Business Forum: Persistence and playing 'truth or dare'

Aug. 6, 2012
I have been working on a solar concentrator concept that is ideal for urban places. Do you have any suggestions on what I could do now that this area is out of vogue?
1304qa Chang New

Q:I have been working on a solar concentrator concept that is ideal for urban places. Do you have any suggestions on what I could do now that this area is out of vogue?

A: It is difficult to beat (mega) trends. Sound technical ideas sometimes languish because they cannot be developed into viable business propositions. Even established solar companies are having a hard time staying profitable at this moment and in the foreseeable future. To get to a somewhat objective decision, persist if you feel there is greater than 50% likelihood that you will be able to get the funding you need; abandon ship if your gut tells you the odds are greater than 80% against you. There is no point in banging your head against the wall just because entrepreneurs are supposed to be persistent.

You may be able to realize some value out of your work by partnering with an established solar company, especially if you have valuable proprietary know-how. Not all is lost if you learned from this experience. Many of us had to pursue multiple ideas before we came upon a good one to hit the ground running.

Q:I was asked by my CEO to state my observations of the operation as CTO and senior VP at an all-hands strategic planning meeting. I sensed great resentment afterwards. What can I do to recover from this misstep? FYI, both the CEO and I are new on the job, and the CEO agrees with my opinion that the culture of keeping information close to the vest must change.

A: I am sure many of us have had regrets after speaking up. Words once spoken cannot be taken back! You have three options now that you have spilled the milk. Apologize, hang tough and be unrepentant, or find a way to make lemonade out of lemons. What I mean is that you might as well turn what you did into a positive by minimizing the negative.

Apologizing would negate any positive impact you have made; instead, it would create a negative image that you are indecisive and prone to flip-flopping. And playing tough would only harden any negative feelings to isolate you. What I would suggest is to send out an e-mail blast to solicit input. You may be able to position what you have done, putting your strong opinion out there as a stalking horse to stimulate intellectual debates between groups. Giving people permission to speak up will also relieve resentment, calming people down and thereby making it possible for them to put their energy to constructive use. All of this could make you appear open-minded, approachable, and receptive; you might just be able to get meaningful bottom-up feedback to fine-tune your viewpoint.

The issue behind this question is how you can put forth an honest opinion when giving advice. This is something I have struggled with frequently. Should I speak my mind to be most helpful at the risk of hurting someone’s feelings, or should I only accentuate the positive? The problem is that an honest opinion may not be a correct opinion. You have to challenge your viewpoint and get behind the reasons why people do what they do. Come to a good understanding by doing your homework; then present your opinion tactfully by discussing the pros and cons of each approach from multiple points of view. This will allow people to come to their own conclusions. It is analogous to what people in marketing do to create a pull: Provide enough information for an individual to come to his or her own conclusion, which by definition is the right decision (for that particular individual).

A side comment I can offer is that you may want to develop a better understanding of the way your CEO operates. One can question whether he was using you as a trial balloon or a mouthpiece to take the heat.

About the Author

Milton Chang

MILTON CHANG of Incubic Management was president of Newport and New Focus. He is currently director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion; a trustee of Caltech; a member of the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies; and serves on advisory boards and mentors entrepreneurs. Chang is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA. Direct your business, management, and career questions to him at [email protected], and check out his book Toward Entrepreneurship at www.miltonchang.com.

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