Category Archives: Reality checks

There’s No “I” In Storm

One more bit of thinking today as Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas. While it’s easy to see the eye of the storm in the satellite photos, the message here on the ground is that there is no “I”. Let me explain and tell you why it’s relevant to your business as well.

Riding this thing out seems to be a communal effort here. My neighborhood has a closed Facebook group and it’s been overwhelmed with offers from neighbors offering to help one another with everything from cleaning up yard waste to clearing storm drains to fixing generators. There are constant reports of where there is bottled water or gas available to buy (both are hard to find) as stores’ stocks are replenished. In short, while everyone is looking after their own storm prep, they’re doing so with an eye to the community as a whole.

That’s something that gets lost in business sometimes. Each of us is very focused on our own success and we sometimes lose track of the whole. I don’t just mean the entire enterprise (how well is the business doing) but also of our co-workers (how well are the people doing). Too many of us are selfish. We spend time self-promoting. We try to climb over others on our way up the ladder, not recognizing that doing so creates the envy and resentment that can poison an organization.

The truth is that while of course business is competitive, at its best it’s also collaborative. You can’t succeed, either as an individual or as a business, without the trust and support of others.

We’ll get through this storm just as we did the last one. That, in part, will be due to good preparation and help from one another. As with the storms that happen in business, it’s much better than trying to ride it out alone, don’t you think?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Mental Images, Mental Mistakes

Shut your eyes and picture the typical “All-American” family. Go ahead, I’ll wait. OK – have that picture in your mind? What does it show? Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids? My guess is that if you’re Caucasian so is your picture, and I’ll bet the typical family is also quite heterosexual.

Here’s the problem with your mental image. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, only one in four American families matches that description. That was almost a decade ago and I think we’re all aware of the changes that have been happening with respect to familial, and societal, composition.

If you’re in marketing, that mental picture has some fairly important implications. It might impact how you make creative for your campaigns, how you plan your media, and how those decisions provide relevance and meaning to consumers. For an example, the folks at HP brought together 13 Chicago families of different races, ethnicities, ages, genders and sexual orientations. They were split up and another group of people was asked to reassemble the families.

Guess how many people could put the families back together? Exactly none. In general, they tried to find groupings of the same race, different gender, and heterosexual. Oops. But this has implications even for those of you out there who aren’t in marketing. It speaks to the broader issue of preconceived notions and how we can’t just form opinions without adequate evidence. Some folks are seemingly determined never to let the facts get in the way of a good story, whether they’re reporting something to their boss or just ranting among their friends. It’s really a bad idea.

How often do a new employee or a business prospect walk into the room and you make a snap judgment before they’ve even uttered a word? We all do it, unfortunately. In fact, it’s sort of a “truism” that hiring decisions are made quickly. Well, according to a research study, some of the interviewers did make snap decisions about candidates. Roughly 5% of decisions were made within the first minute of the interview, and nearly 30% within five minutes. I think that has to do with the preconceived notions in the interviewers’ minds about who they saw in the job as well as who they saw in front of them.

Rip up those mental pictures as best you can. Do the research, seek the facts. and THEN form the pictures. Ready, fire, aim rarely works, don’t you think?

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Filed under Reality checks, Huh?, Thinking Aloud

Red Delicious

This Foodie Friday, let’s consider the Red Delicious apple. Until very recently, it has been the dominant apple in orchards all around this great nation of ours. According to the US Apple Association (as quoted in the NY Times), it has recently lost its dominant position to the Gala, and Granny Smiths are closing fast. You can probably hear Honeycrisps off in the distance too.

I know what you’re wondering: is this some sort of tangent brought on the by the start of football season (Go Blue!) and, therefore, the fall apple season? Not really, because there is a business lesson in the fall of the Red Delicious that can be used by any of us.

Have you ever eaten a Red Delicious apple? If you’re not sure, buy one the next time you’re at the market. They will be easy to spot. They’re very pretty – your prototypical apple. It’s a lovely deep red and their skins are generally unmarked. If you were trying to find an apple to use in an art class, the Red Delicious would top your list. So what’s the problem?

Bite into one. What do you get? Not much. They are bland and almost flavorless. That skin is so beautiful because it’s too thick to bruise. Oh sure – you get a blast of sweetness but there really isn’t much of a flavor there, especially when you compare it to pretty much any other apple. While people do eat with their eyes, at some point what they’re eating gets to their mouth and the food needs to deliver on the promise made by how it looks. That’s true of any product or service. Nice packaging, wonderful design, or a fancy sales brochure may attract a large consumer base but if what’s delivered doesn’t fulfill the promise made, it will be one and done. Either you’re solving the customer’s problem and providing superior value or you’re not, and it doesn’t matter how pretty you are.

Don’t be the Red Delicious of your business sector. It may be nice to be number one (and it’s probably pretty profitable for a while), but over time, it’s unsustainable if all you are is pretty. Substance matters, don’t you think?

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Happy Faces

According to a piece published by the BBC, scientists have found that goats are drawn to humans with happy facial expressions. There was a study done in which researchers showed goats pairs of photos of the same person, one of them featuring an angry expression, and the other a happy one. The goats overwhelmingly went to the picture of the happy face. They also spent more time examining the happy face photo (we social scientists might call that better engagement!).

Notwithstanding whatever application this has to working with goats, all I can say is DUH! Who among us walks into a bar and heads for the person with a scowl on their face when there are smiling people about? My grandmother would call them farbissinas – sour pusses – and it was about the worst thing she ever called anyone.

Happy people are better businesspeople. Happy people tend to be honest, they tend to be nice, they tend to cooperate, and I think they have more emotional intelligence. All of those things make for better team members. They play well in the sandbox with the other kids, which is one of the most important things I used to look for when hiring.

You can’t be happy if you hold on to grudges. By doing that you’re focusing on the past rather than on today. It’s hard to be happy if you worry about every little thing (sweating the small stuff) when you should be focusing on the things that matter and that you can control. There is nothing wrong with being detail-oriented (in fact, it’s a great trait!) but the details should pertain to those big things. Optimists are generally happy, even in the face of bad things happening. People who attack the problems that arise as challenges and not as…well…problems tend to be happy too.

All of those characteristics make up the kind of folks we should want on our teams. Maybe I’m more of an old goat, but I gravitate to happy people. You?

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Pushing Addiction

Foodie Friday! I came across a piece recently that got me thinking. Even though it’s food-related (or we wouldn’t be discussing it today!) I think it touches upon a subject that is common across other areas of business. Let’s see what you think.

The article was in The Guardian and it seeks an answer to the question “why are we so fat?” The author had stumbled upon a picture from 1976. It showed beachgoers and the first thing he noticed was that there weren’t any fat people. He wondered why into his social media channels and every answer he got was wrong, much to his surprise. It wasn’t because we eat more or are less active (thanks, Internet) or due to antibiotic use or less exercise or even due to chemicals in our food. What seems to be the cause is:

While our direct purchases of sugar have sharply declined, the sugar we consume in drinks and confectionery is likely to have rocketed (there are purchase numbers only from 1992, at which point they were rising rapidly. Perhaps, as we consumed just 9kcal a day in the form of drinks in 1976, no one thought the numbers were worth collecting.) In other words, the opportunities to load our food with sugar have boomed. As some experts have long proposed, this seems to be the issue.

The main reason there is sugar in damn near everything (start reading labels more carefully if you don’t believe that) is that sugar is addictive. It defeats our natural appetite regulators. We aren’t eating more but we’re eating lower quality and getting more of our calories in the form of sugar and the food producers are doing this knowing that it will trick us into eating more than we need. They want us addicted and constantly hungry. We eat more; they sell more.

You think food folks are the only ones doing this? Tobacco manufacturers are cited in the article as doing pretty much the same thing. You might be doing it as well if you’re constantly focusing on “engagement”. The job of the product people at Facebook and others is to get you to keep coming back for another dish. All those little alerts on your phone are the digital equivalent of your gut saying “I’m hungry – feed me!”

If there is anyone in your business whose job it is to break down consumers’ self-regulation, you might want to think about if you want to be in the same business as a drug peddler. Many food companies are pushing an ultimately fatal addiction. So are many tech companies. Are you?

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Learning And Doing

I’m in training now to expand my consulting practice. I’ll have more about what exactly that means in another week or so, once I’ve officially completed training and can begin working with clients. The training has been two or sometimes three 90-minute training sessions a day for the last week or so. It’s pretty intensive, and while much of it isn’t highly technical and involves some business knowledge that’s common to what I’ve learned working in other areas over the years, it’s still a lot. I’m enjoying it, in part because it’s been quite a while since I’ve had to absorb this much information about a topic that is totally new to me. Always good to get those old synapses firing, isn’t it?

One thing it’s reminded of is the difference between learning and doing. Maybe I should phrase that as knowing and doing, but they’re different. In any event, one is certainly not the other. I can explain to you the elements of a great golf swing and I can probably point out what in your swing is causing you problems. I know what a good swing looks like. Can I perform one myself? Oh hell no. I’m a great caddy – I can club you correctly and discuss strategy. Can I hit the shot I’m describing? Not consistently well.

That’s knowing vs. doing. Learning vs. doing is having the information as I now do about this new business area but really nothing more. I can tell you the rules, I can tell you the best practices, I can even tell you the mistakes you’re likely to make. What I can’t do is to give you any first-hand experience nor any nuance nor anything particularly insightful from that which you could get from anyone else. That last part is where any of us add value to what is, in essence, a textbook view of the world. A kid coming out of graduate school with an MBA (yes, 28-year-olds are now “kids” to me) has a ton of education and knows an awful lot but they have very little experience. The good ones that I’ve worked with know that and are anxious to add to their education by doing. The less good one think they already know it all thanks to their learning.

I know I can be effective in my expanded area right away although I’ll be even more effective as time passes and I learn the things one only learns by doing. Part of why we see some problems in the business world, particularly in the tech world, is that we have CEO’s who got to those jobs by being founders. They don’t have real-world experience because they’ve not done the series of jobs and learned from each that traditionally gets one into a CEO chair. Without a bunch of doing, a little learning can be a dangerous thing, don’t you think?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Me And Mr. Jones

You might have read the news this morning that Apple has banned Alex Jones and Infowars from their podcasting platform. They join Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube in tossing this material off their distribution channels. Some of you will see this as a political move, stifling free speech. I don’t want to look at it that way today. Instead, I’d like us to focus on some business issues.

If you’re not familiar with Mr. Jones, he’s a conspiracy theorist who has claimed, among other things, that the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School were staged by paid actors and that the government is poisoning children to make them gay. Do you remember a guy walking into a pizzeria with a gun to free the children being held there as part of a sex ring? An Alex Jones listener, who heard that the Clintons were running the ring on Alex Jones’ program.

Following the ban, some folks are yelling about freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Sorry folks. Some speech is not protected. I can’t make things up about a product and knowingly advertise false information. I can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The most relevant type of speech that’s not protected is this:

Government may prohibit the use of “fighting words,” which is speech that is used to inflame another and that will likely incite physical retaliation. Likewise, language that is meant to incite the masses toward lawless action is not protected. This can include speech that is intended to incite violence or to encourage the audience to commit illegal acts. The test for fighting words is whether an average citizen would view the language as being inherently likely to provoke a violent response.

That’s exactly why this material was banned. It violates the platforms’ terms of service. Frankly, it disappoints me that it’s taken so long and it raises a business point we all need to consider.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects platforms from liability when people publish on their platform. This prevents me from suing a platform when a third-party writes something completely false about me, and it’s a great idea. The problem is that too many platforms hide behind this, feeling as if they begin moderating the obviously false or hateful content that they might, in fact, become liable. In doing so, they open the platform up to become a megaphone for hate and disinformation. Most importantly, it damages their reputation and turns off users. Look at what has happened with Twitter. The word I hear most often when people describe it is “cesspool.” To their credit, Twitter management is acting to clean it up (finally) but a lot of damage has already been done.

Any of us in business need to do more to protect our brands and businesses than the minimum legally required amount. Being corporately responsible is proactive. Remember that there are other channels through which Mr. Jones or any other content provider can distribute their information. That doesn’t mean I have to allow him or anyone else into mine, just as you don’t need to permit anyone into your retail store who you find potentially troublesome – a suspected shoplifter, for example –  as long as it is not based on bias against a federally protected class of people. I need to be clear about that to my users (we don’t welcome hate speech or knowingly false information here in your terms of service, perhaps).  Most importantly, I need to be responsible and do the best I can to do the ethically correct thing. Not because I dislike what it is you have to say, but because it’s a hate-filled lie.

Your thoughts?

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Filed under Reality checks, What's Going On, digital media