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.

But We Had a Plan!

When my younger son, Quinn, played basketball at Salve Regina University, I noticed something: When things went badly during a game, the coach would call a time-out and summon the team to the sideline. As the players assembled, he’d pull an index card out of the breast pocket of his shirt, scan it, put it back in his pocket, and start screaming at the players.

One evening, after another Salve loss, Quinn and I — along with my older son, Sean — were in a pizza joint in Newport. I asked Quinn what the index card and the screaming were all about.

He said, “Coach writes his game plan on the index card. When he’s screaming, he’s telling us we’re not following the plan.”

I looked at Sean, who already was a successful basketball coach: “Do you have a plan for every game? I’ve never seen you look at notes of any kind.”

Sean said, “I scout every team and have a plan for every game. But I can’t know what’s going to happen till the ball goes up.”

There it is.

Long-range planning does not deal with future decisions but with the future of present decisions. (Peter Drucker)

Buckle Up

Especially in business, plans fail — or fail to live up to expectations — for three reasons:

  1. They’re viewed as ends, not as means. As a consequence, there’s no constructive response, no contingency, no Plan B for those occasions on which the ball goes up … but doesn’t come down as expected.
  2. They’re conducted as strategic exercises that never translate into tactical realities. In this regard, they’re like mission statements: Our mission is to be the biggest, best, baddest, and most modest. Really? In a vacuum? What happens when your competitors start getting bigger, better, and badder?
  3. As a result of 1 and 2, they’re never used to run the business:

Le Grand Fromage: We just completed our strategic plan for the year.
Le Petit Laquais.: Nice! How will that affect the company operationally?
Le Grand Fromage: Who?

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, the road to obsolescence is paved with moot plans. If the plan doesn’t include change as a variable, if it doesn’t allow for observation and adjustment when the ball goes up, if it doesn’t allow for flexible adaptation to change at the tactical level, and if it’s never put into operation, buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

And it’s not likely to end well.

Science Friction

I recently read a blog post about technology (marketing-automation technology, specifically) and finished a book, Great Sky River, by Gregory Benford. The latter opened my eyes to the former.

In Great Sky River, the last of humanity fights to survive on Snowglade, pursued by murderous mechs, robotic creatures that recycle, retain, and evolve remnants of themselves to prevent their passing from temporal existence. In their soulless yet determined desire to self-sustain, I saw the future.

In one sense, that future is here. We already conduct financial transactions in which no currency changes hands. Computers exchange digital data, debits and credits are processed, records are logged. So, it’s no leap to imagine your computer tracking mine. Mine will know what it wants, when it wants it, and what it wants to pay for it. Yours will sell it to mine via electronic automation. Even though you and I won’t be involved at all, we’ll be tickled pink about the whole, disembodied business.

That’s precisely what the technologists of all stripes want us to believe.

But Great Sky River makes it clear why the mechanized dehumanization of marketing and sales (among other things) can’t succeed long term: We’re human beings. It’s a matter of nature and definition that we’ll never escape, defy, or surrender our tendencies to interact as human beings. Neither will we forego our social sensibilities or our need to engage each other emotionally and to be so engaged, even in commercial contexts. No emotion, no brand. No brand, no sale (except at Walmart).

Imagine a salesman in the not-too-distant future scorning the technological gimcrackery of inbound marketing and its logic-defying, pie-in-the-sky ilk, sneering in the face of Marketing Rockstars, striding boldly into the office of a flesh-and-blood prospect, and saying, against all prevailing wisdom, popular voodoo, do-it-yourself fantasies, and self-service nonsense:

“Hi. What do you need?”

Then imagine the salesman having this telepathic exchange with his boss through the chips in their heads:

Boss: Good God, Man! What have you done?
Salesman: I made a sale.
Boss: But how … the database … connectivity … technology …?
Salesman: I asked him what he needed.
Boss: But you’ve nullified the machines!

Like the mechs in Great Sky River, inbound marketing does what every techno-utopian scheme does: It precludes humanity. It must. If Utopia were conducive to the vagaries of human nature, we’d have achieved it by now. Inbound marketing is just another siren song, seducing us with the promise of more sales with less work in less time with fewer people. We chase that siren with the feverish derangement of Ulysses’ mutinous men, overthrowing objectives and outcomes in the pursuit of output: leads, numbers, statistics, trends, patterns, scoring, behavior — more, more, more!

Innovation is certainly necessary. But tails wag dogs. Horses precede carts. And in the search for binary connections — “Analyze the data!” — we ignore the humanity that binds us all. In the process, we elevate Henry David Thoreau to the status of prophet:

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools.

Thoreau and Benford would have gotten along famously.

Think About the Future

There are a number of memorable lines in the 1989 Tim Burton/Michael Keaton film, Batman, many of them delivered by Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Here are just a few:

  • “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
  • “Batman … Batman … Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a *bat* gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!”
  • “I’ve been dead once already. It’s very liberating. You should think of it as, uh … therapy.”
  • “And where is the Batman? HE’S AT HOME WASHING HIS TIGHTS!”

But one of The Joker’s lines — “Think about the future” — is particularly pertinent to innovation.

Don’t Look Back

When contemplating innovation initiatives, companies often take stock of their core competencies. And where do they look to find those competencies? In the past. That’s where they live. In that regard, core competencies are like best practices: We can know what our core competencies and our best practices were yesterday. We can know what they are today. But we can’t know what they’ll be tomorrow — unless we’re systemically and systematically creating them.

Will you be able to compete tomorrow with the products and services you offered yesterday? Will you be able to thrive on the things you’ll have to do tomorrow if you do those things the way you did them yesterday? Are you prepared enough, resourceful enough, creative enough, open-minded enough, and resilient enough to manage uncertainty? Isn’t uncertainty one of the very few things we can be certain about?

And all those questions invite another one: Shouldn’t innovation be one of your core, corporate competencies?

Survey Says …

The fact is making innovation a core, corporate competency is a competitive necessity. It’s become something of a cliché to think or say, “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” It’s become something of a cliché because it’s increasingly true. If you don’t think it’s true, chances are you’re already behind to some degree. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Batman (if not, why not?), you know it’s important to think about the future (fast forward to 00:57). If you don’t, the consequences might not be as dire as they were for Lieutenant Eckhart. But they won’t be terribly pleasant.

Don’t run that risk.

Innovation is Just Good Business

There are countless examples of solidly established companies that reinvented themselves. They developed successful new products or business models. Most times, they were seeking new ways to solve customer problems. Many times, their reinventions were seemingly unnecessary. Many of these companies held enviable industry positions with cash-cow products or services. Some examples are:

  • Corning Glass – Evolved from producing glass for light bulbs, to producing Pyrex cookware, to producing optical fiber for telecommunications, to producing Gorilla Glass for cell phone screens.
  • Netflix – Pivoted from delivering DVDs via US Mail to offering streaming movies.
  • IBM – Migrated from producing computer hardware to offering business and technical consulting services.
  • Microsoft – Shifted from selling software licenses to offering software subscriptions.
  • Hilti – Changed from producing and selling high-end construction tools to leasing construction equipment to contractors.
  • Dow Corning – Adjusted from producing high-cost customized silicone products to developing commoditized silicone products.
  • Apple – Advanced from producing personal computers to producing handheld devices to offering streaming music, movies, and TV programming.

In hindsight, these innovations are easy to recognize as winners. But at the time they were being developed, they seemed to threaten the successful business models or products from which they evolved.

Why did the companies that innovated in those ways do it? They did it because they’re resilient. And resilient companies understand constant innovation is necessary to their survival. They don’t innovate because they feel threatened. They innovate to preclude the possibility that they will be threatened. They innovate to make sure they won’t be threatened.

Foresight seems to be built into their DNA. Since their markets, their suppliers, their competitors, their customers, and technologies are constantly changing, those companies recognize they have to keep changing, too. They’re resilient because they change in ways that continue to provide value to they customers. The fact that their changes also create new markets and new customers doesn’t hurt, either.

Whether you call what those companies do reinvention, innovation, change, evolution, or just good business, it’s required for resilience.

That’s why they’re all still here.

The Coachable Innovator: Part Three

In the second post in this series, I argued that one person with vision, with purpose and intention, with a concrete plan and unshakeable resolve, and with a disciplined framework in which to bring that plan to fruition could consistently innovate. While EinFrame certainly is a framework, I wasn’t convinced I had the vision, the purpose and intention, the concrete plan, or the unshakeable resolve to actually innovate. But then I remembered an incident from my working past.

From the time I was 21 until I was 23, I drove a truck for a construction company that specialized in suspended ceilings. My responsibilities were to deliver materials and scaffolding to jobs as they were beginning and to pick up leftover materials and the scaffolding when the jobs were finished.

One day, I was sent to pick up stuff from a supermarket that had been renovated. In addition to installing new ceilings (and other things), the supermarket had replaced its skate wheel conveyor system with a power belt conveyor system. The sections of the skate wheel system were still there, ready to be junked. I immediately realized two things: First, the bundles of ceiling tiles I had to schlep still weighed 63 pounds apiece. Second, I still believed in gravity. I used both of those realizations to innovate.

Let it Roll

The invention of the wheel is most often credited to Ahmet (Gus) Öztürk, who lived in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Copper Age. But some historians credit Mrs. Öztürk, who, in response to Ahmet’s chronic laziness, used to tell him to get his ass rolling. While Gus beat me to the invention of the wheel by some 5,000 to 6,000 years or so, I nevertheless believed I could still come up some new and novel uses for the wheel, especially if a whole bunch of wheels were aligned in a track.

I loaded the sections of the skate wheel conveyor system on my truck, along with everything else I had to pick up. When I got back to the warehouse and lifted the overhead door of my truck, my boss, Bob, happened to be standing there. He saw the skate wheel sections.

“What are you going to do with those things?” Bob asked.

“Wrong question,” I said. “The right question is, ‘What aren’t you going to do with those things?’”

“Okay,” Bob said. “What aren’t you going to do with those things?”

“I’m not going to bust a gut humping those 63-pound bundles of ceiling tiles anymore.”

“Wow. That’s a great idea,” Bob said with what sounded like admiration. “Gus would be proud of you.”

“Aw, shucks,” I said, blushing.

Close But No Cigar

Okay. Maybe using that skate wheel conveyor to unload bundles of ceiling panels didn’t necessarily constitute innovation. But as my father loved to say, “It’s close enough for government work.” The point is that if you’re constantly creating new things — or if you’re constantly creating new uses for existing things — you’re getting closer to innovation than most folks ever get.

In my case, I had the vision, the purpose, the intention, and the unshakeable resolve to avoid having to lug those ceiling panels. I might not have had the concrete plan until I saw those conveyor sections. But four out of five ain’t bad.

Bob and Gus were proud. And that was enough for me.