Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘excellence’ Category

On madness, models of failure, and the mythology of past successes

I have been thinking a lot about success and failure in business this past week, and about behavioral patterns and common cultural factors I invariably find in organizations that breed either one outcome or the other. I will dive deeper into this topic over the coming weeks, but for now, today, I want to show you something. Something that, at first glance, I found funny. Not knee-slapping, LOL-inducing haha-funny, mind you. Something funny yet tragic, because it illustrates not only the stupidity of the way some organizations cling to anachronistic models of failure, but the absurdity of it in its whole.

We’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s just say that what I received today, what prompted this post, made me wonder about the sanity of the person who thought it wise to send it to me. And this made me think about why some managers insist on never letting go of strategies and tactics which they know don’t work.

Point #1: Knowing full well that a method, tool or model no longer yields the desired outcome (assuming it ever did), some organizations will continue to bet on it, in the hopes that the laws of the universe will shift in the night and miraculously turn a completely ludicrous project into success.

The partial email I will share with you may make many of you chuckle, as I chuckled when I read through the first few sentences, but in truth, there really isn’t anything funny about it, and here’s why: As extreme as this example of stupidity may seem, the principles which guided the hand of a business to drive this campaign, to assign resources to it (writers, staff, computers, software licenses, chairs, desks, office space, electricity, lights, etc.) are no different from the principles that guide tens of thousands of companies to also cling to their own proven methods of failure.

That organizations, then, would cling to such ill-advised models in the face of logic, in the face of common sense even, I can almost understand. Not every organization or department is helmed by the sharpest mind of its generation. I get that. But more shocking to me is that this type of absurd behavior – this level of abject stupidity when it comes to discerning between effective and ineffective models – occurs in face of facts, and by that, I mean hard data and history, ignored, pushed aside in favor of a mythology of past successes.

Let the notion sink in for a moment. Mythology of past successes. The myth that the organization was once successful, and the further notion that the methods it employed then, if employed now, will restore it onto its successful path. A past success, mind you, that more often than not only exists in the minds of those who cling to its dream, therefore invalidating the very methods which they so revere.

Point #2: Imaginary past successes and glories are potent illusions – they aim to set the stage for future ones after all – but as poisonous and lethal as memories of painful lost loves: Embellished over time by the mind’s gentle healing hand, polished to a high sheen that grows brighter in magnificence with every passing year.

A man, in the embrace of weakness, can find himself trading the inconvenience of reality for the comfort of such an illusion, and as the mind is trained to do in order to help us survive tragedy, begin to turn the pain and reality of failure into something seemingly beautiful and pure. Faced with the prospect of further failure, facts go out the window. Reality seeks to be disproved. The mind begins to look for safety and comfort.  All that eventually remains is the legend of “the good old days,” and the notion that a higher power (even in the form of abstract “business cycles”) will come and make things right if only one perseveres in holding on to the past long enough.

Fisher Kings, organizational dysfunction, and engineering cultures of failure

This is something a C.E.O. told me years ago, when he and I were discussing the future of his company: “This is how we’ve always done it. It’s always worked for us. We’re not about to start doing it differently now.”

Except it hadn’t worked in twenty years, everyone knew it – as I suspect he did as well – yet there he was, defending the sanctity of a model that had already begun to fail a full generation ago and showed no promise of deliverance whatsoever. Embattled and failing, the company yet refused to let go of a past it had turned for itself into legend. Religion, even. This man, this grown man, clung to the safety of a myth of success the way an anxious child in the face of uncertainty clings to the hand of his mother.

The reality of the company’s past “success,” (the basis, in his mind, for the inevitable return of fortune as foretold by his internal narrative – the myth he created for himself over years of wishful thinking) was that the company had never, in fact, been all that successful. It had struggled, as all companies do, for market share, for growth, for loyal customers. What success it had enjoyed for a time had been hard-earned and modest at best.  There had never been glory. There had never been true sustained market leadership. The man sitting across from me was operating under a spell of denial which he had – over time – infused into his organization. The Fisher King retold.

One doesn’t have to be clinically insane to act like a madman but this one, afflicted as he was by his fears, by his bitterness, by his anger, by his own inner demons of self-doubt and shame, in retreating into a world of make-believe, was in fact acting like a madman: Working against all reason and common sense. Rather than steer his ship to warmer waters and favorable winds clearly discernible just ahead, he chose to keep to the murky, brackish waters he now believed had once been a glorious ocean. He painted himself the C.E.O. of a successful company, whose brand would someday regain dominance. A dominance to be regained again as its birthright, or so the tale went inside his head. This in spite of inaction, of denial, of stupidity and a surprising level of arrogance.

The places we allow ourselves to drift to and die, out of fear and out of shame. Both one and the same.  (If you hate your job, consider this a tap on the shoulder: How long do you intend to wait there in misery?)

This was the company I had been hired to rescue. I almost did, but only almost. I don’t always succeed. I managed to drag it back from the brink, to show them the way, even to pave it for them, but the last step, they had to take for themselves: Making the decision to change. To let go of their ghosts and commit to a fresh start.

Not everyone, though, has the courage to unfurl their sails.

The Greek perspective, and methods of failure

If I were an ancient Greek, I would talk about fear and anxiety in terms of spirits and possession. Not spirits as in demons, the way we think of them now, but the spirits of love, anger, hatred, fear, cowardice, envy… Emotions given life and will and power over our lives by us, their willing vessels.

The Spartans believed that blood lust in the middle of battle, for example, was possession – and something to avoid at all cost. Despair can be possession. Fury. Jealousy. Terror. Love. Enthusiasm. Every type of feeling can take us over. Overwhelm us. Crimes of passion are the result of possession. Brawling with fans of a rival football team is the result of possession. Understanding this is understanding something about human behavior, not just 3,000 years ago but today as well. Perhaps especially so.

We yet have much to learn from the Greeks.

Looking at human behavior from that perspective, whatever spirit possessed this man, this unfortunate C.E.O., I have met many times since. Different offices, different cities, different letters on the doors and the lobby walls and the business cards, but always the same madness. The same visceral need to create then cling to myths of success, and along with them proven methods of failure: Decisions and actions that led to their ship remaining in irons, year after year, in the false safety of a cove that in fact had become its grave. Cultures of failure start here. In this manner. Engineered by the dysfunctions of an individual ill-suited to lead an organization.

When mediocrity and failure are hailed as glory and success, take a bearing: Relativism doesn’t apply to victory. It only serves to paint defeat into something more palatable. It is the fuel of denial. Flipping success and failure on their heads so that one suddenly becomes mistaken for the other is madness as well.

Point #3: Failure in organizations, in business, in projects and campaigns isn’t always the result of luck or fate or circumstances. Sometimes it is (though I would caution against looking at obstacles and challenges, even the most seemingly insurmountable odds as anything but opportunity), but just as often, failure is engineered, constructed from within, given birth to and shaped, fostered, nurtured, encouraged and fed daily – like a creature.

The truth of failure, true failure, is that it lies not in circumstance but at the intersection of weakness and method. In the weakness that drives some men to shun the fight and the challenge which are the price of both success and victory, and to instead embrace illusion, relativism (characterized by endless strings of excuses) and the type of insanity that makes them act against their own best interest: Ignoring facts. Declaring success when none exists. Continuing down a clear path of failure. Adopting failure as a method.

Symptoms vs. Disease: Digging beneath superficial absurdity to find its cause

However extreme the following example may seem to us, scores of companies insist on clinging to equally ridiculous and completely ineffective methods of conducting business, albeit not quite as spectacular in their awfulness. Yet… outside of execution – or the manifestation of this type of nonsense, as seen below – compulsive adherence to methods of failure is in no way different in its path to what led to this example, and remains equally absurd.

Here it is, the first paragraph from an email like millions of others just like it, which we consider spam, yet someone, somewhere considers marketing:

I sincerely ask for forgiveness for I know this may seem like a complete intrusion to your privacy
but right about now this is my best option ofcommunication. This mail might come to you as a
surprise and the temptation to ignore it as frivolous could come into your mind, but please
consider it a divine wish and accept it with a deep sense of humility. This letter must surprise you
because we have never meet before neither inperson nor by correspondence, but I believe that,
it takes just one day to meet orknow someone either physically or through correspondence.

Ridiculous? Of course it is. It’s spam – and bad spam at that. But you know what?  The company that paid for it thinks this works, that this utterly ludicrous bit of email content is the best way to get me to click on a button or surrender personal information. And while we laugh at the stupidity of it, wondering in the backs of our minds what kind of manager or business owner would believe, in this day and age, that something like this is a method of success, it is in no way different from a manager or business owner in Kansas City, Charlotte, London or Chicago believing that their own brand of ineffective, outdated, business development method will somehow yield better results than it has until now.

Point #4: The absurdity of embracing methods of failure is not measured by the depth of stupidity characterizing their execution – like really awful copy, as seen in the above example,- but rather by the fervor with which failure-blind managers cling to their own delusions in spite of everything they know.

It’s tragic.

I don’t say this lightly. It is soul-crushing to see professional men and women – not organizations but human beings of flesh and blood, like me – so blinded, so possessed by layer upon layer of bullshit that they are no longer able to tell up from down, right from wrong, smart from stupid. Confused and lost in the wilderness of a world that has outpaced them, they cling to a made-up version of it, one they can feel comfortable and safe with, even if it doesn’t actually exist.

In this world, what they know, what they believe, even if it is completely absurd, holds more truth for them than the reality they refuse to accept. This shielding mechanism, this search for comfort and security in an idealized version of the past, of the “good old days,” makes every new idea alien and dangerous. A threat. They begin to regard progress at best as suspect, and at worst as a betrayal of their “ideals.”

In the same way that children invent for themselves imaginary worlds in play, adults sometimes invent for themselves worlds in fear. We see this with religion and politics, with extremism. We also see it in the business world: Some of these adults apply this mechanism to their professions, often with dreadful consequences.

When I hear a C.E.O. scoff condescendingly at Social Business, aiming to belittle and ridicule it as “something the kids do,” something legitimate businesses don’t need, a waste of time, a fad, a pile of crap, I don’t feel frustration anymore. I feel pity. Pity for the man, pity for the organization, pity for its future. Hell, I feel sadness because I know the fear that lives at the heart of the attitude that nurtured the opinion behind the comment. More importantly, I know instantly that the organization “led” by this person is crippled by methods of failure. And because the pattern of such dysfunction doesn’t deviate all that much from company to company, I can start mapping it out on paper without having to hear another word.

Point #5: When you understand a leader’s weakness, you know how his organization is failing.

Organizations that shun rather than embrace progress, whose default position is to embrace new ideas in meetings but somehow never manage to implement them, organizations that refuse to acknowledge or enable change from within or without, these organizations are all the same. Every single one. Identifying them is the first step. Understanding them follows. Beyond that, expect a bumpy ride.

Word to the wise: Not everyone is cut out to be an agent of change. If you can visualize your career, imagine the path of least resistance. Now imagine the complete opposite. More often than not, change is war.

Time to revisit the definitions of insanity and failure

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over again, expecting a different result each time.

I disagree.

Perseverance, then, would be insanity. Tenacity also. I reject that definition. Conditions change: The same action repeated enough times can and often does yield different results, and we intrinsically know it. From adaptation to probability, we know that results may vary. We put it in fine print on just about everything.

The exact same spin of the ball in a game of roulette will have it land on a different number each time. The same lotto numbers played week after week will yield a different relationship to the winning numbers arrived at elsewhere. The same degree of effort on the field of practice will result in physical and mental changes over time. And so it goes. Because conditions vary, repetition in the face of failure alone does not constitute insanity. What I propose instead is this, that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same action you know cannot yield the desired outcome over and over again, expecting a different result.

Insanity is deliberately choosing a method of failure over a method of success (or even an infinite range of experimental methods) because in spite of all logic, it fits within a world view -an ideology – borne out of anxiety and false nostalgia rather than experience and reality. THAT is insanity.

Failure – systemic failure, that is – is engineered. It is built from the ground up, much like success, one broken brick at a time.

Point #6: Just as surely as a culture of success can take root in a company (Zappos, Apple, BMW, Google, and many more) a culture of failure can take root as well: Characterized by internal dysfunction, the utter absence of loyalty among its staff, low morale, a poisonous work environment and an absence of fire and passion even at the helm, cultures of failure are tough to turn around. And you know what? they are as tough to rescue as a drug addict who, while begging for help, still clings to the needle and the gutter as if his life depended on it. It’s heart breaking.

What I do: Light, shadow and the need for both

Helping businesses succeed is often a lot of fun. It can be easy. You come along at the right time, get to know them well, give them a little push, and there they go: Back on track, rocking it out. Those are the good ones. The ones that make me feel like a million bucks. The ones in which everyone clicks and has fun. It doesn’t even feel like work. I secretly wish that all of my clients were like this, but I know that this is weakness as well. For every perfect client, I need an imperfect one. We all do. We wouldn’t be professionals if all we did all day constituted play.  We wouldn’t learn much. We wouldn’t improve. Delight is possession as well.

Just as often, helping a company succeed begins by teaching its management to stop failing. To stop mistaking mediocrity for success. To stop acting against their own self-interest. In some cases, the process boils down to dragging them out of their predicament, kicking and screaming the whole way. I’ve been insulted, threatened and even fired by clients who promptly offered to re-hire me the next day, only to fire and rehire me again. I’ve endured abuse at the hand of awful little children in adult bodies. What I do isn’t always pretty. It is intervention, pure and simple.

Dealing with a C.E.O. or manager possessed by the form of madness we’ve discussed today is no different from dealing with an addict fighting for his soul.

Point #7: Whatever we like to call “personal demons,” they destroy businesses too. As surely as what brought about a mid-life crisis can destroy a marriage or career, so can it shatter a business. It isn’t something we talk about much, but we should.

We can’t not talk about this. Companies don’t get fixed. Companies don’t win or lose. People do. What I end up doing, more often than not, is fixing people. Helping them find their way and be whole again.

Bad marketing and bad business decisions often find their roots in more than incompetence and accidental human error. In order to make sure they don’t happen again – or never happen at all – you have to go a little deeper than that. “Best Practices” are only the surface. Stopping there isn’t enough. You can’t stick to the edges and hope for the best. Sometimes, you have to go deep. Sometimes, you have to go all in.

What has been on my mind lately: Some clarification before we continue

I’ve been giving this and a dozen other related topics a lot of thought this past week, and how my chosen profession fits in all of this. How experience, knowledge, talent and insight have led me to become not only an advisor and educator, but also now a confidantz and a friend to individuals who don’t understand why their companies are stuck, unable to move forward as quickly and fluidly as they know they should. The human element to it above all questions of processes and best practices and clever ideas. How important to me this has become. The problem with becoming emotionally vested in something like this, in trying to effect real change, is that it consumes you. Theres no way around it. You have to let it.

While it sometimes seems that my job consists of coming up with cool ideas and helping companies divine insights from the fog of business, the reality is that I am more often than not a therapist. A business therapist, one might say, but there is no such thing: A business is a dream brought to life by a company of men and women who form its limbs and organs, and whose love for what they do is its lifeblood.

When I am called upon to help a company, an organization, a business, I end up helping people. Why? Because every dysfunction at the root of a problem with a business invariable finds its own roots in a personal dysfunction – sometimes, clusters of personal dysfunction.

In order to do what I do – and do it well – you have to be ready for that. You have to be ready to know when to bear the weight of it all, and when not to. You have to know your way around the human mind and the human heart. You have to know exactly what to do when someone with a serious problem tries to draw you into their drama. It can be emotionally exhausting. This line of work is not for everyone.

And I guess that is why I don’t like to call what I do “consulting.” Now I know why the term never sat well with me: “Consulting” is only a small portion of what I do, just like R.O.I. is only a small aspect of what I help shine a light on. Calling myself a consultant just doesn’t work. I don’t yet have a name for what I do, and I’ll admit that it’s a bit annoying.

I am telling you this because over the course of the next few weeks, I may write more about the role that human nature plays in adopting “best practices,” pursuing excellence and creating cultures of success than I have before, and I want you to know where all this is coming from, why these topics even matter, and how I came to want to discuss them from this unusual perspective. My mind is behind the curtain this week. Under the surface. I am looking directly into the nature of leadership, courage, curiosity, insight and the spirit of victory, which are at once timeless and very specifically connected. And if we are going to make any headway, it’s time we stopped focusing so much on the superficial aspects of business and brand management, and turned our attention to some pretty core elements without which Twitter, Facebook and all of the things we love to discuss here and on other blogs are little more than salon chatter.

And I hope this helps give you a tiny little glimpse into what makes me tick, why the way in which I approach certain topics might seem a little different from other blogs. Ultimately, everything comes down to people: Understand people, and you understand everything. It’s where every one of my blog post begins. At the core of every discussion we have here about brand management, Social Media, communications, R.O.I., etc. is human behavior in all its reality and relevance.

More to come.

Read Full Post »

“Making it work” : Lessons from the real world of “do or die.”

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

Call them cliche, but those sayings about finding the silver lining and making lemonade when life hands you lemons, they aren’t just hot air.

When I was in the French Fusiliers Marins, the unspoken motto, the underlying mission imperative was always “make it work.”

The intelligence is wrong? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

The insertion routes are compromised? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

You got dropped 15 miles off target? It doesn’t matter. Make it work.

Nobody ever had to say it. Nobody ever had to bark the order. From day one of training, it was pounded into us:

Make it work.

Make it happen.

Find a way.

(If you don’t, people will die.)

The first officer I served under, 1st Lieutenant Rannou, had a saying: “There are no problems. Only solutions.”

He was right.

Sometimes, everything just clicks and works perfectly the first time. You don’t have to do a thing. You might as well be on autopilot: From start to finish, your project, your law suit, your surgery, your product launch, your hostage rescue mission, your ad campaign, your theater production, it all goes well. The planets are aligned. The cosmos is on your side. Everything goes so smoothly that you wonder if you aren’t dreaming.

Most of the time though, things don’t go your way. The unexpected happens. Gremlins. Ghosts in the machine. Flies in the soup. Whatever. The cosmos has a way of throwing obstacles your way at the most inopportune times.

That’s just a given.

A butterfly beats its wings in Buenos Aires, and a week later, your stamp machines in Taiwan are down for a month.

A health crisis in East Africa forces the cargo ship carrying the first shipment of your brand new product to spend three extra weeks at sea.

Your new boss is an self-serving imbecile.

Or in the case of teammate Jay Hewitt (photo above), you lay your bike down going 30mph at mile 51 of a Half-Ironman distance triathlon.

What do you do?

No… really. What do you do?

Murphy’s law isn’t an anecdote. It’s an engine of predictability. Use it.

Let me take a quick break from the full list of mishaps and just say that – in case you hadn’t guessed – skin + gritty pavement + speed don’t feel great.

Imagine getting thrown out of a car moving at 30mph, wearing nothing but your underwear.

Not fun.

Now imagine brushing yourself off, getting back on your bike, finishing the ride as fast as you can, switching out the cartridge in your insulin pump, and then completing a very fast half marathon.

Why? Because no matter what happens, there’s still a finish line to cross. A reputation to preserve. A project to complete. A movie to finish shooting. A new product to launch. An essential part to manufacture.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a military officer, a product manager, a movie director, a chef, a fashion designer, a newspaper editor or a CMO. This is something you can be absolutely certain of: Though sometimes, everything will click and flow smoothly as if by divine intervention, most of the time, obstacle after obstacle will get between you and your goal.

Call it Murphy’s Law. Call it whatever you want. It’s just life.

And in real life, shit happens. No matter what you do, something almost always goes wrong.

The more complicated or ambitious your endeavor, the more likely it is that obstacles will find a way to get between you and that golden finish line. Expect that. Plan for it. Train for it.

Heck, embrace it.

You might as well.

Still, I notice that most people freak out when their plan goes awry. They panic. They lose their cool. They suddenly find themselves feeling… lost. They make everything come to a grinding halt while they regroup.

Why?

Poor planning. Lack of training. They didn’t take the time to plan for failure. They didn’t think to come up with contingency plans.

Most of the time though, it just comes down to one simple thing: Lack of experience.

So for those of you who don’t quite know how to manage cool, crazy, ambitious projects, here’s a little bit of advice:

The Ten Basic Rules of Project Management

Rule #1: Never expect things to work right the first time. (If they do, great.  Just don’t expect them to.)

Rule #2: Expect everything to take at least twice as long as you know they should.

Rule #3: Expect the unexpected.

Rule #4: When everything is going well, worry. (You probably missed something.)

Rule #5: Find out what doesn’t work before your customers do. (That’s what prototypes are for.)

Rule #6: You learn more from how and why a product fails than how and why it works the way you expect it to. (So push your prototypes to failure as often and in as many different ways as possible.)

Rule #7: “Design By Committee” never works.

Rule #8: Trust your instincts.

Rule #9: Listen to the people who will use your product. Their opinion matters more than anyone else’s.

Rule #10: Have fun.

Why experience matters: A simple list.

Back to Jay: Jay has crashed in races before. Jay knows how broken bones feel. Jay knows that even with no skin on his shoulder, he can keep racing. He’s been there. He’s done that. He has already faced and concquered pretty-much every obstacle in the book when it comes to endurance racing. As a result, when problems happen, his resolution time is almost instantaneous. He doesn’t have to spend thirty minutes wondering if he’s badly hurt or just in pain. He doesn’t have to seek professional advice. He doesn’t have to weigh the pros and cons of anything. Knowing where he stands allows him to make the right decision in the blink of an eye: Keep going.

Experience builds confidence. Experience breeds forethought and insight. Experience takes doubt, uncertainty, and fear out of the equation. Jay knows that if he crashes, he can probably still finish the race. He knows how to fix a flat. He knows how to repair a broken chain. He knows a dozen ways to fix problems on his bike or with his body, and the ones he doesn’t know how to fix, he can probably improvise if need be.

There are no problems. Only solutions.

Simple enough.

More often than not, projects that appear to have gone smoothly from the outside didn’t go smoothly at all. Every day brought a new hurdle. Hundreds of fires had to be put out. Thousands of split-second decisions had to be made. Course adjustments. Quick fixes. A folder-full of improvised solutions. Personel changes. Vendor replacements. Timeline adjustments. Budget attrition. Whatever. The list never stops growing.

That’s how it really works.

Perfect illustration: Below is Jay at the finish. From the right side, he looks fine. His injuries are out of sight. He looks like a guy who just breezed through a Half Ironman the way most of us breeze through a Taco bell drivethrough.

To an outsider, a bystander, he had a flawless, fun race.

To someone with inside knowledge, he finished despite a horrible bike accident that could have cost him a whole lot more than another medal.

He crashed. He got up. He quickly assessed the situation. He got back on his bike. He finished the race. He added the experience to his knowledge bank.

He made it happen.

If that doesn’t perfectly illustrate the way a project is driven forward, I don’t know what does.


Project manager. Triathlete. Adventure Racer. Creative Director. Platoon Leader. Customer Service Rep. Design Engineer. Toolmaker. Sous-Chef. Football Coach. It’s all the same.

Project/Program Managers are wired differently. Hire and promote with that in mind.

Great project managers aren’t just natural multi-taskers. They’re also natural strategic masterminds. Improvisation kings (and queens). Crisis jugglers. Fearless creative acrobats. Their job (their nature) is to constantly find and implement solutions to problems, foreseen and not. Their job is to embrace hurdles and obstacles, because each one brings them one step closer to their goal. They thrive on making things happen. The more untraveled the road, the better. The more complex the gameboard, the better.

It takes a special kind of person to be able to a) do that kind of work well, and b) love every minute of it.

It isn’t for everybody.

Excuses and blame don’t exist in our little world. Neither does bullshit. At the end of the day, there’s only what you did and what you didn’t do.

Sometimes, even the best laid plans just go awry.

For most people, that’s not a good thing…

…and for some of us, that’s when the real fun begins. (And we do like our fun.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. 🙂

(Hat tip to Tamsen McMahon/@tamadear at Sametz Blackstone for pointing out that this should be a manifesto and not a primer)

Read Full Post »

You’re always in beta. Always. If you think you aren’t, you’re already falling behind and bleeding relevance.

What does being in Beta mean? It means being in perpetual test mode. It means constantly asking “how could I do this better,” even when this worked just fine. How can I listen better? How could I improve customer service? How can I make my billing process smoother? How could we improve the UI/UX of our websites? How can I engage my user community even better? How could this brochure have been better?

I know what you’re thinking: Poor kid. He’s terminally obsessive-compulsive. 😀 (Actually, I’m just compulsive, not obsessive, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The point is this: The moment you start thinking that you have found the perfect model, the second you start adopting a “let’s not change anything” mentality, you’re screwed. The “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” saying I hear a lot in the South is may have been pretty good advice a hundred years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Not if you want your company to stay competitive. Not if you want to see your company grow. Not if you want to see chronic improvement in everything you do.

Check out today’s video if you haven’t already. And if it doesn’t launch for you, go watch it here. (Thanks, Viddler!)

Interestingly, the “you’re always in Beta” mindset that I am talking about today seriously reminds me of the mindset athletes and coaches get into when it comes to improving performance. Say you’re currently a 24:00 5K runner, and you want to relive your college glory days by running an 18:00 5K a year from now. How do you do it? Simple: By stressing your system one little bit at a time. By challenging your comfort zone with every run. Going from 24:00 to 23:55, then 23:50, then 23:45 for the same distance, and so on. Turning up the heat and the intensity for a few weeks, then giving your body a chance to adapt. To plateau. And then starting over with a new cycle of stress and adaptation followed by a rest period. During that time, you are constantly testing your boundaries, monitoring success and failure, learning what works and what doesn’t. (And yes, measuring your progress to know what works and what doesn’t.) Pretty basic stuff.

The alternative would be to keep running the same 5K route every day at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. What would happen? Well, you would become pretty good at running a 5K  in 24:00. Comfortable? Sure. But whatever happened to improvement? See where I am going with this?

Okay, now let’s complicate things a little bit:

As a triathlete, training and competing in what essentially amounts to three sports (swimming, cycling and running) adds some pretty substantial layers of complexity. Not only do I have to figure out how to train for three specific sports, but I have to figure out how to combine and integrate all three in a way that doesn’t lead to injury or burnout. I also have to fit all three in my already busy schedule. Then I have to consider how to time my training cycles to coincide with specific races. In addition, I have to incorporate changes in nutrition and hydration based on my workouts, my training mode, outside temperatures, etc. And if I get into my head that I am going to train for a marathon, half Ironman or full-on mac-daddy Ironman, all of these variables take on a level of complexity I can’t even begin to explain in one blog post. How much Gatorade should I drink per hour in 94 degree temperatures at 80% of my maximum heart rate? How many energy gels can I absorb per hour without getting sick to my stomach? What cadence should I adopt to sustain an average speed of 21mph for 112 miles? Only one way to find out: Test it.

And I haven’t even talked about gear. Will the improved aerodynamics gained from dropping my aerobars down 2 millimeters shave 20 seconds off my 40K time? Maybe… but as a result, will my upper body’s new angle offset my hip angle enough to reduce my power output or stress my hip flexors enough that I will start cramping up 5 miles into the run? How will I find out? There’s only one way: Getting out there and testing that theory. It’s clipboard and stopwatch time for the next six weeks.

Should I go with a disc wheel or a deep dish rim for my next race? How will I know which works better for me on a moderately hilly course in 15mph crosswinds? Only one way: I have to go test each wheel configuration on a variety of courses in completely different wind conditions. Then I’ll know what works best in specific course conditions.

Rear-mounted bottle-cages or frame-mounted? Aero helmet or regular helmet? Motion control shoes or racing flats? Test test test test test. You get the picture.

Call it an occupational benefit or a pre-existing condition, but being a triathlete kind of trains you to be in a perpetual Beta mindset. And it isn’t a stretch to jump from the world of competitive endurance sports to the world of business performance. Different application, but same principles and same basic methodology: Ask, test, observe, validate, learn, repeat.

But before you do all this – the testing, the experimentation, the analysis and learning and adaptation – you have to make a choice. You have to pick a camp. You have to decide whether you are satisfied with your business performance as it is today (“good enough” is good enough for you and your customers), or hungry for improvement.

There’s no right or wrong answer here. It doesn’t matter what camp you decide to align yourself with: The one happy with the way things are or the one looking to kick ass a little more each day. What matters is that your decision work for you. But let’s be clear about the impact that your choice will have on your business: Sticking with a “let’s not change anything” mindset will not earn you more customers, increase customer loyalty or generate more sales. Where you are today is exactly where you will be tomorrow. If you’re lucky. Eventually, perhaps not next week or next month or next year, but eventually, this mindset will seal your doom. A Beta mindset, however, will help you uncover ways to innovate, earn more customers, cut costs, increase customer and employee loyalty, improve product design and performance… You name it: Whatever the opportunity to improve, do do things better and smarter, may be, you will systematically uncover it in the same way that Apple, Nike, BMW, Cervelo, HBO, Michael Phelps, IDEO, Lance Armstrong, Comcast and Zappos have.

If you want your company to be best in class, to own a market or an industry, to be the trendsetter, the example to follow, the leader in a category, you must adopt a perpetual Beta mindset. You have to constantly stress your systems and processes. You have to turn every action into a test an look at every activity as an opportunity to experiment.You have to measure, analyze, learn, adapt and repeat the cycle over and over and over again.

Question everything.

Work harder than the next guy to build the best XYZ the world has ever seen, and then find ways to make it even better.

Perfection is a process, not a milestone.

Embrace a state of perpetual Beta.


Read Full Post »

Time for your weekly BrandBuilder reality check.

There are only two types of businesses: The ones you know are the best in their category, and… everyone else.

Advertising and marketing are nice, but too many “also in” businesses waste money on marketing and advertising when they should instead revamp one or two elements of their business that would help them actually gain market share. (The most pleasant and efficient customer service experience in your industry, a perfectly designed user interface, a 100% uptime guarantee, stunning design, impeccable ergonomics, remarkable flavor, etc.)

Advertising is basically a load of bulls**t unless you have something worth advertising to begin with. (Otherwise, what are you advertising: Hey, come buy from us! We’re the thirteenth best shoe store in the 29601!) You’re either the best at something, or you’re just another voice in the crowd getting fleeced by just another run-of-the-mill ad agency or “marketing firm.”

Before you start spending money on advertising, ask yourself what your super-special value to your users/customers/clients truly is. Maybe you have the best prices. Maybe you have the most comfortable meeting rooms. Maybe you have the most square footage of any gym in your area, or the freshest produce, or the most knowledgeable staff, or the fastest check-out. It doesn’t matter what that something is as long as it is something concrete (as opposed to another lame marketing spinfest). Is that one thing truly hitting the mark? Are you really delivering on it as well as you could? As well as you should?

Whatever your value differentiator is, whatever your brand’s value advantage is (or should be), this is what you need to invest in FIRST. Once you have that aspect of your business nailed down, THEN and only then should you even bother with advertising.

About a year ago, Seth Godin posted some great advice to college grads on his blog: Only borrow money to pay for things that increase in value. A pair of shoes or cool clothes never increase in value. An education or professional experience, however do. Great advice, especially in the crux of our current economic/credit crunch. The same applies to businesses, which is why Seth’s advice is so damn relevant to the discussion today.

Perhaps more relevant to today’s topic is a slightly tweaked version of Seth’s advice: “only invest in things that increase in value.”

Like shoes and clothes, advertising never increases in value. With advertising, you are at best buying a small percentage of the public’s attention across a very narrow sliver of space and time (and paying a premium price for it.) Before you know it, your advertising budget is gone, and so is that very expensive bubble of attention.

Investing in better products/services, better people and better processes, however, makes a whole lot more sense as these things never lose value. Great employees, great products, great customer experiences and fostering a unique relationship with your fan base are the types of things worth investing in. These are the true foundations of a great brand. These are the types of things that will help strengthen your brand equity.

Advertising rarely translates into brand equity unless these foundations exist to support it. Even so, the more solid the brand’s foundation, the less relevant advertising becomes.

Starbucks doesn’t advertise much and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Whole Foods ad anywhere, yet millions of people drop solid stacks of greenbacks there every year. I don’t shop at Target, wear Rudy Project sunglasses, drive a VW or crave a BMW because of advertising. Other than creating awareness for a product that hasn’t managed to capture anyone’s attention yet (red flag), advertising does little to impact most companies’ growth. Do they create spikes in interest, eyeballs and sales? Sure. When executed well. But growth? Over time? Nope. Growth is a completely different animal, and advertising alone, boys and girls, won’t get you there.

Building a strong reputation by developing great products, buzz-worthy experiences and generally delighting customers/users is a much stronger strategy than paying loads of cash for advertising.

Something to think about as you prioritize items on your budget for H2.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 🙂

Read Full Post »

J.T. O'Donnell speaking in Greenville, SC

J.T. O'Donnell speaking in Greenville, SC

Greenville, SC got a big treat today: Career expert JT O’Donnell was in town to speak at Linking The Upstate‘s inaugural event at the historic Westin Poinsett Hotel. Two words for you: Awe and some. I knew JT was pretty savvy when it comes to career advice, but I had no idea just how smart, engaging and approachable she was. If you guys aren’t familiar with her work yet, check out her website, her Careerealism blog, buy her book, and go ahead and start following Careerealism on twitter. And if you ever find yourself unhappy with your career or uncertain about your professional direction, do yourself a favor and reach out to her. You will look back on that email, tweet or phone call someday and realize it was one of the smartest things you ever did. Trust me on this.

By the way, if you missed it, you can check out some of the event’s coverage via Twitter hashtag #careerealism. Look for my avatar (ahem).

And as an aside, I have to give BIG kudos to Thomas Parry for launching Linking The Upstate so quickly… and so well. What a way to kick it off. Very well done. The group’s objective is to connect all of the 864’s business groups together (chambers of commerce, technology, HR, creative, networking, business groups, etc.) to leverage their collective economic, innovative and intellectual potential. A lofty and timely goal that I will definitely help support in the coming months.

Here are a few pictures from what turned out to be a pretty social day (even for me):

 

The pommes frites I ate

The pommes frites I ate

 

 

Thomas Parry, J.T. O'Donnell, Trey Pennington and Doug Cone at The Lazy Goat restaurant

Thomas Parry, J.T. O'Donnell, Trey Pennington and Doug Cone at The Lazy Goat restaurant

 

 

Yes, I take pictures of stuff I eat

Yes, I take pictures of stuff I eat

Thomas Parry at the Westin Poinsett Hotel introducing Linking The Upstate

Thomas Parry at the Westin Poinsett Hotel introducing Linking The Upstate

J.T. O'Donnell presenting at Greenville, SC's historic Westin Poinsett Hotel

J.T. O'Donnell presenting at Greenville, SC's historic Westin Poinsett Hotel

I don’t want to leave you guys with just photos and no takeways, so here are a few nuggets of information I grabbed from JT’s fantastic presentation:

 

 

4 out of 5 HR professionals will google an applicant BEFORE inviting them to interview. What will they find? (Hint: Have you googled yourself lately?)

The two worst things that can happen when a prospective employer googles you: 1. They find something embarrassing or not particularly positive (that may make them reconsider your application). 2. They find nothing at all. Lesson: Start managing your online presence better. Create a positive, professional, consistent and factual footprint for yourself online.

College students graduating this year will have an average of 9 different careers before they retire.

The average duration of a job in the US today  is only 18 months. (We are all glorified temps.)

Currently, 1 out of 12 Americans is either unemployed or underemployed.

Job boards are 60% down right now: The demand for jobs is so high that the volume of job applications via job boards is overwhelming HR departments. Result, they are turning to other sourcing methods to find quality applicants.

80% of open positions in the US are filled via referrals.

Whatever you may hear or believe, in this day and age, not having a blog and a presence on LinkedIn, FaceBook and Twitter can and will absolutely stall your career. (Management level folks.)

Tip: Don’t wait until you are unemployed to start building your networks. The sooner you start and the more you nurture them, the easier it will be for you to find your next gig when the axe finally falls. (Better yet, if you do this right, you will probably be recruited right out of your current job.)

Again: The easiest way to stand out from the crowd of people competing against you for your dream job is to have a well designed and solidly crafted blog. If you don’t have one yet, start. If you have one but it needs help, get help. (Incidentally, if you are in Greenville next week, we are putting together a WordPress Workshop specifically geared towards this. Check out www.wpgreenville.com to sign up.)

For more great advice, go check out the Careerealism blog and be sure to drop JT a note.

Have a great Friday, everyone. 😉

Read Full Post »

Seattle, by Olivier Blanchard - 2008

Check out these great bits of advice from Dave Lorenzo’s Career Intensity blog:

“Deciding: ‘Familiarize yourself with common decision-making errors—such as going along with a group choice to maintain cohesion. Watch for tendencies within yourself to commit such errors.’

Leaders make bold decisions. They see them through, and if they aren’t working out, they make new decisions. The worst thing you can do for your career is make no choices or let your choices be made for you. Taking a passive approach to your goals is unlikely to result in success. Even if you make a bad decision, it’s better to mess up and learn from it than to remain stagnant. Failures are great opportunities to learn more about yourself and the world. Move ahead by choosing wisely and boldly.”

(If you’re asking yourself… yeah, cool career advice, but… what does this have to do with branding, hold on. I’m getting to it.)

“It takes someone who believes in herself and her ideas to challenge the status quo. These are the people who shake things up and change them for the better. You don’t have to be contentious to challenge. The best way to suggest changes is not to bash the old ways, but to offer new and positive ideas.

If you are part of a team working on a project that you believe could be going more smoothly, step up and present your ideas. Most likely, everyone will be excited to approach the work from a new angle. And you will begin to earn a reputation for innovation.”

Still not catching on? Okay… Let’s try one more:

“In the famous words of Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

What separates the dazzling winners from everyone else is that they are able to envision a grand future. What turns them into winners is that they are able to leap into that future and do the hard work necessary to make it great.

Particularly for die-hard realists and people who have been trained (by parents, friends, or spouse) to be ‘responsible’ and ‘stable’, indulging in imagination can be difficult. For every idea that’s even mildly revolutionary, a little voice chimes in, ‘Impossible. You can’t do that. That’s stupid. It’ll never work.’ Quiet that voice and spend some time ruminating on your wild, far-out, fanciful ideas. Great leader do things that no one before them has done.”

Still no? Tsssk… Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Substitute “brand” for “career”. Everything that Dave so brilliantly recommends is exactly the kind of advice that you can put to good use in building strong brands – from ‘brand you’ to the next retail darling, iconic consumer good or dazzling web application.

Brands aren’t built in a vacuum. They aren’t built by functionaries. They do not thrive in stagnant bureaucracies. Brands are built by empowered visionaries. Brands are built on enthusiasm, conviction, and courage… Or they are doomed from the start.

You are the heart and soul of the brand you represent and serve. If you want your brand to be a market leader, you must be a leader in your job as well. Your qualities are your brand’s attributes. Your weaknesses are its flaws. Everything you are, everything you do, affects its success and future.

So… don’t ever let anyone turn you into a tool. Challenge everything. Question every assumption. Wage war on routine and bureaucracy. Accept no compromise…

… and read Dave’s blog. It’s a good one.

Les tags du jour: , , ,

Read Full Post »


Via OrangeYeti, from AdPulp, here is a little bit of an interview given by Maurice Levy (Publicis Groupe) to Scott Donaton (of Ad Age). If you’ve ever worked for a company that was so set in its ways that it had grown stale, you’ll understand what Levy is talking about:

“I have never stabilized an organization. Crystallizing an organization is freezing the energy. In chemistry, instability is very good because it creates some combinations you don’t expect.”

“Without change, there is fossilization,and that’s the worst thing that can happen.”

“Ideas,are so fragile, so tenuous, that managers must destroy layers that can obscure or damage them. If you have an organization that is too administrative, you are just killing the ideas. As we say in France, when you ask a committee to draw a horse, you get a camel.”

Read the full interview here.

So there you have it: As a business leader, look for flux. Look for tangents. Look for the unexpected. Recruit adventurously. Give your people the freedom and flexibility to contribute in the most personal, passionate of ways. Eliminate silos and procedures when it comes to the sharing of ideas. When it comes to dialogue. When it comes to cooperation. Decentralize “meetings”. Deconstruct the project ideation process. Empower your people to set the stage for extraordinary new products, business improvements, and creative work.

If you can’t trust your people enough to empower them, to literally give them the keys to the place, then you aren’t hiring the right people. Your job as a leader isn’t always to “lead”. Most of the time, because you aren’t there to bark orders or stand over everyone’s shoulder, it is simply to create an environment, an ecosystem, that allows your team, your army, to do the best possible work they can. It is to create a culture that makes them want to be a part of something greater than the sum of their job description. That makes them proud to be, even.

Ideas are fragile.

Without change, organizations die.

These are the two little mantras you should keep chanting every time you pick up the phone, or a magazine, or your TV remote. They should be in the back of your mind every time you shake someone’s hand or invite them to have a seat.

Embrace instability. Welcome change. Engage uncertainty. Welcome the unknown and love it for all of its infinite number of possibilities.

And they truly are infinite.

Chew on that. Have a great Friday. 😉

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , ,

Read Full Post »

Robert Killick on the need for intellectual curiosity and courage in the face of “unknowns” in today’s business leaders:

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

Today, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Risk-adverse/risk-paralyzed leaders aren’t leaders at all. At best, they are followers promoted or appointed to positions they should have had enough common sense, integrity and professionalism to turn down.

Fact: Leaders “lead.” They take their companies in a specific direction and make sure that course corrections occur as needed along the way. Standing still, ignoring emerging market trends, rewarding business-as-usual strategies, waiting for competitors to make a move before testing the waters, or building protective walls around organizations are not examples of leadership.

No one is advocating making rash decisions of course, but in order for companies to be successful, their leaders must possess certain key personality traits – among them the essential combination of vision, courage and an unbreakable pioneering streak.

Bear this in mine when placing your bets on a company, new boss or potential candidates for an executive-level position.

Have a great week, everyone!

Read Full Post »

Great post from Gavin Heaton over at Servant of Chaos this week about the changing face of business management. Gavin mentions an emerging new breed of business leader that might sound a little familiar if you’ve been paying attention to what our little community of Marketing+ bloggers has been talking about these last few years. Check this out:

By far, the most radical transformation will be the one thrust upon us by the generational change that is now under way. With 60 million baby boomers about to be replaced by 60 million Millennials, the workplace will never be the same again. Managing the “knowledge transfer” that needs to take place over the next 5-10 years will be a fundamental responsibility of the Business Designer.

What is a Business Designer, I hear you ask? Per Gavin:

The Business Designer does not sit in a creative studio. Rather, she operates across business units — touching marketing, customer service and new product design. The BD has a finger on the pulse of finance and lives cheek-by-jowl with the legal team. There is the touch of the management consultant in the way that the BD navigates the org chart — but also the fervour of the evangelist. She may be T-shaped. She may be a green egg. But above all, she is an experienced business professional. That’s right — she knows how to get things done.

The BD will perform the important role of “change manager” or perhaps “transformation manager” — for the domino-like changes that will occur in every facet of a business will change the nature of the enterprise. What has been rough and ready in the consumer space will become refined and repeatable in the business world for the BD will select and orchestrate the practices, tools and approaches that correspond with a company’s business strategy. Of course, this will breed a whole new round of innovation in the technology space — we have already begun to see this with Yammer, the business version of Twitter.

And there will be a corresponding transformation in the process of business, and the goals and approaches of groups charged with managing brand touch points. This goes without saying.

What’s the difference between a Business Designer and a traditional business manager? The way I look at it, the difference lies in a handful of subtle yet crucial traits exhibited by this new biz whiz breed:

1. The T-shaped trait: These folks combine a strong mix of Marketing Management and Experience Design, and understand the importance of storytelling, Brand Strategy, and Experience Design. They are gifted strategists with extremely well developed creative, communications and context-building skills. They are intellectually curious, deeply entrepreneurial problem solvers.

2. The Green Egg trait: Process improvement, an eye to new markets and a passion for Innovation are their biggest professional drivers. These folks are agents of change. These are the people who will take your company to the next level in its evolution (if you let them).

3. The “good enough” aversion trait: These folks are way too passionate to tolerate a “good enough” mentality. Their job is about much more than turning a crank and picking up a paycheck. They’re change agents – not for the sake of change, but for the sake of driving to necessary leaps in a business’ evolution.

4. They ideation trait: These folks bubble over with ideas. They sketch a lot. They prototype. They like to test out their ideas. They seek out peers who can help them bring their ideas to life. They tend to be gadget and accessories freaks, even if they only own a few. They are designers at heart, if not technically in practice.

5. The connected trait: These folks have connected with their time. They understand the underlying strategic shifts going on right now that will change the landscape that your company operates in. They are good at connecting the dots: By being plugged-in to the world today in ways that most are not, they can clearly see what the business landscape will look like in two, five and ten years. This gives them the ability to be the architects of your company’s future. You may frown at their interest in social media tools like Twitter, Seesmic, Yammer and Facebook, but these are the tools of their trade: This is how they connect with their peers, with information, and with the shifting tides that will drive the market changes that will either sink or remake your business in the next decade.

Here’s more on that from Gavin:

We are also reaching a certain maturity in the way that marketers work with social media. There are now case studies on the effectiveness of social media, there are tools that help us measure and react to conversations and there are an increasing number of corporate roles for “community managers” or even “directors of social media”.

In this environment, the focus is no longer on learning the tools, but on refining the way that we interact with them. It is about bringing social media into our businesses, integrating it with our other marketing efforts and focusing efforts in a way that deliver business results.

Read the whole post here.

I am glad you brought up the notion of this new type of business leader, Gavin. I’ve been trying to put my finger on this for a few years now. Still not quite there yet… But for those of us living at the intersection of Business Management, User & Community Engagement, Marketing Communications, Product Design, Innovation, and the evolution of Social Media tools, starting to put a name to the thing is way overdue. With most business leaders spending at least 85% of their time turning the crank and making sure their businesses run properly, who is in charge of actually driving the business to its next evolution? Department managers? Sales? The COO? The CMO? 15% or less of a business leader’s day potentially devoted to improving – not just running – their business. Scary. In a rapidly changing world/economy/market, it pays to have at least one person (better yet, a whole team of them) a) focusing on what’s next, and b) getting the business ready for it.

Does the opportunity for such folks exist as a layer between the CEO and the other C-suite execs (CMO, COO, CFO, Manufacturing, Design Engineering, Sales, etc.)  Is the role better suited to function as a team-based cluster of upper-mid-level Business Directors? Perhaps a Brand Czar who provides direction to all departments but answers directly to the CMO? Is there a better name for the role? Can this type of individual force an overhaul of the traditional corporate org chart?

Big tip of the hat for getting that discussion started, my friend.

Read Full Post »

Ever noticed how positive attitudes are infectious? You walk into a store, and everyone who works there is jazzed and happy to be there and energetic… and by the time you leave, you have completely adopted their mood?

Ever noticed that the opposite is also true: Walk into a business where everyone is negative or apathetic, and you find yourself feeling the same dread and negativity?

Sitting in Houston’s Toyota arena with thousands of the world’s most innovative Microsoft partners, I was reminded of the power that other people’s attitudes and moods have over our own – and remembered a post that Kathy Sierra shared many moons ago on her brilliant but now sadly defunct “Passionate Users” blog. It talked about happy vs. angry people, emotional contagion, and the role mirror neurons play in our involuntary tendency to be drawn into other people’s positive or negative attitudes. Very cool stuff, and particularly relevant to some of the discussions I have been involved with in the last few days with some of my international peers. I did some quick digging to find it so I could share it with you. Here are some of the highlights:

Mirror neurons and our innate tendency to pick up other people’s behaviors, good and bad.

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of “mirror neurons” found in monkeys. It’s what these neurons do that’s amazing–they activate in the same way when you’re watching someone else do something as they do when you’re doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Think about that…

Although the neuroscientific findings are new, your sports coach and your parents didn’t need to know the cause to recognize the effects:

“Choose your role models carefully.”
“Watching Michael Jordan will help you get better.”
“You’re hanging out with the wrong crowd; they’re a bad influence.”
“Don’t watch people doing it wrong… watch the experts!”

We’ve all experienced it. How often have you found yourself sliding into the accent of those around you? Spend a month in England and even a California valley girl sounds different. Spend a week in Texas and even a native New Yorker starts slowing down his speech. How often have you found yourself laughing, dressing, skiing like your closest friend? Has someone ever observed that you and a close friend or significant other had similar mannerisms? When I was in junior high school, it was tough for people to tell my best friends and I apart on the phone–we all sounded so much alike that we could fool even our parents.

But the effect of our innate ability and need to imitate goes way past teenage phone tricks. Spend time with a nervous, anxious person and physiological monitoring would most likely show you mimicking the anxiety and nervousness, in ways that affect your brain and body in a concrete, measurable way. Find yourself in a room full of pissed off people and feel the smile slide right off your face. Listen to people complaining endlessly about work, and you’ll find yourself starting to do the same. How many of us have been horrified to suddenly realize that we’ve spent the last half-hour caught up in a gossip session–despite our strong aversion to gossip? The behavior of others we’re around is nearly irresistible.

Why choosing who you work, play and hang out with matters.

When we’re consciously aware and diligent, we can fight this. But the stress of maintaining that conscious struggle against an unconscious, ancient process is a non-stop stressful drain on our mental, emotional, and physical bandwidth. And no, I’m not suggesting that we can’t or should’nt spend time with people who are angry, negative, critical, depressed, gossiping, whatever. Some (including my sister and father) chose professions (nurse practitioner and cop, respectively) that demand it. And some (like my daughter) volunteer to help those who are suffering (in her case, the homeless). Some people don’t want to avoid their more hostile family members. But in those situations–where we choose to be with people who we do not want to mirror–we have to be extremely careful! Nurses, cops, mental health workers, EMTs, social workers, red cross volunteers, fire fighters, psychiatrists, oncologists, etc. are often at a higher risk (in some cases, WAY higher) for burnout, alcoholism, divorce, stress, or depression unless they take specific steps to avoid getting too sucked in to be effective.

So, when Robert says he wants to spend time hanging around “happy people” and keeping his distance from “deeply unhappy” people, he’s keeping his brain from making–over the long term–negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

“If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion.”

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it’s his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help–it’s simply the way brains work.

Emotional Contagion explained.

Steven Stosny, an expert on road rage, is quoted in Restak’s book:

“Anger and resentment are thet most contagious of emotions,” according to Stonsy. “If you are near a resentful or angry person, you are more prone to become resentful or angry yourself. If one driver engages in angry gestures and takes on the facial expressions of hostility, surrounding drivers will unconsciously imitate the behavior–resulting in an escalation of anger and resentment in all of the drivers. Added to this, the drivers are now more easily startled as a result of the outpouring of adrenaline accompanying their anger. The result is a temper tantrum that can easily escalate into road rage.”

From a paper on Memetics and Social Contagion,

“…social scientific research has largely confirmed the thesis that affect, attitudes, beliefs and behavior can indeed spread through populations as if they were somehow infectious. Simple exposure sometimes appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur. This is the social contagion thesis; that sociocultural phenomena can spread through, and leap between, populations more like outbreaks of measles or chicken pox than through a process of rational choice.”

Emotional contagion is considered one of the primary drivers of group/mob behavior, and the recent work on “mirror neurons” helps explain the underlying cause. But it’s not just about groups. From a Cambridge University Press book:

“When we are talking to someone who is depressed it may make us feel depressed, whereas if we talk to someone who is feeling self-confident and buoyant we are likely to feel good about ourselves. This phenomenon, known as emotional contagion, is identified here, and compelling evidence for its affect is offered from a variety of disciplines – social and developmental psychology, history, cross-cultural psychology, experimental psychology, and psychopathology.”

[For a business management perspective, see the Yale School of Management paper titled The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion In Groups]

Can any of us honestly say we haven’t experienced emotional contagion? Even if we ourselves haven’t felt our energy drain from being around a perpetually negative person, we’ve watched it happen to someone we care about. We’ve noticed a change in ourselves or our loved ones based on who we/they spend time with. We’ve all known at least one person who really did seem able to “light up the room with their smile,” or another who could “kill the mood” without saying a word. We’ve all found ourselves drawn to some people and not others, based on how we felt around them, in ways we weren’t able to articulate.

Happy People are better able to think logically

Neuroscience has made a long, intense study of the brain’s fear system–one of the oldest, most primitive parts of our brain. Anger and negativity usually stem from the anxiety and/or fear response in the brain, and one thing we know for sure–when the brain thinks its about to be eaten or smashed by a giant boulder, there’s no time to stop and think! In many ways, fear/anger and the ability to think rationally and logically are almost mutually exclusive. Those who stopped to weigh the pros and cons of a flight-or-fight decision were eaten, and didn’t pass on their afraid-yet-thoughtful genes.

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

“Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people’s ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. “

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

And apparently happier = healthier:

“Evidence suggests that the left-siders may better handle stressful events on a biological level. For example, studies show that they have a higher function of cells that help defend the body, known as natural killer cells, compared with individuals who have greater right side activity. Left-sided students who face a stressful exam have a smaller drop in their killer cells than right-siders. Other research indicates that generally left-siders may have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.”

And while we’re dispelling the Happy=Vacuous myth, let’s look at a couple more misperceptions:

“Happy people aren’t critical.”
“Happy people don’t get angry.”
“Happy people are obedient.”
“Happy people can’t be a disruptive force for change.”

So can Happy and criticism live happily together?

One of the world’s leading experts in the art of happiness is the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Just about everyone who hears him speak is struck by how, well, happy he is. How he can describe–with laughter–some of the most traumatizing events of his past. Talk about perspective

But he is quite outspoken with his criticism of China. The thing is, he doesn’t believe that criticism requires anger, or that being happy means you can’t be a disruptive influence for good. On happiness, he has this to say:

“The fact that there is always a positive side to life is the one thing that gives me a lot of happiness. This world is not perfect. There are problems. But things like happiness and unhappiness are relative. Realizing this gives you hope.”

And among the “happy people”, there’s Mahatma Gandhi, a force for change that included non-violent but oh-most-definitely-disobedient behavior. A few of my favorite Gandhi quotes:

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings.

The argument for and against anger

But then there’s the argument that says “anger” is morally (and intellectually) superior to “happy”. The American Psychological Association has this to say on anger:

“People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration, meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to frustration, inconvenience, or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake.”

Of course it’s still a myth that “happy people” don’t get angry. Of course they do. Anger is often an appropriate response. But there’s a Grand Canyon between a happy-person-who-gets-angry and an unhappy-angry-person. So yes, we get angry. Happiness is not our only emotion, it is simply the outlook we have chosen to cultivate because it is usually the most effective, thoughtful, healthy, and productive.

And there’s this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation–“if you can’t say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can’t be authentic and honest.” While that may be true, here’s what the psychologists say:

“Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that “letting it rip” with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you’re angry with) resolve the situation.

It’s best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge.”

And finally, another Ghandi quote:

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

If the scientists are right, I might also add,

Be around the change you want to see in the world.

Strong organizations and communities are able to harness the power of emotional contagion to create engaging, productive and extremely effective collaborative ecosystems. The truly exceptional among them also manage to extend this collective positivity to their human/customer touchpoints (retail outlets, salespeople, CSRs, etc.). Obvious examples of this are Starbucks (except in airports), Mac Stores, and Whole Foods grocery outlets.

This week, a very large scale example of this (and the trigger for this post) was Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, TX.

The complete opposite of this might be, say, the checkout at Walmart, Home Depot or Taco Bell, a prison ward, or an Vietnamese sweat shop.

Success breeds success. Enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. Professionalism breeds professionalism.

Likewise, mediocrity breeds mediocrity. Apathy breeds apathy. Negative attitudes breed negative attitudes.

Now you know. What you do with this knowledge is up to you. For me, the choice is pretty simple. Always has been.

Have a great Friday. 😉

photo credit: Christopher Wray McCann

Read Full Post »

Perhaps it’s a question of upbringing. Perhaps it’s a question of education. Perhaps it’s a question of pride or culture or personality. I may never understand full why some people are always full of excuses why they fall short or can’t get something done. Students. Athletes. Business managers. Farm hands. Soldiers. The list is long.
Every once in a while, yeah, even the best among us drop the ball. It happens. Maybe it’s a crappy client making too many unreasonable demands. Maybe it’s a huge project dropped on you at the last minute. Maybe your heart wasn’t into it – whatever it was. Maybe you just messed up. Or maybe you took on too much and there physically aren’t enough hours in the day to get it all done.

It happens.

You take your licks. You learn. You make adjustments. You move on.

While failure or less-than-stellar performance occasionally make an unwelcome visit in our daily endeavors, some people make failure a daily companion.

Heck, some people like to make it their M.O.

With them, there is always a good reason why something didn’t get done. Why goals couldn’t be met. Why something couldn’t be accomplished. There was a barricade. They’re still waiting for the email from so-and-so. The map was wrong. The system doesn’t give them visibility to some critical file they need. The situation changed and they couldn’t get in touch with their superior. There wasn’t a gas station for miles. No one gave them the customer list. There were too many bullets flying at them. There was too much distance between them and the finish line. There were too many distractions along the way. There were too many Persians.

Truth: There were too many obstacles in their heads. Too many reasons why sitting on their asses and waiting for someone to come bail them out seemed like a better option than getting the job done in spite of a few insignificant hurdles.

As I said earlier, perhaps it’s a question of upbringing. Perhaps it’s a question of education. Perhaps it’s a question of pride or culture or personality. The point is that not everyone is cut out to be a leader, and for some of us whose mentality leans towards the “excuses are for suckers” camp, that is sometimes difficult to accept.

Cinemax showing 300 every ten minutes isn’t helping either.

There is no doubt that if everyone in Corporate America (or if educators and students) took their work as seriously as Spartans took soldiering, American companies would indeed be something to behold.

Yet, many of them fall short of their potential.

And now, a reading from The Book of Gym Jones:

If you weren’t given the gift you can’t get the gift so the best you can do – if your goal is important – is work as hard as you possibly can, pay attention every hour of every day and then maybe, maybe if you’ve done enough and been smart enough you’ll emerge from the muck of mediocrity to shine a bit brighter than you shone before. Then, upon reflection you might decide your goal is a bit more important so you’ll start paying attention every minute of every hour of every day. You’ll find people who are better than you and you’ll take an empty cup when you meet them. Their example will destroy or inspire you and if it’s the latter you may stay and learn. You might imitate, doing as they do because you’ve already accepted that you do not know best – if you did you’d be leading the group they were trying to join. Perhaps being exposed to their superior ability will drive you to work harder than you thought possible, or necessary. Maybe you’ll overcome your self-imposed (or worse, society-imposed) limitations and shine even more brightly. Wow, you’re getting it: positive reinforcement for hard work and suffering. So maybe you give your goal even more significance and you begin cutting away the ideas and the expectations and the people who you believe prevent you from achieving it. Now you become a real selfish prick, and you begin paying attention every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and you sustain your awareness for weeks and months at a time. You no longer think yourself a unique snowflake, you’re a steel-edged blade shaped like a snowflake and you’re spinning at warp speed. You’re the biggest fish in the pond. You’re a badass. Now you have options.

1) If you think you haven’t yet done enough, and you could do more, you might begin to understand that, the more capable you become, the higher the mountain rises ahead of you. At that moment you may recognize the existence of a legitimately serious group, ahead of you, above you, somewhere you’re not. They are silent, implacable, constantly improving and evolving and because they are truly capable they are accessible to those who are genuine. Among them there’s no defensiveness, no posturing or pretending, and they aren’t interested in anyone else’s. Selection for such a group isn’t based on physical performance alone. Issues of character and commitment, and discipline and persistence balance physical talent. Because you clawed your way out of the muck, were “up all night, dedicated” and maintained interest for long enough to differentiate yourself from the short-attention-span sporting dilettantes who commonly brush up against this group they might accept you as an apprentice. If you empty your cup your chances are better. If you redouble your efforts your odds improve again.

2) If however, you think you’ve done enough or you decide you have “arrived” then you’ll stay in the small pond and stagnate. And when the rot is complete you’ll be just a little bit better than those around you – your initial example will have driven them to reach higher levels of performance – and there you’ll sit, an intellectually bloated, pontificating fuck who once had the juice to work hard but having done so feels entitled to coast on past success all the way to the grave. That’s when you’ll start offering opinions based on the certainty of your own short-lived, amateur experience.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone…and EAT HEARTY, FOR TONIGHT, WE DINE IN HELL!!!!!


um… sorry. It happens every time I watch it.


Leave comments on the main page, not the permalink.

“A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.”
– Francis Bacon

Read Full Post »

“While one hesitates because he feels inferior, the other is busy making mistakes and becoming superior.”
– Henry C. Link
Via the yeti, this fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal:
High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7. Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries.
American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.
Finland’s students placed first in science and near the top in math and reading, according to results released late last year. An unofficial tally of Finland’s combined scores puts it in first place overall, says Andreas Schleicher, who directs the OECD’s test, known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. The U.S. placed in the middle of the pack in math and science; its reading scores were tossed because of a glitch.
The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. “We don’t have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have,” says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.
(…)
Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: ” ‘Nah. So what’d you do last night?'” she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour,” she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.
Lloyd Kirby, superintendent of Colon Community Schools in southern Michigan, says foreign students are told to ask for extra work if they find classes too easy. He says he is trying to make his schools more rigorous by asking parents to demand more from their children.
(…)
Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% — or 10% at vocational schools — compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.
And all we could come up with was “no child left behind.”
The difference is this: Finns take education seriously. Not just teachers and educators, but citizens. People. Parents. Children. Voters. Education is culturally relevant. Ignorance, in Finland, is not a virtue as it can be here in the US.
I recall my own high school courses being infinitely tougher and more enriching than almost every college course I took in the US. I am a product of both the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and the International School of Brussels’ (ISB) incredible roster of professors, so my experience may not be typical of most Europeans, but let me say this: Only four courses I took in college were above the level of any class I took in High School in Europe. The rest of my college courses were on the level of ninth grade courses at ISB, if that.
I watch my kids go through school and wonder what they learn all day. They’re on par with European schools in math, but not particularly in science… and not at all when it comes to history or literature. Not even close, in fact.
I’ve actually been asked by an American close to me if we had toasters in France. Seriously. (I politely responded that yes, once American GI’s brought electricity with them, toasters and televisions made their way to France fairly quickly – although the government allowed only one of each per village.)
*sigh*
No matter how you look at it, when your own Commander in Chief is hardly capable of putting Nepal, Thailand, Afghanistan or Turkey on a map of the world, when he has a tough time pronouncing simple words like “nuclear” and seems to have a very tough time understanding (and funding) scientific research – and the majority of the country feels an affinity to him because of that “hey, he sounds like one of us” kind of affinity, you can’t help but wonder if we’re committed to being a nation of educated citizens or a nation of proud-to-be-ignorant consumers.
It is one thing to talk about being a world leader, and another completely to be a world leader. Unless we are talking about debt, illiteracy, carbon emissions and military spending.
As a superpower, we really ought to at least try to do better. Out of national pride, if anything. Maybe it;s just me, but we’re starting to look and act a lot like the dumb rich kid who likes to make fun of the nerdy kids in the classroom and shove the ethnic foreign kids into lockers when the teacher isn’t looking.
We really need to start raising the bar in this country. It was cool to be the Chuck Norris loving tobacco-chewin’ country neighbor with the really tacky McMansion and a huge fifteen-car garage and the manicured lawns back in the 80’s, but not anymore. We’ve become a cliche – both overseas and inside our own borders – and that’s never good.
What makes this situation even sadder is this: The only difference between Americans and Finns is mindset. We’ve just become lazy and self-indulgent. We take everything – starting with education – for granted, and have absolutely no clue how far behind we are getting. Honestly, education in the US may be one of those endeavors that Americans may have to outsource. Let an International Baccalaureate team come in with the heads of the world’s top ten national education programs, assess our K-12 system for a year or two, and rebuild it from the ground up.
Maybe this is the only way we get ourselves out of this shameful pit of educational mediocrity.
But before this can happen, our leaders need to have the will to make it happen – which starts with their electorate having the will to make it happen.
Sadly, in a multiple-choice culture in which no child is left behind, in which even the losing team gets a trophy, in which chief business leaders get paid tens of millions of dollars in bonuses for running Fortune 500 companies into the ground, and in which intelligence seems to demand little more than guessing the right answer just over 50% of the time, there is little need to waste time on world history, geography, world languages, literature or critical thinking. In other words, edukashion don’t need to be much gooder than this. If you spell something wrong, Spell Check will correct it for you. If you say something wrong, no one will catch it anyway.
When everyone is dumb, no one is dumb.
Except… when Americans start to travel to places other than Mexico, the Bahamas and the Florida Keys.
Perhaps “good enough” is just that: Good enough. America: Home of the okay, land of the good enough. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound hot to me. Yet here we are. Whether you believe it or not, whether your US-made statistics agree or not, the sad reality is that America’s K-12 system is in shambles, and yes, we are getting our asses handed to us by Finland.
(Case in point: I challenge any one of you – American readers – to actually put Finland on a map. Not scandinavia as a whole, but Finland. Before you do, I also want you to write down what major country Finland shares a border with. I also challenge you to describe its flag.)
Make fun of the French and the Finns and all of those faggy tree-hugging pinko Europeans all you want, but when they’re traveling overseas, at least they can find their own asses on a map without having to google-Earth it.
For shame.
As always, leave comments on the main page, NOT on the permalink.

Read Full Post »