Friday, December 30, 2011

Reminders from Tom, Basics from Jim, News from Me

More snippets of wisdom (or detritus, you be the judge)from my on-going desk-cleaning exercise.

Buried beneath old speeches and memos, a short list of things to think about/things to remember: reminders from Tom Peters, basic premises from Jim Collins, and new rules from me.

Here they are, exactly as I found them, with no additional editorial comment.

Tom Peters' Reminders
*Think in technocolor--passion wins.
*Hire "disrespectful" people.
*Technology change is just starting: bio-tech, nano-tech, wireless, the web, more to come.
*Want to innovate? Hang out with innovators; cool begets cool.
*Ready, fire, aim; action first; avoid analysis/paralysis.
*Prototype=speed to learning
*Talent wins
*Diversity spawns innovation, sameness=extinction
*Design is the soul of business
*Branding=character, story, emotion
*Make every task an adventure
*The soft stuff is the hard stuff
*Reward excellent failures, punish mediocre successes
*Causes matter; causes get people out of bed in the morning

Jim Collins' on Fast Company: 5 Basic Premises
Work is not a means to an end; it's an end in itself
If your competitive scorecard is money, you will always lose
Business is a mechanism for social change--for good or for ill
Entrepreneurship is a life concept, not a business concept
Performance is the fundamental requirement; love what you're doing

Alan Webber's Reminders of the New Situation
There's no such thing as "business as usual."
There's no such thing as "back to normal."
No one is safe.
You are not in charge.

(Ok, a little editorial comment):
There you have it--short and sweet.
Thoughts on life and work, change and success as we get close to ringing out the old year and ringing in the new!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Six Two-Word Terms for the Future

This cleaning out your desk thing turns out to be incredibly worthwhile!
You get to throw away pounds of paper that have been sitting there for years.
And you get to re-visit things that turn out to be interesting--if for no other reason than that they have historical value.
Take my notes from a speech I gave to EDS in May of 1992.

The premise of my talk was the arrival of a "new economy." I started out by summarizing the headlines of the day (think back to 1992--if you were alive back then!): the agony of IBM, the triumph of the Japanese auto industry, the diminishing power of the three big TV networks, the collapse of the U.S. labor movement, the marketing miracle of Nike, the market power of Intel. It spelled what I called then "the Great Divide"--the split between the old order and the new economy, the rise of global competition, technological innovation, the new workforce, and the new workplace. All of it added up to a gaping economic fault line between the old-line bureaucratic companies and the companies and managers of the future. Those who are stuck in obsolete organizational structure and competitive concepts, and those who are busy inventing new ways to compete.

Some companies were responding by focusing on what I called "table stakes"--four things they needed to do just to stay relevant: attention to quality; emphasis on customer choice and a new variety of offerings; improved customer service; and worker empowerment/flat organizations/teams.
Table stakes. Nothing distinctive there. Things you had to do (and still have to do) just to show that you get it.

But then there was "the new agenda"--six two-word terms that I said would define the future.
First, Latent Competitors. You may know how your traditional competitor was. But do you know who your new, unexpected competitor will be--or where that competitor will come from?
Second, Techno-Fusion. The old version of R&D relied on straight-ahead breakthrough. The new version demands a blending of technologies and fields, biology and physics, nutrition and health, neuro-science and economics: I didn't cite it then (because it hadn't appeared yet) but think of quantum computing as an example today.
Third, Smart Products. Products that tell you where they are, what they are doing, when they need servicing. Products that link with other products to do the work for you.
Fourth, ∫. Business transactions and experiences shift from one-way communication to interactive communication: interactive TV, in-store ordering and customization. They were big back then, before the web made everything inter-active.
Fifth, Real Time. The goal is to make everything happen in real time. Speed is money, speed is quality, speed is customer satisfaction, speed is productivity, speed is strategy.
Sixth, Systems Capability. The company is a system--get all the processes right, you deliver the product right. The system is the solution.

The bottom line I came to in that old speech, given all those years ago: "Keep learning new skills and crossing old boundaries."
Sounds like good advice to me, almost 20 years later.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What I Learned From Starting Fast Company

It's getting close to the end of the year.
A good time to clean out old drawers filled with even older files.
Here's one I just found: Lessons From Fast Company. It was a speech I gave in Brazil at a program organized by the remarkable Oscar Motomura not long after Bill Taylor and I exited the magazine that we had jointly created.
Here's what my speech notes say:
1. You have to believe in your own idea. I genuinely believed that Fast Company was 'destined' to happen--even though it took more than 3 years to go from business plan to launch.
2. You have to be open to others' input on your idea. Just because it is your idea and it is 'destined' to happen doesn't make it perfect from the inception. Write it down. Show it to others. They will see it differently. They will have good suggestions. They will have bad suggestions. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. That's part of the process!
3. The world does not need your idea. It's important to remember that--people are getting along just fine without your idea. So learn to see the world through their eyes--explain how your idea solves their problem!
4. Who you are and what you've done are often the best arguments for your idea. Your track record counts as much as the merits of your idea.
5. Do you have skin in the game? If you really believe in your own idea, how do you show your commitment? If you want others to commit, you've got to make your own commitment clear and visible.
6. What's your motivation? Love is more powerful than money. If you're just doing it for the money, the day will come when you look at how little progress you've made on your idea and say, 'There must be easier ways to get rich.' If you're doing it for the love of the idea, that day will never come.
7. It's all an iterative process of learning and doing. Ted Levitt used to say, 'Make a little, try a little, sell a little.' The idea is to keep your own thinking moving forward by coming up with an idea, testing it, getting feedback, refining it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
8. If you plan some things you can leave other things looser. Leave everything loose and it's harder to innovate--constraints act as boundaries within which innovation can take place.
9. Your idea is only as good as the people you attract to work on it with you. It's all about the talent on your team, the allies you develop, the supporters you woo and win.
10. Remember Gandhi: The means are the ends in the making. Be the project you want it to be. Whether the project succeeds or fails in the long run may be less important than how you've conducted yourself in the pursuit of the project.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Every Election Is About a Question

Sometimes one of the candidates makes it explicit: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"
Sometimes the question remains implicit, only hinted at by one TV that only airs once: The famous "daisy" commercial that Lyndon Johnson's campaign used to ask about Barry
Goldwater, "Can you trust this guy with the atom bomb?"
Sometimes it's a question that seems frivolous: "Who would you rather have a beer with? Al Gore or George Bush?"
Sometimes it's a question that is more lofty: "What will it take to get America moving again?"
At the moment, as the Iowa caucuses approach, it appears that the Republican Party is split; there are two different questions, and depending on which question you ask, you get a different answer.
One question is, "Who in this field is the 'real' Republican?" In other words, who is a real conservative--and who is just faking it? This is a matter of ideological purity.
The other question is, "Who has the best chance of winning the general election in November, and beating Obama for the White House?" This is a matter of electoral pragmatism.
And then there is the November election to consider.
By the time it rolls around, what will the question be?
Frequently, the side that controls the question, controls the election.
But thanks in part to the Occupy Movement and in part to the internet and social media, while both sides (and a possible third party candidate) fight to define the question that defines the election, for the first time in memory, the question may get decided in a much more democratic, if amorphous and ambiguous fashion.
The question this time may emerge from emails and tweets, from Facebook postings and blogs.
It may be too early to suggest what "the question" will turn out to be.
But I think it would be reasonable to think that, no matter who the Republicans nominate, when it comes time for the first debate, the first and most important question for the candidates to answer should be, "If you're elected President in 2012, what difference will it actually make?"
And then keep answering that one question until somebody finally gets real.
That's a debate I'd like to watch.
For a change.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Power of the Powerless

Over the holidays Vaclav Havel died. The newspaper headlines of his funeral said something like, "The world says good-bye to Vaclav Havel."
I took it as an opportunity to say hello to him.
I sat down and read his amazing 1978 essay, "The Power of the Powerless." It's not easy going; but it's worth making the effort.
In it, over and over again he extols the importance, the virtue, the hard work and courage of "living within the truth." Because so much of what "the system" requires of people is that they live within a lie.
"Between the aims of the post-totalitarian system and the aims of life there is a yawning abyss," Havel wrote. "While life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom, the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline. While life ever strives to create new and improbable structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states."
And the system? This oppressive regime that demands conformity and imposes over a society the requirement that everyone pretend that what is clearly oppressive is somehow a matter of free choice?
"Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but a the same time, alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary master plan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people's own failure as individuals."
In other words, as long as we all go along with our own systematic self-alienation and self-imposed powerless, that is exactly how long the system will hold power over us.
And the weapon of choice for those who wish to express their own power?
"If the main pillar of the system is living a lie," Havel wrote, "then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth."
Havel wrote at a particular time and a particular place, addressing a particular political system.
But his essay and his message are still relevant and powerful today.
In some respects, the cause of Solidarity and Charter 77 are the cause of the early voices of Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Havel's words may have been prophetic in talking about the need to emphasize "human factors" in defining what makes life worth living, in the responsibility of individuals to speak the truth and live in the truth, to create examples of a "second culture" that finds alternative solutions and modes of expression to the dominant ones that define and govern the status quo.
At the end, Havel writes, "For the real question is whether the brighter future is always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?"
What if?
What if the powerless actually became aware of the source of their own power?
The power of living within the truth.

Friday, December 9, 2011

"Welcome Back to The Fight."

"This time I know our side will win."
Fans of "Casablanca" will recognize Victor Laszlo's parting salute to Rick, once he's gotten off the fence, gotten over Ilsa, and decided once again to join the Resistance.
It's the same way I felt watching Barack Obama's much-hyped Teddy Roosevelt-wanna-be speech in Kansas, the one where he came out as champion of the beleaguered middle class.
"Well, Mr. President," I wanted to say, "it's about time! Glad you stopped tending bar with all those rich guys in tuxes and worrying about the beautiful women with their jewels and took a look at the Gini Index. You remember the Gini Index? The one that says that the United States is the most unequal advanced industrial economy in the world! Yeah, that one. So, welcome back to the fight, Mr. President. I sure hope our side will win."
But there were a couple of problems with the President's speech that have kept troubling me.
First was the presentation. This was no Teddy Roosevelt stem-winder.
Something has happened to President Obama. He's lost his . . . groove. His . . . mojo. This speech should have been a rousing call for action. Instead, he seemed decidedly lukewarm about his own subject. Not good.
Second was the content. The President (finally) nailed it when he pointed out the crisis facing America's middle class. And he was right: this country needs a strong middle class if we want a strong nation. Strong economically, socially, politically, you name it. The middle class is the glue that holds this nation together. And right now, the glue is starting to go bad.
No argument there.
But then listen to the solutions the President has to offer, and other than his argument over the tax code--where he is basically correct, we could go back to tax rates we had in the past without killing any jobs or destroying the corporate work ethic--his solutions are very thin gruel.
Take a look at the February 2010 Annual Report of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class.
You remember that Task Force, don't you? The one chaired by Vice-President Joe Biden? You remember Vice-President Joe Biden, don't you?
Never mind.
That report basically regurgitates all the same stuff the President tried to touch on in his speech. Preserve America's manufacturing jobs. Oops, too late.
Invest in infrastructure. Oops, all that money that was supposed to go toward jump-starting the economy after the big crash of 2008--it's still unspent.
Fix public education. Oops, no progress on that one either.
It's more than disappointing.
It's problematic.
Either the President doesn't actually know what government can or should do to come to the aid of the middle class; or he knows and can't deliver; or the whole theory of the case is wrong.
What if the federal government isn't the source of support for the middle class (other than tax policy and large budget outlays for health care and welfare)?
What if it has to come at the local level? What if we should be listening to mayors and governors, to social entrepreneurs and grass-roots organizers--what if they know what the middle class needs, because they're a lot closer to the middle class and its struggles than any policymaker in Washington, DC?
Welcome back to the fight, Mr. President!
Now, remember what you used to do as a community organizer in Chicago?
Let's try that! This time, we just might win!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What's the Matter With Business?

Another of the benefits of being off the grid for a couple of months: old news is new! And you can consume it at your own rate!
Which is to say, if you're like me, the onslaught of media, when you're trying to swim in the stream, can be overwhelming. I remember feedback from people who canceled their subscriptions to HBR when I was editorial director. They invariably said, "The issues pile up, I can't keep up, and it's easier to cancel my subscription than to feel guilty for not reading each issue."
I'm the opposite.
I look forward to random reading in piled up back issues of old magazines after I get back from a prolonged absence.
Take the September 24-30 issue of The Economist. Page 76, opened at random, offers some startling statistics about how companies work inside. According to a study commissioned by Dov Seidman, author of "How," 43% of American employees surveyed say their company works on a command-and-control culture--management by coercion. Another 54% say their employers are top-down, but with a dollop of carrots and sticks, and talented leaders who try to inspire followership--a category Seidman calls "informed acquiescence." Only 3% actually practice employee self-governance, where a shared set of values and principles guide employees in their work and align them with the company's larger purpose.
But, as Paul Harvey used to say, that's only part of the story!
The Economist goes on to report that, unlike the employees in the belly of the beast, the bosses at the tops of companies who were interviewed saw a very different picture. Bosses, according to the study, are 8 times more likely than the average to say that their company is self-governing. 27% of the bosses say their employees are inspired by the company--only 4% of the employees see it that way. 41% of the bosses say their company rewards performance based on values, rather than purely on financial results--14% of the employees agree.
What does the gap cost companies?
The Economist notes that in companies run through coercion, fewer than 20% of the employees say their company readily adopts good ideas.
In an economy of ideas, that means leadership by coercion renders your organization deaf, dumb, and stupid.
But it's worse than that.
Decades after all the initial work on the importance of corporate culture, after Peter Drucker's early reflections on the coming of the knowledge economy, after Theory X and Theory Y gave way to Theory Z, the vast majority of American companies (presumably the large ones) are still run according to the old model.
Rules and restrictions.
Reports and regulations.
Keep everyone in line. Tell them what to do. Give them enough room so they can do their jobs, but make sure nobody gets too adventurous or creative, too innovative or idealistic.
When Bill Taylor and I started Fast Company more than 15 years ago, we put our manifesto on the front cover of the first issue: WORK IS PERSONAL; KNOWLEDGE IS POWER; COMPUTING IS SOCIAL; BREAK THE RULES.
Maybe it's time to restate those principles. Make them part of the OCCUPY BUSINESS movement.
We need to see that 3% of self-governed businesses grow to become the majority.
The 99%.
It's something to shoot for.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Not Dead, Yet

I've gotten emails lately, several of them, actually, asking me if I'm dead.
How I'm supposed to answer them if I am dead is a mystery.
But since I'm not dead yet, I answered them all.
The logic behind them was simple: My friends knew that at the end of September I'd taken myself off the grid to go with my family to trek the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal.
They figured that I would die on the trek, a notion that I myself partially subscribed to, even encouraged half-heartedly. It made a certain kind of sense. Trekking wasn't something I was partial to; the trip had been my wife's creation, going back to do again a journey she'd made 11 years earlier. So death was a distinct possibility.
But it was not to be.
Instead it was a fantastic trek, filled with great adventure, once I got past the distinct smells of the squattie-potties and the sight of goats being slaughtered in the street to celebrate a Hindu festival.
Great adventure, wonderful terrain, amazing villages, smiling people, and a shot at some new measure of self-knowledge.
And I came back with a new-found insight into the U.S. criminal justice system: Any Wall Street banker found guilty of insider trading or stock manipulation, Ponzi schemes or other financial self-serving, rather than being sentenced to prison, should be sentenced to hike the Annapurna Circuit.
He (or she) would come back at least 15-20 pounds lighter; seriously humbled by the mountain and its rigors; newly awakened to the limits of money and a fresh appreciation of what "enough" means; and an insight into the often inverse correlation between money and happiness.
If nothing else, he would return to America convinced that there is no real reason to wear pin-striped suits and power ties, red suspenders and french-cuffed shirts. There is a lot to life that involves backpacks and sleeping bags, vegetables and fried rice, and 8-hours of trekking in the most beautiful places on God's earth.
It's actually a pretty damned good shot at redemption for anyone looking for a new start.
Even a Wall Street criminal.

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