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.


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!)

, ,

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).

, ,

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

, , ,

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)

, , , ,

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.

, , , , ,

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.

, , , , ,

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."

, , ,

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."

, , , ,