Better Communication for All: Must Know Phrases – Part 1

The key to success is not technology; although in today’s markets it typically plays some role. None the less, it’s still not the key. Nor is the key to success having the greatest idea ever; there are probably more exceptional ideas than there are stars in the sky. Innovation? Over-rated. Passion, dedication and execution? Oh. Now we’re getting warmer.

We are closer to the heart of the matter because regardless of what you might think the keys are, those contributors sit on the same foundation. The foundation for success is:

Culture + Communication + Collaboration

The best organizations understand the value of C+C+C, and are forever trying to curate and encourage it. A great idea without the proper support of C+C+C is probably doomed. Also, notice I referred to C+C+C as “it.” That’s because when properly assembled the whole (i.e., “it”) becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Just the same, if one is compromised, the other two will be negatively affected as well. C+C+C equals one.

Most importantly, above all else, C+C+C is about people. People make up your organization. You market and sell to other people. Put aside all the hype (e.g., innovation will bring you business salvation) and we’re left with one of life’s few absolute truths—cliche, yes—but still true: People make the world go round. In short, you can’t have innovation without C+C+C. You can’t have innovation without the right people brought together, at the right time, in the right way.

A robust set of tools for communication is what separates humans from the other creatures on God’s great earth. However, with power also come responsibility. Communication ain’t easy. Begin human is a full-time job; at least for me it is. No one will accuse me of being a great communicator. I try. I get it wrong more than I’d like to admit. We all do, don’t we? What I’m trying to say is: Within the context of C+C+C, Communication is the foundation of Culture and Collaboration. Without Communication we, as humans, have nothing.

Without Communication we, as humans, have nothing.

Ironically, much of this came up, in some form, during a series of lunch and post-work conversations I had with a trusted colleague. Finally, a couple weeks ago, I said to myself, as I’m fond of doing, “There’s got to be a better way.” A day or so later, while taking the train to NYC for a couple of meetings with clients, I sketched out a checklist that became the basis for this mini-series: Better Communication for All. Naturally, I want to share my finding with others. I hope you’re wanting to collaborate on this as well.

Please note: These are in no particular order. For now let’s get the ideas on the table, from there were can refine and reorder.

• “I see it differently.”

Often, in the course of a conversation, when we see a point to push back on we almost naturally default to, “I disagree with you,” or even “I think you’re wrong.” These are words of division. They don’t foster resolution. They fuel tension and bitterness.

Instead, “I see it differently” allows you to make your case without making it adversarial and personal (i.e., directed at the other person). Yes, you can dive into the minutiae of facts and figures later, but lead with your open-arms contribution first. Put another way, does it make sense to immediately alienate the person(s) you’re trying to sway?

Put another way, does it make sense to immediately alienate the person(s) you’re trying to sway?

Also, this simple phrase gives you a fail-safe should further discussion determine that you were wrong to say they were wrong. It’s easier to save face by saying, “Oh. I see it more completely now. Thanks. Yes, let’s…” Back peddling from “you’re wrong” might not be so easy. We are human, and things do go wrong sometimes. I’ll eventually cover that later in this series.

• “What do you mean by _____?”

We all know the knock on assume. Yet how often do we try to cut conversational corners and automatically fill in the blanks when clarity wanes? So rather than fall victim to assume, “What do you mean by” gives the message sender the benefit of the doubt. Assuming can be dangerous; while clarity mitigates human communication risk.

In addition, when a conversation escalates and perhaps even gets heated, this question slows things down. It not only offers the opportunity for clarity, but it can be used as a subtle way to derail the current trajectory. Perhaps there really is a misunderstanding somewhere along the line?

Who knows, it’s possible the sender isn’t completely sure either. “What do you mean by” is a great tool that buys needed pause, as well ensures everyone is closer to being on the same verbal page, so to speak.

Note: You can use this proactively as: “What I mean by ____ is…”

• “Why do you believe _____?”

As human to human communication goes, expressing what is relatively routine. Much of our day to day interactions are of the what variety. Ordering food or coffee is a what. On the other had, as they say, the devil is in the details. In the spirit of not assuming, often it helps to understand the why of the other(s). Perhaps their ideas are based on misinformation? Perhaps you’re trying to sell them on Z when their major concerns are P and Q? Perhaps they literally missed a memo?

On a more fundamental human level, done correctly, asking why also extends the olive branch of empathy. It’s taking the extra step to develop a deeper understanding and connection. Why is personal. But be careful, you don’t want to be interpreted as questioning the basis of their input. The purpose here is to build bridges (i.e., understanding and common ground), not walls.

Always be mindful not to assume you know why they are thinking what you think they are thinking.

Note: You can use this proactively as: “Let me explain. I believe _____ because…”

• “Can you show me an example?”

There’s a reason we have the cliche: A picture paints a thousand words; as well as: Seeing is believing. Some human minds are better than others with the abstract. And nearly all prefer real over theory. When in doubt, ask for an example.

Here’s a simple example. (See what I did there?) Someone says, “We want the logo to be blue.” Well, there’s sky blue, royal blue, midnight blue, etc. Asking for examples can eliminate a lot of guessing. Nothing is more exact than an example.

Note: You can use this proactively as: “Let me show you an example…”

Simon Sinek: The Celery Test

“Simon Sinek?” Yeah, he’s a TED talks guy. Ring a bell? I hope so. He’s also the author of “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” as well as “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t.”

Confession time. I didn’t catch “Start With Why” when it was first published circa 2009. But eventually, a few weeks ago, I found it. That’s all that matters now.

Below is an excerpt from “Start With Why” that begged to be shared. I hope it’s clear: I’m not trying to rip-off Sinek and take food from his mouth. My goal is quite the opposite. It’s a brilliant collection of words so I hope this inspires you to buy the book, and perhaps “Leaders Eat Last” as well.

Simon Sinek: The Celery Test

Also, I’m sure plenty of others have regurgitated (i.e., chewed and spit out) this passage in “their own words” without giving a nod to Sinek. That’s not my style. And if for some reason this article feels like I’m just being lazy, please think again. Thanks.

It’s a simple metaphor called the Celery Test.

Imagine you go to a dinner party and someone comes up to you and says, “You know what you need in your organization? M&M’s. If you’re not using M&M’s in your business, you’re leaving money on the table.”

Somebody else comes up to you and says, “You know what you need? Rice milk. The data shows that all the people are buying rice milk these days. You should be selling rice milk in this economy.”

While you’re standing over the punch bowl, yet another person offers some sage advice. “Oreo cookies,” he says. “We made millions from implementing Oreo cookies in our organization. You’ve got to do it.”

Still somebody else comes up to you and says, “Celery. You’ve got to get into celery.”

You get all this great advice from all these highly accomplished people. Some of them are in the same industry. Some of them are more successful than you. Some of them have offered similar advice to others with great success. Now, what do you do?

You go to the supermarket and you buy celery, rice milk, Oreos and M&M’s. You spend a lot of time at the supermarket walking the aisles. You spend a lot of money because you buy everything. But you may or may not get any value from some or all of these products; there are no guarantees. Worse, if you’re budget-constrained, you had to whittle down your choices again. And then which do you choose?

But one thing’s for sure: when you’re standing in line at the supermarket with all these items in your arms, your celery, rice milk, Oreos and M&Ms, nobody can see what you believe. What you do is supposed to serve as tangible proof of what you believe, and you bought everything.

But what if you knew your WHY before you went to the supermarket? What if your WHY is to do only things that are healthy? To always do the things that are good for your body? You’ll get all the same good advice from all the same people, the only difference is, the next time you go to the supermarket, you’ll buy only rice milk and celery. Those are the only products that make sense. It’s not that the other advice isn’t good advice; it’s just not good for you. The advice doesn’t fit.

Filtering your decisions through your WHY, you spend less time at the supermarket and you spend less money, so there’s an efficiency advantage also. You’re guaranteed to get value out of all the products you bought. And, most importantly, when you’re standing in line with your products in your arms, everybody can see what you believe. With only celery and rice milk it’s obvious to people walking by what you believe. “I can see that you believe in looking after your health,” they may say to you. “I feel the same way. I have a question for you.” Congratulations. You just attracted a customer, an employee, a partner or a referral simply by making the right decisions. Simply ensuring that WHAT you do proves what you believe makes it easy for those who believe what you believe to find you. You have successfully communicated your WHY based on WHAT you do.

This is an idealistic concept and in the real world that level of discipline is not always possible. I understand that sometimes we have to make short-term decision to pay bills or get some short-term advantage. That’s fine. The Celery Test still applies. If you want a piece of chocolate cake, go right ahead. The difference is, when you start with WHY, you know full well that the chocolate cake is a short-term decision that doesn’t fit with your beliefs. You’re under no illusions. You know you are only doing it for the short-term sugar rush and you’ll have to work a little harder to get it out of your system. It’s astounding the number of business I see that view an opportunity as the one that’s going to set them on a path to glory, only to have it blow up or slowly deflate over time. They see the chocolate cake and can’t resist. Starting with WHY not only helps you know which is the right advice for you to follow, but also to know which decisions will put you out of balance. You can certainly make those decisions if you need to, but don’t make too many of them, otherwise over time, no one will know what you believe.

But here’s the best part. As soon as I told you WHY, you knew that we were going to buy only celery and rice milk even before you read it. As soon as I gave you the filter, as soon as I said the WHY, you knew exactly what decisions to make before I said so.

That’s called scale.

With a WHY clearly stated in an organization, anyone within the organization can make a decision as clearly and as accurately as the founder. A WHY provides the clear filter for decision-making. Any decisions—hiring, partnerships, strategies and tactics—should all pass the Celery Test.

The bottom line…If you haven’t read Sinek’s “Start With Why,” now is the time to add it to your 2015 TODO.

Good Traffic vs Bad Traffic

If I had twenty dollars for every time I heard, “My site isn’t getting enough traffic,” I wouldn’t  have to be here writing to you now. Of course, I’m joking. Mostly.

None the less, use your imagination a bit and let’s play through…

Sometimes it goes a step further and we move on to the topic of A/B testing. What a great technique / tool, right? Yes, but how often is the tool used correctly, in the complete and holistic context of the brand?

If you’ve limiting your view to traffic; if you’re limiting your view to the effectiveness of a given A/B test; well then there’s a good chance you’re well, um, limiting your view. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, as long as you’re aware you’re wearing blinders.

Good Traffic vs Bad Traffic

Solving for today does not necessarily mean your individual solutions, lined up end to end, will over the long term translate into a sum of their individual successes. For a 21st century minded brand, 1 + 1 + 1 could equal 3. It’s possible it could equal 2. It’s also possible it could equal 4, or more. The point being, instead of solving for one (and only one) repeatedly (as easy as it might be), doesn’t it make more sense to ask, “What does it take to get to 4 or more?” That’s where the magic happens.

More specifically, you might find that after an A/B test, call to action A is less effective than call to action B. For example, B gets more email list sign-ups than A. Going with B makes sense if your view is limited to building the size of your list this week. However, it’s certainly possible that after six months or twelve months, the net number of subscribers is better with A than B. In other words, B triggers more sign-ups, but it also has a higher percentage of people eventually going for unsubscribed. Is B still superior to A?

Another possibility is A, over time, might have more opens; more clicks from those opens; and/or actually results in more sales. Again, B tested great for sign-ups—and that’s what was tested for—but then B comes up short for other more important metrics. The same can be said for the pursuit of traffic. That is, some traffic is better than other traffic. Growing traffic, even for sites based on a traffic model (i.e., they sell ads), should be done with care and consideration. Are you blowing up or on the cusp of blowing out?

The bottom line…Over-focusing on the wrong things can get you to where you want to go today. However, it might not get you to where you need to go next week, next month; or next year. Once you decide what you want to measure, always be sure to pause and ask why, and if it’s a long term plan builder or a short-sighted feels-good fix.

The Pause is a Milestone

Time and time again the battle call is: Be more productive. Stop doing X, Y and/or Z so you can get more work done. (By the way, please let’s not be foolish enough to still believe multi-tasking is an answer. It’s not. It’s a fool’s game.)

News flash! The brain doesn’t work that way.

That is, the brain, like any muscle, has limits. There are real (i.e., scientific) reasons why there are times you feel like you just can’t think anymore. It’s because you actually can’t think any more.

The Pause is a Milestone

The reality is, to be more productive, less can, and very often is, more. Push harder against the rock your brain has become doesn’t make the rock movable. In fact, you’re probably only making matters worse. Or put another way, there are reasons why you have breakthrough ideas at what seem to be weird moments (e.g., in the shower). Sometimes the brain needs to catch its breath. Sometimes the brain needs silence.

Two related books I’ve read and recommend:

David Rock – “Your Brain at Work”

Daniel Goleman – “Focus”

Yes, Goleman is the “Emotional Intelligence” guy.

You may have also noticed that often breakthroughs come once you start to discuss a problem out loud (usually with a colleague). Verbalization changes how your brain processes the ideas, and sometimes that shift is enough to help see something that previous wasn’t as visible. Verbalizing helps you see the bottleneck differently.

The bottom line…Make time for the pause. Plan for the pause. Because the pause is a milestone.

Brevity, Clarity and Context

I’ll be brief, naturally.

A couple days ago I received a phone call from a colleague. Specifically, it manifested itself as a voice mail. The message was long. It was filled with details; plenty of which were unnecessary and distracting from the core ideas being communicated.

I’m not the voice / phone person I used to be. I believe this is true of more and more people, and probably most people at this point. To be clear, I just don’t expect War & Peace via a voice mail. Does anyone?

Brevity, Clarity and Context

In any case, I confess, I didn’t listen as closely as I should have and botched a minor detail or two. Yes, I was upset with me. I should have known better. It’s not the first time the sender has TMI’ed someone.

That said, my colleague could have done better as well. We all could do better when it comes to be brevity, clarity and context.

The message could have made better use of  brevity. It could have focused on clarity—the necessary highlights for the medium (i.e., voice mail). Finally, it could have probably had some consideration for the context of the receiver (i.e., me). Even a short follow up text message (e.g., “i left a long voice msg, u might want to have pen and paper ready. call me later pls” ) would have been a big help.

Communication isn’t just words or ideas. It requires a mindful sender, as well as a ready, willing and able receiver.

The bottom line…In the words of Frank Luntz (from his book “Words That Work”): “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

Lessons Learned from The World Cup 2014

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s big. Bigger than the Super Bowl big. The it is The World Cup. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

I believe that football / futbol / soccer is much like life itself. You’re not always moving forward to reach the goal. Sometimes you’re on the defensive. Sometime things are slow, sometimes fast. Sometimes what looks like bad news suddenly turns good. It challenges both the body and the mind. In short, football is fluid. It’s like a chess match. A thinking man’s / woman’s sport. A creative man’s / woman’s sport.

As you probably already know, this year’s winner was Germany. And while it’s too early to declare a dynasty there are some well known “tricks” that went into Germany’s process for achieving this massively difficult milestone.

  1. You need a plan. Accidents rarely result in victory—on or off the pitch.
  2. You need a team. Be mindful of the fact that a collection of individual players does not necessarily mean you have a team. As Jim Collins said in the classic Good To Great: “Get the right people on the bus.”
  3. Don’t be star struck. Germany has some serious footballers but none draw the same level of media attention as some of the sport’s (individual) superstars. It’s worth mentioning that Spain—the winner of the 2010 World Cup—had a very similar approach in terms of team development.
  4. Good things come to those who wait. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. In order to be successful you have to be willing to grind it out. Germany’s 1-0 win over Argentina for The World Cup 2014 was 14 years in the making. Yes, 14 years!
  5. Be humble. From the three articles listed below if nothing else please be sure to read: “Mesut Özil donates World Cup winnings to 23 children’s surgeries in Brazil.” You’ll be touched, impressed, and ideally also inspired.

Lessons Learned from The World Cup 2014

The Real Secret to Success

Success in being effective and being efficient is (IMHO) very similar to regular success. That is, it’s not about grand slams and home runs. It’s not even about doubles and singles.

The real magic happens at the plate. It’s about knowing which pitch to swing at, and which to let go. In short, you can’t hit a single—let alone a grand slam—if you’re constantly swinging at the wrong pitch.

For example, many people get all jazzed up about Facebook. “Look at that grand slam!” And those same people get all star-struck about on how far the ball went / is going.

Nope!

The brilliance is that Facebook swung at the right pitch at the right time. Obviously, the swing (i.e., execution) also plays a significant role. But they also didn’t swing at some crap pitch in the dirt.

The bottom line…Mitigate your risk—i.e., increase your chances for success—by staying focused and letting the wrong pitches pass by. Losing focus and swinging at pitches not worth swinging at is not a strategy of the successful.

This article was inspired by:

Scott Hanselman
“Scott Hanselman’s Complete List of Productivity Tips”

Are You Still Trying to do More With Less?

You can’t go too long in today’s business world without someone mindlessly spewing the infamous: “We’ve got to do more with less.” There is little doubt that over the years this has been—and sometimes continues to be—the mantra of some of the best and the brightest business minds. But what if what once was true fades and crumbles into myth? What if the world isn’t what it used to be? What if it’s possible to have too much of a good thing?

Dallas Mavericks owner, serial entrepreneur and (TV show) Shark Tank shark Mark Cuban once said, “If you’re looking where everybody else is looking, you’re looking in the wrong spot.” Furthermore, Malcolm Gladwell in his most recent best-seller “David And Goliath” leans heavily on the concept of The Inverted U. The Inverted U for the sake of this discussion could also be called the Law of Diminishing Returns. (Note: I’m certain there are probably finer points between the two but at this moment’s 50,000 feet let’s just envision them as synonymous, at least for now.)

The point being, less can reach a tipping point where there is so much less that what’s left is not enough to be effective (i.e., competitive and profitable). Makes sense, yes?

I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions and such so please don’t misread the timing of this post. Instead, I want to share with you this epiphany:

“Doing more with less” is out. It is at this point a fool’s game. It’s time to break from the pack. Today I propose that the new black is…”Doing more with better.” That is to shift attention to increasing quality as well as efficiency; to invest in processes and personnel that will continue to add value time and again over the long run; to stop pinching pennies and figure out ways to make dollars; and to seek opportunities with growth-minded organizations and individuals.

Yes, being lean and financially savvy is important. It always has been and it probably always will be. However, if the dollar you save on product / service / employee today leads to lost opportunities tomorrow then you didn’t save anything. You instead (as the cliche goes) shot yourself in the foot. Look around. How many brands and companies to you see hopping around on one foot? Too many, yes?

This is why I recommend you plant both feet back on the ground, define your goals and then commit to a mindset of “Doing more with better.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Truth About Great Designing

Plenty has been said about great design (i.e., the output). Unfortunately, without a thorough and holistic process the output is doomed to (an ever increasing risk of) failure. The foundation to a proper and effective process is understanding. The willingness to ask why. Five whys if possible. You’ve heard of The Five Whys, yes?

In any case, I bumped into this pearl last night:

“You must understand the problem. Deeply and completely. Who is this for? Why do they need it? How are they doing this today? What can’t they live without? This is where the most amount of energy and time should be spent, yet this is where assumptions and dogma tend to trump exploration and deconstruction.”

Read the rest of Delighted App’s “Understand the problem”.

Empowerment to the People

From time to time you come across something deep and provocative that begs, “Share me! Share me please!” This eulogy (of sorts) of Ms. Red Burns, co-founder of the groundbreaking Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU, is one of those times.

I don’t want to babble on unnecessarily and distract you. But before I cut you loose I would like to make note of two things that make this speech unique:

1) Ms. Burns doesn’t use the word innovate / innovation.

2) Ms. Burns doesn’t use the word disrupt.

Now you’re even more intrigued, yes?

Read the full article on Wired.com here:

Let’s Stop Focusing on Shiny Gadgets and Start Using Tech to Empower People
By Margaret Stewart

From Red Burns’ Opening Remarks to New Students at NYU:

“What I want you to know:

That there is a difference between the mundane and the inspired.

That the biggest danger is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.

That any human organization must inevitably juggle internal contradictions — the imperatives of efficiency and the countervailing human trade-offs.

That the inherent preferences in organizations are efficiency, clarity, certainty, and perfection.

That human beings are ambiguous, uncertain, and imperfect.

That how you balance and integrate these contradictory characteristics is difficult.

That imagination, not calculation, is the ‘difference’ that makes the difference.

That there is constant juggling between the inherent contradictions of a management imperative of efficiency and the human reality of ambiguity and uncertainty.

That you are a new kind of professional — comfortable with analytical and creative modes of learning.

That there is a knowledge shift from static knowledge to a dynamic searching paradigm.

That creativity is not the game preserve of artists, but an intrinsic feature of all human activity.

That in any creative endeavor you will be discomfited and that is part of learning.

That there is a difference between long term success and short term flash.

That there is a complex connection between social and technological trends. It is virtually impossible to unravel except by hindsight.

That you ask yourself what you want and then you work backwards.

In order to problem solve and observe, you ought to know how to: analyze, probe, question, hypothesize, synthesize, select, measure, communicate, imagine, initiate, reason, create.

That organizations are really systems of cooperative activities and their coordination requires something intangible and personal that is largely a matter of relationships.

What I hope for you:

That you combine that edgy mixture of self-confidence and doubt.

That you have enough self-confidence to try new things.

That you have enough self doubt to question.

That you think of technology as a verb, not a noun; it is subtle but important difference.

That you remember the issues are usually not technical.

That you create opportunities to improvise.

That you provoke it. That you expect it.

That you make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.

That you communicate emotion.

That you create images that might take a writer ten pages to write.

That you observe, imagine and create.

That you look for the question, not the solution.

That you are not seduced by speed and power.

That you don’t see the world as a market, but rather a place that people live in — you are designing for people, not machines.

That you have a stake in magic and mystery and art.

That sometimes we fall back on Rousseau and separate mind from body.

That you understand the value of pictures, words, and critical thinking.

That poetry drives you, not hardware.

That you are willing to risk, make mistakes, and learn from failure.

That you develop a practice founded in critical reflection.

That you build a bridge between theory and practice.

That you embrace the unexpected.

That you value serendipity.

That you reinvent and re-imagine.

That you listen. That you ask questions. That you speculate and experiment.

That you play. That you are spontaneous. That you collaborate.

That you welcome students from other parts of the world and understand we don’t live in a monolithic world.

That each day is magic for you.

That you turn your thinking upside down.

That you make whole pieces out of disparate parts.

That you find what makes the difference.

That your curiosity knows no bounds.

That you understand what looks easy is hard.

That you imagine and re-imagine.

That you develop a moral compass.

That you welcome loners, cellists, and poets.

That you are flexible. That you are open.

That you can laugh at yourself. That you are kind.

That you consider why natural phenomena seduce us.

That you engage and have a wonderful time.

That this will be two years for you to expand — take advantage of it.”

 

Who is Your Competition?

Recently I was a participant in a conversation / brainstorming session and someone else proclaimed, “If your competition is doing it, you have to do it too.” While my teeth slowly came down on my tongue I thought, “My Gawd, NO! Me-too isn’t a viable strategy. Follow the blind leading the blind? No way man. Where you should be is where your Guests expect you to be.”  However, that does raise the question: Who is your competition?

Back story: In the 90’s I owned an (offline) retail store that sold music (i.e., vinyl records and CDs), as well as clothing and some other things. The “prevailing wisdom” back then was that other businesses similar to Planet X (the name of the store) were the competition. In retrospect that perception was off-target. The competition was not my music retail peers as much as it was the other interests of my customers. For example, video games. When someone spent $50 on a video game then chances were good they didn’t have that $50 to spend on music (or clothing). The competition wasn’t another store in the next town but that the customer believe the best value for his/her buck was something other than what we offered.

Here are two articles that touch upon the new ideal of competition:

“A Winning Playbook” – Kim S. Nash and Lauren Brousell (CIO.com)

“Disrupt of Die” – Kim S. Nash (CIO.com)

With the internet that effect gets magnified, obviously. Pardon me to stating the obvious but at any given moment you are just a click away from losing the attention of your customers to someone or something else. Your competition is now everywhere, 24/7. Obviously, you can not—and should not—be everywhere. In addition, the people (i.e., The Guests) you are trying to reach have a finite amount of time and a finite amount of attention. The possibilities are endless. The answer is to redefine what competition means in decade two of the 21st century.

Here are the new rules for the new game:

  • Step 1: Abandon the myths of the 20th century, especially those that were never true to begin with.
  • Step 2: Think like your Guests. What are their expectations? What does their ideal experience look/feel like? Obsess over that, not the illusion of individual competitors.
  • Step 3: Spend some time in the mirror asking why and when you are your biggest enemy (read: competition). How are you preventing you from identifying and delivering the ideal experience?
  • Step 4: Repeat.

Ready? Set? Go!

Stanford and Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders: Tim O’Reilly

Every now and then you come across something that begs to be shared. This podcast is one of those moments:

Standford’s Entrepreneurship Corner Thought Leaders Series presents Tim O’Reilly

Yes, that’s Mr. Web 2.0 of O’Reilly Publishing fame. While I trust you’ll take the time to listen to Tim, these are the ideas that intrigued me. (Note: Some are quotes, some simply paraphrased, and some are O’Reilly quoting others.)

 

  • Edwin Schlossberg: “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.”
  • Implicit context
  • Embrace hardware as well as software
  • Software above the level of a single device
  • A system in the space between devices…not just a single application
  • The Law of Conservation of Attractive Profits
  • Software is a commodity. Data is the new currency of value.
  • Rethink workflows and the experience
  • Think differently about human / machine symbiosis
  • We don’t have better algorithms. We just have more data.
  • It’s a fairly hard AI problem to pick a traffic light out of a video stream. It’s a trivial AI problem to figure out if it’s red or green if you already know that it’s there.
  • Reputation systems
  • Close the loop
  • What loops can you change? How can you make things smarter? And close the loop?
  • Enable an economy
  • Create more value than you capture
  • Make other people successful
  • Work on stuff that matters
  • Idealism is good for your business
  • Work on things that are hard. Find hard problems.
  • Look a little sideways
  • Code For America (http://CodeForAmerica.org)
  • O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures (http://OATV.com)
  • It’s an ongoing process
  • Find interesting problems that are relevant locally
  • It’s about narrating your work in public
  • Sometimes it takes a long time, keep at it
  • Who do you want your customers to be
  • Subscription is an important business model
  • Sensors (hardware) are talking to software
  • The Maker Movement
  • Square enabled coffee shop

Share this! And listen to it again and gain. You’ll hear a little more each time.

Daniel H. Pink and The Pixar Pitch

After randomly catching a couple intriguing interviews via podcast / radio (see below),  I picked up Daniel H. Pink’s (http://DanPink.com) latest book “To Sell Is Human (The Surprising Truth About Moving Others).” Perhaps you recognize Mr. Pink from one of his previous top-selling efforts, “Drive” or “A Whole New Mind”? To cut a short blog post even shorter, if you’re a fan of Mr. Malcolm Gladwell (http://Gladwell.com), you’ll enjoy Mr. Pink’s communication style.

NPR: Death Of The (Predatory) Salesman: These Days, It’s A Buyer’s Market

Spark (CBC Radio): 202: Selling, Thriving, Developing

Beyond that, I’m not making this effort to deliver an encompassing book review of Pink’s everyone-is-in-sales research-a-thon. There’s no need for that. I’m also not a critic. My intention is simple. I want to share my discovery of Chapter 7’s highlight, The Pixar Pitch.

The chapter begins by proposing that there are six successors to the classic 30 second elevator pitch. Evidently Pink saved the best for last because that’s when The Pixar Pitch is mentioned. Yes, in case you’re wondering, this Pixar is the Steve Jobs’ numberswiki.com

Pixar. Also, if you’re wondering about the other five hits of the post-elevator pitch era you’ll have to buy the book.

In any case, Pink’s proposition is that there are a half dozen optimal ways for making a (sales) pitch. The Pixar Pitch is the formula Pixar uses to craft the movies of its Oscar winning success.

The Pixar Pitch:

Once upon a time {fill in the blank}.

Every day {fill in the blank}.

One day {fill in the blank}.

Because of that {fill in the blank}.

Until finally {fill in the blank}.

Why do I think this simple exercise is brilliant?

As I see it, its potential goes well beyond Pink’s focus, the sales pitch. The Pixar Pitch is the basis for a press release. It’s the framework for brainstorming product development. It could guide the definition of the scope of a brand, website, WordPress plugin, etc. Admittedly, these too must be sold. I would just prefer to inject the Pixar approach further up stream. In other words, sooner rather than later.

The bottom line: The beauty of The Pixar Pitch is that its simple, focus and unavoidably highly effective. Done!

“Figuring it out is the fulcrum,” said the man with the billion dollar smile

Luck favors the prepared, as well as those who keep their eyes and ears open for “opportunities”. (Colleagues who do the same is a big help too.) The truth be told I consider myself quite fortunate to have made time for Steve Papa’s appearance at Princeton University late yesterday afternoon. Aside from being a graduate of Princeton (1994), Papa was also one of the founders of Endeca Technologies. Less than a year ago Endeca was acquired by Oracle for around $1.1 billion.

Here are some of the highlights from my notes:

  • Rule #1 – Ignore the experts. When you’re doing something new there are people who just won’t get it.
  • Learn to succeed despite the odds. Have faith, it’s part of the process.
  • When financial times are tight, sell a painkiller (i.e., a product that increases revenue).
  • Recession, reinvention & re-organization.
  • Main lesson: Ideas <–> Figuring it out <–> Execution. There’s more to it than just ideas and execution. The fulcrum (that few talk about) is figuring it out.
  • “Survivorship bias”—Don’t let early customers over-influence your product / direction. The customer is always right, but not every customer is the right customer at the right time for your company.
  • Being entrepreneurial is the relentless pursuit of credibility.
  • Fact: Entrepreneurs don’t create risk, they mitigate it.
  • Be aware of macroeconomics
  • “It’s always a good time to innovate but there’s not always time for every innovation.”
  • You will hire people who will not do what is good and best for your company. This is particularly true of sales people.
  • With regards to hiring:
    – Repeaters vs creators
    – Doers vs leaders
    – Intellectually curious vs focused
    – Experience vs potential
    – Credibility vs talent, or both?
  • Where the company / product is in the development cycle will drive the specifics of your hiring needs.
  • Key to sales: Timing, territory & talent in that order. [Note: He made it a point to highlight that timing and territory come before talent.]

The two best gems came towards the end of the presentation:

  • Luck plays a bigger role than most will admit. But luck favors the prepared.
  • “I figured out the right approach by process of elimination.”

Needless to say, Steve knows his was around the playing field. Yet much like Jack Dorsey, there was a quiet confidence in Papa’s persona. No chest thumpin’ or other Thump-isms, just simple honest ideas, opinions and facts. Strictly business—humble, human and with a smile.

Some thoughts from Jack Dorsey (The Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, Sept 2012)

Yes, the Mr. Jack Dorsey—inventor of Twitter and founder of Square (the payment platform)—was on the Princeton University campus yesterday for a presentation + Q&A session sponsored by The Princeton Entrepreneurship Club. In front of a full-house in McCosh 10, a casual but poised and polished Dorsey put his mega-success on pause to share some business wisdom with what was primarily tech-aware university students. Fortunately for my colleagues and I, many of the The Princeton Entrepreneurship Club events are open to the public. Apparently, the club doesn’t subscribe to the infamous stealth-mode philosophy.

Here are most of the highlights from my notes:

  • William Gibson: “The future has already arrived. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
  • Constantly! Reset. Rethink. Reorganize.
  • Try to structure your company in such a way that it allows for multiple founding moments.
  • Square’s motto: An idea that can change the course of the company can comes from anywhere.
  • New energy + new people = new ideas
  • Disruption is an undesirable approach. The ultimate objective is revolution.
  • “We need more confidence.”
  • “Square enables people to do what they love.”
  • A beautiful company will lead to a beautiful product (but not necessarily the other way around).
  • Recommended book: “The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership” by Bill Walsh.
  • In speaking about the Golden Gate Bridge, “Small groups of people can do epic things.”
  • Also about the GGB, Dorsey said it was an example of a brilliant combination of engineering, design and utility. He discussed the fact that most people who use the bridge probably don’t consider how magnificent it really is. He added that great things can (and sometimes should) be forgettable.
  • The DNA of the company is essential.
  • Come to meetings prepared.
  • Square has sit-down and stand-up tables. Dorsey drew laughs by adding that the meetings that use the stand-up tables tend to be shorter.
  • Naming the company is important. It sets the tone for everything. Square was finite and fitting, yet at the same time extendable.

Jack Dorsey was refreshing, humble and ego-less. It was often hard to believe that one of the 21st century’s business/technology heavy-weights could be so understated. There was no you’re so lucky I’m here. No, I have all the answers kids so listen to me. It was simply one very successful (young) man’s view of the world, and a sincere willingness to share it.

One of the key takeaways for me was what he didn’t say. He rarely used the word innovation (and dismissed the use of the start-up anthem of disruption). Aside from that, his next most important message was the emphasis on people. Finding the right people to work for his company so those people can develop beautiful products for people in the market who will be excited about its availability. The key was not technology but people. Surprise! Very old school, yes? None the less, Dorsey’s ideas shimmered with pure brilliance. Everything old could be new once again.

What is your IAR (Ideas to Actions Ratio)?

I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done.

We come up with (what has the potential to be) a great idea and then we pat ourselves on the back because we think we’ve done something amazing. As if one idea in the massive and endless universe of all ideas is somehow instantly special. Really? Think about it, what are the odds? It can’t be that simple, can it? Actually, it’s not.

Over the last couple weeks I have apparently been serendipitously blessed with the inspiration and content for this article.  Two fortune cookies and a tweet from Mark Cuban. Yeah, I feel the same way, who knew?

There are no shortcuts to a place worth going.
“There are no shortcuts to a place worth going.”

Sloth makes all things difficult, industry all easy.
“Sloth makes all things difficult, industry all easy.”

Mark Cuban: Ideas are easy. The hard part is making a business.
Mark Cuban: “Ideas are easy I’ve never met a single person who didn’t think they had a world class idea. The hard part is making it a business.”

 

The bottom line…ideas are overrated. Without actions, without follow up, without persistence, without growth, without the glimmer of a plan,  ideas are about as valuables as dandelion seeds aimlessly floating in the wind. Or, as it’s rightfully said, “A penny for your thoughts.”

You’ve got a great idea? Super, you and a gazillion other people. The real question is, what are you ready, willing and able to do about it? What is your Ideas to Actions Ratio?

Lesson in marketing from pop singer Taylor Swift

Earlier this year, after watching the Grammys I wrote a posted titled: “Lessons in business from the soul singer Adele”. So after catching Taylor Swift on 60 Minutes this past Sunday I decided it was time for a similar follow up. Who knows, perhaps I’ll position these pop music inspirations as another series in the AU blogging lexicon. Time will tell.

Watch the video:
http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7411988n

Read the transcript:
http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18560_162-57451731/taylor-swift-a-young-singers-meteoric-rise

Note: Some of these thoughts might be slight repeats from the Adele article. To me this confirms that great minds think alike.

—It’s never too early to start. Ms. Swift has sold millions of downloads, tickets and CDs and she’s barely into her twenties. The 60 minutes piece goes back to her pre-teens. In short, she’s been working towards this for quite some time. How prepared are you and your brand for the long run?

—Be fearless and relentless. Ms. Swift had such a strong vision and belief in herself that she was willing to tell her record company to take a hike. It was they who needed her, not the other way around. Go Taylor! No one loves a wishy-washy brand with no character. On top of that, as a teen she played bars and other venues that were probably less receptive to her and he type of music. None the less, she played though and built strength and confidence. Lesson: The beaten path is for the beaten. A true champion isn’t afraid to build character, learn from that and then press on.

—Be true to yourself and authentic to the world. Rather than sing songs someone else wrote, Ms. Swift insisted she sing her own. How could she be herself if she was merely puppeting someone else? Perhaps this is a lesson Mitt Romney could stand to learn?

—Be engaged with your fans and followers. There are few pop-stars who are successful enough to hide behind the curtain of super-stardom. Clearly, Ms. Swift is one of them. But does she hide? Nope. Before, during and after shows she’s directly engaged with her fans. Are there times she would prefer not to? Of course. But successful brand building isn’t about doing what you want to do, it’s about doing what you need to do to get the job done. Shaking hands might suck but having no hands to shake sucks even more, eh?

—Be engaged with your own brand. Perhaps 60 Minutes was kind to her and edited out shades of control-freak, micro-manager, etc. I don’t think that was the case. Ms. Swift, despite her youth, embraces the fact that no one understands and defines her brand better than she does. She could certainly afford to outsource such things yet she takes the extra time and in turn reaps the benefits. I can think of quite a few adults I know who aren’t this wise on this matter.

—Quality still matters. If tired manufactured controversy sells best and mindless pop fodder is what the people want to hear, then someone please explain Ms. Swift (and Adele). Be wary of those who champion short cuts for they are probably doing so because they lack the wherewithal to stand alone at the top. Simply put, there are no short cuts to being the best. Gimmicks are like cigarettes, one by one they will shorten the life of your brand.

—Be humble. This one I know is a Adele repeat. Great as these two artists are you would never know it. They let their talent, accomplishments and their fans do the talking. There’s not need for excessive bravado and the usual PR cliches. While I don’t want to come across as sexist, I have to wonder if this is a natural advantage women have that testosterone types do not.

Whatever happened to business common sense?

“Disruptive Innovation Made Easy” by Paul Michelman (Harvard Business Review, 7 June 2012). Since launching my work-streamy Chief Alchemist website (http://ChiefAlchemist.com) I’ve tried to reserve Alchemy United for more “original” proactive content, and less in-response-to content. This post actually started on CA but as it developed I decided its thoughts qualify as Alchemy United material. I hope you agree.

This is the comment I left on HBR:

“Each industry has practices that drive customers crazy,” write the authors of Smart Customers, Stupid Companies. Take technology providers’ technical support, with its long hold times “hopelessly complex interactions.” Is there something companies in your industry do that’s just as stupid? “Identify these types of practices, and wipe them out.”

With a fair amount of certainty I believe I can say we’re all in favor of innovation. With that being said, it’s still no substitute for good old fashion execution. Execution that meets Guest (aka customer) expectations. Forget “wow”, today I’m just shooting for “thanks, that’s great.”

Let me give you a perfect example. A couple days ago I was on the deals site Slick Deals (http://SlickDeals.net) and spotted a product at a particularly great price from Adorama (http://Adorama.com). For those who don’t know, Adorama is a well established retailer of (mostly) camera gear. I was so impressed with the price that I ordered ten—shipping was free.

In the end, they only shipped me one (out of ten) and for some reason they charged me for shipping. Other than the traditional “your order has shipped” email I received no out of the ordinary communications from Adorama with regards to my order. This morning I returned to the SlickDeals thread to find I wasn’t the only one who was short shipped as well as mistakenly charged. The short shipping is acceptable. Adorama elected to make more people (probably) less happy. I’m not selfish, I understand. (Note: Some others might not be so kind.)

On the other hand, clearly Adorma knows about the shipping charge glitch, or should know. My (read: everyone’s) expectation is simple…if you want me to want you, don’t make me take time to ask for something that you (the brand) should be proactive to acknowledge and provide. Surely HBR is not suggesting that such things require innovation? Would anyone like to bet that this was not the first time Adorama encountered an exception in their process? Yet, there’s nothing in place to catch that exception and resolve it? Really?

To top is off, I did notice that Adorama had taken liberties to start including me in their email blasts. Again, unacceptable. How about a “You should have received your order by now. Is everything alright? Is there something we can help you with?…” email first? I mention this because my company did just that when I owned a small (seven figures in revenue) e-comm company.  Every new customer got a follow up a day or two after they received their order. Note: That was something we did ten-plus years ago.

My point is, when business common sense is being passed off as innovative then we are all in a lot of trouble. Customers aren’t patting themselves on the back for clicking the Order Now button, or dialing a number on their smart phone. I think it’s time companies stop glorifying themselves about ideas and “innovations” that in 2012 should be as ubiquitous as air.

Innovation as an Ends is Highly Overrated

A couple weeks ago I attended TigerLaunch Startup Challenge 2012 at Princeton University, as hosted by The Princeton Entrepreneurship Club. The keynote speaker was Bill Taylor (Princeton ’81) the co-founder of the iconic Fast Company Magazine. Bill was also one of the judges in the competition. Thought the magic of YouTube, The Princeton Entrepreneurship Club has shared Bill’s keynote.

Bill Taylor keynote at TigerLaunch 2012 (Princeton University) Fast Company

Bill Taylor Keynote: TigerLaunch 2012 (Part 2/3)
Bill Taylor Keynote: TigerLaunch 2012 (Part 3/3)

Based on my now cryptic notes here are the highlights I gleaned from Bill Taylor’s keynote address at TigerLaunch 2012.

  • Be passionate. When someone say no just drive harder.
  • Luck and timing helps.
  • Business plans are written to reflect singles and doubles. The reality is there are strikeouts and home runs.
  • The business plan is a good exercise but it never goes as planned.
  • Be naive, be an outsider, it’s an advantage. Fresh eyes can be as important as experience and expertise.
  • Hire for attitude. Train for skill.
  • Customers!
  • Entrepreneurs must learn to manage emotions and emotional connections.
  • Be memorable.
  • Being smart isn’t enough.
  • Eat your own dog food.
  • “The only thing worse than failing is success.”
  • “Architecture of participation”
  • When crowdsourcing be exact about what you want. Ask for participation everywhere you go.

Good stuff, yes? But wait there’s more…

In total there were eight presentations—Bill Taylor plus seven start-ups. The start-ups were: Collections, Waiter d’, QualTraxx, nat|Aural, DUMA, Pasand and BeneTag. Obviously, there was a lot of creative entrepreneurial energy in the room. However, there was one thing that was (pleasantly) absent. That was the use of the word innovation. There was plenty of talk about customers, business models, technology, growth, etc. but no one seemed to be over-focused on innovation for innovation’s sake. Realistic and refreshing.

Conclusion? Innovation as an ends is highly overrated—as it should be.

Google AdWords: Paying Paul to rob Peter and…you

A few weeks back I received a direct mail offer from Google AdWords. It read: Come back to AdWords and get $100 in advertising credit on us. In the past similar offers were in the $50 to $75 range so this $100 credit certainly caught my attention. My first impression was that Google obviously loved me and that they were sticking to their “Don’t be evil” mantra. I bet you have the same impression.

However, that warm and fuzzy feeling didn’t last very long. About a week ago a client asked me to do another on-demand review of their Google PPC account. I checked this. Tweaked that. And adjusted the next thing. The usual routine. Everything seemed in order except for one thing. All the minimum bids for first page ad placement were up. There seemed to be increases even for campaigns and keywords where there has historically been little interest and movement.

Bingo! And then it hit me.

What’s misleading is that the credit promised isn’t on Google. The reality is that money is coming out of the pockets of anyone else who advertises on AdWords. Think about it. There are a finite number of ad slots/placements. That is, supply is more or less fixed. Suddenly Google injects a large number of $100 credits into the market. That is, Google artificially increases demand. So what happens when supply is static and demand increases? Prices go up.

Bottom line: What Google might lose in giving away that $100 they make it back because those same $100 injections drive up prices across the board. Isn’t being generous with someone else’s money somehow evil?