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28. -new- The Urgent Always Swallows Up the Important
“Media, the plural of mediocrity.” -- Jimmy Breslin
Our Plagiarism. We stole the nice title of this letter from blogger Jennifer Ouellette. She opines, “We are born narcissists, almost by definition, since we can only experience the world around us from our own perspective. In that sense, the world revolves around us, and no wonder the prospect of having our consciousness snuffed out unsettles us.
“There was a very good reason people balked when confronted with scientific evidence to the contrary. Accepting Copernicus meant removing man from his place at the top of the cosmological food chain. “The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later wrote of the implications of a heliocentric universe to 17th century believers. 'Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind.'”
Nonetheless, even with this understanding of our insignificance, she finds life riddled with meaning: “Nor does it make me feel like nothing I do could possibly matter. Quite the opposite: everything we do matters a great deal. That’s the paradox. It makes our short time here on Earth incredibly precious, in which every moment should be savored. I tell my husband I love him every single day, because those days are finite. Fifty years will be gone in an instant from a cosmological perspective. Our choices, our actions, how we choose to behave toward our fellow travelers — random kindness to strangers — all of this becomes tremendously important when one embraces insignificance… because this life is all we have.”
Cosmic Sifting. An intelligence that can separate the wheat from the chaff, recognizing that we and all that is about us are impregnated with insignificance, offers us sure footing and spiritual relief in an age suffused with puffery nourished by a media that breeds mediocity all about. Breslin got it right: our media—tv, cable, internet, radio, social networks—all of it is busy making mountains out of molehills and stuffing our heads with nonsense. Educator, cabinet secretary, and policy maker John Gardner got it right when he said we have a difficult task before us in a democracy where every utterance can be given equal credence and the quest for excellence can be dimmed by a mentality that treats every bleat as a symphony
In his first major work, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too?,Gardner challenges us to think, and look, and see acutely, rather than gobbling up the quaint notions espoused by the mediocre in our society: “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” Understand that mediocrity is our lot, but occasionally it is dotted with a few gems of excellence.
Trivia Outwitted. It is this perspective that can best help us clean the trash out of our lives, be it at home or business. One can skim or not even read most of one’s email. We do not need a smart phone where the world of nonsense reaches us too easily. We can more or less turn the TV off, reclaiming hours for conversation, and family, and tending of the garden. We can absolutely turn the phone off between 6 and 9 o’clock when the survey companies, politicos, crass fundraisers, and other peddlers try to reach us. When you realize that much of what goes on around you does not count, you can make sure it is no longer counted. When we can get past the small stuff, we are taking our first steps out into the universe.
There is plenty of jibber jabber to be shut down. To wit: “Every day were assaulted with facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber, coming from all directions. According to a 2011 study, on a typical day, we take in the equivalent of about 174 newspapers worth of information, five times as much as we did in 1986. As the world’s 21,274 television stations produce some 85,000 hours of original programming every day (by 2003 figures), we watch an average of five hours of television per day. For every hour of YouTube video you watch, there are 5,999 hours of new video just posted!”
The Sixties Reprised. Those of us who lived in the Berkeley, San Francisco, Silicon Valley orbit in the 1960s may have thought that Free Speech, silicon chips, topless bars, and Beat Poetry were fruitfully upsetting the world’s apple cart. The twenty somethings of that day thought they were at the center of the universe, all the while turning the world upside down. Truth is, twas fun but not all that important. It was so much fun then that a lighthearted editor (maybe Abe Mellinkoff) of the San Francisco Chronicle could put a banner headline on the paper one day, right on top of the first page, shouting “The Terrible Coffee in S.F.’s Restaurants” San Francisco has never been as much fun since, its commercial heart has declined, its housing is too expensive, and its newspapers now are truly a joke. The town amounted to something when it had a sense of the absurd, and its leaders secretly knew that it was a small pretty town where pedestrians could safely cross the street and nobody really deeply thought about the universe. A professor then remarked to us that there were some smart people at UC Berkeley and Stanford, but the trouble was that they had baked brains. It was a delightfully insignificant small spot on the globe.
Gresham’s Law. In the present age, we are pressed to winnow out the dreck because there is so much of it. If we cannot get it under control, it becomes impossible to dream big dreams and climb tall mountains. We’re meant to do better. Most simply expressed, the Law that best sums up our situation says “Bad money drives out good money.” But it also means bad ideas crowd out good ideas, sterile architecture and tar filled streets drive out beautiful hills and quiet homelives, loud mouths drown out civility, and so on. The important and the excellent only have a chance if we can put the mediocre aside, or at least laugh at it.
P.S. The Atlantic, a publication many of us had left for dead, has revived itself marvelously, proving that there is fire in the ashes, that the dearly departed can be revived. In a humorous video, it tries to tell us how to get control of email which infests our lives.
P.P.S. Back when the Wall Street Journal was still a newspaper, a fine journalist named Hal Lancaster asked three of us how a brush with death (i.e., a serious illness) had changed our lives. In our own case, we said it made us much less tolerant of B…. S…. and Mickey Mouse. Particularly in business we cast aside those who just wanted to jawbone and get nothing done. Life had become precious and short, and we did not want to waste moments on those who were running in place.
This reminds us of Mortality, a delightful and short account by Christopher Hitchens of his wrestle with cancer which all too soon brought him down. We emphasize short. Engagements with death make us into men with few words, economic in our style of communication, filling what moments we have with more meaning. (08-13-14)
The Color of Money
I can name my favorite restaurant as glibly as I can name my favorite wife, country, religion, and journal of opinion. It is (I should like to say, “of course,” but Paone’s is not widely known) Nicola Paone; its address is 207 East 34th Street New York, and I suppose I have eaten there a hundred times in the last 10 years, which would certainly account for my being Paone’s favorite customer; but, believe me, in this courtship, I was the suitor.
The food, incidentally, is far from distinguished, but good, sensitive taste has never motivated any ideologue. We’ve not been there for years, but when we did visit, it had a wonderful atmosphere, generating perfect comity and unforced good cheer among all those in our luncheon party.
The trick there we always thought was the endgame. The dessert cart was very ample, and it was a sin to exit the restaurant without taking on some creamy delectable that added immeasurably to one’s midriff. Then too, at the finish, the maitre Franco Alfonso or maybe the waiter presented the check with delicacy and a warm smile. You felt like paying the bill and, by then, did not even remember what you had eaten. It was simply a fine experience.
We hope it’s the same. A well-mannered, well-dressed clientele that did not feel it had to shout to be understood. Decorousness.
Getting the Money Right. It’s next to amazing how often restaurants get the money wrong. The wait staff and even management think they have done it right if they got the order straight and managed to get the entrée on the table when it is reasonably warm (or cold as the case may be). Follow-ups after the plates are thrust on the table are random and rather mechanical; desserts are either stale or slowly prepared; wine and beer or bottled water are poured too fast with the hope then the patron will buy yet more. And finally, the check. It may be an ordeal to get it. Or it may be slapped down early. Or it may be incomprehensible. And so on and so on. A West Coast businessman just pointed out to us that waiters get their tip as the bill is paid: it behooves them to make paying a good experience, but they don’t.
Paying or getting paid in our society, as often as not, reminds us of The Color of Money. You will remember that it was a 1988 Scorsese movie with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise. It’s about hustling—gulling money out of people—at the pool table. Ego on the loose, young Vincent Lauria (Tom C, the Scientologist) doesn’t even do that very well, because he has to show off. This hustling is exactly what we want to avoid in business: transactions should not be tawdry, but they so often are. And this is exactly antagonistic to the behaviors we need in an advanced, high-cost society where we have to embroider each transaction with fine values in order to separate ourselves from the commodity atmosphere of the emerging world.
Paying Right, Too. It takes two to tango. It’s not enough for the merchant to present his bill with panache. The customer, the payer, has to do his part, too. Year ago when Lone Star Industries decided to purchase a hardware/lumber chain from the Southwest, we heard tales of how James Stewart, the chain’s owner, did business. When the bonuses were paid to his star employees, he would gather them all at a lumber lot and have a presentation ceremony. Words of praise were not spared, and the employees were first paid with honor. That the bonuses were small never mattered. The events were so emotional, so evangelical, that those who were celebrated and all their fellow workers were said to have shed tears. They were so moved.
He paid ‘em right. And it was such a contrast to an investment bank we counseled some years later. Without any fanfare, without any commendation, the money dribbled out. One day we saw a few million dollars handed out in blank envelopes to the partners in one department by a clerk. The pay pack was handsome in each case, but we do not remember seeing any smiles. Though that investment bank was king of the hill in those days, it no longer exists today as an independent entity. When you do things wrong, sooner or later you cease to exist.
A Boundless Opportunity. Money is done so badly—the giving and the taking—that entrepreneurs with a nose for opportunity can drive a Mack truck through the unprotected flanks that large and small enterprises have opened up by their sloppiness in this sphere. We recently were informed at one of our sites that Verizon was going to disconnect our phones because we had not paid our bills: its people had misapplied funds they had been sent to the wrong account, and the Verizon billing clerks could not cure the problem. One of our staff went to a Verizon street location where it took no less than 20 minutes to pay the bill: the working poor have similar battles with the phone company every month.
All this, incidentally, would not be a problem if state regulatory commissions mandated that utilities have to accept payment by credit card over the phone. They don’t have to. And they don’t.
Recently the Financial Times of London has been sending us a barrage of dunning notices for a subscription started two months ago. That we had already paid the credit card invoice where their charges were reflected was of little interest to the subscription department. They have lost the money somewhere in the bowels of the company and we continue to get their pesky bills. We have discovered over the years that more than one organization has received or paid out money—with no trail to the payer or the payee.
Banks are just the same. A month ago a major money center bank took 2 hours of our time and 3 days of its own to do a money transfer which eventually got to New York City—by horseback we think. Errors abound in bank operations, and the managers are none too embarrassed. It took Bank of America two months, with a lot of prodding, to correctly record a deposit: that lost it a major corporate depositor. In contrast, we have moved money in and out of a reasonably up-to-date brokerage house with incredible ease and have advised our clientele to put their assets there.
There’s a banker, now retired to Walla Walla onion country in the state of Washington, who told us his bank was in the ‘put and take business.’ You put money in or you take money out. If he could do that for people, correctly and politely, he figured he would have a hell of a business. His bank, which he sold at a huge profit, outshone all the vaunted giants in his home state of California. For starters, he had lovely Persian carpets in his lobby, so it was a nice place for the well heeled to visit.
The Long Tail. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine who came out of the Economist, penned an article for Wired in 2004. Now he’s made The Long Tail into a book. It’s a success, and it’s worth it. It upsets all our notions about self-serving editors. First off, we usually say editors should not be able to stuff their prose into their own magazines. Usually such articles turn into long, boring, insignificant fare like David Remnick’s “The Wanderer,” a poorly written update in the New Yorker about Bill Clinton 2006 (September 18).
Even worse, we have always felt good taste should not permit mere articles to be turned into wordy books. That’s a version of the academic-racket where professors turn their doctoral theses into a stream of repetitive articles and sometimes books. There’s another variant of the same scam where profs discover a good article by somebody else and then work up a book around it. Almost nothing new has been written about “How to Buy/Sell Professional Services” since Warren J. Wittreich scribbled some words on the subject for the March 1996 Harvard Business Review. But B-School professors have been feeding on his thoughts ever since, turning out turgid books that expand on his ideas.
Anderson’s Long Tail is a bit original and is rather important. We have previously commented about him in “Rum and the Fancy Food Show.” To oversimplify, he thinks the Internet turns business upside down. We have generally been told by business gurus to pay attention to the 20% of a market where all the money is made and to throw the rest off the back of the boat. But the Internet changes the economics. We can now make money, maybe more money, fooling around in the 80% territory that everybody else feels they should skip. The Internet permits us to source and then distribute our product in new ways that changes our cost structure. We can afford to be high-design craftsmen and focus on small niches. Though Anderson mostly was thinking about media and entertainment when he wrote his piece, we can speculate that his thoughts apply throughout business. In theory, we can now do artisan, craft, custom, boutique, special—and make a living.
The Custom Experience. But that means that everything—the making of the product, the demonstration of the product, the selling of the product, the delivery of the product—has to become a special experience. We cannot, like Brooks Brothers, pretend to be half in the genteel clothing business and then outsource our credit operations to somebody in Kansas City. The buying and paying has to be gentlemanly as well. One Dan Bricklin almost catches hold of this notion in his little essay “Paying for Style.” People will pay a great deal, he theorizes, for an artistic experience or for interacting with people they care about. Is it fair to say that they will even pay more for an experience where the paying itself is not a wretched event? Where the money has not become discolored. An experience is not custom unless every aspect of it strives to build a warm connection between the maker and the consumer.
26. Don’t Talk About Yourself: You’re Not That Interesting
Nonetheless, as we say to all our clients, we still think you can reach the next plateau. The cavalry is on the way, and sustained revenue performance is within your grasp. Or better yet, as Emeril, the New Orleans cook who emigrated from Massachusetts into the bayous, says, you can “kick it up a few notches.” What slower times have taught us is that you can still treble your size, but you have to throw out your old notions of how to make a sale. It takes a vastly different message—a real zinger—and a totally different engine (marketing method).
The old chestnut about advertising is “Only 1% of it works, and the rest is all waste. The trouble is we don’t know which 1% will really do the trick.” In the last few years, direct marketing experts and internet whizzes have promised they can hone in on the blessed few who will buy from us tomorrow—or at least someday. They’re into targeting—something we espoused in the late 1980s and then put aside. It was much ado about nothing. It is all balderdash. Their campaigns regularly pass by big prospects and too often focus on penny-ante, low-profit customers. Good marketing is a little more complicated than shooting fish in a barrel.
As we said in “Sales: Branding Again,” the best kind of marketing does not search out and destroy your potential customer, but, instead, lures him to your doorstep. What you want to do is to put together a garden of scents that will draw people to you, as bees to pollen.
In fact, there’s a recent book from an old advertising hand that claims we must tap into the five senses of our customers in order to mate them to our brand. In this super-digital era, we are already saturated with a blur of sights and a whirr of sounds from hucksters. We must get past this. Mr. Martin Lindstrom suggests that we had better get at the nose, and the touch, and the taste in order to form an impregnable bond with our customers.
We’d add one more thought. In defiance of all the laws of hucksterdom, we would suggest that if you want to be in the high-margin product business you had also better make a lasting appeal to the intelligence. That, incidentally, is especially true of internet marketing. Generally, even with segmentation and all the other corny devices dredged up by marketing mavens, internet ads and internet mail appeal to brutal instincts and to the dumb side of human nature. If you can do away with the schlock, you can turn on your audience and keep it coming back for more. It’s blasphemy, but we contend that you can bank on the intelligence of your customers.
When you strip off the Emperor’s New Clothes, you discover that companies and bloggists alike fill their sites with triviata the world does not want to know about. In one way or another 99.44% of all websites are print catalogs stuffed onto the internet. Everything suffers in translation. Catalogs, in any event, don’t explore the tremendous possibilities of the internet. The miracle of Amazon is that it realizes that it is not in the catalog business, and it tries, within limits, to provide you with an online-buying happening. The duty of the webmaker is to provide visitors with a fulsome experience that is also filled with substance. The internet is intrinsically a much more interactive world than anything that has come before, and one’s website must embrace that energy.
Lately we have discovered one Christian Michael Sarkar, who has taken this lesson to heart. His Double Loop Marketing aids intelligent companies to use brainwaves to sell their wares and services to the many knowledge professionals who have real disposable income in the great out there. You can read about his Double Loop services at his informative blog. In fact, Sarkar thinks “Shooting Birds and Catching Fish” is a perfect explanation of what Double Loop is all about. His marketing process, when linked with very substantive content, can increase your pool of qualified prospects by more than 300%.
Generally your customer appeals in this over-messaged world should not talk about yourself. Run-of-the-mill ads prompt your customer’s unconscious to say, “I’ve heard it all before. There’s nothing new here, and it’s boring besides.”
Instead you should pick a heavy-duty subject to talk about that stirs you and ignites your buying audience because it’s compelling and it provides information smart people find useful. You want to provide them with a bible full of wisdom that, by implication, says you are worthwhile. Soon enough they will buy your products and services. For example, you just might think garden-implement maker Corona produces first class clippers and shears because it gives thorough, useful pruning instructions on its website. And you would be right. If you are Volvo, you should provide every tidbit about safety you can muster, as your buying audience becomes ever more conscious of a world at risk.
Up to now, company advertising has relied on brute force, loud noises, and mammoth budgets to ring the cash register and clock revenues. This no longer is acceptable. We have entered an era of scarcity where we must do a lot with a little. To that end, we must substitute smarts for money and manpower. Jujitsu-marketing permits bantam competitors to upset all the heavyweights. It uses the force of good ideas and customer intensity to make the sale. We have been able to help a lot of Davids slay a score of Goliaths with this approach.
Increasingly we notice that out-of-the-ordinary sports managers such as Billy Beane at the Oakland Athletics have employed avant garde tactics that should provide a lesson for any executive. Oddly enough, the sports business has been developing some leading edge processes that mainstream enterprises would be wise to ape. See our “Sportsmanship.”In recruiting, at least, Beane has substituted analysis for intuition and produced wins with what appear to be average players. The challenge is the same in marketing—to produce home runs even without powerful brand names or stupendous market shares in your stable. Like our American forbears, we are looking for a “Shot That Will Be Heard Round the World” that does not entail a Pentagon-size budget. (12/21/05)
25. Don't Step in the Same River Twice
Actually, our title is a permutation of Heraclitus’s famous quote: “You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” So don’t try to go into the same river or over the same ground twice. It makes you boring, and it’s usually impossible anyway. (See www.quotationspage.com/quote/24078.html.) Time and human experience will not allow us to scramble back into some earlier point in the continuum.
The First Existentialist. Heraclitus, by the way, was the first existentialist, even if his nineteenth- and twentieth-century emulators thought they were inventing something new. If you plough through the spectrum of Greek philosophers, you will find that they pretty well covered the waterfront and that every modern strand of philosophy was anticipated by the boys in Athens and surrounding city states. We’ve just been adding refinements to their architecture ever since. In modern times, our task is to remix the ancient philosophical ingredients to deal with an altered world.
The Company Philosopher. Years ago, a retiring chief executive told us what the boss can and can not delegate. Most everything can be given away to subordinates. But, he said, strategy, the grooming of key top managers, and communication with significant corporate audiences must be controlled in detail by the CEO. Implicit in this view is that the chief executive is, above all, the company’s chief philosopher and that he must infect both his company and his marketplaces with a coherent body of thought about his company’s reason for being as an antidote to our conceptually muddled times. The new CEO needs more grounding in the rudiments of philosophy, the like of which they never teach you at business school. We ourselves have pretty well bought into this way of thinking, and have been at pains to get our clientele to give away many of the chores that don’t pertain to the 3 areas he chose for personal attention.
The Meaningful Company. More difficult, perhaps, is the decision as to what a company has to do inhouse and what it can “outsource,” which is the euphemism used for the last 20 years by those who want to buy everything on the cheap on the outside with the ultimate goal of becoming a “virtual” corporation, ideally with one employee. What can you do outside your walls and not lose your meaning and vitality? As we have hinted already, this decision requires philosophical clarity that goes beyond mere commercial horsesense.
Core Competencies. Circa 1990, Gary Hamel and C.K.
Prahalad essayed about “core competencies.” These are the key strengths of
a company which you enhance and do nothing to impair. In theory, a CEO
should ensure that he doesn’t give away any function that would vitiate
them. But that’s theory. (See
We suspect companies are giving away the store, as they cut costs and narrow their focus. The alarm bells went off when we spied a recent issue of Business Week (March 21, 2005), the cover of which blurted out “Outsourcing Innovation.” An editorial at the back of the magazine—this must be the magazine’s most unread section—warns: “Globalization is moving so fast that now even the knowledge economy is being redistributed around the world. A whole new set of winners and losers will appear in the years ahead. Corporations and the nation have work to do if they are not going to be left behind.” You don’t have to read this rambling article, however, to know we have stepped in a cesspool or some equine elimination. Anything about “innovation” is about as core as you can get, and you don’t outsource it. The thinning down that’s been going on has surely become suicidal, corporate anorexia packaged as a glorious makeover.
Outsource Yesterday, Clutch Tomorrow to Your Breast. If “core competencies” is, in fact, a squishy concept that morphs on demand, we must work a little harder to say what goes, what stays. We would counsel any company anywhere to throw today and yesterday off the back of the boat, allowing subcontractors galore a crack at doing known, routine, yes-we-know-how-to-do-that tasks. But tomorrow is never delegated. And, by tomorrow, we mean “invention” and “branding,” about which we have said so much in previous letters.
Invention. It’s innovation, and R & D, and a lot of things. Essentially it is the process of coming up with (a) new products and services, (b) new ways and processes of doing everything we do, and (c) new definitions of our company that lop off what’s become vestigial and add capacities that will make us flourish. Invention is everything we aren’t but want to be, don’t know how to be, and plays to our innate sense that “there’s gotta be a better way.”
We now live in an age of conspicuous conservatism in
which, ironically enough, we are unwinding institutions and ingrained
patterns, all in the name of recapturing some mythical past. This
conservative epoch is an age of consolidation (of yesterday), and, as such,
it does not foster much in the way of invention. Schumpter would call this
a period of “creative destruction,” although those of a conservative frame
of mind would like to think they are preserving, not destroying. For more
on Schumpter, see our
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Schumpeter , and
All The Rage. In business and government today, “creative destruction” is foot loose and fancy free, but it is mowing down companies, institutions, cultures, and traditions at a dizzying rate. AT&T, Union Carbide, International Harvester, the old Bank of America, and a host of other giants are no more. This disintegration is preparing the stage for tomorrow. But for those who can look beyond it, to 2020 or so, the task is not to destroy, but to invent. It is this spirit of invention that we hope Sir Howard Stringer will not diminish at Sony, the maker, for instance, of one of the very few laptops in the world which does not crash and burn with frightful regularity. As he bangs heads together and cuts costs, he could lose sight of the company’s creative destiny, an unfortunate metamorphosis that has long since happened at Hewlett-Packard, once one of America’s premier inventive companies.
UnWired World. Lest you think there is nothing under the sun that still needs inventing, simply turn on your cell phone. Good basic cell phone service does not exist in the United States, and several countries have stolen a march on us on both the content and capability fronts. Your phone is too hard to use (mimicking the same user unfriendliness we attribute to computers), offers spotty service with horrendous gaps in reception as you move around these United States, and costs approximately twice what it should if market forces were really working. The Federal Communications Commission has never given the long-proven concept of “universal phone service” a thought when it comes to mobile phones. There is nothing about which our readership complains more than cell phones, not even their crummy cable services. Widespread mobile is only 25 years old, and it needs to be entirely re-invented, from top to bottom. Despite all out cell phones and laptops, we’re still not that well linked together.
Branding. Hundreds have written us to echo our warning that America’s companies are debranding themselves and their products at a rapid rate—with perilous consequence. (See “Debranding”; “The World According to Dunk” in Metro, July 2000; and “Unbranding Next? The Rise of the Unlikely.”) Branding—the communication of your essence to everyone from your employees to your customers and even to your competitors—is part and parcel of the organic development of any company. Neglect it, and you will perish. If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, it never fell. If a company does great things, but nobody knows its name, then it does not exist. Invention and branding are states of mind that overcome corporate inertia and drive momentum into the enterprise.
There was an odd contradiction about branding, as practiced in the twentieth century and throughout the whole history of mass manufacturing. Companies with brands—from Proctor and Gamble to General Motors—wanted to pretend they were turning out something wonderful for you and you alone even though that something was meant to be exactly alike millions of other xerox copies they were churning out for the marketplace. But no two things are exactly alike. In fact, we learned from Heraclitus that we can’t step in the same river twice, so let’s not pretend your soap bar or my jalopy are the same. Somehow the twentieth-century product was suppose to be special, yet it was intended to be like millions of others, and yet no two things are alike anyway.
Vive La Difference. True Branding would celebrate the difference between my car and yours, my steak tartare and yours. It is the enemy of carbon copies. And, if implemented, it is the friend of advanced economies which cannot compete with the manufacturing costs of the developing world, but which can add economic value through relentless individuality.
That is, economics and technology now permit us to produce absolute one-offs, of which there are no copies. One of a kinds. That exaggerate the differences between my experiences and yours. Brands of one.
We know of a Buick Roadmaster 1996 that is like no other. In fact, General Motors cars generally are not very much alike, because its managers generally foul up the details, and so there is tremendous variance between each vehicle.
But this 96 (the last year GM built Roadmasters) has character that ranges well beyond GM’s freaky variation. Intentional differences. It bears a moniker, and we know its number—60082—and that it was completed at the Arlington Texas Plant on March 4, 1996. Amongst the workers who had a hand in it were Tim “Catfish” Bailey, “Ack” Darby, and Loy “Goose” Preston. The car has Chevy Impala wheels, providing a much smoother ride, even though the Buick people were not up to making this simple, sensible change. Other adaptations are coming—a better computer chip inside, different detailing on the outside—since continuous improvement can flourish in an age where it’s possible to have one of a kind. It makes sense to encourage intentional differences, and parts of the auto industry are already moving in that direction.
Branding, we would claim, has never been so important, especially to high cost economies. But it’s much changed in an age where the customer can more truly begin to have the product his way and when the customer either does not believe or does not even hear the claims companies make in old-fashioned advertising and outmoded merchandising. In fact, the customer of companies of the future truly participates in creating and re-creating the brand. A different kind of branding is now imperative.
P.S. As we have mentioned in several letters, many smaller, out-of-the-way countries are inventing and nurturing genuinely new ideas, because they are not undergoing the consolidation and “creative destruction” endemic in the major economies of the world. They do not have as much that needs to be wiped away. For more on inventive countries, see “Falling off the Map” and “In Search of Governing Ideas.”
24. Dying with Your Boots on
Just like our health, this is a work in progress. We have fiddled with these health tips for a couple of years, and we will make all sorts of changes when you send in your thoughts. But the list has gotten a little better, since we have come to realize that it’s no darn good if it seems to be full of vinegar and castor oil.
At first we came up with 10 do’s and don’ts. A few doctors looked it over and said it seemed okay. But lists are something that chaps like Martin Luther pin on doors. We knew something was missing. We had to get to the “happy” part.
That is, health lists and most health journalism, incidentally, are grim reading and made for very robotic people. Health and happiness must be linked. We simply should not have heart operations if we are to turn into vegetables afterward. A compassionate oncologist we know in England won’t prescribe treatments for his working-class patients that are too expensive or will make it impossible for them to work. Any health regime must enable life, not lobotomize the treated. Too much of a lot of so-called health things, particularly pharmaceuticals and surgery, are often useless and afford us little joy. Don’t, in other words, become the prisoner of a lot of rules or of the health police. We’re not on earth for survival, but for exhilaration, a good laugh, and an occasional beer.
Well, here’s what we think today:
23. Big Beliefs Make Big Men
These words from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s
re-nomination acceptance speech at the Philadelphia Democratic Convention on
June 27, 1936 probably best dramatize what he really did as president. Here
he was asking Americans to ward off dictators abroad and monopolists at home
in the name of democracy and freedom. But most of all, we think, he was
once again helping battered Americans regain confidence in themselves and
igniting their belief in their future. Big beliefs make big men; big men
galvanize belief. (See full text at
The “Rendezvous” phase dated back at least to William McKinley, who was part and parcel of the 19th century and Manifest Destiny, but it was FDR who really brought it to life. Since then, LBJ, Ronald Reagan, both the Clintons, George the Younger Bush, Jacques Chirac, and others have tried to capture the same words as their own, hoping some of the patrician Roosevelt’s greatness would rub off on them.
To get a nation, an institution, or a company to believe in itself--that is the task of a leader. Asking for a “rendezvous,” the leader is not merely calling for a brush with destiny, but is invoking a full-blown tryst, a bonding with tomorrow. He is asking his followers to seize the future.
Executive Development. For half a century, American business has been spending a carload of money on executive education, but nobody quite knows what the outcome should be. In our own eyes, FDR got it right. At least in our management practice, executive development is designed to build each executive’s self confidence as well as his belief in his appointed mission on earth.
That, as Mark McCormack would have said, is not “what they teach you at the Harvard Business School.” (See What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School). Business schools, after all, are simply overpriced vocational schools for future business bureaucrats that acquaint teacher and student alike with arcane technique but not with the metaphors to handle uncertain tomorrows.
The Will to Believe. Numerous Americans are now having a hard time believing in themselves or the future. 9/11 upset the psyche of Americans more profoundly than either our friends or enemies abroad understand. It has been followed by an unending string of severe job layoffs at America’s major corporations that show no sign of letting up. These are troubled times, not so unlike the 1930s.
Senior executives, no matter their degree of bluster, have shown increasing insecurity for a much longer period of time. The long restructuring of our economy, not yet complete, started in the 1970s, and they still cannot foresee the outcome or divine what strategy to adopt for their own enterprises. This has only compounded the stress they have felt as they climb the corporate ladder where they have found oxygen in short supply and the perch uncertain.
In this tremulous atmosphere, executives must achieve the “Will to Believe.” This is the title of one essay by William James, who was a father of American Pragmatism, this country’s unique contribution to world philosophy. Here he argues for faith in the absence of clear evidence to support it, and elsewhere he goes on to claim that the power of belief is critical for advantageously dealing with a future that is malleable and plastic, capable of being shaped by men of conviction. James, incidentally, was a troubled, insecure spirit in his own right who worked his way forward through affirmative philosophy and psychology. Executives, we would claim, are not capable of leadership until they attain a similar degree of assured belief.
Real Role. The wacky, outré, gay wit Quentin Crisp said that we call young actors adventurous and experimental because they try on all sorts of roles that are largely ill suited to their own personas. Finally, later in life, they discover their one true role which they play brilliantly, no matter the part in which they are cast. Then we call them accomplished. It is the same in life he thought: each of us spends decades discovering our one true role.
That’s the other main educational task for senior executives. They must comprehend the role they really should be playing.
One of our clients spent his whole life as an accomplished engineer at one of America’s largest corporations. We worked with him and watched his slow transformation as he worked his way towards retirement. What happened is that he became an outplacement counselor for senior Fortune 500 executives, a 180-degree career switch where he performed gloriously.
It had always been evident to us that Ed was intended for other things. A French TV producer, now a New York restaurateur, had done a feature on him for French TV. It was evident to the talented Parisian and his audience that this absolutely charming, mannerly, totally kind man should be dealing with people and not equations. If we are truly to pursue our destiny, such dramatic changes are in store for us. The writer Arthur Koestler dramatically threw over successful careers two or three times, which not only brought out his talent but saved him from being a victim of the Holocaust. One can read about this in his marvelous two-volume autobiography Arrow in the Blue and Invisible Writing. All our lives, said Crisp, we are discovering what our true role is.
Fanatic About Change. Lately we have been studying serial entrepreneurs largely to find out why they do what they do. Time and again, we discover that these fascinating folks pursue something new because they can’t bear it that the world is doing things in such a bumbling way. They are irked beyond belief that hospitals kill so many of their patients; that surgical tools, designed around 1915, don’t really do the job, that the window crank mechanisms inside car doors are so complex that they are doomed to fail; that Microsoft software is certain to crash. They know it can be done better and know they can do it. In other words, they believe they can change the world, and there’s no stopping them. We suspect executive education should convince its pupils to find something they really want to change.
What is Destiny? We have said that the goal of executive education is to teach future leaders that they and those that they inspire have a Rendezvous with Destiny.
But what is destiny? It’s a culmination beyond the ordinary and the pedestrian. The very concept of destiny argues that there is a god or gods, because it is an outcome and magic event ordained somewhere in the heavens. Destiny is the handiwork of the gods.
Several of the more fundamentalist religious sects around the world would say that Western societies have trivialized life, falling totally under the domination of the passions of man, avoiding the dominion of the gods. If this is true, it presents a monumental problem for countries that are overwhelmingly secular. Is he who is not pointed at metaphysical truths a slave to mediocrity? Probably there is no rendezvous with destiny for those whose feet are stuck in mortal clay. Is this why the postwar generation of leaders in politics and business has never quite achieved greatness?
We are not saying, of course, that conventional religion lies at the heart of greatness. Rather we would assert that people of destiny sense that most awesome events in the universe only regard mankind as a footnote. John Roebling, tireless worker and creator of the Brooklyn Bridge, only allowed himself one diversion--the study of the philosopher Hegel, who had been a mentor in his youth. We would venture to say that his appreciation of Hegel’s dialectic equipped him to tackle monumental projects about which the rest of us can only dream. Hegel, incidentally, had encouraged him to come to America. Some of this unfolds in the historian David McCullough’s best work, The Great Bridge, which depicts the breadth of Roebling’s undertaking. It remade New York City, just as Tip O’Neill’s Big Dig (www.bigdig.com) is redoing Boston.
Curiously enough, Tony Blair of Great Britain and Juichiro Koizumi of Japan, who have shifted government away from faction towards some of the broader concerns of their societies, may have reclaimed that higher ground where destiny can come out of hiding. Ironically enough, they were perceived as standard political hacks by the pundits when they first came on the scene, all proving we never know who will be destiny’s children.
P.S. Keeping Up. Today’s too busy executives have an ever more difficult time keeping up with changes in business thinking. Several services now provide them with extracts on breaking thought. One, www.meansbusiness.com, is particularly geared to corporations which are trying to carry on in-house corporate education for executives.
22. Don't Worry about the Copperheads: The Big Bear Will Get You First
In everyday commerce, it seems to be our destiny to pay attention to a few snakes slithering through the weeds. Meanwhile, we miss the big hazard or the big opportunity, more often than not, because we fall in love with the sideshow. For leaders, the main issue, perhaps the only issue, is to discover the big one and to get the troops totally focused on it.
For some 10 years the overwhelming problem for major businesses in this country has been flat or declining markets. Supply-side economics have produced too much product and too few customers. Every time you turn around another market hits the skids, even if just yesterday it was growing like topsy turvy. Most dramatic over the last year has been the dead-end hit by telecommunication carriers and equipment companies. Suppliers who had been in the fast lane for years suddenly started showing red ink. This devastation and lack of demand has hit all markets as we sail into the new millennium.
Peter Drucker has noted that in the face of business calamity we have been replacing chief executives at a mad rate, and most of the replacements do as badly as their predecessors. We have not seen such a high management failure rate since the Civil War, when Lincoln had to fire a host of field commanders until he could find one who would fight. Drucker thinks our business structures are outdated, and chief executives are still caught up in an old model that isn't working.
That may be true. But we attribute the failure rate to a tired agenda. For 20 years, CEOs and their consultants have been hacking away at costs. That played pretty well until the mid 1990s. But then it was time for CEOs to get back to revenues, selling things, new markets. Even so, today you find CEOs cutting and chopping, paring their now-virtual companies down to nothing. It's time to do business again. Having missed the big one (finding new markets) in 1990, a host of major companies risk extinction today. They are at risk because they did not turn to the main opportunity circa 1990.
We can ask why principal leaders didn't see and pursue the big one. Often it's a lack of imagination. One of our partners talks about former Governor Edwards of Louisiana, who was once matched against a car dealer. He damned the man with faint praise. He said, "Well, if I were going to buy a Ford, I'll surely buy it from him, because he's a good man. But if I were going to buy 2 Fords, now that's another matter." The dealer could measure up to little league baseball, but not to the major leagues.
Much the same can be said for one of our United States that was once the bright star of its region. It has now slid a long ways, currently experiencing negative growth. The politicians and business potentates have all sorts of excuses and all sorts of forces to blame. But the truth is that a business oligarchy of very small men coupled with diminished political leadership has left the state in the hole. Artificial monopolies and restrictive legislation have driven costs too high. Anemic leadership has not filled empty plants and barren fields with new enterprise. A venture capitalist in this state has said to use, "We always do two baggers, never a home run." Nobody has had their eye on the big one, and now the whole state is at risk.
Complexity, incidentally, is the enemy of focus, of effectiveness, of strategic grandeur. The planning documents of more than one corporation are so infernally complicated that they never get enacted and fail to unify the employees behind a compelling idea. Years ago Norman Augustine, once of the Defense Department and later head of Martin Merietta, authored Augustine's Laws, the key one being that as more and more electronics were added to a plane, costs grew exponentially and breakdowns mounted at a worse rate. Six ideas are equivalent to having no idea: complexity brings us to a standstill, not only with airplanes but with whole enterprises.
A few years ago Tony L. White took over PerkinElmer Inc., a flagging instruments company. Somewhere along the line he said, in effect, "Let's get rid of the old instruments and get in the genome business which our instruments help explore." This was big and daring and clear. Now he heads Applera Corporation, the PerkinElmer name and all its instruments long-since gone. What he did was seize the obvious, using the technology from its Applied BioSystems subsidiary to spring into the world of the genome, and now into drugs. He has moved from copperheads and to bears.
Which is to say: Become a big bear, so no bear will get you. You will get there, if you are looking for something big, and you can say where you are headed on the back of a napkin at lunch with a felt marker.
21. Stealing from Stanley
Emperors New Clothes, or Seeing the Blindingly Obvious
This is what we need from our Boards of Directors: to say, he hasnt got any clothes on. The nuanced conversations of corporate life often permit harebrained schemes to flourish. Everybody says this or that idea is wonderful, when there is no there, there. What Boards have to do is spot the emperor without clothes.
What kind of people are good at detecting horse manure? What will help them see the light before a crisis occurs? Where are companies must likely to go astray? How do you look for the obvious?
19. "What we're saying today is that you're either
part of the solution or you're part of the problem."
But Cleaver's words are still dead on, having more application in the present day than in the years of Camelot and LBJ. The times now, they are a-changin', and you are either helping your fellow man get with the program, or you are condemning us to yesterday. To help, you absolutely have to have a wildly different mindset.
In our Annual Report on Annual Reports 2001, we discuss the rapid turnover of chief executives of America's major corporations. But, we note, the new boys on the block are still pursuing a tired, outdated agenda of cost-cutting, consolidation, and centralization. In other words, they are still in the useless restructuring, short-term profit mode of the 20 years. You know. EVA, MVA, and don't invest in anything unless it is a sure thing with a 3-year payoff.
In our reports 2000 and 2001, we suggest that the current orientation should be growth and globalization achieved through alliance-building. This means new products, whole new definitions of what a product is, more headquarters located where economies are actually growing, and an end to go-it-alone attitudes. Solitary splendor just won't cut it; interdependence is in. This is not comfortable territory for leaders in any of our estates -- business, government, academia, or media.
How then do we get out managers to become leaders? By the way, leaders are relentless fellows who plant both feet in the future and then trick everybody else into coming along with them. Managers implement yesterday. Leaders welcome tomorrow.
This suggests, first, re-reading William James and the rest of the American pragmatists. Pragmatism was America's one unique contribution to philosophy. The American pragmatists were in love with the future.
But such a re-reading will not take men and women stuck in the 20th century into the cosmos of the 21st. It is our experience that effecting change -- particularly a change in consciousness or mindset -- requires a profound emotional event.
The events of September 11th have already altered the way the people of the West look at the world. Malcolm X's visit to Egypt rocked his view of the races, allowing him to see that virtue was not a black and white matter, but a function of morality and enlightenment. We read of others transformed by nervous breakdowns, religious awakening, or some whack across the forehead by a mental 2x4.
The majority of leaders do not, however, come into being because of charismatic experience. A great many, it appears, do develop because of something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.
The Syndrome, you will remember, stemmed from close experiences of the 3rd kind between captive and captor in Sweden. In some accounts, bank robbers became uncommonly close to customers and employees at branches being robbed. In another tale, hostages of an embassy bonded with Japanese Red Army members who had seized them. The consciousness of people under extreme pressure changed as they formed unlikely links in dire circumstances.
As we chat with executives on the run, we find that they change markedly through the workings of a Socratic dialogue that is interspersed with their rapid-fire activities. Dialogue on the run. Contemplation at 165 mph. A provocative roller-coaster ride.
The temptation is to look inward and backward. The goal is to lunge forward and outwards.
18. Seven Not Eleven--But Seven That You Can Spell
Point One. You can only watch seven. The mind cannot get its tentacles around more indicators. You are just fooling yourself if you think you can systematically monitor and understand the implications of more numbers.
This idea carries over into strategy as well. You can only manage seven initiatives. When you try to run more, they run away with you. You start reacting to events instead of guiding them. With seven or less, you can actually drive your company somewhere.
Politics aside, this is the central dilemma for Vice President Gore. He tries to be on top of everything, which is equivalent to being on top of nothing. This, indeed, was the great discovery of William James and the American Pragmatists. To do meaningful things, you have to take on the universe piecemeal. Otherwise, thought and action get fuzzy. Piecemeal, action-oriented thiking is, incidentally, America's great contribution to philosophy.
Point Two. But you must pick the right seven. And they are not self evident, unlike the self-evident truths cited by our forefathers.
Going back to the accountants, we have discovered in the last ten years that public accounting numbers tell you practically nothing about the health of a business organization. Up through the 1900's, accounting focused on the needs of management, but now accountants really generate numbers for investors and other external publics.
In fact, most of the numbers we use to truly understand a business are not really in the accounting lexicon. In a knowledge business, we have to study the recruitment, development, and retention of knowledge workers. Small businesses have to watch net-working capital, an adjusted working capital figure which embraces predictive figures, particularly on the cost side of the ledger. To understand where a business will be in three months, we must chart some sales activity minutia usually ignored by high-level marketing and general managers. Finally, we really have not found useful ways to measure R&D effectiveness, although that is the key issue for business in our transition economy.
What should your seven numbers address? Probably three will touch on current operations. Two will try to predict where you will be in six months. One will measure your strategic progress. And one, importantly, will deal with risk management. Well, we said the seven will not be easy to decide.
But the chore is to find seven simple indicators that everybody can understand. Apparently Will Rogers had it right. According to Randy Poe, Rogers said, "Nothing you can't spell will ever work." The way to deal with complexity is to measure seven simple things that you can spell.
17. MTV Plus Cops and Robbers
We always argue for short and sweet plans--the shorter the better--because, because, because.
Because complicated things never work for long. And complex things run people, instead of people running them.
But--today--there's a more important reason to keep it simple. We have had fifteen years of incrementalism in business and politics. We need big things now.
Big things don't come from long, detailed plans. They come from big ideas set out in ten words or less. If "vice" can be put together with five words, surely we can do "virtue" in ten.
16. If the Doc Can't Get It Straight, He Will
Make You Crooked
There you have it. If you visit a doctor of any stripe who can elicit and sum up your medical history, you have a winner. If you get one who goofs--and many do--take a walk.
To understand the relationship of medical histories and the physician's effectiveness, see "Patients are Discovering 'My Doctor, the Author,'" New York Times, August 22, 2000, D7, where Abraham Verghese, author of My Own Country: A Doctor's Story, spells it out:
One other caveat. You should prefer a doctor who does volunteer clinic work with the poor. This means that he or she sees a full range of disease conditions, knowing anything and everything that can go wrong. Years ago, several great New York specialists would go up to Harlem Hospital for clinical experience, helping a lot, but learning more. In the same manner, a Naval dentist says he saw diseases in the mouths of Vietnamese soldiers during the 70s that never made it into the books.
15. If You Believe in Yesterday, Your Stock
Will Not Act Like Tomorrow
Likewise, many enterprises have plateaued out, because they are stuck in yesterday's mud. They need to get beyond EVA and MVA to TVA--Tomorrow Value Added.
14. Diminishing Returns
We were reminded of this most recently in an article by George Johnson, entitled "The Jaguar and the Fox," in The Atlantic Monthly, July 2000, pp. 82-90. It is about the utterly brilliant physicists Murray Gell-Man and Richard Feynman. Gell-Man, favored by the author of this article, was clearly the more strategic thinker. Feynman--the fun guy and the intuitive tactician--achieved far more fame.
They were friends who succumbed eventually to competition and jealousy. And here's the main point. "The friction between them prevented the kind of alliance that might have led to even greater discoveries--great enough, perhaps, to satisfy these impossible men."
Indeed, this is the question in modern society. Do we have the power to set ego aside when we are working with fellow beings of magnificent dimensions? It's easy to be gracious with lesser folk, but it's hard to be open to strong-minded colleagues.
13. Let a Few Weeds Grow
A tall, gangly fellow, always lugging a briefcase, Wimsatt had a continuing argument with a merry little bubble of a chap named Dick Banks, who was a publicist at the university and who typed faster than you or me--with two fingers. Banks, on the side, was a father-figure to a multitude of budding poets. Wimsatt only wanted the best of things published. Banks wanted it all published, because he said we were never sure what was best.
Then, I stood with Wimsatt. Now, I'm with Banks. Rarely do the powers-that-be pick out the best or the most important. And, by the way, Banks was a clear writer and a competent poet, while, oddly enough, Wimsatt was a master of absolutely awful, dense prose. See William Wimsatt:
As often as not the system we create to guarantee excellence and strength produces the humdrum. I am reminded of that in reading the New York Times, the nation's second-best newspaper, everyday. Surely the paper prides itself on its political, economic, and business coverage--all of which is less than meets the eye. It is at the margins, beyond the reach of the editorial system, where the newspaper excels, largely in its oddball cultural features. On May 29, a book review of Biography of a Germ by Arno Karlen (the Lyme Disease story), turns out to be relevant, important, and well-written. A London piece, "Finding a Real Job for Philosophy," about Alain de Botton, the author of The Consolations of Philosophy, speaks to a readership polarized and atomized in a society without a larger purpose. It is in these little stories, not on the top of the mind of the publisher or the managing editor, where something extra shines through. These are weeds, if you like, in the Times.
Let a few weeds grow. Metaphorically, they may turn out to be the ingredients of a cheap, natural pharmaceutical beyond the notice of research scientists.
A defense electronics company I have followed for years never amounted to very much before it strayed into producing components for the cellular-phone industry. All venture capitalists I counsel know that each enterprise in which they invest will become totally different in two years if the enterprise is to succeed. And, of course, who would have thought that GE's credit operation--GE Capital --would be the absolute core of America's premiere industrial enterprise circa 2000.
Letting the weeds grow is probably what innovation is all about. At their greatest moments, 3M and Hewlett-Packard were probably the biggest weed patches around. So our test as managers is to keep enterprises totally focused, while undoubtedly fostering massive amounts of distraction.
12. Every Avis Needs Its Hertz: Or, Why We
And with somewhat more agile leadership. Colin Marshall -- later of British Airways fame -- was the president. Before him, Robert Townsend, author of Up the Organization, was the leader of Avis. Interesting it is that none of us can remember who has ever headed Hertz.
When we know our enemy -- in business or politics or education -- it energizes us to win and prevail. It makes us discover a decisive difference -- in strategy, values, process, and people.
It even tells us whom we have to emulate and which knowledge we have to steal. If you prowled New York in the 1950s and 1960s, you discovered that the Japanese knew they had to steal, emulate, and beat us at the economic game. And they were hard at it there, absorbing, for instance, the principles of our most brilliant business school gurus -- Drucker, Juran, Deming, etc., then at New York University. When they no longer had much to learn from us, they lost their enemy and began to falter.
Oh how we have fallen now that we have won the Cold War, and the Soviet Menace seems to have disappeared. We don't know who the enemy is from day-to-day; almost any nation seems to fill the bill at any given moment. Without a clear enemy, almost every American of any political stripe feels our moral fiber is disintegrating. Each American likes, supports, but deplores a president who is a bright opportunist, pandering to his and our momentary desires, while visibly undermining our stature and effectiveness abroad. The nation has a full stomach, a more dangerous world than when the Soviets reigned, and no clear goal to keep the nation vital. Mr. Clinton must look in the mirror, and after the manner of Pogo, reflect, "I have met the enemy, and he is me." The enthusiasm for Senator McCain points to an electorate who would like to be fighting a real battle with a substantial enemy.
A Georgetown professor, when asked who is winning in the tussle over Elian Gonzalez, "Democrats or Republicans," said, "Neither. Castro is winning." Whether we deal with Cuba, Serbia, Iraq, Russia, China, etc., etc., we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory because we can't focus on the enemy. We fritter away our attention on tangents and dodges.
Sun Tzu, a legendary Chinese general c. 500 B.C., originated the philosophy of victory through knowing your enemy in The Art of War; his strategies have been adapted to a range of modern purposes, including business and marketing. Peruse this classic of Chinese literature online.
11. The CEO's Office: You Are Where You Are
10. Paying to Lose
9. The Urgent Always Swallows the Important
In a recent review of William Murray's Janet, My Mother, and Me (Simon & Schuster, 2000), a critic notes Janet Flanner's regret that she "had thrown away her talent through her devotion to churning out the Paris Letter year after year" for The New Yorker. Always competent, these columns still probably did not represent the best Janet Flanner had to give.
The movie Wonder Boys stars Michael Douglas as a writing professor in Pittsburgh who cannot get his second novel out the doors, even though he faithfully beats out a thousand pages on his treasured Model A typewriter. He's too caught up in pedestrian relationships and academic quicksand to create the next big one. (Click here to read a review at Reel.com.)
Mired in trivia nationally, we lack a foreign policy and find that we are exposed dangerously as a nation in ways not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of the Kennedy years. Healthcare threatens to consume 25% of our GNP, and we get a bit sicker. And out politicians debate about Bob Jones University, Catholicism, and Buddhist Temples.
Why does the urgent, and often the trivial, dominate the important? Why do we do business and life on the run -- by improvisation? Certainly there are a thousand causes. Personal technology from cell phones to PCs gives us no time to think; my old friend Jim, a stockbroker no less, keeps phones out of his car so he can think a bit as he works his way down the peninsula.
Likewise, everybody in the family, now with two wage-earners, is nearly twice as busy and enjoying it half as much. Schoolchildren are much over-scheduled, every course crammed with unfocused content, electives such as music elevated to the status of core subjects, and sports taken so seriously that we find children having lots of remedial work done at the bone doctors. We make sure that there is no time to focus.
My own answer to the question somewhat begs the question. In my own view, mediocre leaders in business and society propel us to focus on the trivial. In business, at least, we find that there's a domino effect where small thoughts beget small actions. It's hard to get to the main point when, all about you, the focus is on the next presentation for a board meeting, a cosmetic recapitalization for Wall Street, or a merger with an entirely irrelevant business. So we say, "The Urgent Always Swallows the Important," when the leaders are so much smaller than the tasks they face.
8. Turning A Sow's Ear Into A Silk Purse, Lemons Into Lemonade, and Other Acts of Alchemy
In 1921, Arthur D. Little--the very bright Boston technology firm--did just that. Its scientists took a pig's ear and made it into a very cunning silk purse--this feat being recounted in a simple, extraordinarily effective little promotion booklet with the title dealing with the pig and the purse. I am not sure A. D. L. has done anything since as cosmic, and I can assure you that it has never done another brochure with as much horsepower (or sow-power). Its tribe of scribes have since fallen into that quasi-academic posturing that all the renowned consulting firms employ to recycle old concepts in new clothing.
Sow's ear . . . silk purse. This is what innovation and corporate branding are all about. Chaps, who like to tinker, take everyday materials, add several heaping spoonfuls of imagination, slip in a few drams of elbow grease, and turn the whole potage into something wondrous, useful, and excellent. Eureka!
Today, of course, this movie is usually running in reverse. A whole drawerful of silk purses are melting down into sows' ears. We visit a Brooks Brothers where the clothing may not be cut to fit, a Presidency that has become so common as to lose all pretense of greatness, a phone or utility system that has grown hopelessly complex and where the breakdowns multiply day by day. Today more brands are degenerating than are being created. Call it debranding, which is sort of like deconstruction. Brand extinction.
Which brings us to the "lemon" part of this discussion. If you're good today, you will be attacked. The press and the pundits, already debranded, will spend more time picking apart the best and the brightest than they will devote to jousting with the mediocre. Any wart will be magnified. Sooner or later, you will misstep. It's only a matter of time. And the legions of middlemen will rush to pull you down into their morass. Brand extinction.
This is all the more reason to pay attention to your brand--you as a person or you as a company. Make sure you are so connected with quality that it is hard to drag you down. Create a body of good feeling about yourself that lingers when the barbs are cast at you. Admit to failings, since the mistake of most brandmakers is to pretend they're perfect. Imperfection-admitted-to perfects the brand.
If--silk purse style--you can paint a simple picture of how you are trying to make the lives of people a whole lot better, the community will ignore all the slings and arrows directed at you. That's how to turn lemons into lemonade.
I can think of 1,000 examples of where a wonderful brand wrapped in quality protected itself from the attack dogs. Certainly this was true of Oglivy and Mather, once the blueblood of advertising agencies. Advertising, especially during the last 30 or 40 years, has never been held in high regard by academics and opinion makers, certainly not by journalists who are so universally dependent on it for their livelihoods. But Oglivy wore more Teflon clothing than the rest of the agencies combined, because it comported itself differently, writing better, higher-minded copy, calling its best and brightest staffers "princes" and making clients of many of the best global brands to include Shell and American Express. Unlike its compatriots, it nurtured its own brand.
This then is a tale about building a brand and keeping it. Do something wonderful. Keep on doing it. Admit you have warts before the nay-sayers can make much of them. This is a way to be very special in an era when brands are eroding and reputations have been flattened.
7. The Shot That's Heard Around the World: Getting Your Emails Read, Heard, and Felt
Some rules for E-mail bulletin effectiveness with large audiences. Most are borrowed from Jack O'Dwyer's Newsletter, August 4, 1999.
6. Use the Geese to Weed the Strawberries
Can you stay out of the weeds? Our key observation for years has been that businessmen and businesswomen at every level in every walk of life are too busy doing all the wrong things. Things that don't count or could get done some other way.
This is true, obviously, for all the rest of the institutions in our society. Nowhere can we see this more clearly than in the schools that imprison our children today. The kids are overscheduled; the curriculum is overstuffed, and the courses are trivialized. The athletics have turned outrageously competitive. Routine skills are not learned. Children are simultaneously tired and over-stressed. Mountains of homework are created, but learning falters. Last year at least 3 major newspapers had thoughtful articles about excesses in the school system that discourage learning and crush the kids.
I am reminded of the wise old coot from Pennsylvania who said, "Everybody is complaining about deadlock. Deadlock between the Republicans and the Democrats." Voice rising, he crowed, "What's wrong with deadlocks? It means they can't write more of their dumb laws. It stops lots of the other foolishness." He will surely be providing us with an "ode to deadlock" in future years.
Right now, the key task for all of us is to discover what we should stop doing. Never has less been more in so many ways. We are simply suffering from overload. In other words, there's a lot of spiritual weeding to get done, but you can leave the garden variety to the geese.
is About Having Character, Not Being a Character
4. Greenhouse Tactics
3. Buy Low, Sell
High, Collect Early, and Pay Late
2. Speechmaking Advice to Business Executives
1. Dunk's Dictums - Where They Started
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