Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

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

Tag Archives: Problem solving

Mobile isn’t just ANOTHER screen…*

When the dawn of mobile media occurred over 10 years ago, the ad industry dubbed mobile phones the “third screen”. There was the TV, computers, and, now, phones. The mobile screen was simply another outlet on which to engage with consumers.

Things have moved full-tilt since then, as the mass adoption of the smartphone has seismically changed all of media, marketing, and information access for consumers and brands alike. Mobile is now most often the first place people search, look things up, and access info. In addition, the reasons, contexts, and ways that people use the mobile screen have evolved to be vastly different than those of other screens.

With all these changes in the media screen eco-system, why are most marketers still approaching mobile as just another screen, and adopting old models of advertising and engagement? This is destined to fail – because it clashes with the fundamental user behaviors and expectations on this newest of screens.

You see, in my opinion, mobile isn’t just a screen:

  1. Mobile is a behavior

People aren’t doing typical web browsing activities on mobile – meaning they aren’t open to clicking away, exploring links or general “serendipity”. Their time is constrained; meaning long copy, elaborate design, and multiple steps are anathema. And, there are many more distractions and complexities due to the real world context – so KISS.

  1. Mobile is an expectation

You expect immediate answers from your smart phone. Who directed that film? How late is this store open? What is the phone number for the restaurant?

You expect the web to be easy and smooth – sites need to load fast, information has to be accessible and readable, and pages need to be designed for size and utility.

And now, consumers have similar expectations of brands on these devices. So why does your mobile site take so long to load? Why is the information I need hard to find? And why is it so hard to find the ‘x’ to close your irrelevant ad that’s interrupting my task?

  1. Mobile is a transaction and tactical

People use mobile to solve and complete specific tasks. And because of this, mobile hates interruption. Which I find ironic, because most advertising on mobile is highly interruptive. If you don’t think that this type of tone-deaf marketing isn’t why a majority of millennials have installed ad-blockers, then you’re as out of touch as your marketing.

  1. Mobile demands relevance

When I see, say, a contact lens ad on TV or the web, I ignore it. But if receive a mobile ad for contact lenses, it feels like an invasion. Due to the intimacy of the device and the amount of personal information and activity that happens on it, there’s an expectation of relevance and individualization. So when marketers choose ‘mass’ over ‘relevance’, they take a big risk of getting it wrong – and earning the enmity of those they are aiming to influence.

The flip side of this danger is the opportunity it presents. Consumers actively seek out relevance and are willing to pay for it with their personal information and data. For example, 61% of smartphone users say they’re more likely to buy from companies whose mobile sites or apps customize information to their location (Google/Ipsos, 2015) and 76% of people who opt in to location sharing do so to receive more meaningful content (Salesforce, 2014 Mobile Behavior report). It’s pretty clear that consumers will share their information for relevant value-added offers and information – that respect their time, preferences and actions.

Marketers have finally hailed the ascendance of the mobile screen. So, let’s treat it more than just another screen.

*Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily 9.13.16

The ‘Reverse’ Job Description: A Company’s Responsibility to Employees*

reversejob description tabhuman resource

There’s a “war for talent” out there. It’s an increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees, and companies talk the talk about how they are focusing on acquiring the best of the best. They call their HR people “Talent Directors”. Job description after job description describes their searches for “rock stars”, “gurus” and “ninjas”. And each job spec is chock full of the myriad incredible feats and accomplishments that each talented new hire has to achieve to be successful.

But so many new hires don’t stick – the data shows that almost half are gone within 18 months. And it’s not about skills – only 11% fail due to lack of skill, with the other 89% due to “attitudinal reasons”. With the high investment in time and money in recruiting, wouldn’t it makes sense for companies to make more of an effort to enhance stickiness and raise long-term success? The way I see it, every open role should have not just a job description, clearly iterating what is expected of the new employee, but would also have a “Reverse Job description”. That is, what are the required tasks of the company to ensure the success of the new employee.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Success is a collaborative thing, especially in today’s interconnected, matrixed, ‘new normal’ organizations. So I say that every critical role to be filled should have an equally important role for the organization and the leaders. Here’s what it would be made up of:

Build an on-ramp. Coming into a new organization is always hard – but nowadays, you’re expected to get moving at light-speed, stat. So it’s important to provide the tools, resources, and support to enable the new hire to merge into the fast lane as smoothly as possible. How can you provide support during the early days? Who and what are the right resources for each type of problem and opportunity? Where can he or she find the tools they might need? Anything that keeps a new employee feeling new and un-integrated keep him or her puttering along on the shoulder of the road.

Provide a pit crew. The most seasoned and successful race car drivers know they have a pit crew awaiting them whenever they need re-fueling, or if the dashboard is filling with warning lights. Well so should the greatest rock-star employee. A company should make sure there will be regular get-togethers to review the road behind and the road ahead. And expecting there will be some blow-outs and oil leaks is a pretty good idea, as well, since there will be.

Plan for some speed bumps. As I mentioned above, every journey has bumps in the road. Especially at work. In the best of circumstance, with as many knowns as possible, there are surprises that wreak momentary havoc on existing teams. But for the new employee, everything’s new and unknown – new partners, new clients, new dynamics, new culture. Do them a favor and set the expectations for some bumpy moments. Expecting perfection is never a good idea; but in these situations, it’s an absolute mistake.

Implement an instant network. I don’t care what level the candidate is, they’ll need some advisors and mentors. Sounding boards for problems and opportunities. Folks to look to when building their thinking. Or when the going gets tough. New employees don’t have instant credibility, respect or trust – so it’s important to provide a few internal contacts where they won’t have to immediately earn it. Each reverse job description should allocate several of these partners and comrades.

Provide a core of complementors. Generally, when hiring someone for your team, you are looking for one or two key skills. The skills and experience that are critical for the success the company is looking for. However, when placing this person into the organization and onto a team, there are likely some complementary skills that are required – skills that might not be immediately native to the new hire. So ensure you have embedded the complementary partners needed to help get past the initial growing pains.

Give some early cheers. No matter how talented and experienced the new employee is, the new situation will feel a bit alien. And without a sense of belonging, the new hire may find the honeymoon wearing off quickly. A little recognition can go a long way towards making new employees feel at home and part of an organization. Which leads to more success and longer tenure.

What do you think? Does this seem like too much to ask from a company? Should an employee’s success be all up to them?

*Originally published in TalentZoo 9/2/15

Get outside your bubble – and stop the echo-chamber thinking

bubble pin prick echo chamber red quote echo chamber

“Lesson number 2: Don’t get high on your own supply” Elvira Hancock

Today’s business world is in need of “groundbreaking ideas”, innovation, creative breakthrough, and disruption. But so many companies can’t get out of their own way. Instead, like Tony Montana, they’re getting high on their own supply. They live firmly inside their own bubble, they believe all their own b.s.,  and they never even question themselves. And while it’s hard to break this habit, we’ve got to try.

Smash your echo-chamber
Whether we realize it or not, we all create our own bubbles. We seek ideas and outlets that align with our pre-existing opinions. We naturally tend towards friends with common backgrounds and personalities. And the modern web further reinforce our own echo-chamber – and is making it smaller and smaller. Sites and search engines recommend content that matches your behavior and history; data on our browsing leads to more content like we’ve already viewed; we follow those with similar POV’s; and our friends and loved ones curate the web for us – all of this discouraging diversity.

But there is tons of evidence that diversity of thought is hugely beneficial to problem solving, creativity and decision-making. So we need to step outside our bubbles to get external perspectives, new ideas and opposing viewpoints.

  • Go out into the real-world. Go on “field-trips” with your teams, go see your brand and consumer in action, in real life contexts. And, while using “big data” is hugely helpful – the “little data” of real life examples and anecdotes can set your imaginations, and creativity, on fire.
  • Study your competition, open-mindedly. It’s easy to take a flat, uni-dimensional approach while looking at your competition and their actions. It’s all stupid, baseless and misguided, right? Well, not so much. Open your mind to what they’re doing – they may be approaching the same situation you are, but with different, and perhaps fewer, in-going assumptions and biases.
  • Get outside your category for case-studies and examples. Oftentimes an example of a brand, team, person working in a completely different category and context can provide infinitely more inspiration than one that is facing the exact same issues you are. Take a cue from David Bowie, who “spreads the net so wide … (to) create something so new with what they find“.

Challenge your company’s thinking
While nearly all people and all companies say they want new thinking and new ideas, they rarely actually do. It’s uncomfortable and difficult to achieve. In fact, it’s been proven again and again that people generally tend to stick with the familiar and comfortable – from music to strategies to ideas. And companies are trained to follow the leader, avoid conflict, and go with the flow. To break out, you have to challenge yourself and your thinking.

  • Say “we might be wrong” regularly. Those simple words will cause you to re-look at your assumptions, reflect on your ideas, question your strategies. Critiquing your ideas can only make your thinking better. As Margaret Heffernan describes in her wonderful TED talk, “create conflict around theories” as a way to build them – seek to disprove as much as to support existing thinking.
  • Take the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Diplomatically ask questions that no one seems to want to ask or that make folks uncomfortable – an indicator of echo-chamber thinking. Ask “why?” a lot – and, even more importantly, “why not?” and “what if?
  • Leverage outsiders or fresh thinkers.  Generally, those who have not been “drinking the Kool-aid” for years and years can provide a real fresh perspective – if an organization is open to listening. Hire diversely, create “Red Teams” to help find holes in a core team’s thinking, etc.

Eat some broccoli
As I mentioned, the world of media can become a self-curated echo-chamber, in which you read and watch and share the ideas you already have. In a way, you choose to read the “candy” all the time, but not the vegetables that might be good for you but less obviously pleasurable. At least, that’s the way Siva Vaidhyanathan describes it. He says that we need to eat some content broccoli, too.  A little less cat videos and HuffPo. A bit more Scientific American and opposing viewpoints.

What do you think? Is there echo-chamber behavior going on at your company? How have you helped to challenge it?

Letter To a Graduate – Some rules to live by

My son recently graduated from high school. This was extremely difficult for me to process – our first child, a person we’d brought into the world and cared for, was now moving on to independence from us.  Living on his own, making his own decisions, becoming his own person. In trying to work out what this meant (to me), I put some of my thoughts down on paper on making this transition (and special thanks to Mike Figliuolo and a post he wrote about a similar letter his dad had given him more than 20 years ago) – and sent my son these ideas and beliefs on what it takes to be a good man and a good person. I’m hoping he finds them applicable and helpful over time (his first response was a bit of a grunt and a “yeah, great”) –  I think they’re fairly universal as themes for adults, leaders, etc, too. This is what I sent to him.

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Hey Buddy!

Congratulations – you’re a High School graduate! I couldn’t be any prouder of you. It’s been wonderful to watch you grow –you continue to develop into an amazingly wonderful person and a great guy. The great work/success you’ve had, the way you talk, the way you interact with people – it’s impressive. As you make this giant transition from young-adulthood into being an independent adult, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you on being a good man and a good person. Many of these thoughts and ideas you’ve heard me “Rain Man” rant to you before, so you’ve probably learned how to tune them out or say “here he goes again”.  But it’s beginning to be time for you to start thinking about who and what you want to be (metaphorically speaking) – so I’d be interested in your thinking about these ideas, digesting them, and, over time, adding your own thoughts and ideas to them. Or feel free to tell me you think I’m crazy, you disagree, or want to discuss – god knows, I don’t have all the answers. Just don’t ignore me…!

Always be busy. You can easily recite the two things I hate the most – lying and laziness – as I’ve said this to you all your life. And it’s easy to understand why I say this. Being busy stimulates your mind and body. It generates energy and productivity. It makes you feel good, physically and emotionally. It opens you up to new things and creates new possibilities. And it gives you new ideas and makes connections. So force yourself to always stay busy.

School has been hard and has required significant work and attention – and life will continue to to get harder with college and real-life. Of course, downtime, rest and tuning out is important, Mr. X-Box. But, after some “chill time”, fill your time with stuff, both productive and frivolous. Interests, friends, creative pursuits. You’ll find yourself more energized. And you never know where these things will lead.

Don’t be afraid of what you’re not good at.  Casey, you excel at many things. And it’s natural (and wise) to focus on and leverage those strengths. They are, and will continue to be, an advantage for you. But you (as most people do) also tend to shy away from the things that don’t come easy to you. Fight those tendencies. Don’t write off all activities that “aren’t you”. It’s so much better to muscle through the initial discomforts, awkwardness or unease. You will find that life expands. You ultimately may not love these new activities, ideas or things – but you’ll understand them better. And they will no longer be an excuse for avoidance or failure.

Laugh at your mistakes; but learn from them. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s what life is about. You’ve made some already (we don’t need to get into them here…). And I’m here to tell you that you’ll make many more. Don’t bemoan them, don’t avoid them, and don’t start living life in fear of making more of them. But the key is to learn from them. Ask yourself how you could have avoided them; what can you do differently next time? That way you can always say that mistakes and failures are the necessary steps towards greater success.

“Respect the game”. Remember the first year when you played “Night League” basketball, and you told me you and your friends put the ball in your jerseys and ran around on the court during the game? You thought it was funny – but I was disappointed. I told you that you had to “respect the game”. There are rules, referees, and other teams involved. The other team had come out to play basketball, and you were disrespecting them, too. There are times when silliness and randomness are fine – but again, only when the game calls for it or allows for it. Recognize that whatever you are doing, there are other people, other contexts, other agendas involved. So always be respectful of them.

Similarly, whatever you’re playing, you should always bring your “A” game. Give your best effort, try your hardest, be your best you. Never say afterwards that you could have done more. Failure is fine – except when it’s due to lack of effort.

Stay hungry for learning. You are an amazing learner. Lately, I’ve been so impressed at how you retain and play back information about the brain and the body that you’ve learned in Anatomy and Psychology. Now, try to take that awesomeness beyond the information that is part of your structured learning into your unstructured life. Read about stuff, follow things, be interested. Know about your government and your world. Form opinions about things – but be willing to change them as you learn more. Avoiding things because you “hate them” (as in “I hate politics”) is no way to be – ignorance isn’t acceptable because of disinterest. Knowing about things gives you power – to converse, to have opinions, and make intellectual connections between things. And it’s a lot more legitimate to say, “I’ll tune out this stuff,” when you know about the topic.

Give a sh*t about things. One of the great things about you is that you are grounded, even-keeled and easy going. Your laid back approach lets you address the things you need to in a matter-of-fact, in-control way. This is a very good trait for when life gets harder and more stressful.

At the same time, this laid-back approach can seem blasé. As if you don’t care a lot. I think it’s important to show you give a damn, that you’re committed, all-in. And this goes for things beyond the big work stuff. As mentioned above, give a shit about the world, your interests, and other people. This makes life much more interesting and involving.

Don’t be a dick. You’re one of the most empathetic and compassionate people I’ve ever met. You understand others’ emotions. You’re the first to console those in need. You point out when you think other people are being jerks. So this maxim shouldn’t be difficult for you. Apply it to your behavior all the time – in school/work situations and in social ones, as well. Don’t make jokes at others’ expenses, don’t take advantage of other people, don’t pile on when someone’s down. Always be a stand-up guy, always make sure you are being fair, never cheat or bend the rules. Don’t hog credit, don’t be the first to blame, don’t succeed by bringing others down. I think the maxim “don’t be a dick” says it well.

Look presentable. But have style. You care about how you look. You’ve begun to develop a personal style, which is great. Keep it up – because, like it or not, how you look is important. That doesn’t mean always look a certain way – setting, context, etc. play a role in what looking good looks like. But know that how you look says something about you, and also about how you feel about whom you are with. So always make sure your appearance says, “I care”. It can also say, “I’m confident”, “I am interesting”, and “I am unique”. But never be mute.

Don’t hesitate to be in the minority. We both have agreed we don’t like people who are too “Indie”, as you call it – who need to be different all the time, just for the sake of being different.  They choose black just because someone else is choosing white. However, I still believe strongly in the Twain quote, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”. That means you should be purposeful in your decisions and strong in your convictions. Don’t simply follow the masses and don’t blindly follow trends. If something is considered “conventional wisdom”, it might not be either. So make sure you think about things and make your own decision. And always have the strength of character and purpose to go against the tide.

Slow and steady…? This may be the most boring advice of all – but slow and steady is a solid approach to success. You will enter into college, and into life, with a huge amount of enthusiasm and passion. You will be impatient for success and expecting speedy movement forward. But know that things can take time. And much of life is beyond your control – all you can control is how you deal with things. So keep plugging away, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, and good things will happen.

You’re the man. I love you so much. Can’t wait to see you living your life.

Dad

The Dis-comfort Zone – Getting comfortable with discomfort

jumpingtwilight zonecomfort zone comic

Watching the fiscal cliff negotiations over the past few months has provided us many valuable lessons. One might be, you should never give old, white men something important to do over the holidays. Another – it’s probably not a successful strategy to say “go f- yourself” to your negotiation partner. But perhaps the most potent lesson we have learned is that, to get any progress in life, you have to get outside your comfort zone. Welcome to the Discomfort Zone!

Why do I say this? Isn’t everything in life about achieving and living in comfort? Finding your comfort zone is a potent human driver. It’s where you feel most competent and able. You feel your strongest sense of belonging. Things are predictable, and you’re prepared for whatever happens. And you’re happy to stay there. But our comfort zones hold us back. Because, in the comfort zone, learning, progress, and innovation tend to stop. Change doesn’t occur. We can end up hitting all kinds of cliffs and impasses, fiscal and otherwise. We just say “no”, and stay in our bubbles.

The truth is, we are all wired to shun discomfort. It’s, well, uncomfortable. It fills us with fear – of not “knowing” things, of looking dumb or inept, of making mistakes, of failure. We’re filled with doubt. It’s the opposite of our comfort zone. And that is painful – so we avoid it.

But we need the discomfort zone – to improve, develop and challenge ourselves and do new things. But how can we get comfortable with discomfort?

Don’t panic. It’s natural to feel anxiety in the Discomfort Zone. There’s the stress of not knowing what you’re doing and the fear of the unknown. But panic causes you to freeze up – which in turn negates the possibility of learning and growth. On top of that, the unpleasantness of panic will likely cause you to want to avoid it the future. It’s easy to say, I know, but instead, try to relax and let go.

Provide support. When working in a group, it’s important to make sure your team feels safe. Develop a culture of mutual respect and support. Make sure folks feel that mistakes are expected and blame won’t be an issue. And that everyone is in it together.

Don’t think only in terms of success vs. failure. If you only view things in this binary way, you will likely avoid failure like the plague – by always staying firmly in your comfort zone. But, as I’ve stated before, failure can be a very good thing… and it’s generally the precursor to success. So face uncertainty with the passion of a scientist – knowing that all results are good, and learning comes from any experience.

Recognize that not knowing is the norm.  No matter how much experience you have and how much expertise you’ve gathered, every situation is new. So, whether you realize it or not, you’re constantly confronted with ambiguity and uncertainty. So get used to it.

Get out of the bubble. Spend too much time in your comfort zone and you can lose perspective. You can start to get high on your own exhaust. That’s why it’s important to push yourself out of your own bubble every once in a while, in both small and large ways. Take a new route to work, read different magazines or websites, try to understand things from another perspective. And, above all else, question everything, especially yourself.

Be willing to fall on your face. The number one thing that keeps us from venturing out into uncomfortable places is the fear of looking stupid. Of making mistakes. Of having people laugh at us. But that’s got to be challenged. Do your best to not take yourself too seriously – it’s unlikely that we’re talking about life or death. And when others begin to laugh at you, join in – and be the loudest laugh of all.

I’m facing 2013 with a renewed passion to force myself into discomfort. It’s something I will need to practice, to consciously seek and push myself towards. But in the words of Peter McWilliams, “comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort”.

Thinking INSIDE The Box – The key to innovation isn’t blue skies and creative freedom

Creativity has never been more important in business than it is today. The demand for innovation and new ideas is constant. With the Industrial Economy giving way to what some pundits are calling the “Creative Economy”, companies, and the employees within them, need to change in order to survive and prosper. They need to think outside the box, right? Not so fast.

When someone says to “think outside the box”, what are they saying? They’re saying forget the rules. Ignore the past. Don’t be constrained by the realities of your situation. Think blue sky, no restraints, no bad ideas. Creative freedom.

This is, frankly, ridiculous. And a gigantic waste of time. Because blue skies, creative freedom and “outside the box” thinking is overrated. You need to think inside the box – recognizing the rules, the realities, the details and the constraints that define your situation and what success is – in order to deliver innovation and useful creativity. And, generally, the more constraints, the better.

You have to define the box. You can’t think inside or outside the box without clearly defining the box. What are the details, the realities, the prerequisites? What’s worked in the past, what hasn’t? What do you need to achieve? As Bob Sutton points out, the first step in creating anything new is knowing as much as possible about the old stuff. And don’t look at constraints or realities as bad things. Look at them as the traction for your creativity.

And the fact is that, generally, the old stuff worked for good reason – so the box is there for a reason. So, again in the words of Sutton, “straying from proven ways is rarely a creative act…; rather, it is a sign of poor training, lack of attention, incompetence, or stupidity.” After all, as Darwinism would predict, most new ideas don’t work – and most old ones (the ones that are still around, at least) tend to be successful. So stray outside the box at your peril.

Creativity demands the constraints of the box. It may seem like a paradox, but you can’t do any constructive “out of the box” thinking without a darn good box. In fact, that out of the box thinking is really inside the box – the box that, as mentioned, defines the problem and the realities and details of your needs. I’ve heard the quote “give me the freedom of a tightly defined brief” – that until you have a very tightly defined problem, you can’t effectively ideate solutions (and I’ve written on the need to define your problem first). Want an example? Try coming up with a short story right now. It’s not easy, right? Now, try coming up with a story about a policeman and a thief, who are brothers, separated at birth, who meet again later in life. Much easier this time, isn’t it? Details and constraints help.

And any creative person will tell you that too much freedom is not helpful. Take John Pierce, seminal innovator from Bell Labs. When he was first brought in, he was given free rein to pursue anything. To him, it was like being cast adrift without a compass. “Too much freedom is horrible”, he said (from Leading Blog).

Nearly all breakthrough innovations evolve from existing ideas – i.e inside the box. It’s exceptionally rare that innovation and new ideas come from a lightning bolt flash of new, out of the blue thinking. Instead, they generally come from either incremental improvement upon existing ideas, or as a combination of known elements in a new way. Creativity tends to be iterative – building off of ideas and concepts that are most assuredly already inside the box. As brilliant as innovators and creative thinkers may be, they’re only “standing on the shoulders of giants”, as Isaac Newton said, describing this iterative and additive nature of knowledge.

Old or existing ideas arent intrinsically dumb, outdated, and in need of being thought outside of. Just because certain boxes are old doesn’t make them worthless. Being creative requires a deep understanding, and respect for, the old ways. As I mentioned before, in order to create something new you have to know a lot about the old.

And creativity is largely about seeing old things in new ways – or combining existing things into something new. This requires knowledge of and respect for existing ideas. The key is to find a way to create a view of the box that is different from the way you currently think.

Creativity needs to be useful. No matter how creative an idea is, if it needs to be useful. As Thomas Edison said, “the value of an idea lies in using it.” To be useful, it needs to be relevant to and be additive to what is already known. Creativity without usefulness is, well, useless.

So, what do you think? Should we start championing the idea of “thinking inside the box with our teams?

A Plea For Some In-efficiency – Too much efficiency can be a bad thing

No matter where you look, you will find hundreds of pundits, management consultants, business gurus and organizational experts all singing the praise of efficiency. Efficiency will lead to greater business productivity; it helps you trump your competition; it optimizes margins. Increasing your efficiency reduces waste and puts your resources to work delivering on your goals. It gives you more, for less. Efficiency is worshipped – it’s become the end-all and be-all.

But here’s the problem – efficiency is not an end, in and of itself. Because efficiency doesn’t solve problems, efficiency doesn’t generate creative ideas or innovations, efficiency doesn’t create passion. And efficiency can’t be rallied around. In fact, efficiency doesn’t serve your business purpose; it’s only one tool to help enable it.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you can have too much efficiency. In-efficiency is not always wasteful. In fact, there are lots of reasons that the obsession with efficiency can be counter-productive.

You can miss the opportunity of seeing things in a new way. By definition, efficiency is all about routinizing processes, simplifying and making behaviors predictable and repeatable. You work to find the most efficient route, and do it the same way each time. But this can get, well, routine. And predictable. And boring. Just like on your commute, every now and then you need to take the long way home – and see a new view and a fresh perspective.  In fact, the best views tend to be off the beaten path.

And that’s just it – if you’re busy making behaviors the same each time, you have a hard time being open to innovation and new approaches. You get stuck in patterns. And you can get restricted by the process and the time you’ve allotted for each step. So a super-efficient structure can become an innovation-inhibitor.

You may stop focusing on what really matters – doing great work. When the focus becomes efficiency, the work itself can become secondary. It becomes less important how great the work is than that it’s done, quickly. An extra bit of time to re-think, edit, round out or build upon your thinking? Nope, not allowed. It’s a “get it done and move on” mind-set.

But ideas and creativity don’t always work on a schedule. Sometimes, you simply need to walk off the pre-determined course and put on some additional mileage. Efficiency won’t allow it, but great work demands it, sometimes.

Your focus is overly internal. One thing about focusing on efficiency – you spend much of your time with your head down, focusing on your own work. This helps you keep track of who is doing what, for how long, etc. But it doesn’t do a lot for your inspiration. Instead of keeping your head down at all times, lift it up and spend some time looking outside of your work and business. Go out for lunch, meet with new colleagues and partners, take a walk. And read lots about your industry, as well as outside of it, for inspiration.

Efficiency lacks emotion. Efficiency is logical. “We accomplished this much work in this much time.” “We can cut steps in the process here.” “The schedule can be compressed in this fashion.” But most great work is emotional. And efficiency doesn’t always work perfectly with emotional/non-rational output.

And I defy you to show me examples of when your team waxed poetically about how jazzed they were from the efficiency they drove. What gets them passionate is the power of ideas. CFOs and CEOs may measure and crave efficiency – but even they respond greater to ideas and growth.

Efficiency is frictionless – but friction causes sparks. A core idea behind efficiency is reducing friction – in order to gain speed. Speed equates with getting more done in less time. So organizations aim to shave processes down and remove all the edges and friction. But, when you shave off all the edges of something, you end up with something that, well, has no edge. So things can get a little bland. Sometimes you need some friction to generate creative sparks.

Another thing that friction can do is slow us down. Which is why most efforts towards efficiency are about eliminating friction and waste. But there can be a limit to how frictionless we should be, as Barry Schwartz wrote in the NY Times article called “Economics Made Easy: Think Friction”. A little bit of friction can slow us down enough to make better decisions. The recent housing/credit crisis may have been caused by too much efficiency. A little bit of friction might have been a very good thing.

And while the world is moving faster and faster, as I said in a post in April, it’s never been more important to SLOW DOWN. Slowing down can provide clarity, fosters a different kind of thinking that is more deliberate and methodical, and keeps us from knee-jerk responses. Sometimes you just have to take it slow.

So all you mono-maniacal efficiency-seekers beware – you can have too much of a good thing. So, instead, look for opportunities or reasons to be in-efficient. You’ll be glad you did.

What do you think?

Stop Looking For The Right Answer – There ARE no right answers

As human beings, we are instilled, very early on, with the concept of right and wrong. “Don’t do this”, “no, that’s wrong”, “this is the right answer”. And we carry that concept forward into everything we do. We forever are seeking the simplicity of that duality – do the right things, avoid the wrong ones. This approach, in general terms, can be very helpful for our well-being and success. It’s right to eat healthy. It’s wrong to spend all your money on lottery tickets. It’s right to take showers. It’s wrong to throw gasoline on a fire. And ethical rights and wrongs keep society working relatively harmoniously.

But when it comes to more complex issues, like, specifically, business problems, I believe we over-use the concept of right vs. wrong – by expecting to find the right answer when there are really only shades of gray. Aiming for the “right” solution to problems like these is not the “right” approach. Instead, my recommendation is to aim for good – and then build like hell towards great.

Why do I say this?

Using the binary “right” or “wrong” causes you to find fault with everything. If you’re seeking the surety of choosing what is “right”, then you naturally will be focused on what’s wrongwith ideas, first. Your mind will search for why ideas won’t work, where they fall down, what’s incomplete or errant about them – instead of focusing on what is good and beginning to build. You’ll be amazed at how many good ideas (and good team members) this mind-set will burn through. Because, while you’re busy looking only for the “right” answer, you’ll speed past lots of very good ones along the way.

And the fact is, everything has things that are wrong with it. There are no perfect ideas, plans, solutions. There are only good ones – that then need to be made real, built upon and “stratecuted” for the real world. Because, let’s not forget, that we’re still talking about a strategy, a plan, an idea – it’s just a hypothesis at this point.

You’ll naturally discount any ideas or answers you come up with quickly. If you are looking for the right answer, you’ll likely believe that it can only be found and developed after lots of wrong ones are purged from your mind. You will devalue anything you came up with quickly as too obvious, too hasty, too light-weight. But this is often far from the case. Many creative thinkers believe their first ideas are best. And coming up with a good idea fast gives you more time to build it and make it even better.

Sometimes it’s more important to do something than nothing. One thing about waiting around for the “right” answer to your problem – during that time, you are doing nothing. I have been on teams that spent enormous effort to over-confirm and over-perfect a plan or an idea through excessive testing, vetting and layered approvals to make sure it was right. But, as General Patton said,“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week”. Your problem is almost surely addressed better by starting to attack it with a good idea and gaining momentum and learning in the real world. As I’ve written about before, great solutions generally take some time to develop and nurture in the real world.

The safety of “right” is a false one.  Here’s another thing to consider – what is “right” in theory can end up “wrong” in real life. As I mentioned, our ideas and plans and solutions are hypothetical – until we make them real. Lots of things impact the in-market realization of these plans. This includes some things in your control, like the execution and real-world activation of your ideas, as well as even more things outside of your control, like the activities of your competitors, the European economy or the unseasonable weather. So, as sure you are of the right-ness of your plans, you can’t really be sure.

What do you guys think? Are there really “right” ideas? Am I “wrong”? Have I beaten this to death yet?

Why, Oh Why – In praise of the question “why?”

Nancy Willard once said, “Questions are more important than answers” (I’ve also written on the importance of asking questions). And, as Seth Godin points out, the most important question you can ask is “Why?” “Why?” is the mother of all questions.  And it isn’t asked nearly enough.

“Why” is important for so many reasons. It’s a clarifier, a disrupter, a teacher, and an excavator. Asking “why?” means you’re plugged in, interested, and digging deeper.  And it helps you on the back-end, by focusing and defining success.

7 ways “Why?” helps you:

  1. It demonstrates attentiveness and active listening. If you, or someone else, asks the question “why?” it means they have been involved, engaged and listening. That they want to know more, to understand better, or to torture-test thinking. And that they care. This, in itself, is a very good sign.
  2. It demands a thoughtful response.“Because” is not an acceptable answer to “Why?” One must think clearly in response to the question. They will have to elucidate their rationale and reasons. It may even cause folks to think more deeply than they had prior to the question – and even get them to re-think what they’d previously thought or done.It’s even good to ask yourself the question “why?” “Why did I do that?”, “why do I want that?”, “why do I think that?”  This helps you clarify your own thinking – and may help you to re-think some assumptions you’ve made about yourself.
  3. It can break through rote or formulaic behaviors. Even the worst statement in the world – “because that’s the way we do it here” – can be broken down by asking “why?” “Why?” questions assumptions, routines and automated processes and demands that they answer to basic questions of relevance, appropriateness and effectiveness.
  4. It digs deeper. People often ask, “what happened?” They hear about situations, actions, activities, experiences. People talk about the steps they took and who said what. They point to results, figures, data and percentages. But they stop there. They don’t dig into why any of this happened. “Why?” seeks underlying truths and insights – it forces you to dig below the surface. “Why?” forces people to peel back the layers until they arrive at true understanding.
  5. “Why?” helps clarify decision-making and success criteria. Once you’ve dug in and answered the core “why’s?” of any assignment or project, you can lay out exactly what the decisions will be based on – does the solution and our actions answer to the “why?” of the project? If they don’t, there’s no reason to proceed. And, similarly, you can begin to define the KPI’s and success metrics of your project – what are the measures that answer to “why?”.
  6. “Why?” is a great teacher. When you ask “why?” of someone (a direct-report, especially), you are, in essence, holding them accountable. They need to define the rationale for their thoughts and actions. This helps them understand and learn, for the next time.
  7. It demonstrates curiosity. I’ve said this before, as well, but curiosity is a very good thing. Asking “why?” demonstrates curiosity – and what’s better than that? You’re engaged in expanding your mind, your understanding. And you’re interested in actively learning. Bravo!

We hear kids asking “why?” all the time. But, over time, we begin to stop asking it. And we stop gaining from the power of the question.

Let me know your thoughts and questions? Including why I wrote this…

Slow Is The New Fast – Sometimes you have to slow down in order to speed up

The world we live in seems to get faster every day – no matter how fast we move, we nevertheless seem to be constantly in need of catching up. Technology keeps us working and communicating, wherever and whenever, while our jobs seem to demand us to stay in touch, 24/7. Long-successful businesses all of a sudden face evolve-or-die scenarios, daily. Shareholders and analysts demand immediate results. We watch, real-time, for up-to-the-second data and analysis. Business is a marathon, as well as a sprint.

And in the advertising business, warp speed is table stakes. What once was given 6 months to complete is now given 2. Expectations of productivity have multiplied 10-fold. And the need to be prepared to react to the slightest market fluctuation keeps us all on the edge of our seats, ready to jump.

But I’m about to say something counter-intuitive (not too surprising, I know) – that in this speed-frenzied context, it’s never been more important to slow down. That’s right, I said SLOW DOWN.

Why? Because this need-for-speed has taken over our bodies and our brains. We shoot first, ask questions later. We react, respond, and do-do-do. We value action over thinking and praise response, no matter what. We develop processes that work on their own, like robotic speed-freaks. But sometimes, we need to press the pause button. We need to stop the presses, the mail-bots, the dashboards. Because, sometimes, we need to think slower – in order to work smarter.

This is exactly what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman wrote about in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which suggests there are two distinct systems that dictate how we think and make decisions. One is fast, intuitive and reactive, while the other is slow, deliberate, methodical, and rational. He argues that there are many situations in which we must force ourselves to “think slow”. A Harvard Business School article agreed, saying that “in a world that is more complex and uncertain and ambiguous we should be promoting slow and deliberative thinking.” Good leaders know why you should sometimes think slow. Do you?

Promote real, human contact. This need-for-speed has caused us to resort to e-contacts as the default state. Important programs that once required people physically together in a room working through issues now kick-off with an email. People work alone behind laptops and “hand-off” their responses, like passing the baton. But lots of activities demand more deliberate, in-person activities. And, counter-intuitively, you’ll be amazed to find that your productivity will grow, not plummet, with several humans in a room working on the same project at the same time.

A knee-jerk is still a jerk. Because we are constantly responding to situations and reacting to stimuli, we often develop patterns of response that we enable without thinking. A certain problem calls for a formula solution; a certain metric automatically receives a specific optimization.  We become run by rote, not mind.

Identifying these situations is the first step to recovery. Because, no matter how efficient we want to become, we still need a certain level of intentionality – conscious thought and connection to the path we’re actively choosing to solve our problem. Don’t let a knee-jerk be your answer to anything.

Don’t let process run the process. I’m a big believer in developing and leveraging processes as a way to routinize desirable behaviors, as well as to drive efficiency and quality control. But that doesn’t mean process is the be-all and end-all. Ensure that process is utilized with purpose and intent, as well. Don’t let activities happen mindlessly, simply because a process stipulates it to occur. Empower people to stop the assembly line if it doesn’t serve your purposes. Again, don’t let an efficient process drive you to speed to the next step if you’re not sure you’ve completed the last one, or you’re not comfortable with the outcome of the prior phase. Slow it down before speeding back up.

Wait for the cavalry. There are times when you feel the need to respond. You feel under the gun, you’re pressured and out-numbered, and you’re forced to respond defensively with the best you’ve got, under the circumstances. That’s what our always-on world has us believe. But sometimes you just need to slow down – and wait for the reinforcements. Take a pause and let time and your teammates help bail you out – with better information, more expertise and capability, and additional thinking. In fact, a “slow” response that solves your problem is actually more efficient than a fast one that requires multiple follow-ups, revisions and course-corrections.

Sometimes it’s the move you DON’T make. As I mentioned in a prior post, in some situations, the best thing to do is nothing. That is, despite the demanding pace and the emotions and passions we all have, it’s important not to rush to judgment or react impetuously or impulsively.  Control your emotions and remove yourself from the heat of the moment. It may be extremely hard to hold back from doing – our restless selves seem to demand action. But, slow down instead. First, seek understanding, before you allow yourself the potential to take action.

These are a number of reasons and situations you’ll be happy you took it slow. Do you have more? Do you disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts and examples.

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