Somebody said we were allowed to think out loud. Pardon the mess.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Why JFK jr. couldn't keep George Magazine aloft?

We cringe at the current "What can a [frog, blender, toilet plunger, whoopee cushion, etc.] teach us about Financial Services" campaign from Wachovia. But however tone-deaf, it does remind us that stories and narrative are the best ways to make a message stick. Why, gee, we used some recently while talking with a group of businesspeople:
...It's not primarily about values. That's means to an end. Necessary, vital, but a means. The point is competitive advantage. One you can sustain. Much management it seems takes the negative view of human behaviour, and it resorts to a push model; coercion, rather than co-option or the pull of ambition. For the short term, this approach satisfies us for two reasons:

A. We feel like we've done "something" about a problem-- we've intiated action.

B. Much like the cattle prod gets immediate results, the push, or coercive, model spikes improvement (or at least attention) in the desired area.

In stressed companies, these are the reflexive patterns we regress into as managers. And on the face of it, why not? After all, how many times have you felt comfortable giving up control in times of pressure? Oddly, the seemingly intuitive and instinctive thing to do is counterproductive to the desired outcome.

In this, management is not unique: when a plane stalls in flight and starts to dive and lose control, pilots must be trained to fight their instinct to pull back on the stick--an action that can further reduce speed an induce a much more deadly and unrecoverable event: a flat spin.

Of course, metaphorical thinkers will observe that directing a company and flying a plane are, at heart, management. Each requires the understanding of dynamics that are in turns obvious and counterintuitive. Each reqiures us to manage and interpret dynamical, rythmic systems. For airplanes: engines, conrol surfaces, inertia, gravity, weather. For business, the equivalents: resources, people, feelings, ideas and markets...
First posted way back here. [pardon the reprise, but we've been doing a little archive mining lately for a coming project and this seemed quite relevant to the "people far wiser" post just below, and to another coming, hopefully, this weekend.]

Thursday, July 22, 2004


Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are going camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes wakes Watson up....
HOLMES: Watson, look up, and tell me what you deduce.
WATSON: I see millions of stars, and if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it is quite likely that there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.
HOLMES: Watson, you idiot, somebody stole our tent!

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

People far wiser have said it far better..

...but here's how basic it really is:

1. Lose the bullcrap that says "it's not personal, it's business." If you're breathing, it is personal. Period. Disallowing that truth empties offices and balance sheets and fills SEC judiciary dockets and customer service call queues.

2. Understand that when guys like Harvard's Edgar Schein and the London School of Economics' David Maister say "Culture matters more than strategy," they know of where they speak, they mean it, and it it works.

3. Why does it work? If one must succumb to framing business as War, then here's the translation: Because nobody ever threw themselves on a hand-grenade for a spread-sheet.

4. "Work, eat, sleep" is a self-imposed life sentence. Some leaders may think that little of their lives and their futures, but millions of employees and consumers are just dying to hear one say "Enough! I want more out of this for me, too! (No, not more money.)

5. Pick any two of the better, hot business books--Semler, Jack Welch, Collins, Sun Tzu--doesn't matter. But make sure one is diametrically opposed to what you "think" you already believe. Don't read them. Climb into them. Live them, like you're going to be shot if you don't live them. Tell your people you are doing this. Then, after doing exactly this for 6 months per book, ask yourself: Which did I feel like I would have written right out of school and still not yet jaded to the working world? Keep that one. Buy copies of it for your people. Then take those assembled people into the parking lot and ceremonially burn the other book you did not choose.

You'll be amazed at how good this feels, and How can I say this? Simple. Any book that "works" and inflames people's passions for work does so because it addresses four simple ideas:

A. Simplicity
B. Authenticity
C. Community
D. Legacy

If you buy that those qualities matter in Life and in its subset, business, and that anything done must pass muster after being viewed through the prism of that uncluttered worldview, then management, marketing, production, finance, and anything else you include in your hairball begin to take on a clarity that highlights and spurns false choices. It doesn't obviate downturns.

Neither does it make one a Hare Krishna. It puts events into context. That is supremely powerful because we do dumb things not when the unexpected happens, but when the inevitable unexpected does happen and we make up ad hoc standards of behaviour to seem like we're controlling the obviously uncontrollable. In short, we clearly do everything we can to deny that our pants are suddenly around our ankles.

That sh*t happens is undeniable in any journey, but absent a well-plumbed personal-professional rationale for why you set out in the first place, well, that's downright unsettling--to leaders and/or followers. Lack of context leads to confusion. And blame. And defeat. The presence of it, even partially, is calming and powerful. Context makes molehills out of mountains of manure. [*]

If you sail, play golf, flyfish, collect stamps, make doll houses or pilot fighter jets, this is called being in the zone or going with the flow. And, this is why God is said to favor fools and drunks: Because they are thought too dumb or too sedated to do what "wiser" people instinctively do in dynamic or threatening situations: Clench up. Or Freeze.

This is why resourcefulness, humility and bravery are far more valuable than "answers," "ego," and "a plan." It is why average people or companies who hone the former talents are magnetic, and become leaders of legend. And why employees or companies of great expectation often fail to make that leap.

There. I've gone and blustered my way through another post. Damn. Why do I keep doing this? Simple: Energy and the thoughts that generate them are volatile but precious commodities. If you don't get them out, they burn up the container. And if you don't think, the container gets cold. In archetypal terms, Cold = Dead. And dead is not a fun concept for those who prefer breathing.

[* Update: Michael, of Spooky Action fame pointed out the glaring syntactical omission of this paragraph. Duh! Apologies, and thanks, Michael!]

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