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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Gathering customer product insight using Twitter

Gathering and sorting through customer feedback is an overlooked part of the product manager's toolbox. Currently-used methods are inadequate to the task: surveys are limiting and misleading (one man's 4 is another man's 3, and so forth). Focus groups are biased and prone to takeover by assertive voices.

Fine-grained, freeform feedback, such as is gathered in customer service calls (or, as I'm doing with one client, in open-ended interviews), provides a wide range of opinions from a diverse group, relatively untainted by outside influences, measurement bias and company hypotheses.

The new social applications offer a new and promising way to gather feedback cheaply and in real time. Twitter is one such application being put to use.

Dell and Comcast, for instance, troll Twitter looking for references to their products and services. If people are struggling, their Twitter users will reach out and try to solve the problem, or point them in the right direction to get help. It's as if a call to tech support was being worked on in public. It's highly responsive, and the users who get this kind of attention appreciate it, usually announcing their satisfaction in a Tweet.

Other times, Dell in particular responds quickly to critiques of their products (see an earlier post and a Dell comment). It's done well--not pushing back on the commenters, but certainly getting the company message out in that forum. In other words, comments on Dell products are always responded to.

Both the above examples have obvious PR benefits and bring the Comcast and Dell folks who engage in these conversations closer to the real customer experience. All good.

What I'm talking about, in addition to that, is collecting dozens or hundreds of tweets on a particular product and looking at them all together. What do they say about the product? Are these issues that seem to crop up continually? Are people using the product in unexpected ways? Is something about the product really, really annoying people?

Note that gathering the data is easy. Sorting it out is the hard part, but using narrative analysis techniques can separate the wheat from the chaff and give you real, useable insights.

(Here's an example of the Twitter conversation around the new Ford Flex. I hope Ford's product marketers are listening! Here's another conversation on the Flip video camera)

There are other ways to gather freeform customer feedback. Customer reviews on Amazon, for example. Blog posts. Companies should use all of them. Particularly as these technologies become more embedded, and more people start talking in these forums, the stories customers tell will be more and more vital to innovation and the product creation process.

(If you'd like a comprehensive look at how businesses can use social technologies to engage with the outside, read Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff)

Related posts:
Dell's web2.0 efforts pay off
Is Google listening to the stories around Knol?
On "Groundswell"

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"What if your whole company acts like an a--hole?"

I was talking to my friend this morning about Bob Sutton's "The No Asshole Rule" and its corollary, "if you can't escape working for an asshole, you need to learn how to be indifferent, now not to care too much."

My friend's question: "What if your whole company acts like an asshole?"

He elaborated. "I went to a retirement party for a friend of mine who worked for the phone company. They've been downsizing forever. There are guys who have been there 25-30 years, and they're trapped. They hate it there, but they have nowhere else to go. So they go through the motions. It's filled with people like that."

Me: "Economists keep telling us that economies of scale mean big companies have advantages."

Him: "Scale economies must mean a lot if those companies still make money, while they're full of people who don't care anymore."

Disclosure: I've worked for very large companies and very small companies in my career. As you can probably guess, I liked working at the smaller companies better.

Related posts:
The Value of Not Caring in the Workplace

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Monday, October 20, 2008

The era of cheap s--t is over

Our kids' piano teacher lets our kids choose a little prize after their lessons, if they've tried hard and been attentive. The other day, my wife said, after tripping over one of these dollar toys for the millionth time, "I may have to tell her to start bringing candy, instead of these little toys. I can't keep up with all the crap."

Help is on the way. Last Thursday, on NPR's All Things Considered, reporter Louisa Lim tells us that many Chinese factories who supplied the world with cheap trinkets are going out of business, victims of rising commodity prices and slack demand from the West. Chinese government action may also be a cause, according to the ATC story:

Harley Seyedin, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China, says this slowdown was the result of deliberate action by the government.

"The majority of this happened because of changes in regulations last year deliberately decided by the Chinese government in order to slow down the economy and to move away from reprocessing [and those] labor intensive, environmentally unfriendly and energy-intensive kind of companies," Seyedin says. "And certainly some companies have suffered as a result of that. Those types of companies needed to go anyway."

Hallelujah. One of the byproducts of the economic slowdown will be a ratcheting down in our acquisitiveness, and a reduction in the easy credit that's allowed us to buy more crap, cheap or otherwise. To me, there's good news in that.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More on "NOMO Concert"

If today's earlier post made you curious about the group NOMO, here is a cool live video of a few songs. Now you can see why I was bummed I had to leave the concert so soon!

NOMO Live session from Svetlana legetic on Vimeo.

You can learn even more about NOMO at their Myspace page here.

Blog Action Day: On Poverty--A story about homelessness

The roots of homelessness are complex, and whatever the precise mathematical relationship between homelessness and poverty is, people who have money typically are not homeless.

With that, here's a story.

Last January, my church took its turn as part of a coalition of churches that provide winter shelter to those in Harrisburg without homes of their own. Volunteers were solicited to work at the shelter, and on Sunday, January 20, I took a turn helping out. It was a bitterly cold night, one of the coldest of the winter. The folks, ninety percent men, began arriving in the church basement at 6pm. They took pallets to sleep on, ate a simple meal, and around 9pm began retiring. The basement was packed.

A few men huddled around a radio in one corner. I went to join them. The New York Giants were playing the Green Bay Packers for the right to go to the Super Bowl and face certain defeat against the unbeaten New England Patriots. I had begun following the Giants in 1969, when my dad took me to their training camp a few miles from our house.

It was even colder in Green Bay than it was in Harrisburg. Most of our crowd was rooting for the Giants. One guy kept predicting what would happen, then regardless of the outcome of the prediction, would say, "Just like I told you."

Well, the game ended with an overtime interception of Brett Favre and winning field goal by the Giants. They were, improbably, headed to the big game. The predictor-guy said, "Just like I told you. They were gonna win. And you know what? They are going to win against the Patriots."

Then we all went to bed. At 5am people started to get up for work. I got two guys' lunches out of the locked fridge. We made coffee and set out pastries. By 7:30 everyone had left. We straightened up, then went back to our own lives.

The predictor-guy was right, after all. The Giants won the Super Bowl. And even though it's been many months since that night in the church basement, my mind returns there from time to time, and I wonder where those folks are right now, if they're healthy, if perhaps they have a roof over their heads.

NOMO Concert: a plan too complex to succeed

From The Mistake Bank:

(click on comic to enlarge)

See the original on Bitstrips here.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is there redeeming value in online ranting?

I don't visit the online reader forums of my local paper, The Patriot-News, that often. But when I do, I'm always shocked, sometimes appalled, and occasionally depressed by the venom and anger that reside there.

Recently, a flood of comments accompanied the news that Anita Smith, the CEO of local insurer Capital Blue Cross for the last several years, and the star of its TV ad campaign, had resigned. A brief sample of the comments that readers posted (you can read the entire list at the link above):

I've always heard she's a complete and total witch who would step on her own mother's back to get what she wants!

I'm not sure how she got the job in the first place with a Bachelor's Degree from St. Joe's??????????
I really couldn't believe it when I discovered that fact! UNREAL

Thank goodness we won't be subjected to those awful commercials of hers anymore!! I had to mute the TV and look away every time I saw her smug mug dancing around on my TV. Seeing them in HD made it even more difficult to suppress the gag reflex.

It's about time she got canned. She should have never had the job in the first place.... and sure they could have picked a worse picture of her. There are some out there..really bad ones.. from before she spent lots of premium payers dollars getting herself a complete makeover.

Now, if only Mary Sammons would follow suit, maybe Rite Aid could get out of the toilet.

It's difficult to find redeeming value in this name-calling, envy, schadenfreude and misogyny. My first reaction was to ask, "Can't we be a bit more civilized? Can't the editors do something to elevate the dialogue?" But as I've thought more about it, I think we should leave the forums just as they are.

While forum entries are frequently presumptions, value judgments or downright fabrications, even the most objectionable ones are essentially true.

What I mean is this: they are true to the teller. The writer of a forum item believes what he or she is writing, believes it enough to sit down at a computer and type it and hit "enter." Given that, of what use is censorship? Removing the item or preventing its telling in the first place will not change the opinion of those who would write about it in the first place. There are themes, moreover, within the comments, that are important to appreciate: that there is great anger at people who lead our companies, that many don't accept women in executive roles, that people are hurting in general.

In other words, the forum entries show us the world as it is, as opposed to the world as we would wish it to be.

And, even among the vitriol and hate displayed in the forum, legitimate questions were raised, such as: how much did Capital Blue Cross spend in advertising, and how much should a non-profit insurer spend for image advertising? Those questions spawned off some interesting reporting in the Patriot-News.

These posts must have been painful for Anita Smith and her family and friends, if they paid any attention to them (hopefully they ignored them). But that's the price of prominence: you will be treated unfairly by people who don't know you at all. When people feel threatened, uncertain, or at risk (like now), they will lash out at those who caused (or who've sidestepped) their difficulties.

And I'd rather know what people are really thinking than be able to pretend that we as a society have grown past those thoughts, even if they're unpleasant.

(Disclosure: this blog is available as part of the Patriot-News'

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Monday, October 13, 2008

Giving myself the "Getting Things Done" treatment

I knew I had to improve my organizing skills early in the summer when I missed two scheduled conference calls in the period of a month. In the moment, I blamed the meeting organizers, who had not attached reminders to the meeting requests, so my Blackberry didn't buzz 15 minutes in advance. After reflection, I realized it wasn't the responsibility of the meeting organizers to account for my time-management peculiarities. I also realized that making a habit of missing conference calls I had committed to attend was bad business.

Around the same time, I listened to a podcast interviewing David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. I liked what he had to say, and a few mouse clicks later I had ordered his book, determined to give myself the GTD treatment.

It wasn't painless, and it took quite a while, but I've been more or less successful at organizing my work and home commitments. I feel like I'm getting more done, and the stress level has decreased because I have all my commitments (work & personal) documented in the same list, and I review that list regularly (though the review could be more regular and more thorough).

First, a look at Allen's key prescriptions:

  1. Collecting all items that need to be looked at in your inbox
  2. Emptying the inbox frequently
  3. Deciding what to do with an inbox item immediately (acting on it if it can be done in 2 minutes or less, disposing of it if no action required, scheduling action or adding to task list otherwise)--i.e., no returning items to the inbox!
  4. Filing inbox items where they can be easily retrieved
  5. Organizing task lists by context (computer, phone call, errand, on-line, reading, waiting-for)
  6. Reviewing your calendar and task lists regularly
There's a lot more, obviously, that you can find in the book, but those are the highlights.

In my experience implementing GTD, here's what I found:

  • Collecting all my stuff and processing it took a long time--upwards of two weeks. I had to-do's written on note cards in my bedroom, written on my white board, in notebooks, on existing task lists, and in the inbox already. I had piles of unread books in several places, and articles I wanted to read scattered in my computer directories. At the end, the collection pile measured more than one foot high in my inbox and another three feet or so on the floor beside it.

  • Filing was easier than I thought. Allen recommends one alphabetically-arranged filing cabinet, rather than files organized by some subject (like home, work, finance, etc.). This works for me, although I keep my finance files in a separate accordion file. All the others are in one cabinet.

  • I ended up with a large task list (probably 75-80 items), and it hasn't gone down much if at all. Some people find such a large list intimidating (God, what a lot I have to do!). For me, it was a relief to know that I had everything on paper, and didn't need to carry it in my head--a key benefit that Allen cites for his system.

  • Personal organizer systems don't deal with the Allen approach very well. I tried both the Macintosh iCal system, which didn't allow for even a first-level categorization, and Microsoft Entourage. Entourage allowed two levels of categorization with manageable sorting problems, but couldn't handle three at all... and I wanted three for my list. I was able to work around the problems, but it would be nice to have an automated application that could sync with a mobile device and handle the entire GTD system.

  • Like many people, I don't review the lists enough. I schedule a brief review every day, and a more comprehensive review on Friday. I usually get through the every-day review, but the Friday review is frequently no more substantial than the dailies. I need to work on that.
Like any major change in habits, GTD takes a lot of commitment, time and persistence. For me, at least, it was worth it. I feel more in control of my life and prepared to take on more work than I was a few months ago.

Would anyone out there like to comment on their GTD experiences?

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

From The Mistake Bank: Surprised by a large customer defection

From The Mistake Bank:

The following story is excerpted from "The Knack: How Street-Smart Entrepreneurs Learn To Handle Whatever Comes Up," by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham. This is a terrific book with great storytelling throughout. Brodsky uses so many examples from his storage company, CitiStorage, that by the end of the book you feel like you know that industry. To learn more about the book, visit the web site. I highly recommend it.

I still remember the moment, many years ago, when I found out we’d lost one of our biggest customers…. One of my salesmen called me in my car and told me we’d just received a fax from the customer, a major law firm, announcing its intention to move its boxes out of our facility when the contract expired three months later.

Now you have to understand that, in this business, moving your boxes is a big deal.... So it’s a real loud message when a customer leaves, and this one came completely out of the blue. I was stunned. “What are you talking about?” I said. “Man, how could we lose this account? What happened?”

The salesman didn’t have an answer, and we couldn’t get one from the customer. The people in charge at the law firm wouldn’t see us or talk to us on the telephone. Our urgent messages brought perfunctory replies: “The decision has been made, and it is final.”

Obviously, we had screwed up. The guy who had closed the account had left us five years before, and we hadn’t stayed as close to the customer as we should have been. A week or so after receiving the fax, I came up with a proposal that finally got us a meeting with the firm’s managing partner—to no avail. The situation was too far gone. We could offer good financial terms, but we couldn’t fix problems that had been festering for years. Our competitor matched the terms and got the account.

So I called my managers and salespeople together and said, “What did we learn from this? What do we have to do differently in the future?” The real lesson, I knew, was not that we had made mistakes. You always make mistakes. We failed because we’d waited too long to find out about them. We decided that, from then on, we’d go to each customer eighteen months before the end of the contract and offer to negotiate a new one. If the customer hesitated, we’d know right away that we had a problem—while there was still time to fix it.

As soon as we began implementing the new policy, we made a very important discovery. We had unhappy customers and didn’t know it. One customer was upset about our system for providing information; we fixed it. Another customer felt it deserved a lower rate because its volume had increased dramatically; the customer was right, and we made amends. A third customer didn’t like a particular aspect of our inventory system; we changed it. A fourth customer was miffed that we hadn’t been sending regular monthly reports; we started sending them.

So, in four months with the new policy, we made four improvements, pleased four customers, and locked up four accounts, and all these benefits came from one failure. In the long run, that failure proved to be one of the best things that ever happened to the company.

(c) 2008 Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham. Used by permission

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Shop Talk Podcast #15 - Scilla Andreen on the changing indie film business

The latest podcast features a discussion with Scilla Andreen, co-founder and CEO of Indieflix, about the current state and future prospects of the independent film business.

Here's Scilla's official bio:

Scilla Andreen (Filmmaker, CEO & Co-Founder IndieFlix) producer, director and Emmy nominated costume designer Scilla has deep roots in the entertainment industry and is a popular speaker and tireless champion of independent film. Scilla along with producing partner Carlo Scandiuzzi created IndieFlix, an independent film distribution and discovery site founded on the principles of community, promotion, syndication and transparency. They also created and are launching the Filmmaker First Initiative. IndieFlix believes Independent films can and will be profitable. You can find IndieFlix on the web at

It was a great chat. You can download it here.


(00:50) About the US indie market

(02:20) Options to get indie films to their audiences

(06:20) Where does a filmmaker's advance go?

(09:13) What Indieflix does

(12:03) The many ways people access films and videos today

(13:00) About the "Bridge to Everywhere"

(15:35) What is a "hit" film for Indieflix?

(19:08) Promoting the filmmaker and the story behind the film

(19:33) Making meaningful recommendations for films members might like

(21:06) "If your film is worth stealing, it must be worth something"

(22:39) Looking ahead: the future of filmmaking and film distribution

(Theme music: "Nova" by Nomo, from its album Ghost Rock)

Scilla mentioned the challenge that exists for filmmakers to get clearances to use the music they choose for the film. Today's Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about this very subject: the settlement of a lawsuit between Yoko Ono and a documentary filmmaker over the use of 15 seconds of "Imagine."

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

In search of Postal Buddy - the power of the negative story

Once at EDS, way back when, I worked on a really big proposal. It was one of those that got you to Hawaii if you were successful, and we were, and so I spent a memorable week in Maui.

When we were working on the proposal, my boss would tell us, "Be careful. We don't want this to end up like Postal Buddy." He said it over and over again, though I had to admit I didn't really know what Postal Buddy was. It apparently was a deal in which EDS had taken on a bunch of risk that ended up badly. That much I knew.

Postal Buddy stuck in my brain all these years. Finally, in an effort to satisfy my curiosity, I called my old boss a few months ago. My goal was to get him to tell me the Postal Buddy story once and for all. "Oh, yeah," he said when I called him. "Postal Buddy....hmm... I remember the name but can't remember the story at all."

I was dumbfounded. Postal Buddy had become a fossil, the name the only remnant of the full experience (which, for people dealing with its aftermath, must have been excruciating). But it still retained its potency.

Many times since I heard the story, even though I don't know a single detail, when confronted with a risky scenario, I would think to myself, "Don't do a Postal Buddy here," and I would take a second, or third, look before making a decision.

So, the lesson: a story, even shorn of all its ornamentation, only a title and a memory, still carries emotion and resonance.

Postscript: I used a tool with better recall than me or my old boss, Google, to research Postal Buddy. There's nothing about the EDS experience, but you can find the overall story here (go to page 3).

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Monday, October 06, 2008

"Blocking and tackling"--the mother of all sports metaphors

block verb - 1e: to interfere usually legitimately with (as an opponent) in various games or sports

tackle verb - 2 a: to seize, take hold of, or grapple with especially with the intention of stopping or subduing b: to seize and throw down or stop (an opposing player with the ball) in football.

Long-time readers of this blog will recognize my affinity with sports analogies and metaphors. So, recently, during the summer lull, I embarked upon a non-scientific study of the frequency of certain sports metaphors in business writing. And one popped up far more often than any other: "blocking and tackling."

For those unacquainted with American football, blocking and tackling are two of the most basic skills of the game--necessary (but not sufficient) ingredients for winning. Teams that can't block or tackle are doomed. For executives, blocking and tackling represent work that's not glamorous but is important.

Here are some examples: Marketbeat What’ll it take to fix Yahoo isn’t a mystery, and isn’t a magic bullet, Henry Blodget writes at Silicon Alley Insider. “It’s just blocking and tackling. And it will take time.”

Innosight blog Burberry has spent more than $100 million to improve its ability to ensure that the right products get to the right stores at the right time. These challenges of course require a fair amount of blocking and tackling, but there's also ample room for fresh, innovative thinking.

NeuStar Q2 2008 Earnings conference call (COO Lisa Hook speaking): However, I asked to be on this call as a six month check-in, to assure that I am focused on delivering the basic, blocking and tackling necessary to meet our targets for growth and profitability.

This phrase was a recurring theme in executives' earnings calls (here, here and here, for example). Of course, given the recent news in the financial markets, perhaps there was better blocking and tackling they could have done.

Other metaphors I looked for that were much rarer: "home run," "unforced error" (which was popular in political writing), "icing the puck," "letting off the hook."

Did I miss any? What favorite sports metaphors do you have?

Related post:
Welcome to Sports Analogy week

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Why doesn't the New York Times take advantage of the web's most basic feature?

I read the New York Times website regularly. But I have one significant complaint. Articles on the website do not hyperlink to anything outside the Times archive. As such, the articles don't have the value and impact they could.

Here's an example. In today's Times, I read this article about the McCain campaign. I was intrigued by the following paragraph:

He has been searching for a message and a way to make a case against Mr. Obama, and often publicly venting his frustration at the way the campaign is going, as he did this week in a contentious meeting with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register.

A contentious meeting with the Des Moines Register? I was intrigued. Where was my link to more information? There was none. To find out about it, I needed to do a Google search to find this explanation (with lots of external links, by the way).

This may sound like a trivial complaint, but hyperlinking within a document to other sources is one of the primary features of Tim Berners-Lee's design for the web (described at length in his great book Weaving the Web). And it's one of the main reasons a web site is richer and more vibrant than a newspaper or a book.

So why doesn't the Times use it? Out of a misguided notion that a web site needs to keep people inside by constantly referring to itself. Every web site does that to an extent (this one does, as well), but internal references need to be leavened with numerous external links... especially when there's not an internal elaboration available (as was the case with the Des Moines Register reference).

Even if you're the Times.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Why company story-listening is democratic

I'm beginning to spend a lot of time listening to stories within companies, and between companies and their customers. Listening to and understanding these stories can help companies adapt to changing markets and competitors, and help their employees work together better.

It's democratic, too. What does that mean? you may be wondering. Traci Fenton, head of WorldBlu and the leader of the corporate-democracy movement, asked me the same question a few months ago. I was trying to explain to her the connection between my work helping companies gather and act on stories and her work promoting the creation of democratic processes and institutions within companies.

To me, it makes all the sense in the world.

To be a participant in a democratic venture, you need to be informed. Lots of information, from different viewpoints, even if it can be contradictory or confusing, is essential to you doing your job, which is to participate in your own governance and direction.

You must also have a voice. Sometimes that voice is a statement at the voting booth. Other times, it is the ability to stand up at the borough council meeting and tell the council they need to approve the school-building project once and for all.

Gathering stories from employees and customers gives them a voice. Sharing them throughout the company provides critical information for employees to act on. Training folks to make sense out of them can root out complacency and provide a platform for action.

If you're a corporate leader who wants your company to be democratic, you better institutionalize the gathering and sharing of stories. From the inside and the outside.

[If you're interested in corporate democracy, you should consider attending WorldBlu Live this month in New York.]

Related Posts:
A Sense of Urgency
Corporate Change Series
Competitive Advantage: Customer-facing Employees

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