Thursday, December 17, 2009

Some Ideas Whose Time Has Come (Again)

The other day the WSJ ran a story on a low-tech craze sweeping Silicon Valley—entrepreneurial evenings devoted to the board game “Settlers of Catan.”  Of course, in SV it’s called “live networking” (where we used to just call it “game night”), but it’s all the same thing: people moving off their keyboards and socializing in person.  How quaint.

That’s not the only oldie but goldie making a comeback as we round the bend into a new decade.  Look at what’s happening on TV.  The biggest hit, attracting 22 million viewers every week, is “NCIS.”   As the WSJ reports, it “barely has a fan Web site. . .its viewers seldom time-shift,” and they are anything but the “young, urban demographic” that advertisers craze.  But “’NCIS’ is proof that even if the economics of the business are in upheaval, large swathes of the audience still want traditional storytelling, righteous heroes, and reality that’s not offensively gritty.”  Producers even say they avoid parochial or offensive humor.  How quaint.

(What's next?  Do you suppose people will begin playing solitaire again with actual cards?)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thinking About Thinking

One of the sub-industries that has developed in parallel with the growth of digitization and the Internet is one comprised of smart folks who are valiantly trying to divine what this assault of information is doing to our noggins.

If you are in your 70s, of course, you’ve been absorbing and adjusting to things like television and computers (plus civil rights, globalization and the sexual revolution) for decades--no small feat.  If you are in your 170s, there’s also been the telegraph and telephone, as well as the onslaught of print media (plus flight, the automobile, the corporation, a bunch of world wars and revolutions, and 25 different kinds of Coke, too). 

In fact, our brains have been under full-out, ever-shifting assault since at least the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Angst of Privacy

My friend Jerry sent a terrific blog posting from Jeff Jonas, who writes about “information management and privacy in the information age.”

Talk about a topic full of angst.  We inhabit a world in which we despise the fact that Google peers inside our personal email to target click ads, or decides its alright to post pictures on the Web of our backyard.  We hate it when government puts cameras up at intersections to catch folks running red lights, or when we plow snow for the state and are required to carry a GPS so our employer knows our whereabouts.  And the thought of having an RFID tag on a jar of baby food, so a retailer knows to offer us a discount on diapers, just creeps us out. 

I was at a Marketing meeting the other day when one of the really smart marketeers I know said something like, “Here, here and here is where we can drop a bunch of cookies on the customer and follow them around the web.”

We hate being watched, right?  Don't we?

Until, of course, we steal a bus or get into a fight after school and post our escapade on YouTube for all the world (and the police) to see, or get into our underwear and post the picture to MySpace.  If we can stay dressed, maybe we let LinkedIn and Trip-It inform our competitors which city we’re visiting this week, and which potential customers we linked-to, or maybe we just articulate our company strategy and go-to-market on our website, or perhaps we Twitter about what we’re putting in our coffee at Starbucks this morning, or maybe we just Facebook the details of our colonoscopy.

The theme seems to be this:  We don’t mind being unsparingly intimate and stupid with the rest of the world, so long as we have full control over when and how we embarrass ourselves.

Now, Jeff Jonas gives us something new to think about:
Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day.  Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not.  Got a Blackberry?  Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not.  If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using alocation-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters.  Using Wi-Fi?  It is accurate below10 meters.
The implications of this—especially for those of us who are rarely more than a few meters from our cellphone—is that we can map the spatial coordinates of our lives.  And our friends’ lives.  Our families could, theoretically, post a spatial map on our gravestones so that our ancestors could see where we spent our time before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Jonas continues:
The data reveals the number of co-workers that join you Thursdays after work for a beer, and roughly where you all go. It knows where these same co-workers call home, and just exactly what kind of neighborhood they come from (e.g., average income, average home price) … information certainly useful to attentive direct marketing folks.
Large space-time data sets combined with advanced analytics enable a degree of understanding, discovery, and prediction that may be hard for many people to fully appreciate. Better prediction means a more efficient enterprise and nifty consumer services.
And more angst.  Lots more.  What you thought was a smartphone turns out to be a Trojan Horse.
We have all been warned.  It’s going to be an interesting century.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Praise of Home Delivery

A long, long time ago when I was a kid, we had a milkman.  Johnny the Milkman. We’d spot him making a delivery and run down the street to meet his truck.  Johnny the Milkman had a great boxy vehicle without passenger seats, and with both sliding doors left open to catch the summer breeze.  Ironically, a huge block of ice melting in the middle of the truck’s floor was meant to keep the glass bottles of milk and cream cold.   

Johnny the Milkman, in the days before OSHA and seatbelts and common sense, would let us jump on board and dangle our arms and legs out the passenger door for a few stops, dragging our Keds on the road as we drove from house to house.  Then, to complete the nightmare for our mothers, he’d give us an ice pick and we’d chip off a handful of cold, crunchy microbes to chew on.

There's nothing like a seven-year-old with an ice pick, dangling his legs out of a moving truck, sucking on dirty ice.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Drawing on Brilliance

If you’re looking for a very cool holiday gift for your boss or management team, one that will remind him or her--after all the spreadsheets and algorithms are put away--that there still really is an underlying beauty to business, check out Drawing on Brilliance.

Co-authors Randy Rabin and Jackie Bassett rescued original patent lithographs discarded by the US Patent Office--lithographs from folks like the Wright Brothers, Hedy Lamar (yes, the actress of MGM fame who also happened to co-invent frequency-hopping technology), Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Willis Carrier and hundreds of others never before seen.

I recently tracked down Jackie, who doubles as author and CEO of Sealed Speed, to get the scoop on the book.

How did this all come about?

My patent researcher told me how the US PTO had gone digital and threw thousands of original Teslas, Carriers, and Westinghouses in the trash. Then he told me he had rescued many of them.  As I looked through them, he shared some little known facts behind each invention.  I felt so inspired and so privileged to be able to see these drawings for myself, read the actual handwritten notes and study the patterns of success and failure behind each.  Few outside of the patent office had ever seen them.

They really are a total experience to hold, to view and to learn from. In my eyes, Randy was a hero for rescuing them but this is the age of open collaboration.  I told him we needed to share these with the rest of the world.  We needed to do a lot more research on the processes of innovation and to put together a book that would inspire everyone and anyone to do what each of these brave entrepreneurs had done – change the world in remarkable ways.

Was there any story or drawing that particularly struck you?

The Wright Brothers' was the most inspiring to me. They launched an entire industry and created millions of jobs. Ultimately they raised the standard of living for everyone around the world.

The more we researched what the Wright Brothers went through, from concept to commercial success, the more questions we had.  Exactly how did two uneducated bicycle shop repairmen from Ohio solve a problem that no one else could for centuries, from Da Vinci to Galileo?  Could the process they used be repeatable and used to solve other unsolvable problems? What are the real secrets to innovation success? Can we use these insights to raise the global standard of living with all of the problems in today’s economy?

Are you using this material to drive ideas in your own consulting?

Yes.  I work with CEOs who are looking to accelerate the growth of their companies. It seems in a world that is changing at the speed of the Internet many companies just get lost in the rapids of competing priorities.  Managing the volume and rate of change today is analogous to white water rafting.  You need an experienced guide. You’ll never have all of the data you think you need so you have to make some tough decisions. Then you have to rapidly capture the results and be ready to change again.

Remember, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Long before Twitter we had Gottlieb Daimler who showed us that we don’t compete on technology, we compete on business models and we leverage technology to deliver those business models.  We had W.H. Carrier who showed us how a well disciplined process of problem-solving can make the world a better place – we have a goal that has never changed.


So, have I solved your office holiday gift problem?  No more books about mice or cheese.  No more 7 habits or 10 rules or 5 platitudes.  Something special, and something you'll return to time and again for inspiration.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Value of Consistent Hard Work

The other day I listened to a New Yorker podcast, one featuring the magazine's cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff.  He spoke with Zachary Kanin, one of a very small stable of regular cartoonists.  

Kanin was discussing his typical work-week and mentioned that he draws ten to fifteen cartoons a week.  I might have guessed three, and perhaps five in a good week.  But Kanin churns out 10 to 15 new ones every week.  

He said it’s important to work at that pace because it’s the only way he really stopped doing other people’s cartoons, the only way he really found his own voice. 

It's yet another seemingly fun, carefree career—draw a little, lay in the sun, draw a little, have some wine before dinner-- that turns out to be really hard work.   Get up early and sweat it out, every day.  Consistent hard work.  The only way to get good and be good and stay good.  The only way to find your voice.

Later, in another podcast interview, I heard Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame) say he writes every day, 365 days a year, including Christmas Day.

One of the best examples of disciplined, consistent, hard work I have seen was Jeff Kennedy’s terrific effort, Drawing Flies.  Every single day in 2008 Jeff created and posted a fly, explaining:
"Part of the challenge is the discipline to accomplish this every day and the other is to expand my creativity and to help find my artistic voice. The sky is the limit on how the flies will be created. You may have wondered, 'why is he drawing flies?' My other hobby is fly fishing and fly tying. I also welcome the challenge of drawing the natural materials that are used in the flies. So hang on and enjoy the ride for the next 365 days!"
Jeff took this project seriously and worked hard at perfecting his technique.  It became a very pleasant ritual to get up every morning and check out his latest creation.  

Last Sunday our oldest daughter wrote about 1,200 words, the start of her efforts in this year’s National Novel Writing Month.  The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.  This is her third year and she is one-for-two, having completed all 50,000 words last year and falling just shy in her first try.  For her, this means writing every day, often late at night after extracurricular activities and homework is done.

This also means consistent hard work.  When I asked her why she was doing it she said, “Dad, I’m happy every day that I write.” 

This idea of really loving something but working at it hard enough every day that it’s a little bit painful is part of a ritual that talented, driven people all seem to understand and embrace.

That includes Haruki Murakami, who wrote about his efforts in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Murakami is brilliant at taking adversity and turning it to his advantage.  In this case, he was reflecting on how difficult it is for him to write novels.
Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do.  Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work.  Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me.  I haven’t spotted any springs nearby.  I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity.  To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort.  Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole.
Like Kanin, Brown, and Kennedy, Murakami embraces the process, the consistent hard work, saying that when “naturals’ suddenly find their spring has run dry, they are in trouble.  But when he notices one water source is drying up, he can simply move on and chisel out the next hole from rock.

Certainly it helps to have talent.  And it's wonderful to find your passion.  But even then, if you want to be really good at something, it's all about consistent hard work.

Just get your hammer and chisel out and start pounding.

(First posted in November 2009 and updated modestly in April 2016.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tomorrow Our CFO Turns 40

This is how I knew he would be a great CFO:

Shortly after the hire, we had lunch at one of those Chinese restaurants that offers its food by the number.  So, a "#23" is egg foo young, fried rice and spare ribs.  Each meal is more food than three people could eat, and the kind of food many people would not eat at all.

Anyway, one of the cardinal rules at this place is "NO SUBSTITUTIONS."  The menu says "NO SUBSTITUTIONS" in about six places, all in red.  Bright red.  Big letters.  It might as well read "NUCLEAR WASTE."

Here comes the nice waitress.  I order a #15.  Our new CFO orders a #23 and then says to the waitress, "But I want to substitute chicken wings for ribs."

Just like that.  I thought the earth would open up and swallow us.

The waitress pauses, looks, pauses, looks.  Frowns.  Pauses.  And then says: "OK."

That's when I knew he would be a great CFO.  Through a half-dozen acquisitions, 40 quarters of growth, the design of compensation plans, and in battles with vendors and partners, he kept asking for substitutions when nobody else dared.

Today, that CFO is our COO.  Just another thing that comes from not being afraid to ask for substitutions.

Happy Birthday, Mike!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Running with Haruki Murakami on Columbus Day Weekend

Saturday morning, 6:30 a.m.—the single best moment of a long, holiday weekend.  There’s a light rain that looks like it’s moving off.  I throw on my sweats, drop my iPhone in a Glad plastic bag (a better exercise case than I can find in the Apple store), turn on a podcast of This American Life, and begin a long, hopefully intensive walk through the fall scenery of our little town. 

I’m walking (and riding) a lot more these days because, after years of running, I’ve been having trouble breathing.  It all started last winter when I caught a cold and flu that turned into walking pneumonia.  It’s much better now, but vestiges just seem to hang on.  I’ve chocked it up to getting old and tried to work around it.

Besides, walking is so much more pleasant than grinding out a run.

As for exercise entertainment--next to Bob Edwards’ Weekend--Ira Glass’s This American Life is my favorite companion.  I find good talk wards off pain and boredom better than music, even good music.  This particular edition of TAL is called “The Book That Changed Your Life,” and it is just hilarious.  The first segment, from playwright and screenwriter Alexa Junge (Sex in the City, West Wing, Big Love), tells about falling in love with playwright Moss Hart (husband of Kitty Carlisle, author of You Can’t Take It with You & My Fair Lady, and dead before Alexa was born) through his autobiography, and fashioning her early life after his.  It’s a hoot, especially when Alexa meets poor Kitty.

The second segment has 13-year-old David Sedaris finding a pornographic novel in the woods.  It would change his life, briefly and not for the better, and had me laughing out loud.

I mention this because last week my youngest brother sent me a book by Haruki MurakamiWhat I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  I am embarrassed to say that, not only had I never read Murakami, I have never even heard of him.  (If you are as parochial as I, Wikipedia tell us Murakami “is the sixth recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize, is considered an important figure in postmodern literature, and The Guardian praised him as one of the "world's greatest living novelists.")

What I Talk About. . . can be read in an evening but is, in the vein of This American Life, a book that could very well change your life.  Essentially an essay about running—which Murakami has done lots of for more than a generation—and writing, effort and loss and success and coping, it is the kind of book that, as my brother wrote, you will finish reading and then want to re-read to discover all the things you missed.

So, there I was, walking along a quiet country road, listing to Ira Glass, thinking about Murakami.
One runner told of a mantra his older brother, also a runner, had taught him which he’s pondered ever since he began running. Here it is: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself. This pretty much sums up the most important aspect of marathon running.
And there I was, walking.  Walking fast, but walking.  Thinking about Murakami.
Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.
Now I’m walking even faster.  Don’t want to be a baby, after all.  (One of the guys at work saw me out walking the other week and advised me, “Don’t hurt yourself.”  Ouch.)
It doesn’t matter what field you’re talking about—beating somebody else just doesn’t do it for me. I’m much more interested in whether I reach the goals that I set for myself. . .In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.
It is now 40 minutes into my walk.  I’m laughing at David Sedaris, thinking about Haruki Marakami.  Thinking about what would happen if I run home.
When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger.
Now I’ve stopped.  It’s a cul-de-sac of quiet homes, and it’s still too early on a long weekend for sensible people to be awake.  What the heck.  Maybe I will run home.  Breathing is overrated.
I think this viewpoint applies as well to the job of the novelist. Writers who are blessed with inborn talent can freely write novels no matter what they do—or don’t do. Like water from a natural spring, the sentences just well up, and with little or no effort these writers can complete a work. Occasionally you’ll find someone like that, but, unfortunately, that category wouldn’t include me. I haven’t spotted any springs nearby. I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have to dredge out another new, deep hole. But as I’ve sustained this kind of life over many years, I’ve become quite efficient, both technically and physically, at opening a hole in the hard rock and locating a new water vein. So as soon as I notice one water source drying up, I can move on right away to another. If people who rely on a natural spring of talent suddenly find they’ve exhausted their only source, they’re in trouble.
20 minutes later—home.  Some of the old running kicked in.  Not so fast, but not so bad.  Maybe I’m still healing.
No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot. On days like that, I try to think of all kinds of plausible excuses to slough it off. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B company team. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in?” He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!” Now that I look back on it I can see what a dumb question that was. I guess even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I suppose I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s caliber.
The truth is, I don’t know if this book by Haruki Marakumi will change my life.  I only know that it changed my Saturday morning.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Men are From Mars, Women are From Hallmark

I went card shopping today to find an anniversary card for a couple we've known for years.  It’s fair to say that there’s some pretty wretched stuff out there in the form of maudlin, raggedy, iambic pentameters stuffed into $5.00 cards.

It takes two special people,
To make a loving pair.
There’s a joy just being around you,
A feeling we love to share.


Because we can't call people without wings angels, we call them friends instead.

Does anyone you know really talk to their friends this way?

Consequently, I found myself in the Shoebox section of the Hallmark aisle.  Shoebox cards are clever, like the excellent anniversary card I almost bought that started “Your butt cheeks are sagging. . . ."

I do believe a Shoebox cocktail party would be a memorable one, with lampshades used in all kinds of unspeakable ways.

Of course, Hallmark and other card companies go through the same marketing discipline we all do, segmenting their customers into buying groups and then creating, in the case of Hallmark, “commoditized sentiment” that appeals to that group.  In David Ellis Dickerson’s new book, House of Cards, he details his years working for Hallmark—a kind of Dilbertesque box-canyon for a guy with a masters degree in fine arts.

Dickerson tells us that women represent nearly 90% of the card market, causing Hallmark to segment along themes such as “How Much You Mean,” and “Thinking of You.”

Care to guess the most popular theme for men? 

That's right.  It’s known as SELD, or “Seldom Say,” and is described by Dickerson as “I know I don’t say it very often, but for what it’s worth I love you and here’s a card.”

Ever bought one of those, gents?  Ever bought anything BUT one of those?

The anniversary card I finally purchased has the guy on the front singing MC Hammer’s song, “Da da da da, Can’t touch this.”  You open it up and the gal is replying, “For the last time, I don’t WANT to touch it.”

Made me laugh out loud. 

By the way, for you Marketing types: I can’t explain the numbers either.  There are roughly as many women as men in America.  That means there are roughly as many birthdays for women as for men, and an identical number of anniversaries.  So, how do men manage to purchase just 10% of all greeting cards? 

There is one plausible explanation: Women must be buying cards for themselves. 

All of which means men really are from Mars.  But women, we now know, must often just be coming back from the Hallmark store.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Focus Like an Entreprenuer: A Lesson from James K. Polk

My to-do list has 91 items. This is the result of a conscious effort in the last couple of months to reduce the list from about 150 items. Even now, if I knock off some of the wish-list stuff like “Climb Kilimanjaro"--the things that will happen on their own, or not--I’m down to maybe 75 items.

Some things are seasonal and appear as reminders once a year. So, they stay on the list but aren’t especially onerous. That gets me down to maybe 50.  I know, to a GTD disciple, 50 items is the subset of an uberlist—hardly a list at all. Still, 50 to-dos does seem like a lot.

Last summer I clipped a Peggy Noonan column, “To-Do List: A Sentence, Not 10 Paragraphs,” from the June 27/8 Wall Street Journal.  Advising President Obama, Noonan suggested that Clare Booth Luce had it right in 1962 when she told President Kennedy that “a great man is one sentence.”

“He preserved the union and freed the slaves.”

“He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.”

There’s no mistaking those.  Noonan went on to suggest that Obama was trying to do too much and, in the process, was missing “The Sentence.” (Her suggestion for Obama was: “He brought America back from economic collapse and kept us strong and secure in the age of terror.”)

It all reminded me of the way Daniel Walker Howe portrayed President James Knox Polk in What Hath God Wrought. Now, there's a President you don’t think about every day--James K. Polk. But talk about focused and driven; he was a guy built for "The Sentence."

Upon being elected, Polk told his Secretary of the Navy that he would have "four great measures" of his administration: Settlement of Oregon with Britain, the acquisition of California, a reduction of the Tariff, and the permanent establishment of the Independent Treasury.

How did Polk do? Howe concludes, “Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the United States ever had.” He picked two big foreign policy and two big domestic goals, stayed focused, and achieved them in one term.  Then he retired.

Polk’s extraordinary focus reminds me of the trick an old boss taught me, way back before every pocket had a smartphone. He would take a 3-by-5 card at the start of each fiscal quarter and write down his 3-6 goals for the quarter. Then he would leave it in the corner of his desk where he could see it constantly, or carry it in his pocket when he was traveling.  Every morning and evening he'd review the list to gauge if what he was doing contributed to one of those goals; if not, he’d stop and, as he said, get back to work.  

There is a story told about a time-management consultant who visited the Pentagon to address a gathering of generals.  He asked them how they organized their days.  The one answer that stood out: "I write down everything I need to do that day, maybe 25 items.  Then I start at the bottom and cross them out until I have only the top three left.  Then I go to work." 

Leaders of all kinds require extraordinary focus to be successful.  I don't know if James K. Polk had a 3-by-5 card, but I'm guessing he didn't have a to-do list with 91 items, either.

Maybe a lesson for you.  Certainly a lesson for me.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Small Things Considered: Broken Telephone Poles & Stuck Bolts

A Little Thing Close In

The power went out this Saturday morning, not an uncommon occurrence in our town during winter storms, but uncommon enough on a sunny fall morning. 

Loss of electricity for any length of time can be traumatic in a small town where fresh water comes from private wells. No electricity, no water. No drinking. No showers. Each toilet is good for precisely two flushes once the clock on the microwave oven begins flashing.

Right behind the water crisis, of course, is the FIOS and cable crisis, the wireless and web crisis, and the TV and microwave crisis. Followed, of course, by the can’t-see-at-night crisis.

I’m reminding you of things you already know because, as I went for my run that morning, I discovered two utility trucks and a policeman directing traffic around a snapped utility pole. Someone, somehow, on a sunny, dry morning--on a road marked at 35 miles per hour--managed to smack into the pole and turn the attached electronics and cables into a mid-air rat’s nest.

Utility poles are a 19th-century technology, designed originally to carry telegraph lines.  The average pole is made of Yellow Southern Pine and stands about 34 feet above the ground.  Whack them with one of our modern vehicles and they break like a toothpick. 

Said more poetically, when the 20th century runs into the 19th century, the 21st century suffers.

A Little Thing Far Out

Last week NASA reported that the Hubble Space telescope was sending back stunning images of exploding stars, stellar nurseries and colliding galaxies, thanks to its repair and refurbishment by astronauts in a series of tense spacewalks earlier this year. One image, of Planetary Nebula NGC 6302, shows what our universe will look like four billion years from now.

You may remember that work on the Hubble was almost scuttled when astronauts had a protracted struggle with a stuck bolt. It was the kind of thing that you or I might work on for an hour on a Saturday, give up, and go watch a football game. 

In this case, one little bolt stood in the way of activating the Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which has now shown us what we might look like in 4 billion years.

In and Far

As I was running by the utility trucks and the police car, trying to think how this could possibly have happened, I pictured the guy passing me on the highway earlier this week, going about 95 miles per hour—texting. 

And the woman who didn’t see the green light (and got a chorus of honks) because she was applying her make-up in the rear view mirror. 

And then there was the person watching a movie on a laptop as she rolled through the tolls on the Maine Turnpike.

In a world of endless incoming and frantic multitasking, it's good to remember the upright telephone poles and freed bolts that keep our fragile world from falling apart.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Hear a Bass Drum--Honest!

In my sophomore year in high school we took a class called Political Ideology. It was taught by a terrific teacher, Orin Holmes, who announced on the first day of class that if we “played school” with him we would flunk.

Sometime within the first month we walked into class and found that Mr. Holmes had projected on a screen an ancient Greek building with impressive columns. He explained that the Greeks were experts in perspective and had, with this building, bowed the columns (fat in the middle, tapered at the ends) to create the illusion that they were perfectly straight.

“See,” Mr. Holmes explained, “how they are tapered to look straight?”

We all shook our heads, yes, of course, brilliant.

He then came around to the side of the class. “See the bow? See how it makes them look perfectly straight?”

Again, a great bobbing of heads. Those Greeks were brilliant.

Finally, he turned off the projector, clearly perturbed. “Does anyone see the problem?”

We all looked stunned. Problem? The Greeks. Columns. Perspective. Bowed. Straight. What problem?

Then Mr. Holmes said, “If I don’t teach you anything else this year, I want to teach you to think for yourself--to take an independent point of view. If I tell you something is straight, and it looks bowed, you should say something like, ‘Mr. Holmes. The Greeks blew it. They didn’t understand perspective all that well, cause they bowed the columns to make them look straight--and they look bowed. I see it with my own eyes.’”

We all hung our heads. We’d been busted playing school.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Not Being the Big Dog: The Value of Psychic Income

A few Sundays ago I stumbled upon one of the morning interview programs which happened to feature the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and the Mayor of Newark (NJ), Cory Booker.

Booker is a young guy and former community activist and Councilman. Bloomberg is a generation older and well known as the billionaire founder of Bloomberg, LP., a financial software and services giant.

At one point, as the two mayors were being interviewed, Bloomberg began answering a question (about crime or drugs or handguns) by saying, “Of course, Mayor Booker has a harder job than I have.”

That might or might not be true--I don’t know enough to say. But the fact that Mayor Bloomberg recognized his younger peer in such a gracious way says more about Bloomberg than it does about the difficulties of their respective jobs.

Undoubtedly Michael Bloomberg wants to be a wildly successful mayor of New York. He’s driven, and I’m sure has a healthy ego and many of the trappings that go with it. But if he makes a mess of it all, he’s still worth $16 billion dollars and the founder of a hugely successful financial services empire.  You can’t take that away from him.

In other words, Bloomberg comes to the job as Mayor with not just wealth, but with all of his psychic income needs met. He’s already successful. He’s already made it. He appears comfortable with himself and his accomplishments.

He could have been the Big Dog in that television interview and he chose not to be; instead, he made the gracious gesture of promoting the young guy next to him.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Piece of Really Good Work

My great-grandfather, Richard Albert King, died about ten years before I was born. Everyone in my family who knew him personally is also now gone. So, the memory of my great-grandfather comes down to a few simple items.
I know from family stories that he was a kind and gentle person. I know my father, Richard, was named after him, and it was a good naming because my dad, too, was kind and gentle.

Sometime during the Depression, my great-grandfather was given a part-time job as sexton at his nearby Episcopal Church, more an act of kindness and dignity than financial gain. Its unintended consequence, however, was that mixed families of long-time Presbyterians and Lutherans became loyal Episcopalians, probably a better indication of how religion really works than a burning bush in the desert or a conversion on the road to Tarsus.

Finally, I know that every evening after dinner, my great-grandfather would retire to the cellar (and I mean cellar, not basement) to warm a pot of glue and cut and shape pieces of hardwood to make beautiful inlays. We have a chessboard and lamp from his labors. But the best example of all is an exquisite inlaid table that now resides in the corner of our dining room.

If everything I knew about my great-grandfather came down to this one item, I would see a patient, exacting craftsman with a flair for the creative; a “measure twice, cut once” guy; and someone who built things to last. All things very much worth aspiring to.

That table tells an important personal story and is what I call a piece of really good work.
When I was ten years old my parents bought a run-down house near Buzzards Bay and spent the next three decades turning it into a comfortable family cottage. We had outdoor hot water by the third year and an indoor shower a year or two after. But, almost the first thing my father decided he needed to do was replace the old, rotting foundation.
So, I spent the summer of my 11th year (along with my younger brother) crawling around under a two-story house, raising it inch-by-inch on jacks, learning how to mix concrete, and trying to avoid digging trenches. Today, I don’t pretend to know how to lift a house three inches and build a stone foundation under it, and I still occasionally dream (claustrophobically) about crawling around underneath, hoping not to see a snake. But, when my father lowered the house down on the new masonry, it was flat and plumb and square. A perfect landing.

From time to time over the last forty years I have driven by that cottage (long since sold), remember my father, and think: that foundation is a piece of really good work.

Today, I’m lucky to be on the Board of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (see here). It’s a group of accomplished and sometimes brilliant people (present company excepted) who come together around the powerful notion that family and history are things worth preserving and celebrating. Some of the Trustees with whom I have worked—David Kruger, Bob Bixby, Richard Benson, John Cabot and Alvy Ray Smith come immediately to mind—have not only had exceptional careers in business, but have written meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, almost monumental family genealogies. (See here for the NEHGS Online store.)

The kind of things you read in awe.

Their books are, each on its own, a piece of really good work, and something that punctuates all its author’s other accomplishments.

This all bubbled up not long ago while I was reading a Sunday New York Times article by Michael Wilson (“Where the Bodies Aren’t Buried”) about the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Established in 1838, Green-Wood is home to many famous New Yorkers, especially from the second half of the nineteenth century. Among the half-million residents of the cemetery’s nearly 500 acres, fashioned in the style of Mount Auburn in Cambridge, are Louis Comfort Tiffany, Henry Steinway (of piano fame), William “Boss” Tweed, James Merritt Ives (of “Currier and Ives”), Samuel F.B. Morse, DeWitt Clinton and Frank Morgan Wupperman (the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz).
In Wilson’s article about Green-Wood, however, we meet one of the cemetery’s living residents, Kestutis Demereckas, an engineer who moved from Lithuania to New York in 1989 and now serves as Green-Wood’s surveyor. Known as Kestas, Mr. Demereckas’ job these days is trying to find "dirt--a plain patch of earth long enough and wide enough in which to dig a fresh grave. An empty spot."
It seems Green-Wood is close to full after expanding for decades in all of the logical places. The cemetery, often three-deep in bodies, will have to close to new burials in the not-too-distant future. Before that happens, Kestas is trying to get as many people in as possible.

To do this, he consults surveys of the cemetery done in 1875 and 1895 by a surveyor named Lindsay Wells, Mr. Demereckas's predecessor at the job by more than a century. Wells' surveys are "veritable works of art, from the intricate inking of the roads and paths to the gentle swirls of cursive labeling of each clear rectangular lot. They are signed in neat script” and serve today as an essential key to the Green-Wood puzzle.

“I have incredible respect for this man, Lindsay Wells,” Mr. Demereckas said. “When I saw, first time, drawings, I was very impressed. I was jealous.”

Imagine Mr. Wells standing in the cemetery just ten years after the Civil War, working alone, making his careful drawings and being so exacting in his measurements that 134 years later in 2009 Mr. Demereckas could find a few square feet of open ground amidst 500 acres in which to bury a modern New Yorker. No audience, no applause, no fame; just Mr. Wells doing a job in the best way he knew how.

Those surveys, you would agree, are each a piece of really good work.
Indeed, Mr. Well's surveys, my friends' genealogies, my father's foundation and my great-grandfather's inlaid table are all the kind of really good work that can be inspirational as we head off to tackle a new project or a new day.

Early on in my first job out of college at the Chase Manhattan Bank, we were ushered into a two-day seminar on career planning. I remember distinctly that one of the exercises was to write our obituaries. That seems pretty morbid for a bunch of 22-year-olds, but the point was if we knew how we wanted to be remembered, we’d be encouraged to make some good choices in getting there.
I cannot remember what I wrote, but I suppose it would have been pretty standard 22-year-old stuff. If I were to try my hand at such an exercise today, however, I know a few things I might want to be remembered for (kind and gentle being, unfortunately, out of reach at this point). And among them I am certain of one thing: it would be good to leave behind at least one piece of really good work.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter, Pain, and the Livery Stable Blues: Culture Trumps Technology

Not long ago I used my great-grandmother and her chicken-plucking machine to suggest ways in which gender can influence the adoption of new technology.

Recently, I’ve stumbled across a series of examples which focus more broadly on ways that culture—at least all of those phobias we classify as culture--can speed or retard the adoption of technology.
For example, when Ashton Kutcher began using Twitter, his adoring fan base embraced the messaging technology. Meanwhile, much of the rest of America continued to read and revel in a slew of “I don’t get it” articles. Now, what happens if Americans decide Twitter has been the key to supporting democratic resistance in Iran? How much of a boost will accrue to Twitter if the technology is—culturally speaking--suddenly part of the Great American Way?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Interviewing the Blunt CEO

Not long ago, I blogged on a terrific interview with the CEO of Amgen, one of a series of CEO interviews featured in "Corner Office," Adam Bryant’s weekly column in the Sunday New York Times.

Since then, I’ve read all of Bryant’s interviews, which capture the thoughts of such luminaries as Will Wright (Sims, Spore, StupidFunClub), Clarence Otis Jr. (Darden), Dany Levy (, Steve Ballmer (Microsoft), Eduardo Castro-Wright (Wal-Mart), Anne Mulcahy (Xerox), Ken Sharer (Amgen), John Donahoe (eBay), Terry Lundgren (Macy’s), Nell Minow (Corporate Library), Richard Anderson (Delta Air Lines), Robert Iger (Disney), James Schiro (Zurich Financial Services), and Greg Brenneman (CCMP).

That’s a pretty heady line-up, and combined, the repository of some real leadership and organizational wisdom.

With that in mind, I’ve distilled the interviews into one, very blunt interview that tries to capture the flavor of what these CEOs are saying (kind of what Pandora does for music). Note that none of them actually said what I wrote below (mostly); it’s just my best guess at what, with a few beers and not being quoted in the Sunday New York Times, they were really saying. Think of it as an unvarnished interview with the “blunt CEO.”

Q: Tell me about meetings.

A: They take a lot of my time, and I don’t like them much, so here are my rules: Show up on time or I’ll kill you. End in about an hour or I’ll kill you. Send me the PowerPoint in advance and make sure everyone has read it before the meeting, cause if you take “the long and winding road” through every slide, I’ll kill you.

Q: Anything surprise you about the CEO job?

A: Everything I say is amplified. My thinking-out-loud can stop a discussion. A suggestion becomes a mandate. I have to be very careful, go slow, ask questions. People often take what I say, even my musings, at face value. (In fact, about that “killing stuff” in the first question--can we forget I said that?)

Q: What are your weaknesses?

A: I’m impatient. I’m anxious. I’m a little neurotic. I can have a bad temper. I run people over if I’m not careful. I can’t always stay focused on you when you’re answering a question because my mind is already on to the next point. I need to listen better. I know that, and I’m trying. Really.

Q: What annoys you most?

A: When people dump a problem on me and haven’t worked a solution. In fact, one way I assess talent is to look for the people who are creating big, far-ranging, creative solutions to our biggest problems. Don’t drop the Rubik’s Cube in my office unless you have a plan for twisting it into shape.

Q: Anything else?

A: Complicated stuff. Business isn’t easy but it should be simple. There are only three or four things that we can focus on as an organization at any one time. My job is to make sure everyone knows what they are. Your job is to stay focused on them, and keep your team focused.

Q: Anything else?

A: I should be able to tell you who we are and what we do and stand for in about ten seconds, without any buzz or double-talk. Likewise, when I ask you a question about your business, you should keep the answer very focused. Once you launch into a monologue I know you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Q: Anything else?

A: It’s hard sometimes for me to find the balance between optimism and realism. And it stinks when good people are working hard and being successful but the economy and environment keep me from rewarding them as they deserve.

Q: What do you look for in employees?

A: IQ. Emotional intelligence. Integrity. Passionate curiosity. Energy. The ability to connect the dots across disciplines and throughout the environment. Tech-savvy. Great communication skills; in fact, if you can’t write, I probably won’t hire you.

Q: How do you keep up with the business?

A: I stay in touch by staying in touch. I get into the field two days a week or more. That makes some of my employees uncomfortable, but being CEO can be a solitary job. I can’t function without unvarnished feedback from customers, and employees who deal with customers. And I’m used to incoming missiles, so don’t be afraid to launch them.

I also seek really candid feedback from HR and my board. I don’t like it any better than you do, and I ignore about a third of it (just like you do), but the rest is indispensable.

Q: How do you manage your time?

A: I get up early, I exercise, I reserve time to think and stay organized, and I keep my meetings efficient. I’m hooked on the Blackberry/iPhone. But if you use yours in a meeting, I’ll kill you.

Q: Anything else?

A: Yes, can we strike that last comment?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Problem with Statues

Since writing about the concept of historical postcards, I’ve stumbled upon a few, very current examples of how our history is purposefully shaped by our present. It's an old and powerful idea, though at odds with our sense that the past is fixed.  

In fact, our efforts to control the past often exceed those we invest in setting our future.

Where the past and present often meet most violently is in our statues, those monuments intended to be permanent reflections of great people and great ideas.  Some examples:

When Lafayette made his triumphant tour of the United States, his last stop was to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. On June 17, 1825 he marched with 30,000 spectators (including 40 veterans of the battle) to the dedication on the hill, which he termed his “North Star.” Bunker Hill was the quintessential moment for many in the Revolutionary generation, the first moment the colonists realized they could stand toe-to-toe with the British. Today, there’s a budget-driven movement in Massachusetts to eliminate Bunker Hill Day (June 17) as a paid day-off for government and schools in Boston’s Suffolk County. Lafayette’s “North Star" is yielding to financial griping over “pointless days off.”

Around Baillet-en-France, French archaeologists have unearthed dozens of nine-foot, 1937 era Soviet-built sculptures (like a tank driver and a textile worker) honoring the international brotherhood of workers. Straight from the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, the Soviets gave some of the statues to the French, but when Communism fell out-of-favor the statues were buried. Now resurrected, the statues remain problematic, as Stalin-era art is not entirely simpatico with modern France.

Back in America, we’re moving statues around, too. Earlier this month a statue of Ronald Reagan was installed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Each state is allowed two statues, and it is a big deal to change them: both chambers of a state legislature must vote, the governor must endorse the decision and then the federal government is petitioned. So who got knocked out by Reagan this time? Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister and “the orator who saved the nation,” credited by Lincoln as keeping California in the union. That’s not a bad resume, but obviously not enough to keep Reagan out of the rotunda.

With all of this statuary in motion, I direct your attention to a book by James W. Loewen (author of the fabulous Lies My Teacher Told Me) called Lies Across America. In it, Loewen visits and discusses the sites of statues and monuments which do more to obscure history than enlighten it. He also gives us his top 20 candidates for toppling, a few of which I list here:

Every statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who appears 32 times in Tennessee (more than Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson combined). A brilliant cavalry commander with a mixed military career, he became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

The marker for the “horrible Indian massacre” of 1861 in Almo, Idaho, should at least be taken to a museum, since the event it described never happened.

Statues of Christopher Columbus, or at least the ones in California and Ohio claiming he proved the earth was round.

The most hated monument in America, that celebrating the White League in New Orleans.
Perhaps Americans could steal a page from the Spanish, whose socialist government has banned fascist icons. That means Gen. Francisco Franco’s statue was uprooted from the city square of Santander and banished to a local museum last December. The Spanish government reasons that no Nazi symbols are allowed in Germany, no statues to Mussolini are on display on Italian streets—why should the symbol of their painful past be on public display?

In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace reminds us that Serbian troops besieging cities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s made a point of blowing up museums, monuments, libraries, and archives. It was, he says, an effort at “historic cleansing.”

It is a reminder that we move history at will--even the big, heavy variety--to suit the purposes of the present.

Monday, June 8, 2009

What's the Opposite of an Historical Postcard?

Last August I read about the Battle of New Orleans and offered the idea of “historical postcards”-- those events that are seared into the memory of an entire generation.

At the time I suggested five postcards for the late Baby Boomers: 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the moon landing, MLK, and JFK.

I also wondered about the “Stan Musial problem,” which Bill James offered up in his marvelous Historical Baseball Abstract (1986): “The image of Musial seems to be fading quickly. Maybe I'm wrong, but it doesn't seem to me that you hear much about him anymore, compared to such comparable stars as Mantle, Williams, Mays and DiMaggio, and to the extent that you do hear of him it doesn't seem that the image is very sharp. . .He makes a better statue.”

Why does that happen, I wonder? It's almost the reverse of the historical postcard, when an event or person who is vibrant and important in public life seems to rapidly fade once her or she is no longer practicing their craft.

Jim Thorpe was voted the greatest athlete of the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Where’d he go?  Mary Pickford was the most popular actress and maybe best-known woman in the world, auctioning off one of her curls for $15,000 to raise money during WWI. Where’d she go?

The Mexican-American War of 1846—it's the war in which Winfield Scott taught Grant and Lee how to fight, the war that saw at Veracruz the most dramatic amphibious landing before D-Day--not to mention the subsequent securing of the “Halls of Montezumas” in Mexico City. Long afterward, the son of Dwight Eisenhower would call Winfield Scott “the most capable soldier this country has ever produced.”  Where did Scott go? 

For that matter, what happened to George Marshall, who raised an army of 7 million men and was said to be the closest thing to George Washington that America produced in the 20th century?

Ever since my post on historical postcards, I've been wondering about cultural memory.  It's a fascinating puzzle--this idea of a national lost and found bin--even in the business world.  It would be hard for most Americans to name one CEO from the Fortune 500 of 1976, even though these men and women were giants of their time. Malcolm Gladwell has even opined that Steve Jobs will be forgotten someday.  Hard to believe?  Ask Jim Thorpe.  Ask Mary Pickford.

For that matter, ask Clifton C. Garvin, Jr. who, in 1976, was CEO of Exxon, the largest corporation in America.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Brainless Forecasting 2: Getting it Right (Occasionally)

We all recognize how difficult it is to predict the future.

We measure the economy every day, for example, but our smartest economists just happened to miss the current worldwide recession.  We invent a device like the telephone and then predict that it will never replace the telegraph (on the one hand), and that it will bring about a universal language and world peace (on the other).

In the case of the telephone, however, one person in particular got the future right, and well before anyone else.  That person happened to be its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell.  

In a remarkable 1878 letter to the organizers of the Electronic Telephone Company, Bell described a universal point-to-point service connecting everyone through a central office in each community, in turn, to be connected by long-distance lines.

What is stunning about Bell’s vision is that the available technology did not permit universal, switched, long-distance service.  He was describing something that he could not build, at least in 1878, but that would exist in all its pieces and parts a century later. 

Sociologist Ithiel de Sola Pool pondered why the only forecaster to get the future of the telephone right—and really right—was the inventor.  He offered five theories:
1. Bell was a smart guy, perhaps just brighter than the rest of the world. 
2. Bell was living with the telephone eighteen hours a day, year after year.  Better than anyone, he understood its capabilities and potential. 
3. Bell was a speech expert who approached the problems of telecommunications from the outside.  Folks like Western Union and Elisha Gray thought of the telephone as an extension of the telegraph—the “fallacy of historical analogy”—and missed the future. 
4. Bell was not a scientist but, like Morse, Edison, Ford, and Land, was both an inventor and capitalist.  These men were interested in what might be theoretically possible and what might sell; “the optimism of their speculation was controlled by a profound concern for the balance sheet.” 
Personally, I find the last item especially compelling; when Edison’s notebooks on devising the nation’s first power grid were examined, they showed on every page “calculations of the system’s market potential, the price charged for competing gas illumination, the cost of copper wiring, and other entrepreneurial concerns.”

There's something about pushing a technology ahead with a profit motive in mind that creates a sense of clarity.  Most successful entrepreneurs become good at telling the story of a rosy future.  Some have a great technology but no business plan.  Some have a great business plan but no technology.  The ones who succeed have both, or access to both, and clearly separate the real and now from the purely aspirational.

So when we think about Alexander Graham Bell running a (so-called) pre-revenue company, and being so very right about its future, we can assume that being brilliant, living 24/7 with the innovation, and avoiding historical analogy were all contributing factors.  Maybe, too, the idea of constantly iterating the possible, the impossible, the practical, and the the profitable was also decisive.

And then again, maybe when all is said and done, Bell was just plain lucky.  That's how we get most of our really good forecasts, even today.