Category Archives: Helpful Hints

Techniques, Not Recipes

It’s finally Foodie Friday again and something I cooked last week sparked a thought. I was trying to find a recipe for a dish I liked and found several versions, each slightly different. The one thing that they had in common, however, was how they were prepared. The process of pulling the dish together was nearly identical in every example. Each used a few common terms to represent techniques: saute, fold, and others.

A cook sautees onions and peppers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This reminded me of a very basic thing I heard a long time ago: it’s learning techniques that matter, not learning recipes. One of the world’s culinary masters, Jacques Pepin, wrote a book decades ago called “La Technique” which is an encyclopedic look at everything from boning out a leg of lamb to making garnishes out of fruit. As a cook, learning technique is what frees you up to explore food and create your version of anything. It’s a process that never ends, by the way. Despite my years in the kitchen, I’ve only learned to sous vide and to use a pressure cooker in the last couple of years. Both techniques have become skills I use on a regular basis now.

Of course, this thinking doesn’t just apply to cooking. If you play a musical instrument, you’re probably aware that you spend an inordinate amount of time learning everything from how to hold the thing, the proper fingerings to produce certain notes, and what notes are in which scales. As a guitar player, I learned patterns, bends, and hammers as well. Once you understood what each of those techniques produces, you were freed up to make music: YOUR music.

Business isn’t any different. The problem, however, is that many folks don’t take the time to understand that they must learn technique before they can make their own music or create their own food. They try to produce the recipes that make for success in business without having the skills required. Without those techniques, the results will take far longer, if they’re achieved at all. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible for them to make their own music.

Which techniques? Analyzing, communicating, synthesizing, negotiating, budgeting, and presenting are good places to start. There is another dozen I could add to the list, but You get the point. In the office or in the kitchen, having an understanding of the basic techniques which underpin business or cooking, respectively, is a critical element in your success. Otherwise, just trying to duplicate someone else’s recipe will be the best you can do, and even that might be a long slog. Make sense?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

Decluttering

As I mentioned in this space a while back, we sold Rancho Deluxe. The process of getting it ready for sale forced us to look at every single thing in the place. We made piles. One for stuff we’d keep and, therefore, have to pack and move. One for stuff we’d donate. One for stuff that was worthless and was trash. My old college papers fell into that pile, although I’m not sure my folks would agree with the categorization since they paid for the education. The last pile was for stuff we’d sell.

It was an interesting process since it forced us to really think about each item. What struck me was how little we actually kept and how much of what was in that house was just clutter. Of course, each of us has a ton of clutter in our lives, as do our businesses. I’m pretty sure that each of us could do with a decluttering as well.

Is your business media of some sort? My guess is that revenue pressures have forced a tremendous amount of clutter into your content. The commercial and promotional load (non-program material) in TV is damn near double what it was years ago. Websites are unusable due to pop-ups, pop-unders, autoplay videos, and other crap that generate minimal revues and maximum anger. The clutter of on-screen graphics has grown to obscure important parts of news, sports, or entertainment programming. The sports business is adding more logos and signage everywhere, ala NASCAR. While I know NASCAR fans are incredibly brand-loyal, I also wonder if there is a certain amount of brand blindness that occurs, much as ad banner blindness is something researchers have found to occur on cluttered web pages. No one watches anything (maybe other than the Super Bowl) for the ads.

Look at your inbox. How much email is newsletters you don’t read or email from companies from which you bought something five years ago? How much of your social news feeds is clutter? How about unsubscribing from the former and using mute on the latter?

How many companies or people with whom you do business are jerks? How about decluttering and finding alternatives? How many things on your calendar are obligations that aren’t of interest? Maybe decluttering them from your calendar will give you the time to pursue what you really love?

I’m still working on this. My fridge is often full of random bits of food that have seen better days and there are clothes in my closet with holes and stains that I keep because of an emotional tie of some sort. Still, I tossed an awful lot of junk and am selling off even more. I’m using the money to buy things I really want (and I know I really don’t NEED much of anything). Worth a try?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Navigating To Success

One of the roles I play along with my regular consulting gig is an advisor. I am what’s call a “Navigator” at one of the oldest incubators in the area. Each month, the Navigators get together and listen to a pitch from a resident company. It’s good practice for them (you can NEVER have enough practice pitching your business) and it’s good for us to become better-versed in what’s going on.

Most of the companies headquartered at the incubator are engaged in scientific research of some sort and there are a lot of Ph.D.’s wandering around the building. They know a phenomenal amount about their fields and about the company they’re germinating. The problem is that they don’t seem to know that they’re building a business and not a science experiment. We had one of these get-togethers yesterday and I was speaking to another Navigator, comparing notes about the companies we’ve seen and the pitches we’ve heard. He had found, as had I, that most of these very smart entrepreneurs had no trouble explaining the nuances of some very complicated science but had massive difficulty in explaining how they were going to make money.

A book from a few years ago wrote up research that found that 87.5% of Millennials disagreed with the statement that “money is the best measure of success.” On a personal level, I couldn’t agree more with their thinking. There ARE many more important things in life that reflect success and failure. On a business level, unfortunately, that’s dead wrong. When you raise capital, your ability to provide a return on that investment – i.e. money – is the measure of success. Otherwise, you’re not a business: you’re a charity. Since these entrepreneurs – almost all of whom are Millennials – claim to be building businesses, part of what I and the other Navigators help them do is to focus on the business of their business and not just on the science and their products.

We ask them the kinds of questions I hope you ask yourself. What problem are you solving? Who else is solving it? Why is your solution better? How much will it cost to build your product at scale? How is it priced? What is the profit margin? What’s the competitive set in how big a market? Pretty basic questions, I know, but these are smart people who have never been asked them before. The ones that can answer them clearly are the ones that will get funded and survive. Do you fall into that group?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud

I Don’t Need A Hero

If you’ve spent any time reading this drivel, you’ve probably seen my constant nagging to provide value by solving problems. No, I’ve not changed my thinking about that, but I’d like to put one stipulation on the statement: make sure that the problem is real. I’m thinking specifically of those people who have hero syndrome. Not the seriously ill type such as the firefighter who is also an arsonist, lighting fires so they can save the day. I mean the people who are constantly solving problems that don’t exist.

I used to work with someone who would stick their head in my office and report that some client or partner was having an issue. They also told me not to worry – they were on the case and would handle it. Phew! Of course, it was rather odd when I mentioned to one of the “saved” partners that I was happy that my team member was able to solve their issue and the partner had no clue what I meant. Fortunately, the “hero” in question moved on not long afterward.

The other side of the equation is also true. There are people who are the “go-to” people in various areas and who become indispensable, so much so that their mental and physical health can suffer because they don’t want to disappoint anyone. It’s another aspect of hero syndrome. They feel as if they won’t be appreciated if they ask for help. Instead, they often become bitter, burnout, or both.

How do we handle people with hero syndrome? First, make sure the problems they are solving are real and are worth solving. Not everything is a crisis, you know. Second, make sure that they have the resources to solve the problem quickly, efficiently, and completely.  Sometimes for those of us who were higher-ups, it means getting your hands dirtier than usual, often doing work for which you’re overqualified. I always felt as if I was paid to be everyone’s safety net, so if it was a job I could do, I did it. I have plenty of paper cut scars from making last-minute copies and assembling binders when I was needed. Finally, pay attention to the folks who are constantly being heroes. Make sure they’re not lighting the fires they’re busy extinguishing. Make sure no one is constantly backlogged with work and everyone knows it’s OK to just say “no” when they’re overwhelmed. Those times are when those of us in management earn our pay.

Make sense?

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Filed under Reality checks, Helpful Hints, Consulting

You Can’t Be Half Pregnant

It’s nice that more companies are paying attention to what’s going on around them in the digital world. Many more brands are becoming actively engaged in listening and responding to consumers. Unfortunately, just as many brands are paying lip service to doing so, and that’s a real problem. Let me rant about a couple of examples I’ve seen lately and you’ll see what I mean.

First, some research. A recent study by Sprout Social found that:

When we asked how social has driven that accountability, people highlighted the power dynamic between individuals and brands, with 80% saying that social helps uncover instances of businesses treating people unfairly and 65% noting the power of social to amplify issues, not only through posting your own complaints but through sharing others’ posts.

In other words, social media makes consumers feel empowered. They can stand up to the man! They can rain fire and brimstone on brands which they perceive have wronged them in some way. I suspect that isn’t news to you, either personally or professionally. After all, who hasn’t posted a review or commented on a friend’s social post about a customer experience, either good or bad?

So brands have learned to respond. The problem is that the study also found that :

An unhelpful response from brands is sometimes considered worse than no response at all. In fact, 50% of those polled said they would never buy from a brand again if it responded poorly to their complaint. Nearly as many said a bad response via social media increased the possibility that they would share their experience with friends.

Let me give you a couple of examples. I was recently researching a vacation. The place I had under consideration had many recent reviews, mostly good. The GM of the property has taken the time to read each one because he responded to them. Unfortunately, he seemed to have two canned responses – one for good reviews and one for negative reviews. On occasion, he’d go a little beyond the basic comment but for the most part, there were two responses. Had I received one of those, it wouldn’t have taken me long to notice everyone else got the same response. I would not be happy.

On the other side of the fence is a company (OK, a bank) with which I had an issue. I posted something on social media and got a response within 10 minutes. They asked me to send them an email address and a phone number, and they called within half an hour. We discussed my issue and I received a detailed email resolving the problem later that day.

The first company is half pregnant in social; the latter one is fully engaged. With which one would you rather do business? More importantly, which company are you?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Helpful Hints

School’s In!

Today is the first day of school around here. If these kids are like many of the ones I’ve met over the years (and maybe even the two we raised), at some point the inevitable question pops up:

Why do I need to go to school?

As they get older, the question changes a bit (probably because they enjoy seeing their friends at school every day):

Why do I need to learn this stuff? 

That’s our topic today, and I think it’s something that applies to the business world as well. The answer to the first question is pretty obvious, and it’s not just because your parents are exhausted after driving you around all summer and need you gone for a bit. I’m a lot more interested in the second question because I think that most students, parents, and teachers get the answer wrong. You don’t need to learn “this stuff.” I can’t think of a single instance in my adult life where understanding differential equations or the structure of the carbon atom has been required.

So as a public service, I’m going to give you the answer to the second question which hopefully also answers the first. I’ve given it out before but hey, it’s the first day of school and the questions might come up again so you’re welcome.

You go to school to learn two things.

  1. How to locate and verify pieces of information (let’s call them facts) in order to formulate your thoughts.
  2. How to express the thoughts you formulate both orally and in writing to communicate your thinking.

That’s it. Learn those two things and you can pretty much do anything you choose to do in this world. Ask yourself how many business people you know who can do those two things successfully and I’ll bet you also have a list of the best business people you know. In an era when “fake news” is a term thrown around like beads at a Mardi Gras parade, understanding how to determine what news is really fake and what’s just being labeled as such to distract you from facts is critical. Not everything you read in your school books is accurate, but if you don’t have a well-developed BS detector as well as the skills to track down the truth, how will you create accurate thoughts from inaccurate information either in school or beyond?

Please feel free to print this off and hand it to your kids, large or small, who are wondering about school. Feel free to ask yourself if you managed to learn those things along the way as well. If not, maybe it’s back to school for you too?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, What's Going On, Thinking Aloud

The First 15 Words

Humans generally read at a rate of about 300 words per minute. That works out to about 5 words per second. If those numbers are correct, you’ve already spent that long reading this far. Thank you! There’s a reason why I’m happy about it: you’ve stayed with me beyond the average length of time any of us have to grab someone’s attention.

Research from the Statistic Brain Research Institute found that 17 percent of pages are viewed for less than 4 seconds. It also shows that the average reader’s attention span has declined to 8.25 seconds in 2015 from 12 seconds in 2000. This is, as I wrote a couple of years back, is shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. And while I might be able to get half of you to read my short posts (I lose half of you at 111 words), only a quarter of you will stick with me to the end of a long (593 words) post. That’s why I rarely write a screed of more than 450 words.

Any of us who create content of any sort – ads, articles, videos, or whatever – need to be cognizant that attention spans are going down just as the number of things screaming for that attention go way up. That means we need to personalize our messaging wherever possible and to be sure that whatever messages we’re sending make sense. Be brief and make sure that those first 15 words count. If you have an offer, particularly if you’re giving the reader something, make that offer and give that gift up front. That chances of you earning some reciprocity (they’re giving you attention!) increase that way.

Attention is the currency of marketing and content. The ability to gain and keep that attention is extremely valuable. You’ve got less than 8 seconds and maybe only about 15 – 20 words to get it. Go!

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints