taking more and more time away from them to Feed the Beast: the unrelenting steamroller of MIT’s workload. Something had to give and it turns out that most of us were keeping up with our jobs and the EMBA program by letting our marital and familial obligations slide.

The time crunch continued during the Weekend Sessions themselves. In order to fit Operations Management within the curriculum, the lectures were extended from three hours to five hours on some weekends. The extra two hours were significant to me. I found my attention wandering during the final hour or so of these extended classes, to the point where I had to re-watch the lecture on video capture when I returned home because I knew that I really hadn’t absorbed the material in class. This, of course, added more sweet sorrow to a frozen summertime romance as I took even more time from my wife.

When we returned to Cambridge on August 17th, the EMBA program sponsored a clambake at the MIT Sailing Pavilion on the banks of the Charles. It was a welcome break, the heat wave had broken and the weather on the Charles was sunny and warm, but with a cool breeze. Some of our classmates went sailing out on the river, while the rest of us ate a pretty incredible meal.

One of our classmates is a cardiologist. The conversation at our table soon turned to a discussion of blood pressures and blood pressure medications… a number of us had seen our BP’s elevate during the course of the program, either from the additional stress or an inability to maintain an exercise program. I know that we’re the most senior EMBA program in the nation and, well… the physical stresses of the program are real and do have an impact on our health. It was at that moment that enough was enough.

I made the claim earlier that I do not think that the significant workload is intentional. I do think that culturally, MIT’s desire to ensure that its EMBA program meets the rigors of an MIT degree are partially at work here. I also think that there is a systematic lack of calibration among the faculty regarding the length of time that it truly takes to do the assignments. The rest, I rather imagine, has much to do with the youth of the program. There are still scheduling issues to be resolved as the program begins its third year. I have considerable faith in the character and good intention of the program’s leadership and I suspect that two years from now the Summertime EMBA Massacre will just be a distant memory.

One point that might be well worth pondering is whether starting the program in September, rather than October, and then giving students the entire month of August off might help to alleviate the stresses on the families – an idea that one of my classmates surfaced during the clambake. A normal vacation with our spouses and children would go a long way toward minimizing their EMBA trauma.

In the meantime, I am regularly receiving emails from new EMBA’s who ask me whether I have any advice for them as they enter the program. I tell everyone the same thing… spend as much time with your family as possible before the program starts. Buy them little presents… take them out for dinner… do whatever it is that you like to do as a family. In the coming months, you aren’t going to be there as much as you have been… and while you signed up for this program and all of the challenges that it entails, they really didn’t. They will have a very difficult time adjusting to your receding presence as the workload mounts. And make sure that even when you can’t spend as much time with them that you continually tell them how much you love them. It matters and it will make all the difference.

-R.

A Soft and Quiet Confidence

July 17, 2012

My classmates are rethinking their careers, thoughtfully and deliberately, with a new sense that whatever they were doing before MIT isn’t what they’ll be doing after MIT. A soft confidence has eroded old barriers and replaced self-limiting images with a new mosaic of possible futures. And it is wondrous in our eyes.

The sheer volume of EMBA work, of which I have regularly and continually written, has permanently compressed our former work into a tight dense mass out of the necessity of time. This was to be expected. But there is in each of us a personified sincerity of purpose that whispers to us in a deliberately familiar voice full of curious tone, “What will you do when your time is again free?”

Faulkner struggled with drink, just as I struggle with work. It is an addiction and a vice and a calling, all the same. He would not drink while he wrote and his many months of self-imposed sobriety lashed out in a binge of drunkenness upon the publication of each new work. The intensity of focus, the imposition of discipline, and the outright denial of his weakness for alcohol, which his writing required, swung the pendulum hard and heavy to its opposing limit once the final written word passed to paper.

How will my pendulum swing once the EMBA loosens its grip upon me? What new purpose will I divine for my time when MIT no longer requires me?

This is in all of our thoughts, but the anxiety that I would have expected has not come. It has no purchase upon me as I have found a soft and quiet confidence that buoys up my sincerity of purpose.  It is as though I am again the small boy of my youth, walking barefoot through the soft grasses of the farm, observing in quiet reverence the wonderment of every aspect of life. The cool waters of the stream. The crawfish and turtles therein. And here a small robin upon a branch, where buds have already popped and immature leaves sprawl, stretching out to feel the warmth of the sun. This contentment of youth still exists in our middle age when we are caused to compress and clear away that which was simply unnecessary habit.

We are, many of us, expressing the wonderment of another youth, fresh with new possibility and delightfully alive once again. There are none of us, so far as I can know, who remain content with who we were and what we did before the EMBA. That soft confidence becomes a dissatisfaction. Our jobs and perhaps even our stations in life no longer meet with our sense of properly self-directed purpose. There just must be something more out there that we were intended to do with our lives. And, like me as a boy, we stand now staring at a beautiful world that dwarfs us with all of its possibilities.

-R.