Sunday, December 04, 2005

sometimes it takes a new perspective

In the New York Times today, an article about Mike Leach, the coach of Texas Tech's football team made some excellent points. He gets extraordinary results from ordinary people by doing things differently. He does not do them differently for its own sake, but is one of the few top coaches who did not have a football playing background, but trained as a lawyer. As a result, he comes to each situation with a fresh pair of eyes. Not surprisingly, in spite of his track record, other football coaches avoid his methods and prefer to stay with received wisdom. Just as it took Lou Gerstner, a marketer from RJR Nabisco and American Express to turn around IBM, so someone with a new perspective can often do much better than someone who has too much experience in the industry.

Sadly, we see again and again, that companies look for someone who has done the same job elsewhere and expect them to do things differently.

Friday, November 25, 2005

How much are we genetically programmed?

One of the challenges of studying how ww think is that we are using our brains to study our brains. So we may even be pre-programmed to see things in a certain way. As a result, there are almost certainly some things we can not see objectively, just as the two dimensional creature can not see a three dimensional one completely. This is not the genetics of the individual, but rather the genectics of humanity. We may be disposed to think in certain ways which we consider logical, yet which extraterrestrials might not. If we even encounter such beings, that might provide us with some answers, or if our thinking is so different, we may never even be able to communicate.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The need for control over your life

In today's New York Times an article discussed the growing trend among younger people to diagnose and use drugs for their own purposes. They have more faith in their own ability to do so than in Doctors'. They grew up with direct to consumer advertising of prescription drugs and are knowledgeable about symptoms and medications. At the same time, we know that the less control over your own life you have, the more stress you feel. When your actions at work are watched - cubicles and monitoring of email being examples - you feel stress. The more day to day supervision you are under, the less effectively you may perform. Yet management continues to believe that more control is helpful. Much as spanking children has been shown to be counterproductive, yet people continue to belive in it. Our sense of what is obvious or intuitive is not always correct. We need to recognize the need for objectivity, and give control back to employees, until they give reason to distrust them.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Multiplication of Incorrect Information

As the Internet has grown there is much more information on it. While this is a great resource, there is also a lot more incorrect information, much of which takes on a life of its own. If you look up a fact or a person on the Internet, make sure you check any fact which seems inconsistent. Also, just because a fact recurs in several places, it may not mean it is accurate. It may simply mean that one source has used the other as its prime source. Thus statements about the number of engineers in a country or the number of elm trees in another could be based on someone's guess some time back.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The secret of a true visionary

An article in the Wall Street Journal today pointed out that the human mind tends to put a positive spin on everything that happens. Any time we are disappointed, we justify it to ourselves by repositioning the event so that it turns out to be what we wanted all along. Perhaos this is just as well. So while Thoreau might have believed that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," that is probably not true. Other research has shown that people tend to be equally happy over their lives independently of events. A lottery win or a major disability will over time even out so that people return to their previous level of happiness (or unhappiness).

H.G. Wells talked about "all human progress coming from unreasonable men" - people who do not accept received wisdom, are not satisfied by the status quo. However, the unreasonable man person may not be an unhappy one. The challenge is to give free rein to dissatisfaction without becoming unhappy. In fact the true visionary and change agent is excited by the prospect of something new.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Can people keep up with technology?

There is a widening divide between what C.P. Snow called "the two cultures." There are people who feel empowered by technology. They are excited by the possibilities which technology promises. This includes not only computers, but networks, bio-engineering, automotive advances, logistics improvements and manufacturing systems re-invention. I see intelligent, educated people who can barely use email, develop a PowerPoint presentation, carry out a Google search, or use Photoshop to improve a photo they took.

On the one hand there are people who rely on blogs and use more often than they use a phonebook. On the other, there are people who write out emails for their assistants to send, and then read the printed out replies they get. Each has its risks. The technological enthusiasts are narrowly focused, and the technologically blind lose control of their lives.

Sadly, even among younger people, I meet some who will not use technology as the powerful tool it is. I suspect this may continue as technolgy moves ever faster.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Entrepreneurs over 50

Red Herring recently did a story about entrepreneurs under 35. Now this is not very original. Stories about young entrepreneurs have been appearing for the past thirty years. Note that 50 years ago, this was rare. Business publications focused on older executives. Yet from Colonel Sanders to James Dyson, there have been quite a few very successful older entrepreneurs. So why is it that the press does not cover them? Perhaps for the same reasons the press did not cover the inadequacy of the New Orleans storm preparations until it had become obvious. Journalists and business writers cover stories which are most visible to them. Occasiinally, one will break from the pack. So one day, perhapd, the business press will rediscover older entrepreneurs.

In the meantime, for older entrepreneurs everywhere, take inspiration from those who have gone before.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Why do people lie?

Managers will often say that they want their subordinates to tell them the truth all the time. However, they usually do not mean it. The subordinates soon learn that bad news angers the boss and avoid sharing it. This happens in other aspects of life. The friend will not tell you something you need to know for fear of damaging the friendship. The wife will not tell the husband what she really thinks because she does not want to hurt his feelings. In business, usually, warnings which might enrage are only warnings and never come true. However, sometimes they come true and the manager never ahd any warning. Often lies of omission or even of commission seem to be the lubricant which makes society function, but at other times they can be very harmful.

The reason many people withhold news which the other person will not like are legitimate if the other person gets angry or refuses to accept it. It is up to each of us to learn to take bad news with equanimity, and to reward, not punish people for telling the truth.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Information explosion

The amount of information on the Internet was brought home to me recently when I reread a book in which I was mentioned as a highly successful top executive with almost 50 mentions on Google. Curious I checked again - two years after the book was published, and was surprised to find around 350 mentions.

With the powwer of computers growing, the cost of storage dropping, this is going to continue. We are still far from any kind of slowing down. Information and accessing it will be a mark of the 21st century.

Global business

Over the past two months I have been traveling extensively around the world. Covering a lot of ground in a short time is an educational, if tiring, experience. It is interesting to see that on the one hand many consumer tastes are becoming similar. Young people wear the same clothes, use the same cellphones, and drink the same Starbucks. However, many cultural differences persist. We will make a big mistake if we assume that because so much behavior is the same, that people think in the same way. Cultural sensitivity is key to enjoying and being successful in a new country.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Do companies listen?

In this age of improved communications, they may be getting worse. While technology may have improved the ability to deliver many messages to people and companies, it has not improved peoples' ability to absorb them. We hear about companies saying that customer satisfaction is critical and they are spending more time on it, but then we hear how it is getting worse. As an illustration, I recently had an amusing experience. I received a letter from the leagal department of Time Warner explaining that they were returning my "submission" unread. Now since it was not a submission, but a question, it was clear that they do not read letters carefully!

Each of us has customer service or contact stories to tell from our own lives. We need to assume that our customers can probably tell just as funny stories about us. Funny until we realize that they may cost us revenue and profit.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Class in America - The New York Times

Over the past ten days The New York Times has been carrying a series of articles in a series which examine social class in America. The conclusions are slightly disturbing. Movement between social classes is lower than in some European countries, and is declining. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor is widening. While this has implications of social inequity, it also has implications for the ability of America to best use its intellectual capital. When meritocracy fades, the country will suffer. We cannot continue to import scientists and thinkers from other countries if there are young Americans who are not getting the best opportunities.

We need to encourage greater social mobility by giving poor and disadvanted youth the same opportunities which the sons and daughters of the rich get.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

My letter re. Ford & GM published in "The Economist"

I must take issue with the conclusion of your leader on Ford and General Motors (“Deal or bust?”, May 14th). You say their problems lie not in the factory, nor in the design shop, but in the $1,500 per car additional overhead for pensions and health care. However, you also state that both companies offer up to $3,000 per car in discounts. This is roughly $2,000 more than Japanese carmakers offer, yet Ford and GM's sales are still declining. Frankly, I believe that the problem Ford and GM face is that they are producing cars which nobody wants to buy and their marketing is poor—about a third of their sales are to fleets at even lower prices.

Why are more companies using consultants?

Over the past thirty years the consulting industry has grown at double digit rates in most years. In that time more managers have MBAs and companies have brought in better training and evaluation tools. However, business activity has peaks and valleys. Thirty years ago, companies staffed for the peaks, and managers had time to think or create projects. Today, companies staff for the valleys and managers spend more time in meetings and dealing with email, i.e. they spend a higher proportion of their time communicationg. Furthermore, as consulting firms have grown in size and prestige, they have been able to recruit more talented people. So today, a company which never or rarely uses consultansts is probably suboptimizing.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Are most people willing to die rather than change?

The most recent issue of "Fast Company" magazine pointed out that nine out of ten people would die rather than make simple changes. It went on to say that
Bain & Co had found that in a study of 21 successful turnarounds, they had succeeeded by replacing most of top management.

London cabbies have overdeveloped hippocampuses to ma nage the complex geographical knowledge required and flutists have very developed parts of the brain which control fingers, lips and tongue. So do businesspeople have overdeveloped parts of the brain to do what they need to do. When the need changes, the people don't.

Similarly, Otto Rohwedder spent 16 years with strong opposition to perfect sliced bread. The inventors of frozen food, the revolver, Monopoly and the windshield wiper, each had to fight against strong opposition to achieve success. As the environment changes more rapidly, but we live and owrk longer, the need to develop a curiosiy and drive for learning becomes more important. People have to learn and change continually.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Are the people who talk to customers motivated correctly?

So often the people who are in most contact with the customer in companies are not motivated to satisfy, never mind delight, the customer. We see this frequently in the front office staff of medical businesses. The employees there see the doctor or hospital as being at the top of the pyramid and the patient at the bottom. They see themselves as representatives of the doctor, so feel no compunction in talking down to the patient as though they are the unworthy supplicant, rather than the customer and as such, the boss.

Recently, in three seperate incidents, I encountered receptionists who were rude rather than helpful, and expected the patient to plead and go through major inconvenience without complaint to see the doctor. Of course, this could not happen in regular commercial enterprise - or could it?

Sunday, April 17, 2005

How long does it take for a company to die?

In the recent demise of Rover MG in the UK, some may forget that just one of its predecessor companies was once the third largest car company in the world. Companies are born, grow to maturity and die much like humans. Companies start to die far before others recognize their trajectory. It is becoming clear that Ford and GM are well along in that process. When did it begin? It started for both quite a few years ago. Similarly, there are other companies which have started the process of dying even as Wall Street lauds their performance. We can be fairly sure that any of the Fortune 500 will not be around in ten years, and most will not be around in twenty or so.

Yet companies do not have to die. Procter & Gamble is over 175 years old. It never rests on its laurels and constantly questions and re-invents itself. Others can do this, but rarely does the culture at the top encourage this.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Are we trying to make ourselves average?

Most of us realize that PowerPoint makes innovative thinking seem less innovative, and poor thinking look better. However, it is becoming normal to use Powerpoint to present the most mundane or earth shattering ideas using PowerPoint. Einstein's Theory of Relativity would have been poorly represented in PowerPoint.

This is not meant to criticize PowerPoint. Used appropriately, it is a strong tool. However, many people have slipped into poor habits, and a 100 page PowerPoint presentation, with wonderful graphics does not substitute for real insightful thoughts on the back of a napkin.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Are "nice" people always really nice?

We all know the "nice" person who is always ingratiating, says nice things and is always pleasant. Now perhaps the person is exactly what they seem. Howver, all too often they are actually cowards. Too frightened to risk confrontation, they tell people what they want to hear and then behind their backs act differently. These are the people who cannot tell a subordinate he or she is performing poorly until they fire them. This is the person who "strings along" a supplier and then won't return their phone calls. This person will tell someone they love them, but then disappears and says nothing. So be careful to differentiate between the genuinely decent person and the coward.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Lots of Opportunity for misunderstanding

We each have to deal with others. whether it be in business or in out personal lives, we soon learn that we can not alwsys take others at face value. So what you see is not alwsys what you get. Being accurate at this is critical, because just as we can be fooled by someone who does not mean well, so we can fail to value someone who should be. Recently, in my life, I was faced with the fact that in juxtaposition, someone who meant me harm had been positioned as meaning well, while I had come to be suspicious of someone else who mesnt me nothing but well. Some people feel no compunction about manipulating a situation, while others never will. While this has been the raw material for farce for many years, in real life the results can be sad.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Progress takes many forms

Recently, while on a flight, it struck me that in 1950 we were still flying on DC3s and other piston-engined planes. By the mid-1960s we were usuallu travelling on modern jet aircraft. Today, 40 years later, we are still on planes which look little different. Yet as in so much, the technology under the skin has changed enormously. Jet engines are far more efficient and quieter, pilots "fly by wire," and avionics have changed beyond recognition. On the ground, cars have been transformed by technology and consumer electronics would seem like science fiction to people 50 years ago. We routinely see TV pictures from the farthest corners of the world, we carry digital music with us. Medical science has transformed the way we live and die.

There is every reason to believe that the next 50 years will see even more accelerating change. All we can do is wonder if humans can adapt and change fast enough.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Why so much stress?

In the US today people are under much more stress than they used to be. Recently, the New York Times had an article which discussed how as Ireland has grown wealthier, the quality of life has diminished.
We see in so many societies that as wealth grows, so do hours spent at work responsibilities are added and employees see colleagues losing their jobs.
All this puts more pressure on people. Bad tempers and impatience are on the rise. "Me first" is one of the results. Families become less cohesive. Recent studies suggest that mental illness is highest in wealthy countries and that the US is highest of all. This cannot go on increasing. There must be an end to this. Some of this must come from governement but much from industry. Leaders must take and be assigned personal responsibility for this. Society should make it clear that it holds leaders responsible.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Can anyone know what they don't know?

We say that someone does not know what they don't know. There are lots of people who act as though they know everything and do not have anything more to learn. Well, none of us know what we don't know. The critical characteristic is to recognize that there is more that we do not know than we do, and that there is no shame in it. In fact, the shame is in not recognizing this. An eagerness to question what we know and to learn more is part of being a mature adult of any age. As I grow older, I am humbled by the immensity of what I still have to learn.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Are business people handicapping themselves?

The more senior the manager, the higher the proportion of his or her time spent in meetings. Meetings rarely drive the business forwards. In fact they magnify the inefficiency by using up the time of many people.

Similarly, many managers have to deal with hundreds of emails a day. Most of these are informational, courtesy copies or purely political. Yet they have to read before being deleted.

Turnover of senior managers is much higher than it used to be. Spencer Stuart recently published a study which stated that the average length of stay for a Chief Marketing Officer in Fortune 500 companies is 23 months.

None of the above improves effectiveness ot efficiency. Yet it may be getting worse.