“Something is not Right!” Don’t Ignore Your Gut When Analyzing Information

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Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic picture book Madeline has been enjoyed by generations of children – my own daughters included. The story also has an important lesson on analyzing, and questioning, information, and integrating intuition with data.

Children are perennially attracted to Madeline, the smallest yet most adventurous of twelve little girls in a Paris boarding school. In the first Madeline book, Miss Clavel, the girls’ teacher and caregiver, suddenly awoke one night sensing trouble:

In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, “Something is not right!”

Sure enough, she found Madeline in her bed, in pain from appendicitis. Of course, all turns out well, thanks to Miss Clavel listening to her personal sense that something was not right.

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That scene from Madeline came to mind while reading Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen by business professor and author Michael Roberto.

One of the most troubling causes of unseen problems mushrooming into catastrophes, Roberto writes, is an organizational culture that dismisses intuition in favor of hard data:

Some organizations exhibit a highly analytical culture [to the point that] employees may self-censor their concerns… In one case, a manager told me, “I was trained to rely on data [which] pointed in the opposite direction of my [correct] hunch that we had a problem. I relied on the data and ignored that nagging feeling in my gut.

Roberto drives this point home with a serious real-world medical problem: Many hospitals experience high levels of cardiac arrest among admitted patients. One study found hospital personnel who observed some advance warning sign(s) of cardiac arrest alerted a doctor only 25% of the time. Why? Nurses and other staff felt a Miss Clavel-like sense that “Something is not right” with a patient who was indeed nearing cardiac arrest, but it may have been based on a subjective observation, such as the patient’s mental condition and level of fatigue or discomfort, with no accompanying significant change in patient monitoring data.

The consequences of a hospital culture that unwittingly encourages caregivers to ignore their intuition are high. Once the window of opportunity to avert cardiac arrest closes, a life or death “Code Blue” crisis is at hand.

As Roberto’s hospital case study illustrates, a gnawing sense that “Something is not right” should not be ignored, but rather recognized as an alert that you probably do not have all the facts, but rather just some of the facts; that is, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Recognizing this issue, many hospitals have implemented new Rapid Response Teams that have sharply reduced Code Blue incidents. Nurses and staff are actively encouraged to report observed warning signs, including concerns not (yet( supported by observed data. Once notified, the Rapid Response Team will arrive at an affected patient’s bedside within minutes and actively diagnose whether further testing or treatment to prevent a cardiac arrest is warranted. Unlike a Code Blue team that “fights the fire” of a full-on heart attack, Roberto writes, a Rapid Response Team “detects the smoke” of a potential heart attack.

Traditional data warehousing and data analytics vendors often present their solutions as a way to make decisions ‘based on objective facts’ rather than relying on ‘emotional gut feel.’ The problem is, however, the known ‘objective facts’, the known ‘hard data’, may not provide a complete — or even accurate — picture of what’s really going on.

So, listen to your gut, your intuition, as a signal that you need to dig deeper into the matter at hand. Actively seek out further information beyond the hard data available to you. Compare that information with your hard data and “connect the dots” for a far more complete picture, which may well yield surprising new insights.

What I find very exciting is that unified information access is playing a vital role in empowering managers and leaders to connect those dots between data and other silos of information to realize those critical new insights.

Unified information access integrates, joins and presents all related information — structured data and unstructured content alike — to complete the informational picture and significantly expand what organizations “know” to determine with confidence whether “Something is not right.”

 

Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter” at Work?

the-fighter-movie-poster

The Fighter (2010) is an exceptional movie based on the true story of Micky Ward (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg), a professional boxer from Lowell, Massachusetts.

Set in the early 1990’s, the film introduces Micky Ward as an aging boxer whose champion potential is slipping away as trusted family members fail to look out for him. Stymied by his drug-addicted brother Dicky (Christian Bale) missing training sessions and his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) badly mismanaging his matches, Micky Ward suffers a series of embarrassing defeats and considers ending his boxing career.

The Fighter led me to wonder how many people are out there today with similarly high potential being similarly squandered. Does this suggestion ring true to you?

I am certain the vast majority of people (certainly not just product marketers and product managers) have felt the same gnawing cognitive dissonance during their careers that Micky Ward felt: an awareness that one’s work and skills were somehow being stifled.

I believe the root cause behind the vast majority of struggling products (and, therefore, struggling businesses) is people not living up to their potential due to a non-supportive organizational environment. Like Micky Ward’s frustrations early on with his family members in The Fighter, too often executives and senior managers fail to lead effectively and treat workers with respect and civility.

There are many types of managerial dysfunctions that contribute to a non-supportive environment that adversely impacts people, which cannot help but adversely impact products. Here are a few that might ring true to you (though I hope not!) …

Leadership that is disengaged from the company’s original innovation and brand equity. Beware of management who was not around and/or not emotionally invested in the company’s original innovations that earned its success and brand equity in the first place.

Starbucks is one example of post-founder management that missed the mark badly. After original visionary CEO and chairman Howard Schultz’ retirement from Starbucks, the company pursued a nearly ruinous ‘management by the numbers’ strategy along with massive over-expansion that made the company less like the original Starbucks and more like Dunkin’ Donuts.  Thankfully, Starbucks is also a success story in recapturing that innovation, and rescuing its brand following the return of Howard Schultz to the company.

There are many far worse examples out there, from so-called “professional” turnaround management teams to the likes of James Kilts, the last CEO of Gillette, who simply abdicated his responsibility to cultivate innovation to grow the top line and revitalize the company. Instead, Kilts simply declared that past double-digit revenue growth was a thing of the past. He instead fixated on shareholders as the only company stakeholders, overseeing massive layoffs and cost-cutting. With a compensation package larded with stock options, Kilts predictably sold Gillette in 2005 and pocketed $165 million. A Boston institution, with untapped potential to rediscover its innovative roots, became just another division of Proctor & Gamble.

In an organization with a management team that has merely inherited the fruits of innovation from previous leaders, innovation becomes devalued and “leaders” take short-sighted actions, often based on their “knowledge” of the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Leadership that punishes unsuccessful innovation.

If you say, ‘I want people to take risks,’ and then fire the guy if the outcome fails, it becomes clear how your organization really feels about risk.

~ Anthony F. Smith, consultant and author

There’s a great old movie sight gag featuring an overworked bus boy at an understaffed diner. Hurrying with two full armloads of stacked dishes, he slips and drops one armload of dishes that fall shattering to the floor. The slave-driver boss roars, “You idiot! You’re fired!”

The bus boy looks his boss in the eye, shrugs his shoulders, lets the other armload of dishes fall crashing to the floor as well, and walks out.

The lesson is clear: a company culture that burns out workers and punishes them for honest mistakes, and even worse, for taking a risk and trying out a new idea that doesn’t work out, deserves the plentiful fallout it creates. Nothing stifles innovation (or, for that matter, careers, information sharing, customer service, etc.) like a ham-handed “slap on the wrist” from an authoritarian boss.

Leadership that fails to reward (or even recognize) successful innovation. Failing to appreciate or acknowledge innovation success might even be worse than scolding unsuccessful efforts. I recall some years ago reading the 1985 book Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur by Gifford Pinchot. The book described an ingenious manager who single-handedly created a new multimillion dollar stream of revenue for his employer. The manager discovered an innovative breakthrough that transformed tons of scrap material previously hauled away as waste into a vital component of a new product.

Great job, right? Tell that to the manager’s employer. Incredibly, the manager was not rewarded or recognized in any way for his multimillion dollar innovation (!!) – an injustice that Gifford Pinchot seemed to gloss over and almost excuse:

[The manager] doesn’t seem bitter that he barely received a thank you for creating a new business…He is from that loyal generation who is thankful for a job, and my questions about recognition and rewards made him uncomfortable.

This feeble conclusion debunks the book’s own premise; after all, an entrepreneur in charge of his or her own company actually reaps the rewards of his or her innovation, rather than having them gobbled up without even a “thank you” by an indifferent executive team!

In addition to conveying the cynical notion that the manager “should just be thankful he has a job,” the company made a very loud and clear statement about how little it valued innovation and those who engage in it. I’m sure that message was received loud and clear, and remembered, by others across that organization.

Leadership that is preoccupied with “problem solving,” not innovating. Referring to the previous sad example, problem solving would have amounted to simply finding a new vendor willing to dispose of ‘all this worthless material waste’ for a few nickels less than the current cost. Innovating is what that manager actually did, turning that scrap material into revenue-generating gold.

An organization unduly focused on such “problem solving” will readily recognize the former and often underappreciate the latter (even if the innovative efforts prove successful!), perhaps even going so far as to label those innovative efforts as indicative of “not taking direction.”

I discussed this issue in a recent article exploring the Hierarchy of Imagination, in which I suggested that many boss-subordinate conflicts stem from incompatible levels of imagination, such as a highly “creative” person reporting to a “left brain”-focused, “problem solver” boss – more likely to be focused on “the numbers” while paying lip service at best to innovation.

Once again Mr. James Kilts comes to mind. After selling off Gillette, he authored a book, paradoxically entitled Doing What Mattersin which he proudly described one of his greatest achievements at Gillette: Successfully mandating a dramatic reduction in the company’s product SKU count. Wait, what? This is an example of a keystone “achievement” by the CEO of a global company?! This is not leadership; it’s an example of executive tinkering over administrative “problem solving.”

Source: New York Times (click for source page)

In The Fighter, Micky Ward’s fortunes begin to change when he begins to surround himself with professionals who set the right environment and agenda to start setting him up for success.

Similarly, in the world of work, I hope your company’s leaders and managers are also setting the right environment, agenda and vision to innovate – thereby setting up the company, your co-workers, and you for success.

“Everything I Really Need to Know About Product Marketing I Learned in Elementary School”

Dr. Stuart Payne is Principal of Northwood Elementary School, a National Blue-Ribbon School and California Distinguished School in Irvine, California. I was already impressed with the work of Stuart and his staff, and was even more so after reading his Principal’s Message in a recent issue of Northwood Elementary’s parents newsletter, which summarized the goals he and his teaching staff set for the school year:

At the beginning of this year, our dedicated staff set…three goals for ourselves: (1) Rigor, (2) Differentiation, and (3) Progress Monitoring.

These succinct goals no doubt rang true for Northwood Elementary parents.   In fact, they rang quite true for me in my world of product marketing.  Let’s look at each one more closely:

Photo by courosa (Flickr CC)

Rigor.  Stuart Payne writes: “Through rigor, we endeavor to make sure that every child is challenged in a developmentally appropriate manner.”  This vital educational goal can be easily adapted to product marketing/product management terms: We must challenge ourselves to really understand our products and our markets, and convey our value in a compelling manner that our target markets will understand and be motivated to learn more.  I am reminded of a good blog post by Dave Kellogg on applying (rigorous) critical thinking for effective product positioning (I elaborate on Dave Kellogg’s post here, btw).

One sidenote: Stuart Payne also wrote: “(R)esearch indicates…that when the work is too difficult, (students) become frustrated.”  This reminded me of a classic blog post by Kathy Sierra: Do your customers feel a similar sense of frustration trying to understand and/or use our products?  Why?  How can this be corrected (and fast)?

Differentiation.  Of course, as a product marketer, product differentiation is critical.  However, Northwood Elementary is referring to differentiation as in the non-standardization of classroom instruction:

By designing differentiated lessons that meet the needs of our students varying ability levels, we ensure success for all  (emphasis added).

So let’s look at “differentiation” in a similar way for marketing: The “standardization” of marketing and PR is long gone, as David Meerman Scott and others have already made quite clear.  That said, what different means, what different avenues should we share our product messaging? The book Content Rules by Ann Handley and CC Chapman addresses this very topic.

In a nutshell, Content Rules is a how-to guide to differentiate your product messaging in video, podcasts, webinars, blogs, ebooks. Doing so enables us to connect with prospects in the mediums of their choice, in which we convey in informative, compelling ways what our products are and why they are essential.

Progress Monitoring.  Stuart Payne explains:

Progress monitoring is the way in which we gauge the effectiveness of our instruction and the way in which we measure students’ progress toward their learning goals (Emphasis added). During our Response to Instruction (RTI) block, for example, we are able to target instruction in a way that aligns with each child’s reading ability.

Similarly, how do you know if your marketing programs are any good? I’ve always defined success of my product positioning, messaging and marketing content is its capacity to yield qualified leads and ultimately translate into revenue.  True enough, but just counting up “leads” is insufficient. Ardath Albee, in her excellent book eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale, connects the dots between marketing and revenue with content marketing:

Building online engagement…depends on your ability to develop compelling content…’Engagement bling’ is what I call the positive results your company gains from sustaining trusted engagement with prospects and customers throughout their buying journeys…

The goal of marketing in a complex sale is to generate qualified demand that efficiently transitions to revenues.  And if you want to increase the level of demand for your solutions, it is critical that you enrich the relationships your company establishes with prospects and customers.  Marketing with contagious content operates like a pay-it forward system for your company.  This is because the value your content provides transfers to the value your prospects and customers ascribe to your company (p. 14 & 16 – emphasis added).

Ann Handley and CC Chapman elaborate further in Content Rules:

(A)ccording to Forrester Research, “Long sales cycles and complex purchase decision-making challenge B2B marketers to find the most qualified prospects and to build relationships long before the first sales call.” As a result, you need to embrace a new mind-set – one focused not just on generating leads but on developing a [content] strategy to keep prospects engaged until they’re good and ready to talk to your sales reps. (p. 25)

In other words, the old metaphor of the marketing department “throwing leads over the wall” should be replaced by a metaphor of marketers throwing an entertaining, informative party that prospective customers want to stay at and meet all your friends… who happen to work in the sales department!

There’s plenty more to write about on this topic, but it’s important to note that Northwood Elementary is taking an innovative approach in how student progress is being measured (its Response to Instruction block noted above, as opposed to, say, grades – a flawed, lagging indicator).  Similarly, marketing programs should be judged not just on a flawed measure such as the number of “leads” who, for example, opened an email link, but based on the quality and duration of the engagement of prospects to “keep them at the party.”

The staff goals of Northwood Elementary to engage and help their students succeed bear close similarities with the goals of effective marketers, working to engage and help their prospects succeed with your products. Class dismissed!

If you liked this post, you may also like:

Be a Dogged (Not Dog!) Product Marketer/Product Manager

Play the Product Marketing Game Like a Chess Grandmaster

“Missionary” Technology Really Requires a Technology Evangelist

Become a Crow / Fierce Competitor in Business: A Users Guide

Venture capitalist and entrepreneur Mark Suster once shared an awesome pearl of business wisdom (via Kellblog): In a strong wind, even turkeys can flyin his blog post of the same name.

This insight came from Mark Suster’s colleague Ameet Shah, a co-worker at Andersen Consulting  in the late 90’s.  Andersen Consulting was the largest independent consulting firm at the time, but amid scores of existing competitors and newly-funded Internet consulting startups…

…the market seemed crowded and our leadership position that had been built over many years seemed to not matter any more…[But] Ameet said to me, “Ah, I’ve seen this many times before.  See, Mark, in a booming market you can never tell the winners from the losers.  In a booming market buyers aren’t very discerning and companies that have weaknesses can mask them…Andersen Consulting always gains market share in down markets.  That’s where the companies who are [only] good at marketing tend to crumble…Don’t worry, we’ll be fine, just wait for the next downturn.”  That had never occurred to me.  In other words, in a strong market, even turkeys can fly.  (emphasis added)

A company that works to “gain market share in down markets” and seizes “the next downturn” as an opportunity is most certainly the opposite of a “flying turkey” business.  I’d call it a “crow” business, referencing the amazing adaptability and intelligence of crows, as I have blogged previously.

I also suggest reading Jeffrey Fox’s book, How to be a Fierce Competitor: What Winning Companies and Great Managers Do in Tough Times – a great user’s guide on how to become a “crow” business.

Read on for a review of this great book along with more insights from Mark Suster’s great blog post.

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“Where’s Mike” Happy Fun Contest Winners

Quick follow up: The photo taken by David Meerman Scott during his great Jan. 6 BPMA presentation (see next post) reminded me of a “Where’s Waldo?” picture, so congratulations to Dan McCarthy and Howie Lyhte who took me up on my challenge to find me in that photo.  Since they both dropped me an email quite quickly (with my correct location), I declared them both winners.

For those of you playing at home, I am a couple of rows in front of the post holding my book with a thumbs-up.

Dan and Howie will receive David Meerman Scott’s new book we’re all holding up in the photo, Real-Time Marketing & PR, plus a great bonus book I will be reviewing here soon: How to be a Fierce Competitor by Jeffrey Fox. Enjoy, guys!

Businesses: Don’t be a Gorilla or Eagle… Be a Crow

The good old “800 pound gorilla” metaphor came up in recent conversation, reminding me of a clever article I read a few years ago on the subject of animal metaphors, which are all too common in business-speak.

This company or that company is the “800 pound gorilla.” Another company might say it “strives to be an eagle in its industry.” And infamous ex-Sunbeam CEO “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap,  who fired scores of workers with raw impunity, was partial to the mighty lion, adorning his office with a huge lion image, in honor of its predatory, eat-or-be-eaten carnivorousness.

I say, forget all of those animal metaphors. Instead, companies should strive to be the crow of their industry.

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Channeling 37Signals (and Kathy Sierra): Beating the Competition by Underdoing the Competition

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler. – Albert Einstein

I’ve been reading Rework by 37Signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. The book is loaded with wise, relentlessly succinct and deliberately sharply-written advice to succeed in business in a web-enabled world. 

There are plenty of insights in Rework worthy of several blog entries, but one that especially jumped out at me was Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s advice to “underdo the competition.” This is also one of the blunt implorements on the back cover, including: Emulate drug dealers(!) Pick a fight(!) Happily, each is elaborated upon in the book to successfully deliver a salient point.

As for underdoing the competition:

Instead of entering into a “one-upping, Cold War mentality” with competitors, “do less than your competitors to beat them. Solve the simple problem and leave the hairy, difficult, nasty problems to the competition.”  (Rework, p. 144) …

In the end, it’s not worth paying much attention to the competition anyway…Focus on competitors too much and…(y)ou wind up offering your competitor’s products with a different coat of paint. (p.148)

Simplicity is clearly a strong product differentiator.

As product examples proving their point, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson point to the increasing popularity of plain-vanilla fixed-gear bicycles that are cheap, easy to ride, and require less maintenance, as well as the Flip, a best-selling compact camcorder with no bells or whistles – except that the market has decided “ultra simplicity” is the one bell/whistle they really need.

Actually, I found an example of my own while looking for a web-based to-do application. There are plenty of fine (and free) online organizers out there, but the one I settled upon was perhaps the simplest one available: TeuxDeux by “studio-mates swissmiss and Fictive Kin.”

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Dale Carnegie: The World’s First Blogger! (Or: In Praise of Conversational Writing)

Source: Flickr (by Auntie P – Creative Commons)

November marked Dale Carnegie’s birthday (November 21, 1888) and also the anniversary of his death (November 1, 1955). While recently browsing the bookstore, I saw Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People alongside another familiar book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 bestseller. I have read both books; while both books have much to offer, I hold one book in much higher regard than the other (I bet you can guess which one from this post’s title!).

Covey billed his book as a next generation self-improvement book above and beyond Dale Carnegie (in fact, Covey’s 7 Habits includes an irksome “Goodbye, Dale Carnegie” quote of critical praise for Covey at Carnegie’s expense). And yet, Dale Carnegie’s venerable 1937 book has actually endured much better than 7 Habits over the last twenty years, thanks to Carnegie’s timeless, highly personable advice, wrapped in one of the first and best conversational writing books ever written.

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Poor Communication can Scuttle Effective BI, Your Reputation, and a Simple Bus Ride

Several years ago I flew to and from a trade show via TF Green Airport in Providence, RI instead of Boston Logan Airport as usual.  This small airport has (or at least had at the time) one large economy parking lot with shuttle buses.

Remember Ralph Kramden? The bus driver I dealt with was the Anti-Kramden.

You were supposed to give the bus driver the number of your bus stop near your car.  Running late, I rushed to catch my departing flight and didn’t make note of the number, but I knew I had parked near a certain corner of the lot.

“Excuse me,” I said to the bus driver, “but I don’t have my bus stop number. Can you just drop me off at whatever stop is nearest to the far right corner of the lot?”

“What’s the number?” grunted the bus driver.

“I don’t have the number.  But I know my car is near the far right corner of the lot from where we are right now.”

“What’s the number?” the driver again grunted, a little louder this time.

(What…?!) “I said I don’t have the number. I’m near that corner of the lot over to your right.”

“What’s the number?”

(Is this guy for real?!) “Look, can you just stop anywhere near the far corner of the lot?”

One of my colleagues from the trade show, a TF Green regular and just as annoyed with the driver as I was, shouted out a stop number he happened to know was close to my car. The bus driver, now given “The Number,” did silently agree to stop there, his eyes forward as I walked off the bus. Note that there was no language, cultural or hearing-ability issue with the driver. He was simply locked into his own way of thinking to a ridiculous degree: no stop number, no stop.

The way a person communicates is a major component of their reputation and personal brand.  And I believe the vast majority of communication problems are caused by the personal baggage we bring to the table when communicating, known in psychological terms as confirmation bias.   Continue reading

A Tale of Two Polar Opposite Managerial Styles

UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski (photo: Bb World)

In 2010, I was remote director of marketing for iStrategy (now Blackboard Analytics) based in Maryland. The company hosted its first-ever iStrategy User Conference that year, hosted at Loyola University. It was a pleasure to meet so many smart, enthusiastic data warehousing customers I had been collaborating with on case studies and webinars, highlighted by a fantastic keynote presentation by UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski.

Flying into BWI that September and back home in October on AirTran (a nice airline that I miss, btw). I had happened to read the September and October issues of Go, AirTran’s surprisingly good in-flight magazine. I found it interesting that the business author profiled in each issue so thoroughly and diametrically opposed the other.

George Cloutier, the founder of American Management Services, with a long record of successful business turnarounds to his credit, is the author Profits Aren’t Everything, They’re the Only Thing, profiled in the Go September issue. Meanwhile, the October issue of Go profiles the book ESPN the Company: The Story and Lessons Behind the Most Fanatical Brand in Sports by longtime consultant to ESPN Anthony F. Smith (scroll about halfway down each of these links to read each book and author profile).

How is this for disagreement, not to mention two very different personal brands, as summarized by Go magazine:

On Leadership:

George Cloutier: I am Your Work God! You want your employees to do what you say, not what they think.

Anthony F. Smith: Avoid the myth of single-person leadership. “Leadership is really a shared phenomenon…(Each ESPN executive) needed to surround themselves with other effective people who could fill in areas where they were not as skilled.”

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