Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jeremiah was a Bullfrog (Stop Telling Us We're Stupid)

Before Jeremiah was a bullfrog, he was a prophet. 

Today, we tend to use the term "prophet" to mean a kind of fortune-teller.  But good old classic propheteering like Jeremiah practiced was about delivering angry, impassioned harangues to His wayward people.  Jeremiah was so talented and relentless, in fact, that today we call such written works "jeremiads."  And, thanks to our Puritan past, Americans are supremely gifted at launching jeremiads against their own apparently endless inadequacies, despite 300 years of national ascent.

(For a quick tutorial on the difference between a "jeremiad" and a "manifesto," see here.  To the extent Americans embrace jeremiads, they tend to hate manifestos, mostly because the only one they can ever think of is The Communist Manifesto.)

No place is the jeremiad more evident than in the world of business.  American consulting--lecturing, authoring, blogging and assorted quote-monkeying--is a virtual petri dish for the angry harangue.  Do this or your company will die.  Do that or your employees will depart.   Blink and you are lost.  The wolf camps at your door.  War, children, is just a shot away.

In a recent article in the HBR by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer we are warned: "The capitalist system is under siege. . .The legitimacy of business has fallen to levels not seen in recent history. . .A big part of the problem lies with companies themselves, which remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation that has emerged over the past few decades."

Paul Nunes and Tim Breene advised to Reinvent Your Business Before It’s Too Late.  Umair Hague argues in The New Capitalist Manifesto that “For too long, capitalists have taken people, communities, society, nature, and the future for granted — but today, they damn well shouldn't. Industrial-age capitalism is, we're discovering the hard way, predicated on extracting wealth from people, communities, society, nature, and the future. . .Argue with me all you like. . .but I believe that capitalism has reached a crossroads. To continue to fulfill its promise of being transformative. . .might just demand abandoning some — or even most — of yesterday's tired, toxic assumptions about what prosperity is. . . .”

It seems we're always getting yelled at.

We are apparently mismanaged, misorganized, mismarketed, misbranded, miscommunicated, misallocated, miscalculated, misincented, misemployed and often (told we are) just plain mis-erable.  And it is our leadership--you and I and that hapless clown in the office next door--that misses the latest social networking trend, falls off the product life cycle, jumps into the wrong markets, outsources in all the wrong places, destroys value and brings misery to the masses on a daily basis.

We are, you and I, destroying capitalism.

We might note here, of course, that Jeremiah was beaten, imprisoned, and threatened with death.  Today we make our jeremiahs best-selling authors.

The question I've always wondered is this, then: Do jeremiads make a difference?  Do we pay our money, listen, and then just go about our merry way, doing the things that are truly compelling, the stuff that provides better reward? 

And in doing so--in paying attention and reacting to the real stuff, and whistling through the graveyard--do we get it right or do we get it wrong?

And, if we get it wrong so often, why do things get so much better all the time?
I recently read two books nearly in parallel, Gary Hamel's The Future of Management and Alfred Chandler's Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Visible Hand.  The former is a jeremiad, more thoughtful and encouraging than most, but a stern lecture nonetheless on how we all mostly suck.

Chandler's book, whose subtitle might counter Hamel's as The History of Management, is a look at the rise of the modern business organization from 1840 till about 1920.  Prior to 1840 we were all still laboring under 16th century production and distribution practices.  By 1920, nearly everything that you and I would recognize about operating a business in the modern world was firmly in place.

In 80 years the world was turned upside-down by the convergence of coal (cheap, portable power); the telegraph (instant information); and the railroad (cheap, reliable national distribution).  And, as entrepreneurs adapted to these conditions, the national standard of living skyrocketed, vast markets were created, and almost incomprehensible wealth was generated.

All without a jeremiad (or at least one we can remember).

Sometime later, apparently, we all got stupid.  And now, should we believe the many jeremiads at hand, we're all just asleep at the switch, missing the ominous changes happening all around us, contributing to a dramatic fall from capitalist grace.

In The Future of Management, Hamel writes: "I dream of organizations that are capable of spontaneous renewal. . .I dream of businesses where an electric current of innovation pulses through every activity, where the renegades always trump the reactionaries.  I dream of companies that actually deserve the passion and creativity of the folks who work there. . .Of course, these are more than dreams; they are imperatives. They are do-or-die challenges [my bold] for any company that hopes to thrive in the tumultuous times ahead-and they can be surmounted only with inspired management innovation."

Then Professor Hamel gets to the crux of the matter: "Now think back over the last 20 or 30 years of management history.  Can you identify a dozen innovations on the scale of those that laid the foundations of modern management? I can't. Like the gasoline engine, our industrial-age management model is languishing out at the far end of the S-curve, and may be reaching the limits of its improvability."

But, fear not.

If there is one overwhelming lesson that Visible Hand teaches, it is this: When the conditions are right and truly compelling, we move.  We react. We invent.  We create.  We innovate.  Not all at once.  Not in a straight line.  (In fact, Schumpeter warns us that innovation is decidedly lumpy.)

And not everyone gets it, which is why there are plenty of losers. 

What Chandler makes clear, though, is that wanting to innovate (as Hamel beseeches) may be a dandy impulse, being ready to respond to market conditions--when it's clear that a firm can make more money, be more efficient, or grow faster--is how leaders really create and adapt.  When the market outruns their old processes they change.  And guess what?  Smart people know when that is, and they don't have to be told or read about it.

Getting scolded in a jeremiad, or threatened with death and damnation, may sell books, but it simply doesn't move us.  Or, at least it doesn't move us anything like having a genuine threat or opportunity at our doorstep.

It might be pointed out, too, that missing an important trend and then hurrying to catch up is hardly deadly, and surely not the end of capitalism or civilization.  In fact, such a strategy has become so common among successful companies that we've invented a business-sounding term for it: fast followers.

So, while I liked the ideas in the Hamel book, I found the history of Chandler overwhelmingly convincing.  Any one of us can miss the important trend or the big idea, but as a collective we get it right.  Not always as soon as we like, but we eventually get it right.  Because it hurts too much to get it wrong. 

So, Jeremiah was a prophet.  But he was also a bullfrog, and a noisy one at that.

You might remember that the next time you're seeking a little business wisdom.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Book Group Redux

Last night, the five couples who make up our book group met for the 71st time, just a few months shy of our tenth anniversary, to discuss Tatjana Soli's first novel, The Lotus Eaters.  And as I looked around the room, I had the following thought: Ten years ago when we met, we would have had seven or eight copies of the actual book--real paper and ink--in our laps as we talked.  By contrast, last night we had two books, two Kindles and three iPads.  We also had six or seven smartphones of various shapes and sizes spread around the room for calendar-planning our next date.

Now, some of us lived through the vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CD to digital life-cycle of music (buying the same music four or five different times).  And, if we think hard enough, we've lived through any number of other life-cycles: have you needed a bank teller lately, for example, or "perked" a cup of coffee in your kitchen?  But I honestly cannot remember one that seems to have happened more quickly, or been quite so dramatic, as the digitization of the book.

I was a Kindle fan, and still am, and two years ago wrote my love letter to it.  But there's a new kid in town.  And reading a book on the iPad isn't just better than a book or a Kindle, it's kind of like a religious experience (or, at least what I envision a religious experience to be like).  Reading the WSJ every morning on a tablet is especially cool, and it's great to see more and more traditional media organizations embracing the new technology.

We're a 50+ book group and feature everything from very early adopters to late traditionalists.  So, it's likely to be a few years more before we go "all electronic."  But for now, some of us are riding our horse and buggy, and some our new automobiles, and the road seems plenty wide enough for everyone.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Resolutions in Web Time

In the beginning there was agrarian time.   We all rose when it was light.  We slept when it was dark.  We extended our work day when the sun was long and warm in the sky, and stayed huddled in our caves when it was not. 
Then, something funny happened in the monasteries of seventh century Europe.  In Technics and Civilization, Lewis Mumford tells us that Pope Sabinianus ordered bells to be rung seven times in 24 hours to mark the canonical hours.  As the Roman Empire crumbled, the monastery provided sanctuary, and—for the first time--count and repetition unrelated to the sun or seasons brought a sense of order.
By the 13th century mechanical clocks had appeared in European cities, and sometime around the year 1345, hours were divided into 60 minutes and minutes into 60 seconds.  By the end of the 16th century the small, domestic clock had been introduced in England and Holland. 
It was during the Industrial Revolution, however, that clocks and watches became common and positively necessary, especially in urban areas largely separated from agrarian cycles.  Let’s call this new phenomenon factory time.   Mumford writes that before long, "Time-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing.  As this took place, Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions."  (Whoa; Lewis had a way with words.)  In fact, Mumford makes a powerful case that it was the clock, not the steam-engine, that was the essential machine of the modern industrial age.  “Even today no other machine is so ubiquitous."
Needless to say, the clock changed everything; a world governed by daylight and seasons, and remembered as a collection of experiences, had became a collection of seconds and minutes and hours marked by bells and whistles.   "One ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it," Mumford wrote. 
It’s hard to fathom the profound change this must have made in the lives of men and women with hundreds of thousands of years of agrarian time stamped in their DNA.
Factory time taught us that time could be saved, measured and expanded (by labor-saving devices)--even stolen by unscrupulous factory managers who intentionally mis-set clocks to expand the work day. 
But we were just getting started, because after factory time came (what I’ll call) railroad time, designed to support an industry so large and ubiquitous that it required national, standardized time zones.  By 1875 Americans had all agreed that 8 a.m. was different, depending on where one lived.  They also understood that time was a tool that could be used to coordinate hugely complex systems.  And, when time was ignored, the consequences—even the destruction and death brought by two trains on the same track—were sure to follow.
If agrarian time was gentle and predictable, then factory time could be aggressive and bullying.  But railroad time was something entirely new:  In Revolution in Time, David Landes writes that rail passengers "found their entire consciousness of time altered by the requirements and opportunities of a railway world. . .Train schedules opened new possibilities for appointments, for work done within time limits, for long-distance comings and goings, hence for ordering of movement and multiplication of activity."
What came next, however, would put railroad time to shame.  Something even more powerful and ubiquitous raised its antenna in the mid-twentieth century: television time.  It was a force that could gather millions of Americans together at the same time, leave them perpetually stupid and underslept, and shape their very conversations around the water cooler the following morning.  Television time consumed huge amounts of productive energy while turning its users into zombies.
It seemed like the evolutionary end of time, until now.
Because, for all its seduction, television time had one Achilles heel: it could be turned off.  In fact, those of us with Tivo (or its kin) have done something even better by taking back television time to meet our own schedules.  We can still be stupid and underslept zombies, but at least we’re stupid and underslept when we choose to be.
All of which leaves us with the latest and perhaps most insidious of all incarnations of the clock: web time.
Web time says the following: You must use the computer to do your work, you must use the web to communicate and research, you must be online to be productive--but it is my job to distract you at every possible opportunity.  I am going to sit on your desk, migrate to your kitchen table and ride in your pocket.  I beep.  I chirp.  I play Lady Gaga.  I send you an important note from your boss right next to an ad for Viagra.  I make you read when you need to skim, and skim when you need to read.  
I vibrate, Baby.
I blow my nose in your general direction, factory time. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries, railroad time. Leave before I am forced to taunt you again, television time
You cannot turn me off.  I am web time.  Hear me roar. 
See what I mean? 
So, after I listed my handful of resolutions for 2011 a week ago, I took a general, resolvatory swipe at web time.  If not successful there, I thought, the resolutions don’t have a prayer.
With that (and recognizing I am hardly an advice columnist), I offer these three simple ideas:
1.   Revert to human time.  Ever wonder why a week is seven days?  The truth is, nobody really knows.  It doesn’t have anything to do with the sun or the moon (or clocks, trains, TV or the Web).  Some people think it was created by God, which would give it a pretty good pedigree.  Some people who don’t believe in God think it was created by the same wise, ancient people who created God.  That’s not a bad pedigree either.  In any event, it is an intensely human measure, doing for people what the jigger does for bartenders and sixty-feet-six-inches does for baseball: it just works.  Seven days is a kind of perfect human period, especially in which to look forward.  So, I’m using it.
Stephen Covey crafts the solution in his First Things First.  Once a week—say, Sunday evening—lay out your entire, upcoming week--visually (on a screen or paper) if you can.  Look at your goals.  Look at your resolutions.  Look at your existing commitments.

Look at your week.
Ready, set, go:  I need to research a particular company we’re looking at acquiring?  Why don’t I take 90 minutes in that free period on Wednesday afternoon to do it.  Schedule it in, in fact, just like it’s a meeting with my boss.  Or event with my wife or child.  Immutable.  
Do it again.  And again.  Don’t fill up the entire week, but nail the things that will really advance your goals, and make the time to do them.
By the week.  Every week.  Trust me on this: If you do nothing else Covey recommends but this, you will be ahead of the game.
Be gone, Web time.
2.      Find your natural unit of efficiency.  Last year a friend introduced me to the Pomodoro Technique, which forces a unit of intense concentration as follows:
a.      Choose a task to be accomplished.
b.      Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is a kitchen timer that looks like a tomato—but an iPod alarm, or a watch, work just as well).
c.       Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
d.      Take a short break (5 minutes is OK).
e.      Rinse and repeat.
It all seemed simple enough, so I tried it.  For me, anyway, 25 minutes turned out to be far too short a time to get anything useful done, even stuff I didn’t want to do.  So, I tried an hour.  Still too short.  I doubled to two hours.  Now it was too long.  I found myself pining for a cup of coffee, or making excuses to go to the bathroom, if I had to last two hours doing something I hated doing.  So, I settled on 90 minutes.
No coffee break.  No cookie.  No bathroom.  No email.  No LinkedIn.  No OccasionalCEO.  No Facebook.  No chatting with wife or colleagues.  No shopping.  No adjusting Pandora.  No cookie.  Just 90 minutes of concentration on a single, important task or project.
I was amazed.  90 minutes turned out to be my natural unit of efficiency.  Short enough to hang in on rotten work.  And, on good stuff, sometimes a launch pad for a three or four hour stretch of focused work.
If I can get four of those 90-minute sessions stuffed into a single day, plus all of the email and calls and meetings, I can guarantee it will be a good day.
Take that, Web time.
3.      Finally, honor the squirrel.  We've done some damage to squirrels on this blog and it's a good time to remedy that.  Have you ever seen a squirrel gathering acorns for the winter?  He does NOT stop at each acorn and admire it.  He does not stop and try to eat each one.   Indeed, that would only leave a cold, starving squirrel come wintertime.
In the age of the Web--which will undoubtedly be with us for the rest of our mortal coil--we will be offered a steady stream of bright, shiny, fascinating acorns.  And we will be distracted.  Click here.  Click there.  Watch this.  Buy that. 
That is the very essence of Web time.
And, if not careful, we will also be cold and starving in the harsh winter of technology, unable to focus long enough on anything to be productive.  So, like the squirrel—and like our beloved Tivo--we need a nest.
I offer you two solutions among many: Evernote and Instapaper.
Evernote is Tivo for the Web.  It works (from the cloud) on every platform and stores voice messages, email, Web clippings, notes, photos—you name it.  See it and send it to Evernote for later viewing.  (Instapaper works the same way for things you want to save and read, and is especially good on the iPad.)
I started this post in Evernote on the day after Christmas, and added to it in bits and pieces over the holiday from my iPhone, computer and iPad.  I had my annual physical this morning and knew I wouldn’t remember my weight and blood pressure so took a picture of the screen and sent it to Evernote.  I have a dozen articles camped there for future reading and research.  I have some consulting stuff I’ll need next week.  I have two voice messages, one reminding me to buy salt for the water softener this weekend.  I have a couple of songs I want to remember to buy on iTunes, and a video that a friend sent that I won’t have time to watch until Saturday.
See?  (Those of you who are David Allen fans will recognize this "find a place to store all the flotsam and jetsam" technique as one of the critical elements to actually getting any real thinking done.)
Let the Web drop all the acorns it wants; you can now gather up each one, send it to its nest, and schedule a 90-minute Pomodoro session on Saturday morning to read and dispatch all that you have gathered.
From agrarian time to factory time to railroad time to television time to Web time.
From Lewis Mumford to tomato timers to Evernote.
Good luck with your resolutions and, as Mumford might wish, "May eternity once again serve as the measure of your activities in 2011."