Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Looking ahead to 2009

Like lots of others, I enter 2009 with a bit of anxiety. I have less visibility into the market for my consulting services than I have had in nearly two years.

Yet I have never been as optimistic regarding the soundness & value of the work I'm doing.

Hopefully it's not self-delusion. I don't believe it is.

Yet as I've reflected over what I've done & learned in 2008, I'm more convinced than ever that the time is ripe for what I'm doing.

Which is: working with companies to gather, sort, make sense of their customers' freeform feedback. Using, as it were, these story fragments unlocks a rich store of information unbiased by survey hypotheses and distinguished by candor.

It's a great time, too, to be working in this area. Social tools, especially Twitter, are a new and easily-searched archive of customer emotion.

In the recent Futurelab live blog session, the question was rightly asked about why I'd be interested in peering into people's minds and emotions--isn't what they do more important than what they think?

I didn't answer that question very well that day, but having had time to think about it, I'd say this: I'm not trying to read minds. I'm trying to hear what people say. People talk or write when something happens that is significant to them. If they're using a company's product and say something that's significant to them, it's significant to that company too.

One reason companies don't listen to these stories that they are loud & cacophonous and loaded with noise. They can be rude & inconsiderate. They are in the customer's language & context, not the company's.

But using sensemaking techniques informed by cognitive science & the study of complex adaptive systems (Kurtz & Snowden), the resonances, themes & values in the mass of stories can be found.

And companies can use these resonances to see where their products are generating delight and where they're creating frustration. Where their customer service is working & where it's breaking down. And why some people who call to order a product don't end up doing so, in spite of the company's best efforts. .

The current downturn will shake out companies who hate their customers, who prey on them, who profit through punitive and well-hidden fees & surcharges.

The ones that are left will value every single customer, will treat them respectfully & will really want to understand what those customers want & how they feel.

The approaches I'm working with are a vital tool in this quest. And that's why I'm optimistic for 2009, regardless of what I read in the paper.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Still thinking about the music business

2008 was the year that I finally realized what was happening to the music business. Whether it was talking to Fran Ten about how his emerging band West Indian Girl was trying to succeed in spite of the business climate, or asking why it was necessary that e-content be free (the most-read post of the year--thanks David Pogue), or reading the comments to that post, many of which said, in effect, "Why the hell should we pay for music?"

I like music a lot, and I'd like to see people who make great music be able to make a living at it. I'm trying to think of a model that may work. Two articles caught my eye this weekend on that point.

One is the WSJ article on New Year's Resolutions (never did I think I would mine that for TWO blog posts)--specifically Duncan Sheik's resolution ("To create a recording studio/rehearsal space close to New York City, where my coterie of musician friends and collaborators can work on their projects irrespective of financial considerations").

The other was Jon Pareles' lament in the New York Times on the influence of music licensing for commercials.

I'm working through some ideas that I'll write about next week. Please pass on any thoughts you have, especially if you don't feel you should pay for recorded music. Where does the musician's income come from in that case?

Monday, December 29, 2008

Martha Stewart on contracts

Saturday's Wall Street Journal featured New Year's Resolutions from famous people. I liked this comment from Martha Stewart (she seems to have had some experience with contracts):

I rarely make New Year's resolutions because I believe in constant evolution and change. Resolutions and contracts are very similar -- they need constant tweaking and editing to work really effectively.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Gladwell's Outliers, and teachers & quarterbacks

Malcolm Gladwell has been getting some unsurprising backlash in the wake of his latest book, "Outliers." But I find myself thinking about David Leonhardt's interesting opinion in the New York Times Book Review, where "Outliers" is looked upon not as a business self-help book, but as a political essay--in other words, according to Leonhardt, Gladwell is focusing on how environment and context matter in success and excellence, and is making a pitch to society to create more situations where "outliers" can grow.

Gladwell takes up this theme again in this recent New Yorker article. Comparing the process to find great teachers (who, he says, improve learning of their students by 50% over the average) to that of locating great NFL quarterbacks, he points out the fallacies inherent in a system of university certification when teacher excellence cannot be shown other than by demonstrated competence in the position. Gladwell argues against tenure and for, instead, seeding lots of teachers into the system, winnowing them to the very best, and paying them accordingly.

Which connected with Sunday's NYT magazine article ("The Two-Tier Teacher Contract") about a similar process being tried by the new chancellor of the Washington, DC, school system.

So, perhaps "Outliers" has done its job. It's got us talking and writing about something important.

Monday, December 15, 2008

David Foster Wallace on "traditional human verities"

I love David Foster Wallace's writing, and am sad that he is gone. The New York Times Magazine yesterday contained an article about Wallace's philosophy that was at once a heartfelt tribute and a window into the soul of a fascinating person. This was my favorite passage from the article:

Wallace was especially concerned that certain theoretical paradigms — the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever trickery of postmodernism — too casually dispense with what he once called “the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.”

It didn't surprise me to learn that Wallace, in an undergraduate paper, provided a mathematical proof to refute a chilling fatalistic argument that had gained notoriety at the time. His systematic deconstruction and illumination of the phenomenon that is talk radio ("Host" from his last book, "Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays") is uncompromising and utterly engaging.

I wonder what he would be writing about these days.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday randomness: 5 reasons why Johnny Marr is a genius

It's a week for lists and music, so the other night when I put on Neil Finn's "7 Worlds Collide" live album it inspired thoughts about why Johnny Marr is a genius.

On the Finn album Marr plays his own "Down on the Corner," and then Neil does his best Morrissey impersonation on The Smiths' "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out."

One of the fun things about bands breaking up is that you hear the creative folks individually, and you can tease out what each member contributed. Usually your impressions of the group overvalue the contributions of the lead singer. Once I heard Morrissey's first solo album (not a bad album, mind you), it became crystal-clear what Marr had contributed to the Smiths.

In general, Marr is the great counterexample to the "singer as major contributor" mindset. He never sings (until his turn on the Johnny Marr & the Healers album). But he is sideman extraordinaire. He is without a doubt the greatest rhythm guitar player ever, and a great composer. Listen to these five songs he contributed to and let me know if you agree:

1. The Smiths, "Girlfriend in a Coma"

2. Electronic, "Get the Message"

3. Bryan Ferry, "The Right Stuff"

4. Johnny Marr & the Healers, "Down on the Corner"

5. Modest Mouse, "Dashboard"

And for those who haven't had enough Johnny Marr by the end of this post, here is a transcript of a lecture he gave recently at the University of Salford. (It does deal with innovation, so this is not just a lazy Friday post!)

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Best Albums of the Year 2008

OK, OK, off topic, I know. But there was some great music out there, and with me working out of a home office most of the time, the iPod shuffle is an important part of my work environment. With no further ado, then, here are the best albums I heard this past year.

1. Nomo, "Ghost Rock." Bleepy analog synthesizers, plinky homemade instruments, killer brass section. Funky as all get out. This album sounded like nothing else I heard last year. It has remained in my car CD stack since summertime.


NOMO Live session from Svetlana legetic on Vimeo.

2. The Helio Sequence, "Keep Your Eyes Ahead." I never figured out why I rarely heard any of these songs on the radio. They rock. Plus, there's a great countrified tune and a swampy-sounding song thrown in for good measure.



3. The Gaslight Anthem, "The '59 Sound." Driving power-pop, great lyrics, allusions to Tom Petty, Miles Davis and (of course) Springsteen, this Jersey band will be around for a long time.

Old White Lincoln


4. The Cat Empire, "So Many Nights." Quieter than their prior effort, less of a party album, more serious. But still a great listen from top to bottom. This Australian band effortlessly combines genres and keeps the foot tapping.

No Longer There


5. Fleet Foxes, "Fleet Foxes." A hint of Crosby, Stills & Nash; a taste of The Beach Boys. On one track they out-My-Morning-Jacket MMJ themselves.


White Winter Hymnal from Grandchildren on Vimeo.

Honorable mentions: REM's "Accelerate" (the best thing they've done since "New Adventures in Hi-Fi"), My Morning Jacket's "Evil Urges" (wanted to like it better than the last two great ones, but simply didn't), "Secret Machines" (ditto), "Vampire Weekend" (a few really catchy pop songs, and some filler. Will look forward to their next one), "Grand Archives" (ditto).

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Best Business Books of the Year 2008


If you don't know what Christmas gift to get for that hard-to-buy-for businessperson, here's your answer. It was a great year for business books. There were five or more additional books that I'd recommend to others. Communicating via story was a theme this year (or perhaps that's what I was looking for!), as you'll see.

1. "Working With Stories," Cynthia Kurtz (free e-book). I read this book three times, cover to cover. A clearly-written, highly practical book that illuminates a new tool for companies to attack intractable problems--gathering, looking at, thinking about, and acting on the stories that customers, stakeholders and employees hold in their minds. (Photo shows my rather beat-up copy!)

2. "A Sense of Urgency," John Kotter. A timely book, full of stories, about the imperative for companies to develop a mindset to "move, and win, now" in order to effect lasting change.

3. "The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking," Roger Martin. Describing great innovators' ability to simultaneously hold and reconcile two conflicting ideas. Notable, among other things, for highlighting success stories outside the US--in Canada, to be precise.

4. "The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn to Handle Whatever Comes Up," Norm Brodsky & Bo Burlingham. A great book discussing how successful entrepreneurs share many common attributes--the including the ability to listen to advice and yet, when necessary, to ignore it. Full (full!) of stories.

5. "Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies," Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. A prescient guide for companies to understand and utilize social media to reach customers and gain insight into markets.

Related Posts:
Best books of first-half 2008
Best books of 2007

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

DARPA seeks algorithms to create stories from info fragments

One of the nicest aspects of blogging is when a reader points you to an interesting article you hadn't seen. I'd like to thank reader S.E. August for this reference.

Wired's Danger Zone blog reported last week that DARPA is looking to sensemake various forms of data by combining them into stories.

The Cognitive Edge training I took last week discussed (among many other topics) gathering narrative fragments into composite stories as a way to make sense of a situation and convey that information to others. Similar thus far. A possibly reality-defying assumption follows, though. According the Danger Zone post:


The author of this tale, however, would be a series of intelligent algorithms that can pull all of this information together, tease out its underlying meanings, and put it in a narrative that's easy to follow.


In the Cog Edge method the sensemaking is done by a group of humans, not a computer. The assumption is that distributed cognition of a group of people can elicit meaning where a single person, or a computer, cannot. I'm not up on the latest in artificial intelligence, but I'm doubtful that an entirely computerized approach can yield anything of use.

Perhaps a partially-computerized method, where fragments were gathered (sampled?) by machine and sensemade by humans, would work better. Or if the fragments could be human-coded as they were captured the significant or related ones might be easier to isolate. I don't know. Can any readers weigh in who are more optimistic that a totally-computerized approach might work?

A link to the DARPA RFI is here.

(Photo by cote via Flickr creative commons)


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Monday, December 08, 2008

A Personal Story

I woke up early Saturday morning. As I lay in bed trying to fall back to sleep, it occurred to me that the work for my biggest client was slowing down and I wasn't sure what I could do to ensure it continued. A prospect had emailed me earlier this week with some ideas to scale back the work I had proposed to do for him. And a couple of other prospects I was hoping to close hadn't returned some emails I'd sent over the past couple of weeks.

Despite enjoying one of the busiest months since I went out on my own, I allowed that morning's sleep to be ruined by thoughts and worries over the future. Such is the life of an independent contractor, and given the current economic climate, these worries are affecting many others as well.

Thankfully, an article in the Sunday New York Times pointed out that this fear is a natural process of our brain when confronted with uncertainty and threat. "When Fear Takes Over Our Brains," by Gregory Berns of Emory University, furthermore, reminds us that "when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risktaking are turned off."

And this is the problem with recession or whatever you want to call it--people and businesses stop exploring and taking risks. Other people read in the newspaper (every single day) about the hunkering down of these groups, become afraid, and hunker down themselves.

Berns talks about what he is doing during this time to get himself and his brain thinking again, moving past the fear. Sharing his own fears and plans is a gift and helps me focus on what I should be doing. This week, I'll be working hard on all my current projects. I'll be calling prospects back who I haven't heard from. I'l be thinking of new things I can do with may big client and proposing them. And I'll be reflecting on other actions I can start and other opportunities I can pursue.

Because I won't get paralyzed thinking about the bad things that could happen. And if we all can put the fear aside, and start exploring and taking risks--even small ones--we will begin to shape the next era, beyond this recession.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Example of a blog attracting user stories

Sorry for this somewhat awkward syntax of this post. I am composing it on my Blackberry 8830. This is significant because the post concerns David Pogue's eviscerating review of the new touchscreen Blackberry Storm mobile phone.

In response to the review, Pogue received more than 100 stories of people who also hated their newly-bought Storm. There were also dozens of defenses of the Storm and RIM, its maker. And many more comments in response to the post.

Pogue's post served as an attractor, stimulating all sorts of vibrant customer feedback. As a product manager and someone interested in innovation, this example is fascinating and illustrative of how social computing is revolutionizing market & customer intelligence.

What does all the feedback mean? Probably lots of things: the Storm has serious issues; RIM has committed, passionate users; Apple is a hard act to follow, etc.

Whatever it means, let's hope that RIM is listening, sensemaking, and acting. If they want some guidance, tell them to shoot me an email.

By the way, composing this post on the 8830's thumb keyboard & tiny screen has been agonizing. I was hoping the Storm might be my next step. Now I'm not so sure.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

It's time for the "Numerati" to step back

I've been reading the book "Einstein's Mistakes" by Hans Ohanian and though it's been a lot different from my expectations (I was looking for mistake stories and through 150 pages haven't found many) it has proved useful in spurring some thoughts.

One such thought has been the consequences of the growth of science and logical thinking. The first part of "Einstein's Mistakes" describes the roles of Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and others in setting the stage for Einstein's relativity theories. What this brief physics history reinforced to me was the gradual rise to preeminence of logic and mathematics in the processes of human thought--at the expense of philosophy, sociology, anthropology.

Interestingly, even in these legendary clear thinkers there was the all-too-human urge to self-protect and rationalize. Notable was Galileo's effort, according to Ohanian, to fudge the numbers so that his calculations would match what he knew to be correct about the heavens.

Next on my list to read (around "War and Peace") is Stephen Baker's "The Numerati." I find I come to this book with loads of prejudgments. From the press and the jacket copy, the book celebrates the numerization of our thinking. Which I believe is mostly bad news.

This kind of number-worship has brought us financial risk mitigation that paradoxically increased risk, created AAA-rated bonds which were actually of junk status, and any number of other examples of solid financial and numerical logic that under examination simply failed the common-sense test. In other words, a hedge fund that studied human nature might have made a lot of money these last few years.

To me, "The Numerati" is behind the times. We've seen the apotheosis of the logical/mathematical revolution, and it ain't pretty.

It's time to put numbers into their context, and begin to shift more investment to understanding people, how they think, feel and relate to one another. This is where the money will be in the future, and this is what society needs now.

As Dave Snowden writes, "It's not that social computing has created some completely new form of human interaction, what it has done is to enable conversations across barriers and boundaries. We can now be a global tribe (or rather tribes), if we can make the changes that the technology permits."

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Monday, December 01, 2008

For deep, narrow coverage, blogs are better than mainstream media

A few Philistines are still maintaining that blogging isn't a worthy medium for intelligent discussion, that it's somehow less valuable than the "professional media."

Yes, there are crappy blogs out there, just like there are crappy newspapers and magazines. The low barrier to entry of blogging means there is more crap--but, long-tail style, there is also content of tremendous value, erudition, power and influence.

I learned of one more example today. Tanta, who wrote for the Calculated Risk blog, died over the weekend.

She warranted an obituary in the New York Times and a mention from James Surowiecki (from that most professional media outlet, the New Yorker). Here's another tribute from Felix Salmon at Conde Nast Portfolio.

And it wasn't because she wrote about Britney Spears or LOLcats. According to the Times,


Thanks in large part to Tanta’s contributions, Calculated Risk became a crucial source of prescient analysis as the housing market at first faltered, then collapsed and finally spawned a full-blown credit crisis.

Blogs allow writers with deep, narrow expertise, like Tanta, to pass on their learning, share their opinions, and illuminate that which for most of us is unknown. For me, in particular, I still read general-interest media, like the Times, New Yorker, WSJ, HBR, etc. But for subjects I want to explore more deeply, blog content is far better and more valuable.

There's no way Tanta would have had a voice twenty or even ten years ago. That's a benefit to readers everywhere. Including, as her case makes clear, those from the "professional media."

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thankful for...

...Maura, George, Charlie, and a healthful year for all :)

...my dad, who at 84 is starting to really slow down.

...the clients I've done work for this year.

...folks who have referred me to others.

...the people I've talked to about marketing, narrative, innovation... or just life in general.

...the great blogs I've read.

...Harvard Business Review.

...free books.

...the 300+ people who joined The Mistake Bank.

...serendipity (aka luck).

...Bitstrips.

...the people who've followed me on Twitter.

...the people I've followed (even the Carnival Barkers).

...TweetDeck.

Going to put the blog for a bed for a few days while we visit family for the Thanksgiving holiday. Safe travels, all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Public health story database needs your contributions

Cognitive Edge and a nonprofit called Innovation Health are launching a narrative database focused on public health issues, including child vaccinations and obesity. It needs your stories of encounters with the medical industry.

Health care is one of the preeminent issues of our time and will be front and center in our consciousness when the financial crisis is long past. The health-care infrastructure is a complex system with lots of actors, and so narrative analysis offers a better way of evaluating it than surveys or metrics.

Please consider sharing your experiences. The link is here and the password is HEALTH.

Note the following:

By participating in the survey, you acknowledge, accept and approve the use of the information provided by Innovation Health and the Cognitive Edge practitioner network. Innovation Health will use the information to observe patterns that the stories may reveal. The Cognitive Edge practitioner network may use the information collected as a demonstration data set to illustrate the applicability of sense-making to health and wellness.



Related post:
Is there a health-care crisis? The stories say yes

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Inside the Blogroll: Andrew McAfee

This is the first post in a new, occasional series, in which I profile one blog I read regularly. I have a long list of blogs in my RSS reader, and I'll talk about what's on the list and why I read it.

First up: Andrew McAfee: The Impact of IT on Businesses and their Leaders

Andrew McAfee is an associate professor at Harvard Business School, and he studies how IT investments have contributed to competitive advantage. Of particular interest is his focus on Enterprise 2.0 (a term he coined)--how social technologies akin to Facebook, Twitter, etc., could help enterprises, and what the barriers are for their adoption.

It's a great blog, with lengthy, detailed posts; lots of excellent comments; and a combination of techie-business focus that I like a lot.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Public relations firm took too long to change to home-based business"

From The Mistake Bank:

Reporter Marcia Pledger of The Cleveland Plain Dealer has been collecting and publishing great small-business mistake stories for a while. Here's a nice one about the cost of worrying too much about what others' perceptions might be:

A manufacturing company told me that if I started a public relations firm, I had its business. My next move was to find a location. Relationships are one thing, but I needed credibility for prospects.

Starting a business from my home 22 years ago was not even a thought. Back then, home-based businesses were not considered "real" businesses, so I leased an office....

read the rest of the story at the Plain Dealer site here.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Shop Talk Podcast #16 - Robert Wiesheu on Selling in Different Cultures

For this edition of the podcast, I'm delighted to spend some time with my friend Robert Wiesheu, one of the most interesting guys I know and someone who's spent more than a decade selling to customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. As such, he has a great perspective on what it takes to successfully sell even if you don't look or sound like the people you're selling to.

Podcast file (18.2 MB, 15min51sec)

Highlights:

1'25" Challenges in selling into different regions
5'00" Preparing to sell in a country for the first time
6'10" Is there bias against a foreign salesperson?
7'25" What to think about when preparing a product for worldwide sales
9'10" Working with in-country agents

Theme music: "Up the Coast" from West Indian Girl's album 4th and Wall.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

The value of the "ack" in personal networking

My technical background is in computer networking. I spent my twenties studying network protocols, designing queueing systems, and working on security issues. It was a great experience that is still useful today, 20 years later, now that everyone uses that Internet thing.

One principle of networking protocols is the idea of guaranteed delivery versus nonguaranteed. Basically, when you send a message over the Internet, it is broken up into tiny pieces, called packets, and sent down the line, mixed up with all sorts of other packets, and finally reassembled into a message on the other end.

With nonguaranteed delivery, the message is just sent out, and the sender doesn't really know if it got there (believe it or not, there are good applications for this). With guaranteed delivery, by contrast, the receiver sends an acknowledgement (or "ack") to the sender saying, in essence, "I got your message, thanks."

The "TCP" in TCP/IP is a guaranteed delivery protocol.

I was thinking about this because I am doing less computer networking these days and more personal networking. Emailing, Twittering, spending time on the phone. And the "ack" concept works just as well here. (Another metaphor for an ack is a "handshake." I like that one.)

Email, to me, is a nonguaranteed delivery protocol. From a technical standpoint, that's nonsense--Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP), of course, sends acknowledgements to your mail server when your message is delivered. But I'm talking about personal communication.

When you send an email, you don't know if someone got it unless they respond. This is the "ack." For much email, lack of acknowledgement is fine. But for others, acks can be very important to maintaining and enhancing your relationships. For example:

  • If someone refers a prospect to you, you should first acknowledge that you got the referral (thanking them is also good!), and you should send another ack when you get or don't get the business. The referrer is curious to know, and also wants to see if you follow through on referrals.

  • If you ask someone a question, and they respond via email, a short ack is good. "Thanks, that helps." They know then that you took the time to read the response and (hopefully) make use of it.

  • If someone asks you a question on email, and you don't have time to answer, you should acknowledge you received it and when you think you might be able to respond. That way the sender doesn't sit waiting for your response to arrive.

There are probably lots of other good times to send an ack. Please post your own ideas in the comments. Thanks, and I'll try to acknowledge all the contributions :-)

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Friday, November 14, 2008

A silly but fun use of Twitter

Many people say, "What on earth is Twitter good for?" and there are lots of answers. One in particular: it's really great for providing a real-time status of a bad Mexican wrestler-monster movie that you watch while you eat dinner at the bar. See below (note to those unfamiliar with Twitter: the first post is at the bottom; the last is at the top). Enjoy!


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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting out the stories of Burmese prisoners--an heroic feat

George Packer's Interesting Times blog from The New Yorker yesterday discussed Human Rights Watch's honoring of a Burmese hero, Bo Kyi. Mr. Kyi had been held as a prisoner by the Burmese government, enduring the brutalities of that unique brand of confinement. Upon his release, Mr. Kyi moved across the border to Thailand and founded an organization, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, the mission of which includes "report[ing] on the military regime’s oppression of political prisoners who are presently detained in various prisons."

My Kyi's remarks on accepting his award were powerful, and are excerpted in Packer's post. I found this passage particularly striking:

We have a way to communicate with the prisoners and get their stories out. I cannot tell you how we do this. I do not want the Burmese regime to find out. But I can tell you that these stories fill the pages of our reports and those of Human Rights Watch.

The media use these stories. So do political leaders around the world. Over time, the stories of these prisoners generate pressure on the international community to take a stand.

Burmese dissidents are outgunned and outmanned. But they have ideas and stories on their side. Who doubts they will win someday?

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Sesame Street simple" communication with a story

My first reaction to this Bob Sutton post--"Sesame Street Simple: A.G. Lafley's Leadership Philosophy"--was a slight recoil. Perhaps because I thought we had tapped out on learning from A.G. Lafley (can't we let the man run his company in peace?). But also because my natural communication style is not "Sesame Street simple." Unsure of that? Read this blog for a while.

But, after letting it sit a few weeks, I'm starting to get what Sutton is saying. He's onto something important about communicating with and influencing large numbers of people:

...although executives who talk about many ideas and complex ideas will be viewed as smarter -- wiser and more effective executives pick just a few simple messages and repeat them over and over again until people throughout the organization internalize them and use them to guide action. Constantly changing messages lead to the "flavor of the month problem" where people don't act on the current message because they have learned that, if they wait a few months (or days) the message will change (managers in such organizations become very skilled at talking as if they are acting on the flavor of the month, but not actually doing the thing that senior executives are pushing at the moment.) And making things overly complicated may make the senior executives seem smart and feel smart , but if a message is too complicated to understand, it is also means that the implications for action are impossible to understand as well.

Managers "talking as if they are acting...but not actually doing" recalls the damaging "false urgency" that inflicts many companies, as John Kotter discusses in his new book.

There's a way to do "Sesame Street simple" in a way that provides powerful insight and direction. Telling a story. Stories can be understood by everyone. They can be retold and honed for a particular group ("what's our 'the consumer is boss' story?"). They can convey complex lessons and spawn deep discussions about meaning.

That's a "Sesame Street simple" approach even I can understand.

(Photo: Hokey Pokey Elmo from Toys R Us)


Related Posts:
On John Kotter's "A Sense of Urgency"
More on "A Sense of Urgency"
A.G. Lafley: "The Consumer Is Boss"

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

From The Mistake Bank: Sue Pera on the downside of expansion

From The Mistake Bank:

This is the first of a series of interviews with businesspeople about mistakes they've made in their careers. If you'd like to be part of this series, email me at john (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com.


Find more videos like this on The Mistake Bank



Sue Pera is the owner of the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill, PA. Visit them on the web at http://thecornerstonecoffeehouse.com. (Disclosure: I usually hang out here on Friday mornings, when the cleaners come to do my office. It's a great place; if you happen to find yourself in Camp Hill, you must stop by.)

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Creative Destruction? #2

It's been two months or so since I visited a couple of places nearby in the midst of what Joseph Schumpeter might call "creative destruction." At the moment, they're just abandoned buildings. I'll keep visiting and see how/when these places shape up and begin contributing to the economy again.

32nd Street, Camp Hill, PA, 10 Nov 2008


Carlisle Pike, Silver Spring Township, PA, 28 Oct 2008


Related Post:
Creative Destruction?

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Is "renting the new buying"?

Hobby Princess blogs very infrequently these days (I'm guessing that a new baby in the house has something to do with that). Nonetheless, when she posts, it's essential reading. Her most recent post, "Renting Is The New Buying," theorizes how the recession might alter our consumption habits.

She writes:

Cheap things don’t feel like luxury, because luxury is not just a sensual, but also a social experience.

In the recent Sex and the City movie there is a wonderful experience of consuming luxury in a sustainable way. Carrie notices that her assistant-to-be brings a genuine Luis Vuitton handbag to the job interview and asks the young woman (Jennifer Hudson) how she can afford it. Her answer is: “I rented it”. Indeed a breed of new online services, such as borrowbagorsteal.com, froxylady.com, and fashionhire.co.uk offer designer dresses, hats, bags, sunglasses, and jewellery for hire.

We are already used to rent apartments, washing machines, paintings, bikes, laptops, phones, copy machines, badminton rackets, power tools, and even pets for short periods of time. But perhaps we should think about renting and borrowing on a broader scale, as a real alternative to owning.

John Quelch has written about the rise of the "simplifiers," who are getting rid of their stuff and downsizing. This group still invests in experiences--often "rented"--like vacations.

So, what do you say? Are we starting to simplify? And will that mean renting more and more of what we use?

Related post:
The era of cheap s--t is over

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

John Quelch on Obama's marketing triumph

Harvard's John Quelch knows a thing or two about marketing and politics, having co-written the recent book Greater Good: How Good Marketing Makes for Better Democracy, a detailed examination of the similarities and differences between commercial marketing and political marketing.

In this post, he efficiently and clearly dissects the many ways in which Obama's marketing superiority contributed to his victory (while acknowledging the stacked deck McCain competed against). It's a terrific, timely analysis.

Related posts:
On "Greater Good"
Podcast with John Quelch on Marketing and Democracy

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Innovation made easy... or else

Many of my posts originate when two interesting ideas collide--two things I've read, possibly from very different points of view or with different objectives in mind, somehow fit together, or together illuminate something to me that's clearer than either piece on its own.

Today there are three such things. Let's call them stories of innovation made easy. First is the paper "The Ergonomics of Innovation," by Bob Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao in September's McKinsey Quarterly, which despite its awkward title is very clearly written and argued. Its central point, illustrated by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's campaign to save 100,000 unnecessary hospital deaths, is that the best innovations are often the simplest and most basic. In other words, a partial solution that is easy to communicate and to implement may bring far more value than a more complete solution that is more complex and difficult to bring into production. Here's a synopsis of Sutton's and Rao's argument:

A basic idea from ergonomics is that physical and cognitive “affordances” can help people to think about, know, and use something more easily and to make fewer errors. The IHI campaign didn’t use the language of ergonomics but nonetheless applied its logic in hundreds of ways by designing and spreading affordances that made it easier for the staffs of the participating hospitals to change.
I've meant to write about this article for several weeks. But two more things I've read this week buttressed Sutton's and Rao's arguments. First is a report from Mark Schneck at Anecdote on a talk from this year's ActKM Conference in Australia. This simple change didn't save 100,000 lives but may have saved 100,000 hours wasted reading emails:

Jane mentioned that one of the actions from their knowledge strategy has had a big impact. This simple action was for all staff to write a clear description in the subject line of their emails. Adopting this practice has helped staff deal with information overload by being able to quickly identify emails that they need to deal with, and which ones can be simply deleted.

Finally, today Andrew McAfee blogged about an innovation at American Airlines that simply isn't sticking:

According to American, "Customers with PriorityAccess privileges will be invited to board first or board at any time through their exclusive PriorityAAccess lane, which allows them to bypass lines after general boarding has begun." The new configuration seems to be pretty uniform; I’ve seen it at every airport I’ve flown out of over the past month, which is more than a couple.

The new configuration also seems to be uniformly ignored. My fellow travelers and I have continued to line up and board just as we always do, except now we use two narrow lanes instead of one broad one. I haven’t yet seen us fliers make any effort to sort ourselves into the ‘right’ lane, and I certainly haven’t seen anyone voluntarily take themselves out of the lane reserved for the elites and rejoin the general boarding hoi polloi.

More importantly, I also haven’t seen American’s gate agents make any effort to sort us properly. I’ve heard them make announcements about the two lanes, but that’s as far as it’s gone....

It struck me at some point over the past month that I was witnessing an excellent example of why so many business improvement efforts fail: it’s not that they’re not good ideas, it’s that they're not easy enough to enforce. American’s PriorityAAccess boarding procedure is a straightforward case of what used to be called ‘business process reengineering,’ and it’s also a microcosm of why reengineering so often failed. It’s one thing for a small group of smart people to study an existing process and figure out a way to execute it better. It’s quite another to then deploy that new-and-improved process broadly -- across many business units, geographies, and/or interdependent groups.

In other words, the PriorityAAcess procedure didn't provide enough affordances to allow harried gate agents to easily deploy it. So they didn't.

This is an important lesson for me. My automatic mindset seeks out the elegant, complete solution. I don't gravitate toward the simple, dumb solution. Even though, as I'm learning, that one may be the best of all.

(Bonus: this also reminded me of the previously blogged about innovation at a Singapore hospital, where a cheap webcam helped significantly reduce wait times in the emergency room.)

Related post:
Stop studying the problem, and just try something!

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Comparing two customer research approaches

I had two remarkable experiences today.

First, I interviewed a marketing manager about some software he uses. He spent thirty-five minutes describing why the company chose the software, how he used it, how he learned to use the features over time and thereby developed proficiency in an area of marketing he hadn't known well before, how the supplier had given him very responsive support, how the user's group had helped him... and, by the way, three or four features that, if they existed, could really help him. I recorded everything and will review this and a number of other interviews with the client using narrative sensemaking approaches. In the end, they'll get a deep, detailed picture of how they're viewed by their customers. They'll know features that customers will value. And they'll know some things that bother their clients.

Later in the day, I got a survey to fill out. It looked like this:

Rate each question on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being Poor and 5 being Excellent.

* Trainer communicated in a clear, concise, and easily understood manner.

Comments:

* Demonstrated that he is knowledgeable in [...].

Comments:

* Displays pride, enthusiasm, and a positive attitude in his work.

Comments:

* Demonstrates a professional attitude and supports the [client].

Comments:

* Practice topics are clear and correct for [skill and experience].

Comments:

* Trainers were timely and approachable with problems and concerns.

Comments:

It's unfair, I know, to compare the two approaches. The first is more expensive and time-consuming. There is more at stake for the software company than for the second group, a nonprofit.

But, really, what can one possibly learn from the second approach? Isn't the interview method better in about 1,000 ways?

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Monday, November 03, 2008

A salute to free thinking

By free I mean it doesn't cost anything. It's also the other kind of "free," too--unconstrained and bold.

What I'm talking about is the insight and information available today on blogs. It's absolutely remarkable what is on the net, as close as your browser or RSS reader. By any measure, it's tenfold or onehundredfold what the most curious reader had access to ten years ago.

I haven't canceled my newspapers yet, but not one of them (not even the Times) can provide a list of contributors this strong. Here is who I read every day, whose insights I cherish and who make me think new things:

Bob Sutton
Fred Wilson
Dave Stein
Andrew McAfee
James Surowiecki
George Packer
Doc Searls
Rita Gunther McGrath
Jill Konrath
Tim Berry
John Quelch
Nancy Baym
Andrew Meyer
John Jantsch
Ford Harding
Ulla-Maaria Engeström (Hobby Princess)
Dave Snowden
Cognitive Edge guest blog
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge
Garr Reynolds

So... who am I missing? Who else should be on my RSS feed list?

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The voices say: time to read "War and Peace"

Sometimes something tiny can influence us, such as a Tweet--this one:

Increasingly amazed (and worried) at the number of people I know and respect who do not read novels.

Then today I read this blog post: "Tolstoi's Guide to Complexity," about "War and Peace." The post's author, Jochum Stienstra, writes eloquently about how the book has influenced his thinking since he read it fourteen years ago.

Okay, I said. This is a message to me. Time to put aside the stack of unread business books and spend a little sabbatical reading an old classic. I've picked up and put down "War and Peace" perhaps ten times. Never read it.

Now it's time. I dug my old Signet Classic edition out of the box and cracked it open. Again.

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Your voices needed to help a worthy project

Can the sharing of stories bring a community together?

It worked in the olden days, but has become a lost art in the age of television, internet, and videogames. Robert Putnam's book "Bowling Alone" described a society where isolation reigns and communities are frayed.

My friend and colleague Cynthia Kurtz has applied for a Knight News Challenge grant to develop web2.0 software precisely to facilitate the gathering, sharing and passing on of stories that used to go on around the campfire or village square. The Knight folks want the public (that means you) to review and comment on the applications. It would be doing a great service if you would visit the site here and weigh in on Cynthia's application.

Here's how she describes the project:

Long ago, story caretakers tended the diverse stories of the community: eliciting, understanding, maintaining. But those traditions have declined as commercial storytelling rose and community coherence fell. The physical-digital split means that today older people tell stories in community centers while younger people tell them on Facebook. People still tell stories, but no one is bringing all of the stories together into community-wide patterns, making sense of those patterns, and helping the stories get to where they need to be in times of need. We are building a free and open source software package called Rakontu ("tell a story" in Esperanto) that will help communities share and work with raw stories of personal experience for mutual understanding, conflict resolution and decision support. By supporting and bridging online and offline storytelling, Rakontu will help communities regenerate the sustaining functions of story caretakers so that they can take better care of their stories again.
An important part of the project is how this would bring benefit to communities. Cynthia explains it this way:

Rakontu will help communities tell, annotate and connect stories; discover insight-creating patterns in them; and use stories to resolve conflicts and make decisions together. This degree of support is only available today through the help of experienced narrative practitioners. Rakontu will embody understandings about narrative in communities so that people will not have to know anything about narrative to benefit from its use. Some possible outcomes are better understandings of opposing perspectives, a greater diversity of voices being heard, better consensus on tough choices, more problems dealt with before they get worse, safer streets, fewer footholds for extremism and paranoia, and greater common strength in times of crisis.

I've written in this blog, over and over, about the use of stories for knowledge sharing, learning, and creating insight. You're probably tired of reading about it. But think about this: we should be using every tool at our disposal to help bring our communities together, to combat the "bowling alone" syndrome, and make our neighborhoods a better place to live. That's what Rakontu can do, and I hope you'll visit the Knight News Challenge site and support Cynthia's application.

(Disclosure: I have worked with Cynthia on this grant and will be conducting community trials of the software if the grant is awarded. Therefore I have a vested interest in getting the grant approved.)

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"What Was Privacy?" Indeed!

Compare these two quotes:

I have a date there with Samer Takriti, a Syrian-born mathematician. He heads up a team that's piecing together mathematical models of 50,000 of IBM's tech consultants. The idea is to pile up inventories of all of their skills and then to calculate, mathematically, how best to deploy them....

Takriti, a slim 40-year-old with wide, languid eyes, opens the door of his small office. He wears a rugby shirt tucked tightly into blue jeans. I tell him that being modeled doesn't sound like much fun. I picture an all-knowing boss anticipating my every move, perhaps sending me an e-mail with the simple message, "No!" before I even get up my nerve to ask for a raise. But Takriti focuses on the positive. Imagine that your boss finally recognizes your strengths, he says—maybe ones that are hidden even to you. Then he "puts you into situations where you will thrive."

Still, Takriti confesses that he's nervous.... With time, he and his team hope to build detailed models for each worker, each one complete with a person's quirks, daily commute, and allies, perhaps even enemies. These models might one day include whether the workers eat beef or pork, how seriously they take the Sabbath, whether a bee sting or a peanut sauce could lay them low.
(from "The Numerati," by Stephen Baker, excerpted in Business Week, 28 Aug 2008)
-and this-
Harriet Pearson is IBM’s chief privacy officer, a role she assumed in 2000, when Lou Gerstner was CEO. Gerstner was “convinced that as the Web emerged as a business platform, companies—particularly one such as IBM—had to lead on privacy,” Pearson says. “We were at an inflection point with respect to the pervasiveness of technology in business processes, and he correctly judged that IBM needed to use its leadership on that issue to support our initiatives on e-commerce.”... In 2005, under Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano’s leadership, IBM adopted a forward-looking global policy that forswore the use of employees’ genetic profiles in making decisions about hiring or access to health insurance and other benefits. Pearson credits IBM’s own “DNA” in issues of employee privacy and nondiscrimination for the logic behind its policy on genetic profiling. “There’s a direct line that I can draw back to our history in the 1950s and 1960s that is consistent with who we are as a company,” she says. (In May 2008 George Bush signed into law the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. IBM’s early support facilitated its passage.) IBM’s manifold adventures in new technology—including systems for accelerating genomic research and pharmacological innovation—enable it to foresee developments that have implications for privacy. Pearson says it’s part of her job to scan company and industry horizons for potentially gnarly situations: “My business needs make me as likely, in one day, to be looking at genetics and RFID, and what they mean for privacy issues, as at data privacy and security issues associated with global business processes and the emergence of what’s being called ‘cloud computing.’” (from "What Was Privacy?" by Lew McCreary, Harvard Business Review, October 2008)

Both quotes concern IBM. And so, are you as confused as I am?

A company that characterizes itself as a privacy pioneer is mathematically modeling its consultants? This is what happens when cognitive bias embeds itself in a bureaucracy. IBM's people consider themselves privacy pioneers, yet at the same time they install procedures that to an outside observer are clear invasions of their employees' privacy.

Let me relate a little privacy story. A few years ago, I was involved in a dispute with my employer over an employment contract. While this dispute was ongoing, I still worked at the company. One day, I looked at my laptop, and thought of the servers and networks that carried my emails, web searches, etc., to the internet. The company could have been capturing all this information, scrutinizing it, and twisting it into evidence to support their case.

I felt a chill. What had I searched for? What emails had I sent? What personal information would they have access to? At that moment, I didn't have trust in the company's good will. Quite the opposite.

God forbid they would have had a "mathematical model" of me.

It's clear that people ascribe good motives to their own actions, while in others those same actions would seem questionable or downright wrong (see "I'm OK, You're Biased" by Dan Gilbert). The question is, who can blow the whistle at a large corporation? Who, at IBM, could say, "This is just wrong. We shouldn't be doing it," and be listened to?

UPDATE: Please read Harriet Pearson's comment below. She points to this blog post as an elaboration of IBM's views.

(Thanks to Cognitive Edge for the pointer to the Business Week excerpt.)


(Photo from bretwalda via stock.xchng)


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Monday, October 27, 2008

How to ask your clients uncomfortable questions

We know when selling that we need to probe our clients' needs, ask sensitive questions, or, on occasion, ask for favors. To some people, this comes naturally. The rest of us can rely on this advice from Ford Harding about how to pose some of these tricky questions to clients--questions that can be uncomfortable to ask, but essential to expanding a network and growing a business.

A teaser:

Purpose: To be seated next to possible client at party
Words: I have wanted to get to know [name] for a long time. Would you consider seating us near each other at dinner?

Read Ford's entire post.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

B2B buyers--please tell the losers why they lost

I've worked on a lot of sales proposals over the years. It works this way: a company needing to buy supplies, services or products invites a number of companies to bid on the business. Frequently, they'll develop Requests for Proposal laying out all their needs, criteria, etc. Companies submit their proposals, and over several iterations, the buyer selects.

It's, as succinctly described by Harvard's John Quelch, a winner-takes-all contest.

Problem is, there are many losers in that contest. Depending on the industry, perhaps only one out of ten proposals results in a sale. It's a terribly opaque process for the bidders (which opacity benefits the buyer). Not surprisingly, sellers view "the RFP process" as undesirable and frequently unfair.

There are countless systems for increasing your company's odds of winning proposals. Identifying the power base, deploying flanking strategies, etc. Dave Stein at ES Research can help you sort through who offers these services, if that's your aim.

I'm interested in something else. How to extract value out of a losing proposal. And it'll take some behavior changes on the buyer's side. Ready?

I've been working more on the consumer-marketing side recently, and I am amazed by the following: companies really want to know how customers use products and why they buy the way they do, and customers, by and large, are willing to tell them.

On the B2B side, it couldn't be more different. Losing bidders are frequently afraid to ask or eager to look forward to new opportunities. Buyers don't want to dwell on the process after it's done, nor do they want to spend time with a bunch of bidders asking questions or, worse, trying to rescue a losing sale.

It's got to change, and here are two reasons why: (1) a failed proposal effort is expensive for the seller, and (2) lousy proposals are costly for buyers. The process needs to be mined for all the value possible. Insight is the most valuable mineral in a failed proposal effort. Why did I lose? What did I do wrong? What did I misinterpret? How do you view our product/service against our competitors? What was most important to you? What was less so?

The answers to these questions are the B2B equivalent of consumer market research. It's not enough to ask those who selected you why they did (though that's rarely done, either). It's even worse to make assumptions, but that's what I've experienced, or committed, most. "The product was insufficient." "They didn't like our terms." etc. are only meaningful if they reflect the true thoughts of the client.

So: buyers need to have after-sales reviews with each losing bidder, explaining (without violating confidentiality provisions) why they chose the way they did, and what the bidder could do differently to improve its chances next time.

Losing sellers need to listen with open ears, seek clarification and elaboration, not challenge the decision nor try to reopen the process. (It might be less threatening if disinterested parties attended these sessions, not the lead salesperson.)

Putting this simple protocol in place will help buyers make better decisions, and sellers create better products, services, and proposals.

Please weigh in with your thoughts. Email me (john at caddellinsightgroup dot com) or twitter me (@jmcaddell) if you'd like to discuss this idea more.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

AG Lafley on P&G's innovation culture: "The consumer is boss"

In the newest issue of Booz & Co's "Strategy + Business," A.G. Lafley describes the innovation culture at his company, Procter & Gamble.

Hearing insights from Lafley and P&G about innovation is becoming a cliche, but this quote struck me as apt:


So we expanded our mission to in­clude the idea that “the consumer is boss.” In other words, the people who buy and use P&G products are valued not just for their money, but as a rich source of in­formation and direction. If we can develop better ways of learning from them — by listening to them, observing them in their daily lives, and even living with them — then our mission is more likely to succeed.

This what I'm thinking about much of the time now. How to help companies listen to, and learn from, "the bosses."

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