Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bring Your Dog to the Vet, Stop for a Hamburger on the Way Home

A long time ago at a company meeting I tried to say something positive about productivity.  The revenue generated by each person in the company had grown dramatically over the past few years and I wanted people to know how much we valued their efforts.

In doing so, I made two mistakes.

First, in general terms, we’re all in favor of increased productivity.  In many ways our economic well-being depends on it.  However, what’s admired generally is not necessarily treasured individually, because productivity writ small often means that the value I’m providing you is growing faster than what you’re paying me.   Increased productivity down in the trenches feels like you owe me.

Second, I naively used the word “headcount” during that fateful employee meeting, as in “Our revenue per headcount has skyrocketed in the last 18 months.”  Headcount is a perfectly ordinary word that helps measure labor.  If you work 40 hours a week and I work 20 and someone else works 10, then it's easier to say that we have “1.75 heads” than we have “1.75 equivalent people.”

However, one person’s ordinary measurement is another’s insult.  A few minutes after the meeting a group of employees had gathered in my office to say they were hurt by being referred to as “headcount.”  I explained why I used the term, apologized, and removed it from my public vocabulary.

I know what the problem is, and it’s real: Once we turn something into a unit of measure, especially a unit of productivity, we devalue it.  Sometimes it loses its humanness.  Sometimes it loses its soul.

There was a good piece recently in the New York Times Review of Books about animal rights literature where I learned a new term: speciesism.  In simple terms, it means we value certain species of animals, like our pet cats and dogs, to the point where they become part of the family.  Meanwhile, other equally sentient animals--meaning creatures that can experience pleasure and comfort and fear and pain every bit as much as our cats and dogs--are treated brutally on our farms and in our slaughterhouses.  It’s discrimination based on species.

I bring my dog to the vet and on the way home stop for a hamburger.

What happens to cows?  They become heads of cattle.  Units of measurement.  And pigs?  Pork bellies.  They get traded on a commodities exchange.

If the cows could get together and visit the farmer who just gave the speech about productivity, they’d probably tell him that they’d really rather be referred to as Bossie and Elsie and not “heads of cattle.”  Just look up “head of cattle” on Google and you’ll see questions like “How many head of cattle can you have on an acre of land?”  That sounds an awful lot like a unit of production to me, and an animal that’s just lost its soul.

The great blight on America was slavery, when human beings were measured in terms of their productive value.  Even Jefferson wrote ugly when he realized he could enhance his wealth by having his slaves reproduce rather that acquiring new ones.  "[A] woman who brings a child every two years is more profitable than the best man on the farm."  That’s Jefferson applying a make vs. buy decision to human beings.  That’s a Founding Father illustrating vividly that turning  living creatures into units of production does as much to debase the  measurer as the measuree.

It’s Jefferson’s unintended gift to a world in which we measure everything.  We possess dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of sensors for every person in America.  A recent McKinsey study concluded that data being generated globally increases by 40 percent annually.  All that data encourages us to measure stuff and make it better.  Be more efficient.  Raise our productivity.  Increase the yield on our head of cattle.  Get more pork bellies for our dollar.  Improve our revenue per headcount, as it were.

It reinforces why “headcount” was so offensive all those years ago.  It also helps me understand why our youngest daughter is an avowed vegetarian.  Two good lessons, I think, to start the new year.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Changing Christmas Tradition

It's possible this house has an artificial tree because a
live one is "too much of a hassle."
Have you noticed that nothing really stays the same?  Even tradition.  

Christmas Trees.  40% of U.S. households purchased live Christmas trees in 1991 and only 23% last year.  Baby  boomers stop buying live trees as they get older.  The latch-key generation never had a live tree.  Artificial trees from China have grown in quality and skyrocketed in demand.  In 2011, consumers will spend $1 billion on artificial trees and $984 million on real trees.  That's called a "tipping point."

Lights.  Does it seem to you that more and more houses are displaying more and more lights?  And, we've moved out of our white icicle obsession and are now seeing colors again?  Big inflatable snowmen?  Giant electronic candycanes?  Is it the impact of Youtube?  Trans-Siberian Orchestra?  Does it seem strange that we no longer want the hassle of a live tree but will crawl around in our bushes for a week after Thanksgiving stringing lights?

What if I'd told you in 1980 to "invest in companies making cheap plastic lights because every family in America will purchase one for every single window in the their home by 2011."  Would you have believed me?

On-line Shopping.  My wife returned from a shopping excursion recently and said it was busy, but not as crazy as it's been in past years.  The retail numbers this season--projected up almost 5%--are excellent.  My conclusion: We are, for the first time, seeing a visual impact from on-line shopping.  Perhaps the information highway will one day make the mall safe again. 

Traditional Delivery.  If somebody is winning besides Amazon, it would have to be FedEx, UPS, and maybe even the US Postal Service--which will still lose more than $5 billion this year.  As on-line shopping continues to grow, I wonder if the Post Office will begin to look like every other retailer: 40% of its revenue and all of its profit will be made in the six weeks before Christmas?  A thought: Stop raising the price of a first class stamp when we all have email, and dominate the last mile with cheap delivery of my holiday boxes. 

Outsourcing.  Fifteen years ago we ran out of an electronic component because of Chinese New Year and it caught everyone off-guard.  Now, companies have to plan their Q1 inventories around this Chinese holiday.

Cards.  I can't tell what's going on yet.  We're definitely getting and receiving less, but we're still receiving from folks we keep in touch with via Facebook--the very folks I thought we'd lose first.  On the other hand, we're getting more and more mechanized cards, untouched by human hand.  Which is, I suppose, like a Facebook posting.

Like I said, I can't yet divine the trend except that the Post Office is losing, and so is Hallmark.  

Christmas Music.  Rock artists think that re-recording The Little Drummer Boy is a good thing.  It isn't.  Mel Torme made enough money from The Christmas Song ("chestnuts roasting. . .") that he could have retired on that single song.  "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Winter Wonderland" are both vintage 1934.  "White Christmas" was 1942 and for the next decade, songwriters invented the modern Christmas canon: "I'll Be Home" (1943), "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (1944), "Let It Snow" etc." (1945), "The Christmas Song" (1946), "Here Comes Santa Claus" (1947), "Sleigh Ride" and "Blue Christmas" (1948) and "Rudolph" (1949).  The 1950s were fertile as well, from "Frosty" to "Silver Bells" to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" to "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."  Then, things went sideways.  Vince Guaraldi was a bright light in the Dark Ages, but the ages stayed pretty dark with the melancholy "Do They Know It's Christmas" (1984).  Lately, we've had to rely on Mariah Carey.

I saw a chart the other day (pasted above) showing that most of the 20 most-played Christmas songs were all written in the 1940s and 1950s, proof that the Baby Boomers were trying to recreate their childhoods every year.  I say: Write something worth listening to and we'll beat a path to your download!

Sports.  And Christmas.  Christmas and Sports.  Football on Christmas Eve. Basketball on Christmas Day.  How did THAT happen, anyway?  And don't even get me started on the bowl games.

On the other hand, if we were really hung-up on a traditional American Christmas, we'd be roaming the town getting roaring drunk and harassing the rich neighbors, as I wrote about here in 2008.  Maybe Mariah Carey, cheap candles and an artificial tree or two aren't so bad after all.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Who Cares if a Tablet is a PC?

Ted Levitt identified a central truth in strategy when he wrote that how we define "the business we're in" can create or destroy opportunity.

The drama playing out now is in the personal computer world.  It centers around whether a tablet--like an iPad--is a PC or something else, something entirely new.  

Before his death, Apple’s Steve Jobs said, no, a tablet was not a PC--that, in fact, we were entering a post-PC world.  Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer disagreed, saying that the tablet was absolutely, positively a PC.

On the surface, it seemed like just another Apple-Microsoft spat.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Only My Second R-rated Post

My first post "rated-R for mature themes" was here, back in June 2008.  It was about selling stuff people wanted but weren't allowed to admit they wanted.

My second post, this time "rated-R for holiday violence," is the display window of Town Cutler on Nob Hill in San Francisco.  We were walking by the other day and someone in my group gasped.  And then I heard my wife say, "Just don't put it in your blog."

That's all the encouragement I needed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Revisiting Swarm Intelligence

I was at a very pleasant business dinner the other evening with three smart gentlemen discussing everything from the presidential election to cold chain regulatory trends.  I mention these topics only because what happened next, and what happens every single time, occurs regardless of the table's combined IQ.

The waitress appeared and asked (what is apparently) the hardest question known to mankind: “Would anyone like dessert?”  In our case this “sudden group decision” turned four intelligent adults into four blithering idiots, twitching and staring at their laps.  Fortunately, one of our number had his PhD and recovered long enough to order a single slice of chocolate chunk pecan pie with four forks--a brilliant solution to an otherwise intractable problem.

I wrote about this phenomenon here in the context of swarm intelligence, the idea that dumb little ants running around in circles can come together in a group that is able to build complex structures, defend its turf, and write monographs about black holes like Stephen Hawking.

Ants.  Bees.  Birds.  Bacteria.  Swarm theory is an accepted theory.  My theory is essentially the opposite: All too often, people who are otherwise smart, ethical, good human beings come together in a group and become absolute jackasses.  Rush hour.  The Kennedy administration in The Best and the Brightest.  Enron.  Ordering dessert.

In fact, I call it “Dessert Intelligence.”

You might think that the falling IQs around ordering chocolate chunk pecan pie are all about politeness and deference.  In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell informed us that certain cockpit crews are so deferential that they crash their planes.  I call that stupid.

Recently, we’ve had some really menacing, very sad instances of Dessert Intelligence.  A local high school basketball team imploded over a reckless group hazing incident.  Oklahoma State fans rioted after their team’s victory.  Students at Dean College were expelled after participating in a group assault.  Penn State football--need I say more?

I don’t know where this phenomenon falls in academia--economics, sociology or psychology--but having brilliant people study Dessert Intelligence (preferably not in groups) seems to be especially important.  After all, the greatest single technological innovation in the last generation allows us to create and network groups faster and more efficiently than at any time in human history.

Three lessons here: First, guard your IQ in crowds.  Second, the Web really might be the technological embodiment of the great dessert question, making us all stupid. (Think: Flashmob-robbery, singing babies going viral, and Kim Kardashian being the number 1 search term in 2011.)  

Third, it's not such a bad idea to bring a PhD to dinner.