Category Archives: Reality checks

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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Filed under Helpful Hints, Reality checks

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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Filed under food, Reality checks

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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Snowing Our Ignorance

It’s snowing here in Central North Carolina. Again. Is that unusual? Well, the area usually gets less than 6 inches of snow a year and we’re about to get 4 or so. We also got a few inches several weeks ago. When we got a dusting (and to my Yankee friends I know that 6 inches are pretty much just a dusting) of snow last year – maybe half an inch – the area came to a complete halt and schools were shut for 4 days. You can imagine what 4 inches will do. Fortunately, by the weekend it will be near 70 degrees so the accumulation shouldn’t be around very long.

Photo by Catherine Zaidova

Other than venting about the golf courses being covered in white, why do I bring this up? Because it’s symptomatic of something which has business implications. Increased snowfall, extreme temperature changes, and other weather phenomena are indicative of something going on. It’s pretty clear that something has changed and yet there are those who turn a scientific and factual issue into a political one. Folks, you can call it climate change or you can call it Fred but no matter what you call it, it is real.

You know, of course, that we don’t do politics here on the screed and my point isn’t that we need to acknowledge that the weird weather everywhere is the result of climate change. The point is that any businessperson can give their own interpretation about what they see going on in the market and in their own enterprise. The problem is that sometimes their interpretation conflicts with the empirical evidence – the facts. A single data point isn’t a reason to change your entire strategy, but when you have enough data points to produce a reliable trend, attention must be paid.

There are some very famous studies that were conducted by Stanford in 1975. They showed how people’s opinions are often unmoved by facts. One need not go a heck of a lot further than your own Facebook feed to see one person trying to change another’s mind using some fact-based evidence and failing miserably. The cold weather and snow here remind me that you can deny the facts but that denial won’t keep the snow from falling. Question the sources of information, question the interpretation of information, but once those questions are answered, don’t deny the facts. You still will have to shovel up the aftermath regardless. Make sense?

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

Don’t Be Eeyore

And we’re back! Happy New Year to each of you. I hope whatever time you were able to take off was fun and, more importantly restorative.

Eeyore as depicted by Disney

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the time of the year when we’re inundated with ads for resolution fulfillment. You know: weight loss, smoking cessation, and products and services that will help you to achieve whatever new goals you’ve set for yourself during the upcoming year. In many cases, people make these resolutions to raise their happiness quotient. They are trying to have their reality exceed their expectations, which is one traditional measure of happiness. Improving the reality – bringing it up to or exceeding whatever expectations they have – improves happiness.

There is another way to go about this, of course, and that’s to lower expectations. Think of Eeyore, the gloomy donkey. He expects that a sunny day will become rainy and that a rainy day will result in floods. His expectations are low and so he is rarely disappointed.

Some folks think that way about their businesses. They have low expectations so that they’re not disappointed with the outcomes. The issue with that is that both in business and in real life it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect next to nothing or to be dissatisfied with things and when we get very little or aren’t satisfied, we’re actually kind of OK with it since we didn’t expect anything otherwise.

So if you’re the resolution-making kind of person, maybe you can make one more: not to be Eeyore. I believe that our expectations affect our decision-making. If we don’t have any expectations at all we’re paralyzed. Having negative thoughts will depress you and low expectations are premised on negative thoughts. You don’t need a Debbie Downer in either your personal or professional life and you certainly don’t want to be one.

Please don’t misread this as encouragement to throw caution to the wind. Jumping off a roof, either literally or figuratively, because you have a high expectation that you can fly is just nuts. But don’t be Eeyore. Things are going to go wrong from time to time. Learn from it and keep refining those lofty goals. You might not achieve every single one but it’s also about the journey, right?

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You’re On Your Own

A decade has passed since I last held a “real” job. My kids call the work I do now “Daddy’s Phony Baloney Made Up Job” but hey, it pays the bills so what can I say?

I didn’t realize when I left corporate life 10 years ago that I was actually beginning to ride a wave that continues to grow. I had joined the gig economy. What’s that? A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and companies sign up independent workers for short-term engagements. Companies don’t have “employees”, they have consultants or contractors. Think Uber – every driver works for themselves. Rather than a corporation of thousands, we have a thousand corporations of one.

According to Intuit, by 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors. It’s liberating in some ways and incredibly stressful in others. No guaranteed paycheck. No paid-for healthcare or other benefits. You can set your own schedule and work as you choose but you have to go find that work. I mean, unless you’re a pro, playing a lot of golf doesn’t pay the bills.

We’ve become a society where we’re on our own. Putting aside what may be happening with small social safety net we do have here (no politics, please!), many more people are going through their daily lives without the safety net a “real” job provides, and many of the full-time jobs that are out there pay wages that haven’t increased in years because the demand for the shrinking number of jobs is still high. We have seen the growth of businesses and services that support individuals rather than corporations. Sites that help you find gigs (as opposed to full-time employment) are plentiful although in many cases they become places where it’s a race to the bottom with respect to what you can get paid.

What strikes me is that I struggled in many ways to get my business on a good track despite many years of business experience, having managed dozens of people, and being responsible for a multi-million dollar P&L. I often wonder how many kids starting out in this economy are going to struggle and fail without any sort of mentoring. I don’t mean the relatively easy stuff such as how to keep a proper set of books so you don’t have tax issues. I wonder about the hard stuff that involves learning how to formulate ideas and how to express them. It’s the stuff that we don’t learn in school that forms our business education (and that means you too, MBA’s). It’s hard to get that while you’re on your own.

This trend of being on your own is going to continue and to grow as more companies downsize and robots of some sort begin to perform tasks once performed by humans. Who is going to program and service those robots? Independent contractors, no doubt. Maybe you?

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The Spanish Inquisition

I’m a big fan of Monty Python, as I am of anyone or anything that provides great insight amidst great silliness. One of my favorite Python sketches is The Spanish Inquisition. Not only is it funny (if you like really silly) but it also provides a great business reminder:

Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition

It’s a phrase I’ve found myself saying many times in business as some unforeseen circumstance causes great disruption. You see examples of it every day. Just this morning, there was a report of a newspaper closing in Houston which is blamed primarily on the effects of Hurricane Harvey. I’m sure there wasn’t a business plan built around that sort of natural disaster.

Sometimes, the disruptive event can be seen but its dramatic effects aren’t. Take, for example, the discussions I used to have with some higher-ups during Internet 1.0. One person was totally convinced the explosion in web properties and the dawning digital age was “a scam.” He didn’t believe that people wanted to watch TV on their computers when a brand new HD-TV was in their living room (HD was pretty new at the time). Of course, he also didn’t expect that broadband would make delivering video to any device wirelessly as good an HD experience as that same TV, nor did he understand that it literally was the same bits that comprise the “broadcast” signal.

Those same broadcasters denied that cord-cutting would have any effect on viewing. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, you see. However, ESPN has lost more than 12 million subscribers since 2011. You think the recent waves of layoffs aren’t related to cord-cutting? When cable is losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers each month, you can count on there being an effect on the business.

The hardest part of being in business is seeing over the horizon. Brexit? President Trump? China leading the charge against climate change? The Cubs winning the World Series?? Who expected those things? Equally as difficult can be in believing what you’re seeing. Nobody may expect The Spanish Inquisition, but part of our job as businesspeople is to be ready when it pops into the room. Are you?

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Filed under Consulting, Reality checks