Do You Believe In Your Boss?

Ninety percent of American workers believe that their bosses are unethical. 

That's just one of the many mind-boggling finding in a study by Maritz, Inc., of St. Louis. 

Here's Rick Garlick of Maritz appearing on MSNBC to discuss the alarming findings

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

At issue: values.  

Too often, people don't believe what their employers' believe. More and more people believe that naked pursuit of profit can lead people and companies astray. In his new book, Anything You Want, CD Baby founder Derek Sivers describes how one Las Vegas cabbie reveals the danger of the pure profit motive:

I was in Las Vegas for a conference, taking a taxi from the airport to the hotel. I asked the driver, “How long have you lived here?”

He said, “Twenty-seven years.”

“Wow! A lot has changed since then, huh?”

“Yeah. I miss the mob.”

“Huh? Really? What do you mean?”

“When the mafia ran this town, it was fun. There were only two numbers that mattered: how much was coming in, and how much was going out. As long as there was more in than out, everyone was happy. But then the whole town was bought up by these damn corporations full of MBA weasels micro-managing, trying to maximize the profit from every square foot of floor space. Now the place that used to put ketchup on my hotdog tells me it'll be an extra twenty-five cents for ketchup! It sucked all the fun out of this town! Yeah... I miss the mob.” 

Sivers, Derek (2011). Anything You Want (pp. 28-29). The Domino Project. Kindle Edition. 

If the people who work for you would rather work for the Mafia, you'd better figure out what you really stand for. And now. 

 

Innovation Myopia

Every day, people look at what their competitors are doing. Then they decide which of those activities are worth challenging.  Then they create a project to match their competitors. 

Myopia-284x300

At first, this strategy works.  If my company leads the field in one or two areas, I can keep opponents in check by matching their breakthrough attempts. 

Over time, my strategy fails. While I've been busy matching opponents, someone else has ignored all of us and introduced something totally new.  While many company worked on better customer profiles, gamification (Zynga, Foursquare, others) revolutionized the business. (Never saw that coming, did you?)  While many brands looked for better e-commerce tools, social commerce emerged and changed everything.

The good news: social commerce is easier than other kinds. That's because we're people, not demographics or segments. Social commerce is about buying form people you trust. Get to know people, give them reasons to trust you, and you win. Your competitors will be too busy catching up with each other.

 

Going Broke With Guaranteed ROIs

Henry Ford refused to add a new model to his line-up of cars.  The Model T came with a guarantee ROI.  Investing in new models, more colors (the Model T cam in black), or even new features seemed too risky to Ford.

 

What Ford steadfastly denied—the very essence of his denial—was that despite making the same product in the same way, his company was headed in the wrong direction.

 

Tedlow, Richard S. (2010). Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face--and What to Do About It (Kindle Locations 339-340). Portfolio. Kindle Edition.

 

Ford Motor Company nearly went out of business for lack of innovation.

 

The Quest for ROI

 

Are you tired of hearing about “proven ROI?”  I read in magazines and hear it in interviews.  “We’re only making business investment with proven ROI.” As if 20 years ago, companies bet the plant in Vegas every Saturday.

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Sounds great. Makes investors happy.  And it’s either a lie or an indicator of pending doom for the company that practices it.

 

What Is Guaranteed ROI?

 

Guaranteed rates of return come only from super-safe investments, like ordinary savings accounts or certificates of deposit or AAA bonds.  Have you checked the interest rates on those things lately? 

 

Are you a manager who’s looking for investments as safe as AAA bonds? You’re not a manager; you’re a conservative investor. Fre all your people, sell all your assets, pay off all your debt, and buy AAA bonds. 

 

What Is Business?

 

The purpose of business is not making money, but making money is a necessary by-product. Business exist to fill a void and to make life better. People will pay a premium for better lives, and that premium is your profit. 

 

Now here’s the secret: Figuring out what makes people’s lives better at any moment requires risk.  Risk requires letting go of guaranteed ROI.  If you’re in business, you’re in the business of taking risks. Do your job or give the corner office to someone who will.

 

GDP – ROI = ZERO

 

The economy at large is yielding the equivalent of a 3-year Certificate of Deposit.

 

Yes, the government’s refusal to deal with debt scares business and strangles growth. But government is not the only problem.

 

Business leaders fail us every time they demand guaranteed rates of return.  The reason annual GDP growth is about 1.8 percent is because the men and women in the corner offices are afraid to do their jobs.  They’re afraid to take risks and improve lives. They feel more comfortable earning 1.8 percent on a CD than on taking a risk with a new product or service.

 

Not only do business leaders distrust the government and their employees, they distrust themselves.

 

 

How It’s Supposed to Work

 

Business is hard work.  Managers are avoiding it.

 

To grow and prosper, businesses must try things.  They must measure things.  They must fail more often than they succeed, but their successes pay dividends many times the cost of failure.

 

Those investments in trials cost money and cannot be taken lightly.  They most have some hard numbers behind them. 

 

Demanding a guaranteed return is the opposite of risk, and the actual return is the opposite of profit.

 

 

 

3 Ways to Avoid Being Laughed At

Yes, we laugh at people. And at brands and companies and political parties.  Childish as it might seem, we all enjoy the fine art of ridicule. RidiculeTry this.  Search for any company or brand on Twitter. You'll see lots of ridicule.  Or Google any band followed by "sucks."  On the links that return, you'll find a blend of humor, ridicule, scorn, and anger  to rival a school board meeting in a bankrupt town.

The sad thing is that most of these companies bring it on themselves.  Sure, a lot of the anti-brand internet chatter comes from juvenile malcontents who just want to hate and mock.  But it sinks into the consumer psyche because of the brand's selfish presence.

To help out erstwhile brands that just don't get it, here are three free tips:

1.  Don't tell me your mission statement.  I don't care what your mission it; I care what my mission is.  Instead of telling me why you're in business, try asking me why I navigated to your web site.  Instead of sharing your vision with me, the customer, try telling your Customer Service Rep that you envision a world where your customers feel like loved family members.  Since few if any companies even try to live up to their phony mission and vision statements, hide them from sarcastic bloggers.

2.  Don't tell me all about your CEO.  I'll never meet her, and don't care how long she's been with your company or that she cut her teeth in GE's research lab.  Why don't you introduce me, instead, to the people in your company who care even less about your mission statement than I do: the people who can help me accomplish my mission?  Introduce the person I'll talk to if I click the Get Live Help Now button.  That's who can help me, not your CEO.  If you make it easy for me to get what I want, maybe I'll even introduce the CSR to your mission statement for you. (Trust me: she's never read it.)

3.   Don't make me follow your designed path through your website. I don't care what you want me to see, and it won't make me buy more.  It will make me return to my search results and click on your competitor's link.  I don't care about your latest press release or Walt Mossberg's review of your new software tool--unless I'm looking for that software tool.  But you don't know that's what I'm looking for, because you stuck your mission statement on the landing page where my mission statement should go.

There's a lot of other things about your company that we mortals giggle about.  These three are big, though, because they tell us that you care more about the products from your annual executive off-sites than you do about us and our needs.  When something goes wrong--as something surely will--you've garnered no good will from us, your customers.  If we think, though, that you're humble and trying to please us, then we'll be a little more forgiving.

The Business You Save Could Be Your Own

What  do you think about me writing a movie screenplay?  I think I will.

It’s a sequel to the 1998 hit You’ve Got Mail. You remember, don’t you?  Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks? 

Hanks is a senior exec for a big box bookstore chain called Fox Books.  Fox is killing the mom and pop book shops.  Fox Books locations are popping up everywhere.  Hanks’ character is a ruthless, greedy businessman.

Ryan owns a idyllic little bookstore that she dotes on like a little girl with a new pet bunny.  In the movie, their characters hate each other because Fox Books wants to put the Ryan’s shop out of business.  Ryan’s character is a sweet, socially conscious champion of the little guy.

But there’s a twist.  Hanks and Ryan, through their AOL screen names, are falling in love with other. Their online personas haven’t figured out each other’s real-life character.  Fun for all.

Now to my sequel. 

Jump ahead 13 years. 

In the first act, we see Meg Ryan walking down a busy street, looking at her iPad, spilling her coffee (in a “Little Shop” paper cup that has an original crayon drawing by one of her little customers.) 

Having made peace with the Fox company years before, without looking, she turns into the automatic double doors of Fox Books.  The doors don’t open.  Ryan crashed into the door.  Coffee flies, her iPad falls. 

As she bends over to pick up her the device, cut to tight shot of a man’s hand picking up the iPad for her.  Their hands touch briefly over the shattered touchscreen.

Cut to wide view.  Hanks, in a trench coat, rises with the broken iPad. Tighter angle again, they stare at each other. Meg’s mouth open. 

“So,” he says to Meg. “Come by to dance on my grave?”

Meg’s shocked.  “Huh? I mean, ‘no.’” She’s confused. 

Cut to Hanks.  “You had to have known.  You read HuffPo, don’t you?”  He points to a poster on the door.

Cut to poster: 

CLOSED FOR FINAL INVENTORY

Don’t miss our Store Closing Sale starting November 12

70% to 90% off everything in the store

Books * Videos * Music

Fixtures * Equipment * Furniture

“I heard about the bankruptcy,” says Ryan. “But I figured it was just a restructuring.  I . . . I’m sorry.”

Hanks looks into the dark windows of his once bustling store. “I’ll be alright.”

Tables Turned

That’s right. The Little Shop Around the Corner (the name of Ryan’s shop in the movie) is surging because of skillful application of game science and location-based dynamics. She’s changed her business just a bit, expanding from kids only to book lovers in general. She’s added coffee and killer desserts, too.

But the big box bookstore is dying because of the Kindle—and ebooks in general.

Think it’s far-fetched?  It’s not . It’s happening.

I wandered into my neighborhood Border’s Saturday.  Day of one of its final two days in existence. I read a lot, and I got my first Kindle last Christmas. 

I spent many hours in that Ballwin, Missouri store.  In 2006, I blogged about it on my non-business blog, Hennessy’s View. Even though I love niche stores, like The Little Shop Around the Corner, I loved that Border’s, too.  I loved being able to get just about any book I needed.

On Saturday, everything was 80 to 90 percent off.  Then again, everything consisted of a few hundred books that nobody would want to read.  Instead of row after row, section after section of books on every subject, there were a dozen shelving units scattered haphazardly around. Most of the store was roped off. The café was gone, gutted. Wires and pipes protruded from the walls and floor like rebar after a building collapse.

And it smelled of death, of vacancy, of fatigue. The way an apartment smells after you’ve removed your furniture but haven’t cleaned or painted. 

I looked at the employees. They were no longer book lovers who happen to know how a POS system works.  They were cashiers. The only floor assistance came from the Fixture Sales Manager whose job was to move the last of the shelving units.  Huge magazine racks had been marked down from $250 to $12.50.  And there they sat.

Business Model

Border’s meteoric rise—a rise that inspired half the plot of You’ve Got Mail—owed to technology.  In the 1970s, Louis Borders developed a software inventory system that gave his little family shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a decisive edge in that competitive field (source, In Nomine Domini).

And technology was also its downfall.  Having expanded like a juggernaut in the 1990s and 2000s, the combination of Amazon and bn.com, followed by the Kindle and ebooks, destroyed Borders (source, Gather). 

Like Sears in the 1960s and IBM in 1970s and 80s, everyone could see Borders’ fall coming. Everyone, that is, except its own executives.

As the internet and mobile rose, Borders E-team continued to add locations. When consumers began clamoring for experiences, meaning, and values, Borders removed the reading nooks to make room for more fixtures and inventory—fixtures and inventory that are now on sale well below cost.

As the economy recovers and values continue to shift from mass consumption to private experience, how many other titans will fall?

Beware the Good Times

In college, I wrote a well-received research paper on recessions and recoveries.  I found that the most dangerous time for many big businesses is not the recession, but the time after.  New businesses born of the privation of the recession and built by talented people who were cast aside in cost-cutting, change industries. 

It seems that in post-recession booms, buyers—consumers and corporations—are not looking for the latest model of what was popular before the fall; they’re looking for things that weren’t even imagined before the fall. Trends emerge that couldn’t have been predicted. 

In this environment, businesses that try to hang onto the past die quietly. Industries that once defined the age find their age is past. Business models that were once revered seem hopeless flawed.

We’re in just such a cycle.

Fight the Next War, Not the Last

When a team of Army Rangers liberated US POWs from a Japanese prison camp toward the end of World War II, the prisoners--American soldiers, Marines, and sailors--wouldn't leave their cells. They were afraid of the Rangers.

The POWs had been imprisoned since the Bataan Death March in 1942. American uniforms, equipment, and lingo had advanced 20 years or more in the three years since. The new Army was as foreign to the POWs as were their Japanese captors on the day they surrendered Corregidor.

In 1942, America was geared up to prevent another war like the last one. But the last one ended a generation earlier. In Vietnam, the US is said to have fought the Korean war all over again. Throughout history, non-aggressors have fought the last war. That's usually a losing strategy.

In business, we call it applying "lessons learned."  Like fighting the last war, responding to the last opportunity is a sucker's game.

If you've lost a customer or missed a sale because your products, services, features, software, or approach is out of date, you cannot catch up.  The market leaders are already ahead, and your copy-catting will only put them further ahead.

Instead, define and fight the next war. Create the tools of the future and force the competition to fight your way.

Blame the Customer

You probably get the customers you deserve. quality I learned that a major  American bank wants its customers to be its testers. And it fines them if they miss a defect.

A friend of mine—call him Van—fired that bank recently.

Van admits he doesn’t scour bank statements.  He scans for obvious problems, like a balance thousands of dollars off from what he expects. If he finds none, he moves on with his life.

Not long ago, he noticed something called an “Advantage Fee.”  It was small, but Van did some research.  He learned that he’d been charged the fee for a long time, but that his account type and history should have exempted him.

“The bank customer service agent was great,” he told me. “She said it looked like I’d gotten the fee stopped before, but somehow it got turned back on about a year ago.”

The agent stopped the fee, credited his account for six months, and promised to submit a request to credit him for the earlier months.  The bank’s software limited her to a six-month refund.

Weeks later, Van received a terse letter from the bank. It informed Van that they would not credit the rest of the amount they erroneously charged him because Van wasn’t reviewing his statements carefully enough.

“You should have told us sooner.”

That’s right: the bank was keeping a customer’s money because the customer didn’t perform quality assurance checks on the bank’s flawed software.

Some process-and-policy wonk probably received a commendation for saving the bank $60.  That two-figure savings cost the bank a six-figure household.  It also undermined the credibility of a helpful and friendly customer service agent.

On the bright side, maybe the bank will replace Van with a new, young, low-income customer who scours her statement every month and challenges every item.

Have a Social Media Referral Strategy?

social-media-icons 

Twitter and facebook can bring  a lot of new customers your way, especially through social referrals. With a little planning and strategy, you can stack the deck to attract new customers who share a lot in common with your best and most loyal customers.

Quick Story

During a program redesign, the topic of referrals came up. I was looking for a place to deploy our new social media referral tools. In the course of the conversation, though, I decided to pull back the referral option.

Why would a proponent of this exciting new technology pull it off the table?

Simple: this program didn't fit the profile for a social media referral strategy.

Social Media Referrals Are Different

If the program were a classic loyalty program aimed at top and near-top customer segments, I’d have pushed on. But this program was more of a promotion aimed at price-driven customers. To illustrate my reasoning, let’s look at the difference between a social media referral and a traditional referral.

The last time I bought a new car, the salesman worked hard to get names of people I knew who needed or wanted a new car. He asked me to give his card and a gift certificate to friends who loved the new vehicle.

This is traditional referral. Get a customer to refer you to people they know who are likely to want whatever they just bought.

But that’s not how social media referrals work.

When I tweet out that I just bought a car from Joe Carr’s Used Cars, thousands of my followers will see it. And they couldn’t care less. No one follows me to find out where I bought my car. They follow me for other reasons.

If I tweeted, however, that "@Joe_Carr_Cars the most honest car dealership in town,” people might pay attention. Followers who appreciate honesty will take note. Likewise, if I tweet that @Joe_Carr_Cars fixed a squeak for free,” people motivated by reliability will take note.

Now, suppose I tweet, "@Joe_Carr_Cars car prices are the cheapest in town-20 percent below Blue Book.” Who will flock to Joe’s? People who value integrity? Maybe. People who treasure reliability? Perhaps. People looking to pay very little? Absolutely.

Social Media Referral Strategy

Simply requiring customers to earn the privilege of referring will improve the quality of referrals you get through social media. For example, “Achieve level 3 to unlock the Referral Tool.” Then give customers the opportunity to earn something of value for their referral efforts. You’ve made the act of referring more interesting while attracting new customers who look like your best customers.

Something worth celebrating

After the tech bubble burst (but not long after), I was talking to my boss at a company party. We were drinking. Voices and songs and laughs ricocheted around the hotel ballroom. But something was missing. “These parties feel fake when you haven’t done anything worth celebrating,” he said.

The man I was talking with had launched, operated, and sold several companies in a short a mount of time. He recognized success when he saw it.

I looked around the room. Felt like I was surveying the ballroom on the Titanic the night before the iceberg.

That company is gone, now.  Some other company on some other continent owns and updates the software we created. Even at that (inwardly) sad Christmas Party in 2001, we knew that our days were numbered. That day of reckoning absorbed energy the way a block of ice absorbs heat.

I get the feeling that there are a lot of companies today operating like that company did.  Companies that have enough money to stay afloat, but no real direction or purpose.  Companies whose business model once built new building but now feel like anchors. People walk around, keep busy, hope the anchor chain doesn’t ensnare a leg.

In the midst of economic recovery, weak business models reveal themselves. The pent-up demand senior managers prayed for goes toward some start-up’s new ideas.  People who put off buynig for three years, don’t want your New and Improved model—they want something completely different and exciting.

What was the name of the Titanic’s house band?  And what were they playing the night before the iceberg?

Least Restrictive Environment

Do you offer your employers, business partners,and, most importantly, your customers the Least Restrictive Environment possible? In education, services offered to kids with special needs must be offered in the least restrictive environment. In other words, you can't send a kid with Type I diabetes to some special medical school because she needs to test her blood glucose levels at lunchtime. Nor can you lock the kids with mild attention problems into a special cell. Some businesses, however, default to the most restrictive environment.

A loyalty program with arcane blackout dates, numerous ways to lose your balance, bizarre point/dollar shifts designed to reduce the value of points are just a small sample of the restrictions we put in the way of customers.

Brands also restrict customers by hamstringing employees and partners. The customer service rep who must get approval to adjust an angry or confused customer's balance by a few points restricts the customer.

The overly cautious interpretation of rules prevents customers from buying and guarantees lousy comments on Yelp.

Says Who?

Who decides which practices are the best ones?

I hear all the time about best practices. Every company I’ve worked with in the past 12 years talked about following best practices.

What I don't know (what they’ve never bothered to explain) is who decides something is a best practice. These are weasel words--a new way of saying “everybody’s doing it.”

I’ll believe that a practice really is best when it produces higher quality, better profits, more flexibility, and happier people. 

Until then, just be honest and say, “this is the way I prefer doing things.”

How to See Yourself (as others see you)

Companies spend fortunes trying to figure out how the world sees them. Smart. A business that lacks self-awareness is as doomed as a person who lacks self-awareness.

Now comes a study that may allow people to create more accurate pictures of their own brands without waiting for the consultants to report out. Or when budgets don’t allow for market studies.

First, remember that a company is comprised of people. In fact, a company’s image is a reflection of the people inside. Our image of Enron—in success and disgrace—reflected our image of the people who ran the company.

With that in mind, try this: cast yourself one year into the future. What would your future self say about your brand as it stands right now? No spin. In a study by Tal Eyal and Nicholas Epley, casting yourself into the future and looking back at your present self more accurately reflects how others see you right now.

In the study, 106 participants were asked to guess how others in the group would rate their attractiveness. Half of the subjects guessed by putting themselves in their raters’ shoes. The other half used the future-self technique. The results were stunning.

The half who put themselves into others’ shoes performed miserably. There was no correlation between the guess and the actual ratings. The half who used abstract thinking to look at their present selves through the lens of their future selves performed better:

[W]hen participants thought about their future selves, a technique that encourages abstract thinking, suddenly people's accuracy shot up. They weren't spot on, but they did much better. A further experiment confirmed these findings in general evaluations, suggesting this effect wasn't restricted to attractiveness.

Since people run businesses, this technique should work for brands as well. Try it. Mentally leap forward six months or a year. Write down your perceptions of your brand from that perspective.

There’s no way to perfectly understand the market’s view of your brand, but this appears to be the most accurate self-appraisal you can get. And it's free.

Are You Depreciative?

Depreciation is a term used in accounting, economics and finance to spread the cost of an asset over the span of several years (Wikipedia, 2010).

Have you ever wondered if we’ve spread the idea of depreciation too far?  Like, to people?  To clients and customers?

I read Simon Sinek’s wonderful story of how the U.S. Marine Corps looks after its wounded.  Clearly, the Marines do not depreciate their human assets. Instead, they demonstrate an inefficient devotion to those who’ve stepped forward, taken the challenge, and become one of the few, one of the proud.

How many organizations can claim such a devotion to and from their members?

Sometimes mutual loyalty gets tossed aside in the race toward low prices and growth.  When your battling to be the low cost provider, you probably can’t afford to show loyalty (much less, devotion) to your customers and your employees.  Sinek writes about the Marines sending an officer from the battle theater to escort the wounded (and fallen) home.  That’s highly inefficient. But it’s the kind of devotion that makes the Marines the Marines. And such devotion stands out.

Strangely, there was no one there from the Army. But the Marines had taken two officers out of theater for the sole purpose to escort these two wounded comrades from the front lines back to the United States. That was their entire responsibility.

Many organizations, it seems, depreciate humans right along with drill-presses. Once the hoopla of the launch dies down, we stop thinking about that customer and head out to find some new ones.  Eventually, that customer whose business we celebrated with a raucous happy hour disappears into the clutches of a competitor.  And we race to court a new one.

What if we just stopped depreciating people and started dating them all over again?  What if we applied courting rituals to relationships with the clients and employees we already have?  Wouldn’t that be easier and more effective than finding new ones?

3 Quick Ways to Make Collaboration Work

She looked confused by the question. 

“I just wanted to know how you develop ideas in the War Room,” I repeated.

The young woman looked past me, over my right shoulder, and out the window toward a tree-lined parking lot. Her pupils focused on a distant object, then on something inside her head.

“We don’t really develop ideas, I don’t think. We just talk about what’s behind schedule and how we can get more resources.”

So a group of people who work together every day do nothing but fight a plan? That’s not collaboration so much as group torture. 

The idea of a war room, or massive collaboration room, sounds appealing, and for over a decade we’ve been told that rampant collaboration will solve the world’s problems.  And yours.  “None of us is as smart as all of us.” Whatever.

But as I look around the office and around my life, I find problems have persisted despite massive collaboration.

What went wrong? Is collaboration just another failed theory from some jerk’s Stanford MBA thesis? Or are we doing it wrong?  Or has a good idea been oversold?

Let’s go with number three.

The Theory Theory:  Collaboration works.  Have you ever seen a 5 on 1 power play in a hockey game?  They don’t have them because one player against 5 will result in a goal in very short order.  Hockey is a collaborative sport. 

The Bad Practices Theory: Now we might be doing collaboration wrong at certain times and places,but I don’t think some bad practices have caused us all to cringe at the sound of the word.  Bad practices tend to resolve themselves because we are social creatures who understand innately how to work with others to achieve a goal.

The Oversold Theory: So I come back to overselling for a couple of reasons.  First, we tend to oversell and over buy every good idea.  Too much of a good thing is the American way. Second, while hockey is a collaborative sport, other activities are decidedly not. 

Creativity requires solitude. So does software design, great writing, and deep thought.  Meditation doesn’t benefit from a dozen people talking about it or doing it together.  (Someone in the room will invariably breathe funny.)  Some things either benefit from or absolutely require solitude, as Leo Babauta points out in this column on ZenHabits.net.

Along with solitude goes participation or collaboration. The thing we create must appeal to others, and others often serve as testers or inspiration for our creativity.  Total isolation will lead to dull results, just as total collaboration will lead to group think and mediocrity.

So here’s three quick ways to make collaboration work:

  1. Schedule two hours of solo work for every one hour of collaboration.  You say you work for a big company that won’t let you?  Push.  You owe yourself and your employer every opportunity to get the most out of your day. But if that still doesn’t work—if you are locked in a room with others for eight hours a day—set aside an hour or two of your own time for solo work and dedicate that time to a particular task. People will want to know your secret, and that’s your chance to change your organization. “If we all had a two hours a day to think and experiment, imagine how productive we’d be.”
  2. Spend an hour alone every morning.  This sometimes requires that you change your sleep patterns, but it’s worth it.  An hour of quiet solitude first thing in the morning—before breakfast, coffee, or shower—can produce powerful ideas and results.  Try dedicating this hour to the single most important thing you need to accomplish.  (h/t Leo Babauta, again)
  3. Practice solitude within the multitude. Just because you’re assigned to a war room doesn’t mean you’ve lost your right to speak.  (If you have, then maybe you need to find a new job.) Raise the idea of 2 quiet hours every day. Push it. Make the rules simple: no talking, no phones, no music.  People may type or think or read, but may not speak. And stay in the room or out, but don’t wander in and out.

As with any practice, the time you set aside for solo work will be as effective as you make it. While meditating and daydreaming frequently add value, writing, drawing, coding, and designing are what someone actually pays for.  That’s why I recommend the two-to-one balance between solitude and collaboration, to allow time for both the thinking and the doing.  Plus the collaboration for the validation and inspiration.

Use the time well, and learn to make your solitude meaningful. It will pay off in buckets.

Build Trust the Old-Fashioned Way: Earn It

Have you ever looked someone in the eye and decided, in an instant, that you can trust him or her? 
 
What about a business?  Do you trust the companies you do business with? 
 
I think people do business with companies they distrust all the time.  Most of the time, in fact.  If we don't do business with people and companies we distrust, then:
  • Why do we have contracts?
  • Why do we review bank statements?
  • Why do we insist on warranties and guarantees?
  • Why do we put funds into escrow?

The answer is, we don't trust most of the people we do business with.   But some we distrust more than others.  This trust breaks down a couple of ways:

Trust in Intention:  Many of our business agreements involve future delivery of a good or service. As vendors, we believe that the customer has every intention of paying for the services we offer.  As customers, we believe the vendor honestly intends to deliver.  But we get it in writing because we know circumstances change.  When they took their vows, Mrs. Sanford believed that Governor Sanford would never betray and humiliate her.  Things changed.  But she trusted his intention at the time of the wedding or the would not have occured.

Trust in Representation:  The other kind of trust involves the representation of facts about the past or present.  This is a whole different ball game.  If Joe tells us he was at home watching "So You Think You Can Dance" last night, but we know that he was actually at a bar with a woman from Argentina, we call Joe a dirty liar. When we lose trust in a person's honesty about the past, we will not sign a contract for the future.

Why Is This Important?

Trust is at an all-time low.  Harvard Business Review recently devoted an entire issue to rebuilding trust in companies and institutions.

A Tremendous Loss of Faith

These charts show the level of trust among senior managers and executives toward other executives and consultants.  Since 2007, the men and women who run America's businesses have lost faith in the integrity of their fellows.

More importantly, they seem to have lost the second kind of trust.  They no longer trust other companies to tell the truth about what is or was.

Ethically and morally, we've always been required to tell the truth.  If we sign up to deliver something in the future (Trust in Intentions), then we deliver, even at great cost to ourselves.  If we represent the current state of our business, our capabilities, or our accomplishments, we speak only pure and verifiable truth.  But when trust is already low, the slightest hint of dishonesty, of false representation, will permanently destroy a person's reputation.  It will also destroy his or her business.

As we emerge from the current recession, look for integrity to be at least as important as capability when people and companies choose vendors.

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How To Catch Up

iStock_000003616737XSmall Very few companies lead the market in everything unless they do only one thing.  Instead, most companies lead in one area, maintain parity in most, and lag in one or two.

Trouble starts when when you’ve missed something new altogether.  One example is mobility an

d social media, which are now blending.

The market no longer looks at text messaging as a cool extra feature—it expects everyone to do it.  Mobile applications for smart phones and PDAs are quickly achieving the same “table stakes” status that a web site achieved a decade ago.  If you don’t have answers, you’ll soon find yourself in a terrible conversation with a client where you’ll learn that you are slow, old, predictable, and boring.

The problem most companies face when trying to catch the field—especially larger companies—is process.  The reason you fell behind is that your processes and culture discourage innovation.  Ten years ago, someone talked about mobile solutions and the organization collectively said, “no.”  Five years ago, that innovator raised the issue again, this time demonstrating a simple prototype.  The organization said, “we don’t have time: other priorities.”  Two years ago, the sales force said, “Everybody’s asking about our mobile capabilities,” and the organization answered, “Tell them its on the roadmap.”

Now it’s 2009, and your organization is the only one that doesn’t have a mobile solution.  You’re passing up $40 million a year in business because many prospects won’t even talk to you.  Your existing clients have you scrambling to interface with their mobile solution provider.

If you’re in this boat, don’t try to conquer the world.  It’s too late.  Instead, get one mobile solution in place, then tackle the next one.

Here’s your game plan:

  • Contact a mobile solution provider you trust.  If you don’t know one, contact Message Buzz.  They are reputable, experienced, and ready to get you started in a day or two.
  • Pick the simplest, meaningful SMS service you can possible deliver.  Example:  Text mybal to 35350 and receive your current account balance and last 3 transactions.  Another:  Text timcrank to 41411 and receive a link to a loyalty marketing social network.
  • Use the simplest possible interface to the text messaging provider.  If an Excel spreadsheet of phone numbers and account balances can go out the door today, do it.  Improve the interface over time.
  • Provide your customers, members, or clients with a mechanism to suggest mobile solutions they want.  For instance, text ‘idea’ plus the suggestion to a short code.
  • Commit to adding one new mobile tool every month for the next year.

Again, if you have nothing to offer the mobile world now, you will probably never lead in mobility.  But you need some answer to everyone else who already has a solution.

This process applies to anything in which you’re behind.  If you don’t understand social media, create a Twitter account and tell the world you’re listening.  Or create a facebook account and tell your best 5 customers about it.

If you need more help with mobility or other solutions, email bill.hennessy@hennessygrp.com.  We’ll be happy to help.  Or text “helpstart” plus a short description of your needs to 41411, and we’ll get started right away.

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Meetings Kill

iStock_000004624763XSmall If 100 percent of your meeting time is billable to a client, then you can stop reading.  Everyone else will gain a new appreciation for the evil of business meetings.  If you think “evil” is a bit too strong, consider:

  • They break your working day into small, incoherent pieces on a schedule incompatible with the natural breaks in your flow
  • They are normally all about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or a screen of design)
  • They usually contain an abysmal low amount of information conveyed per minute
  • They often contain at least one moron that inevitably get his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
  • They drift off subject easier than a rear-wheel driven Chicago cab in heavy snow
  • They frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what its about
  • They require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway [source]
    In addition to the above from 37 Signals, I’ll add a few of my own:
  • My youngest son, now 15, received an award for perfect attendance in kindergarten while I was in a meeting (1998)
  • My wife needed reassurance and attention after a terrible event—but I was in a meeting (2008)
  • Many days, I accomplish nothing of value or meaning because I’m in meetings

Peter Drucker wrote (more than once) on the evil of meetings.  Here’s a compilation, borrowed from Jo

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e and Wanda:

Meetings are by definition a concession to a deficient organization. For one either meets or one works. One can not do both at the same time…There will always be more than enough meetings…Every meeting generates a host of little follow-up meetings—some formal, some informal, but both stretching out for hours. Meetings, therefore, need to be purposefully directed. An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization where everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done. Wherever a time log shows the fatty degeneration of meetings—whenever, for instance people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more—there is time-wasting malorganization.

Drucker, who is still underappreciated in American business, knew of what he spoke.  The evils and costs of meetings cannot be measured, and most managers and executives would deny the facts if they saw them.

Here’s what you can do to stop this evil practice that is costing your company about 30 percent of its gross margin:

  • DON’T BLOCK YOUR CALENDAR:  There are two reasons why blocking your calendar is a bad idea.  First, it’s immoral because it requires you to lie in order to avoid an evil meeting.  Second, most meeting planners are rude and pay no attention to your availability.  Second-point-five, why should you take an extra step in order to generate income for you company?
  • REFUSE:  Unless the request is from your boss (or one of your seventeen bosses) or a client, you should say “no.”  Simple decline with the reply, “Thank you for valuing my input, but I will be preparing for [name a client/project/executive] presentation at this time.”   That’s all. 
  • LEAVE 5 MINUTES IN:  The best way to make people stop inviting you to expensive meetings is to (rudely) get up and leave 5 minutes in.  Regularly.  As soon as you realize the meeting is a time waster less compelling than Tetris, gather your stuff and leave.  Simple as that.
  • CHARGE YOUR TIME:  If you have an internal costing system, be sure to charge your time to the organizer’s project or department.  All of your time:  planning, preparation, follow-up, printing, thinking about it in the car. 
  • POST COST:  Here’s an idea every manager will love:  create a meeting planning template that includes a simple budget.  Calculate your company’s blended labor cost rate ($50/hr is a good start).  Figure 30 minutes of prep and follow-up for every hour of meeting time.  The little sidebar calculator will look something like:

                       | Attendees:             5
                       | Hours:         2 (*1.5)
                       | Rate:                   $50
                       | Cost:                 $750

Before calling a meeting, state the problem in the form of a legal case analysis.  State the issue in the form of a question.  “Should we merge with Allerco?”  Provide the background and a recommendation.  Chances are, you will not need a meeting.  You can send the analysis to the people you would have invited, then either make the decision or forward your final recommendation to the decision maker.  At worst, you’ll hold a short meeting to argue wildly different recommendations in front of the decision maker.  But follow the standard legal case analysis you learned in Business Law, and you’ll have the answer 99 percent of the time.

Finally, learn to hate meetings unless a client is paying for your time.

Return to Business Wear

istock_000002200806xsmallDoesn't it seem like a century ago that most businesses abandoned business attire for some sort of prefixed "casual" wear? It seems like that to me.   Is it possible that our relaxed dress code contributed to our relaxed attitudes toward business ethics, frugality, and risk?  I think so.

Only a decade ago, I was required to wear a tie every day even when no clients were in the building.  No one complained because there was no other way for programmers and business people to dress:  you wore a tie if you were a man.  Women wore pant suits or skirts and never open-toed shoes.

Then the "casual Friday" thing started in some companies.  Out in Silicon Valley, companies like Apple made famous the "open collar"  and "no collar" worker--highly paid programmers and executives who wore jeans and t-shirts to work.  Next thing you know, business magazines and psychologists told us that business dress was a form of slavery.  More companies caved to casual.  Authors wrote books to teach knowledge workers how to dress casually--an art form much more complex than a suit and tie.

A friend and colleague recently decided to take a stand for tradition. Tim is not an executive.  He is not in a position to issue an edict requiring business dress of the whole company.  He is a true leader.  Risking ridicule and even damage to his career, Tim decided last week to wear a suit and tie to work every day.  He decided to stand out like a healthy thumb amidst a fistful of broken fingers.  He took a stand.

With the eonomy in depression or something near, perhaps we all need to grow up and start dressing like adults again.  While I won't throw away my jeans, as George Will would like, I will join Tim tomorrow.  I want no credit for "leaderhip" on this, because Tim owns the title among my friends and colleagues.

Here's to you, Timmy.  Perhaps you've done what Washington cannot--fix the economy with worsted wool and fine silk.

How to Seize the Mobile Market

istock_000000879801xsmallYou are losing money, readers, and friends if your web site is not optimized for mobile.

Most of the  time I spend browsing favorite sites is spent on my T-Mobile Dash.  I use Google Reader to gather them together in one spot.  But there are many sites that I would read regularly if they hadn't pissed me off the first time I linked to them via Reader.  That's because about half of these sites have not been optimized for mobile browsing.

By "optimized," I mean made seemlessly accessible and enjoyable from a mobile device.  I do not mean having some special link or URL.  If you type http://blog.hennessygrp.com into your mobile browser, you will see something like this.  This is a free service from MoFuse.com which provides a WordPress plug-in to automatically redirect mobile browsers to the mobile version.  It took me 2 minutes to set up, and it makes my readers' lives better.  If you don't like MoFuse or don't use WordPress, there are hundreds of other options.  Google 'make website mobile'.  If you're a do-it-yourselfer, check out this article.

When I read that 15 percent of iPhone users do not browse the web from their devices, I figures it's because they like web sites run by people or companies who don't care enough to provide a mobile version of their sites.  That's too bad.  It leaves money on the table and irritates would-be fans.

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Why Most Companies Are Boring

Most companies bore the pants off everyone:  employees, customers, management, the public.  Everyone but the board room and C-suite.

Why is this?

istock_000005896614xsmall-2What makes most companies insufferable bores?   The petty rules and conditions they build to protect some people from the ideas of others.  In other words, senior managers.

Here's an example:  Most companies use some internally hosted and managed email system like Microsoft Exchange.  Around Exchange, they build a little empire of a VP, technicians, a data center manager, and policy czars.  Even for large companies that benefit from economies of scale, the average cost per user for Exchange is around $1,000 a year. That includes the storage and networking of user documents created with Excel, Word, and PowerPoint.    It includes all of the PDF files people save and share.  For a company of 2,000 employees, that's $2 million a year.

Smart companies, on the other hand, use Zoho or Gmail.  Here, for about $50 per user per year, they get email, messaging, 25 GB of file storage, and someone else has the headaches of keeping it running. They get word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations that are just as feature-rich as Microsoft's products.  Plus, sharing is inherently easier and users are less likely to email copies of a document.  That means less wasted disk space and fewer version problems.

Propose the idea of switching from Exchange, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to Zoho, though.  Boring companies with fiefdoms will toss you out the door faster than you turn on your Out of Office auto-responder.  Boring companines think its worth $2 million a year to avoid figuring out what to do with the 20 people who used to manage the email and document systems.

Boring Companies are in Trouble

If you look at the Wall Street Journal, you'll see daily news about boring companies:  Citigroup, GM, Chrysler, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, etc.   All were icons of the boring company model.  All are gone or going or should have left already.

Look at the companies that thrive:  Google, Amazon, IDEO.  These are exciting companies that people pay attention to.   They're not boring--not for a  minute.  They do what makes sense instead of what protect the golden VP.

If you want to thrive in any economy, don't bore everyone.  Let go of the things you've always done.  Find out what someone else does better than you, and let them do it for you.

*UPDATE*  Seth Godin's noticed the same thing.  So has Copyblogger.

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