Famous Last Business Words

Here are the five most popular phrases uttered by business people — not at the end of their lives — but at the end of their professional livelihoods:

  1. Yeah, but I thought ….
  2. You mean it didn’t …?
  3. There’s only one way to ….
  4. I know I’m right.
  5. Uh oh ….

The pattern here is one of unintended consequences, of unforeseen calamity, and of visible disaster. Once the researchers at The EinSource Center for Career Forensics saw the pattern, they started dialing psychologists, astrologists, phrenologists, numerologists, and pathologists to see if they could determine the causes of these self-destructive propensities.

They finally unearthed this article from Psychology Today, which seems to shed some light on the peculiarly persistent, pernicious predilection for professional pileups:

When you’re sure something’s obvious, or it’s what “everyone knows,” or that it goes without saying … that’s the time to remind yourself not to believe everything you think … opinions are just thoughts that are best held with open arms of good-natured skepticism. And humility.

That’s right. It just might be that not everything we believe is true, correct, or advisable. And won’t that make every day just a little bit more interesting?

humility is a virtue

There are some folks, of course, for whom good-humored skepticism and garden-variety humility remain stubbornly elusive. We once heard a CEO, refusing to concede a point to a prospective customer, say with deadly earnestness, “I’d rather break than bend.” You have to admire a guy like that for having the courage of convictions so self-righteously ingrained that he’d rather be right than succeed. And you have to hope you never end up working for him prior to your lobotomy. Such people invariably create environments that are decidedly nonconducive to rational human beings.

They also precipitate particularly catastrophic consequences when it comes to innovation — to creating new products, services, business models, and methods of creating them — since they’re so resistant to change, so sure they’re correct, and so intractably convinced they know better than their prospects what’s good for them. Such thinking leads what should have been this to be that: “Because I said so.” Now there’s a piece of logic — to say nothing of leadership — you can really get behind. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking also leads companies to get behind. Way behind.

eyes on the road

There are no guarantees of success. Aside from being undeniably true, that cliche reminds us of the two most important elements in achieving success: observance and response. If you’re not observant, you’ll never see what’s coming.

If you’re not responsive, you won’t avoid the crash.

The Elevator Pitch

We’ve been hearing about the trite notion of personal brand for longer than I thought. In fact, I recently found a column from 2011. It said this, part:

Your personal value proposition (PVP) is at the heart of your career strategy. It’s the foundation for everything in a job search and career progression — targeting potential employers, attracting the help of others, and explaining why you’re the one to pick. It’s why to hire you, not someone else.

Translation: Your PVP is you. That’s it. As it represents you to others, it’s your brand. Period. But be skeptical: It also suggests there may be a kind of formulaic magic to branding.

Do the Math

Consider: Your PVP can be accompanied by a personal value statement (PVS). Perhaps it could be the profile statement on your résumé. Your proposition and your statement can be abetted by a personal value commitment (PVC), which would be an indication of your determination to fulfill the promise of your PVP and your PVS. If so, you and those you persuade via your proposition, your statement, and your commitment can expect a pretty valuable outcome (PVO). Hence, the magic formula for success becomes:

[PVP + PVS] x PVC = PVO.

Bunk. There is no formulaic magic to branding. There can’t be. If all of us — if every brand — weren’t different, there’d be no such discernible things as personalities or brands. The only thing scarier than the very idea of such an equation is that if we put it in a book today, it would be a bestseller tomorrow. Good grief.

Simplify

In lieu of such formulaic pie in the sky, consider these four simple questions:

A. Who are you?
B. What do you do?
C. How do you do it?
D. Why do A + B + C make you different from everyone else?

Answering those questions is simple. But it’s not easy. In fact, if you do it right, it’s the hardest work you’ll ever do. If it were easy, everyone would do it. That’s why the world comprises those who win and those who don’t.

Pop Quiz

Here’s a simple test to determine if someone’s done his homework: Ask him for his elevator pitch. If he answers in one to three clear, jargon-free sentences, you’ll understand the pitch, and you’ll be sure he knows himself and what he’s selling.

If he asks how many floors the elevator has to travel, wish him well and take the stairs.

Can We Talk?

I recently listened as an experienced salesman, employed by a software and professional-services company, bemoaned the fact that his prospects don’t seem to answer the phone anymore. He wondered if the phone had outlived its usefulness, if Alexander Graham Bell turned over in his grave at the thought of his most famous invention lying fallow while the world’s communications go the way of email, IM, SMS, Twitter, and the various other means of impersonally indirect media.

I had to consider his point. Most of my own phone use comes as a result of making an appointment to speak with someone, typically via email: “Please let me know your availability to have the phone conversation we otherwise could have had spontaneously if we weren’t convinced we’re so busy as to require the setting of a formal appointment to use the device that was intended to make such formality a thing of a quite ridiculous past.” It’s like asking for a date to make a date to arrange a date.

Conundrum #647,290,158

It’s ironic: We’re too busy to answer our phones. But we’ll pick up our PDAs for anything. How many widgets sold this week? Check your inventory app. Sales against quota? Check your SalesForce app. Friends on Facebook or connections on LinkedIn? Check the apps. Can’t remember that line delivered by Jim Nabors in Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Gomer Pyle? Check IMDB.

Is this a question of technology? If communication technology is ubiquitous, raising everything to the level of important, is anything important anymore? Or is it a matter of priorities? If anyone can get ahold of anyone else at any time by other media — especially if those media keep us detached by means of keyboards, screens, and cyberspace — should we heed the phone at all anymore? Imagine being too busy writing tweets, texts, and emails to talk to each other.

Full Circle

Everything in nature is cyclical. So, maybe we’ll ride the karmic wheel back to personal contact, impromptu conversations, and less insular forms of communication. Maybe we’ll get back to preferring the sound of a voice to the striking of keys, our mental image of the person at the other end of the phone to the virtual image of words on a screen, the immediate give and take of dialogue to the monologic typing of binary digits into the ether. Maybe we’ll take the time to talk with each other again.

We can’t be certain … at least not yet.

For tribal man space was the uncontrollable mystery. For technological man it is time that occupies the same role. (Marshall McLuhan)

It’s Not About the Office

On May 22, 2000, Lance Armstrong published the book, It’s Not About the Bike. He was right, of course. But it’s unlikely he’s developed a sense of irony since then.

Similarly, on July 6, 2022, a gentleman named Ian Bogost published an article in The Atlantic. He apparently shares Lance’s lack of irony because he titled the article, “Hybrid Work Is Doomed“. He should have titled it, “It’s Not About the Office”.

The article says this, in part:

Return-to-office plans … serve as affirmations of a superseding value … the policy has less to do with one specific firm than with the whole firmament of office life: the Office, as an institution. The Office must endure! To the office we must go. This should be obvious, but somehow it is not: The existence of an office is the central premise of office work, and nothing—not even a pandemic—will make it go away … The office is the structure that makes work possible, a kind of mothership for productivity, centuries in the making; a place to construct and preserve a way of life.

Close. But no cigar.

In reality, the office is a place to construct and — most important — to perpetuate the existence and to expand the size, scope, and reach of bureaucracy. And bureacracies exist to control. At the highest levels, bureucracies are petri dishes for power, entitlement, and corruption. At the lowest levels, they’re breeding grounds for frustration, stultification, invisibility, anonymity, and impotence.

End of story.

We’re Only Human

While Ian seems to have missed the memo, espousing humanity at work seems to be all the rage these days. Self-appointed self-help gurus and would-be coaches and consultants are encouraging people to be their real, authentic selves in the workplace. On a superficial level, that’s all quite noble and worthwhile, I suppose. But perhaps a bit more pragmatism might be in order. If we send our newly human acolytes into hostile bureaucracies to be their real, authentic selves, they’re likely to end up more frustrated than they already were … or on the unemployment line.

And how are we defining authentic in the first place?

In his book, The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber wrote this:

Everyone who works here is expected to work toward being the best he can possibly be at the tasks he’s accountable for … the business is a place where everything we know how to do is tested by what we don’t know how to do, and the conflict between the two is what creates growth, what creates meaning … A place where the generally disorganized thinking that pervades our culture becomes organized and clearly focused on a specific worthwhile result. A place where discipline and will become prized for what they are: the backbone of enterprise and action, of being what you are intentionally instead of accidentally.

There you go. Accountability. Conflict. Growth. Meaning. Focus on worthwhile results. Discipline and will. Being what you are intentionally instead of accidentally. In the context of any job you sign on for, that’s how authenticity should be defined. But you won’t find those things in any organization without buy-in from its leadership. And you’ll never find it in a bureucracy because the leaders are more interested in protecting their turf and getting more of it than they are in their people.

Let Them In

In their book, Get in the Game, Rich Armstrong and Steve Baker write this, emphasis theirs:

The best, most efficient, most profitable way to run a business is to educate everybody on how the business works, give them a voice in how the company is run, and provide them a stake in the financial outcome … build a business of businesspeople who think, act, and feel like owners … [get] everyone at all levels of the business as informed, involved, and engaged as the owner is in making the company successful … When you harness the collective wisdom of your people, great things can and do happen, not just to the bottom line but inside the hearts and minds of your people. The result is long-term success for your company and long-term success for your people. You will improve your business results and the lives of the people who create those results.

That’s a natural, enlightened, and inevitable evolution of what Michael Gerber wrote decades ago. It’s also an indication of the way we should now be defining authentic for people who are being paid to do a job and have reasonable expectations of deriving a sense of satisfaction from doing it. But it’s not possible in environments characterized by domineering egos and empire-builders. And it’s not possible without humility, transparency, the participation of everyone in the organization, encouragement, recognition, reward, and opportunities to experiment, to fail, to learn from failure, and to carry the lessons learned into their next efforts.

Full Circle

And that, of course, brings us back to offices, bureaucracies, and the objective(s) to which we should aspire in hoping to bring humanity back to the workplace.

It’s fair to say human consciousness is evolving faster than historical structures of leadership and management ever could. If our objective is to create environments of learning and fulfillment in the workplace, we should be clear about how we’re going about it, how we’re structuring our organizations, what we’re learning or helping people to learn, and what specific actions we’ll take to achieve our objective.

Hybrid work is not doomed. It’s not about the office. It’s not about bureaucracy. It’s about the philosophy by which you conduct your business. And it’s about people.

People first. Always people first.

Innovation: DOA

If you want to make sure your organization’s chances of innovating are as dead as its chances of succeeding long-term, follow these five steps, and innovation will be dead as the proverbial doornail. As an added bonus, if you follow these five steps, you’ll also completely demoralize your people. Now that’s a win/win.

Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Use a recruiter to help build the team. The good news is taking this kind of safety-first approach will ensure the candidates referred to you will be fully homogenized. No misfits. The bad news is the true innovators are misfits.
  2. Hold your team leads accountable to traditional business metrics. The good news is traditional business metrics drive the top line and the bottom line in the current fiscal year, addressing market demand today and filling competency gaps today. The bad news is if you’re not looking three years ahead, anticipating market demands, and developing talent for tomorrow, your team leads won’t save you.
  3. Deploy lean and six-sigma principles. The good news is lean, six-sigma, and ISO 9001 will ensure you’re consistently solving yesterday’s issues. The bad news is it’s not yesterday anymore, and innovation management is about breaking consistent norms and creating things that haven’t been created yet.
  4. Fund a project based purely on ROI. The good news is the more limited the financial and intellectual resources deployed to a project, the quicker the ROI. The bad news is innovation requires an integrated approach, with a broad mix of projects, in which ROI is estimated and tracked at the portfolio level to maximize long-term net outcomes.
  5. Reward quarterly results. The good news is rewarding quarterly result requires short-term thinking only. The bad news is innovation requires long-term thinking that rewards short-term efforts, supports experimentation, and encourages learning from failures.

On Further Review …

Take another look at that list. Chances are those five things made you very successful in your operations up to now. Ironically, you might have been unknowingly killing innovation all along, discouraging innovators all the time, and wondering why growth is slow and hard.

Innovation is a different game. It’s played by its own rules. Would you use the baseball rulebook to play hockey?

You might. But you’d lose.

Row Your Boat

It’s simply the nature of human nature to complicate; that is, give us something simple and we’ll create an unnavigable labyrinth of complexity.

Case in point: This is the definition of value stream found on Wikipedia:

A value stream is the set of actions that take place to add value to a customer from the initial request through realization of value by the customer … Value streams are artifacts within business architecture that allow a business to specify the value proposition derived by an external (e.g., customer) or internal stakeholder from an organization. A value stream depicts the stakeholders initiating and involved in the value stream, the stages that create specific value items, and the value proposition derived from the value stream. The value stream is depicted as an end-to-end collection of value-adding activities that create an overall result for a customer, stakeholder, or end-user … Value streams are a component of the business ecosystem that describe how a stakeholder – often a customer – receives value from an organization.

To summarize, a value stream is a set of actions. No, wait. It’s an artifact. Hang on. It’s a depiction. Ooh, maybe not. It’s a collection of value-adding activities. Oops. That’s not quite right yet. Ah, now I see. It’s a component of an ecosystem.

Got that? Neither do I.

Simplify

I know this is the kind of thinking that gets me in trouble. But what if we simplified by taking this approach:

  • Determine what the customer wants.
  • If it works, do it again.
  • If it doesn’t work, do something else until it works.

For an illustration of this concept, please see Figure A below.

Figure A

Is that ridiculous? It depends. How much have you complicated your value stream? Why? Was the complication necessary? For what reason? Was it effective? If not, why not? Would it benefit from simplification? Would you benefit from its simplification? Would your customers benefit from its simplification? I don’t know if asking and answering those questions would help. But I do know it couldn’t hurt.

Or maybe we should just sing the old children’s song to remind ourselves how simple it should be:

Row, row, row your boat
Down the value stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily,
Things are what they seem.

Common Sense

If you’re anything like me, you’ve noticed common sense is becoming increasingly uncommon. It’s partly a matter of hyperinformationalism. It’s partly a matter of our growing affinity for jargon. And it’s partly a matter of our wanting to sound important and smart.

But please remember this: If you give your customers what they want as simply as possible, they won’t care how important you think you are or how smart you think you have to sound.

Success can be simple, too.

Hyperinformationalism

THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU’LL EVER READ! WE DON’T KNOW IF IT’S GOOD OR BAD! BUT IT’S REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT! THAT’S WHY IT’S IN BOLD-FACED CAPITAL LETTERS SO YOU’LL KNOW IT’S IMPORTANT! SEE ALL THE EXCLAMATION POINTS? NO?! THEN YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION! COME ON! WAKE UP! THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!!!!!!

I made up a word. Then I made up a phenomenon to go with it. The word and the phenomenon are hyperinformationalism. They’re illustrated by the paragraph above. They refer to the fact that we’ve become of a race of knee-jerk artists — constantly and reflexively twitching under the relentless onslaught of information with which we’re constantly bombarded. And they confirm this truism: When everything’s important, nothing’s important.

I made up a theory, too. We spend so much time inflicting so much information on ourselves from so many electronic sources, we’ve mistaken ourselves for computers. We think we’re the same sort of objective, dispassionate, unemotional accessing mechanisms as those amalgams of  chips, processors, transducers, capacitors, and wires. But we’re not. And we’re suffering for it.

This is why, from the youngest age — I grew up at a time in which the dissemination of information were the exclusive provinces of newspapers, radio, and television — I never paid attention to the news. The reason? It’s too new.

We can react to news, but we can only know its ramifications in time. The news can soothe or panic, but it can’t reveal which reaction is warranted. The news can tell us what happened, but it can’t tell us what will happen. And knowing what’ll happen as a result of any news item was always more important to me than what someone else said happened.

The Cost

In the age of hyperinformationalism, have we lost our ability to ponder and to ask critical, analytical, discerning questions? Or have we lost time? Just when we engage in discriminating contemplation, we’re overwhelmed by the next wave of brute information. Awash in that wave with its potential to stimulate beyond reason, we have a choice: Ignore it all until the items of any import roll forth in another wave — or react to all of it instantaneously: Good. Bad. Hopeful. Fearful. Important. Trivial.

A twitching knee has no reason. It reacts on impulse. In the manic, agitated trance of hyperinformationalism, so do we.

What, then, does hyperinformationalism do to our businesses? It compels us to say everything we can think to say in every place we can think to say it. Collateral systems become exhaustive, de facto technical manuals. Websites warehouse unseen content. Direct email campaigns blitz spam. Blogs, articles, and white papers become the virtual, verbal equivalents of drinking from fire hoses. And our target audiences are dazed, confused, probably annoyed, and not likely to be buying — at least not from us.

Thanks to hyperinformationalism, we’ve forgotten (how) to relax. We’ve forgotten to take our time and communicate substantively. We’ve raised our expectations beyond sense and sanity. One man’s deluge is not another man’s call to action. So, why not take it easy?

The Remedy

Buck the trend. Turn down the volume. Create a real message. Let it differentiate you. Give people a chance to absorb it. Make it good enough that they want (to learn) more. Don’t sell, instruct. Don’t flood, trickle. Don’t scream, talk quietly and directly.

No one will ever think what we’re doing or selling is as important as we think it is. Ever. But that doesn’t mean our prospects won’t care. They just need to be allowed to care in their own ways, in their own time. If we want our marketing efforts to be effectively fulfilled with sales, we need to gently and calmly help our prospects understand why they need what we’re selling.

IT’S THE ONLY WAY THEY’LL DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES WHAT’S REALLY, REALLY IMPORTANT!!!

What’s Innovation?

Over the past three weeks, I’ve posted three polls about innovation on LinkedIn — first, second, third. As of this writing, they’ve garnered a total of 2,495 views but just 41 votes. Those stats suggest at least four possibilities. I only know the fourth one to be true. But here they are:

First, the lack of a consistent or consensual definition of innovation may make people leery to vote at risk of sticking their necks out uncomfortably. As I’ve come to understand it, innovation is change — undertaken purposefully, grounded strategically, adopted systemically, and practiced systematically with discipline, a willingness to accept failure, a desire to learn from failure, and the ability to mitigate risk in the process. Is that a mouthful? Sure it is. But every element of that definition is necessary to innovate consistently and repeatedly.

Second, people may be unwilling to create the impression that they don’t know what they don’t know. That’s the very antithesis of innovation. As much as anything, innovation presupposes a willingness to fly in the face of what’s known — of the ordinary, the expected, and the status quo. Innovation rejects best practices in favor of new and better ways of doing things relentlessly. It’s the determination never to say, “We do it this way because this is the way we do it.” It’s the conviction that creativity is preferable to complacency, all the time, every day.

Third, it may be possible that traditional ways of doing things — allocating monetary and human resources to initiatives without changing processes, approaches, methodologies, or ways of thinking — constrain people to the extent that they can’t or won’t consider doing things in different ways. It could be fear of failure, fear of reproach, fear of change, fear of the unknown, or garden-variety insecurity. The root cause doesn’t matter. What does matter is that outcomes don’t change if the things being done to produce those outcomes don’t change.

Fourth, while the growing proliferation of ostensible innovation-management tools has caused them to become almost commoditized, there’s been no matrixed framework that comprises the requisite common tools, along with novel tools and capabilities, all of which are matrixed (interoperational) within a structured framework that enables organizations to innovate consistently; to continually bring new products, services, and/or business models to market; and to make their competition irrelevant.

That was then. This is now. Now there’s EinFrame.

Proudly Naïve

I have a theory. It goes like this: If I remain naïve enough, I’ll never get old. If that’s so, then I just found the Fountain of Youth.

The German writer, Thomas Mann, once said: “It is impossible for ideas to compete in the marketplace if no forum for their presentation is provided or available.” Given that he lived from 1875 to 1955, I don’t imagine it ever occurred to him to question the sources — or the very definition — of ideas. But question we must.

It seems, much to my naïve surprise, the sources and the definition of ideas have changed. So has the presumption of originality. It appears we now live in the age of PLR content, in which PLR stands for private label rights. You’re probably way ahead of me on this. But the implications are profoundly unsettling.

Case in point: Take a few moments to absorb and comprehend the sentence in bold type below, the emphasis on which, by the way, originates from the source:

Quality website content extends beyond rewriting or “spinning” PLR articles for uniqueness. In order to shine, online content should be useful, well written, and relevant to readers. Professional sounding Web content and articles impress readers while original content impresses Google. Writing content for readers first, search engines second is a SEO content strategy that works over the long run.

That’s right. We no longer require native, substantively meaningful, or original content that accurately and genuinely reflects the differentiating singularity of our brands. Uh uh. We don’t even need professional content. All we need now is professional sounding language — counterfeit content that impresses our readers. That’s as cynical a concept as I’ve ever come across. And it’s at least as insulting to the readers with whom we desire to share our ideas as it is cynical.

Dude! What the hell were you thinking?

By that logic, I’ve wasted every moment I spent writing this post and believing it reflects the personal convictions that inform my thinking and the EinSource brand. I could have cribbed the content for the post from any of the content available here. I could have bought it here. Or I could have randomly generated it here and here.

It’s ironic that I just re-read Animal Farm this past weekend. It’s ironic — or serendipitously synchronous — because George Orwell also wrote this (I’ve written marketing in place of political language):

[Marketing] … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind. (Politics and the English Language)

That statement is cynical, too. But it’s no more cynical that it is prescient. Its prescience has been fulfilled now that PLR has erased the line between cynicism and truth.

PLR is the Walmart of content: It obliterates any value in or accruing to your brand. And the age of PLR is The Age of Cynicism.

Go ahead. Call me naïve. In addition to younger, I’ve just become proud of my naïveté.

Is Curiosity the Superpower That Makes Companies Resilient?

I recently read an article in Inc. with the premise that curiosity is a useful trait for good leadership. It said this, in part:

Taking into account all the digital exchanges we have in the course of a workday, what can we as leaders do to humanize our interactions, draw people to us, and build trust? It comes down to one word: curiosity. Research has found that curious people are known for having better relationships, and other people are more easily attracted and feel socially closer to individuals who display curiosity.

The article goes on to indicate that curiosity is a useful trait at all levels of an organization, as cited in an HBR study:

The most curious employees sought the most information from co-workers, and the information helped them in their jobs–for instance, it boosted their creativity in addressing customers’ concerns.

Does curiosity among leaders and employees facilitate a growth mindset that enables organizations to continually learn and improve? Maybe.

On Further Review

I also recently read an article in Entrepreneur with the premise that curiosity drives innovation. It made the point this way:

It is an impulse to pursue a thought, find a solution, seek new possibilities or keep on a path to see what’s around the next bend.

Does curiosity within an organization also facilitate a desire to develop new products, services, or business models? Are organizations that have identified curiosity as a desirable characteristic for leadership and employees doubly blessed with the good leadership and the drive to innovate that ensures their abiding resilience?

McKinsey has this to say about resilience:

The world is experiencing a level of disruption and business risk not seen in generations. Some companies freeze and fail, while others innovate, advance, and even thrive. The difference is resilience.

Is a lack of curiosity among the attributes of companies that freeze and fail while companies that seek and nurture curiosity thrive? I don’t know. But I do know people who remain curious are less likely to settle for the status quo. And I do know organizations that hire and encourage those curious people are less likely to do things they’ve always done the way they’ve always done them.

Is that curiosity a superpower? I don’t know that, either.

But I remain curious about it.