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« September 2012 | Main | November 2012 »

Getting over ourselves

In the face of billions of dollars of destruction, of the loss of life, of families distrupted, it's easy to wonder what we were so hung up on just a few days ago. Many just went face to face with an epic natural disaster, and millions are still recovering. Writer's block or a delayed shipment or an unreturned phone call seem sort of trivial now.

We're good at creating drama, at avoiding emotional labor and most of all, at thinking small. Maybe we don't need another meeting, a longer coffee break or another hour whittling away at our stuckness.

There's never been a better opportunity to step up and make an impact, while we've got the chance. This generation, this decade, right now, there are more opportunities to connect and do art than ever before. Maybe even today.

It's pretty easy to decide to roll with the punches, to look at the enormity of natural disaster and choose to hunker down and do less. It's more important than ever, I think, to persist and make a dent in the universe instead.

We've all been offered access to so many tools, so many valuable connections, so many committed people. What an opportunity.

Harvest demand or create it?

Search marketing harvests demand, it doesn't create it (ht to Drew at Dropbox).

Most small businesses believe that they're too small to have an impact on the whole market, so they resort to picking the fruit that's already grown instead of planting their own seeds. It's far easier to wait until someone is ready to buy than it is to persuade them to buy.

Except the answer isn't to poach demand at the last minute. The answer is to redefine the market into something much smaller and more manageable. You don't need to persuade everyone that you have a great idea, you merely need to persuade one person. And then make it easy for that person to share.

One last semi-related thought: Wenda Millard quotes a Mercedes Benz exec, "If the only time I show you a Mercedes ad is just before you're about to buy a fancy car, I've lost." The fact is, advertising to build brand and recognition and demand is a very long-term proposition, not something you measure with clicks.

A last-minute swipe of purchase intent is a tactical win. It's not, however, a long-term way to build your organization.

Association

Who you hang out with determines what you dream about and what you collide with.

And the collisions and the dreams lead to your changes.

And the changes are what you become.

Change the outcome by changing your circle.

The bell curve is moving (mass geekery)

We've got more nerds than ever before.

Rogers famously described the ways products are adopted:

Bellcurve2

On the left, geeks and nerds and people who love stuff because the new is new and edgy and changes things. All the way to the right, the laggards, the ones who want to be the last to change. And in the middle, the masses, the ones who wait for the new idea to be proven, cheap and widely adopted. Most people are in the middle, and a few are on either edge. (Note that in every area of interest, different people put themselves into different segments. You might be a shoe geek but a movie laggard).

Marketers work to change the market. And for the last thirty years, marketers have been working to turn people into geeks, into people eager to try the new. And it's working.

Shiftedbellcurve2

There are more and more people lining up to buy the new gadget, more exploring the edges of the internet, more willing to engage in ways that were seen as too risky just a generation ago.

In addition to an ever increasing amount of media and advertising about what's new, the products and services themselves are designed to draw us in. It used to be that a car nerd would buy a new car every year while the laggard could wait a decade quite happily before upgrading. Today, because our software connects, the upgrade cycle is built in. Like it or not, the new version (or the new TOS or the new interaction style) is about to become part of your life.

The cultural implications here are significant. We now live in a society with more people more willing to change more often. And that means your customers are restless, and more likely to walk away if you don't treat them the way nerds want to be treated. Amaze, delight and challenge...

The end of should

Banks should close at 4, books should be 200 pages long, CEOs should go to college, blogs should have comments, businessmen should be men, big deals should be done by lawyers, good food should be processed, surgeons should never advertise, hit musicians should be Americans, good employees should work at the same company for years...

Find your should and make it go away.

A bias for trust

Two very simple truths:

a. Don't waste your time initiating relationships that aren't going to thrive and benefit both sides.

b. Productive connection requires mutual trust. You can't empathize with someone you don't trust.

If you enter an engagement filled with wariness, alert for the scam, the inauthentic and the selfish, you'll poison the relationship before it even starts. Those you deal with won't be challenged to rise to your expectations of excitement and goodwill. Instead, they'll struggle in the face of your skepticism.

Instead of seeking and amplifying the sharp edges, consider focusing on the dignity and goodwill of the people you're working with.

Sure, there are people out there who will disappoint you. But expecting to be ripped off poisons all your interactions instead of saving you from a few dead ends.

An open mind and an open heart usually lead to precisely that in those that you are about to deal with. Perhaps we should give people a chance to live up to our trust instead of looking for the gotcha.

 

The only purpose of 'customer service'...

is to change feelings. Not the facts, but the way your customer feels. The facts might be the price, or a return, or how long someone had to wait for service. Sometimes changing the facts is a shortcut to changing feelings, but not always, and changing the facts alone is not always sufficient anyway.

If a customer service protocol (your call center/complaints department/returns policy) is built around stall, deny, begrudge and finally, to the few who persist, acquiesce, then it might save money, but it is a total failure.

The customer who seeks out your help isn't often looking to deplete your bank account. He is usually seeking validation, support and a path to feeling the way he felt before you let him down.

The best measurement of customer support is whether, after the interaction, the customer would recommend you to a friend. Time on the line, refunds given or the facts of the case are irrelevant. The feelings are all that matter, and changing feelings takes humanity and connection, not cash.

Free range

Ways to improve your performance:

  • Compete for a prize
  • Earn points
  • Please a demanding boss
  • Make someone else's imminent deadline
  • Face sudden death elimination in the playoffs
  • Wear a heart monitor and track performance publicly
  • Go head-to-head against a determined foe

The thing is, all of these external stimuli are there to raise your game and push you ever harder. They are fences to be leaped, opponents to be defeated.

The alternative is to compete against nothing but yourself. To excel merely because the act of excelling without boundaries or incentives thrills you.

And the good news is that once you find that, you'll always have it.

Toward a mobile app for this blog

[Update: 40 developers--all I can review--already applied. Thank you!]

Every few days, someone asks for a new mobile app for the blog. I've been ducking the issue for a while, because I'd like it to be something worth using, but I don't have a passionate or commercial interest in creating one--it's not a focus of mine. But it's time.

One approach is to just license my RSS feed to anyone who wants to build an app around it. I'm hesitating to do that, because if it has my name on it, I'd like it to be reliable, and the app store makes it hard to tell the good ones from the not so good. So I thought I'd ask developers if they'd like to take this on, and what they'd like to do if they did. We might end up with two or three approved apps that you could choose from. They might end up being free or costing money. We'll see. My goal is for it to be easy for you to use and really headache-free for me to create.

If you're a developer and you'd like to suggest yourself for this project, here's a simple form to fill out.  Please don't email me about it, but I promise to review the first forty applications I receive. Deadline is November 2, and as usual, extra points for being early.

Everybody knows everything

William Goldman famously pointed out that before Hollywood releases a picture, nobody knows anything about how it's going to do. It's such a black art that there are no real clues, yet every self-important exec acts as though he's an expert. It's easy to pretend expertise when there's no data to contradict you.

The internet and the connected economy turn much of that on its head. Now, in many fields, you have to assume that everyone knows (or can easily know) everything.

Relying on the ignorance of a motivated audience isn't a long-term strategy.

No one ever bought anything on an elevator

If your elevator pitch is a hyper-compressed two-minute overview of your hopes, dreams and the thing you've been building for the last three years, you're doing everyone a disservice. I'll never be able to see the future through your eyes this quickly, and worse, if you've told me what I need to know to be able to easily say no, I'll say no.

The best elevator pitch doesn't pitch your project. It pitches the meeting about your project. The best elevator pitch is true, stunning, brief and it leaves the listener eager (no, desperate) to hear the rest of it. It's not a practiced, polished turd of prose that pleases everyone on the board and your marketing team, it's a little fractal of the entire story, something real.

"I quit my job as an Emmy-winning actress to do this because..." or "Our company is profitable and has grown 10% per week, every week, since July," or "The King of Spain called me last week about the new project we just launched."

More conversations and fewer announcements.

Raise and lower (more for less)

What if you discovered that due to a tax implemented by invisible interstellar aliens, you would have to increase the price of what you sell by 10%? What would you add to your offering so that people would still choose you despite the fact that all of your competition hadn't raised their price? What sort of service, guarantee, design or other free prize bonus would you add to maintain your market share?

And now, having survived that, what if you discovered that you had to reduce your costs by 10%? What would you take out of your product or service so that you could still profitably sell your product even though it must cost you 10% less to make?

Of course, the interesting thing is what happens if you do both at the same time, when there are no aliens slowing down your growth, increasing your costs or hindering your sales...

The beaten path

Here's a common mistake: make something amazing and figure that people will beat a path to your door.

Or go to a retailer or a sales rep or a middleman and expect that they will offer your product or service to their customers and let you keep most of the profit.

The beaten path isn't something that happens to you, it's something you build. It's not something convenient, it is, in fact, the primary asset of your organization.

Attention and trust are worth more than just about anything else, because they make it likely you have a chance to tell your story, which might resonate, which then leads to the beaten path. It's the last step, not the first..

Meeting expectations

In many settings, happiness and success are measured in terms of whether or not expectations were met (or exceeded).

From the stock market to tech to what's under the Christmas tree, we let expectations determine whether or not something good has happened. Not whether it was useful or kind or productive or delightful, but whether it beat our fantasies.

There are two things you can do with this truth:

1. Spend a lot more effort managing expectations, and

2. Focus on the wonderful instead of the exceeded.

Brands and stocks and careers that are here for the long haul do both.

Two new videos to share

Stop Stealing Dreams, a free ebook manifesto I gave away early this year, has been downloaded millions of times, translated into a few languages and turned into an audiobook. But I'm hoping for an even wider audience, so when Lisa Daniels gave me the chance to do a TEDx talk about it, I took it. Doing a talk for the first and only time is a risky thing, and a lot of work, but I hope you'll find it worth 17 minutes of your time--and share it if you can.

Find the video and the ebook at the Stop Stealing Dreams page.

Also! Two weeks ago, the very generous writer and thinker Jonathan Fields published a Good Life video interview he shot at my office. You can find it at the top of my project page.

Missed opportunities vs. poor execution

When you think back to the last ten years of your career or your company's history, how much of what you haven't achieved is due to missed opportunities (the product you didn't launch, the service you didn't choose to do, the effort you didn't extend, the stock you didn't buy) and how much is the result of doing your assigned tasks poorly?

____ % missed   vs.  ____ % incompetence

Now, compare those percentages to where you spend your time, your focus and your anxiety.

The no-problem problem

An organization that's run on emergencies and reaction to incoming doesn't know what to do when there are no problems.

Instead of seeking out new ways to delight, they run around looking for new emergencies, and if they look hard enough, of course they'll find them.

(Two reasons for this: emergencies concentrate the mind and allow things to get done, and history).

The easiest way to get people to do what you want them to do...

is to start with people who want what you want.

Identify, organize and excite people who are already predisposed to achieve what you had in mind and you're much more likely to have the outcome you seek. It's far easier (but less compelling) than turning strangers or enemies into customers/voters/supporters/colleagues. Over time, an engaged and motivated base of followers is the single best way to earn more followers.

You used to be stuck with whoever walked in the door or opened your mail. Today, you change minds indirectly, by building a tribe that influences via connections to others.

Redefining productivity

According to the economics of the industrial age, it's simple: Money spent creates output. If you use less labor or your system creates more output, your factory is being more efficient.

Machines can be more productive than people because once they're set up, they create more output per dollar spent. Lowering labor costs is the goal of the competitive industrialist, because in the short run, cutting wages increases productivity.

This is a race to the bottom, with the goal of cutting costs as low as possible as your competitors work to do the same.

The new high productivity calculation, though, is very different:

Decide what you're going to do next, and then do it. Make good decisions about what's next and you thrive.

Innovation drives the connection economy, not low cost.

The decision about what to do next is even more important than the labor spent executing it. A modern productive worker is someone who does a great job in figuring out what to do next.

[Take a listen to Krista Tippett's fabulous interview with Bobby McFerrin: On Being. These conversations go to the heart of the sort of high-productivity work we create today, but would make no sense at all just a generation ago.]

The Acute Heptagram of Impact

Not as catchy a title as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but I hope you'll walk through this with me:

I can outline a strategy for you, but if you don't have the tactics in place or you're not skilled enough to execute, it won't matter if the strategy is a good one.

Your project's success is going to be influenced in large measure by the reputation of the people who join in and the organization that brings it forward. That's nothing you can completely change in a day, but it's something that will change (like it or not) every day.

None of this matters if you and your team don't persist, and your persistence will largely be driven by the desire you have to succeed, which of course is relentlessly undermined by the fear we all wrestle with every day.

These seven elements: Strategy, Tactics, Execution, Reputation, Persistence, Desire and Fear, make up the seven points of the acute heptagram of impact. If your project isn't working, it's almost certainly because one or more of these elements aren't right. And in my experience, it's all of them. We generally pick the easiest and safest one to work on (probably tactics) without taking a deep breath and understanding where the real problem is.

Feel free to share the AHI, but please don't have it tattooed on your hip or anything.

Godinshierarchy


I've been remaindered

The true story of the Seth Godin Action Figure: [Update: they may be all gone by the time you read this, sorry...]

It's a joke. But it's a real product, with tongue in cheek.

It was all for charity (the Acumen Fund gets all my royalties). An old interview with all the details here, including narwhals.

Years and years ago, I suggested this project to my friends at Archie McPhee because they're brilliant and funny and I'm jealous of what they do all day. And they (after six months of trying to persuade other, better authors to say yes) agreed.

And now, years later, after thousands of these little guys were sold, we come to the end of the line. Action figures are falling out of favor, they say, and they need to make room for bacon mints and flying pigs. And there's only a thousand left. Is your dashboard bereft? Here's your chance.

You can get yours for about half price! Just type in the discount code: pokethebox when you order (they tell me this is only for US orders).

Thanks, guys. Archie McPhee made me small, plastic, articulated and delighted, all at the same time. Now I know how Mr. Bill feels.

Civilization

Given how essential it is to every aspect of our life, we spend very little time talking about or celebrating the civilized society we live in.

If civilization is stability, kindness, safety, the arts and a culture that cherishes more than merely winning whatever game is being played, we live in a very special time. There are certainly more people living a civilized life today than ever before in history. (And we still have a long way to go).

Given the opportunity, people almost always move from a place that's less civilized to one that's more civilized. Given the resources, we invest them creating an environment where we can be around people and events that we admire and enjoy. We move to places and cultures where we are trusted and where we are expected to do our share in return.

And yet...

There are always shortcuts available. Sometimes it seems like we should spend less money taking care of others, less time producing beauty, less effort doing the right thing--so we can have more stuff. Sometimes we're encouraged that every man should look out for himself, and that selfishness is at the heart of a productive culture. In the short run, it's tempting indeed to trade in a part of civilized humanity to get a little more for ourselves at the end of the day. And it doesn't work.

We don't need more stuff. We need more civilization. More respect and more dignity. We give up a little and get a lot.

The people who create innovations, jobs, culture and art of all forms have a choice about where and how they do these things. And over and over, they choose to do it in a society that's civilized, surrounded by people who provide them both safety and encouragement. I'm having trouble thinking of a nation (or even a city) that failed because it invested too much in taking care of its people and in creating a educated, civil society.

Your customers and your co-workers might be attracted to a Black Thursday rush for bargains and a dog-eat-dog approach to winning whatever game it is you're offering. But they come back because you respect them and give them a platform to be their best selves.

Beauty vs. specs

There are two kinds of users/creators/customers/pundits.

Some can't understand why a product or service doesn't catch on. They can prove that it's better. They can quote specs and performance and utility. It's obvious.

The other might be willing to look at the specs, but he really doesn't understand them enough to care. All he knows is that the other choice is beautiful--it makes him feel good. He wants to use it.

Acura vs. Lexus, Dell vs. Apple, New Jersey vs. Bali...

You can have both specs and beauty, of course, but only if you work at it.

Fighting with vs. fighting for

When there's a change in your tribe or your organization or your trusted circle, you face two choices:

You can fight with the person creating the change, push back against them and defend the status quo.

Or you can fight for the person, double down on the cause, the tribe and the relationship, and refocus your efforts on making things work even better than they did before the change.

They're similar emotions and efforts, but they lead to very different outcomes.

Useful and believable promises

That's another way to think about marketing.

We only sign up/pay attention to/pay for offers from marketers when:

What's promised is something we think is worth more than it costs

and

We believe you're the best person to keep that promise.

This applies to resumes, meetings and even the kid raking your lawn.

If your marketing isn't working, it's either because your promises aren't useful (and big) enough or we don't believe you're the one to keep them.

Now in a handy audio format

A few months ago, I promised to record and release highlights from the three day startup session that I ran. Thanks to Jeff at Earwolf, here it is. Not flashy, but if you want to invest the time, I am hoping you'll learn some new ways to think about your project.

And, for a shorter, punchier, more visual hour, here is my This is Broken talk from the Gel conference a few years ago.

Enjoy.

Cycle worse, cycle better

The downward spiral is all too familiar. A drinking problem leads to a job lost, which leads to more drinking. Poor customer service leads customers to choose other vendors, which of course leads to less investment in customer service, which continues the problem.

Your boss has a temper tantrum because he's stressed about his leadership abilities. The tantrum undermines his relationship with his peers, which of course makes him more stressed and he becomes more likely to have another tantrum. An employee is disheartened because of negative feedback from a boss, which leads to less effort, which of course leads to more negative feedback.

Most things that go wrong, go wrong slowly.

The answer isn't to look for the swift and certain solution to the long-term problem. The solution is to replace the down cycle with the up cycle.

The (too common, obvious, simple) plan is to live with the cycle that caused the problem instead ("When I get stressed, I freeze up, so I need to figure out how to avoid getting stressed"). The simple plan puts the onus on the outside world to stop contributing the input that always leads to the negative output. That's just not going to work very well.

The more difficult but more effective alternative is to become aware of the down cycle. Once you find it, understand what triggers it and then learn to use that trigger to initiate a different cycle.

"This is my down cycle. What will it cost me to replace it with a different one? Who can help me? What do I need to learn? How do I change my habits and my instincts?"

This works for organizations as well as individuals. The fish restaurant that as sales go down, borrows money to buy ever fresher fish instead of cutting corners that will lead nowhere good. Or the ad agency the follows a client loss not with layoffs, but with hiring of even better creative staff.

Slowing sales might lead to more investment with customer service, not less. Decreased grades might lead to more time spent on enthusiastic studying, not less.

This is incredibly difficult. But identifying the down cycle and investing in replacing it with the up cycle is the one and only best strategy. The alternative, which is to rationalize and defend the cycle as a law of nature or permanent habit, is tragic.

The curious imperative

Now that information is ubiquitous, the obligation changes. It's no longer okay to not know.

If you don't know what a word means, look it up.

If you're meeting with someone, check them out in advance.

If it sounds too good to be true, Google it before you forward it.

If you don't know what questions to ask your doctor, find them before your appointment.

If it's important, do your homework.

I confess that I'm amazed when I meet hard-working, smart people who are completely clueless about how their industry works, how their tools work...

It never made sense to be proud of being ignorant, but we're in a new era now. Look it up.

The curse of incremental improvement

In an industrial, competitive culture, most things are just barely good enough.

Cell phone calls, if they were any worse, would be unusable. MP3 files sound not nearly as good as they could. Car mileage goes up, but really slowly. When something makes a huge leap (like the iPad did), it's headline news, because it's so rare.

The market will switch to a competitor when the competitor is just good enough to warrant switching (I know that's obvious, but it's worth stating). As a result, R&D departments ship a product out the door the moment it is just barely good enough to grab enough share to pay for itself. The thought of, for example, working on the CD for six more months before declaring it 'done' would have been considered short-term economic stupidity. As a result, we are saddled with thirty years of sub-par music--if they'd just held on a bit longer, it would all sound so much better.

The challenge kicks in for the individual or organization who thinks what they've launched is just barely good enough--and it's not. Prematurely declaring that it's done means that your incremental improvement doesn't seem important to anyone else. And so you flop.

Better to make it better than it needs to be.

Get the listing

Most successful (and honest) real estate agents will tell you that their business is about the listings, and that sales ability comes second. All other things being equal, the agent with a better home to sell will make a better sale. 

The same thing is true for baseball managers—if you have a better lineup you're more likely to win the game. And of course that's true for the sushi restaurant with fresher fish. And the tech company with better programmers, and the college with better professors...

If this is all so obvious, why do we spend all our time trying to find cheap average inputs and then make them special through our magnificent sales and management skills? Why do we industrialize the hiring process, spend very little time on scouting, and seek out the replicatable instead of the special exception? Our ego demands that we spend all day polishing the average instead of seeking out the exceptional.

Better to invest the time and money on special people and raw materials instead.

Waiting for all the facts

"I'm just going to wait until all the facts are in..."

All the facts are never in. We don't have all the facts on the sinking of the Titanic, on the efficacy of social media or on whether dogs make good house pets. We don't have all the facts on hybrid tomatoes, global warming or the demise of the industrial age, either.

The real question isn't whether you have all the facts. The real question is, "do I know enough to make a useful decision?" (and no decision is still a decision).

If you don't, then the follow up question is, "What would I need to know, what fact would I need to see, before I take action?"

If you can't answer that, then you're not actually waiting for all the facts to come in.

Do the (extra) work

Do the extra work not because you have to but because it's a privilege.

Get in early.

Sweep the floor without being asked.

Especially when it's not your turn.

Not because you want credit or reward. Because you can.

The industrialist wants to suck everything out of you. Doing extra work as a cog in an industrial system is a fool's errand.

For the rest of us, the artist and the freelancer and the creator, we know that the privilege of doing the extra work is the work itself.

The habit of doing more than is necessary can only be earned through practice. And the habit is priceless.

Amnesty for latecomers

"But what will I tell my neighbors?"

Once someone makes a decision about your cause or your product or your resume, it's almost impossible for you to persuade them that they were wrong. You're no longer asking them to remake the first decision, you're asking them to admit an error, which is a whole other thing.

Compounding this, organizations often make it awkward for someone who is trying to come around to be embraced, largely because the tribe is hurt that they were rejected in the first place.

The opportunity is to encourage the non-supporter to look at new information and make a new decision. Give them the story they need to tell their colleagues. "Well, I know that I always thought this brand was a cult and I said I would never use them, but then I saw their new product line. They've listened to all the stuff I said was wrong and fixed it..."

And step two is to celebrate the newcomers, not to dredge up their past statements and wave them in their face.

Denying facts you don't like

Transformational leaders don't start by denying the world around them. Instead, they describe a future they'd like to create instead.

Denying the truth about relative market share, imperial power or the scientific method helps no one.

Gandhi didn't pretend the British weren't dominating his country, and Feynman didn't challenge Einstein's theory of relativity or the laws of thermodynamics.

It's okay to say, "this is going to be difficult." And it's productive to point out, "our product isn't as good as it should be yet."

The problem with Orwellian talking heads, agitprop, faux news and Ballmer-like posturing is that they take away a foundation for a genuine movement to occur, because once we start denying facts, it's difficult to know when to stop. Tell us where we are, tell us where we're going. But if you can't be clear about one, it's hard to buy into the other.

The easiest way to thrive as an outlier

...is to avoid being one. At least among your most treasured peers.

Surround yourself with people in at least as much of a hurry, at least as inquisitive, at least as focused as you are. Surround yourself by people who encourage and experience productive failure, and who are driven to make a difference.

What's contagious: standards, ethics, culture, expectations and most of all, the bar for achievement.

The crowd has more influence on us than we have on the crowd. It's not an accident that breakthroughs in music, architecture, software, athletics, fashion and cuisine come in bunches, often geographic. If you need to move, move. At least change how and where you exchange your electrons and your ideas.

We all need leaders who challenge the tribe. We benefit even more when our leaders have peers who push them to be even better.

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