What if we waited, listened, and learned?

Fortune’s fantastic piece on avoiding failure features my very favorite piece of advice. 

Diagnose, don’t indict.
Executives new to an organization often turn over rocks to discover what they’ve gotten themselves into—and fail to manage their shock. Saying “How have you people survived this long?” is the worst reaction.”

Far too many people at every level over-step here and it can be alienating to their new colleagues. Even self-awareness can’t stop you all the time, I’ve found. The tendency is to notice and to share. But what if we waited, listened, and learned.

I read this great piece of advice somewhere (not sure who to quote, it’s been so long): “Before you start telling people where you’re coming from and what you’re about and what you’re going to do, listen first to what’s going on there, how others feel about it, what are their views, what’s their input, what are their personal goals? Take note of all that they have to say, and then put together your version of ‘here’s where I’m coming from.’ So, ‘listen and learn first’. 

It’s a practice. 

Pic: La Sagrada Familia, Barce.

So long, Kay-Wey. Now, what’s The Post to do?


The Grahams always did good work, but change is inevitable in the news industry.

With much fanfare, Katharine Weymouth has stepped down from The Post to make room for her Politico successor

The irony is not lost. Politico’s advent was in Post’s misreading of the way news was going — polarization, niche over broad, etc. 

Now, we all have our niche news sources, and big papers have had to figure out how to accommodate all this clubbiness. 

One good idea is to give readers more agency by putting a porthole in the “Chinese wall,” so to speak, whereby advocacy organizations could enable readers to do something with the information they read in an article by featuring messages on the very same page. GASP!

Before you freak out, hear me out on this.

Adult Learning Theory tells us that action creates deeper connection and resonance. And marketers are embracing “calls to action,” thanks to increased focus on accountability and social interaction.

Is it time for newspapers to adopt this principle? Maybe. 

The key to making this work is to create consistent rules that ensure an objective editorial model. For example, you say: anytime we write on fracking, these orgs — with whom we’ve established a relationship and defined what messages they can put out there to our readers — get to opt to have their pre-determined (read: non-preemptive) message played alongside. Transparency and consistency are key.

When I’ve floated this idea to friends in journalism, it naturally draws ire. But, I am not alone.

As Ross Douthat of NYTimes suggests ”the press’ efforts to remain neutral/balanced while also acting as a medium for surfacing underrepresented voices and investigating the powerful actually undermines good coverage of real issues as the two aren’t entirely compatible.”

Indeed, as the industry formerly known as the newspaper business evolves we’re seeing non-traditional editorial models surface that toe this line: 

Christian Science Monitor is crafting a strategy that involves “building communities around intention and intentionality.”

Upworthy, a viral media site, is attracting attention for its dedication to social causes

Even The Post launched “Sponsored Views,” a feature that lets organizations pay to have their responses to the Post’s Opinion content prominently displayed. 

 Photo: Politico (naturally)

Marketing for Thinking Things


HBR tells me that marketing has entered a great Age of Analytics, weaving tailored messages into the fabric of our lives based on elegant models — that I imagine look like beautiful fractals. But mostly we continue to be bombarded with “don’t you want this?” messaging plastered across our online and in-real lives.

The challenge is that disrupting our lives (in the positive, Silicon Valley sense) requires real work, and very few companies are actually up to the task. A truly great marketing organization is one that shows us how the company improves the world, trusts us with deeper levels of information, and helps to connect the dots to our own lives.  

Great marketing gives us just a glimpse of the company’s depths (think: Apple). While most companies focus on their product functionality, a few look to stake a claim in larger issues that hold more resonance for us.

The Ultimate Marketing Machine

BMW has adopted a broad framework for marketing its vehicles — focused on macroeconomic factors that affect our lives, like trade and jobs, and tapping into mega-trends like car sharing and electric vehicle adoption (which I’ve written about previously). 

At a July marketing event in a 100-year-old Navy Yard building in Washington, D.C., the company’s executives talked about supply chains and jobs.

Sure, there were shiny cars and shiny Olympic (bobsled) medals on display, but primarily the message was about jobs, tariffs, and trade. Meaty stuff for a car company, and more meaningful stuff for a consumer. We care about where things come from, and the company is giving us credit for that.

The July event was a marketing event modeled on the Robert Reich “Who Is Us” philosophy of the early-90s. In his essay, Reich argued that foreign companies that invest in U.S. are effectively American companies.

Executives highlighted BMW’s U.S. supply chain — for example the company’s joint venture with SGL Group to make carbon fiber in Moses Lake, Washington — which has grown to encompass tens of thousands of jobs directly, and hundreds of thousands through its supplier and dealer network. 

Think Local, Market Global

If marketing is the act of creating lots of emotional touch points (that convert into monetization points), ideas and products that have the greatest resonance with us will always do best — obviously.

A car company that talks about working with government to improve infrastructure to bring us electric vehicles, and explains why reducing tariffs on American-made cars abroad will capture mindshare will get ahead.

It feels good, as a consumer, to be trusted with better information and context. Not earth-shattering stuff, but few companies do this as part of marketing. 


Pic: me going ga-ga over an Olympic bobsledding medal


"EMC uses its ‘federation’ business model as a way to allow VMware and a newer big-data division, called Pivotal, to run separately while still collaborating to sell combined offerings to big customers. This also enables VMware and Pivotal to strike partnership deals with companies that compete with EMC’s core business."


Bright things Peter Thiel (Paypal founder) says


While I’m not a fan of his anti-government seasteading movement, which is a bizarre capitalist utopia that I would want no part of, he does have a point here:

Great companies do three things. First, they create value. Second, they are lasting or permanent in a meaningful way. Finally, they capture at least some of the value they create.”   

“More important than being the first mover is the last mover. You have to be durable.” 

“The most critical thing for every startup is to be doing one thing uniquely well, better than anybody else in the world.” 

And then just other things he’s said:

“You’re going to start a business you might as well try to start one where, if it works, it will be really successful, rather than one where you’re competing like crazy with thousands of people who are doing something just like you all the time.”

A semi-full list of Peter Thiel insights here.

Image: exponential growth & decay

Workplace Hierarchies Still Matter

It’s true. Jeffrey Pfeffer (author of excellent book, Power) says so: 

“‘Relationships with bosses still matter for people’s job tenure and opportunities, as do networking skills.’ He notes that research shows hierarchies also deliver practical and psychological value, in part by fulfilling deep-seated needs for order and security. Another is that individuals who believe in their own competence and above-average qualities are more likely to take action at work, says Pfeffer. Taking action on the job provides opportunities for success, and success means advancement at the company — including more power and control over others — perpetuating a hierarchical structure.”

Read all: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/headlines/jeffrey-pfeffer-do-workplace-hierarchies-still-matter?

Image: the first org chart looked like this (from the NY-Erie RR)

Email tips from political communications experts

Brilliant piece in Marketplace this morning highlights must-dos for effective email campaigns. Pick and test the ones that best fit your org:

"1. Keep it short. According to Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist, “You need to essentially get them off that email as quickly as possible.”

2. Spend a lot of time on the subject line. “If no one opens up your email, it doesn’t matter how good your argument is,” says political consultant Stephen Geer.

3. Try new things. Try different things. Compared to TV advertising or direct mail, email is inexpensive, and you can see what works very quickly.

4. Test different drafts of an email.

5. Because “open rates” have been declining, send more emails. But not too many! You don’t want donors to unsubscribe.

6.  Personalize emails. Campaigns have had success referring directly to a donor’s previous gifts.

7. Novelty fades. If every candidate is using a casual subject line to invite donors to enter a drawing, it’s time to devise a new strategy.

8. Try putting things in black and white.

9.  Try “the doomsday e-mail.” Warn donors an opponent may have the upper hand, or that a deadline looms.

10. Remember: Most email is opened on mobile devices these days. Your email should look good on a smart phone, and it should link to a mobile-compatible donation page.

11. Put the links high. “A link towards the top is better than a link at the bottom,” says Rayid Ghani, who was Obama for America’s Chief Scientist. “A large button that makes you click towards the top is better,” he adds.”

What motivates us

Best-of today is from iDoneThis blog.

"The most important motivator for employees at work is the power of small wins: employees are highly productive and driven to do their best work when they feel as if they’re making progress every day toward a meaningful goal.”

The design of our behaviors

It is well known in cognitive science that if you are pessimistic, you sound smarter. But pessimism should be seen for what it is — failure of imagination.

Image: biking idyll in Allegany County, NY

Rare interview w/ Jony Ive, Apple’s design head



My awesome co-worker alerted our entire product team to this interview. Two parts stand out:

"Creative teams are small and very focused. One of the underlying characteristics is being inquisitive and being curious."

"I wish I could do a better job in communicating this truth here, which is when you really are focused on the product, that’s not a platitude. When that truly is your reason for coming into the studio, is just to try to make the very best product you can, when that is exclusive of everything else, it’s remarkable how insignificant or unimportant a lot of other stuff becomes. Titles or organizational structures, that’s not the lens through which we see our peers.”

Image borrowed from BusinessWeek — one of my favorite pubs.

The best ideas from the NYTimes leaked memo


When the “paper of record” speaks — even just to itself — we listen.

The leaked memo that’s gotten so much attention  holds a few very interesting ideas for all types of organizations.

I’m hearing that nonprofits and people at businesses are parsing it for ideas, and since I’m big on borrowing ideas from media co strategy, I scanned it for a few brilliant key points that work for all orgs. 

Here it is in its entirety:

Here are the to-dos I derived from it:

1) Pull back the curtain on how you do the work you do to teach your customers.

2) Surface content and capabilities (in the app world) based on use.

3) Provide a place for people to tell their stories and surface their best ideas.

4) Make user data perusable by all (anonymized and in the aggregate that is).

5) Ask: what do we wish we could do? And what support structure would enable that?

6) Aim for close collaboration on the dry stuff — tools, workflow, and processes. All this collaboration helps drive tremendous growth.

7) To test how collaborative your org really is, have people name names of people who they are connected to in adjacent teams/divisions.

8) Make sure everyone knows the strategy and what it means for them and their role. 

9) Track and share the most important work being done inside the building

10) Set up small teams made up of permanent and rotating positions

11) Make it clear to everyone how to forward/share ideas within and across teams.

12) Know who your influencers are.

13) Recruit or train makers, entrepreneurs, reader advocates, and zeitgeist watchers.

14) Rethink who the competition is by asking every department to develop a list of new competitors for their niche roles, and encourage the backfield to familiarize themselves with new apps and sites.

15) Make competitiveness everyone’s job.

16) Build out of legos, not bricks — the right structure and process today won’t be the same tomorrow. Constantly assess roles and create jobs with expiration dates to provide flexibility in transitional moments.

17) Let — no — encourage people to transfer between teams.

18) Create a fellowship program in partnership with university programs aligned with the org’s mission to ensure talent pipeline.

19) Enable teams to write manifestos like this one (!).

Light strategy development starts with a good theory … and lots of testing and learning


A head of strategy for a consumer products company that everyone on earth knows once told me: 

"On a practical level, a strategy is a set of choices that guide behavior and resource allocation… Sometime the external environment is relatively stable and you can use the ‘roadmap’ view that you articulated ­where I am, where I want to go and how to get there.  Sometimes the external environment is much more dynamic." 

In those cases, a lighter, more flexible model for strategy development is needed. Start with a good working theory (like HBR suggests), and then build it up to a strategy — if it bears weight. 

Out of this, you can build a product, division, or even a completely new business. Here are the key steps I’ve followed:

  1. Propose a hypothesis that solves a business challenge
  2. Find a customer or partner
  3. Create a model and prove it out
  4. Define what success and failure look like
  5. Develop metrics
  6. Improve incentives
  7. Create/procures a platform that enables
  8. Personalize/customize
  9. Do cool stuff with your data 
  10. Decide whether to sell it
  11. Keep developing demand
  12. World domination (joke)

There are 12 of ‘em, funny. What would you add?

pic: Moma ladder sculpture

How to read a scientific study

Ask several questions, including: What are the researchers’ hypotheses? What are the independent and dependent variables? How well does the study design address causation? How generalizable are the results? What conclusions do similar studies draw?

From this: Interpreting academic studies: A primer for media

Dismantling the manager mindset


In “Dismantling the sales machine”, my former employer’s latest contribution to HBR, Dixon and co. talk lots about reworking the sales mindset to meet a more demanding marketplace.

They also describe a new model and mindset for management that we must all adopt to adapt:

  • "Managers function not as directors but as a peer-level guides, helping to identify and implement innovative approaches to the teams work.

  • Managers serve as connectors within and beyond their teams, encouraging collaborative strategy development and problem solving…

  • …They live at the whiteboard, pulling team members into deal reviews and planning sessions.

  • They encourage innovative thinking and push team members to challenge one another.  

  • Managers regularly communicate up, down, and laterally. They provide a constant flow of information. 

  • Managers are constantly in teaching mode, listening to their teams, asking questions, and offering guidance.”

Photo: Flickr (Detroit)