Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Future Is An Oxymoron

Let's start with a few math formulas.

Change + Leadership = Innovation
Change - Leadership = Fear

And finally, the Rule of Thumb: Change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.

Today the cost of the status quo is rising dramatically.

In the absence of leadership, the overwhelming response of the American public is fear. Fear of change, fear of loss, fear of the future.

Fear inevitably brings out the dark side of the American story.

Where America at its best is a nation of generosity, fear brings out a sense of entitlement.

Where America historically has operated as a nation of pragmatists, fear brings out self-deception.

Where America has cared deeply about community and protected the interests of those less well off, fear brings out narcissism.

Because of the deep and dark powers of fear, economic and social issues ultimately become issues of character. Character projected onto the canvas of daily events and regular decisions.

The same is true of technology.

Technology is never about technology. Technology is always about us.

Which is why technology tends to create an either/or dichotomy as a reaction.

Technology will kill us. Or technology will save us.
The answer is more technology. The answer is less technology.
The technology gives us the ability to stay connected to each other. Technology robs us of our privacy.
Technology gives us a huge amplifier. Technology gives us a badly needed simplifier.
Technology is all about going global. Technology is ultimately deeply personal.
Technology will lead us to dystopia. Technology will lead us to you-topia.

But what if the future isn't a dichotomy?
What if the future is an oxymoron?

Maybe we should stop looking at technology as a creator of trade-offs, and see it as a creator of a new space entirely. Instead of examining the choices along a spectrum, maybe we need to get off that vector entirely--rather than going wider, we go deeper.

Maybe we should ask different things of technology than what we've focused on so far.
Rather than speed, ubiquity, or availability, maybe we should ask for introspection, self-awareness, and meaning.

Maybe what we need is MeaningfulTech or IntroSpecTech.

It's not so far from what we're getting--not more, but deeper.

We already have smartphones and apps that make each of us the center of our own universe. That's the essence of i-world.

But what's missing are the apps and the technology to help us make meaning out of that world.
In a world where it's all about "me," how can I discover who "I" am?
How could the design of a device--the social design, the technological design--promote better answers to matters of introspection?
What if the best connection between my smartphone and me isn't to the outside world--but to the inside on?
What if Google Maps had charts to the inner recesses of what it means to be a human?
What if we had a technology compass to connect us to all the possibilities in the outside world, but starting with our own selves and our inner worlds?

What if you went onto your smartphone with an app that allowed you, not to meet up with your friends, your tribe, your co-workers, but with your self?
An app that says, "Find your self here." Facebook for One.

Then you'd have started to create a future that's an oxymoron.
Technology: The Essence of Making Meaning.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Three Steps to Relevance

It seems to be a disease of our time.

Companies, organizations, all kinds of institutions know themselves to be profoundly important--even essential--to everyday life. But the problem is, they're just not relevant to us, the people who are living that everyday life.

Think of all the big companies and old, respected non-profits that are enormously powerful. But you don't actually know what they do. Or how they do it. Or why they matter.

The 100-year old giant telecom company that is global--but when you're asked what they make, sell, do, provide . . . you don't actually know.
The non-profit that has been around for ever, doing . . . well, doing good. But exactly how isn't clear any more.

If you work in one of these organizations, you know what it's like to be invisible, inaudible, and irrelevant. If you run one of these organizations, or sit on the board, it's even worse. It's bad for morale, bad for finances and fund-raising, bad for business.

Left untreated it could be fatal; the good news is, there are three steps you can take to relevance--you can fix it.

Step 1: Make yourself visible.

When I was learning how to drive a car, my dad told me, "Don't watch the brake lights of the car in front of you; watch the brake lights of the car in front of him."

The problem for many irrelevant companies is that they don't have a direct line of sight to an end-customer; they sell their product or service to an intermediate company, and that company sells it to the end user. So the irrelevant company is hidden from sight, shielded from the end-user's sight by the intermediate company.

If that's you, do what BASF did a few years ago: Start a campaign that explains to end users how important you are to them. "We don't make X," BASF's campaign said. "But we make the Y that goes into making X."

All of a sudden BASF was stepping into the end user's line of sight!
So that's what you guys do! You don't make the actual life-saving product I depend on, but you do make the chemicals that go into that product! I get it!

If you want customers to see you, you have to step out of line and make yourself visible.

Step Two: Make yourself audible.

Do you actually know the differences between micro-processors?
For that matter, do you know what a micro-processor is? Or what it does--other than process things at a micro scale?

Neither do I.

That said, I do know Intel. And I like Intel, although I don't know why exactly. I just know that I like what Intel stands for. Although if you pressed me hard, I couldn't exactly say what Intel does stand for, come to think of it.

I just know that when it comes to my computer, I'm glad I've got Intel inside.

And why am I glad?

I'm glad because Intel made a big deal out of the fact that, even though I can't open up my laptop and look inside, it's really really important that Intel is inside there.

They told me that over and over again. They made it fun for me to know that. They showed me guys hopping around in bunny suits.

And now I know that Intel is a good organization, and that as a consumer of technology, when it comes to what's inside, I prefer Intel.

Intel got a voice and talked directly to me. And it worked.

Step Three: Make yourself matter.

When it comes right down to it, you may not have a way to stand out or speak up about what it is you make or do.

But you do have something you care about.

Face it, every company, every organization, every institution has to have its own unique values. Facebook says it embraces The Hacker Way. Google says, do no evil. Even Hugh Hefner went to great lengths in the early days of Playboy magazine to articulate the Playboy Philosophy.

If you can't make us interested in what you make or do, tell us what you care about. What you stand for.

If you can't make it business, make it personal. That's about as relevant as it gets.
Person to person.

Three steps to relevance, with one thing in common, the one thing Steve Jobs understood when he started Apple back in the beginning.

One of Jobs' first calls was to Regis McKenna, Silicon Valley's marketing master.
Because, as McKenna wrote a few years later in HBR, "Marketing is everything."

Three steps to relevance, but they all start with one giant leap: into marketing.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Essential But Not Relevant

I spent yesterday at a meeting of a large company that plays an essential role in the world of telecom.

The company is more than 100 years old; it has always been at the forefront of providing and maintaining the best service in its segment of the industry. It is a company that is absolutely essential to the mobile world that we all depend on and take for granted. If you are in the world of apps, you need this company; it you are in the world of social media, you need this company; if you love your smartphone, you need this company.

But if I told you the company's name and asked you what it actually does, you wouldn't be able to tell me. And if I asked you how you felt about this company, you wouldn't have any emotional attachment at all.

This company is essential--like a utility--but not relevant--nobody actually cares about them as a customer.

It's a fascinating category, this EBNR (Essential But Not Relevant).

Think about the many old and respected non-profits and social service agencies that dot the American landscape. Essential in the services they offer; but not relevant in a world that is rapidly changing, a world where more and more of us give money or time or support to organizations that seem faster, leaner, more efficient, closer to the problem, less bureaucratic or out-dated.

Think of the organizations that date back 50 years or more that were created to speak to an emerging demographic segment, a specific problem set, or an emerging way of life. The world has changed; a person who is 65 today has a different attitude toward retirement than someone in the previous generation; a person who wants to learn to become a public speaker or hone their leadership skills doesn't think about learning the skills and developing the confidence the same way that someone did 50 years ago.

Old and dependable companies can be essential but not relevant--which leaves them wide open to two problems: Either they can be undercut by a lower-cost competitor (from say, China) or they can be made obsolete by a new, innovator entry (from, say, Silicon Valley). Either way, simply being essential isn't a protected position. In fact, it's often a precursor to extinction: right before you die, you remind yourself that, hey! we're providing an essential product or service! the world must need us!

And of course, sometimes we consumers are wrong: we classify a company, product or service as essential but not relevant, and disengage from it, only to discover too late that it was, actually, very relevant. Think "government" here: no sooner do we voters start treating our various governmental entities as not relevant, than they do something to remind us how very relevant they are--like cutting spending on public education, for instance.

But from the point of view of the leader in a company, the sweet spot is clear: essential and relevant. You can't live without us, and you love us!
When you find that combination, then you have to embrace continuous innovation and ongoing adaptation to make sure that you keep pace--or stay slightly ahead of--the changes in the world that can push you backward into the Essential But Not Relevant category.

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