Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tribes - Seth Godin

Subtitled: We Need You to Lead Us. What an awesome book! I confess I'm a big fan of Seth Godin's books and his blog, so it's not so surprising that I think his latest effort is right on target.

Where to start? Well, I teach classes on social media technologies to real estate agents. Getting them to shift their paradigm when it comes to marketing is difficult for those who came to the industry when "marketing" meant "advertising." Marketing is now a lot more interactive than passive, and it's more about pull than push. We need to engage people - to interact with them on an authentic and genuine level. This is particularly true in the professional services industry where consumers are not buying a product, they are buying expertise wrapped up in a person.

The focus for many tends to be on the technology tools, but Godin points out it's not about technology (those tools will continue to change), it's about relationships. It's always been about relationships, but today's technologies allow us to reach more people outside our own "in person" local networks. And we can reach them quickly, effectively and at no cost. The tools are revolutionary but the concept of tribes is as old as cavemen. We have a need to be connected to other people. Using modern technology we can be connected to many tribes in "real time" - on a daily basis through sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and email. Those tribes might include our extended family, our professional associates, our political party or religious group, the company we work for, people who share our interest in certain hobbies or collecting, or a charity or civic organization.

The strength of a tribe is not so much in it's size; it's about creating a movement. There are two essential elements to a movement - leadership and communication. Godin argues the point that we are all potential leaders. We have the skills, technology has given us the means, and now we need to find our passion. He is a very passionate man himself, and he feels strongly that when we have something to contribute to the world, doing so is not just an opportunity, but an obligation. He sites many examples of how one single seemingly ordinary person has changed the world for the better.

I dog-eared and marked so many pages I'm afraid to loan the book out to anyone else, although Godin has specifically asked me to do that on the very last page of his book. This book is extremely important in understanding a new world order - how we will all sort ourselves out, and what it will take to communicate and connect with our fellow man. This is more than just a question of effective marketing, although that was certainly my specific interest in reading the book in the first place. It's about how to stay connected in a world that is moving faster, changing faster, and bombarding us with more information and communication than we can easily comprehend. The future will be about finding our place in our own tribes. I highly recommend the book as a way to jump start your participation.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Juicing the Orange - Pat Fallon and Fred Senn

Subtitled: How To Turn Creativity Into A Powerful Business Advantage. This is an interesting and engaging book that opens with a very clear and simple premise in Chapter One: "Imagination is the last legal means of gaining an unfair advantage over the competition." The final chapter closes with the additional observation: "Increasingly, it's the only means."

In the intervening chapters, we are taken on an odyssey of creativity that spans various industries across the globe and outlines the challenges of many companies seeking to make a comeback, launch a new product or re-define themselves for a new era. I found it fascinating and inspiring. Some of the things that the creative teams at Fallon Worldwide came up with just leave me awestruck. Like, "How did they ever think of that?" They were way ahead of everyone else in many ways, including the use of the Internet for engagement marketing. Their short films for BMW's launch of the Z3 were a first-of-its-kind made for the Internet mini-movie that garnered millions of hits and an award at the Cannes Film Festival. It also resulted in orders for the car that were more than double BMW's target. That was back in April 2001.

They helped to reinvigorate the tourist industry in the Bahama Islands by literally engaging all the people on those islands as part of the web based initiative to educate the world about the many experiences awaiting them there (2003.) And in Colorado, the entire concept of the launch of United Airline's low far subsidiary - TED - relied on a type of guerrilla marketing that had never been done before. Fallon created an unseen fictional character that ran around the city doing benevolent deeds for weeks leading right up to the roll out. That garnered a great deal of local and national press coverage, and when TED finally launched, tickets sold at an unprecedented rate that dramatically increased United's market share (2003.)

I could go on and on, but it's best to just read the book. A very nice extra is a "See the Work" section of the Juicing the Orange website where some of the work they did on video can be seen. That includes the award winning SuperBowl commercial for EDS, "Herding Cats." (2000)

The final chapter is probably one of my favorites because it talks about how they founded the company. They decided on a list of core values that is the foundation of Fallon Worldwide and over the last 25 years, they've stayed true to that even when it meant taking short term losses for the sake of staying true to their company's culture. It's a promise the founders made to themselves and their employees. That to me is very impressive and quite rare to find in corporate America today.

They also introduced a concept and term I like very much under a section called "Identify and Encourage the Culture Players."

It didn't take long to learn that if we truly valued our culture, then it wasn't enough to hire brains and talent. We had to cherish the people who best embodied our ideals. We call them culture players. If you took the person described by Ed Keller and Jon Barry in The Influentials - the person who knows in his heart he can make a difference - and crossed him with Malcolm Gladwell's "connectors" in The Tipping Point, you'd have a culture player.

I really like that concept and agree wholeheartedly that culture players are important in an organization to "manage the energy of the place." I also like the section immediately following that one entitled "Fire the Assholes." No explanation needed there.

The last three important points the authors make come with short explanations attached to each:
  1. Creativity will be an increasingly essential business tool.
  2. You can't buy creativity, but you can unlock it.
  3. Creativity is not an easy path to walk but the rewards are worth it.

I highly recommend this book. I absolutely loved it!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Buy-ology - Martin Lindstrom

Subtitled: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. This is groundbreaking research in a new field called neuromarketing. Martin Lindstrom gave an interview to National Public Radio on the subject and how retailers are learning to tap into these findings in order to influence our buying habits.

The premise of neuromarketing is that what goes on in our subconscious influences what we buy. Figuring out how to measure subconscious response in relation to product design, marketing and advertising gives businesses a tool more effective than any they have now. Lindstrom quotes the behavioral economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University: "Most of the brain is dominated by automatic processes, rather than deliberate thinking. A lot of what happens in the brain is emotional, not cognitive."

In order to find out how different areas of the brain respond to certain stimuli such ads, logos, commercials, sounds and even smells, two different types of equipment were used: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and steady-state typography (SST). Both are non-invasive devices and left no damaging after affects on participants. The research was conducted on 2,000 volunteers in the US, UK, Germany, Japan and China over a period of several years.

Lindstrom's research produced some surprising results and confirmed certain other beliefs about what influences consumer buying behavior. The brain scans were matched against paper-and-pen questionnaire responses and often times how the brain responded did not match the opinions of the volunteer's "logical" mind. In one interesting research study with smokers, it was discovered that the warning label on cigarettes is not only a failure as a deterrent, but actually triggers a response in the reward center of the brain that controls the desire to smoke.

The book is a very engaging and easy read. It's full of interesting case studies, stories and anecdotal asides told with a great deal of humor. There is no question that this type of research will some day soon replace the more traditional consumer surveys and focus groups. These studies are more accurate in predicting future results based on an accurate assessment of the subconscious mind that influences buying behavior. Lindstrom predicts that as companies grow more interested in this type of consumer research, the technology will become more widely available and the research less expensive to conduct.

For the present, there are plenty of valuable take-aways from the book that can be effectively implemented by any business. The insights are practical and make sense when explained against the backdrop of the research results. For consumers, there are valuable lessons about what factors drive our choices that we are not consciously aware of. Being armed against the techniques and tactics being deployed every place from fast food restaurants to the shopping mall will slow many of us down as we bring our logical mind along to the party. I highly recommend the book and believe it is the first of many we will see in this emerging field of neuromarketing.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talent is Overrated - Geoff Colvin

Subtitled: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. The book is well researched and presents compelling data for the case against the concept of innate talent. Toward the end of the book Colvin addresses the possibility that there are genes for things like intrinsic motivation; but at its most basic level, his theory suggests that high achievers reach astonishing heights in whatever they do because they work very hard at it in a highly specific way.

Colvin looks at many disciplines including music, athletics, chess and business, and takes on case studies involving Mozart, Tiger Wood and Jerry Rice, The Polgar Sisters, and Jack Welch among many others. In each instance research debunks the myth that talent accounts for accomplishment, and that achievement is somehow effortless if "talent" is what you are born with. Instead, these studies show how "deliberate practice" - and a lot of it - makes the difference in developing extraordinary skills.

Careful research they conducted also illustrates how the amount of actual time spent in such deliberate practice creates a cumulative effect, for which there appears to be no real short cut. It takes an artist about 10 years of intensive training and practice to turn out something that is considered really good. It doesn't matter whether you start your training at the age of 3 or the age of 20, there is still a requisite amount of highly specific practice you must do to get beyond good to reach great.

The book does point out that as we get older we end up behind the curve in our efforts if we didn't begin early enough. Younger people are coming up who've put in the time and practice and we aren't going to "catch up" to them in the number of hours they've invested versus what we are now investing.

In the latter part of the book, Colvin talks about these principles in relationship to companies. He really looks quite closely at companies like GE and how they consistently turn out so many high performers in business. He concludes that some of it is the culture and how that culture lends itself to developing individual performance. In a chapter entitled "Where Does Passion Come From?" there is a section headed "How Organizations Blow It." Here is the first paragraph:

It must be noted that, on this subject, as with the other findings on great performance, most organizations seem to be managed brilliantly for preventing people from performing at high levels. Since intrinsic drives are strongest, people will work most passionately and effectively on projects they choose for themselves. How many companies allow that? A few do, as noted in the previous chapter, and those companies have produced outstanding results. Yet most other companies steadfastly refuse to learn from them. Executives may protest that they have a business to manage and can't let employees run around working on who-knows-what. Fine; but those executives mustn't complain when their company's ideas are no better than the competition's. Nor should they claim to be mystified when employees lack passion and engagement.

Amen to that. I found a brilliant solution to this dilemma myself: I simply quit my job, pursued my vision and passion, and now I sell what I have to offer back to the company that I left. It actually works out pretty well - although my own perception is that I give twice as much as I get. But I wouldn't settle for less than pursuing what I believe to be strategically important to the future of the real estate industry and the people in it. It's disappointing that there are people who regularly settle for less. In fact, quite a lot of them.

I loved this book and highly recommend it! There is no time like the present, and no better time than NOW to be the person we can still become. It's really a matter of working harder as well as smarter on the skills we need in order to be high performers in a world where "experience" gets outdated very quickly. It's worth taking the time to read this book. Being great at what we do is not out of our reach.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Our Iceberg is Melting - John P. Kotter, et. al

Subtitled: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. This is a fable, much along the lines in form of "Who Moved My Cheese?" by authors Ken Blanchard and Spenser Johnson (Johnson is a contributing author here as well.)

This book was referenced in Kotter's A Sense of Urgency (previously reviewed here) and I can see why. It took me one hour to read it on an airplane. It rolls out the same concepts Kotter has introduced in previous works but in a much more digestible form.

The utility of this format is evident - it brings home the concept of change, even to those who would not consider themselves "readers." It provides a common vocabulary for vague concepts like "vision" and I think anyone can recognize the main characters as people they know. Or perhaps I am the only one, but I certainly recognized familiar figures in this tale.

As a general rule, people are not inclined to change what they do or how they live unless forced to. This book shows what happens when a penguin colony's very existence is threatened by what "might happen." Not a 100% I-can-prove-it inevitability but an observation rolled out into theory by a "junior" penguin with no status or credibility in the colony.

This too, is typical. Change is often initiated from some place other than the top of the organization chart, and this book illustrates how a wise leader pulls together a diverse group of 4 individuals to form a team. And it shows how a focused team rolls the vision out to everyone else and garners their support for the objective.

Can any organization accomplish the things outlined here? Absolutely. It helps to have strong leadership and an informed organization to lead. But no one's iceberg has to melt in order for change to take place in advance of a catastrophe.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Sense of Urgency - John P. Kotter

This book is so timely and relevant given the current global financial meltdown that is affecting businesses in every industry. The world changes very quickly now and being complacent is not something any company can sustain and remain viable. Awareness has been heightened in the last several months as many long standing business icons have gone out of business or been acquired. This is probably only the beginning of the fight for survival many companies will face in the coming year.

John P. Kotter has written many books on change and leadership including Leading Change, The Heart of Change and Our Iceberg is Melting. In this book, he discusses the importance of creating a feeling of urgency that propels everyone within an organization to engage in tackling issues NOW. He outlines what brings many companies to a place of complacency, how a false sense of urgency can be damaging, and what strategies and tactics can be employed to get people to recognize that urgency is critical to managing change.

This is as much a "how to" book as an analysis of organizational change and how leaders need to respond in keeping their organizations competitive over the long term. Kotter covers important issues like modeling the type of behavior we expect from those we lead. He points to how important it is to purge low return activities on a daily basis and to delegate effectively. Meetings should end with a clear action plan and accountability in place so everyone understands what is expected in moving initiatives forward. He covers the importance of communication - what needs to be communicated and how. It is very much a "nuts and bolts" kind of book, and the summaries and charts he provides are excellent in capturing these ideas as clearly and simply as possible.

I found the book to be an engaging read and a quick one. This is not a heavyweight academic tome. It's about motivating the reader to quit reading the book and get going already on creating a daily sense of urgency. I think this book is in the "must read" category. There is not an organization of any kind anywhere, that does not face a constant battle against complacency. And truly, it can kill a company if allowed to go on to the point where competitive advantage disappears entirely. I highly recommend it.