Archive for March, 2010

“Switch,” by Chip & Dan Heath, is great

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

switch coverIf you follow the bestseller lists, you don’t need me to tell you about the new book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard,” by Chip & Dan Heath, the brothers who also wrote “Made to Stick” a couple of years ago.

I was not an unalloyed fan of their prior work, and so my expectations for “Switch” were muted. But very soon into the book, I realized that the Heaths’ approach – a wide survey of academic literature, highly memorable and pithy imperatives as an organizing principle (”Direct the Rider,” “Motivate the Elephant,” “Shape the Path”), and loads and loads of well-told stories – worked perfectly for the subject matter: the dry and confounding topic of change management.

The core of the book is a powerful set of metaphors coined by Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia. People’s minds are composed of a Rider (the rational brain, smart but reliant on others to get things done) and an Elephant (the emotional side, not particularly bright but powerful). The Heaths add a Path – the way people need to head to create change. Change requires work from the Rider and the Elephant working in tandem. Effecting change therefore means appealing to the Rider, incenting the Elephant, and creating a Path that minimizes the work those other two have to do.

The metaphor works, and unifies the arguments in the book over more than 250 pages. In addition, the Heaths cite research from many scholars in the field, including John Kotter, Amy Edmondson and Carol Dweck, whose work I’ve touched on in other posts. Finally, the narratives are highly relevant and memorable: I’ve already told several people about the Save the Children staffer who with virtually no resources figured out a way to help Vietnamese mothers reduce malnutrition in their children.

So, I give “Switch” an unqualified endorsement. It’s the business book of the year so far.

It helped, of course, that I started reading “Switch” at the exact right moment: as I began a project to help a company convert lessons from its customer-service experience into meaningful and sustained improvement. But in the business world, these moments recur all the time. We always need to change, and finding useful, applicable methods that don’t require you to be CEO or have a multi-million dollar budget to do it will always be needed.

Related posts:
Why I didn’t love “Made to Stick”
Posts referencing Amy Edmondson
Posts referencing John Kotter
Posts referencing Carol Dweck

A big f***ing deal in customer service (hat tip to Joe Biden)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

I heard a remarkable conversation recently. A woman, whom I pictured to be in her 50s, was talking to a help line to solve a problem she was having with her internet service. The very polite support technician continually misinterpreted her question & asked her which channel on her cable television was acting up.

After three go-rounds with no progress being made, in a low, teeth-gritted voice she told the computer she was talking to: “Send me to a person.”

“So, you’re having a problem with your cable television?”

She said louder, “Get me to a person!”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Could you please repeat what you just said?”


“I’m sorry–”

“F*** YOU!” she screamed into the phone, then hung up.

I have never heard anyone drop the f-bomb as loudly & angrily as this poor lady did.

This anecdote occurred to me while I was reading this article in a recent issue of the Economist: “The World Economy Calls,” in which they make a case that improved telecom services in Africa may open up BPO business opportunities there.

Which it may well do. But hopefully companies there don’t subscribe to this blithe opinion tossed off by the Economist’s correspondent:

As established outsourcing companies take on ever more complex & lucrative work, firms elsewhere spy an opportunity at the lower end of the BPO market, in prosaic jobs such as operating call centres & keying in data.

Call centers are low margin businesses, at least at present. But if customer service were as “prosaic” as the Economist asserts, the computer would have done a much better job understanding that lady’s internet issue.

Customer service is not prosaic. When done well, it’s an art form requiring a careful ear, cultural appreciation, & nuanced dialogue. Witness this other recent call I heard:

Customer service: “Thank you for calling (…). How can I help you today?

Caller (male): My f***ing internet isn’t working & I’m f***ing pissed off.

CS: It can be frustrating when that happens.

Caller: It hasn’t worked for a while & I’m f***ing fed up.

CS: Sir, I’m here to help you. But I have to say, your language is getting in the way of my doing that. Why don’t you tell me how this started, but hold off on the swearing if you can?

Caller (calmer): Okay… (begins story).

The ability of a customer-service rep to set aside a script & deal with a real human situation can be the difference between a positive customer experience & a disaster.

Voice-recognizing computers can’t do that. Human reps far away from customers culturally, linguistically & time-zone-wise also struggle (witness Delta & Dell backshoring their customer service).

In my view, companies would be far better off working hard to provide easy-to-use, delightful apps to take unnecessary calls off their phone systems, & invest more – not less – in their human capability to solve challenging customer problems.

Related post:
On Backshoring

Lessons Learned from the Mistake Bank

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Mistake bank logoI haven’t written much about The Mistake Bank in a little while, and I’ve put the project on hiatus. But Cynthia Kurtz convinced me that it would be good before stepping away from the project to recount some of what I’ve learned in the three years since I started working on it.

1. Mistake stories are inherently memorable – both for those who are involved and people hearing the stories. This story came so quickly to the teller that I almost didn’t finish the question before he started talking:

Find more videos like this on The Mistake Bank

2. Mistakes can lead people into successful situations they wouldn’t have encountered if they hadn’t made the mistake. My favorite story in this light is my father-in-law’s story about buying an apartment building without, in his mind, doing enough due diligence… and then spending the next several months dealing with the fallout. Of course, he ended up profiting from that apartment building for many years. And without that decision, he may never have taken the plunge. There are several stories like that on the site. All the protagonists are successful entrepreneurs.

Find more videos like this on The Mistake Bank

3. Stories are often viewed by others as not being mistakes at all. See above.

4. As time passes from the event itself, it’s easier to recount your mistakes. It’s not uncommon to encounter stories that are 20, 30, 40 years old. Like this one (blame the cameraman – me – for the poor video quality):

Find more videos like this on The Mistake Bank

5. People who share mistake stories are courageous people. This story from Sue Pera, who owns a coffeehouse near my home, struck me as particularly candid, and in a way illuminated why she is a such a successful businessperson:

Find more videos like this on The Mistake Bank

Finally I would say a word about what a narrative collection represents. Once the site got to thirty, forty, fifty stories, it began to exhibit, for me at least, something of the richness of a Cubist painting. By collecting a number of different styles of storytelling across many subjects yet all relating to mistakes, the site became a place where you could immerse yourself and gain a perspective on human imperfection and, in a way, grace.

What’s next for the Mistake Bank? Perhaps a company will take the plunge and set one of these up for themselves, as a way to capture lessons learned, the company’s history and culture.

Maybe there’s a book in it. There was for Royal Little.

[If you'd like an invitation to the Mistake Bank, email me at john (at) caddellinsightgroup (dot) com.]

Related posts:
On Royal Little’s “How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice”
A collection of posts on the Mistake Bank

When competitors are everywhere, customer service is the ticket

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

I’m on the road a lot these days, and so I meet a lot of bartenders. Last night, the bartender who served me dinner said she’d been working in restaurants for eight years, but was studying to be an esthetician.

“There are a lot of restaurants,” I said, “but there seem to be even more salons. How do they attract and keep a clientele with so much competition out there?”

“You’ve got to be pretty good at customer service,” she said. Something people running businesses falling into the “commodity trap” should keep in mind.

Related post:
On “Beating the Commodity Trap”

The moment it all changed for Ireland

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Writers see value in the moment; they distill a lifetime of frustration or anguish or hope into a brief encounter, in the way Joyce does when Gabriel Conroy realizes at the end of “The Dead” that his wife has always loved someone else.

My cousin is in the traveling company of “Riverdance” and once when she was performing in our area we had dinner. We were talking about how much that show had meant to Irish culture, in the US and worldwide. She said, “Have you ever seen the original dance that was done for the Eurovision contest?” Meaning, the 7-minute interlude in that television program that spawned the show itself. No, we hadn’t. “You should,” she said. “It’s on YouTube.”

And so it is. I’ve watched it a few times since then, and watched it again this morning. It’s amazing. You can feel, as the performance gains momentum, that something really significant is happening. An entire art form (one which we as Irish-American kids saw as quaint and utterly uncool) was being reinvented and made modern. At the same time, Ireland was graduating from a culture that continually gave up its young to immigration to one where the youth of the country was its greatest strength. This all was summed up in that seven minutes.

And then it ends. There’s a brief moment, less than a second, where the audience sits in stunned silence before exploding in cheers. They were there, and they could feel what was happening, what had happened.

Getting Things Done works nicely with Google Calendar

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I gave myself the “Getting Things Done” treatment in 2008 and really valued how David Allen’s approach helped me manage obligations to multiple clients and personal responsibilities as well. Most valuable to me was the “Someday/Maybe” list, which gave me a place to park ideas until there was a time or need to put them to work. Without fail, every couple of months a “Someday/Maybe” item graduates onto my current action list.

One obstacle in adopting the GTD methods was using an online task list. I didn’t want to buy a specialized program for this, so I tried to use Microsoft Entourage to manage the list. But Entourage couldn’t easily set up the (fairly simple) two-level hierarchy GTD defines. So I had to set up the main hierarchy using Entourage and then add the second level as a prefix to the task itself–such as “Online – email Brent congrats on new job,” or “Read/Review – Switch.” And the sort didn’t always work: all the “Read – Review” items were scattered on the list, not clustered together.

Recently I started using Google Calendar, and I’ve been impressed with how functional it is, and how easily it allows you to set up GTD-style task lists. I set up separate lists for “Next Actions,” “Waiting For,” and “Someday/Maybe.” Within the Next Actions list it’s straightforward to set up sections for “Online,” “Computer,” “Calls,” etc. In fact, Google Calendar allows you to add numerous hierarchy levels if you wish to.

Now I could be frustrated to think that a free tool is a lot better at helping me GTD than something I paid real money to Microsoft for. But I’m happy just to have found something that makes it easier for me to stay organized. Google Calendar is it.

Related posts:
The Getting Things Done Treatment

Great blog debates – Toyota edition

Friday, March 12th, 2010

I was really disturbed last week to read in Jeffrey Liker’s otherworldly appraisal of the Toyota situation (”The Wrong Lessons From Toyota – And the Truth“. Reading more like a paid advertisement than a blog post, Liker, the author of “The Toyota Way,” minimized the complaints of Toyota customers, wrote that 2 million recalls actually represented only 10 instances of problems, and, in general, made a reader feel Liker was from outer space, rather than the University of Michigan.

Thankfully, a few days later, also in, Robert Coles eviscerated Liker’s account, point by point (”No Big Quality Problems at Toyota?“.

Finally, yesterday published a post by Joel Kurtzman, a consultant who had worked with Toyota in the 1970s, as it was still establishing its North American business. In “Toyota’s Problems Start At The Top,” Kurtzman does not take on Liker’s post directly, but instead contrasts Toyota’s leadership today with what he knew from their earlier days.

This has been fascinating. Blogging has brought a spirited debate about an important business subject out into the open. If Liker’s post had instead been a New York Times op-ed, any response would have been a heavily condensed letter to the editor, not something of equal prominence. It certainly wouldn’t have spawned dozens of public comments. And by sharing multiple viewpoints of experts with varying experiences and specialties, has shown why new media, rather than necessarily being watered down, sloppy and amateurish, is, in many cases, far superior to the old.

Silicon Pasture Week: what in hell is Collectivus?

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

collectivusOne of the newest projects to emerge from the Silicon Pasture community is Collectivus, currently “a test of a prototype before a beta.”

I’ve been playing with Collectivus for a couple of weeks now, and I can say this: it is location and check-in a la Foursquare, only people encounter “thingies” out in the world (see picture above) and register their encounters. Note that first-generation Thingies bear a strong resemblance to rubber ducks.

It goes something like this: someone finds or is given a “thingie,” registers it on the Collectivus website, optionally uploads a picture. Then, “Move me, give me or leave me somewhere,” says the instruction sticker on the thingie’s underside. You can subscribe to follow your thingie on its journeys, in which case you get a message when it resurfaces somewhere.

It’s like sending out a message in a bottle and see where it floats to. Times a thousand. One can imagine thingies crisscrossing the world, others immediately discarded, others staying in one place.

Many people I’ve described this to don’t get it. Probably a combination of my inarticulateness and the difficulty of putting this kind of complex, serendipitous, emergent experience into words (see above). In the end, Collectivus, as Twitter has demonstrated, will become what its users make it to be. The Collectivus team has created a wide-open platform to explore movement, giving, and attachment to objects. Time will tell how it ends up. Perhaps people will be registering encounters with battered thingies twenty years from now.

Collectivus is on its way to the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in Austin this week. If you’re there, keep your eyes open for thingies!

Related posts:
Silicon Pasture Week: The Meetup
Silicon Pasture Week: Update

Silicon Pasture week: The Meetup and why it’s valuable

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Sunday’s NY Times article on the New York tech startup scene referenced a monthly series of gatherings, the New Tech Meetup, as an important part of the city’s entrepreneurial community:

A recent installment of…the New York Tech Meet-Up, held in Chelsea, drew 700 tech enthusiasts.

The buzz surrounding these gatherings is just the latest sign that a decade after the dot-com bust, the Internet economy in New York is springing back to life.

We have one of those here in Silicon Pasture too: the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. Each month a group of tech enthusiasts – developers, marketers, attorneys, etc. – gets together to watch 10-minute demonstrations of new products and presentations on topics of interest to entrepreneurs. We get slightly fewer than 700 attendees to our monthly gatherings (more like 20-40), but, nonetheless, the group is creating its own buzz. (A company that started out in Hershey, CoTweet, the CEO of which began our New Tech Meetup, was sold last week to Exact Target, an email marketing company, for an undisclosed sum.)

Why, given that technology that makes location irrelevant is cheap and widely available, are in-person gatherings important to tech startups?

Fellow traveler syndrome: simply sharing war stories can make the work involved in developing a new tech product and bringing it to market a little less lonely.

Sharing ideas: discussion can unstick problems you’ve wrestled with unsuccessfully on your own.

Finding collaborators: sometimes tech people have an idea but not a concept of the market. Sometimes businesspeople have an idea for a tech product but need someone to write the code. The Meetup can help bring these people together with others who can help them.

Serendipity: this may be the most important factor. By putting people together in a room to talk about what they do, sparks can result. Like what? You’ll have to come to the Meetup to find out.

The April 2010 New Tech Meetup will be held on April 5, at 7pm, at Wagman Construction in York. Interested? Sign up here.

[Disclosure: I am the organizer of the New Tech Meetup of Central PA]

Related posts:
Report from Silicon Pasture 2

Report from Silicon Pasture 2

Monday, March 8th, 2010

It was energizing to read yesterday’s NYT piece on the New York startup scene, & it got me motivated to revisit our startup community here in Silicon Pasture – Harrisburg-Lancaster-York, PA. This is the first in a week of posts about entrepreneurial activity in our area.

First, let’s look at some of the resources available to Silicon Pasture entrepreneurs:

Murata Business Center – a business incubator located in Carlisle, Murata offers startups subsidized office space, mentoring and networking opportunities. It’s an offshoot of the Capital Region Economic Development Council (CREDC). Led by the energetic Karen Gunnison, Murata is a very important energizer for the local tech startup community. Resident companies include WorkXpress, Cruzstar, DMT Studio, TexVisions and WebpageFX.

If you’re interesting in exploring Murata further, read this description of their process.

Ben Franklin Technology Partners - a venture investment and support organization that operates statewide. Ben Franklin offers, in addition to funding, the Transformations Business Services Network. This is a group of seasoned business people who can help Ben Franklin funded companies with everything from office procedures to strategic thinking, at no cost.

Ben Franklin also offers the Venture Investment Forum, which runs relevant seminars, business plan contests and also acts as a conduit to local investment organizations.

Ben Franklin in Harrisburg is associated with the ITN (Innovation Transfer Network) which works with thirteen of the universities in and around the area to identify ongoing research and to connect university research with potential commercialization opportunities.

Harrisburg University of Science & Technology – less than ten years since it was conceived, HU has become an innovation hub in the midstate. The university hosts the local instance of the BarCamp unconference and the Learning and Entertainment Evolution Forum (LEEF), and runs frequent seminars on topics ranging from management practices to how to launch a video game company.

The Hershey Center for Applied Research (HCAR) – supports the life sciences industry and high technology companies through access to business and research resources, including wet and dry lab facilities and office space. HCAR also provides access to business services and research resources available through Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. HCAR tenants include Apogee Biotechnology Corporation, Apeliotus Vision Science and Better Bowls.

Disclosure: HCAR and Harrisburg University have hosted the New Tech Meetup of Central PA, which I help organize, and I’ve met the management of the Murata Center and Ben Franklin.