Social Media: The Elephant in the Bored Room

Pardon the idiom, and yes, the misspelling was deliberate.  You may want to grab a sandwich, this is a long read.

For the longest time it has occurred to me that most companies find themselves in a state of what I like to label Permanent Whitewater. As they careen through the rapids, it is anybody’s guess as to whether they will capsize.  And the philistines they have appointed as commissioners would be more appropriately described as Ommissioners, as they have omitted themselves from understanding the world and leading their charges.

Now, what does that have to do with anything?  Thanks for asking.

For those of you who can find California on the map, you will recall the great turnip boycott of the nineteen seventies—I know they boycotted grapes, but I like grapes and do not like turnip, so I choose to have my own protest.  Anyway, this boycott worked, and as a result, the working conditions for migrant workers improved albeit only modestly.

And here is the kicker.  An entire industry was brought to its knees.  That is not the surprising part.  The surprising part is that all of this change was brought about at a time when there were three television channels and when people actually subscribed to newspapers.

From where I sit, social media can be divided into two camps, those who have not slept since the launch of Google+, and the far larger camp of those who have not lost a minute of sleep.  Businesses, for the most part are well entrenched in the latter group.

Part of the reason why businesses are slow to adopt social media can be attributed to their lack of belief that social media matters or can impact their business one way or the other.  And frankly, I think that has a lot to do with why our economy continues to rejoice in its malaise.

So, how to those of us in the first camp get those in the second camp to see the world our way, how do we get them to jump head-first into social media.  The answer is simple.  We need to create our own turnip debacle.

They say it cannot be done, so let us show them.  The one thing that would get companies to embrace social media quickly and unashamedly would be if there was one less company.

Companies, big ones, fat ones, firms that climb on rocks—feel free to finish the tune without my help have the following issues, they think they:

–       control their market

–       own their customers

–       are managing their customers

Companies are wrong about those three assumptions and the use of social media can and will prove this.  I would ask for a company to volunteer, but that would take too long.

If ABC, CBS, and NBC were able through their coverage of the grape boycott, bring about change to an entire industry, imagine with me what impact a global, committed bunch of savvy social media users could do to a single firm.

Here is what I propose.  Let us pick one firm.  The characteristics of this firm should be that it is well known and not well liked—this way if it self-destructs we can argue that we acted on behalf of a greater good.  It should also be a firm associated with technology, a firm that ought to at least be able to spell social media.  If I were asked which firm I would choose I would pick a firm in some aspect of telecommunications, say a firm like Comcast or Verizon—an easy target, a firm facing a customer experience war armed only with their CRM.

Now, the idea of our little social project will be to provide a heads-up to all of the other companies about the start date of the importance of social media.  Let’s tentatively agree on starting on the first of November unless there is a game on television I want to watch.

The goal of the project is to demonstrate that the bourgeois, the working class, with its harmless set of social media tools, can create affect enough of a disruption to an organization to make that organization sit up and take notice, or to make it disappear.

I am sure you remember the YouTube video of the Comcast technician that fell asleep on a customer’s couch.  It went viral, but Comcast did not, and that was simply a single posting by a single customer.  What would happen if the social media mavens decided to use the tools at their disposal and concentrate their efforts at or against a single firm?

Crowdsourcing 101.

I think the end result of such an effort would have a significant impact.  The impact could easily bring about more fundamental change about how firms use social media than was brought about by the grape boycott.

Sometimes something has to be sacrificed on behalf of the greater good.  Although a rising tide lifts all boats, it can ruin your day if your firm is the one chained to the pier.

What are your ideas?

 

“New & Improved” Isn’t Innovative

(AP) Redmond Washington.  After a much heralded launch, the buzz around Microsoft’s launch of Windows 8.0 is centered on the fact that when the computer crashes that users will no longer see the blue screen of death.  Instead, users will now see a friendly screen requesting that they restart their systems.

“Which is why we have decided to close the company at the start of 2012,” said CMO Droid Nelson.  “I mean when you spend two hundred million dollars just to market 8.0 and the only chatter is about the crash screen, the time has come.  We have not offered anything of interest to early adopters since 1997.  After all, what are we supposed to do?  If we continue on at this rate sooner or later we will hold a news conference for Windows 17.0 and Office 2024 and nobody will care.”

“How many times can we put a new ribbon around the same old software?  It is not like we can make it run any faster or any easier to navigate.  And Office is still Office.  When was the last time we added anything to that suite?  Most of our customers already cannot use half of the features we built, why should we keep building until we get that figure up to eighty percent?”

“The innovation train left the station around the time Starbucks came out with their half-caf-decaf with a double shot.  We made ourselves irrelevant.  Hell, I use an iPad and Google Docs.”

Can you name what Microsoft launched the last time you were willing to tailgate to be the first one to own it?  Nobody can.

Can you name the last time your customers were willing to tailgate to be the first one to purchase your firm’s newest offering?  Didn’t think so.

The thing to remember about new and improved is that it isn’t either.  If it was so brand spanking new, you wouldn’t have to tell anyone.

New is not a feature.

Improved is not a feature.

When Apple launched the first iPod their pitch was something along the lines of every song you every wanted to listen to in this little box.

Customers stand in line for innovation.  Is there a line outside your door?

IT Vendors: What’s not to like?

We were being entertained at a friend’s house whose interior looked like it had been designed by one of those overly made up, energetic divorcees who only take cash.  The walls were painted a stark white; the overstuffed club chairs and the couch were upholstered in a soft white leather.  The white carpet was thick enough to hide a chiwawa.

The hostess locked askance at me when she saw me seated in the club chair.  Perhaps my outfit did not look good on white.  A paperback which looked out of place lay on the end table next to my glass of Ovaltine.   I picked it up and began to read the back cover to get a feel for the storyline…which got me thinking about writing and authors.

The paperback story filled five hundred and seventeen pages.  Whether they were well-written, whether there was a story nestled inside, could only be learned by reading the book.  I read many books, and I read often, especially when I travel.  When I am unprepared I am forced to purchase a book at one of the shops in the airport concourse.  The purchase decision lasts only as long as it takes to read the back cover—the publisher’s only chance to make a first and last impression.

Those first impressions have fooled me often.  Ten minutes into the book I wind up stuffing it into the kangaroo pouch in the seatback in front of me.  More often than I would like, I find that the person who wrote the book summary on the back flap is a better writer than the person who wrote the book.  The summary writer is able to create an interest in the story and a need to see how it ends, an interest and need for which the book’s author is unable to deliver.

The book is rarely better than the back cover suggests it will be.  Often it is as good, sometimes it is not.  The book summary is the upper limit for what you can expect by way of enjoyment.

It works the same way in business only instead of paperback books they use brochures.  Never trust the brochure.  Whatever is written in the vendor’s brochure is the upper limit of what you can expect to receive.  Those who remember the dismantling of nuclear arms remember the adage ‘Trust, but verify.”  When it comes to dealing with vendors, I suggest ignoring the part about trusting.

Take software vendors for example.  What’s not to like?

The product never leaves you feeling the way you felt after reading the brochure.  Remember the photos?  Attractive people, smartly dressed, ethnically diverse.  Their teeth bleached so white the reflection of the monitor is visible in their incisors.  Seated in their clutter-free offices, they are all smiling.

Did your users look like them when they started to use the product?  Did you get your brochure moment?  In order to find customers, vendors have to position their product in the most positive light.

Maybe there should be a cigarette-like warning printed on every software vendor’s brochure, something like this:

  • We hired the people pictured in the brochure—nobody is ever that happy
  • Most of you will never learn how to use all of the functionality
  • To have any chance of getting the software to do what you need it to do will probably cost you twice as much as you contracted
  • There is no way you will implement in the timeframe you discussed

They know, and we know, nobody implements brochures.  If we did, IT departments would be much smaller.  Maybe that is why vendors give away pens and T-shirts to all of their customers, to soften their sense of guilt.

When IT projects Fail

The mind is a terrible thing.  Last night I stumbled across part of the movie Kill Bill Volume 2. There is a character in Volume 2 named Esteban Vihaio, an eighty-something Hispanic bon vivant.  His is a small role, but performed beautifully.  Uma Thurman, our ninja protagonist, meets Esteban and asks him ‘Where’s Bill?”

With a thick, refined Spanish accent, Esteban repeats the question, drawing out Bill’s name “Where is Beeeeeeel?”

Anyway, today I am on the phone.  And can you guess the name of the person with whom I am speaking?  That’s right, I was talking to Beeeeeeel.  He did not have a Spanish accent; nonetheless, I could not stop the voices in my head from trying to translate every phrase so that it sounded like Mr. Esteban.  Needless to say, the call went downhill rapidly.

When I think about software implementations the phrase “Help, I’ve failed and I can’t get up” comes to mind.

For many people, the goal of a software implementation is to get to the end, to see the vendor leave.  In many minds, that event signals that the work is done, and the departure of the vendor signals that the software was implemented correctly.  Not true Mon Chéri.

In case you did not get the email, IT has become big business in most corporations, and it takes a group of highly paid bureaucrats to administer it.  And you know what happens when you give the bureaucrat a clipboard and ask them to oversee the implementation of a new email system, by the time the dust settles you have spent a few million dollars on a new sales force automation tool—Rube Goldberg on steroids.

Once you start spending it is difficult to stop.  And people do not keep spending in the hope of reaping additional ROI; they do so in order to try to salvage a project that in its current state is a white elephant.  Most of the cost of an IT project is to get it to do what you thought it would do.  This is a classic example of when you are in a hole, stop digging, or at least let me hand you a bigger shovel.

Is your Mission Statement just Parsley?

What is your organization’s mission, your vision, your goal?  Can you articulate it?  If yes, write it below in the space provided.

Okay.  Why do you have a mission statement?  Is it of any more value than the parsley on your Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast plate, or is it actionable?  What does it tell you to do?  Is it something to which all of your employees can contribute?  Can you measure if your actions helped meet the mission?  Does the business strategy result from the mission statement?

Here’s one you probably haven’t thought of.  Let’s say every one of your employees puts your mission statement into action.  Does that improve your organization, or does it bring it to its knees?  Your mission statement either communicates your mission or it does not.  What does it say to your employees, to your customers?  If it does not create a message that makes you unique, fix it or dump it—or say, “We are just like those other guys down the street.”  Just because it communicates, does not make your mission sustainable.

Here are some real examples of hospital mission/vision statements.  Read them and see if you begin to understand why I think the hospital business model is in trouble.  I have not published the name of the hospital, as that is not what is important to this discussion.

Providing exemplary physical, emotional and spiritual care for each of our patients and their families

Balancing the continued commitment to the care of the poor and those most in need with the provision of highly specialized services to a broader community

Building a work environment where each person is valued, respected and has an opportunity for personal and professional growth

Advancing excellence in health services education

Fostering a culture of discovery in all of our activities and supporting exemplary health sciences research

Strengthening our relationships with universities, colleges, other hospitals, agencies and our community

Provide quality health services and facilities for the community, to promote wellness, to relieve suffering, and to restore health as swiftly, safely, and humanely as it can be done, consistent with the best service we can give at the highest value for all concerned

We are caring people operating an extraordinary community hospital.

Ensure access to superior quality integrated health care for our community and expand access for underserved populations within the community. Create a supportive team environment for patients, employees, and clinical staff.

Let’s look at some of the million dollar words in the mission statements of some highly regarded hospitals.  Ensure, foster, promote, participate, create.  Comprehensive.  Involved, responsive, collaborate, enable, facilitate, passion, best, unparalleled, .  These statements were written by well paid adults.  These statements are awful.  They are awful because they are fluff—unachievable.  They are well intentioned but meaningless euphemisms.

Hospital mission statements are inclusive to the nth degree.  They also seem very similar.  If a perspective patient read your mission statement and read the mission statement of the hospital down the street, could they tell which one is yours?  Probably not.  Who among you has a mission statement which excludes anything?

So, let’s say your board is debating if you should buy the machine in Monty Python’s hospital skit—the machine that goes “Ping.”  Which of the mission’s goals does that support?

How do you make them better?  For starters, make them short. Very.  Twain wrote, “If I had more time, I would have written less.

Southwest Airline’s mission statement—be the low cost carrier.

Dramatic pause.  Something either contributes to the mission or it does not.  Leather seats and free lunches do not.

Do you miss your IT vendor?

Was Icarus’s problem one born of hubris, or did he simply need non-melting wax?  Wax on, wax off.  So there I was listening to NPR as I made the drive to Subway.  The person doing the speaking had the title, professor of economics.  His point—if you can call it that; the deficit and the debt are a result of the tax cuts.  Essentially, the reason we did not have enough money to pay for our spending was because we had not taxed enough.  I yelled at the radio loud enough for him to hear—the reason we did not have enough money to pay for our spending is that we spent too much.  My children will not be attending that university.

If you see someone screaming in their car, please wave—it could be me.

Summer vacations via car.  Makes me wonder what ever happened to station wagons—anyone who does not remember Richard Nixon may want to use Google to the term ‘station wagon’.  We had a sky blue Ford; others had the one with the faux wood-grain side panels like the one Chevy Chase drove in the movie Vacation.

I noticed last week as we drove from Pennsylvania and crossed into Maryland how the blacktop improved and how the shoulder plantings were more numerous and spiffier.  It was as though Maryland was showing off to make us feel we were entering a better place and leaving a worse one. On the return trip the same scenario was reversed as the road for the first mile back into Pennsylvania was much nicer than was the last mile of road in Maryland.

It makes me wonder why states do not put the same level of effort into the last mile to make you miss the place you were leaving.

Now let us think about your IT vendors.  Remember those guys?  The ones who when they courted you took you to dinners and baseball games and golfing.  You probably have one of their coffee mugs on your desk and a few dozen of their Rollerball pens and a commemorative golf towel clipped to you golf bag.  At the get-go everything was first class.  The vendor hoard was attentive and still picking up the lunch tab.

Then they left; all of them.  You surmised the project must be over.  The vendor’s project manager no longer had you on his speed-dial—your number had been replaced with the number of his new golfing buddy, the CIO at Our Lady of Perpetual Implementations.

It makes me wonder why vendors do not put the same level of effort into the last mile of their implementation as they did the first mile.  If they did maybe your perception of them would be better.  Maybe the implementation would have gone better.

 

Let’s Fire Winston!

I was reporting to the board—or bored—sometimes it is the same.  The mission: figure out what was wrong, and then fix it.

I spent weeks talking to everyone from the executives to the receptionist.  I interviewed patients and physicians.  The doctors were not happy, the patients less so.  Costs were up, charges were down, and quality was down.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns…

The problem was easy to decipher.  I presented my findings.

“What do you recommend?” asked the chair of the audit committee.

I tried to look lost in thought.  “I fired Winston,” I replied.

“Why Winston?”

“Winston was where it all led; quality, cost, satisfaction.  Winston was responsible for the failures.”

Several members of the board nodded, and spoke among themselves.

After several minutes I jumped back into the fray.  “The more I think about it, the more I think Winston may be salvageable—not in the same role but somewhere else in the organization.  The employees really like him.  Besides, it’s the holidays.  Do you really want to be the reason Winston is not able to buy presents for the kids?”

The board held an in camera discussion.  “Agreed.”

I knew they would.  I started with my actual presentation.  “There is no Winston.”  The Winstons scattered around the table looked perplexed.  They were looking for the easy answer to the problems in their organization, they were looking for themselves.

Who are your Winstons?

Leadership: No Experience Required

Not long after graduating with an MBA from Vanderbilt, I returned to Vandy to interview job candidates.  With me, was my adult supervisor, the VP of human resources—a stunning older woman; about thirty-five.  At dinner, she invited me to select the wine.  Not wanting to appear the fool, and trying to control my fawning, I pretended to study carefully the wine list.  Not having a clue, I based my selection entirely on price.  I had little or no knowledge of the subject; nonetheless, I placed the order with all the cock-sureness of a third-grader reciting the alphabet.

A few moments later Wine-man returned with a bottle, angled it towards me, and stood as rigid as a lawn statue.  After a few seconds my adult paused and motioned my attention towards Wine-man.  I remained nonplussed.  “You are supposed to tell him that the bottle he is holding is the one you ordered.”

“He knows it is what I ordered, that is why he brought it.”  I thought they were toying with me.

A few seconds later there was a slight popping sound and then Wine-man placed the cork before me on my napkin in a manner similar to how Faberge must have delivered his fabled egg to Tsar Alexander III for his wife Empress Fedorovna.  They were both staring at me, not the Tsar and the Empress—Wine-man and my adult.  “You are supposed to smell the cork.”  And so I did.

“Now what?”

“If it smells bad, it means the wine may be bad.”

To which I replied, “This is the Opryland Hotel—have you seen the wine prices?  They don’t sell bad wine.”  She nudged me with her elbow.  I could tell I was wowing her.  I smelled the cork.  “It smells like a cork,” I whispered to Wine-man.  He smiled and poured a half inch of wine in my glass.  I thought he was still pulling my lariat.

I looked bemusedly at the mostly empty glass, held it out to him, and asked him if I could have some more—I was thirsty.  Rather than embarrass me further, with a slight nod of her head my adult instructed the Wine-man that my sommelier class was over—any further proof of my inadequacies would be of limited marginal value.  Any chance that we would have gone dancing later that evening was about as flat as the wine.  I should have ordered a beer.  I was good at beer.

For those who are still reading, if you are wondering if I am actually going to make a point, here it comes.  I’m not fond of segues, so don’t blink.

Sometimes, a little guidance is helpful—even if it has to come in the form of being led around like camel with a ring through its nose.

Often, what is important in a leader is having the knowledge and temerity to ask the right question.  In business it is often the case that the number of executives with answers may exceed the number of executives asking questions.  Value is often measured by scarcity.   Good, challenging questions are often in short supply.  So are leaders who do not require adult supervision.

Pretty simple things.  The right things usually are—like knowing what to do with the wine cork.

 

The Joy of Sox–how to deliver a great presentation

NPR is the white noise that usually accompanies me to and from the office lest I let the traffic turn me into one of those drivers CNN broadcasts with footage of police helicopters hovering above my road rage.  For the most part I have learned to tune out NPR’s political bent and focus on their Macarena-mind human interest stories.  Stories like the whistling sound made by the yellow-spotted salamander living in equatorial Iowa.

These days NPR is all-a-thither about the forthcoming forty-eight month renewal at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The noise the NPRers make high-fiving each other in the hallways is almost loud enough to drown out their rewriting of Mitt Romney’s position describing him as being in favor of shipping our homeless people to South Sudan because our homeless would have so much in common with Sudanese homeless.  It would not surprise me to learn that an NPR staff intern had drawn a caricature of the prophet and signed Mitt’s name to it as an enticement to have someone fire an RPG into Mitt’s campaign headquarters.

Was that a contrail shooting past my window?

It is an interesting exercise taking apart a one hour speech and repackaging it as a five minute talk—Twitterizing.  It goes to the quote, “I would have written less if I had more time.”  The corollary for presentations may be, if it does not fit one slide, it’s not properly thought out.

I think what a lot of presenters miss is having an understanding of what makes for a good presentation.  Here are a few of mine.

Presentation Rule 1—never bore the audience.  They are pulling for you to do well for your sake and theirs.

Presentation Rule 2—most of the audience can read.  If your slides are filled with text and bullet points, their natural inclination is to read what you’ve written.  They are doing this while you are reading aloud the very same text.  If they are reading, you become superfluous.

Presentation Rule 3—the audience cannot walk and chew gum at the same time (they can’t read your words and listen to you.)  For those presenters who favor text on their slides there are two choices; read from the slides, or try to offer commentary about the slides.  For those who do not read directly from their slides and want to offer commentary it gets even more awkward.  You look at the audience and see them reading the slide.  Your natural tendency is not to interrupt their reading because you are trying to be polite and you do not want them to miss your words of wisdom.  Then your mind starts to wonder if what you are about to say is so important if you should have written it on a slide.

Presentation Rule 4—if you wear wild looking socks–see mine above–you had better be delivering one heck of a good talk.

My philosophy about presentations is not wanting people taking notes based on what is on my slides, hence I use pictures to convey an idea.  I hand-draw concepts from which I can then speak.  Since there is nothing of import on the slides, people start staring at you, something which will make a lot of presenters even more nervous.

The downside of this approach is that since everyone will now be listening to you instead of reading or writing, you better have something worth hearing.  The issue then becomes how to craft your words in a way to get your audience to remember your message.

I favor humor and telling a story.

Will these steps work for you?  I hope they do.

I felt they were working pretty well for me the other night right until the end when an attractive woman approached me and said, “You look like Jack Nicholson, only not as unattractive”—so at least I’ve got that going for me.

Why Showing Initiative Will Kill You

Were one to judge America by what they read from scanning the headlines of the magazines in the supermarket’s checkout lane, the only items of note are that Jennifer Aniston may or may not be pregnant, and that another one of the Kardashian’s was getting married—no word as to whether or not she is pregnant.  The headlines provided no indication that we are at war or that the economy has been outpaced by my daughter’s lemonade stand.

Anyway.  I have been reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which should be on every reading list for Genocide 101.  In the book Solzhenitsyn describes numerous offenses which could get a Russian sentenced to Stalin’s gulags.  Some estimates suggest more than sixteen million people were purged under Stalin’s regime—enough people whereby those in power had to continuously invent new offenses.

In one such description Solzhenitsyn recounts a conference for Stalin’s supporters.  Every public gathering was attended by several members of the NKVD, the bad guys.  At the conclusion of the conference its chairman called for a verbal salute to Stalin which resulted in all of those attending applauding.  The vigorous applause continued for eleven minutes because everyone was afraid to be the first to stop applauding.

To stop applauding was to show initiative, was to be an individual.  Exhausted, the chairman finally stopped clapping; immediately, so did everyone else.  The chairman, a loyal communist, was arrested.  During his interrogation the interrogator told him “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”  Darwin’s natural selection; and how to grind people down with stupidity.

Nonetheless, we return to Beaver Cleaverville.

Do you ever sit in a meeting thinking it would be easier to design a revolving sliding door than to agree with or understand whatever is going on in the meeting around you?  You scan the room eying the flock of sheep each of who think of themselves as lions.  Once again, the Pickle Factory’s leader had confused motion with movement.  You scribble yourself a note using your favorite crayon—the cerulean blue, ‘I have seen our future and it needs work.’

“Well, here we are,” says the meeting’s Tartuffe-like moderator outfitted in her J C Penney imitation Vera Wang pantsuit.  For years her mind had run just fast enough to enable her thoughts to always be in the same place.

“Yeah, here is where we are,” you mumble into your cupped hand. “We have been here before and we will be here again and again.”  The person across from you seems to be humming “It’s a long way to Tipperary.”

These meetings make about as much sense to you as the game played by the Afghan Pashtun tribesmen—buzkashi—sort of like polo except instead of using a ball they use a headless goat.  (Here’s hoping no Californian makes a movie of the game and uploads it to the internet.  You had to see that coming.)  Corporate executives rampage through offices each day dragging the headless carcass of their business strategy to meeting after meeting hoping to score, and the more meetings you attend the more you feel like the goat. “Maaaa”.

“What are we supposed to accomplish today?” You ask.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” replies the moderator, her mind making its way back from its visit to the land of ultima Thule.

“No, your guess is better than mine,” you say.  “It is your meeting.”  ‘Lock the gate,’ you are thinking, ‘before the village loses its idiot.’  Everything is running behind and the team wants to make up for lost time.  Your job is to try to convince them that you cannot make up for lost time; the best you can hope for is not to lose any more.

You have always known that companies which do not tolerate dissent have a tendency to ignore dissenting information but they remember the dissenters—the first person to stop clapping. In a company lacking second sight and new ideas, the old ideas are often divided evenly among the goats.  The death spiral of silence continues—employees avoid the threat of being voted off the island refrain from making any statement that may show them having an original thought.  Showing initiative can result in your being sent to the company’s gulag.

Have you noticed that the more a firm’s competitive edge erodes, the busier the firm appears to be?  Once you have fallen through the looking glass the only way out may be for you to walk back the cat, that is travel backwards to see how it is you and the others became trapped in this house of mirrors.  The problem with that strategy is that to undertake it requires you to show initiative.

The firm’s gulag is filled with people like you.  At least when you get to the gulag there will be enough players for a rigorous game of buzkashi.