Monday, May 24, 2010

Worthwhile Things Are Always Hard

On a long and taxing cross-country plane ride I watched what looked like an old, from-the-vault documentary about the early days of NASA.

There was footage of men in white polyester shirts and skinny black ties staring into huge and bulky computer screens tracking primitive rockets as they lifted off from launch pads.

There were early efforts at configuring rockets. There were flight trajectories, rockets spiraling into low orbits, all of the familiar footage of a program struggling to be born.

I remember watching some of those launches live. I'm old enough to have sat in a class room in school, staring at a small black and white portable TV, hoping that this time, this time the rocket would get off the pad, that it wouldn't spiral out of control, that it wouldn't have to be destroyed before it veered dangerously off course.

But the video on the plane had a different feel to it.

It gave the feel that our exploration of space, while difficult and challenging, was virtually inevitable. That one way or another, we would find our way into space, to the moon, and beyond.

It made me wonder what the video of this period of American and world history will look like.

Will we see America struggling to deal with the challenges of energy, global climate change, education, health care, social change, financial meltdown--and doing it with a sense that our time will yield solutions that feel just as inevitable in retrospect as the space program does looking back today?

Will we remember the spirit of contention and lack of civility that is so widely commented on today?

Or will we erase that part of the experience and focus on the determination, grit and problem-solving resolve of the American character?

What story will we tell ourselves in the future--after we've written the facts of the story today?

I don't know how we'll look back on this period. Whether we'll think our best selves rose to the occasion and came up with creative solutions. Whether we'll pat ourselves on the back for doing the hard work that positive change always demands.

I don't know.

But I do know, and that vintage film reminded me, worthwhile things are always hard.

That's true for us as individuals, and for us as a society.

If it's worth doing, it's going to take hard work. In part, I think, it's the hard work that makes it worth doing--and the fact that it's worth doing that makes us shoulder the hard work.

We Have Met Our Customers and They Are Thieves

I know it's hard to be in retail.

Especially in big cities.

In big box stores.

But really. Are all customers thieves? Or potential thieves?

I went into a pharmacy in San Francisco the other day looking for a simple tube of toothpaste.

Never mind the fact that a pharmacy is no longer a pharmacy. Now it's a grocery store. With more food items than health items.

I finally found the aisle with toothpaste.

And after a while I even found the toothpaste.

But it was locked behind a plastic box. To make sure I couldn't get any.

So I went looking again. This time for someone to help me.

I found a young woman stocking shelves. But she didn't have a key to the locked plastic box.

She called a young man who did. We walked back to the locked away toothpaste and he opened the box for me.

"People still this stuff?" I asked.

He made a gesture with his arm as if to sweep the whole container into his coat.

"They steal the whole box of it?" I asked.

He grinned.

"Do I look like a thief?" I asked.

He shook his head.

"Funny," I said. "Because your locked up toothpaste makes me feel like you think I'm a thief."

I took the toothpaste to pay for it.

There was a sign on the side of it warning anyone who tried to buy it on the street that it had probably been stolen.

I won't be shopping at that pharmacy again.

Apparently it's only there for thieves.

And I hate rubbing shoulders with thieves.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Staple Yourself to a Problem

I was down in Houston at a fascinating event put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The program was all about business and social responsibility and community engagement. Hard to think of a more compelling subject in this time of oil spills that prompt "don't blame me" responses, Wall Street melt-downs where nobody is guilty of anything, and a jobless recovery that has cities and states across the country feeling enormous pain, particularly when it comes to dealing with pressing social problems.

It was a good program, a good day, and lots of good people.

But in the aftermath I got to thinking about why it's so hard to get real traction on the social problems of our time. I'd recently been in San Francisco at another program on social enterprise. The litany of problems that seem "too big to solve" was endless. Childhood obesity. Teenage pregnancy. Poverty. Homelessness. Rampant drug and alcohol abuse. High school drop out rates.

We have programs designed to address all of these problems. There isn't a problem that doesn't have a non-profit or even for-profit enterprise that's trying to take it on.

So why don't we seem to get real traction? Why can't we come up with solutions that work for problems that matter?

Then I remembered a terrific Harvard Business School article that I worked on with one of the delightful faculty members back then, Professor Ben Shapiro. Ben had the cool idea of suggesting that if a business leader wanted to know how his or her company really operated, the trick would be to "staple yourself to an order."

In other words, metaphorically (or actually, if you could), walk your way through the entire company tracking the progress of an order. From the moment the order enters the system to the moment it is fulfilled, try looking at your company and its operation from the perspective of the order!

Brilliant idea! Staple yourself to an order!

What would it be like, I wondered, if we stapled ourselves to a social problem?

How would our solutions look from the perspective of the problem? What if you stapled yourself to "childhood obesity?" What would you see?

Some TV ads promoting better eating habits. Some pioneering school lunch programs that not only give kids healthy, wholesome food, but also actually try to teach kids better nutritional habits. Some schools that have kicked soda and candy machines off campus. A new initiative by the First Lady to put more attention on the problem. Non-profits in cities around the country trying to raise funds and raise awareness about the problem.

Now if you were "Childhood Obesity" and that was the opposition, what would your reaction be?

I think you'd fall over laughing. I think you'd think the opposition is a sad, uncoordinated, poorly organized, badly thought-through, un-serious rival. If you stapled yourself to Childhood Obesity and ran through the gamut of organizations, agencies, public and private entities that are ostensibly trying to put you out of business, I think you'd have a field day!

Which is precisely why we aren't getting any traction on fighting against childhood obesity. Or a host of other problems.

What would it take to get serious?

Try stapling yourself to the problem you're most passionate about.

Do the economics favor a cure? Or favor a continuation of the problem? Are we, as a society, still content to pay the price that problem exacts? If so, don't expect much to change.

Are the organizations that want to end the problem working together? Or are they fragmented? Is there a serious systems analysis of the problem? Or does each part of the non-profit world see the problem through its own worm-hole? If we want to get serious about a systemic problem, we'll need to devise systemic solutions. Otherwise, the problem wins again.

It's a great exercise--if slightly discouraging. Pick your own problem, the one you care most deeply about.

If you want to see what it will take to win--instead of putting up with tolerable failure--try stapling yourself to your problem.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's the end of the world as we know it . . .

. . . and I feel fine.

As the old song goes.

Last week, Jon Stewart again played pin the tail on the news of the world, highlighting a week of catastrophe, disaster, human error, and just plain folly that was enough to make you laugh or cry or both.

The stock market goes on a roller-coaster ride--and even worse than the ride, nobody can explain why it happened. Greece was so far in debt it faced national bankruptcy--and the EU intervened and awarded it more debt. The out-of-control oil spill off the Gulf Coast stayed out of control. Goldman Sachs and Wall Street also stayed out of control.

It made for great Comedy Central fodder.

But when you stop laughing, what do you do?

If you're running a business, starting a business, trying to make sense of your business (or your life--not that there's much difference these days), what do you do?

A few thoughts:

If you keep score by tracking the stock market you will drive yourself insane. It's the default metric for our economy, and it's a really really bad one.

Try measuring customer satisfaction instead. Or customer retention. Or customer loyalty.

Long ago Peter Drucker famously said, the purpose of a business is to make and keep a customer.

He famously did not say, the purpose of a business is to maximize shareholder value and drive up your stock price.

Another metric that matters: Try measuring employee satisfaction. Employee retention. Employee loyalty.

Do an audit of your corporate culture. Have you let toxic times make your corporate culture a toxic waste dump?

Another key task of leaders who get it: How are you making sense out of these turbulent times--times that defy anyone making sense of them, times that require you to make sense of them? Your job--as leader in a company or leader of your own life--is to make sense out of all the noise that fills the airwaves. And after you've begun to assemble your own story, to tell it to those around you. Test drive it. Get feedback. Adapt it to new information and fresh facts.

Take a hard look at the economics you've adopted in your work and your life. Does your spending pattern reflect a past that no longer exists? Are you paying for the vestigial remains of a way of life that has gone by the boards? With so much inexplicable change, why carry excess baggage? Why not use the chaos of the moment as a chance to lighten your load, challenge your spending habits, reexamine business as usual?

Then flip that coin on its head: where are the opportunities that you see that others may be too sea-sick to see? I've said it before: innovation is applied logic. What is the logic that's unfolding in front of you that represents a chance to grow, innovate, explore new territory, exploit a time of change?

It may be the end of the world as we know it . . . so the question is, what comes next?

Why not seize the moment to help create the new! Try it--and see if it makes you feel fine!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Art and Commerce

I was thinking about art and commerce today. And why one makes the world go around, and why the other makes our hearts go faster.

"The Gift," by Lewis Hyde is a brilliant exploration of art and commerce. He talks about the power of the gift culture and how giving something away always leads to increase; selling the same thing and pocketing the proceeds ends the growth in meaning of that work.

"Red," the brilliant Broadway play that chronicles Mark Rothko's artistic mission makes the same argument, in its own way. In the play Rothko seethes with anger at American culture that is all about "fine." How was your day? Fine. How do you like that painting? Fine. It isn't fine, Rothko fumes. I don't want it to be fine. I don't want you to like my picture. I WANT TO STOP YOUR HEART, he says.

These days we tell ourselves that business men and women can be artists. Sorta.

We create design language to apply to entrepreneurial start ups. Apple's products are perfect little works of art. There's a way to have the best of both worlds: BOBW. BOBW lives in the application of art to commerce.

Except it actually doesn't. It's a nice story. It just isn't true.

Commerce doesn't want to stop your heart. It doesn't bleed to death over its pain. It doesn't leave us amazed and enraptured by its performance.

Lewis Hyde's book is brilliant. "Red" is brilliant. Rothko was doomed, and brilliant.

I can't think of a single business person who could compare. They don't belong in the same category.

But I'd like to think that, for instance, the way to save journalism, the way to rescue American civil discourse, the way to fix the cognitive disconnect in the way our society functions is by calling out the passion of a Rothko, the synthetic thinking of a Lewis Hyde.

What if reading a newspaper or a magazine made you stop in wonder the way seeing "Red" does?

What if journalists and editors didn't want to be the same as each other. What if just one of them wanted to STOP YOUR HEART?

I'd read that magazine or newspaper. Or watch that TV program. Or hang on to that web site.

So maybe art and commerce aren't ever going to find some happy medium.

But here's hoping the desperate love that suffuses art can somehow find its way into more of our commerce. And more of our daily lives.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb