Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: January 2014

You Can’t Polish a Turd – so just stop trying.

turd polishnew & improvedit's still a turd

As a student of human nature, I’m always amazed at the obsessive way we, the human race, go out of our way to fake ourselves, and our brethren, out. To avoid the hard realities and make the false, true. We rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, make molehills out of mountains, we call a heart a spade. Which is why I have always loved the idiomatic phrase, “you can’t polish a turd”. Because it points directly at our desire to try to tidy up disaster, to keep up a good face, and to avoid reality, telling ourselves everything is fine. However, let’s be honest. Everyone poops, as the children’s book tells us – and it seems that everyone then tries to turn it into something else.

And no other arena has made turd-polishing more of an art form than marketing. From “new and improved”, to “nothing works better, to “delicious AND nutritious”, marketing and advertising has consistently polished turds in order to make the lame sound good, make the weak feel strong, and make the lazy feel dynamic. Hurrah!

Well, it’s high time we stopped deluding ourselves, trumping ourselves up in the eyes of others, and taking shortcuts in order to keep us from doing the real work.

Stop deluding ourselves to make ourselves feel better
When confronted with a marketing situation that is less than positive, turd-polishing and spin doctoring begins to take place at a high level. Years ago, when I worked on Wisk Detergent, the marketing department decided to reduce the amount of cleaning enzymes in the product as a way to reduce costs. That’s right, they decided to make the product perform worse. But they convinced themselves they were giving the consumer the right level of cleaning – instead of that “over-formulated” product they’d produced for all these years.

Similarly, I worked on AT&T many years ago, and they were looking for ways to increase the revenue they made from long-distance calling (as I said, it was many years ago). They knew that most residential calling was happening after 8PM, when the rates went down – so they decided to raise the night-time calling rate. They also lowered the day rate, in order to create a single rate for the entire day. Because most calling happened at night, it was effectively a price hike for nearly everyone. But AT&T spun it as a “simpler” and more consumer-friendly plan. There, that turd is polished!

So what can you do? Ask yourself – is this really what the consumer wants? Is this based on a true human insight? Would I want this? What makes this a good thing? Consumers, more than ever, demand honesty and transparency. Anything less will be exposed, ignored and ridiculed. New and improved, my arse.

Stop trumping ourselves up with veneer and shallowness
One thing the industry has no shortage of is buzz. As in buzzwords, the “latest big thing” and the new. But so often people use this buzz to cover up a lack of substance, knowledge or honesty. How many times have you heard someone rattle on and on, using the latest terminology –  DMPs, RTB, “brand as publisher” and “native advertising”, anyone? – and, afterwards, you aren’t really sure they said anything at all? The turd that’s being polished here could be ignorance and insecurity, or, worse, a lack of ideas being masked with shiny words. So, instead of buzzwords and generalities, speak in plain English. That’s the only way to see if you’re really saying anything.

Stop taking shortcuts
When it comes to the real work we do, so many people seem to prefer to do as little as possible – and cover up the lack of effort and quality with a shiny wrapper and a nice bow on top. They’ll take below-average work and cover it with gilt – production values, technology, fancy talk. I’m here to tell you that no “content amplification system” can make crappy content successful. No amount of algorithmic optimization will make a bad campaign more successful. Calling your product “new and improved” doesn’t make it so. No fancy talk, over-jacked production quality or celebrities can make a dumb idea or poor product successful. If you’ve got a turd on your hands, the likely best thing to do is flush it down and start the work of producing something good. No amount of polish will change it.

Despite what I’ve said, people really do seem to think they can polish a turd. In fact, I’ve found that even the phrase this article is based on has been made “new and improved”. I found the edited phrase to be “You can’t polish a turd. But you can roll it in glitter”. Well, I guess that is kinda polished…

Don’t Vote For Yourself – A case for kindness

20140120-Napoleon-Dynamite-Heck-Yes-Id-Vote-for-Yoube kind blackboard vote for someone else

Mike Figliuolo and his Thoughtleaders has been one of my favorite bloggers for a long time – he’s practically one of my heroes. Today, he’s featuring a guest post from ME on his blog… and I’m pretty psyched. Please check it out (also in its entirety below) – it’s about the fact that leadership demands kindness. Would love to hear your thoughts, comments and rants below. And please share!

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“If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless.” – Moliere

In 6th Grade, I ran for class president. President of my class, my home room, mind you, not my entire grade. In any event, the election results were tight. And when they were read out to the class, I found I had lost by one vote. “At least the person I voted for won,” I told my friend and campaign manager, Tommy Markham. “You didn’t vote for yourself?” he asked. He couldn’t believe it. “If you had, you would have won”. The funny thing was, voting for myself hadn’t even occurred to me. The only question I had was which other candidate I would vote for. And, as it happened, I voted for the winner.

What is relevant about this story? On the face of it, probably not much. The idea of not taking actions to help yourself seems at odds with all our learnings and beliefs. But as a leader, the concept of “voting for someone other than yourself” should not be so crazy. And, in fact, good leaders need to see themselves as working for their direct reports, and, in a way, being more invested in their success than their own.

Here are some key ways to apply the “vote for someone else” ethic in your role as leader:

Give Away What You Have

“Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.” – Edward Dahlberg 

There’s a concept called “Abundance” that is a critical character trait for successful leadership. Abundance, as you might expect, is having presence, confidence and energy – so much so that you can be confident in giving to others your time, your ideas, and your help. You don’t need to take from others in order to be successful.

Having abundance helps attack one of the core cultural problems of many large corporations – the tacit zero-sum game of success – where employees seem to be pitted against each other for attention and rewards. This naturally has an inhibiting effect on sharing, helping and giving among co-workers. However, when you’re abundant, you know you are always re-filling your own kitty – so you’re comfortable giving to others. You are happy to share your thoughts and ideas. You’re happy to take the time to help others solve their problems. And you’re generous with praise and attention. It will all come back to you – in trust, respect, and ever more abundance.

Don’t Worry About Credit

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” – Harry S. Truman

Because leadership so often is intangible, people can feel they need to claim their successes. And the pressures to deliver “big wins” can cause leaders to trump up their achievements at the cost of their teammates. But this type of politicking and power-hoarding breeds fear and insecurity – and doesn’t have to be the case. In the words of Arnold H. Glasow, “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, and a little less than his share of the credit.” So, praise your team members and lavish credit on them. Everyone will know that you helped steer that ship. Simply let the credit accrue to you due to your team’s successes.

Cheer the Successes of Others

“A person places themselves on the level with the ones they praise.” – Goethe

In these “zero-sum” cultures, individuals tend to feel jealous of peers who achieve success. This negative energy creates competition and in-fighting. But it isn’t really true that others’ successes somehow limit our own opportunities. Confident and abundant leaders know that they will experience their own successes on their own terms. Instead of feeling that mix of envy and Schadenfreude towards your co-workers, practice the Buddhist concept called Mudita – “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it.”  This breeds stronger, more productive relationships, better long-term connections, and general good karma.

Lead with Integrity

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Sure, everyone knows it’s important to be honest, to understand morality and ethics, and to act accordingly. But it’s easy to say it’s important; it’s another thing entirely to walk-the-talk. As Oprah Winfrey said, “real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”

Unfortunately, it’s too easy for people to find loopholes or play fast and loose with their ethical code. People at all levels in business become overly focused on themselves, and end up bending with the tide, selfishly chasing their own gain. However, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the person of integrity lives in a fragile balance” between the all-too-human traits and pressures surrounding them.  Always stay balanced and true to yourself and your code.

Be kind

“Kindness is the language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain

Today, business is not for the faint of heart. It’s never been more competitive, more urgent, and more pressure-packed. Sales and market-share are fought for, competitors are battled with, and consumers are stolen. It’s an all-out-war. It would seem that kindness and being nice are out of synch with this battle.

But, in the end, it’s people who lead to any company’s success. And people, well, tend to like kindness. They respond positively to being treated well. And a happy team and a happy culture correlate more highly with success than an every-man-for-himself, Machiavellian one. So be nice. Be careful how you speak to someone. Treat folks with respect – and never expect anyone to do anything you wouldn’t do. And appreciate people’s efforts and always say thank you. You’ll be surprised how well kindness can be your competitive advantage. And, as Aesop said, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Who knows what I’d have done differently if I’d won that election. Would my life have taken a very different course? It’s impossible to know. But the lessons I learned from my vote that day – give to others, don’t worry about who gets credit, cheer the success of others, demonstrate integrity, and be kind – are well worth the lesson.

Want What You Have – and not what you think you want

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“It is better to want what you have than to have what you want” Philemon

When I was a youngster, people would always mention my wavy, curly hair. “I love your curls”. “I wish I had your hair”. “So jealous”. But I hated it. I wanted straight hair, not the wavy, “naturally curly hair” that everyone with straight hair seemed to want. (Now, of course, I’m just happy to have hair at all.)

This seems to be human nature. Short people want to be tall, brunettes want to be blonde, intellectuals want to be athletes. And I get it, when it comes to people. But with brands? Why do brands (and Brand Managers) seem to think it’s critical that they develop in all the areas that research tells them they don’t own, and match the attributes and characteristics of their competitors, instead of focusing on the areas they are already strong? In general, it just doesn’t work – and it’s suicide. Instead of striving to be what you’re not, be what you are instead.

  • Don’t dilute what you are in order to be all things to all people
    It’s like clock-work. A new Brand Manager takes over a brand and looks at equity research. He sees the “outages” the brand has on various category attributes and vows to put the brand’s resources to bear on correcting them. I’ve seen it a million times. For example, I once worked on Wish-Bone salad dressing. The brand was known as a bold, zesty italian-style brand – and owned those dimensions in the category. But it was weaker on attributes of “creaminess” and “all-family appeal”. So the company put emphasis on building its Ranch/creamy attributes, and did it’s best to tone-down the brand’s robustness. Ignoring that this is what made Wish-bone what it was – and was the only reason it existed in the world. The brand may have gained a few users, but lost it’s way.
  • It’s good to be clear about what you’re not
    Being happy with what you are also allows you to celebrate what you aren’t. In the Wish-Bone example, it would be ok to allow Hidden Valley Ranch and Kraft to own the “blander”, “creamier” stuff. It doesn’t mean that Wish-Bone shouldn’t offer those flavors – it’s just that they should deliver them in a Wish-Bone way. Pepper-corn Ranch, Chipotle Ranch, Zesty Ranch. Those make sense, coming from Wish-Bone.

    And brands can also make a statement by saying what they aren’t, or who they aren’t meant for. There’s the famous example of Yorkie chocolate bar – they didn’t just position themselves as a manly candy meant for men, instead they actively marketed themselves as “not for girls”. That’s a strong statement of “wanting what you have”. And this type of clarity and purpose is especially attractive to the type of people who are already interested in you.

  • Don’t think that merely claiming to be something you aren’t will suffice
    When you don’t have what you want, you may simply try to grab it or claim it. And, sure, it worked for Marlboro 60 years ago (Marlboro was a female-targeted product that simply proclaimed boldly that it was a manly product). But we all know that doesn’t work today. If you’re not authentically true to yourself, it’s easy for all to see. So, sorry, Tony the Tiger, but Frosted Flakes are NOT a healthy breakfast, try as you might. And Cheetos “Natural”? Nah.

Never forget how hard it is to be known for anything. So when you have something, celebrate it, don’t soften it. Don’t run from it. Instead, find a way to infuse what you are into everything you do. Demonstrate what you are and have everywhere. Because it’s dangerous to have what you want. Because it will end up being nothing.

Smart is Over-Rated

don't get smart with meeinstein tonguekeep calm

A number of years ago, I worked with a client that had a Marketing Director who was very difficult. My team felt that nothing could satisfy him. Meetings were contentious. My people felt victimized and blamed. The work was started and then killed. And we were stuck – we didn’t end up doing anything. I mentioned this to the senior client, the VP of Marketing, and I still remember what his response was – “He (the Marketing Director) is incredibly smart”. As if that excused it all. I remember thinking “smart” is not the be-all-and-end-all. That, in almost every business that has people working together to accomplish things, smart is but one piece of the puzzle. And, perhaps, a small one, at that.

Since nearly every business is a team sport, there are a number of other attributes, traits and behaviors that are more important than smart. Smart is a great starting point – but it needs to be coupled with the following.

Listen more than talk: One negative aspect of smart can be a propensity to want show how much it knows. But listening is just as important – and is as often undervalued. Listening shows you are interested in the other person, it expresses and builds enthusiasm, and it demonstrates respect. And you know what? You may end up learning something your smart self didn’t know.

Happy to be wrong, vs. need to be right: I’ve said this before, but it needs to be said again (and again and again) – it’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to be right. “Smart” people often feel they need to be right – and resist doing, hearing or thinking things they already believe aren’t. But it’s way smarter to be open to new ideas, new thoughts and new possibilities – even if (or especially if) they end up being incorrect. Again, the learning you’ll get from being wrong will make you even smarter.

Clear over clever: Because smart people often want to show they’re smart, they can over-complicate ideas with cleverness. But it’s always more important to be clear, to get the point across, to ensure everyone understands and is aligned – than it is to score points with creative word plays.

Long marches, not bold strokes: At the end of the day, the secret of genius tends to be doggedness rather than god-given intellect. And, similarly, almost everything a leader does will be a process of steps and stages, implementation, and steady progress. Success or failure will be determined by the coordinated management of people and process. So, while smart people may want to issue dictums and proclamations, real leadership manages for the long haul.

Help others to understand, vs. demonstrating knowledge: Smart can sometimes be found pontificating or showing off its knowledge (a speedy string of acronyms and insider terms is a dead give-away). However, if indeed you are a smart person, then your real role when working on teams is to help your teammates understand things better to help them (and the team) achieve goals. Period.

Grit and resilience: Anyone who knows me knows that I place the trait of scrappiness in high regard. Similarly, I believe grittiness is second to godliness. Grit and resilience are the ability to recover from stumbles and bounce back, the ability to persevere through adversity, and the ability to stick around longer (“A hero is one who knows how to hang on one minute longer” Novalis). Unfortunately, grit is not always correlated highly with smart. Because smart often believes it “knows”, so will either chart a safe course that doesn’t challenge much. Or it simply proclaims and then delegates. But, as Seth Godin said, while smart folks may desire accuracy, it’s grit and resilience that are the “best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others”.

Stories over facts: Facts are important to everyone, but especially to the smart. Data, information, numbers and research are their currency. But while these are critical foundations for business, creating stories around them is even more important. What does the data mean – and, even more importantly, where can it take us? What possibilities does it open up? What other ideas can we come up with? These stories will help a smart person drive success better than the cold, hard facts, any day.

Emotional, instead of rational, intelligence: The overly intellectual can be, well, too intellectual and rational. But to achieve anything, you need to influence and inspire others. So understanding people, and what they need or care about, is critical. That’s why “emotional intelligence” is as important as smart. Because success is as much about people as brains.

To a Perfectly Imperfect 2014 – Why aiming for perfect is a terrible idea

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Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend” Ann Lamott

Back in my school days, I used to call myself “B+ Guy”. That’s because I believed that doing very well was important (FYI, my college GPA was 3.35 – a dead-on B+) – but that the amount of additional time and effort it took to move a B+ to an A was not a worthwhile investment. Better to understand the topic, dig into it and do very well, and then spend whatever time was left over on other things – other classes that needed the attention, other interests, or whatever.

Well, I’m pretty sure I was on to something, because I still basically believe it now. And in today’s new normal, this concept has never been more timely. Now, to be clear, this isn’t an acceptance of shoddy, half-thought-out work full of errors and laziness. And, yes, you’ve got to put in the requisite heaps of work and effort. But when it comes to new ideas, new work, innovation and launching things, a B+ is darn good. In fact, “good enough” is often a good enough place to start – or, as Facebook puts it (and plasters it all over there offices and press), “done is better than perfect”. It’s better to get off and running with something good… and begin learning and improving it, live.

Which is why I’m starting the year with a diatribe against perfection. It’s time to toss the idea of striving for perfection onto the scrap-heap, and move into a more nimble, iterative approach to building things. The problem is that the idea of being a “perfectionist” has a positive connotation to it – overachievers who are obsessed with quality and demanding of positive results. And organizations LOVE perfectionists. They work incredibly long and hard, they demand great results, they reduce errors and failures, and they drive others to do the same. What’s not to like, right? However, there’s a helluva difference between a healthy pursuit of excellence and a neurotic perfectionism. And I’m here to tell you that perfectionism is a negative, and actually gets in the way of productivity and happiness.

The benefits of killing your perfectionism are manifold:

You will do more:  As David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” Waiting for things to be perfect is a perfect recipe to stop moving forward, stop creating, stop doing things. Plus, no amount of perfectionism upfront can possibly prepare you for all the potential complexities and curves thrown at you in the real world – so better to get out there and address them live, as prepared as you can be. You’ll get much more benefit from launching than waiting – as General Patton said “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

You won’t miss opportunities or lose momentum: In the words of the software entrepreneur Roni Einav “I tell people that if they are looking for the perfect idea, for the perfect gap in technology, they will never get there.” In fact, even if you finally achieve what you consider “perfection”, it might be so late that you’ve lost your momentum and your competitive advantage. A perfect example is AT&T and cellular technology. Even though Bell Labs invented and received patents for cellular telephone technology as early as 1946, its demand for “perfection” in quality before making it commercially available led them to cede the industry to other players for years.

You will be willing to make mistakes (thus will learn and succeed more quickly): Perfectionism may protect you from making some mistakes – but those mistakes can also lead you to learnings that cause even greater breakthroughs. It’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to right or perfect. And let’s remember, there are no “right” answers, anyway – especially in areas that demand creativity and innovation.

You’ll know when to let go: Since you’ll know that there is no such thing as perfect, you’ll understand that there will be a point where the work is good – and that more time controlling and perfecting it won’t make it better. You’ll know that no amount of pre-work can predict all possible real-world outcomes – so you’ll do the work that you can do, and be prepared to iterate and improvise afterwards. As the wife of jazz musician Carl Stormer said, “control is for beginners”.

You will recognize that the good and the great are NOT enemies: I’ve worked before with people who turn their nose up at “good” work, saying they demand greatness. But this is silly. Not only are the “good” and the “great” not enemies, but that they are good friends. The difference? “Good” just arrives on the scene earlier – and warms up the place for the “great”. It’s much easier to turn good into great in real life, than try to create great in a lab setting.

You will learn to trust and respect yourself and your partners: Like a jazz musician, you will rehearse what can be rehearsed – but know that you’re creating something new, which by definition has some spontaneity and improvisation to it. So you’ll need to respect the fact that you, and your teammates, all know what you’re doing – and trust each other as you go.

One interesting note: as Greg McKeown points out in his blog post “Today, just be average,” the word “perfect” has a Latin root, whose literal translation would be “made well”, “done thoroughly,” or “complete.” But today, we always use it to signify flawlessness. Let’s all make a new year’s resolution to take perfection back to it’s Latin roots – and eradicate modern perfectionism for the good of all.

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