Monday, December 31, 2007

An important message about airport security

Here is an excellent post from the New York Times Jet Lagged blog. In it, Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot, systematically dissects the current state of airport security, arguing persuasively that nearly all the measures adopted to improve security are preventing old-style attacks or doing nothing useful at all.

Yet they cost millions of hours of time on behalf of passengers, and billions of dollars of extra personnel costs as well--helping to make air travel the misery it's become.

If you travel frequently by air, as I do, Smith's essay will ring true to you. Check it out.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why aren't more people talking about "The Future of Management"?

Nobody could accuse this blog of ignoring the new Gary Hamel book. It could be argued that I've beaten the poor book to death. But apparently I'm in the minority of business book readers. In today's New York Times business section, William Holstein's glowing review of "The Future of Management" states that

As insightful as Mr. Hamel’s book is, it’s surprising that it has attracted so little attention since being published in October.

Why is that? Holstein blames the business-school orthodoxy, the conventional wisdom of which the book attacks so persuasively.

But I think something else is at work. The prescriptions from "The Future of Management" are difficult to implement, even for those who believe in them passionately. They are not simple bromides or six-step lessons. They require changes in culture, philosophy and mental models--very hard challenges that take years--if not decades--to make happen. Many old-school companies will never be able to make these changes.

It's also not a high-concept business book like "The No Asshole Rule" or "Made to Stick." Those books are brief, their lessons easily digested. "To be a successful business, don't hire assholes."

My belief is that "The Future of Management" will be read and its lessons put into practice long after people begin hiring you-know-whats again.

, ,

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Top 10 articles of the year

10 (tie). "Consumed: Boxed Set (the Buddha Machine)," Rob Walker, New York Times Magazine, July 29. The story of the most innovative music package in recent memory.

10 (tie). "Beyond Pokémon: Nintendo DS Goes To School in Japan," Yukari Iwatani Kane. Wall Street Journal, July 11. Video games are not just for goofing around anymore.

9. "Do Startups Really Need Business Plans?" Kelly Spors. Wall Street Journal, January 9. Going against the conventional wisdom.

8. "How Managers' Everyday Decisions Create--or Destroy--Your Company's Strategy," Joseph Bower and Clark Gilbert. Harvard Business Review, February.

7. "How Leaders Create and Use Networks," Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter. Harvard Business Review, January. There were several fascinating articles on using personal networks this year. This was the best.

6. "Strategic Insight in Three Circles," Joel Urbany and James Davis. Harvard Business Review, November. Creating and communicating a strategy using a Venn diagram.

5. "The Value Captor’s Process: Getting the Most out of Your New Business Ventures," Rita Gunther McGrath and Thomas Keil. Harvard Business Review, May. Companies can do a lot better with products that don't make the final grade, if they employ some basic tactics to get value from them.

4. "Can a Company Be Run As a Democracy?" Jaclyne Badal. Wall Street Journal, April 23. The subject of a growing number of articles this year. Perhaps this is telling us something.

3. "A Leader's Framework for Decisionmaking," Dave Snowden and Mary Boone. Harvard Business Review, November. How to navigate the maze of business problems, from simple to chaotic, using the Cynefin framework.

2. "Poisoned Toothpaste in Panama Is Believed to Be From China," and other articles by Walt Bogdanich et al. on the subject of tainted Chinese products. New York Times, May-October.

1. "At the Pentagon, an 'Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure,'" Jonathan Karp. Wall Street Journal, May 14. How one part of the US government uses stories of "worst practices" to help guide people in their ethical decisionmaking.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Find out what the "followers" think using story-gathering

I shied away from the upcoming book called "Followership" by Barbara Kellerman because I recoiled from the title, I think. I picture numbed souls trooping behind some charismatic leader, pointing the way to a promised land of market leadership. Which never arrives.

I've felt like those followers from time to time. And one of those leaders, as well.

But as described in today's Wall Street Journal, in an article by George Anders, I'm more intrigued by the book. I agree, for one thing, that big companies grow static because the rank-and-file (a better term than followers? I don't know) have lost heart. They come for the paycheck, try to stay under the radar so when job cuts happen, they get overlooked. Etc.

So, from that perspective, energizing the rank-and-file has a lot of potential to improve companies. It can't replace true leadership (see previous post), but combining a good strategy, competent leadership and an engaged and motivated workforce can create a world-beating company.

But how to engage the workforce? The Journal article summarizes one big problem:

"Look at why big companies die," says Shari Ballard, Best Buy's executive vice president, retail channel. "They implode on themselves. They create all these systems and processes -- and then end up with a very small percentage of people who are supposed to solve complex problems, while the other 98% of people just execute.

Bingo. In trying to get more production from their staffs, companies simply deploy another system. Systems aren't going to get it done. Even conducting and acting on surveys (a favorite tool discussed in the article) are hopelessly reductive. HP is on the right track, holding one-on-one interviews with employees to get their candid feedback.

How about using storytelling? Gathering groups of people into anecdote circles, collecting their stories, looking at all of them and drawing out the major themes--that will allow the deep understanding and wisdom of the rank-and-file to emerge.

Then you can do something to improve the employees' ability to make a difference. And when they realize they've actually been listened to--well, that's motivating.

, , , , , ,

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A resurgent Kiwi helps redefine the shoe-care product category

I love stories of companies resuscitating old brands by creating innovative new products. It shows that "maturity" doesn't have to be the end of growth.

Today in the Wall Street Journal, a front page article by Julie Jargon discusses Kiwi, the ancient shoe-polish brand available in every drugstore (link - $$). When a new CEO, Brenda Barnes, was appointed to head Sara Lee, Kiwi's owner, in 2005, she looked to reinvigorate the company's growth.

The prescription was simple: Kiwi studied the market by asking customers what they needed from shoe products. (The most recent podcast, with Tony Ulwick, discussed how to get customers to tell you what they want.) Then they created products that matched what customers really wanted.

They learned: more focus on the inside of the shoe, its freshness, and less focus on polishing the outside. Presto! A line of new products, fresh packaging and merchandising, and an old brand beginning to grow again.

It's enough to make you want to check your closet for old shoes that need polishing up.

(Photo: Kiwi Fresh Force, "The only shoe freshener with a revolutionary upside-down application," courtesy of Kiwi)

, ,

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Five things people want in a manager

I helped conduct an interview today, and my colleague asked the following question: "What expectations would you have from a manager?" The candidate's response was startling to me in its simplicity and completeness. He said:

  • professionalism
  • courtesy
  • empathy & understanding
  • competence
  • guidance & direction

That's it. That's all he asked for. Which doesn't seem too much to ask, does it?


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Top 10 Blog Posts of the Year

Of all the blog posts I read this year, these had the most impact on me. Reviewing these, it occurs to me that blogging is really maturing into a vibrant, diverse art form. Let me know if you agree.

10. "Top 8 Reasons Consulting Doesn't Work," Achieve Market Leadership (Crimson Consulting). Author: Rick Sklarin.

9. "Why do people refer?" Duct Tape Marketing. Author: John Jantsch.

8. "Connectivity Trumps Productivity," Networks, Complexity, and Relatedness. Author: Patti Anklam. It really does! So we can all stop stressing out and just meet more people. Let's go!

7. "Web 2.0: The Machine is Us/ing Us." YouTube post. Creator: Michael Wesch. Words can't summarize it. Just watch.

6. "How to make rows more creative," Cognitive Edge guest blog. Author: Max Boisot. "Rows" meaning fights. Not fistfights, that is, but disagreements among colleagues. Great reading for those who want to encourage dissent in their workplace.

5. "The Electron Economy Part 1," Green Thoughts. Author: Michael Hoexter. A series of posts, now up to part 9 (!) advocating a move to electric power for most devices as the best way to save the planet.

4. "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace," apophenia. Author: danah boyd. A thoughtful and courageous post.

3. "Mana for the Masses," Hobby Princess. Author: Ulla-Maaria Mutanen. About the spirit that inhabits things others have used.

2. "Can limitations and restrictions be liberating?" Presentation Zen. Author: Garr Reynolds. The title says it all. The answer, by the way, is yes.

1. "How to hit the Enterprise 2.0 bullseye," The Impact of IT on Businesses and their Leaders. Author: Andrew McAfee. Connecting enterprise 2.0 to business value via examining the relationships between colleagues and others in the enterprise.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Top 5 Best Business Books of 2007

(If you'd rather see the 2008 list, you can find it here.)

It's December, and "best of" lists are appearing everywhere. Here, too. So, if you are still searching for great gifts for the business-book reader in your family, you can't go wrong with any of these titles:

5. "Reinventing Project Management," Aaron Shenhar and Dov Dvir. A look at project management that goes way deeper, and is far more useful, than "on time, on budget, to requirements." Here's what I wrote about "RPM" earlier this year: 1, 2.

4. "Smart World," Richard Ogle. Innovative breakthroughs are not created by solitary thinkers toiling in the lab, but by people or groups interacting with their networks and environments. Prior posts on "Smart World": 1, 2.

3. "X-Teams," Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman. How great teams orient themselves externally and encourage dissent. Here's what I wrote about it back in May and June: 1, 2, 3, 4.

2. "Negotiation Genius," Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman. The best one-volume negotiation book you can buy at any price. Read a fuller review here.

1. "The Future of Management," Gary Hamel. (It's in stock at Amazon.) How to build a change-adaptable business in the 21st century. I did five posts on this book last year: start here.

, , , , ,

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Saturday Extra: John Turturro for Best Supporting Actor

It's the home stretch for Oscar candidates, and I'd like to put in a vote for an unlikely candidate.

"Transformers" is probably the most entertaining movie I've seen all year, and Turturro's performance as the goofiest government agent ever is the greatest comic performance of the past five years. (Sorry, Borat.)

He probably could have won for any of a half-dozen other roles ("Do the Right Thing," "Barton Fink"), but it seems appropriate to finally win for a robot movie that's so oddly...human.

(If you're curious about "Transformers," the movie, click here to visit the IMDB page.)

, , ,

Friday, December 14, 2007

Rendering Authenticity

I've been struggling through the new book “Authenticity” by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, and I've been wondering why I've struggled. It's not a badly-written book, and I remember reading and liking some articles adapted from their earlier book, “The Experience Economy.” I'm also interested in the idea of authenticity (link to prior post). But nonetheless, I've read the book in fits and starts. It's been a chore.

As I was reading it this week, an idea hit: It's not just this book. I would have trouble reading any book that tells companies how to “render authenticity” through their products and services. (You can find a dictionary definition of the word authentic here. The third and fifth definitions most closely match what we're talking about in this post.)

The term “render” brings to mind soap factories--heavy processing, reformulation.

Authenticity is or should be natural, intrinsic, emerging from the essence of the thing. It's also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. Facebook has squandered some of its authenticity by its recent attempts to monetize. MySpace's is long gone. This is probably true of many internet startups. In growing out of hobbies or cult experiences to real businesses, they surrender authenticity. This is natural and maybe not a bad thing.

Large companies trying to conjure authenticity is a fool's errand, in my mind. One example of “perceived authenticity” cited by the authors is the HOK-designed baseball park, such as Camden Yards in Baltimore and its brethren. Camden Yards, when built, was authentic—a one-of-a-kind, new “old-style” ballpark. But when similar HOK designs emerged in Texas, San Francisco, Cincinnati, etc., it became merely a template. A good experience? Yes. Authentic? No. If you want baseball authenticity, go to Fenway or Wrigley.

I recall a Jay Leno comedy routine that he performed on David Letterman many years ago. It went something like this:

“Have you seen the new item they have in the supermarket? Soft cookies in a package. Now, this is interesting. Fresh cookies are soft. Stale cookies are hard. Now the food companies have discovered a technology that allows them to make stale, soft cookies.” Spoken this way, packaged soft cookies are not only funny, they're unappetizing.

Authenticity is a fresh cookie. “Rendered authenticity” is a stale, soft cookie.

, , ,

(Bonus: the Jay Leno routine mentioned above. The way the food company discusses the soft-cookie idea seems like how a meeting on rendering authenticity would go.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Re-branding: an oxymoron?

I recently saw a to-do list on the wall at a company's marketing department. At the top of the list was "re-branding." And I've been thinking about that for some days. What is re-branding?

At companies I'm familiar with, it means redoing the logo, new taglines, new color schemes for the website, new ad campaigns, etc. But the more I've thought about that to-do list, the more I've come to think that re-branding is a misnomer for this type of activity.

The outward characteristics of a brand don't mean much if they don't reflect the intrinsic characteristics of the company and its offerings. An old, staid company with a sleek modern logo hasn't added anything to its brand except perhaps confusion. It's hard to put into a formula, but I'd say something like

Brand = Company History + Customer Perceptions + Noncustomer Perceptions + Impact of (Advertising & Publicity)

The re-branding exercise most directly affects the latter, and, over time, noncustomer perceptions as well. It can't contradict company history or customer perceptions, so a complete reinvention of the brand is not possible.

Assuming equal weight to each, "re-branding" as it's understood by marketing people can alter your brand image up to 25%. It, of course, has the advantage that it can be executed by the marketing department--without the challenge of rewriting history and changing customers' perceptions.

So don't call it "re-branding." Call it "new logo," perhaps, or "new look." And be careful that your re-branding exercise doesn't distract you from the long, hard work of truly strengthening your brand. That takes more than the marketing department to do.

It takes everybody.

, ,

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Making and keeping commitments: a must for success in business

In a brief but potent post, professional-services expert David Maister points out the importance of keeping commitments. (I touched on this topic in an earlier post.) Writes Maister,

It is OK to need more time as long as you ask for it ahead of time. It is OK to struggle and ask for help.

It is not OK to break your commitments. The fastest and surest way to fail is to break your word.

It's a concept so basic as to seem trivial--yet the inability to create and honor commitments between co-workers, between managers and workers, and between workers and clients destroys value every single day, in every company, all over the world.

Maister focuses on one side--the responsibility of the assigned party to honor commitments. The other side also has responsibilities. Often people ask for commitments in a wishy-washy manner, which at minimum creates confusion and ambiguity, or at worst enables commitment-phobes to feign performance by using ambiguity as a rationale for non-action. Here are some examples:

  1. Manager A sends out a note to entire team asking for something to be done.
  2. Worker B sends email to co-worker, stating, "It would be great if you could do task X by next Friday. If I don't hear from you by tomorrow I'll assume that's OK."
  3. Client C makes the same demand several times, ignoring any counter-proposals made in the meantime, hoping to wear down the vendor until they simply agree out of fatigue.
In these cases, the ultimate responsbility, unfortunately, reverts back to the assignee. You frankly can't allow people to get you to do things without creating the environment for a strong commitment. You need to probe and negotiate: "Which of us do you want to take this on, boss?" "I just got your note and I'm afraid I can't meet your desired date. Can we discuss and come up with an alternative?" "Help me understand why you want it done this particular way." etc. And then work to shape the request into a proper commitment that you can perform.

The environment that W. L. Gore Industries created (profiled in the new Gary Hamel book), is ideal for commitments. Any staffer asked to do something can accept or refuse the commitment. Once accepted, the commitment is expected to be completed. And a rigorous 360° review process incents people not to refuse every commitment (Bartleby the Scrivener wouldn't last long at Gore).

, , , , ,

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mobile + CD distribution partnerships = a new model for musicians

One of my favorite bands of the moment is LA's West Indian Girl. If you haven't heard them, you probably don't listen to stations like KCRW, KEXP and WXPN, noncommercial stations that play interesting music for adults. (You can stream West Indian Girl's new album, "4th and Wall," here.)

On a recent live performance on KCRW, WIG's bassist, Francis Ten, mentioned that the band has a unique partnership with Milan Records and flycell, a mobile content provider, in which flycell has invested in the band and has exclusive rights to market mobile content related to the band, including ringtones, wallpapers and videos. The structure of the music business, and how musicians are paid for recordings, are fascinating topics and getting ever more complicated due to music downloading, 360° contracts, licensing for TV and film, and the like. (See a related post here.)

For manufactured artists, the decline of the major record labels is a bad thing. But for enterprising, self-reliant, resourceful artists like West Indian Girl, the fracturing of the music industry provides them new ways to sustain and build their own careers. If they're still making and recording music ten years from now, it will say a lot of good things about the evolution of the music business.

Links to related streams (you'll have to listen to some great live music before the interviews):

(Photo: "4th & Wall" album cover via

, , , , ,

Friday, December 07, 2007

Boeing learns hard lessons about partner management

(UPDATE: 11 Dec 07 - Boeing confirms it's on schedule for first 787 flight in 1Q2008)

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the trend toward collaborative product development would create a premium for partner-management skills rather than pure technical skills for innovators. Nowhere is this in bolder relief than in the Boeing 787 project, some of the travails of which are profiled in a front-page Wall Street Journal article today (link - $$).

What surprised me the most were the issues resulting from inadequate supplier management; specifically this:

"In addition to oversight, you need insight into what's actually going on in those factories," says Scott Carson, the president of Boeing's Commercial Airplanes unit. "Had we had adequate insight, we could have helped our suppliers understand the challenges."

And this:

But many [Boeing partners], instead of using their own engineers to do the design work, farmed out this key task to even-smaller companies. Some of those ended up overloading themselves with work from multiple 787 suppliers, Boeing says.

The company says it never intended for its suppliers to outsource key tasks such as engineering, but that the situation seemed manageable at the time. "We tended to say, 'They know how to run their businesses,'" says a Boeing executive familiar with the company's thinking.

As Boeing knows now, selecting a strategic partner and entrusting it with designing, building and delivering a critical subsystem is far different from sourcing a standard part from a supplier. The prime contractor has the right and obligation to critique, probe and view its partner's activities from the inside (you need Doubting Thomases).

In the short term, these delays hurt Boeing. There is PR impact. And financial hits, in the form of penalty payments and cash-flow delays. But it is important to remember that the 787 product will have a 30-year life cycle. By that count, a 6-month or even 1-year delay in deliveries will have a negligible long-term effect.

It's also good that Boeing is not trying to mask its mistakes and instead to discuss and learn from them. Not everyone agrees: the Journal article states, "Lessons that Boeing is learning the hard way could end up helping rival Airbus." This will be true to some extent--but the highly complex lessons Boeing is learning will be hard to glean from the outside. If Airbus gets too confident in its follower role, it will overlook its own inevitable mistakes and let Boeing get out even farther ahead.

(Photo: the 787 Dreamliner. Courtesy of Boeing)

, , , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Vivendi acquisition of Activision shows shift in videogame market

There's a perceptive article by Seth Schiesel in today's New York Times about how the proposed new company Activision Blizzard--a combination of the owners of Guitar Hero and World of Warcraft--demonstrates that the future of videogames relies on expanding beyond the core console audience of young-adult males.

, , , , ,

An important new resource for improving innovation

Upon first reading this month's Harvard Business Review, I skated over “Breakthrough Thinking Inside the Box” (free link). I was probably too wrapped up in the storytelling article. Or I was concerned that this was another “strategic secret in 3000 words or less.”

After carefully reviewing the article today, it was a mistake to skip over it the first time. “Breakthrough Thinking” is a practical, useful and surprising look at generating new business ideas. The authors, Kevin Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford and Renée Dye, remind us of how frustrating typical brainstorming sessions are (“invent an idea for a new business in the next 20 minutes”). Then they go further to describe how such meetings can be infinitely more productive by laying out simple constraints to focus the mind and describe what form a useful new idea might take.

The creative usefulness of constraints is no secret, but “Breakthrough Thinking” is novel because it closely connects the right-brain creative flow process to a highly practical (and vital) business problem—improving innovation. I was also impressed by the rigorous approach used to create the method and the extensive in-use testing done before publicizing it (kudos to McKinsey).

My favorite part of the article is the sidebar “21 Great Questions for Developing New Products,” which should be cut out and pasted on the wall of every product manager, R&D vice president, or C-level executive. I can't count how many meetings I've been in where using this list would have greatly increased the results. I've thought of four or five instances where I can use the list in my own work, right away.

So, read “Breakthrough Thinking.” Paste “21 Great Questions” on your wall. And let the great ideas flow.

, , ,

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

For consultants, adopting the "Google 20%" is vital

Let me paint you a picture. You're a consultant, and a company makes you an offer: Please work full time on our account. We'll take all the hours you can give us. Imagine, further, that this assignment lasts two or three years. Then, as with all consulting arrangements, it ends.

Now what do you do?

Paradoxically, the assignment has been so good that it has left you unprepared for the next one. And the more of yourself you devoted to that one assignment, the less time you spent keeping your contacts up to date, learning new skills, and marketing to other clients.

No one would trade the two-year client for a six-week client, but the six-week client cannot put your consulting business into the kind of long-term jeopardy the two-year client can.

The answer? Adopt the "Google 20%." Recall that Google asks each of its employees to dedicate one day per week to new projects of her choosing. A consultant who does the same automatically has a bank of time to spend on projects that, while they may not have a near-term payoff, are vital to the long-term health of the business. Examples: reading new literature, writing journal articles, taking on speaking engagements, trying brief assignments that open up new areas of experience, writing a blog, writing a newsletter, serving on an advisory board, developing a product idea.... The list of useful projects is endless, if only you dedicate the time and commit to using it productively.

It's not a strategy that's easy to implement. Convincing the client to take a little less than all of you can be tricky. Fitting in the 20% work around client needs also takes flexibility. And forgoing the immediate income can be very, very difficult.

But the payoff is great. Rather than being at the mercy of your client (no matter how wonderful they are to you), you are in control of your career and destiny. Frankly, continuing to build your skills (even in areas outside your current assignment) is something your clients should demand of you anyway.

(Photo by michelleho via stock.xchng)

, , , , , , ,

Monday, December 03, 2007

Complex solution sellers can learn from commodity salespeople

I've worked selling and marketing complex IT solutions for more than fifteen years now. I've done a fair amount of selling myself, and seen lots more people do it, with varying degrees of success. One thing I've observed, in myself and others, is that we can easily get entranced with the complexity, beauty and custom nature of our solution, and lose track of selling basics.

I was reminded of this a few years ago when our company was purchasing to manage our sales processes. has, according to its website, more than 38,000 customers. They can customize a few things about the offering, but the price point (around $75 per user per month) and the sheer volume of customers they serve don't allow for heavily customized solutions. Most of the tailoring you want, you do yourself. It's like self-service at the grocery store.

However, the staff was the best I'd ever seen on managing the basics of a sales cycle. The pre-sales engineer, who responded to my web inquiry, carefully asked questions about the size of the organization, what we did for sales management software before, who else we were considering, and whether we had appropriate levels of approval for the purchase.

He didn't hand off the account to sales until we were truly qualified--as I recall, when I had asked for a proposal. Then the salesperson picked right up on the trail of managing us toward closure. "What is your approval process?" "When is the meeting scheduled to review and approve the solution?" "Who will sign the contract?" "Who else should I be talking to to help you evaluate salesforce?" And, perhaps most powerfully, "When will you be taking your next action on this purchase?"--with a follow-up soon after that date had passed. (Click here and here for some simple but useful resources on sales process from the salesforce website.)

Virtually every salesperson knows these rules. But it's easy to lose sight of them when you're managing a complex sales engagement. Often times, we ask half the question or settle for half the answer. We don't want to be too pushy, or we expect the logic of our solution to be self-evident.

But putting the basics to use as religiously as the staff will allow you to close more deals--and stop pursuing losing deals earlier with much less effort wasted.

(Postscript: the salesperson didn't stop there. After we signed our agreement, she monitored our usage and called me when it appeared we weren't fully using the service. "When are you going to send your administrator to training?" "When do you expect all your salespeople to be adding all their opportunities to the system?" She understood that if we didn't commit to the system, we wouldn't get value from it, and wouldn't renew our contract a year hence. Another good lesson for all salespeople.)

(NOTE: I have no connection, financial or otherwise, to I have not talked to them on any subject in more than two years.)