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Crucial Conversations; (2002); Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler; (McGraw Hill)

I’ve just finished a reading a book called “Crucial Conversations“. I’m not a big fan of self-help books, but this one did provide quite a number of useful and practical insights. Crucial conversations refer to those conversations we have – with family members, friends, work colleagues, bosses, anyone – that have a high potential to end in acrimony and bitterness.

A number of concepts jumped out at me, but I’ll mention just two: safety and stories.

Safety

A core message of the book is that progress can only happen when people are in dialogue with each other. When one or more parties feel threatened, dialogue ceases immediately. Threatened people usually adopt one of two modes of behaviour – a mental withdrawal from the conversation (silence) or some sort of verbal attack (violence). Both responses are easily recognised and when they occur, further progress is impossible. A sense of safety must be reinstated first of all. People have to feel safe to continue in dialogue. If you are holding a discussion with someone and the other person’s expressions or actions indicate a strong degree of insecurity, then you need to restore safety before you can proceed.

Stories

When people display aggressive or passive aggressive behaviours, what we are seeing is the end result of a process: usually initiated by a factual occurrence, then by a story used to interpret these facts, then by emotion, and finally a response. The story is the most critical piece in this process. It is the amplifier that takes a tiny signal of information (often mis-information), and turns it instantly into a blisteringly hot, out of control, current. Because different people can display a wide range of responses to the same occurrence, the conclusion must be that very often, stories are just that: works of fiction. Merely saying to oneself “this may be a story” when getting riled up is sometimes enough to blunt the edge off one’s anger. Distinguishing facts from the stories that result, helps to ease pent-up emotions.

That’s all very well..

Sure, sure, there are books and then there’s the real world. I’m not expecting any hugely dramatic changes in my behaviour overnight, but I have to say the book has given me a lot of room for thought. Already I have tried to use some of these skills during interactions with my kids, while also observing more carefully how other people manage potentially difficult conversations.

It’s just an observation, but technology companies that no longer take risks are companies in great trouble.I’m talking about companies that have become used to a particular “way” of doing things. Where everything eventually becomes routine. New products are predictable. The launches are the same, the engineering details say more about technology obsolescence than they do about customer needs. These companies are in serious danger of extinction.

In the world of technology, the customer has become used to being spoiled. Customers want new, they want different. If they don’t get it from you, there are plenty of alternative options. This market is no place for those who wish to play it safe. You make it big by innovating. And innovating, more often than not, means taking a risk with the company’s money.

But here’s the problem. Very often, managers look at the new, the untried, the dangerous, and the instinct of self-preservation kicks in. Instead, they seek refuge in the safe world of numbers. Well, numbers are important, but they are not everything. Numbers only tell you what has happened in the past, but the past is a poor guide to the future. If you have a product that is on the decline, every promotion and marketing effort under the sun will only provide short-term respite from that long-term downwards trend. The refuge of numbers can be a leaky tent indeed.

That’s where vision and risk-taking come in. The people who impressed me greatly in my last job were those who said “I know this might not work at all. I know this may hurt us. I know I might need to look for a new job if it goes wrong. But, even still, we need to do it”. People like these are vitally important because they have a sense of what the customer might actually want, and they are prepared to stick their head over the parapet. They may often indeed be proven wrong, but that is rarely a reason to think less of them. Without people with that talent for seeking out the different and seeing it through, a company will go nowhere.

Here’s the formula: you’ve got to listen to your customers, feel their pain, then design solutions that will blow their mind. That’s it: apart from the fact that you need to keep doing it for as long as you can.
With innovation, failure is a high probability. Without innovation, failure is a certainty. Innovation gives your company a fighting chance.

Now this book is quite amazing. I had heard about it some weeks ago, so I made a special point of attempting to find it when I went shopping in the US.

The Long Tail - Why the future of business is selling less of moreAnderson’s central thesis is this: with the introduction of the internet and new ways of working we now live in a time of abundance and practically infinite choice. And as a result, the rules completely change. No longer are we constrained to think in terms of “hits” or “blockbusters” or “top selling brands”. We can now buy anything we like, and it’s available for us to do so in just a few seconds of clicking or calling someone. And, what’s more, it’s happening all around us today.

What fascinates me most is how it seems to overturn one of the most powerful “laws” of doing business. A long-standing rule of business is the Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80:20 Rule. Put simply, it means that, to make money, companies should only concentrate on their highest selling products or services. The slow movers and niche items are too expensive to store, and so they should be ruthlessly excised. The result, if you haven’t already seen it around you, is uniformity, blandness, lowest-common denominators and a staggering lack of choice.

These days are coming to an end.

The Long Tail hypothesis says that the action in the future will be in the lower selling categories. People are increasingly seeking out those things that they want to buy – the niche music tracks or clothes, the arty Spanish films, the British comics from the 1980’s. Whatever you are in to, you can find it quickly and buy it for a cheap price, thanks to Ebay, Google, Amazon and a host of smaller sites and blogs. The Long Tail idea says that hits will decline in importance as interest in niches grows and grows and grows.

So much choice…This is nothing short of a crisis for traditional big media organisations, whose job it has been for a century to sell a consistent message to as many people as possible. Now, with the explosion of new channels of communication, people are turning off their radios and TV sets, reading blogs instead of newspapers, downloading indie music instead of going to the record store, ordering customised T-shirts, footwear and jewelery over the web instead of accepting the limited offerings in the local shop. The message, loud and clear, is “Blandness and Hobson’s choices? No thanks”.

Mega celebrities, big-name TV shows, best-selling newspapers, hit pop bands, blockbuster movies: all are beginning to show significant drops in their market-worth and the trend is getting more pronounced with each year. The world of mass communications is splintering into a million pieces, and no-body seems to be able to put this Humpty Dumpty together again.

Does this mean that the age of the hit is well and truly over? Of course not. Just look at the recent global racism furore on Celebrity Big Brother for instance. However hits will possibly be more random in the future – arising from anywhere, and disappearing back into obscurity once their time in the spotlight has passed. It’s likely that hits will be much harder to achieve, and more limited in their impact. Marketing’s problem will be in getting their message out to a truly fractionalised audience, with no-one consumer quite using the same channels of communication.

Over the past week I was away in Chicago. I had a fairly quiet time there, so during that period I was able to catch up on some reading.

The Tipping PointFirst of all, I finished reading “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. This is a great read – very interesting stuff. His central thesis is that social changes (business trends, fads, crime rates and other memes) tend to behave in a manner somewhat similar to epidemics – often there is little progress followed by a sudden exponential jump – the idea catches fire, as it were.

According to Gladwell, three factors are needed – the right people, the right messages and the right environment. What makes the book exceptionally interesting are the case studies used: everything from crimes on the New York subway to Sesame Street to the sales of footwear. It’s packed full of interesting tales: the bit on the 150 rule was fascinating. Essentially the idea behind this is that no social or business unit should be bigger than 150 people. Go beyond this number and you lose control. The manufacturers of GoreTex are cited as a good example of this. They build a new factory and restructure once the population of any of their units goes beyond the 150 mark. Radical stuff indeed.

If I had any reservations it is with the first area – finding those elusive “right people” who will seed the epidemic, as it were. These right people, known as Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople, are required to guarantee success. While I accept that there are people around with such exceptional skills, I wonder how common they are in practice. There is something super-human about it which doesn’t quite ring true. It all seems a little too simple – too packaged. A well working team would seem to me to work just as well, if not better.

The book Freakonomics challenges his assertion that small changes, on the margin, resulted in a sudden drop in the New York crime rate. It’s a debate that will go on for a while, I imagine.

So, I now know a bit more about “stickiness”,the dynamics of cigarette smoking, Paul Revere’s ride and the influence of peers. It’s an enjoyable read and highly “sticky” in itself, but nevertheless I have a few misgivings.

My next review is coming up soon.

I hate writing letters. I hate the effort involved in buying stamps and envelopes (they are never around when I need them), finding out peoples addresses, folding, licking, affixing, finding a suitable post box and dropping off the letter. When I discovered email many years ago, my heart momentarily lept with joy that all this might become a thing of the past, only to gradually realise that letters have not yet gone the way of the camera film or the black and white telly. The lead-up to Christmas does my head in for that reason alone! (Bah, humbug).

It gets worse. In the town in Ireland where I live, the local post-office opens late, closes for an hour-and-a-half at lunchtime and closes early too. Long queues are de-rigeur, with the officials hiding behind a thick barrier of bullet-proof glass. You can’t buy stamps over the counter at any shop in the town, and there is no letter box on the outside of the post-office. If you want to deliver a letter you have to find a public letter box. If it’s a parcel you have to get it weighed in a post-office first unless you have the luxury of a franking machine on your premises. It’s a crap service and we put up with it because they have a monopoly in this country. Nothing much has changed in thirty years. It’s a third-world service in a first-world country.

Why oh why do we still need to affix stamps to our letters in this day and age? Why can’t the postmen and postwomen collect letters from our houses instead of us having to traipse all the way to the bloody post-office to send them?

Here’s what I would love to see from a modern postal service. You write a letter, pop it into an envelope, write on the address or just give a name and post-code. (For familiar addressees, maybe all you need to do is to write their name). You then put this into a mailbox outside your door – the same one as where the letters are delivered – and the postal service does the rest. They stamp each envelope with an electronic barcode and then debit an account that you have set up with the post-office previously. You have many different ways of paying, from a pay-as-you-go option to a flat fee, all paid via direct debit or online or even a good old fashioned cheque, a bit like how mobile phone accounts work. The letters and parcels are delivered efficiently and quickly, and you can do all this without the need for stamps or even opening your front door. Maybe for a small extra fee, they would drop some replacement envelopes into your mailbox every so often so you don’t even have to buy these either?

Is this rocket-science? I don’t think so. Could it be done without too much effort? I think it could. Do I think An Post will do anything like this in my lifetime? Ha! Don’t make me laugh.

Images of Organisation (Morgan 1995)

Back in 2005, I read Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organization”. I’ve thought about it many times since and it came up in a recent conversation so I thought I’d write about it here.

Essentially it comes down to the fact that you can view organisations from many different perspectives, gaining insights each time you switch your views, as it were. These views can be broadly categorised in three ways: Unitary, Pluralist and Radical.

Unitary views

This metaphor looks at the organisation as a machine or a living organism. Everybody plays their part. People inside the system are like cogs or cells: resources to be deployed to the greater cause. Dissent is a bad word. Opposition is even worse. The guy (or gal) at the top makes all the decisions, everyone else implements. Value is correllated in the long term to perceived contribution and merit. Strong weight is put on subjects such as “mission statements”, “goals”, “objectives” and “achievement” as instruments to succeed. It’s a simple, clear, classical view of organisations that emphasises loyalty, and as such it has a lot to recommend it. George Bush or the late Pope John Paul II, to me, would exemplify unitary leaders. Other names readily come to mind.

Pluralist views

The pluralist view puts more emphasis on the fact that an organisation is a collection of individuals and that common purpose is achieved through debate, negotiation and conflict. It’s much more tolerant of difference and believes that good ideas are forged from the furnace of active and intense discussion and argument. Pluralist views leave the door open for more socially or politically minded views of organisations: why individuals subsume themselves into a greater entity – what the costs are and what the benefits are. Democratic institutions such as parliaments are obvious examples of pluralist forums, but when you look at it, pluralism exists in most organisations: for instance, how agreement is achieved is a messy thing, often involving power-bases, politics and some behind the scenes in-fighting. Results can often be unpredictable. Pluralist leaders show more willingness to listen to others and have more tolerance for debate and alternative. As a result they can be seem somewhat weak, but great change has sometimes been achieved through the actions of pluralists.

Radical views

Radical views take an extreme approach to organisations. All the niceties are left behind, and the rancid whiff of death and disorder pushes growth and harmony out of the picture. The “instruments of domination” case is pure Marxism – it states that the bosses are out to get maximum output from resources for minimum input and that issues such as safety and employee welfare are just sideshows deflecting from the goal of profits through exploitation. Suspicion and conspiracy is everywhere. Every idea from management has a hidden agenda, involving the deprivation of the worker’s rights. “Common purpose” is replaced by “exploitation”.

The “psychic prisons” metaphor is even more fascinating. In this view, the organisation is like a Freudian nightmare, where all of the neuroses and flaws of the individuals involved are brought into the organisation, infecting the organisation like a virus. You are asked to seek out comfort blankets, purposeless routines, methods for punishment and ridicule (often unconsciously applied). Alliances and enmities are seen as a mother / father thing. Whether you agree with it or not, this particular viewpoint – the organisation as a deranged basket-case – has to be one of the most eye-opening ways of looking at any organisation. In class, when we started talking about it, some cases came to light in all the organisations that we worked in that were truly stunning: examples of people getting upset over the smallest things, of pettyness, of madness in the true sense of the word.

None of the views are particularly better than another: I’m not trying to say that unitary views are bad – they all have their merits and downsides. What is more important to emphasise is that there are many ways of looking at the same thing and that great insights can be gained from taking the time to look differently at your place of work.

Anyhow, it’s a good book. Unusually for a business book, it is very readible with a lot of humour. Well worth checking out if you have the time to spare.

The Wisdom of Crowds is an enlightening book, particularly at the beginning where he spells out his thesis: that, under certain defined conditions, the views of many can often trump the views of one single person, no matter how influential or how much of an expert that person may be.

The Wisdom of Crowds

The book justifies the opinion that forecasting and estimating are better performed by many people from different backgrounds instead of just a single elite. These types of problems, referred to as “cognition” problems, are commonplace – who is going to win the 3.40 at Newmarket, what will our sales be for the next quarter, when will the project be completed, etc.

He then tackles more complex problems, called “coordination” problems and “cooperation” problems, and arrives at a similar conclusion that, left unhindered, crowds of diverse people, acting independently, can arrive at an elegant solution to very complex problems.

In some ways, the book is nothing new. Adam Smith promoted the basic idea over 200 years ago when he talked about the “invisible hand” guiding the market and economists and politicians have been discussing this ever since. Surowiecki asserts that some of the rules of the free market have applications way beyond finance – the inner workings of the Google search engine and the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) are examples that are mentioned.

But, you might be saying, what about stock-market bubbles, group-think, decision by committee, mass-hysteria, riots and all the things that one would attribute negatively to crowds? His view is that crowds work best when a highly diverse group of individuals are able to make independent choices with levels of influence minimised as much as possible. In this way the maximum amount of information can be gleaned from the environment and an aggregation process can then happen which may yield a good answer to the problem at hand. Influence and persuasion are seen as disrupting factors in this process.

If you are looking for a “how to” manual, then the book will be somewhat disappointing. For instance, many business managers face challenges in getting groups to come together to make good decisions. This book provides some tantalising evidence that group decision making is indeed superior, but the reader is left to figure out for themselves how to apply it to their own particular situation.

The book is very readible. It contains a large body of fascinating research material and conveys the conclusions elegantly.

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