Archives: December 2009

New Year's 2010

To begin with, one needs two or three Posts rather than one. That is, a "spoiled brats" Post for the 90% of employed Americans and Europeans and Japanese and a few others. We live high off the hog. Period. And for all the Great Recession's pain, it's hard to feel sorry for us. Then there are those in rich countries who are on the short end of the stick, and there are millions upon more millions of these folks. The third Post should at least acknowledge the billions who are at or below subsistence—and add to this Group III the millions trapped in wars and civil wars and the like.

In my own "Group I World," a single word is on my mind, and it was there before the Christmas Day NWA/terrorist fiasco.

The word: Resilience.

I expect my computer to work—and the rest of my electronics as well.
I expect my car to start—and for gas to be plentiful.
I expect safe food.
I expect my two stepsons to make it home for holidays.
I expect ...
I expect ...

I've got a generator for the farm house that I bought in a super-cautious moment prior to Y2K. And a six month supply of meds that my doc suggested at the time of the bird flu scare.

And I spent two years in Vietnam.

But I'm soft. I expect everything I need to work, and small disruptions piss me off.

I have no plans to become a survivalist—though my VT farm is a pretty good place to be in that regard. But I do plan to think about "it" a little more than I have.

As I said, I planned to write about resilience prior to our terrorist scare. Namely because, as I parse the evidence as a non-expert, I think the odds are high that the next 10 years will bring a major terror event, maybe another financial crash, and so on.

Half-assed as it is, I'll leave it at that, leave it at a call for explicit attention resilience.

There are five other mini-segments to present in this New Year's 2010 Post. The first comes from writing my new book. It's really largely about the "basics," and in particular about thoughtfulness and civility. I think thoughtfulness-civility-grace-decency-kindness-appreciation pays off ... Big Time ... on the bottom line. And I think it pays off when you look in the mirror or raise your kids. And, incidentally, I think it's directly related to resilience—that is, going gently in the world serves the community and keeps the heat (emotional reaction to tough news) a little lower.

The third word is serve. In my new book I call leadership a "sacred trust,' and I think it is. To steal shamelessly from Robert Greenleaf, I am a keen fan–adherent of "servant leadership." Leaders work for those who "report to" them—not vice versa.

Word four: contribute. We Group I-ers (see above) simply have an obligation—a pressing obligation—to give back and lend a helping hand. I live in an other-than-high-wage community, and I deeply deeply appreciate the enormous amount of time and energy my wife is contributing as Board leader of our local daycare center. (This is hardly her first major act of community service-leadership; it's simply the one most on my mind at the moment.) Contradicting to some extent my Group III mention above, I am a strong adherent, assuming you're not Bill Gates, of supporting (time, $$) local efforts where you can have direct impact. (Perhaps from local "fanatic" service will grow the desire to expand the stage on which you work.)

Next up, and next to last is ... learn. The best way to stay fresh and vibrant, and thence useful, in my opinion, is to seek new experiences and learning opportunities. Like all of these "words," it takes thoughtfulness (planning) and work—though presumably this work, in every case, should largely be an act of joy.

The final word? My old friend ... EXCELLENCE. I never get tired of it, and I hope you don't either. It's a wonderful standard, a wonderful aspiration, a wonderful way of life (the aspiration to).

So my Aim2010 is to focus on these words:


Doing so hardly solves the problems of Africa, or the "gendercide" I wrote about yesterday (girls being killed-murdered by the million for no reason other than being girls). And for that I apologize.

In any event, may your year be one of peace and health and energetic engagement and exploration.



A.W.O.L. again!

The new book, The Little BIG Things, due out on 9 March, is based on the blog, and was supposed to be mostly done when we started!


The last few days, Erik and Cathy and Shelley and I have been going over the manuscript yet again—probably about major revision #7 (??). But now we're done.

(For now.)

(What Can I Say?)

Christmas mostly meant books. Hence I found myself at 9 p.m. last night, with the Tinmouth VT temperature already down to -8°F, sitting across from the fire with, yes, no less than 11 new books on the coffee table beside me:

Piracy: The Intellectual Capital Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, by Adrian Johns. An exhaustive and bizarrely detailed look at intellectual capital's status through the ages, courtesy, what else, a University of Chicago prof. (This is going to be an amazing learning experience for me—and no idea is more basic to tomorrow's economy, which, like it or not, will be based almost exclusively on intellectual property, not manufacturing.)

Resistance: A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France, by Agnès Humbert. The first English translation of an extraordinary French war diary published in 1946; I am mesmerized by the moral choices represented by the German occupation of France—what would I have done???????????????? (We all think we are people of great character, but when the crunch comes ...)

Verdun, by Jules Romains, 1937. A towering novel about inhumanity ... and folly!!!! ... in World War I.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. More women are killed in any given decade just because they are women ("gendercide," as the authors call it) than the total number of people killed in all the 20th century's genocides. This book is the Mother of all Wake-up calls, or should be! (There is a lot of good news here, too, about action being taken by "real people" "on the ground.")

Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War, by Terry Brighton. The generals were almost the least of it in this retelling. Virtually every major battlefield decision by the Brits and Yanks was driven by national politics far more than the situation on the ground. (E.g., my beloved Mr. Churchill, and I mean it, squandered God knows how many British boys' lives to beat the Americans to the punch in North Africa in order to shore up his sagging political fortunes of the moment in the House of Commons.)

The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown, by Thomas Fleming. Turning the victory of 1781 into the birthing of a democratic nation was no sure thing—and that's an understatement. Oh dear, what a mess the real world is! (Life = Muddling through.)

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The ultimate biography of perhaps our most politically savvy politician ever—published in 1976. Again, I get off on the political machinations of the real world—incidentally, just about as pervasive in Big Corporate World as on Capitol Hill. ("Politics is life. The rest is details."—bumper sticker not yet printed, by Tom Peters. "If you don't 'do politics,' you don't do 'do.'"—bumper sticker not yet printed, by Tom Peters.)

The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs, by Michael Belfiore. Established in 1958 after the Russian Sputnik launch, DARPA has an amazing history, first revealed here, in 2009. And if you don't think the government has a big role to play in R&D, think again!

7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores War in the 21st Century, by Andrew Krepinivich. Frightening scenarios not in the least bit farfetched. I am not an alarmist, or at least I don't think I am, but Detroit should remind us that we most likely ain't seen nothing yet—be prepared, and don't imagine that the madness of this past decade is some sort of anomaly!

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, Amanda Ripley. Extraordinary analysis, in a 2008 book, of surviving (or not) amidst calamities. Among its messages: (1) the real people at the scene, witness NWA/Detroit, are far more important than the so-called "first responders" who are never first; and (2) a little bit of prep can go a long way—one woman had practiced walking downstairs now and again in the Twin Towers, and calmly walked down on 9/11 while people on average were in a state of paralysis for 6 minutes; she was hardly "over-prepped," but, like checklists in hospitals, the "little stuff" can make a BIG difference, such as life vs. death!

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande. Simple checklists, say the hard data, save more lives in hospitals than the most sophisticated equipment! Or as I like to put it, much as I love Gawande (I do, I do), doctors-discover-the-real-world-and-find-it-interesting (gosh, next thing we know the docs will begin backing up their judgments with evidence). (Hospital safety, alas, an oxymoron, and the failure to be informed by evidence, are a disgrace with horrifying consequences.*)

*NB: I am obsessed with health care, that is, patient safety and "evidence-based medicine." Hence I am unable, in reference to Gawande's book, to not gratuitously offer up this set of quotes I previously collected:

"America's elites are very good at attracting money and prestige, and they have a huge technology arsenal with which they attack death and disease. But they have no positive medical results to show for it in the aggregate and many indications that they are providing lower-quality care than the much-maligned HMOs and assorted St. Elsewheres."—Best Care Anywhere: Why VA Healthcare Is Better Than Yours, Phillip Longman

"The medical system has been unable to turn proven remedies into everyday care.* [*More: 55% chance of "receiving the best recommended care—which means getting scientifically appropriate, evidence-based medical treatment."] Half the people who need to be treated to prevent heart attacks are not treated and half who are treated are treated inadequately. Patients go home with the wrong drugs or the wrong doses or misimpressions about the importance of taking their medications."—The New York Times, from John Hammergren & Phil Harkins, Skin in the Game:How Putting Yourself First Today Will Revolutionize Health Care Tomorrow

"Study: Medical Errors Affect 20 Percent of Patients"—headline, Boston Herald

"1-in-7 Chance of Medical Mishap: Health Ministry Report"—headline, the Press, Christchurch, New Zealand (quote refers to odds of a screw-up during a hospital stay)

"The Institute of Medicine calculated that drug errors [on average, one per patient per visit—various sources; some estimates go as high as one-per-patient-per-day on average] alone add on average nearly $5,000 to the cost of every hospital visit." —Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, Shannon Brownlee

"Hospital infections kill an estimated 103,000 people in the United States a year, as many as AIDS, breast cancer and auto accidents combined. ... Today, experts estimate that more than 60 percent of staph infections are M.R.S.A. [up from 2 percent in 1974]. Hospitals in Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands once faced similar rates, but brought them down to below 1 percent. How? Through the rigorous enforcement of rules on hand washing, the meticulous cleaning of equipment and hospital rooms, the use of gowns and disposable aprons to prevent doctors and nurses from spreading germs on clothing and the testing of incoming patients to identify and isolate those carrying the germ. ... Many hospital administrators say they can't afford to take the necessary precautions."—Betsy McCaughey, founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (New York Times)

"When I climb Mount Rainier I face less risk of death than I'll face on the operating table."—Don Berwick (Harvard med school, founder of the campaign to save 100,000 lives)

(Brand You)

The "Brand You" idea is about 20 years old now, but some folks are just coming in contact with it. One entrepreneur sent me a wonderful "thank you for the idea" email yesterday, referring to his first exposure to Brand You. BY has been praised and also has often been pilloried, and I replied with this:

"A lot of people have taken the Brand You idea and twisted it out of shape. 'They' say it's about egocentrism. That's off by 180 degrees as far as I'm concerned. The idea is that in a wildly competitive market, each of us, including Marriott housekeepers, has to be clear about our 'value proposition' and so-called USP. It's a matter of survival, not ego. Others have said Brand You is disloyal, a looking out for #1 attitude that puts the organization 2nd. Again, off by 180 degrees as I see it. I'd rather go to work with a stable of Brand Yous, hell bent on improving and producing Excellence, than with a bunch of 'just passin' the time' folks. Third, some say Brand You is anti-team. Again, all wrong. An effective Brand You is an effective networker (!!), hence more rather than less likely than usual to pay attention to supporting his or her mates."

This is just an "FYI."

Merry Christmas …

... from Tom and all the rest of us at

Business Book(s) of the Year

There were a ton of books on the financial crisis, many of which were quite good. My favorite came from the Financial Times' prize-winning reporter–editorialist Gillian Tett. Namely: Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe. (Hats off to the FT in general for reporting on the crisis—my FT "take" beats my Wall Street Journal take 4 days out of every 5.) (Ms. Tett notwithstanding, I believe the best way to get your reading head around the current mess is to read Michael Lewis's 1989 classic, Liar's Poker.)

As to best book by a "finance guy," it's no contest! The gold to Vanguard Mutual Fund Group founder John Bogle for Enough. The chapter titles tell the story. Here's a sample:

"Too Much Cost, Not Enough Value"
"Too Much Speculation, Not Enough Investment"
"Too Much Complexity, Not Enough Simplicity"
"Too Much Counting, Not Enough Trust"
"Too Much Business Conduct, Not Enough Professional Conduct"
"Too Much Salesmanship, Not Enough Stewardship"
"Too Much Focus on Things, Not Enough Focus on Commitment"
"Too Many Twenty-first Century Values, Not Enough Eighteenth-Century Values"
"Too Much 'Success,' Not Enough Character"

As to the overarching theme of the book, Mr. Bogle begins with this vignette: "At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, 'Yes, but I have something he will never have ...

My "best management book" award goes to my old pal (pal = full disclosure) and Fast Company co-founder Alan Webber for Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself. From the beginning ("Rule #1: When the going gets tough, the tough relax") to the middle ("Rule #26: The soft stuff is the hard stuff") to the end ("Rule #52: Stay alert! There are teachers everywhere"), Alan doesn't miss a single beat in 52 tries. My runner-up, by a heartbeat, in the management book category is The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It, by Christine Pearson and Christine Porath. Decent behavior pays off, big time, and never more than in tough times—this is not a "be good" book, it's a "make money" book.

Now, to the Grand Prize Winner, my "Best Business Book 2009." The Gold goes with delight to retail guru George Whalin for Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America. Mr. Whalin is our tour guide to Excellence, and his first stop is, naturally, Fairfield, Ohio, home to Jungle Jim's International Market. The adventure in "shoppertainment," as Jungle Jim's calls it, begins in the parking lot and goes on to 1,600 cheeses and, yes, 1,400 varieties of hot sauce—not to mention 12,000 wines priced from $8 to $8,000 a bottle; all this is brought to you by 4,000 vendors from around the world. Like virtually all the stores in this book, customers flock to the doors from every corner of the globe. Then there's Abt Electronics in Chicago, Zabar's in Manhattan, and Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frakenmuth, Michigan—a town of just 5,000. Bronner's 98,000-square-foot "shop" features the likes of 6,000 Christmas ornaments, 50,000 trims, and anything else you can name if it pertains to Christmas.

And: The Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
And: Junkman's Daughter in Atlanta.
And: Smoky Mountain Knife Works in Sevierville, Tennessee.
And: the grand finale, finishing where we started—in Ohio; This time the spotlight is on Hartville Hardware in Hartville OH.

George Whalin's winning stores demonstrate–prove so many (heartening) things:

You can create a worldwide attraction and thrive as an independent in the Age of the Big Box retailer!
You can do anything!
You can be from anywhere!
You can make any-damn-thing ... bizarrely-amazingly-stupendously-special!

I think Whalin's message is perfect for 2009. We will, over the long haul, rebound from our colossal economic and unemployment mess on the backs of our entrepreneurs. The big guys may re-stock their payrolls a bit, but the generals, GE and GM, ain't the answer. And among the entrepreneurs, only a few, statistically, will be from Silicon Valley. To be sure, the best of the sexy entrepreneurs spawn whole new industries, but the blocking and tackling when it comes to jobs and productivity will come from Sevierville TN and Fairfield and Hartville OH and Frankenmuth MI and a hundred hundred other towns and small cities whose names, mostly, you haven't heard of.

When I initially blogged about Retail Superstars, I said, "I guarantee that any reader—from anywhere, in any business—can learn something from this book." I believe that. And because of that, Mr. Whalin takes home the Gold. (FYI: A great companion to Retail Superstars is Bo Burlingham's 2005 Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big.)

And so it goes ...


A commenter named Norman Wei recently asked Cathy if Tom rehearsed repeatedly before getting in front of the camera for one of his videos. We were pretty sure we knew the answer, but checked with Tom. Here's what he said:

"There's less of an easy answer than you'd imagine. I do not rehearse in the formal sense. On the other hand, I come close to staying up all night before a speech going over my slides—over and over and over. Perhaps over 100 times???? Of course I formally modify the slides, to the point of de-emphasizing one word and emphasizing (italics) another. But as I go through the slides I am also sub-consciously, semi-consciously going through phrasing I might use. So in a way it's damn near rehearsal, though you're also right in that the main rehearsal is 3,000 or so speeches over about 31 years."

Link Roundup #10

On NPR's Marketplace, Cool Friend Rosabeth Moss Kanter talks about Peter Drucker's principles, starting with "First was the importance of a company having a sense of mission or a purpose."

Tom pointed us to this article in the Wall Street Journal, "Temporary Workers and the 21st Century Economy," by Jody Greenstone Miller. It foresees a world where most people have several part-time jobs rather than one for 40 (plus) hours every week. A new book to appear in the U.S. in January, And What Do You Do? names this trend: Portfolio Careers. The British authors Katie Ledger and Barrie Hopson offer practical tools to help you determine if you are suited to this grab-bag approach to work and what types of work you'd prefer. Read more at their website, [Full disclosure: Katie Ledger is the wife of one of our UK consultants, David Pilbeam, but the coincidence of its timing in step with Tom's noticing the article on the same subject was too much for me to ignore. Besides, I liked the book.]

We normally don't promote events. But for all the visual thinkers in our audience who might be able to make their way to San Francisco in March, you really shouldn't miss Cool Friend Dan Roam's two day seminar. Not only is he a talented guy (read: you'll learn a lot), but he's a lot of fun to spend time with.

We love this story in the Financial Times, "Room to Read's results in Sri Lanka." It's about children who love books, and the success of the program founded by Cool Friend John Wood in bringing the two together.

Joy Stauber, the designer responsible for the fantastic banners at (watch for a new one on Monday, the first day of winter), has a manifesto up at ChangeThis: Brands Are People Too. The point being that "however a brand is born [invariably started by people], it has to have a personality that people connect to." Yes!

Dear God!

So my aunt, age 94 (??), being treated for a little lung goop with meds. (No such thing as "little" at that age.) Apparently it's getting better but not 100%. She goes to see a doc and he says she'll need surgery. (Big deal for any of us, VERY big deal at her age.) She insists on X-rays first. X-rays performed. She goes back to doc, asks if she needs surgery. His answer: No.

Why the hell did he quick trigger on a major diagnosis for a 94-year-old w/o "simple" evidence? Bastard!

Same aunt, some joint trouble. (Ain't it true of all of us post-55.) Referred to physical therapist. Referring doc says she'll need to stay in med facility for several days, not return to her small condo in assisted living center. She sees therapist, asks why she can't go home, describes her place in great detail. He says, "Of course you can go home."

What I've just described is inexcusable medical practice, especially for a 90+ patient, where odds of problems from surgery or significant in-patient stay are sky high; hence one should be twice as careful in making diagnosis.

Classic-garden variety outcome where overtreatment would most likely have been the result if she'd not been at the top of her game. Most, half her age, wouldn't have made the enquiries she made.

Alas, health reform package barely touches on this.

False Dichotomy!
(If Anything, Backwards!)

I was asked to contribute "a paragraph" to a writer who was doing a magazine article on "management" "versus" "leadership."

Herewith my contribution:

"It is sometimes said that the difference between 'management' and 'leadership' is 'doing things right' versus 'doing the right thing.' I think that's nuts. In fact, let's assume there is a 'doing things right' and a 'doing the right thing.' Well, both are of equal importance, and if anything 'doing things right' takes precedence. Another way to put it is that having an 'excellent strategy' is approximately worthless unless execution is equally 'excellent.' Far more things fail to come to fruition because of lousy execution than because of lousy strategy. ('Execution is strategy' is the way a boss of mine, Fred Malek, put it waaaaaay back in the 1970s.) Hence my 'take no prisoners' 'bottom line' is that 'doing things right' is as much a part of effective leadership as 'doing the right thing.'"—Tom Peters/1217.09

Comments ...