Category Archives: Reality checks

What Are Your Limits?

What can’t you do? If you’re a child of my children‘s generation, you’ve probably been told since you were born that you can do anything. You have no limits. Does anyone really believe that’s true – that there isn’t anything we can’t do if we try really hard and practice a lot?

As you know if you’ve spent any time in this space, I play golf. I’m not horrible at it although I’m far from really good. I do practice and I might just try too hard. That said, there are shots I just can’t hit and never will be able to despite knowing how to do so and practicing them (you go ahead and hit that 225-yard shot over water and a bunker into a tight pin on a narrow green without landing in trouble).

Knowing your limits is important both in life and in business. We all want to help the team but learning to say “no” when you’re asked to take on more work than you can possibly do well really IS helping. Everyone hits the wall at some point and taking on too many projects or work that you’re not qualified to do well is a great way to hit it bang on.

Many ski areas have signs that remind you to ski within your limits. There is a sign at Bethpage Black, a golf course which has hosted the U.S. Open, that, in essence, asks you to know your limitations as a golfer and respect them.

Many people want to learn and to grow. Most people want to take on a new challenge. While you do need to push your limits to do this, at the same time, you need to be conscious of your abilities and approach any new goals appropriately. In golf or skiing, we can take lessons. How many businesspeople invest in courses to improve their skills?

In skiing and riding, we wear protective gear. The problem is that sometimes we get a false sense of security and push too far. In business, we rely on data from dodgy sources or only those surveys that tell us what we want to hear to give us that same false sense. Instead of recognizing the limits of the information, we believe it.

I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 10. I still can’t play like Clapton or Page despite well over 10,000 hours of practice. It may be some sort of physical ability I don’t have which they do. Then again, I probably have some mental abilities that have let me learn many skills they don’t have. Learning what you can and can’t do even with practice, instruction, and perseverance is key, and accepting those limitations, disheartening as it can be, can help make you better, not worse. Does that make sense?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

A.I. Aye Yi Yi

One of the hottest topics in business these days is artificial intelligence. One can hardly pick up a business publication of any sort and not trip over an algorithm. AI is being used to do everything from writing articles to running chatbots to protecting against fraud. There is one problem with AI, though, and that’s our topic today. 

You’ve probably encountered something that’s the product of AI. A fair number of game summaries one finds in the sports pages (physical or digital) are, in fact, written by machines. Same with many company summaries in the financial section. The main problem with these pieces is that they’re great at populating a template with all the facts and not so great at figuring out the “why.” You might also have used an online chat function to get some customer service support. More often then not, that’s AI at work as well. But that’s not the business problem I want to discuss.

The problem with most of the AI solutions I read about is that they’re all geared toward helping a business but they’re not focused at all on helping the customer. If you’ve ever wandered into an AI-driven customer support phone line you know what I mean. Get outside of what the algorithm can handle and your blood pressure is sure to soar. While the bot on the other end knows all about you if you’re able to identify yourself in the way the AI is designed (frequent shopper number, etc.), if you don’t know what phone number was used to create the account or you’re a frequent shopper without a frequent shopper ID (some folks don’t live being tracked, you know), it’s hard to get support. Humans are still better at solving many non-standard requests.

I get that sharing all your data – what you read, what you watch, where you go, what you eat, etc. – can help a company give you better recommendations. The problem is that many of the companies use that as a pretext to sell you products you might not really need. Can any of us really know how the data was used to create a recommendation? When a fitness app tells us we’re having sleep issues because our data says so and says we need to buy a new mattress, can we trust that or is it an affiliate deal that brings the fitness app a commission? Maybe we just ought not to have that nightcap instead if we want to sleep better?

I think the use of AI in some areas is fantastic. Fraud protection, for example. It’s easy for AI to spot something that’s out of place in your credit card use and send you an alert. That’s customer-centric. Using a bot to cut costs while providing a lesser experience isn’t and that’s my issue with much of the AI work that’s going on now. What’s your take?

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Filed under Reality checks, What's Going On, Thinking Aloud

Touch Me, Feel Me

I was cleaning out some old stuff on my computer this morning when I came across a receipt for something I had purchased online in 2005. I knew I had been an online shopper for a long time. I can’t recall the last holiday season during which I stepped foot into a retail store. I mean, I don’t like to so shop for anything on the weekend due to crowds and lines so I’m rarely in a physical store between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Given the explosive growth of online commerce, apparently many other folks prefer not to hit the stores either. I mean, the share online represents of global retail sales has almost doubled from 2015 to 2018, and is projected nearly to triple by 2021. It’s booming! That said, online is still less than 15% of retail and will be less than 20% even 5 years from now. There’s a reason for that and it’s not just shipping costs or the difficulty in finding a product.

Most people – almost 75% according to a recent study – visit stores to touch and feel products. If you’re browsing and come across an unfamiliar brand of shoe or clothing, how comfortable are you buying it without examining it for quality and fit? I’m certainly not, and I share that feeling with the vast majority, apparently. Sure, the return process isn’t as difficult as it used to be with many online stores, but who wants to deal with it? I want to see the product, which I can do on or offline, but I also want to feel it, touch it, and check it for quality.

That’s a significant advantage that brick and mortar stores have, one that they should exploit to keep market share. They can merchandise product in a way that online stores can’t. They can use in-store displays. More importantly, as we’ve said many times here on the screed, they can offer a level of personalized customer service that no online store can offer.

Try it yourself. Before you go on a shopping trip, hit the store’s online presence first. See if the two experiences are equal. If the retailer’s physical presence is doing things right, there won’t be a comparison. Shopping for a golf club or a bat or a racquet online at Dick’s Sporting Goods is nothing like going to my local Dick’s store and swinging it. I can browse through a lot more books in a shorter time at my local Barnes and Noble vs. their online store. I’m on my own online. There are pros in golf and tennis to help me in-store.

I don’t think brick and mortar is dead, not by a long shot. I do think stores will fail if they don’t take advantage of the built-in advantages they have. Cutting staff, not investing in merchandising, and simply becoming warehouses where people pick up their online purchases won’t cut it. Does that align with your thinking?.

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New Greens, New Breaks

One of the first things you learn about writing is that you generally want to stick to writing “what you know.” That’s why things around here generally revolve around business, golf, and food. Sometimes those three things intersect (a bad food experience at an obviously failing snack bar on some golf course?) but generally I manage to get two of the three put together, and all the screeds have a business point to make.

Today, as is often the case on Mondays, something occurred to me on the golf course over the weekend. My home course replaced the greens last summer. We went from bent grass greens to Minverde Bermuda greens. I can hear your eyes rolling, but let me explain what that has meant and why it just might be meaningful to you and your business.

One thing with which many businesses are dealing, either directly or indirectly, is climate change. In the case of golf courses here in North Carolina, it’s meant that some strains of grass just can’t take the heat and clubs spend a lot of money trying to prevent them from dying. There are dead spots, root rot and massive fans that are installed near some greens which run up the power bill trying to cool down the grass that can’t take the heat. Our place lost parts of 5 greens two years ago. The takeaway is that you can believe or not believe in climate change but you can’t ignore the effects that whatever is going on is having. I don’t suspect you run a golf course, but you may stock seasonal items or have staffing needs that are weather-dependent and you can’t stick to the calendar as you once knew it.

That, however, isn’t my main point today. One of the other things that happened when they replaced the greens is that everything was different. The speed was different, the way the ball moved on the green was different, and the new greens were very hard, so you couldn’t land the ball where you used to because it would bounce and roll. The breaks (how the ball moved in response to the topography) were completely different, so all of the local knowledge you had was gone. I will tell you that it’s frustrating to have a putt you’ve made many times before suddenly not move as much as it once did. It is also difficult to train yourself to ignore the slope you know is there because you also know the ball isn’t moving the way it used to.

That sort of thing happens in your business. Things change and you can’t operate under your old belief system. I may believe the ball will move three feet left but on the new green, it barely moves. You may think to be on Main Street will assure you of foot traffic but when the new mall opens, your reality will be quite different. You need to do the best you can is reading the new terrain and adjust your thinking. Otherwise, you’re going to be missing the mark quite a bit, sort of like I did this weekend. New greens mean new breaks and that means a new look at everything you do. Make sense?

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Engineers And Lawyers

Techcrunch published a piece yesterday that caught my attention because I think it hits a proverbial nail right on the head. It dealt with the topic of fake news but I think it has important things to say to any of us in business as well. To quote the piece, “The real problem isn’t fake news; it’s that people have given up on that search for truth.” It’s a topic we’ve touched on here many times but I really like how the author – Jon Evans – explains to two different mentalities under which many of us operate these days.

I still tend to come at the world with what he calls an engineer’s mentality. I look at the information in front of me, seek out as much new information as I can, and adjust my thinking even if what I find contradicts what I believed previously. Whether you think of that as an engineer or a scientist or just being an adult, it seemed as if most of the people I knew operated under a similar paradigm.

He goes on to make the point that most people today operate instead with a lawyer’s mentality. You pick a side (generally based upon who is your client!), and then sort through all the available information, picking and choosing that which supports your side while discarding (at best) or belittling (at worst) that which doesn’t. In other words, many of us approach the world with what can be a fatal case of confirmation bias.

Many of my closest friends in the world are lawyers. In their personal lives, most of them actually tend not to bring their professional mentality to their personal thinking. That said, what’s wrong with the lawyer’s point of view? Simple. That one-sided analysis of the “facts” will be offset in front of a decision-maker – a judge and/or jury – by the other, equally biased set of facts presented by the opposing counsel. In business (and life), we generally have to weigh ALL the information ourselves and do the best we can with respect to sorting out the truth or the best course of action. We need to be our own opposing counsel if you will.

We need to think like scientists. It’s fine to have a point of view or an initial hypothesis, but we really need to apply the scientific method in our business laboratories and validate our thinking. Not all data are meaningful or even truthful. Neither are all the things we hear from coworkers. Do your research, form your own opinions. Given where we are as a country, it might not hurt each of us to think about our thinking and how we go about forming our non-business opinions too, don’t you think?

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Mything The Mark

Our Foodie Friday topic this week is myths. Specifically, I want us to consider a conversation I had with someone about one of my favorite topics: barbecue. There are many misconceptions about barbecue and one of them revolves around the topic of my conversation: the smoke ring. If you’ve ever had great ‘cue you’ve encountered the pink ring that lives on the edge of the meat.

Photo by Aziz Acharki

To the uninitiated, there is a concern that the meat is still somehow raw (why would the outside be raw when the inside is cooked?) but of course it’s actually a chemical reaction caused by some of the components in the smoke interacting with the meat (the myoglobin for you scientists out there). The person with whom I was speaking said it’s a great way to judge quality as well as if it’s “true ‘cue” – smoked over wood since you don’t get a ring when the meat is “smoked” over a propane unit. This, of course, is a myth. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve actually cooked some barbecue that looked beautiful – great bark, fabulous smoke ring – that was dry as a bone. Great Instagram material but lousy supper.

In fact, it’s possible to fake the smoke ring. All you need is some curing salt that contains sodium nitrite. Sprinkle it on the meat, cook it in an oven and there is a “smoke ring”. You can read all about it in this lengthy piece. My point is that it’s a food myth that a smoke ring is an indicator of quality in barbecue.

That’s not the only food myth, obviously. Eggs don’t contribute to high cholesterol, MSG doesn’t cause headaches in most of us, you don’t really sleep better after a nightcap before retiring, spicy foods don’t cause ulcers and drinking milk doesn’t increase mucus production when you have a cold. I’ll bet you’ve heard every one of those myths though. You’ve probably heard a bunch of business myths too.

You don’t have to be first to be successful – look at Amazon or eBay, neither of which was the first of their type. You don’t have to be the cheapest option in a category. Ask Lexus, Apple, Nordstroms or many others. Profit isn’t the most important thing (cash flow is!). And of course, my favorite: failing is bad. I’d argue the opposite – failing is almost mandatory on the path to success and is generally a good thing.

Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Sometimes it’s just one of those myths rearing its ugly head. Do your homework – find the facts. After all, we’re lucky to be living in a time when fact-finding has never been easier. Of course, there’s never been so much fake garbage to cull either!

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Cranky About Commas

Maybe I’ve always had tendencies to be a cranky old man but as I’m turning into one I find great schadenfreude when the universe punishes those who are lax about grammar and spelling. It could just be my history as an English teacher but I find my already elevated blood pressure spiking when I see people misusing punctuation or not particularly caring if they’ve mistaken “your” for “you’re” or “to” for “too.”

It cheered me up, therefore, when I read that a lawsuit over an Oxford comma was settled. An Oxford comma, as I’m sure you recall, is an optional piece of punctuation used just before the coordinating conjunction (such as “and,” “but,” or “or”) in a list of three or more things. I think its use provides clarity and I suspect that parties to this suit – a dairy company in Maine and their delivery drivers – now realize the importance of clarity. The comma was omitted from a list of circumstances which would not qualify for overtime payments. Because of that omission, the drivers argued that they were entitled to overtime since the words “distribution of” were connected, without a comma, to “packing for shipment,” making that a single activity that wasn’t eligible for overtime. The drivers said they were only engaged in distributing the product which is NOT on the list.

I think there is an important point for any of us who provide written communication in any event. It bothers me, probably more than it should, when I read something from one of my connections that misuses language. I’m not talking about the vagueries of punctuating parenthetical statements or comma use for multiple adjectives. I mean simple things such as the examples above or “it’s” as a possessive. It’s worse when a company does it since you know multiple people looked at whatever was being produced as a piece of marketing or a social media post.

The settlement of the suit cost the dairy $5,000,000. That’s a lot of cheese. Sloppy proofreading can cost you just as much in how your customers and others feel about your brand. It’s not just the lawyers who get concerned with vague meanings and incorrect language. There are a lot of cranky old men and women out there who know the difference, and many of us are actually not so old (ask my kids who are bigger sticklers on this point than I am!). Is all that clear?

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