Monday, January 30, 2012

Build like LEGOs.

Everywhere I look right now, there's our future. Nascent innovators who'll someday alter what's possible. Already formidable intellects who'll uncover the unknown and take part in the invention of our tomorrow. Highly skilled technologists whose genius will only grow through puberty. Maybe even the next Tim Berners-Lee is here, playing with LEGOs.

Actually, not playing. Competing with them. Thinking about how to address real-life issues with them. Out-thinking unexpected hurdles in real-time. Programming them to perform autonomously and intelligently.

I'm at the state LEGO Robotics championship. With its history of innovation, the University of Utah is an apropos location to hold this crazy-energy, celebrate-the-geek event. It was an original ARPANET node, after all, not to mention ground zero for modern computer graphics.  Right now, my son's team is in seventh place in the head-to-head competition. Not the best showing, considering how talented they are. I heard that they had to replace a motor last night, which resulted in some off-timing.

But what certainly isn't off, I just realized, is LEGO.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hai, Judo.

Great blog post on HBR today: Business Needs More Judo, Less Karate

It contends that, long-term, the loud hardcore pitch comes up short compared to authentic companies, products, and services speaking for themselves, often in a whisper. The author analogizes it to karate vs. judo, striking blows and kicks versus the "gentle way."

But I'm biased. While all the rest of the neighborhood kids were on the baseball diamond or football field, I was in a judo dojo.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My win is not necessarily your loss.

Okay, that last post sounds like pure business pop pap--maybe somewhere between Stephen Covey and Ramit Sethi, only minus any motivator skills.

So I have to say that, unlike boxing, business competition isn't necessarily a zero-sum or sub-zero game. In fact, Harvard B School prof Michael Porter argues in this podcast that, for a business to succeed long-term, it should have a positive-sum competitive strategy. Otherwise it'll end up in nothing more than a price war. And yeah, I agree with what he said. Besides, I'll take any non-pap cred I can leech from him.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Are you ready to rumble? Why, yes I am.

Capitalism is often not nice. Talk about the obvious. But also talk about the nearly impossible for me to embrace. I've long considered playing business to win as unsightly verging on unethical. Now, except when it is unethical, I think of it as an unlikely but fascinating benefit of being alive in the 21st century.

Capitalism is often pugilism. At its best, it's like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, grace and strength going after each other with scary ferocity. It's hitting as hard as you can, as fast as you can. It's dodging as many blows as possible, and recovering quickly from the ones that get through. It's having a fight strategy, but changing it the moment it stops working. It's both smart and rough as hell.

But capitalism isn't thuggery, or least shouldn't be. That's like Ali knocking out the kid asking for an autograph. Then it becomes crime, not business.

Capitalism isn't cruelty, either. Competitors can be fast friends and crucial allies outside the ring. And a side benefit of the brawling can be life-enhancing innovation and meaningful, well-paying work. Think Apple vs.Microsoft, Google vs.Facebook, Verizon vs. AT&T, Toyota vs.GM.

And for me personally, being up for a head-to-head challenge in my daily work duties is a necessity. So is the need to go in with some fierceness and fire in my heart and battle strategies in my head. So is the ability to accept getting knocked down, knowing that I can't stay down. So is the realization that when you step in the ring, it's a fight.

Happy Birthday, Ali. And RIP, Smokin' Joe.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The poetry of good strategy. Or is it vice versa?

I'm a failed poet. Fortunately, that's enough of a poet to understand how freakishly insightful poetry can be. Of course it's sometimes flowery or obscure. But the poesy I fall hardest for is the stuff that flips perspective and snaps the brain out of rutted thinking. The closing lines from Sandra Beasley's Vocation  illustrate this:
Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.
This flip happens all the time in skillfully written poetry. For example, right at this moment I'm looking at a Kay Ryan poem tacked to my cork board that compares silence to shark's teeth. Much to my delight, this flip happens in good strategy too. One of the best ads last year was Chrysler's Imported from Detroit spot. To embrace Detroit, the city of jokes and nightmares, as the source of Chrysler's newfound strength is strategic brilliance personified.

There are many examples of perspective-altering strategy across business, politics, even sports--from NetFlix's revolutionary business model to Billy Beane's respin of baseball. But sadly, I see far more examples of shooting for expected and hitting mediocrity.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Where does Facebook go from here?

A conversation with McCann SLC digital strategist Chris Mismash is probably similar to a chat with Chris Anderson, editor-and-chief of Wired. Both kinds of Chris are just so damn brainy. Both have tech chops galore, industry and business knowledge aplenty, keen foresight, and crazy insight into the ways people interact with technology. And on that last point, my opinion is that our Chris, with his undergrad in cognitive psychology, has a leg up on the [currently] more famous Chris.

So when Chris expresses pessimism about Facebook's future, I listen. And when he says that Google and Apple, with their ability for "hard integration" of social interaction into devices, have a huge advantage over Facebook, I quickly defer to his superior knowledge--especially when I have no answer to his question of "Where does Facebook go from here?"

So where do they go? More specifically, what keeps them relevant when one's identity is easily moved from Facebook to wherever fits best at the moment? Perhaps more importantly, what significant income streams can Facebook snag beyond advertising? Seems like a good puzzle for a strategist to noodle on.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Daily money quote

Our own myopia is the obstacle common to all strategic situations. Being strategic is being less myopic--less shortsighted--than others. You must perceive and take into account what others do not, be they colleagues or rivals. Being less myopic is not the same as pretending you can see the future. You must work with the facts on the ground, not the vague outlines of the distant future.
 -Richard Rumelt
Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Game theory: schooled by my sixth grader.

Back in 2011, I attempted to learn the basics of game theory. I had a great book to help me along the way, The Art of Strategy, but I still found myself admiring the skills more than learning them. Early on in the book, the authors use a Survivor episode as a great example of winning strategies. In short, this particular Survivor challenge, two teams pitted against each other could take one, two, or three flags from a collection of 21 flags. The team that collected the very last flag would win. For the most part, both of these Survivor teams guessed their way forward. But it turns out that if you know the right strategy, whoever starts first can win this game.*

How? By making your opponent face four flags. That way, no matter if they choose one, two, or three, you win. Which begs the question: How do you get them to four? By forcing them to eight. Which you do by forcing them to twelve. And so on.

I understood the idea, but you still wouldn't want me on your Survivor team. I'd point out that there's a surefire way to win, but then wouldn't remember exactly how to do it.

So meet Wallace, my 11-year-old son. Around the dinner table the other day, he was trying to cajole Simon, my nine-year-old, into playing a number game. Simon likes games, so he was game. I'm trying to finish up my out-of-the-can-and-bag pasta, so I'm not really paying attention. But then I realize that he's playing a variation on the Survivor flag game.

And he's totally playing Simon. Wallace knows he'll be victorious, no matter what. He not only understands this game theory strategy, but is completely at home with it. It's deliriously cool to have a sixth-grader son who's smarter than you, but disorienting. No matter. It's good to have a strategy mentor in the house.

*Wallace pointed out that if the starting number in this game is a multiple of four, the team that goes second is the one positioned to win.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Nightstand books, vol. 01

I have two fantastic books on the nightstand right now. Actually one fantastic, another monumental.

First the fantastic. I'm nearly done with Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. This book, written by a UCLA business professor and well-known strategist, has plenty on creating good strategy, from initial understanding to ways of stepping beyond the expected. But I like his take on bad side even more. He serves up some hardcore slap-downs on the budgetary goals, high-flying visions, and motivational slogans that far too frequently masquerade as strategies.

After reading the first couple chapters of Thinking, Fast and Slow, my (stage 1, for those who've read it) guess is that this is because real strategy--the kind that distills insight into a unique, succinct, meaningful, and actionable direction--is too hard. According to this mind-altering book, our brains prefer to go with the gut--or rather, the kind of subconscious thinking responsible for fast decisions--because it's easier. It literally takes less energy.

But this energy conservation, although invaluable for everyday life tasks and blink decisions, leads to "strategies" such as "we're committed to being a leader our industry!" and "our objective is to improve the world AND increase returns!" Real strategy requires both creative leaps and rigorous logic (stage 2, for those who've read it). And that's hard, conscious brain-work.

Few people can work their brains as hard the book's author Daniel Kahneman. From what I've gathered from this book already, the fruits of his labor are incredible. And I still have around 400 pages left to go!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Psychoanalysis for sales' sake.

Talking about getting the inside scoop, I ran across this wonderful article in the Economist on Ernest Dichter, a Freudian analyst who introduced subconscious customer motivations to marketing. Yes, that led to awful ads like this one:
Never thought I'd get penis envy from lipstick. But Dichter had some serious brilliance, too. For me, this is the killer quote from the article:

But the innovation that put Dichter on the marketing map involved a problem Chrysler was having with its relatively new line of Plymouth cars—which consumers were shunning. Dichter headed out to Detroit, conducted extensive interviews with a couple of hundred people, and deduced that the company’s first problem was its existing advertising, which boasted that its cars were “different from any other one you have ever tried”. This evidently triggered an unconscious fear of the unknown among buyers, for whom familiarity in a car meant safety. 
He also learned from interviews that whereas convertibles made up only 2% of sales in 1939, most men, particularly middle-aged ones, dreamed of owning one. When convertibles were placed in the windows of dealerships as “bait”, more men came in. But when they returned actually to make a purchase, they typically came with their wives and chose a sensible sedan (the Plymouth line offered both). 
Dichter gathered that the convertible symbolised youth, freedom and the secret wish for a mistress: an idle bit of temptation. He suggested that Chrysler beef up its convertible advertising—and, in recognition of spouses’ role in the final decisions, begin marketing cars in women’s magazines. Meanwhile, a new and more reassuring campaign emphasised that it would take “only a few minutes” to feel at home with the new Plymouth.
Sure enough, all of the dealerships I've driven by since have convertibles front-and-center in their showrooms.

Cultural anthropologists rock.

Life is a chaotic disarray. It's a million colliding elements in every moment, a melange of emotion, fate, and relationships. It's the impact of the past with the present, of future desires and present conditions, and of so much more. To make sense of it all, we humans weave singular stories together from a myriad of threads and motivations. And in our eyes, everything that doesn't make the story no longer exists.

But that just means we're blind to a vast majority of existence--not to mention the powerful driving forces in our subconscious. But the fact that we're blind to them doesn't make them meaningless. In fact, they're often primary to the way events unfold, the choices we make, the lives we lead. It's like dark energy in physics. We can't see it, but it makes up most of our universe. And better yet, it keeps the university from collapsing in upon itself.

Which leads to the title of this post. A few years back I read an article about how some cultural anthropologists, in their attempt to help a large hotel's advertising efforts, used direct observation to deduce who in a family decided what hotel to stay in. If I remember correctly, interviews with these families had indicated that it was the adult male who made the decision. But the cultural anthropologists observed that the adult male merely signed off on a decision that the adult female had already made in conjunction with the children. So advertising was adjusted appropriately, with men appropriately sidelined.

In other words, we often say one thing, do another. No surprise there. Our complex, ever-changing world and flickering, multi-layered minds can't fit into our simple personal narratives. But they can direct our actions in surprising ways. So here's a toast to you, the cultural anthropologists who've joined us on the advertising pitch.