Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Cobra Effect

If you heard any news this weekend, you probably are aware of the Executive Order banning folks from certain countries from entering the United States. I expect that the folks who issued the order felt that they were doing something pretty straightforward. Instead, they ended up preventing workers with visas, legal residents with green cards, and a host of others who have all their legal certifications in order from traveling here.

English: Indian Spectacled Cobra, Naja Naja Fa...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we’re not a political blog, I’m going to put aside humanitarian concerns and politics and instead focus on what one must assume are unintended consequences of the order. It’s the “Cobra Effect” come to life yet again. Unfamiliar with that? It got its name based on what happened when the Indian government offered rewards for dead cobras in an effort to cure a plague of them. Rather than decreasing the number of cobras, people began breeding them and killing them for the reward money. When the government figured this out they stopped paying for them. People released the cobras they no longer needed. Net effect? More cobras and lots of wasted money. Unintended consequences personified!

So how do we avoid the Cobra Effect in our businesses? Not by preserving the status quo since that’s rarely an option. It’s actually as simple as taking the time to think through what possible effects a particular action might have. “If we do this, that might happen.” Don’t be bashful about throwing out absurd conclusions, either. There are many examples those absurdities becoming reality (you gain more weight when you skip meals? Really?).

I guess my thinking is to go fast but do so slowly. Push for change and evolve your products, services, and business, but do so in a manner that thinks through as many of the potential effects those changes could bring about as you can imagine and avoid the Cobra Effect. Make sense?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?

Adding Umami To The Business

This Foodie Friday we’re going to talk about basic flavors. If you’ve done any cooking, you know that there are five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and something called “umami,” which is often mentioned as “savoriness.” It’s a Japanese word that means “delicious taste. It’s actually built on three types of amino acids:

japanese soy sauce, it contains more salt than...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some examples of the amino acids associated with umami are glutamates in kombu or soy sauce; iosinates found in fermented fish, shellfish and meats; and guanylates, which are present in mushrooms like shiitake.These different types of amino acids can be combined to increase the umami taste in your dishes.

Got it? As with all the flavors, the trick is to use umami to balance out and enhance the other flavors present in a dish. If you add soy sauce (umami), for example, you’d want to reduce the salt (salty). If you’re using fish sauce (an umami bomb often found in Asian food) you’d add acid to balance it out (citrus juice, for example.). Got it?

Let’s think about umami in business terms. You have the basic building “flavors” of solving a customer’s problem, the enterprise’s financial goals, customer service, producing the product or service, and supporting your team. What distinguishes great businesses from good businesses is the umami added to the mix of those building blocks. Just as adding a rind of parmesan cheese into a soup or stock boosts umami, teaching everyone in an organization to be customer-centric while pursuing clear goals boosts the coherence and performance of the team. It’s possible to offer decent customer service via email but the umami of a caring human to deal with customer issues makes a lot of difference.

A long time ago, someone told me to add red wine vinegar to the clarified butter into which I was dipping a lobster. I know now that the sour and pungent vinegar was balancing the fat of the butter and took the lobster to another level. Balancing all the elements of either a dish or your business and making sure that balance includes something that boosts umami is the key, both in the kitchen and in the boardroom. You with me?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Helpful Hints

Misdirection (It’s Magic!)

When I was a kid I became fascinated with magic. As I attempted to learn trick after trick, what became clear to me was that the primary skill of the magician wasn’t so much manual dexterity as it was the ability to draw the audience’s attention to something very specific. One magician called it “the manipulation of interest”. I think of it as misdirection and as it turns out there is a really business point to it as well.

Top hat as an icon for magic

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a magician is trying to do is one of two things: either to get you to look away from what he is really doing for a split second or to reframe your perception so that you focus on a different reality, thinking that something has a lot to do with what’s going on when in fact it has nothing to do with it.

We see this in business all the time. Sometimes it’s benign, as when we’re distracted by a phone buzzing during a meeting. Sometimes it’s not so benign, as when the fine print of a deal is overshadowed by a blaring headline and attention-grabbing photo. I’ve been in meetings in which someone was completely unprepared for the topic of the meeting but managed to get the group distracted onto a side issue and he was never found out. You’ve probably witnessed something similar.

We can’t let distractions draw our attention away from what’s really going on. We can’t look at the obvious while the real business is going on elsewhere. More importantly, we can’t let others draw our attention away from something they’re doing that might have an impact on our business. We can’t let a nice suit distract us into thinking someone is successful – look at their track record. We can’t let someone’s ridiculous initial offer draw us away from our negotiating plan – maybe they’re trying to distract us through the misdirection of anger. We can’t let someone tell a lie as a distraction without correcting it but that also means we need to have facts at hand to avoid the misdirection.

Some folks are masters of controlling how others feel about and deal with them by controlling others’ focus. Don’t fall for it.

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

Digging Into The Cart

One thing our digital age has given us is the ability to measure and understand what is going on in our businesses. We can learn even more by layering research on top of the data so that we understand not just the “what” but also the “why.”

A piece of research from Episerver has done that with respect to consumer shopping behaviors and their expectations for brands. While the study is focused on online commerce, I think many of the data points it surfaces apply into other business segments as well. Let’s see what you think.

The primary finding is that 92% of consumers will visit a brand’s website for the first time for reasons other than making a purchase. Of shoppers visiting a website for the first time, 45% are searching for a product or service, 25% are comparing prices or other variables, and more than one in 10 are looking for details about a physical location. A third of consumers who visit a brand’s website or mobile app with the explicit intent of making a purchase rarely or never complete checkout. Further, 98% of shoppers have been dissuaded from completing a purchase because of incomplete or incorrect content on a brand’s website, underscoring the need for descriptive, accurate content.

When consumers are prepared to make a purchase on a website or mobile app, the report found 60% go directly to the product page for the item they’re looking for. Another 18% look at sale items first, and 7% seek out customer testimonials before anything else.

What does all of that mean? In a word, engagement. Your ability to engage the consumer is key because the odds are that unless they feel engaged they’re not coming back. The fact that the overwhelming majority of first-time visitors are NOT there to buy points to an opportunity. How can you serve the real reasons why they’re there? How can you provide them with the information they need (accurate content, easily visible sale items, obvious, verified customer comments, etc.)

Hopefully, this is yet another piece of research that falls into the “duh” category. Most of the findings point to actions we should take that are just common sense. They’re the way we’d all like to be treated when we put on our consuming hats, aren’t they?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints

Pushing And Pulling

It’s another Foodie Friday and this week I’ve been thinking about teamwork. If you’ve dined out at any point, and who hasn’t, you’ve been the beneficiary of what should be excellent teamwork. After all, unless you’re dining in a tiny place, the person who takes your order isn’t the one who cooks your food. It’s likely that the person who cooks your food isn’t the one who developed the recipe, and it’s just as likely that there are multiple items on the plate that they were prepared by more than one person. For the end product to be great, every one of those people needs to be operating in sync and on the same page.

The one thing all great restaurants are is consistent. Every plate of the same dish should taste the same, and every time you return, the experience should be exactly the same. That doesn’t happen by chance. It happens because the chef leads the team and gives them the tools they need to perform. The recipes are written down and followed. That includes the recipe for more than the food. It’s how food is plated. It’s the vision of what the business is and how it will operate. It’s a shared sense of mission. It’s not kicking people in the butt and making them do a particular task.

There are very few work environments that are hotter or more stressed than a restaurant kitchen during peak service hours yet the best crews seem to ignore the environment and focus on the mission. Each member of the team understands their role and how it fits into the bigger whole and is committed to performing that role at a high standard.

Everything I’ve written above applies to your business too. OK, maybe not the uncomfortable, hot working conditions, but certainly the need to stop pushing people and to start leading them. If you ask multiple staff members to explain the main goals of your business and get very different answers, you have a problem. If each person can’t explain how their role fits into achieving that mission, you’re on the road to disgruntled employees and to failure. If the standards and recipes – how your business operates and how success and failure are measured – aren’t written down and clear to all, you might as well shut the doors now.

If things go badly, maybe it’s not the fault of the person who screwed up. Maybe they were told to salt the food without any amount stated. Since each palate is different, it’s unlikely two people will salt the dish the same. Maybe you asked for an analysis of some data without explaining what questions you’re trying to answer and how that question ties into the broader goals. Two analysts might answer very different questions, making the analysis terrific or useless. Communication and teamwork; pulling, not pushing. That’s how great kitchens operate. Shouldn’t your business operate that way too?

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Filed under Consulting, food, Thinking Aloud

Foxtrots And Cha-Chas

When I was a kid in middle school, I had to take ballroom dancing lessons along with many of my friends. Our moms rounded us up off the ball fields, cleaned us up, and deposited us into a room with an instructor and an equal number of members of the opposite sex. Most of what I learned from those lessons has evaporated over the years but one thing stuck: you can’t dance the foxtrot when they’re playing a cha-cha.

Oddly enough, what triggered that memory was a report issued by The New York Times that I think is instructive for any of us in business. In their words:

…to continue succeeding — to continue providing journalism that stands apart and to create an ever-more-appealing destination — we need to change. Indeed, we need to change even more rapidly than we have been changing.

The report goes through a series of potential changes to its reporting structure, staff and production processes with an eye toward increasing their subscriber base. It’s no secret that print revenues are declining and digital ad dollars are increasingly monopolized by Google and Facebook. The report, which you can read here, points toward being more visual and concise (ironically stated in a report that runs almost 9,000 words), using more diverse formats.

The Times published a similar report in 2014. That report laid out a series of goals and a timeframe that led to 2020. This report is a progress report of sorts as well as a refocusing and recommitment. It’s a fascinating bit of introspection and, more importantly, it serves as a great reminder to all of us in business.

We live in a world where the music changes often. If we’re dancing to the old tune, there is a very good chance that we’re out of step and dancing the wrong dance. This is what the Times found as it listened to the new music. They were too stodgy and too wordy. They weren’t integrating the people who produced words and the people who produced videos. They weren’t focused on their subscribers and how those subscribers want to consume content. They found, in brief, that they need to change the dance.

When was the last time you listened to the music to be sure your business is dancing in an appropriate manner? Is your team open to change or have they become oblivious to the music around them? Your customers are your dance partners. Are you in step?

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Dreaming Again

I’ve posted what follows each year for the last few on the days we celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. This was written in January of 2009 as we prepared to put President Obama into office. Last year I expressed my disappointment that we hadn’t come further over the last few years, given the election of our first African-American President. Like many, I’m doing my best to remain hopeful for the immediate future, despite some troubling incidents. But we keep dreaming, right?

Dr. Martin Luther King at a press conference.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week was actually Dr. King‘s birthday but since we’re celebrating it today I thought I’d add my two cents. I’m old enough to remember him and while he didn’t light the fire of the civil rights movement in the US (I’d say Rosa Parks is that hero), he certainly brought the fire to life and tended it well until his assassination (and I remember that as well – how horrible a day it was!).

What inspired me, a young (then) white kid was his notion of bringing a dream to reality. OK, the words and delivery were pretty inspirational too, even when you read them off a page. Yesterday the Inauguration Committee had a concert on the very place where Dr. King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech to celebrate, nearly 46 years later, a big piece of that speech coming to reality. One can’t help but wonder what Dr.King would have felt and said – he certainly should still be alive – he’d just be turning 80.

Robert Kennedy said “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”  I think that’s great business advice as well, even if George Bernard Shaw had the notion before Bobby.  Mark Twain wrote that Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

So today, I celebrate Dr. King’s dreaming of a better world and making it happen.  Tomorrow, we can watch it become real.  What are you dreaming of?  Can it be real?  Why not?  Or better – why not!!

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Filed under Growing up, Reality checks