In the Soup

I read a story on Medium recently called, “Why Thomas Edison Required Job Applicants To Eat Soup In Front Of Him”. According to the article:

The reason for this soup test was that the famous inventor wanted to see if the applicants added salt and pepper before tasting what was in their bowl, or if they waited until they tasted it before proceeding with the seasoning. Edison immediately rejected the premature seasoners, as he reasoned he didn’t want employees who relied on assumptions. In his opinion, those who were content to abide by preconceived notions had no place in his business because the absence of curiosity and willingness to ask questions were antithetical to innovation.

Reading that — and learning about Edison’s aversion to preconceptions and habitual suppositions — reminded me of a little-known philosophy.

Yeah, But …

SASS (self-absorbed self-satisfaction), is a philosophy, not to be confused with its homonymic variant: SaaS (software as a service). SASS is the twin sibling of stubbornness. It’s also the bane of creative productivity. It can be stated in one simple sentence: “We do it this way because this is the way we do it.”

Unlike other philosophies, SASS requires no founding figures, no manifestos to serve it, no books to be written about. College courses need not be dedicated to it. It’s entirely self-contained and utterly self-limiting. There is nothing more to it because its adherents won’t allow anything else. And those adherents are perfectly happy about all of that, thank you very much.

The source of this philosophy is as simple as its expression and as dangerous as its manifestation. It’s simple because we have just two fundamental motivators: hope and fear. SASS might appear to derive from hope. Its devotees might seem to possess the self-confidence to do as they see fit to do, without doubt, hesitation, second-guessing, or the need to entertain options or other points of view. Look again.

On Further Review …

Would a hopeful person refute differing perspectives? Would hope compel one to disdain alternative activities or methods? Could hope engender close-mindedness? Could hope explain the anger that typically ensues from challenging practitioners of SASS to try something new or different — or, more illustratively, to trustfully delegate the authority to try something new or different? No. And what do SASS adherents fear?

  1. Change. Most people fear change. The devil you know beats the devil you don’t know in every race. And one of the most perverse aspects of human psychology is preferring the known to the unknown, even if the known is miserable.
  2. Being exposed. Most people think they’re getting away with something or just getting by. Change the status quo, and the new light might show a chink in the armor or a lack in performance. Result? We’ll stay right here and keep doing it this way.
  3. Being bettered. If what we do is the only thing we do and the only way we do it, we resist the idea that we might be able to do it better. We put up the shields, retract into the shell, and hope no one does it better than we do.

First we make our habits, then our habits make us. (Charles C. Noble)

What if …?

Until we break our habits — or permit something different to be done on our behalf — how do we know what will happen? Why do we think we can or should know? Why are we so sure it won’t be positive? Why don’t we imagine it’ll exceed our craziest expectations, rather than assuming it’ll crash and burn?

It’s not about certainty, it’s about hope. And adherents to SASS fail for fear of changing.

That’s why a seat in the proverbial comfort zone is likely to put you in the soup.

Food For Sales Thought

Since I’ve been a marketing guy for most of my working life, my Spidey Sense has been tingling since I caught my first whiff of marketing automation (the artist formerly known as inbound marketing). The promise of marketing automation is seductive, indeed. I do have to grant that. It promises prioritized leads from multiple campaigns and more data than you can shake a stick at.

The pitch typically goes something like this:

By evaluating and reacting to each of your website’s visitors, RainbowPot’s proprietary platform enables you to establish innumerable digital relationships. You’ll be able to consider each of these ephemeral, anonymous relationships a prospect; score them by whatever arbitrary criteria you like; drill down to find out who really loves you; and be able to inundate them with your sales-ready spam, whenever you want to, at least until they unsubscribe. Then you’ll be able to engage them in meaningful conversations with automated, personalized emails.

Innumerable digital relationships? You’ll be able to consider each of these ephemeral, anonymous relationships a prospect? What? By what criterion has each of those ephemeral, anonymous relationships qualified to be even a suspect? Have I missed the boat?

Hi, I’m 0101010101

I’ve never bought anything from a digit. I’m not even sure I have anything I’d consider a digital relationship. Can you have a drink with a digit? Of this I’m sure: I’ve never had a conversation with an email. And I have no idea how an automated email can be personal.

Have you ever had a meaningful conversation with a form letter? Isn’t a form letter the impersonal, snail-mail equivalent of an automated email? The closest I’ve ever come to a meaningful conversation with a form letter was the response I sent to one summoning me to report for jury duty. And I responded only because I would have been arrested, quite personally, if I didn’t.

If you work for Acme Zoogers, it won’t matter if your job is in sales, if it’s in marketing, or if you’re a professional data-driller. RainbowPot may very well help you sell more zoogers than your boss ever dreamed of, especially if you’re selling those zoogers for a buck apiece.

But if you’re selling products or services with six- or seven-figure price tags, the only things you’ll be automating with RainbowPot are stagnation (what’s more stultifying than aggregating numbers of the sake of aggregating numbers?), alienation from your prospects (most automated emails have never heard of Dale Carnegie), and failure.

The Bottom Line

Relationships can’t be automated. Neither can sales.

People buy from people.

The Nerf Bat

I’m fortunate enough to be connected with a gentleman on LinkedIn named Dr. Barry Brownstein. Dr. Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore and the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. His essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

Dr. Brownstein recently wrote an article for the American Institute for Economic Research — “Taming the Dictator Within, Part 1” — in which he cited the disconnect between leaders’ political views and their leadership styles. He wrote this:

Some understood that central planning is a failed approach to economic policy and yet did not understand that strict hierarchical management practices often cause businesses to run inefficiently and unhappily. Employees don’t enjoy being ordered around or feeling blocked from using and developing their skills.

In other words, invitation is better than domination. I’ll explain.

The Culture Effect

Hierarchies are inevitable because they’re effective for ensuring structure and order. But organizational hierarchies need not be rigid or imperious. They need not work against cultures of cooperation and innovation. They need not preclude senses of trust, security, and fulfillment. In fact, hierarchies can foster and nurture healthy and productive cultures. As I wrote in an earlier post:

Culture is not a cause. It’s an effect. It’s a symptom, a result. It’s the product of treating individuals with respect, of giving them senses of belonging, of encouraging their participation, of giving them responsibility and the commensurate decision-making authority.

Studies have shown people in organizations in which they’re not beaten over the head are happier, more productive, and more willing to contribute in ways that exceed their positions, their titles, and the expectations their organizations have for them. They also suffer fewer concussions.

Choose Wisely

Louisville Slugger

Nerf Bat

A Nerf Bat is much more effective leadership tool than a Louisville Slugger.

It’s a much better tool for creating cultures of innovation — of experimentation, of willingness to fail, of determination to learn from failure, of consistent accomplishment, of fulfillment and gratification, and of collegial collaboration — than a Louisville Slugger. The Louisville Slugger will instill more fear, raise more lumps, and cause more serious cranial injuries. But the Nerf Bat will instill feelings of safety wellbeing. And it’ll ensure people will have a greater willingness to contribute and to take chances.

A famous expression says, “No pressure, no diamonds.” That’s true, of course. But human beings are only about 18 percent carbon, give or take. They aren’t refined or rarefied by constant pressure. Rather, they’re wounded and defeated. People who are wounded and defeated will never be innovative. They’ll only be wounded and defeated.

That’s no way to treat people. And it’s no way to run a successful organization.

Use the Nerf Bat. Save the Louisville Slugger for the baseball diamond.

People First

We tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization. (Charlton Ogburn, 1911-1998)

I once helped a company enter a new market. The company had hired a consulting professor from a prestigious university to help it with an organizational transformation. The transformation was to be completed in 90 days, start to finish. And the professor had written a book on how to undertake such a thing (natch). I arrived around day 60.

The book prescribed assigning all employees, regardless of title or responsibility, to cross-departmental, cross-disciplinary teams. Each team was given a process or practice to transform. The ideas in those groups blazed like wildfire in a bone-dry forest — operational improvements, process-engineering concepts, counter-orthodox proposals, and more. The only thing hotter than the ideas was the enthusiasm they generated.

Based on those ideas, the organization was operationally re-evaluated and completely restructured. Most of the employees were given new roles and responsibilities based, in part, on the ideas they helped germinate. But …

Unintended Consequences

On the morning after, the company, its hopes high and its sights set higher, found itself in a state of despondent dysfunction. Productivity tanked. Product development ground slowly. Responsiveness declined, along with customer satisfaction. Management was mystified. It had created the perfect garden, had it not? But nothing grew. Everyone who’d known to whom to turn for knowledge and support in their old positions lost all their lifelines in their new ones.

The CEO expressed his bewilderment and his anger at people for not performing. I asked, “If you dropped seeds in sand and they didn’t sprout, would you be angry at the seeds? Or would you put them in a more fertile environment?”

Alas, Fearless Leader was not a man for analogy and metaphor. His inclinations were more along the lines of divide, distance, intimidate, and conquer. The closest he came to figurative speech was, “Floggings will continue until morale improves.” And his idea of change was that it should be top down, driven only by and comfortable only to him. So, heads started to roll, which only exacerbated the problem by introducing insecurity into an environment of unfamiliarity and uncertainty.

Throwing folks into the deep end may seem like a sound, hard-nosed management approach. But it reflects disrespect for people and disregard for their humanity.

Reality Check

Organizational transformation begins with people, not processes. Had the company known that, its reorganization would have been fluid, rather than rigid. People would have slid more productively into functional position, rather than being force-fit into mandatory line. They would have adapted to and improved the new processes into which they were moved, rather than running blindly along with processes they didn’t understand. And they would have been able to forge alliances with their new positional colleagues as they transitioned in, rather than being left without safety nets when they were pushed out on the wire.

The effects of overlooking your people are neither pretty nor productive. And the only thing that suffers more than your people when they’re ignored is your ability to innovate.

People first. Always people first.

Who’s Your Bertha Benz?

I happened to find a blog post on the website for CRS Automotive entitled, “Bertha Benz: The First Driver in the World”. Bertha was the wife of Karl Benz, who’s credited with building the first car with an internal combustion engine (among other things.) I was probably no more than moderately engaged by the post until I read this:

While Karl Benz was a genius engineer, what he wasn’t was a visionary or a very savvy businessman … no one wanted to buy [his car]! People needed it – Bertha was convinced of that – but they hadn’t realized it yet. And that is where Bertha played a crucial role. She realized that people were wary of everything new, feared it even, and just needed to be convinced that having and driving a horseless carriage would make their lives easier … Bertha realized that what people needed was a definite proof that the vehicle was reliable and could also master long-distance routes. Thus, she devised a plan … a first-ever road trip in the Benz Patent Motorwagen No. 3!

Since the trip took place in 1888, it’s unlikely anyone thought to call Bertha’s undertaking innovation. In all likelihood, if they called it anything — and since they were German, after all — they might have called it die Neueinführung (translated as the new launch). What they called it was marginally important at best.

What Bertha realized was everything.

Wary of Everything New

Benz Patent Motorwagen No. 3

Bertha was no psychologist. But what she realized about human nature in 1888 remains true today: We resist change. We’ll stick with the familiar even if it’s uncomfortable and undesirable. We’ll play safely in our comfort zones, resisting risk and ignoring the potential rewards. And we’ll miss more opportunities than we’ll ever recognize.

By way of example, consider this from Quote Investigator:

Attorney Horace Rackham … drew up the incorporation papers for Henry Ford’s automobile company in 1903. Rackham was asked to become an investor, but his health was poor, and he feared risking his precious savings. So he visited an unnamed leading banker to obtain advice … The banker took him to a window. “Look,” he said pointing to the street. “You see all those people on their bicycles riding along the boulevard? There is not as many as there was a year ago. The novelty is wearing off; they are losing interest. That’s just the way it will be with automobiles. People will get the fever; and later they will throw them away. My advice is not to buy the stock. You might make money for a year or two, but in the end you would lose everything you put in. The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.”

That Knocking You Hear is the Future

Every organization needs a Bertha. In fact, every organization that aspires to innovative resilience needs to encourage and support as many Berthas as possible, systemically and systematically. People don’t need to be visionaries to have good ideas. But they do need environments in which their ideas are welcomed and evaluated objectively, in which they’re allowed to make mistakes and to learn from them, in which their failures are forgiven and their successes are recognized and rewarded.

Who are your Berthas? How will you find them? How will you support and encourage them?

Given the rate of change, you should start looking now.