Three Hundred

I don’t have high hopes for this upcoming film, but perhaps the fact that it’s based on the graphic novel, 300, by Frank Miller who also worked as a consultant for the film, or that the CGI looks rather mind-blowing, is reason enough to watch it at a moviehouse and not on lame “cinema copy” dibidi.

300 portrays the Battle of Thermopylae, where small Greek city states united to fight the invading Persians. A small army of 300 led by King Leonidas defended the pass against the much bigger force under Xerxes I. What ensued was one of history’s best examples of military maneuvers that involved good training, knowledge of terrain and a well-equipped although much smaller army. The Persians fielded more than 2 million fighters against the 5 thousand Greeks, which already included the 300 under the command of Leonidas. The invaders eventually won the battle, but not without great loss compared to that suffered by the defenders.

After watching Gerard Butler in a number of crappy films, I believe the only reason I would want to see him again taking a lead role is that he looks good in red knickers. All that shouting only makes me go, “Ugh!” A handsome Rodrigo Santoro is too much to ask for. But actors aside, the reason I will see 300 is the film itself.

Yahoo’s Leaked Memo

Wall Street Journal printed in full a leaked memo from Yahoo’s SVP, Brad Garlinghouse.

Three and half years ago, I enthusiastically joined Yahoo! The magnitude of the opportunity was only matched by the magnitude of the assets. And an amazing team has been responsible for rebuilding Yahoo!

It has been a profound experience. I am fortunate to have been a part of dramatic change for the Company. And our successes speak for themselves. More users than ever, more engaging than ever and more profitable than ever!

I proudly bleed purple and, yellow everyday! And like so many people here, I love this company

But all is not well. Last Thursday’s NY Times article was a blessing in the disguise of a painful public flogging. While it lacked accurate details, its conclusions rang true, and thus was a much needed wake up call. But also a call to action. A clear statement with which I, and far too many Yahoo’s, agreed. And thankfully a reminder. A reminder that the measure of any person is not in how many times he or she falls down – but rather the spirit and resolve used to get back up. The same is now true of our Company.

It’s time for us to get back up.

I believe we must embrace our problems and challenges and that we must take decisive action. We have the opportunity – in fact the invitation – to send a strong, clear and powerful message to our shareholders and Wall Street, to our advertisers and our partners, to our employees (both current and future), and to our users. They are all begging for a signal that we recognize and understand our problems, and that we are charting a course for fundamental change, Our current course and speed simply will not get us there. Short-term band-aids will not get us there.

It’s time for us to get back up and seize this invitation.

I imagine there’s much discussion amongst the Company’s senior most leadership around the challenges we face. At the risk of being redundant, I wanted to share my take on our current situation and offer a recommended path forward, an attempt to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Recognizing Our Problems

We lack a focused, cohesive vision for our company. We want to do everything and be everything — to everyone. We’ve known this for years, talk about it incessantly, but do nothing to fundamentally address it. We are scared to be left out. We are reactive instead of charting an unwavering course. We are separated into silos that far too frequently don’t talk to each other. And when we do talk, it isn’t to collaborate on a clearly focused strategy, but rather to argue and fight about ownership, strategies and tactics.

Our inclination and proclivity to repeatedly hire leaders from outside the company results in disparate visions of what winning looks like — rather than a leadership team rallying around a single cohesive strategy.

I’ve heard our strategy described as spreading peanut butter across the myriad opportunities that continue to evolve in the online world. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular.

I hate peanut butter. We all should.

We lack clarity of ownership and accountability. The most painful manifestation of this is the massive redundancy that exists throughout the organization. We now operate in an organizational structure — admittedly created with the best of intentions — that has become overly bureaucratic. For far too many employees, there is another person with dramatically similar and overlapping responsibilities. This slows us down and burdens the company with unnecessary costs.

Equally problematic, at what point in the organization does someone really OWN the success of their product or service or feature? Product, marketing, engineering, corporate strategy, financial operations… there are so many people in charge (or believe that they are in charge) that it’s not clear if anyone is in charge. This forces decisions to be pushed up – rather than down. It forces decisions by committee or consensus and discourages the innovators from breaking the mold… thinking outside the box.

There’s a reason why a centerfielder and a left fielder have clear areas of ownership. Pursuing die same ball repeatedly results in either collisions or dropped balls. Knowing that someone else is pursuing the ball and hoping to avoid that collision – we have become timid in our pursuit. Again, the ball drops.

We lack decisiveness. Combine a lack of focus with unclear ownership, and the result is that decisions are either not made or are made when it is already too late. Without a clear and focused vision, and without complete clarity of ownership, we lack a macro perspective to guide our decisions and visibility into who should make those decisions. We are repeatedly stymied by challenging and hairy decisions. We are held hostage by our analysis paralysis.

We end up with competing (or redundant) initiatives and synergistic opportunities living in the different silos of our company.

• YME vs. Musicmatch

• Flickr vs. Photos

• YMG video vs. Search video

• Deli.cio.us vs. myweb

• Messenger and plug-ins vs. Sidebar and widgets

• Social media vs. 360 and Groups

• Front page vs. YMG

• Global strategy from BU’vs. Global strategy from Int’l

We have lost our passion to win. Far too many employees are “phoning” it in, lacking the passion and commitment to be a part of the solution. We sit idly by while — at all levels — employees are enabled to “hang around”. Where is the accountability? Moreover, our compensation systems don’t align to our overall success. Weak performers that have been around for years are rewarded. And many of our top performers aren’t adequately recognized for their efforts.

As a result, the employees that we really need to stay (leaders, risk-takers, innovators, passionate) become discouraged and leave. Unfortunately many who opt to stay are not the ones who will lead us through the dramatic change that is needed.

Solving our Problems

We have awesome assets. Nearly every media and communications company is painfully jealous of our position. We have the largest audience, they are highly engaged and our brand is synonymous with the Internet.

If we get back up, embrace dramatic change, we will win.

I don’t pretend there is only one path forward available to us. However, at a minimum, I want to be pad of the solution and thus have outlined a plan here that I believe can work. It is my strong belief that we need to act very quickly or risk going further down a slippery slope, The plan here is not perfect; it is, however, FAR better than no action at all.

There are three pillars to my plan:

1. Focus the vision.

2. Restore accountability and clarity of ownership.

3. Execute a radical reorganization.

1. Focus the vision

a) We need to boldly and definitively declare what we are and what we are not.

b) We need to exit (sell?) non core businesses and eliminate duplicative projects and businesses.

My belief is that the smoothly spread peanut butter needs to turn into a deliberately sculpted strategy — that is narrowly focused.

We can’t simply ask each BU to figure out what they should stop doing. The result will continue to be a non-cohesive strategy. The direction needs to come decisively from the top. We need to place our bets and not second guess. If we believe Media will maximize our ROI — then let’s not be bashful about reducing our investment in other areas. We need to make the tough decisions, articulate them and stick with them — acknowledging that some people (users / partners / employees) will not like it. Change is hard.

2. Restore accountability and clarity of ownership

a) Existing business owners must be held accountable for where we find ourselves today — heads must roll,

b) We must thoughtfully create senior roles that have holistic accountability for a particular line of business (a variant of a GM structure that will work with Yahoo!’s new focus)

c) We must redesign our performance and incentive systems.

I believe there are too many BU leaders who have gotten away with unacceptable results and worse — unacceptable leadership. Too often they (we!) are the worst offenders of the problems outlined here. We must signal to both the employees and to our shareholders that we will hold these leaders (ourselves) accountable and implement change.

By building around a strong and unequivocal GM structure, we will not only empower those leaders, we will eliminate significant overhead throughout our multi-headed matrix. It must be very clear to everyone in the organization who is empowered to make a decision and ownership must be transparent. With that empowerment comes increased accountability — leaders make decisions, the rest of the company supports those decisions, and the leaders ultimately live/die by the results of those decisions.

My view is that far too often our compensation and rewards are just spreading more peanut butter. We need to be much more aggressive about performance based compensation. This will only help accelerate our ability to weed out our lowest performers and better reward our hungry, motivated and productive employees.

3. Execute a radical reorganization

a) The current business unit structure must go away.

b) We must dramatically decentralize and eliminate as much of the matrix as possible.

c) We must reduce our headcount by 15-20%.

I emphatically believe we simply must eliminate the redundancies we have created and the first step in doing this is by restructuring our organization. We can be more efficient with fewer people and we can get more done, more quickly. We need to return more decision making to a new set of business units and their leadership. But we can’t achieve this with baby step changes, We need to fundamentally rethink how we organize to win.

Independent of specific proposals of what this reorganization should look like, two key principles must be represented:

Blow up the matrix. Empower a new generation and model of General Managers to be true general managers. Product, marketing, user experience & design, engineering, business development & operations all report into a small number of focused General Managers. Leave no doubt as to where accountability lies.

Kill the redundancies. Align a set of new BU’s so that they are not competing against each other. Search focuses on search. Social media aligns with community and communications. No competing owners for Video, Photos, etc. And Front Page becomes Switzerland. This will be a delicate exercise — decentralization can create inefficiencies, but I believe we can find the right balance.

I love Yahoo! I’m proud to admit that I bleed purple and yellow. I’m proud to admit that I shaved a Y in the back of my head.

My motivation for this memo is the adamant belief that, as before, we have a tremendous opportunity ahead. I don’t pretend that I have the only available answers, but we need to get the discussion going; change is needed and it is needed soon. We can be a stronger and faster company – a company with a clearer vision and clearer ownership and clearer accountability.

We may have fallen down, but the race is a marathon and not a sprint. I don’t pretend that this will be easy. It will take courage, conviction, insight and tremendous commitment. I very much look forward to the challenge.

So let’s get back up.

Catch the balls.

And stop eating peanut butter.

Flags of Our Fathers

flags of our fathers_movieAn adaptation of the book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley, the film explores the story surrounding one of World War II’s most enduring images and recounts the fates of the six men who raised the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima island.

Towards the end of the war, the American government needed to raise at least $14 billion worth of bonds. And to do so, it needed an image that would reflect the nation’s victory, an image that would inspire public support for the war effort and the men to inspire the citizenry’s sense of patriotism.

On the fifth day of battle of Iwo Jima, six men were ordered to hoist a second larger American flag on the island’s highest point to declare that the island had been captured from the Japanese. However, the battle would still rage on for 31 days and 26,000 American lives would be lost. As the men were raising the flag, Joe Rosenthal, a photographer for the Associated Press, took his lucky shot, which 17 hours later was picked up by publications in the United States. This image later won the Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism in 1945, but not without allegations that the scene had been staged.

The irony, however, lies in the tragic fates of the men who had somehow embodied the heroism and victory that their increasingly war-weary country was seeking. A few days after the flag was raised atop Suribachi, three of the six men–Michael Stark, Harlon Block and Franklin Sousley– lost their lives to either sniper bullets or friendly fire. The three survivors–Ira Hayes, Rene Gagnon and John Bradley–on the other hand, were shipped back to the US to help sell bonds. In the course of touring the country’s major cities, they are confronted with survivor’s guilt over the death of their comrades and being called heroes by the adoring public when they felt that they didn’t deserve such regard. The controversy over the identity of the sixth man in the photograph who was at first thought to be Hank Hansen didn’t help the soldiers either, particularly Hayes, who eventually revealed that the man in question was in fact Block.

The film does not romanticize heroism but adopts a no-holds-barred depiction of the brutality of war–decapitations, lost lives, someone losing his head quite literally and enemies blowing themselves up over the prospect of falling as prisoners. And while a single photograph was able to capture a nation’s pride and catapulted its subjects to fame, the public which never witnessed war’s gruesome scenes easily lost interest in the people it had once put on the pedestal…or left cold upon a pedestal. Hayes, a native American, had it worst among the three survivors due in part to his race. Apart from alcoholism and poverty, he took frequent jail trips in the course of his short life, which ended in a questionable manner. Gagnon found it difficult to even hold a steady job when his celebrity had worn off. Only John Bradley, whose son would write the book on which the film was based, lived comfortably with his family for the rest of his life. He never talked about his involvement in the battle of Iwo Jima nor about his purple heart, which his son discovered after his death. The brutal demise of his best friend, Ralph “Iggy” Ignatowski, haunted him through old age.

“Flags” is another Steven Spielberg production that depicts World War II and looks like an extension–or a Pacific Theater rejoinder–to Saving Private Ryan and the mini-series, Band of Brothers. Moreover, it even looks like a reunion of sorts for some of the actors who figured in “Ryan” and “Brothers,” such as Barry Pepper who played the religious sniper in Saving Private Ryan and Neal McDonough who played Lt. Lynn Compton in Band of Brothers. They played Michael Strank and Capt. Dave Severance, respectively, in this movie.

I had a hard time digesting the flashbacks interspersed with tour scenes and interviews with the parties involved in promoting the bond drive. And while some critics declare that the film is Clint Eastwood’s take on the Iraq war, this is better seen as a lesson on how heroes are either made or unmade with media’s compliance. But more to the point, it paints a sad picture of how heroes had been discarded by the public which they sought to protect in the first place. At the end of the day, it seemed that the real heroes were those whose lives were lost in the battlefield. The ones who lived were merely survivors.

Japanese soldier beheading Leonard Siffleet an Australian POW
One of the images shown in a scene, an actual shot of an Australian POW shortly before being beheaded by a Japanese guard.

See actual Iwo Jima battle footages here.

 The actual flag raising clip taken by Bill Genaust. 

Joe Rosenthal_Original Iwo Jima Flag Raising image
 Original image taken by Joe Rosenthal

Things that the Young (and Young at Heart) Should Learn

Danah Boyd has a nice list of things that the youth ought to learn as early as possible in order to become better members of society or more like to function as responsible adults, eventually.

  1. Learn to manage your own money including situations where you don’t have enough money for something really important;
  2. Work to make your own money;
  3. Learn how to come up with money for monthly bills;
  4. Learn how to cook, clean, and do laundry;
  5. Learn how to take care of small children;
  6. Learn how to handle sickness and doctors;
  7. Learn how to travel (airplane, bus, etc.) on your own;
  8. Learn to travel respectfully to foreign cultures;
  9. Learn how to handle being drunk;
  10. Experience being bullied, embarrassed, ridiculed, taunted, beaten up;
  11. Be exposed to people really different than you and learn tolerance and respect;
  12. Face failure and learn disappointment + face success and learn humility;
  13. Experience heartbreak;
  14. Manage significant emotional or physical pain;
  15. Handle the death of someone close to you.

While I can’t consider myself a good member of society–except for when I know that I’ve paid my taxes or didn’t jaywalk to get to the other side of the road–a lot of these things I’ve learned even before I’d hit 13. As a grown-up, I would endorse learning the first two items, as well as item numbers 11 to 14. Number 15 is something that we will eventually have to, often painfully, deal with whether we like it or not and only a few lucky ones can avoid #14.

I guess I would have to add love of learning to the list. While it’s already cliche that life is mostly a long learning process, in my opinion nothing makes life interesting than discovering the follies and foibles as well as the challenges that it offers. And yeah, communication, belief in oneself and having dreams or goals should also be included in the list. Those and the bullshit detector that one of the commenters suggested.

To Vanished Joys Be Blind

They do me wrong who say I come no more
When once I knock and fail to find you in;
For every day I stand outside your door,
And bid you wake, and rise to fight and win.

Wail not for precious chances passed away,
Weep not for golden ages on the wane!
Each night I burn the records of the day,–
At sunrise every soul is born again!

Laugh like a boy at splendors that have sped,
To vanished joys be blind and deaf and dumb;
My judgments seal the dead past with its dead,
But never bind a moment yet to come.

Though deep in mire, wring not your hands and weep;
I lend my arm to all who say “I can!”
No shame-faced outcast ever sank so deep,
But yet might rise and be again a man!

Dost thou behold thy lost youth all aghast?
Dost reel from righteous Retribution’s blow?
Then turn from blotted archives of the past,
And find the future’s pages white as snow.

Art thou a mourner? Rouse thee from thy spell;
Art thou a sinner? Sins may be forgiven;
Each morning gives thee wings to flee from hell,
Each night a star to guide thy feet to heaven.

— Walter Malone