Archives: February 2006

Competition

Sitting out a snowstorm recently (in Michigan, winter is not done with us yet), my wife and I watched a couple of great documentaries. First was Murderball, a chronicle of the quadriplegic rugby international games. Then it was Mad Hot Ballroom, a doc on the ballroom dancing competition for 11-year-old New York public school kids. Both brilliant films. And because I find it difficult to completely disengage from my love of organizational dynamics, I observed a great lesson for our enterprises in these gems. In both situations, the talent involved had personal, and even physical, challenges to overcome. But what drove the players in each documentary was good-old, plain, in-your-face competition. They wanted to win. Not make this a better world, not meet some greater societal obligation, not satisfy shareholders ... they just wanted to beat their competition. In the case of Murderball, that can be taken literally.

In my work, I have sensed that "winning" hasn't commonly been the driving force for performance. I've seen a lot of attention paid to conformance to specifications, quality indices, productivity measures, etc., but without answering the question "compared to whom?" In both films, the players and dancers had to win several qualifying events before they got a chance to go for the championship. Shouldn't the metrics in our organizations mirror this? Might employees be a bit more engaged if they knew how they were doing against the competition? Shouldn't business literacy include understanding the competition and knowing their game? And the big, somewhat ethical, question: Is it okay to want to put your competition out of business by beating them in the game? I remember the first mission statement from Saturn ... it was simple and clean ... "produce a car that was higher in quality and lower in cost than the Honda Civic." Know the competition and engage the team in beating them?

Open Mouth, Insert Foot?

Boomer & Geezer Women = Many, Many, Many People = Major-Primary Market for Everything = Primary Market+ For Everything Expensive = In Their Prime And Gathering Steam = Seriously Cool = Money, All Of.

No issue.
Period.

So, please explain why last Sunday's New York Times Women's Fashion Spring 2006 section did not even include one model that (I would think) a Boomer-Geezer Woman would identify with? I am sure-as-hell not suggesting that Boomer-Geezer women are not stylish. To the contrary, speaking as a 60-year-old+ male, there's no one sexier than a seriously cool 45-, 55-, 65-year-old woman! She's in her prime. (I'm not.) And she looks confidant and ready to take on & take over the world. But she (sure-as-hell) doesn't look like any of the humanoids sporting clothes in that fashion section of the Times. I'll be the first to admit that I am not "allowed" to be a judge on this topic—except for the stupendous nature of the market opportunity. Somebody/s—preferably women—please, please, please explain!

More Reading

I'm not ready to acclaim the following book "best of." And I'm just starting it. But agree with it or not, I think the hypothesis is fascinating and well worth pondering. "It": Daniel Nissanoff, FUTURESHOP: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell, and Get the Things We REALLY Want.

Web Power Redux

Not that any of what follows will surprise you. Nonetheless it as usual reminded me that it is a spanking new world. Speech to Aetna tomorrow. Long Google search. Great stuff, sure. But to get a flavor of "Aetna world," I even found myself reading legal documents from wee lawsuits from single individuals about a tiny topic (not to the litigant, of course) involving some aspect of claims handling or settlement. The "flavor" I picked up was priceless—and so, so easy to obtain.

A+ in Usability. Motley Fool. I wanted to dig pretty deep, and as is often the case (and fair, as I see it) I had to register to make an archival search. The registration and confirmation process took less than 30 seconds—and I'm a very slow typist. Kudos!

Re PowerPoint discussion of a couple of days ago, fonts.com is very cool.

Web = Ubiquitous = Duh.

Chocolate … and More

I fell in love with Tom Peters when I saw him on a webcast with Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi, back in December '04, talking about Lovemarks. I, too, am incredibly passionate about branding and delighted when I come across a company that "gets" the customer experience and knows how to have fun.

My new love is Graffiti Zoo, a chocolate and spice company. I discovered Graffiti Zoo while touring the chocolate exhibit at the History Museum in Atlanta a week ago. At the end of the exhibit, there was a room full of chocolate ... lots of different brands offering lots of different flavors. Not your everyday M&Ms, but unique products not sold in your typical grocery store. As I strolled with delight contemplating eating everything in sight, Graffiti Zoo jumped out at me—its name and packaging struck me in a unique way. Unlike most other chocolates that were in the form of bars, this chocolate was in a little white bag with simple black and white text. "Hmmmm, I wonder what's inside?" I thought. And, "Where does the name Graffiti Zoo come from?" Then, I saw that they "donate a percentage of [their] profits to The Conservation Endowment Fund of the American Zoo & Aquarium Association. ... the CEF has greatly advanced the mission to serve & protect the wonders of the natural world." Not only am I a certified chocoholic, but also a lover of animals and nature. It's a match made in heaven! Then I explored their different flavors: Zebras, Espresso Geckos, Barking Dogs, Bohemian Tree Frogs, Chilean Fire Ants, Moroccan Elephants, and, the one I picked, Pink Flamingos ("Crunchy Milk Chocolate, with the Tropical Flavors of Red Cherries & Fresh Coconut"). Mmmmmm ... those didn't last long.

I was so excited about the product, I decided to send some to my parents (I inherited my sweet tooth from my mother). I ordered several different flavors and had them shipped directly to their home (I considered stopping off at one of the local retailers, but I was afraid I'd eat it all before I could get it shipped). Two days later the box arrived at their doorstep. My mother couldn't wait to tell me it arrived ... packaged in a black bag with 3 different colors of tissue paper and a bright blue bow, each flavor of chocolate individually wrapped inside, each with its own story. I asked my mother to share her favorite, which it turns out is from the package of Moroccan Elephants (smooth milk chocolate with the passion of orange zest & spicy ginger):

The tree frog & elephant were an unlikely pair, as they traveled the world together. The elephant lumbering quietly along, with the frog riding high in the air. The tree frog would perch on the elephant's ear and whisper so softly, "go this way my dear" ... pointing out the trees & succulent leaves for the elephant to munch upon ... Because the poor elephant, as smart as she was, had misplaced her spectacles & could only see fuzz. Her world was a blur, but it didn't deter the elephant from exploring new lands. ... So off they went, to travel the world for they were the best of friends ...

I hope you'll discover Graffiti Zoo, too.

The Big Read

Tower of BooksHaven't done a "What I'm reading" in a while. Embarrassed at how much stuff is sitting in the nearby pile, and the fact that I'm not comfortable going on so short as a two-day trip (tomorrow, to CA) with less than a dozen books. (But what if I were hijacked or ended up in the hospital?)

Hence, in three categories ...

Incredible/Life-altering!

Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. My (not so) secret passion-compulsion is statistics. Reading these two books honestly (heaven help me) makes my hands shake with excitement.

Forget means, medians, and modes—all three are downright dangerous. It's looking at the whole distribution of data that leads to the great insights (and helps us avoid the stupidest of errors). Taleb is new to me, and stunning; but I'm re-reading Full House for perhaps the 6th or 7th time—what a collection of dog ears! (Love this: Taleb is the Dean's Professor of the Sciences of Uncertainty at the Isenberg School of Management at U Mass/Amherst—my God, signs of intelligent life in a B.School!)

One practical implication in my-our world: We pay far too much attention to the giants of industry, and far too little attention to the far more numerous pygmies which rarely even make it into our data sets; consider China, whose productivity is a wee fraction of ours, and not really catching up all that fast—its jillions of farmers, for example, are among the world's least productive people while our farmers (and hair salons and tanning salons and spas) are by and large computerized relative marvels of productivity. As to the "life altering" in the title, I can no less than guarantee that if you train yourself to look at and assess full distributions instead of the likes of simple-minded trend lines that ignore 98% of the data, your life will never be the same!

Non-fiction

Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. (Opening epigraph: "A shoe factory sends two marketing scouts to a region of Africa to study the prospects for expanding business. One sends back a telegram saying, SITUATION HOPELESS STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES. The other writes back triumphantly, GLORIOUS BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY STOP THEY HAVE NO SHOES.") Frank Smith, The Book of Learning and Forgetting. Derrick Jensen, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. (These two set the conventional wisdom about how we learn on its ear—now, if only some of the "teach-to-test" goons were listening!) Robert Crease, The Prism and the Pendulum: The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments in Science. (Hey, I love the history of science—it's so, so far from the "logical," "emotionless" process that most conjure up.) Fred Siegel, The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life. (Goes beyond 9/11 to examine the 75 years of decay in NYC that Giuliani successfully faced down against all odds—reminds me of Margaret Thatcher's "turnaround" in the UK.) Tom Lewis, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. (Radio's impact was arguably as great as the Internet—watching this technological and social revolution unfold is both instructive and fun; I love stories of unintended consequences.) Sir Ranulf Fiennes, Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism, and Scott's Antarctic Quest. (I'm a "Scottie," and one could argue we have more than enough books on the subject and the man—this one, however, is the first by an explorer, probably the most intrepid explorer of the last 75 years.) Fara Warner, The Power of the Purse: How Smart Businesses Are Adapting to the World's Most Important Customers—Women. (This is a re-re-read; I simply need to absorb these "first ever" detailed cases on one of the most important opportunities business faces or, rather, fails repeatedly to face.) Kerry Patterson et al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. (Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations are arguably the two most powerful business books of the last 10 years—if you take them aboard.)

Fiction

Marshall Browne, Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools. Bill Eidson, The Repo. Mark Helprin, A Dove of the East and Other Stories. (Helprin is an amazing writer who can develop character in a paragraph better than most can in 400 pages; his A Soldier of the Great War may be my favorite work of fiction.) John Lawton, A Little White Death. Carl Hiaasen, Double Whammy. (I'm late to Hiaasen, but hell bent on catching up.) Juris Jurjevics, The Trudeau Vector.

Yes, Virginia, There Surely Is a "New Economy."

Still doubt there's a "new economy"? Harvard's endowment is so mighty it makes university bosses worldwide quake in awe. A Harvard prof-pal, returning from a research stint in Silicon Valley, reports that Sergey Brin and Larry Page's net worth exceeds that fabled Haaavaad endowment. (Maybe deposed prexy Larry Summers is angling for a Google job ... with options?)

Washington (G.) in Winter

Those of you who inhaled, as I did, David McCullough's 1776 will remember that 230 Februarys ago George Washington and his ragtag, disease-ridden army were holding the British at bay during a very nasty winter in Boston. Saturday I was traversing the Boston Public Garden as snow began to fall. I thought of a snowy February 1776 as I walked past GW's statue.

George Washington Statue

By the way, Washington looked about as good on a horse in reality as he does in statues like this. The uncommonly tall & perfectly postured General was one of the Colonies' best and most graceful-elegant horsemen. I mention this because Washington's purposefully self-managed demeanor was essential to the Army's success—the General's bearing per se went a long way toward convincing the British that we were a force to be reckoned with. (Hint: We weren't.) Thus Washington's "Brand You abilities" carried the day those 230 winters ago! (Or that's the way I see it.)

Lessons from Ray & David

I loved the movie Ray, not least for its wonderful lesson about staying power. Though Ray Charles faced any number of hurdles, some self-inflicted, he sustained largely by continually re-inventing himself in a fundamental way. To his handlers' and sponsors' chagrin he'd scrap a successful genre and try something completely different that had captured his fancy. This Saturday I went to see a magnificent show of David Hockney's portraits, opening in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. As with Ray, I was struck by the fact that Hockney had abruptly and radically changed direction on a half dozen, if not a dozen, occasions—and he too had left something very good-productive-lucrative behind, that had in no way petered out, to follow that new and untried path.

Though the sample discussed here is just two in number, I believe there is a significant truth at work. Those (individuals, institutions such as Apple) who have the nerve to move in a very new direction while the "cash cow" is still producing a vigorous torrent of milk mightily enhance the odds of lasting success.

More Big Ben!

Seems as though Ben Franklin invented most everything worth inventing including effective American diplomacy. A couple of wonderful comments on an earlier post suggest that he merits these two additional accolades: First Blogger. Father of Open Source.

Nice!