The big news at the end of last week had to do with the withdrawal of a bill that would have changed the laws regarding health insurance in this country. If you’ve been here in the screed before you know that we don’t do politics, so I’m going to refrain from any commentary for or against what happened. There is, however, a pretty good business (and life) lesson to be taken from Friday’s activities.
One thing you heard over and over was that the folks who wanted to change the existing law had 7 years to come up with a plan that would be better. It took them 7 years to control both Congress and The White House, thereby assuring that their plan would become law, assuming, of course, that it was palatable to the members of their party. It wasn’t, and so it hasn’t (become law, that is).
What can we learn from this? That it’s easier to win an election than it is to find the consensus you need to run the government. Winning is easy; governing is hard. The same thinking applies to managing a business. Becoming a manager is easy; managing the business is hard.
I met with a potential client last week who had recently been promoted into his job. He’s a smart, young highly motivated guy. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned that he was having some trouble adjusting to his new role and was finding it difficult to get things done as quickly and efficiently as he wanted. I told him that I had suffered from the same thing 35 years ago when I was handed my first department to run. Getting the job was a lot easier than doing the job.
What does that mean for you? If you’re looking for that next promotion, you might want to focus on the challenges of preparing to do the actual work rather than the challenges of getting a promotion. Trust me: the powers that be will appreciate your focus on execution and that will increase the chances of that promotion.
If you’re running your own business, a focus on execution is a good thing as well. Satisfied customers are more important that finding lots of new ones. There are tons of studies that show that using resources to keep existing customers happy is more profitable that spending resources on finding new customers (it costs 5x more to find a new customer than to retain one!).
Getting elected or promoted to a position isn’t really the win. Getting stuff done, whether it’s in your cubicle or on the floor of Congress, is the real test, don’t you think?
This Foodie Friday, the topic is sampuru. No, you probably don’t call anything by that name but you’ve seen it. It’s the fake food you often see in the lobby or window of Japanese restaurants. Great sampuru is incredibly realistic and can negate the need even to look at a menu. Like many seemingly simple things (such as making the rice for sushi), sampuru artists require years of training.
Typically for this space, as I was thinking about sampuru, a business thought came to me. Fake, plastic food has its business counterpart although they’re not called sampuru. I call them empty suits, but I’m not sure we should limit the term to people.
Your typical empty suit, like great fake food, gives the appearance of being real and nourishing. The reality is that they look great but can be toxic if ingested. In fact, I think they’re easier to spot than great sampuru. Ask an empty suit for an opinion and it will either be the same as either the boss’s or of whomever in the room they’re trying to please if they have an opinion at all. You see, empty suits rarely have enough knowledge about a topic to give a well-reasoned opinion about anything. They may rattle off a number of industry buzzwords but if you try to dissect what it is they’re saying it becomes obvious that, as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, there’s no there there.
Oddly enough, I think entire businesses can be sampuru. Coincidentally, I ate at a Japanese restaurant the other evening that I would call an empty suit. It looked fine – a sushi bar, teppanyaki tables, etc., but the food was nondescript, the service was lackadaisical, and the teppan chef I saw was just barely going through the motions. It was a sampuru – a plastic model of a business that looked like the real thing but wasn’t even close to being it.
We need to make sure our businesses don’t fall into the trap of being sampuru – of looking like we’re fresh and flourishing when, in fact, we’re dead and toxic. As executives, we need to stay informed and not be afraid to offer our own opinions about things. We’ll be wrong sometimes but by being true to ourselves maybe we’ll also advance the conversation to new, more profitable ground. You with me?
This Foodie Friday, let’s talk about foams for a minute. Food foams, that is, and not the thick ones such as whipped cream, marshmallows, or even cake. I mean the foams that have come out of molecular gastronomy and are made out of mushrooms or parmesan cheese or just about anything else. Throw some stabilizing agent (agar, lecithin,etc.) into a liquid, grab the old immersion blender and voila: foam.
Let me give you two prominent cooks takes on them. The first is Gordon Ramsay:
If I want foam I will stick to my bubble bath after the end of a long week. Watching foam sit on a plate and 30 seconds later it starts to disintegrate and it starts to look like toxic scum on a stagnant pool of crap. I don’t want to eat foams. It’s not good.
Then there is Alton Brown‘s take:
Don’t think you can replace cooking technique with throwing a bunch of flavors on top of something. Any more than you can making it into a caviar. Or making it into a foam. If I live the rest of my culinary life without a seeing another foam, I’ll be OK. I’m sick to death of foam. What does foam do? Cover our bad cooking, by and large.
I must admit that I’m not particularly a fan of foams on my plate but I find the above two quotes of interest to us today because each also contains a business point. Chef Ramsay rightfully points out that when customers purchase a product they expect it to perform and endure. If you have kids, you know the experience of toys being destroyed by lunch time on Christmas. It’s almost as if the toy makers never put the thing into the hands of a 4-year-old to test endurance. But many of us have had the same experience with tech toys and other products. We need to build our products and services to last.
The second quote points out that customers aren’t easily distracted. A nicely flavored foam can’t hide a poorly cooked protein underneath it. It’s great that we design digital products and physical products to look nice but consumers value substance over style in the long run. Just as diners order the protein and not the foam, consumers are focused on the main promise the product is making and not on how pretty it is.
Foams add flavor without adding substance. I think we all need a lot more substance in this world. You?
I’m old enough and digital enough to have used the first IBM PC and VisiCalc. It wasn’t the easiest thing to use but it pretty much was the only thing. DOS led to other operating systems, primarily Windows, that enabled all of us to work more efficiently. Well, that is, unless we were busy figuring out why we couldn’t print or why we were suddenly deluged with pop-up ads via malware.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
That was always the biggest appeal of Apple products to me. They just worked. My primary computer is a MacBook Air and the thought of going back to a Windows environment, no matter how good the reviews are on Windows 10, is dismaying. I’ve had to help friends with their Win10 issues and it certainly doesn’t “just work.” Then again, neither does my MacBook any longer. Sure, it’s nice that the OS upgrades every year (for free!) but I find myself diagnosing problems constantly now (wifi drops, SD cards being ejected at random, and more!).
My next computer will be a Chromebook; specifically a Chromebook with a touchscreen that can serve as a tablet. Chromebooks do just work. They are malware free. Think about how you work now. Most of it is probably via a web browser and in the cloud – my work certainly is for the most part. And they’re inexpensive – I can buy two decent Chromebooks for the price of a new MacBook or a touchscreen Windows machine. But what does this have to do with your business?
The bulk of customers wants that “it just works” experience no matter what you’re selling. They want their problems solved with the least hassle and for the best value. Notice I didn’t say for the lowest price. Just as there are high-end Chromebooks costing more than some Apple computers, so too is there a segment of buyer that want the high-end product and can afford to pay more if they perceive better quality, better service, or maybe a boost to their self-esteem (think luxury cars). But that’s not everyone.
If you want to brag about your computer’s specs then Chromebooks probably aren’t for you. Honestly, they’re not for everyone – you can’t do serious gaming or Photoshop or video editing. If you’re the type that likes to tweak your settings until they’re just right, you probably want to stick with something else. You need to think about your business in this context too. Are you for some very specialized, narrow audiences or are you for the bulk of the consumer base? If the latter, I’d suggest you focus on the “it just works” experience because history shows that’s how the best businesses succeed. You with me?
I’m going to be a little self-serving today, but it’s based on a comment someone made to me the other day. You’ll probably be able to figure out what the comment was as you read on.
Imagine that on your way to an appointment a drop of something – coffee from someone’s cup, condensation from an air conditioner – spills onto your shirt. You’d see it and deal with it immediately if it was on the front of your shirt. If it spills onto the back, you’d probably not even notice it until some kind-hearted soul mentions it. That, dear readers, is why you need people like me.
When I grew up in the business world, I had a lot of people coaching me. My immediate boss and his boss were always ready to encourage me (and not always in the nicest of tones) and help me to grow. They let me know where the less-visible (to me) stains were. That situation is less common today in a world where there are a million corporations of one as opposed to a large company. Today’s smaller companies have much less institutional memory from which they can draw as well as less personal experience on the part of the founders and employees.
Part of what I do is to coach. I’ve run into some potential clients who tell me that they don’t need coaching, just more hands to do the work. While the latter half of that statement is assuredly true, they also need someone to point out the stains on their backs. Most consultants I know don’t have a political agenda. We’re not after your job nor are we burdened with your past or present. We are charged with helping you and your business to grow. No, you can’t do the latter without doing the former. A business is only as good as the people managing it. My peers and I are there to look at your situation and to help you reach your goals.
I’ve been doing “business” for almost 40 years (yikes!). In that time I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve seen a lot of others do the same. I’ve seen great managers and horrible managers. Part of what clients pay me for is an insurance policy of sorts. My experience ensures them that they won’t have to make the same mistakes I did. They get the benefit of the learning without the pain of the experience. What I and my peers bring is why football teams have coaches up high in the stadium – to get a broader perspective.
Most professional golfers have swing coaches. All sports teams do too. The coaches aren’t caught up in the second to second physical involvement that sport requires. They can see and protect your back. I can do that too, by seeing the parts of you and your business that you can’t or won’t see and by letting you know what’s going on in those blind spots. Call me?
I’m constantly advocating that we listen to our customers. One of the ways that we can do that is through surveys. The problem with many surveys is that we don’t ask the right questions, or we ask the right questions in the wrong way. Let me explain.
Suppose I were to ask about Obamacare. I might ask if you approve or disapprove of the law. Simple question, right? Unfortunately, wrong. To someone on the right, the “disapprove” answer might come from a disagreement with the mandate that we all have health insurance. To someone on the left, the “disapprove” response might come from feeling that the law doesn’t go far enough and a single payer system is what we need. Same answers, very different perspectives.
We often make that same mistake by not digging deeply enough. We’re told to avoid open-ended questions in survey design (they’re not computer friendly, after all), but in so doing we end up with data which is ambivalent at best and useless at worst. We also make the mistake of asking both new and returning customers the same things. Their perspectives are different and one group should have better, different insights from which we can learn.
Try to remember that consumers get hit up with surveys everywhere these days. You can’t make a customer service call without being prompted to stay on the line after you hang up to complete a survey. Many websites will pop up a user-experience survey while you’re in the midst of trying to find some important information. We need to survey but we need to be judicious. We need to be as personal as we can and to be respectful of our consumer’s time by not asking 30 questions (3 or 4 are optimal).
As with anything in business, put yourself in the customer’s position first. If what you’re asking is vague, repetitive, burdensome, or impersonal, you’ve already got your answer. It’s in your low response rates.
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.
(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?