With anything new, taking time to notice, absorb, and reflect lets us be more thoughtful before we seek answers.
If you’re new to an organization, jot down every idea or question you have about how things are done, and then stick it in a drawer. Just whatever it is (e.g., why is this done this way? who owns that?)
It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad; you don’t even need to talk it out with anyone. Just write it down and put it away.
At the end of three or four weeks, look at your notes. Maybe you will understand certain things in a new way, or maybe some things still won’t make sense. At that point you should sit down with your manager to talk about these things. It may be that your perspective is what is needed to make a change, or it may be that there are other things at play that aren’t apparent.
We just lost a week of build time on an app endeavor I’m working on, and it was perfectly avoidable. Here’s the short story of how we lost our way.
My role on the team is to make meetings happen, keep us on schedule, manage relationships, and generally play the meth-eyed ringleader who (undeservedly) earns deference and attracts offers of Xanax.
I take responsibility for this because of my role, and my failure to engage passive partners. Here are the critical actions/decisions we failed to foment together:
Before you start, set your compass: The very first thing is to determine who the platform is about (e.g., advertisers v. users, etc.). It’s not a bad idea to create a mission and vision for your project to keep everyone on the same page. We did this early, but then we strayed.
Defining the value prop, and everything else: Since the app we’re planning is a build-to-fit endeavor, we ignored the key action steps to building/designing.
My advice? Don’t skip this step, or you will pay with your time and your company’s money because when you get to the whole build part, you get foggy on how information should be prioritized and how layout should work. Suddenly everyone wants the app to do everything.
User streams and use cases dictate what you design: It seems obvious when you’re building a business or designing a platform you should primarily and consistenly consider how it will be used.
This means sketching out in the most minute detail how users will flow through the system/app and access information, and what’s immediately visible and available to them (e.g., do they have to sign in, what details do we need from them, what is the most important information for them to access first, second, etc.).
A former VP of strategy of a car sharing company I met on this project advised me that when you’re building an app, they determined the most important thing they could do was direct users to available cars — so they led with a map view.
Seems intuitive right? Well, it’s not always. This is why process matters more than project management right out of the gate.
A client asked us: ”How should we be sensing mega-trends in our industry, tech, and politics?”
Here’s the thing about mega-trends: To be one, it has to hit all of the areas you listed: economy, tech, life, politics, etc.
It may be that the mistake that we make is they look to hard for trends in one or another of these categories, but not broadly. And when we do this we end up with mini-trends, or premature investment (e.g., John Deere’s turbine business).
Here’s what I suggest for sniffing out mega-trends.
Ear to the ground: There’s no trumping talking to people. Where I tend to learn the most interesting info on what’s popping is from conversations with people who work in different fields (e.g., an NGO strategist, investment banker, and art school professor).
Watch some social media sources: Quora streams are a wealth if you follow the right people (aside: social media channels tend to suck for innovative ideas and emerging trends): http://www.quora.com/
I would add — because I think it’s really important — that to fully comprehend a mega-trend, you have to write about it. Writing enables clarity of thought. This last part pretty much sums up why I write here — to collect and catalog what I think and read so I can access it later.
Image cred: Daily Mail
Perhaps HP isn’t sinking because Jane works from home, avoids the commute, and has more time to spend on hobbies and family? Perhaps HP is sinking because of strategic and managerial mismanagement? Perhaps morale won’t actually improve until the beatings stop?
It’s sad when you see once-great companies reduced to this smoldering mess of mistrust and cargo culting. But hey, at least we know now the pitch of the whistle that says its time to abandon ship. It’s “all hands on deck”.
HP does away with remote work, following the dubious strategy that Yahoo and Best Buy have ascribed too. Perception is everything, and removing structures that engender trust and goodwill can have severe negative implications for collaboration and productivity (and company growth).
Stowe Boyd presciently wrote about Whitman’s announcement recently at GigaOM:
The real, deeper push at HP isn’t intended to make people more collaborative, productive, and knowledgeable. This shift in practices is so that first-line managers can monitor people’s work more closely, and find out who is most — or least — aligned with the stress factory culture that HP has become. That will make it easier to decide who to cull in the inevitable rounds of layoffs coming in HPs next few quarters, as it sinks toward the bottom of the abyss that once was the enterprise server and PC market, and which — for all intents and purposes — is effectively dead, at least as an area of growth.
What we forget working at a startup is how hard it is to bring everyone along. We think that because we’re small everyone’s naturally pulling together, but even at the smallest companies people disengage, resist, and give up.
We have lost a few people at various pivot points in our company’s 2.5 year history, and we have lost as a company because we didn’t enable these individuals to serve our mission, values, strategic priorities, and customer value proposition.
Looking back, we could have had many more conversations about the larger philosophy (serving businesses and organizations to help them improve communications and their own effectiveness), and spent time agreeing on the steps it would take to get there. Most importantly, we should have asked them to sketch out how they saw their skills and value delivering on the goals of our new company.
At CEB (my former employer, which has been only so-so on communicating its mission and value), we were asked to write down how we saw ourselves, in our roles, facilitating multi-year strategic priorities (I recently found my notes for this exercise):
1) Drive large customer loyalty through high-value personal engagement.
I will deliver insight to member services on members and prospects to help them tailor their communications to distinct needs.
2) Invest globally in our strongest brands.
Support through data analytics.
Etc. You get the point, but are you doing this?
Pic: Cascadilla Falls, Ithaca, NY (August)
Full disclosure: am wearing purple Birkenstocks while writing.
The great waves of global growth (e.g., trade, consumer credit, and expanded education), will subside and we will be left with economic stagnation and decline. Sounds Malthusian, right?
King says: "The end of the golden age cannot be explained by some technological reversal. From iPad apps to shale gas, technology continues to advance. The underlying reason for the stagnation is that a half-century of remarkable one-off developments in the industrialized world will not be repeated."
Yes, given current economic assumptions, we cannot replicate the growth of the last 50 years, in U.S. and elsewhere.
The biggest and most wrought of those assumptions is that of low-cost energy being the most important driver of growth. All one has to do to get a sense of its holy standing in economics and politics is watch Obama dance around the realities of fracking in his effort to cheerlead on natural gas drilling, ignoring its real costs to all of us.
We can create nothing but marginal growth if we continue to plumb the earth looking for lower and lower quality fuel sources. Tar sands excavation and fracking for shale gas mark a new level of desperation to drive growth. We are like alcoholics drinking the contents of our medicine cabinets.
The first step is admitting there’s a problem with our models, with our growth assumptions. And recalling this: “The future is not shaped by people who don’t really believe in the future.” — John Gardner.
We need to untether ourselves from gas to grow, adopting a new outlook re: renewables, and cast off capital market models that serve the whim of giant pools of money seeking higher and higher returns, and we need to do so in favor of new investment models and expectations around social as well as financial returns — it’s time for more Grameen banks and new models for reducing poverty.
What King’s essay appears to be saying is that global growth is over for everyone and, as such, capital resources will be reapportioned but not expanded significantly in the coming years and decades. With this in mind, we are entering an era of global conservation, and we will be saving what we would have spent, drilled, mined, and taxed.
Beyond our basic order of needs — food and shelter and such — there is the risk of inequality. If we can control for that, we can soften the landing from previous high-growth eras. So long as we continue to be creative in how we reduce poverty and inequality around the world, a slowdown won’t be apocalyptic. So, let’s plan for that and stop trying to squeeze out every last drop of growth having only short-term gains in mind.
Photo: Demonstration in Angelica, NY where the landfill is trying to fast-track a permit for accepting fracking waste from Pennsylvania.
I reread the Grapes of Wrath in the Great Recession, but only now am I seeing the parallels. Our country was on the move in the Depression, and that’s quickly becoming the new reality for many of us.
Construction workers have long been a mobile class — moving from boom town to boom town, many in RVs as their homes. And now, even academics are viewed as disposable (or readily replaceable, to be exact).
My sister recently bemoaned her mobile life in academia, calling herself a “migrant laborer”. She quickly refined the statement, saying that her life was much more comfortable than that of a fruit picker, but that the reality is academic jobs are treated more as short-term roles.
Indeed, research from Northwestern shows that non-tenure track professors are better teachers. Of course they are, the pressure to perform is much higher. Watch for schools using this as a cudgel against those seeking tenure track jobs.
We’re becoming a nation of freelancers. While that may sound, um, freeing to some people, negative implications abound.
If we’re all to be in business for ourselves: who insures us? Who covers for us when we are sick? What entities help us keep our transaction costs low? And, who enables our mobility.
This last point is where I’m fixated now.
Government is working on the first question via Obamacare (all politics aside). Our social networks and relationships will enable us to effectively cover our risks, for those of us lucky enough to be a part of strong professional communities. Nonprofits and professional groups will have to fill in for others, figuring out how to support those that don’t have strong networks to protect against free-rider problems such as professional under-bidding, which erodes our earning capacity (but that’s fodder for another post).
What truly has me worried (mostly because I’ve just moved twice) are the logistics of a mobile nation: 1) tax law prefers we be homeowners — even if it leaves individuals less mobile or even “under water”; 2) finance expects an enormous downpayment on a home when we may be least able to afford it (e.g., when we are moving for a new job); 3) renting has absolutely no financial benefit, and even leases can be expensive to leave, and renters are often vulnerable to horrible and abusive landlords (I’ve suffered through two psychos).
The rules of the game need to change in response to this new economic reality. Lawmakers need to figure out how to support those of us who move with frequency for work, and stop putting the tax emphasis on stasis, and finance executives need to figure out how to support shorter-term home ownership (if that is indeed better), with lower upfront costs that don’t carry much higher down-the-road risks, particularly if it’s indeed true that home ownership is truly beneficial to communities. Finally, companies that support us in our move need to be much better at helping us get from place to place (current moving and storage solutions are often very expensive and painful to manage — ahem, PODS).
There is a real shortage of support structures and businesses to support a more mobile nation of workers. Time to get on it!
Image: from HomeOwnerNut blog.
So-called journalistic objectivity has been a dealt a one-two punch from the press gallery.
One: “The political media’s aversion to doing anything that might be seen as taking sides — combined with its obsession with process — led them to actively obscure the truth in their coverage of the votes. If you did not already know what this was all about, reading the news would not help you understand.” — Froomkin for Al Jazeera.
Two: 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.”
Much of our current narrative is filled with stories that increase polarization. In response, editors cling to so-called objectivity — even where it’s not warranted.
As the industry formerly known as the newspaper business evolves, we will see more non-traditional editorial models cropping up, and that’s a good thing for democracy and individual agency.
- Some journalists are re-thinking dualistic models of storytelling.
- 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.
Image: The Birmingham News (today’s edition)
Researchers have found that when students were asked to write for a real audience, their essays had better organization and content than. When asked to contribute to a wiki—a space that’s highly public—college students more carefully checked sources.
The central goal of a company or organization should be to nurture and plum the depths of good ideas, but it can’t be done unless these are effectively documented. Consider asking employees to spend more time writing their thoughts down, and then airing those ideas publicly.
To get them going, give ‘em a Molskine, or even encourage them to try other creativity boosting tools (e.g., Molskine + Paper app = a beautiful match made in heaven)
Image: designed by Paperless Post, my go-to stationer.
Scary stuff in the The Washington Post (perhaps scarier than the shutdown): ”The U.S. has fallen behind many of the other industrialized nations in the proportion of young people receiving advanced education at a time that such education is more important than ever.”
Business performance (and GDP) depends on higher levels of talent; and without oversimplifying it, talent depends on education.
Now may seem like a ripe environment for online education, unless you consider that most individuals partaking of online courses are upwardly mobile and highly enabled. Not those who lack access — like the 15% of U.S. adults who aren’t online, for example.
Tyler Cowan’s assessment is that ”average is over" and what we see emerging is a bi-modal distribution of wealth because of improved access to opportunities for the best educated, and insufficient opportunities begetting stagnant wages and fragile finances for the least-well educated in the U.S.
Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane foresee job creation hinging on three types of work, two of which require an agile and educated mind: “solving unstructured problems [example: performing delicate surgery], working with new information [example: analyzing marketing data] and carrying out non-routine manual tasks [example: moving furniture].” And let’s be honest on the last example, we’d all prefer an educated mover (this is my go-to packing genius).
Business leaders should consider what a diminishing middle class means for their companies and how they can solve for the talent challenge within their workforce. The rest of us should try to enable higher levels of education by volunteering for organizations like StreetWise Partners, and all the other amazing nonprofits that help boost people’s work performance potential. We all benefit from a better educated population.
This is just the B2B world following on the heels of the B2C one.
Ever since Apple first devised the idea of the “walled garden,” where individuals’ interaction with the internet was confined to a group of select apps that acted as portals to content and information, the value of the platform has been inextricably intertwined with what apps (or access points) it enables. Now, the platform wars are heating up as more companies look to enable business processes and operations via apps, and the outcome will be a matter of alliances.
The bigger question to me is how much faster will B2B companies adapt to B2C realities in the coming years, and will there be convergence?
Image: Secret Garden book illustration, by wonderful illustrator Emla
New WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo is jump-starting stalled negotiations at the international trade body, which suffers from MANY MANY derailed agreements and talks. This is good news for trade and also provides some good pointers for all manner of negotiations.
1) Getting the right level of people involved: He’s looking across the universe of issues and categorizing them into those requiring more engagement at a technical level, and determining those that could benefit from discussions by the top-most level of leadership.
2) Identifying points of mutual interests early: He is trying to persuade members to identify realistic ‘landing zones’ where consensus might reasonably be found.
Image: Sketch of WTO building
You could fill every moment of your life reading about how to best run your business; with hundreds of books and theories out there, covering everything from stall points to how some companies become great.
The problem with literature and so-called expert authors (ahem, Clayton Christensen, who’s never run a business), is that they are backwards-looking, and theoretical, and time is always on their side.
As with econometrics and weather, models help describe the universe with some nice clean error/disturbance terms built in that help make everything look predictable (or at least correlative), and researchers have years to compile vast amounts of data, but the reality is much more fast and messy, and models become less predictive of success or failure.
As my colleague recently reminded me: “One study — even a survey of surveys — doesn’t mean that the findings translate into a business tool. The standard of proof is lower in a business context because they often have to make 51-49 bets, whereas peer reviewed literature tends to be 95-5 bets.”
Photo: shale rocks at Canandaigua Lake.
In my recent century ride — which took me an embarrassing length of time — and the day-to-day of startup life, I’ve learned to appreciate the paradoxical truth that “blindness may operate more vigorously than prescience, and the short-sighted effect more than the far-seeing; that limitation and not comprehensiveness is needed for striking a blow.” — Thomas Hardy (Far from the Madding Crowd).
In other words, best not to consider the full distance or calculate the exact length you’ve gone, but take a fuzzy math view and keep pedaling.
Photo: bike in repose following its 100 mile workout.
Moving’s a drag, so my ire is piqued by the terrible experience I have had with PODS — you know, the pack it yourself storage capsule? The idea is elegant: a container dropped at the place you’re leaving, delivered to you where you’re going.
In reality, it’s a broken model in need of a serious customer service revamp.
Challenge 1: First of all, the service is only kind of automated (and definitely not mobile), so I had to rely on someone inputting my information, which they did incorrectly. Needless confusion ensued.
Solution 1: Go mobile, immediately! And fix your site so people can actually effectively order and manage their PODS online.
Challenge 2: The POD showed up, albeit hours late — whatever, woo hoo! But the pickup I scheduled (via phone) was never put into the system. Oh, human error! Luckily, I called to confirm or all my things would still be sitting on the street in Washington, DC with $1.1 million in parking tickets adhered to the forgotten POD.
Solution 2: Automated system for alerting someone that they are missing their pickup info (seems obvious).
Challenge 3: Next stop, Ithaca, NY! Yay! Except my POD went to a city two hours away — though the destination zip on all my receipts and paperwork was for Ithaca. Only when I called did I discover that my worldly possessions were hours away.
Solution 3: Arm and enable your people to use Google maps. It is not a good situation if you are effectively misleading your customers about your service. Also, all relevant details (including addresses should be on all receipts and correspondences).
Challenge 4: Want to pick something up? Better not come on Sunday. Nope, PODS is closed >50% of weekend hours.
Solution 4: Creatively staff the facilities so people can access their things on the days they are most likely to want to. Taking a customer centric view of your business means not saying: “our team needs a day off.” My response: it doesn’t need to be Sunday.
But the biggest and baddest issue for PODS is not what I just described. It’s that their customer service people are happy to talk with you about these things ad nauseum; multiple people repeating themselves, but offering no solutions or appeasements.
How about a month off storage costs to compensate for the distance and time required to access their facilities? Now that would improve things (slightly). You could even model it to distribute costs. But no, the poor saps on the phone only repeat the same sad true facts: “yes, your things are very far away, and no you cannot access them >%50 of your weekend time.” Or, how about offering to meet you half way — literally, taking the POD to a better location for you to unload it? Now, that would be creative problem solving. But no, they only repeat what they can’t do for you, and that is deliver to most zip codes in the U.S., as it turns out.
Ah, PODS, the good idea that wasn’t. I stand regretful. Consider yourself warned.