Monday, November 23, 2009

More kudos to NB Web Express

I have written about these guys before. They are just amazing.

I recently redeemed a very generous coupon they sent me. I bought another pair of their 1011 running shoes. I love these shoes. They are unbelievably comfortable. Anyway, I just got an email from them. It's a really nice, warm human email. The text is below. My one minor complaint is that they call me by my first and last name. It sounds a little weird. But otherwise, I really like getting emails from them.

I buy my shoes at Nordstrom. I buy my sneakers at NB Web Express. Nobody else has a chance to sell me shoes or sneakers. I am totally loyal to these guys.

So here's their email:

Dear Adam Schorr,

I wanted to follow up regarding your recent purchase from us.
I sincerely hope you are enjoying the comfort and fit of your
New Balance gear.

Understanding you have many choices, we truly appreciate your
business. NB Web Express is committed to earning your loyal
patronage by surpassing your expectations and being open to
suggestions for improvement.

You can contact us directly via email or by calling
1-800-595-9138(Toll Free) with any comments or suggestions.
We welcome your feedback!

Kerstin B.
Customer Care Specialist
(800) 595-9138

Friday, November 20, 2009

Everything you know is wrong

There. Feel better? I bet you do.

Because I know that you so badly want to change. You want to improve. You want to try new things. And you still think the word "innovation" is cool and if you can put it on your resume you know you'll get invited to cool parties.

But there's this really big problem. The problem is that you know so much. You're an expert in your field. You've seen it all and you know what works and what does not work. So if you're going to change, improve, innovate and hobnob with the A-listers, you've got to find something that fits in with what you know to be true.

And that is hard. Honestly, it's damn near impossible. Because if there was something new and better out there that fit with what you know, you'd probably already have it wouldn't you?

So what is a would-be innovator to do?

Well, I'll tell you. Accept that everything you know is wrong. What you learned in school. Wrong! Your accumulated professional wisdom. Wrong! Your most sacred beliefs. Wrong! All of it is wrong. And if it isn't wrong this very minute, it'll be!

The world is not flat. The sun does not revolve around the earth. Infants are not born as tabula rasa. Our sensory perception is not driven by eidola (c'mon, look it up). The most sacred beliefs of the best minds throughout history have been shown to be wrong by the advance of wisdom and knowledge. Are you really certain that you're smarter than them all? That human knowledge has now reached its apex and that we now know all there is to know? Really?

Look. There are very few certainties in life. But here are two for which there is so much evidence that only the delusional could possibly deny them.
1) Future generations will laugh at your naivete. They will know how you were wrong. And the generations after them will do the same.
2) Your kids will laugh like crazy at the clothing you wore when you were young and most assuredly at that goofy mustache you thought made you look so cool.

But this is all good news. Well, not so much the part about your kids laughing at you. That can sting a bit. I kid you not. But the other part is good news. Because you already know the end of this movie. The end is that you were wrong.

Stop for a moment to take in the full measure of this. You are wrong. How wonderfully liberating it is to be wrong. You do not have to hold onto your orthodoxies as if they are the last piece of flotsam saving you from certain death in the stormy seas. You are not in possession of a jewel so precious that you must guard it with your very life from the hordes of envious pillagers.

Rather, what you've got now is OK. It's good enough. It's working pretty well. Maybe well enough to hang onto for a bit longer. But it is wrong. And you are free to move on. To challenge your own orthodoxies. Even to toss them away with a soupcon of cavalierness.

Go ahead. Give it a try. You know you want to.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Screw you consumer!

That's what I see and hear when I look at packaging that says "New look. Same great flavor."

What that says to me is: "I spent hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to improve this product you bought but instead of making it better for you, I made it better for me."

In a few rare instances, packaging is updated because consumers that want to find the product simply cannot amidst the clutter of a typical retail shelf. (BTW, I'm referring to packaging graphics not the structure itself.) But most of the time, the packaging is updated so it practically screams at you from the shelf. Marketers will say things like "we've got to make sure the package has stopping power" or "make the package intrusive."

Well guess what? I don't want to be stopped. And I do not want to be intruded on.

When you play with packaging this way, you've resorted to gimmickry. You're not calling on the rational faculties of a consumer to try and assist in the purchase decision. Instead, you're preying on the irrational, the built in little cognitive and cultural biases we have that, generally, help us make better decisions but often lead us astray.

I have a better idea. Try this new line on your packaging: "Same old look. New improved taste." Make the damn chips taste better. Make the soda taste better. Make your product work better. Instead of trying to trick me with flashiness, convince me with true product benefits.

Oh, and consumers. I have a message for you too. See here's the thing. As one of my favorite people pointed out, these gimmicks work. Marketers do this because notwithstanding their cynicism and lack of respect for the consumer, these tactics do work. You know why? Because you allow yourself to be seduced by shiny objects rather than demanding better products. When you stop letting yourself be taken advantage of, when you start demanding from manufacturers that they truly respect you, then you will start seeing better tasting chips.

Until then, enjoy the new bag.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Why I love innovation

Innovation produces many economic benefits. It generates many new products and creature comforts. On those merits alone it ought to be greatly valued.

But the truth is that although I enjoy these benefits of innovation, they are not the primary cause of my passion for innovation.

The reason I care so much about innovation is that innovation reflects the natural state of the human soul. (I'm using "innovation" as a verb here.) The human soul seeks to understand. It seeks to improve the world based on that understanding. It craves beauty, excellence, dignity and nobility. It pursues truth.

When people are stifled in their attempts to express the natural desire of their souls, they become depressed in a way. You can see them in their robotic drone-like state in many organizations. They become listless. They go through the motions but there is no real passion behind what they do. As Thoreau said "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." These people are more predictable. They are more easily managed. But they are barely human.

Setting up organizations to allow, or even encourage, people to pursue the natural desires of their souls leads to many salutary benefits. Most immediately, it breathes life and passion back into the quietly desperate. These newly energized people are happy. Not in some superficial sense of having the material comforts they need and a lack of external pressure. They are truly happy in the profoundest sense of the term. They are fully engaged. They are maximally productive. They might not be producing exactly what you wanted them to produce but, in the aggregate, they best contribute to human progress and towards the creation, development and maintenance of the most beautiful, noble, excellent and dignified world we can possibly have.

Oh yeah, they also turn out some really cool products and generate all that economic activity that makes the bean-counters happy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

True in the soil vs. True in the heart

Some things are true because they just are. They are theoretically sound or necessary such as the proposition that 2+2=4. Or they have been shown to be true through rigorous empirical study. These things are true whether you like them or not. They are true regardless of your personal, political or sexual agenda. They are true whether you put on your socks before your shoes or you follow the sock-shoe, sock-shoe approach.

But there are other truths. There are things that are true because you believe they are. These truths start out as the glint in the soul of one individual. That glint grows and becomes a passion. Almost an obsession. And that person through sheer force of will, inspires others to believe. When that happens, this individual has created a movement. And there is very little a passionate movement cannot achieve.

Soil truths are fine. One ignores them at one's own peril. It is important to educate ourselves on these truths.

But let's not ignore heart truths. This is where the magic happens.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On hetero vs. homogeneity

How alike should the members of your organization be? This is a really tough question. On one hand, we value diversity don't we? Haven't we all been told that diversity does all sorts of wonderful things for an organization? It brings together different experiences, ideas, style of thinking, etc. so that you not only get the very best of the lot but you go beyond and achieve that magical 1+1=3.

Yet we also know that there needs to be some commonality amongst members of a group. We all know, for instance, that common values are important. I just saw a great presentation from Netflix on their corporate culture and how they insure that their employees truly share their values.

So how heterogenous or homogenous should we be? Well let's start with the ends of that spectrum.

Pure heterogeneity would mean that there is complete and total difference. No two people within the organization are alike in any way. There are no shared values, beliefs or ideas. There are no shared experiences. Heck, no two people even speak the same language! Clearly that cannot work.

Pure homogeneity would mean that everyone is completely alike. There would be absolutely no diversity whatsoever. Obviously this doesn't work either.

I think the received wisdom is true. Heterogeneity and homogeneity are both needed.

Heterogeneity is needed because much as in biology, social and intellectual diversity lead to the most favorable outcomes over the long term. Differences of opinion, of thinking styles, of experiences - when managed properly - do lead to better outcomes because the organization has a richer database from which to pull its answers. Heterogeneity is valuable because it maximizes your chances that you will survive over the long term by insuring that people from within challenge your thinking so that you don't have to be challenged as much by people from the outside. Magic and brilliance are most likely to come from an unexpected clash of ideas - the sort of clash that requires diversity.

Homogeneity is needed because without it, there is no organization. Homogeneity is the glue that holds together what would otherwise be a mass of individuals. Organizational logic allows for e pluribus unum - out of many, one.

So how much do you need of each?

I would propose two principles though I believe I have not yet thought this issue through sufficiently and would welcome your thoughts:

1) When the nature of your output is inherently creative and novel then you should favor heterogeneity over homogeneity. Organizations that are constantly solving new problems for which there is no existing template should value heterogeneity more. This could include the arts, some kinds of marketing, technology... More physical professions that literally require people to be pulling in the same direction probably should value homogeneity more. Again, I've already pointed out that there must be a balance. I'm just trying to lay out a general framework and provide some guidance here.

2) You should, in general, try and insure homogeneity on as few variables as possible. I suspect common values and a shared sense of the objective will always need to be shared. If people cannot agree on what they're trying to achieve and share the broadest sense of the rules of the road, then I fail to see how they can ever work together. Certain professions may require common experiences like certain degrees or professional accreditations. But often, companies have an unspoken sense of how people should come across. They require that people speak a certain way, dress a certain way... When this becomes part of the culture it can be very toxic. Ask yourself very carefully: do we really need homogeneity around X in order to succeed. Not whether you like it. Not whether it makes you more personally comfortable. Ask yourself whether you really need people to share X. Because if you don't, don't let your culture form an unspoken rule that requires such homogeneity.

I think it is critical to carefully manage this balance. I believe successful strong cultures will do this very well. You want an organization that gives people a sense of belonging. In order to have that sense, they must know to what they belong. It must be obvious to insiders and outsiders what you stand for. But if you take this too far, your organization can quickly become stifling. In the absence of careful management of the criteria for being "one of us," the list will grow. And before long, your organization will have all of the color and vigor of the Soviet Union.