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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.


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“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
– Laurence J. Peter

Overheard outside the wire today:

“Best is not good enough. You have to be better.”

Personally, I would be happy with being the best (it would be a good start)… but I guess I can respect the sentiment: Don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t ever believe that just because you’re #1, you can chill and stop working as hard. There are always improvements to make – and if you feel that there are no improvements left to make, then you aren’t looking in all the right places.

If anything, I have more respect for “be better than the best” than “give it 200%”. (Hint: There’s only 100%. 100.000001%+ is a fallacy.)

It does kind of remind me of those detergent commercials in the 70’s and 80’s that advertised “whiter than white whites.” (No comment.) I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Even if you’re the best, there is always someone better, stronger, faster, smarter or hungrier than you just waiting for a chance to take over the top spot. Being the best is not good enough. You have to be better.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. 🙂

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“Individuals behave in a difficult manner because they have
learned that doing so keeps others off balance and incapable of effective
action. Worst of all, they appear immune to all the usual methods of
communication and persuasion designed to convince or help them change their
ways.”
– Robert Bramson, Ph.D.

I will probably spend the rest of my life trying to figure out why some people are so vehemently opposed to change, progress or new ideas that they will exert more energy fighting them than embracing them.  I am sorry to hear that so many of you are dealing with this. I don’t have a lot of advice to give you there, except this:

Far be it from me to suggest that every new idea and every bit of change is positive. Success, after all, is more often than not the result of countless failures – some calculated, others not. I completely understand how and why intelligent professionals would (and should) be suspicious of new ideas. Due dilligence does play a significant role in effectively adopting new ideas and making them work. No question.

But some people resist change no matter what. These are not people who take the time to analyze a new idea or concept, run scenarios, try to figure out contingencies, look for lateral opportunities, and get around potential pitfalls along the way. These are just difficult people who enjoy being roadblocks.

Perhaps it makes them feel important: If they can’t actually be agents of change, at least they can be agents of un-change.

Maybe it’s all one big ego trip. A passive-aggressive power play.

Maybe it’s just that making sure that things don’t change defaults to predictability in their professional ecosystem , and predictability equals security. The less you change, the less you rock the boat, the safer you are.

Which makes sense when you realize that people who tend to become human roadblocks have made a career out of doing essentially nothing. (Doing something is what their staff is for.) There can only be security in doing nothing when the alternative (doing something) can be sold to senior management as a high-risk, low reward proposition.

Maybe it’s a little bit of everything: Laziness, insecurity, ego. You name it.
One thing is certain: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Human roadblocks are wired to be the way they are. No amount of logic, enthusiasm or even authority will change them. Or move them, for that matter.
Just like speedbumps, they are there to stay. Just like speedbumps, you have to slow down when you get close to one of them. And just like speedbumps, they’re pretty easy to roll over or get around once you have a clear view of where you want to go.
The thing about human roadblocks is that they don’t go anywhere. Come back in ten years, they’ll still be exactly where they are, doing the same damn thing. Maybe some of you can take some solace in that.
So my advice to you today is this: Don’t go mistaking speedbumps for 500 foot cliffs. They’re just speedbumps. Just keep doing what you are doing, and don’t let anyone stop you from getting the job done.
Have a great Tuesday, everyone.
photo by Christopher Wray-McCann

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“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.
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Real excuses from real companies on why their earnings didn’t meet estimates in the last quarter of 2006 – by Julie Teninbaum (Portfolio.com).

Classic!


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