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The Big Red Fez

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The Dip

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The end of mass and how you can succeed by delighting a niche.

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Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?

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« June 2011 | Main | August 2011 »

Difficult conversations at work

When the outcome of a conversation is in doubt, don't do it by email. And show up in person if you can.

The synchronicity of face to face conversation gives you the chance to change your tone in midstream. Ask questions. A great question is usually better than a good answer.

And don't forget--the value of a long pause is difficult to overstate.

"It will be good exposure"

Well, it might be.

Now that everyone, every brand, every organization and just about every person is in a race to build trust or an online following or a reputation, the question of working for free in exchange for exposure confronts us all.

Should you art direct a new ad for the local zoo, merely to build your cred? Should you give that speech for free, because people who pay speakers will be in the audience? Should you contribute code to the new kernel because people will see what you've done? Appear on a talk show, do a signing, call in to a radio show?

Perhaps.

Unsatisfying, but true.

Exposure, the right kind of exposure, is good practice, an honest contribution and yes, a chance to build credibility. Make it a habit, though, and instead of exposure, you've set yourself up a new standard-- that you work for free.

Alas, one more decision you need to make.

Some designers (and authors) violently disagree with my case by case approach... they think the entire profession is cheapened by spec work and work for exposure--they argue that solidarity is the only response. I'll point out that these very designers belong to organizations that ask speakers to speak for free... for exposure.

If you're an unpublished author, you're certainly better off doing a lot of writing online (even entire novels given away) for free before you veer in the direction of doing it for a living. In fact, most people I know (in every field) don't do nearly enough work for free, they're not contributing enough to their community, not adding their expertise or their ideas to the conversation. As a result, they're either invisible or seen as not interested.

Punchline: just because it's free doesn't mean it's a good idea (or a bad one). It means you should think hard about how everyone benefits (including you). [PS a video from last year you might enjoy, complete with Y! tie.]

Easy vs. do-able vs. impossible

Often we consider an opportunity based on how easy it is. The problem with this analysis is that if it's easy, it's often not worth doing. It's easy to start a blog, but of course, starting a blog doesn't really deliver a lot of value. Posting 4,100 blog posts in a row, though, isn't easy. It's do-able, clearly do-able, and might just be worth it.

Successful organizations seek out the do-able. When Amazon went after the big bookstore chains, analysts ridiculed them for doing something insanely difficult. But it was clearly do-able. Persistence and talent and a bit of luck, sure, but do-able.

Sometimes we seek out things that are actually impossible. Building a search engine that's just like Google but better is impossible (if your goal is to dominate the market with it). It's fun to do impossible projects because then you don't have to worry about what happens if you succeed... you have a safety net, because you're dreaming the impossible dream.

Do-able, though, is within our reach. Ignore easy.

Just a myth

Why just?

How about, "amazingly, they've created a myth..."

I wrote about this five years ago (reprinted below). A myth is why this video is funny.

Isn't that the dream of any marketer? To create a myth?

Brand as mythology

Just under the wire, L. Frank Baum's heirs have no copyright protection on The Wizard of Oz. As a result, there are Broadway musicals, concordances, prequels, sequels and more. All of which creates a rich, emotional universe (and makes the copyrighted movie even more valuable).

Most of us remember the mythology stories they taught us in school (Zeus and Thor and the rest of the comic-like heroes.) Myths allow us to project ourselves into their stories, to imagine interactions that never took place, to take what's important to us and live it out through the myth.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of entertainment mythological brands. James Bond and Barbie, for example.

But it goes far behond that.

There's clearly a Google mythology and a Starbucks one was well. We feel differently about brands like these than we do about, say Maxwell House or Random House.

Why do Santa and Ronald McDonald have a mythology but not Dave at Wendy's or the Burger King?

Let's try the Wikipedia: Myths are narratives about divine or heroic beings, arranged in a coherent system, passed down traditionally, and linked to the spiritual or religious life of a community, endorsed by rulers or priests.

So, if I were trying to invent a mythic brand, I'd want to be sure that there was a story, not just a product or a pile of facts. That story would promise (and deliver) an heroic outcome. And there needs to be growth and mystery as well, so the user can fill in her own blanks. Endorsement by a respected ruler or priest helps as well.

The key word, I think, is spiritual. Mythological brands make a spiritual connection with the user, delivering something that we can't find on our own... or, at the very least, giving us a slate we can use to write our own spirituality on.

People use a Dell. They are an Apple.

This can happen accidentally, but it often occurs on purpose. A brand can be deliberately mythological, created to intentionally deliver the benefits of myth. Casinos in Las Vegas have been trying to do this for decades (and usually failing). But talk to a Vegas cab driver about Steve Wynn and you can see that it's been done at least once.

There's a mythology about Digg and about Wikipedia, but not about about.com. The mysterious nature of rankings and scores and community ensures that, combined with the fact that the first two have public figures at the helm... heroes.

It's easy to confuse publicity with mythology, but it doesn't work that way... there's no Zune mythology, for example. It's also easy to assume that mythology will guarantee financial success, but it didn't work for General Magic, a company which successfully leveraged the heroic reputations of its founders, created a very hot IPO but failed to match the needs of the larger market.

It did, on the other hand, work for Andersen's, an ice cream stand in Buffalo (!?) that has a line every single day, even in January.

Hard to explain, difficult to bottle, probably worth the effort to pursue.

Celebrating Zig Ziglar

Zig saved the day. With his relentless generosity, corny stories and down-home wisdom, Zig Ziglar invented modern motivational speaking, and touched the world. He touched my world, that's for sure.

We have very different backgrounds, we're from different generations and we have very different styles, but I'm in his debt. In my dreams, I hope that I will help and inspire a small fraction of the millions of people that Zig has over his fifty year career.

He contributed two giant tools to those of us in business: the notion of listening, over and over, to educational and motivational tapes, and the idea of writing down your goals, committing to them, in writing.

Twenty years ago, when my business was flatlining, Zig spoke up. For hours and hours every day in the car (on cassettes that literally melted from overuse), Zig poked and prodded and encouraged and mostly called my bluff. I remember the long drive home from yet another failed sales call, an hour or two that could have been spent planning on how I was going to quit--instead, Zig was helping me plan how I was going to stick it out.

Fifteen years later, in one of the highlights of my speaking career, he and I did a gig together in Milwaukee. It was Zig, me and Gerald Ford. I can now admit that backstage, the two of us ignored the President and just talked and talked. It's hard for me to overstate how much I owe him. How much so many of us do.

What a thrill, then, to publish a new version of his classic Performance Planner, updated for a new generation. You can buy the four-pack right here. We didn't print many copies, so I apologize if they don't last long...

Recently side-lined by an injury, Zig's no longer able to actively spread the ideas that have helped millions of people accomplish their goals. I'm privileged to be able to bring some of those ideas to you today. I hope you'll give the workbook a shot, and share the other three copies with your colleagues. If you do the work, if you actually write in this planner, the results will be significant.

Thank you for everything, Zig.

Now you are a celebrity

That means that... There are people who don't know you... and who don't like you.

Specifically, there are people who don't know your work, who haven't taken the time to understand your point of view, who nonetheless have had to draw a conclusion about who you are and what you do.

"I don't like Angelina Jolie."

"Which movie didn't you like?"

"Oh, I've never seen any of her movies. I just don't like her."

More positively, celebrity, particularly social media celebrity (which more and more of us have every day) earns you trust and access and an audience. Your twitter followers or friends of friends on Facebook are more likely to cut you slack because you're not a stranger.

But it's unreasonable to expect only the upside. There are now people in the world who don't know you and who don't like you. Sorry.

Defining quality

Given how much we talk about it, it's surprising that there's a lot of confusion about what quality is.

What's a higher quality car: a one-year old Honda Civic or a brand new top of the line Bentley?

It turns out that there are at least two useful ways to describe quality, and the conflict between them leads to the confusion...

Quality of design: Thoughtfulness and processes that lead to user delight, that make it likely that someone will seek out a product, pay extra for it or tell a friend.

Quality of manufacture: Removing any variation in tolerances that a user will notice or care about.

In the case of the Civic, the quality of manufacture is clearly higher by any measure. The manufacturing is more exact, the likelihood that the car will perform (or not perform) in a way you don't expect is tiny.

On the other hand, we can probably agree that the design of the Bentley is more bespoke, luxurious and worthy of comment.

Let's think about manufacturing variation for a second: Fedex promises overnight delivery. 10:20 vs 10:15 is not something the recipient cares about. Tomorrow vs. Thursday, they care about a lot. The goal of the manufacturing process isn't to reach the perfection of infinity. It's to drive tolerances so hard that the consumer doesn't care about the variation. Spending an extra million dollars to get five minutes faster isn't as important to the Fedex brand as spending a million dollars to make the website delightful.

Dropbox is a company that got both right. The design of the service is so useful it now seems obvious. At the same time, though, and most critically, the manufacture of the service is to a very high tolerance. Great design in a backup service would be useless if one in a thousand files were corrupted.

Microsoft struggles (when they struggle) because sometimes they get both wrong. Software that has a user interface that's a pain to use rarely leads to delight, and bugs represent significant manufacturing defects, because sometimes (usually just before a presentation), the software doesn't work as expected--a noticed variation.

The Shake Shack, many New York burger fans would argue, is a higher quality fast food experience than McDonald's, as evidenced by lines out the door and higher prices. Except from a production point of view. The factory that is McDonald's far outperforms the small chain in terms of efficient production of the designed goods within certain tolerances. It's faster and more reliable. And yet, many people choose to pay extra to eat at Shake Shack. Because it's "better." Faster doesn't matter as much to the Shake Shack customer.

The balance, then, is to understand that marketers want both. A short-sighted CFO might want neither.

Deming defined quality as: (result of work effort)/(total costs). Unless you understand both parts of that fraction, you'll have a hard time allocating your resources.

Consider what Philip Crosby realized a generation ago: Quality is free. (free essays are here).

It's cheaper to design marketing quality into the product than it is to advertise the product.

It's cheaper to design manufacturing quality into a factory than it is to inspect it in after the product has already been built.

These go hand in hand. Don't tell me about server uptime if your interface is lame or the attitude of the people answering the phone is obnoxious. Don't promise me a brilliant new service if you're unable to show up for the meeting. Don't show me a boring manuscript with no typos in it, and don't try to sell me a brilliant book so filled with errors that I'm too distracted to finish it.

There are two reasons that quality of manufacture is diminishing in importance as a competitive tool:

a. incremental advances in this sort of quality get increasingly more expensive. Going from one defect in a thousand to one in a million is relatively cheap. Going from one in a million to one in a billion, though, costs a fortune.

b. As manufacturing skills increase (and information about them is exchanged) it means that your competition has as much ability to manufacture with quality as you do.

On the other hand, quality of design remains a fast-moving, judgment-based process where supremacy is hard to reach and harder to maintain.

And yet organizations often focus obsessively on manufacturing quality. Easier to describe, easier to measure, easier to take on as a group. It's essential, it's just not as important as it used to be.

No such thing as business ethics

The happy theory of business ethics is this: do the right thing and you will also maximize your long-term profit.

After all, the thinking goes, doing the right thing builds your brand, burnishes your reputation, helps you attract better staff and gives back to the community, the very community that will in turn buy from you. Do all of that and of course you'll make more money. Problem solved.

The unhappy theory of business ethics is this: you have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit. Period. To do anything other than that is to cheat your investors. And in a competitive world, you don't have much wiggle room here.

If you would like to believe in business ethics, the unhappy theory is a huge problem.

As the world gets more complex, as it's harder to see the long-term given the huge short-term bets that are made, as business gets less transparent ("which company made that, exactly?") and as the web of interactions makes it harder for any one person to stand up and take responsibility, the happy theory begins to fall apart. After all, if the long-term effects of a decision today can't possibly have any impact on the profit of this project (which will end in six weeks), then it's difficult to argue that maximizing profit and doing the right thing are aligned. The local store gets very little long-term profit for its good behavior if it goes out of business before the long-term arrives.

It comes down to this: only people can have ethics. Ethics, as in, doing the right thing for the community even though it might not benefit you or your company financially. Pointing to the numbers (or to the boss) is an easy refuge for someone who would like to duck the issue, but the fork in the road is really clear. You either do work you are proud of, or you work to make the maximum amount of money. (It would be nice if those overlapped every time, but they rarely do).

"I just work here" is the worst sort of ethical excuse. I'd rather work with a company filled with ethical people than try to find a company that's ethical. In fact, companies we think of as ethical got that way because ethical people made it so.

I worry that we absolve ourselves of responsibility when we talk about business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Corporations are collections of people, and we ought to insist that those people (that would be us) do the right thing. Business is too powerful for us to leave our humanity at the door of the office. It's not business, it's personal.

[I learned this lesson from my Dad. Every single day he leads by example, building a career and a company based on taking personal responsibility, not on blaming the heartless, profit-focused system.]

Interesting & Interested

... it helps to be both. These are the two ways you earn attention.

If it's so obvious, why is it so difficult?

Has the speed shortage been averted?

We certainly had one a decade ago. Communication was moving too slowly, interactions took too long, ideas stumbled along. It used to take four weeks for someone to answer a piece of mail!

Leapfrogging that four week standard was one of the key reasons to adopt online business. Faster meant better, because faster led to tighter integration, more feedback and greater market share. Four weeks became two weeks became a day became an hour...

I'm not so sure we have a significant speed shortage any longer. Not in the loop of business communication, certainly. Being twice as fast to respond as you were last year may no longer be worth the risk and effort. It might not even be possible. (Though there are a few areas where first matters a lot, most notably the speed realtors respond to inquiries).

What's scarce? Good ideas, not just fast ones. Shipping the good ideas. Finding the spot where uncomfortable meets important.

I'd rather you think and instigate. Get back to me tomorrow, that's fast enough.

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