Have you read anything that clearly explains what the heck British Petroleum was using to implement its failed Top Kill strategy?
Here’s how the New York Times described the material being used to force-feed mud down the throat of the blown-out well: “The mud has been ‘weighted up’ by adding dense powdered minerals so that it weighs 16.4 pounds per gallon. Additives have been mixed in to improve the flow and prevent the formation of icelike structures of gas and water called hydrates.”
To the reporter’s credit, he did describe it in the lead of his article as having “the consistency of a half-melted milkshake,” which actually isn’t too bad.
You can often simplify difficult-to-explain concepts by channeling how a teacher might explain it to a classroom of kids. Authors Chip and Dan Heath (Made to Stick) urge presenters to be Concrete and use Stories (or in this case, Visuals). As the Heaths point out, a sticky idea is understood, it’s remembered, and it changes something. The half-melted milkshake analogy may hit one or two of those standards; Bill Nye hits all three once he sets the stage for what the mud does. He went far enough to make his explanation Concrete, and therefore sticky.
Maybe this points to the inherent disadvantage the print media has against the electronic media, but you have the same advantages in a conference room or in front of an audience.
What kind of examples or visuals have you used to explain something more complex?
In the midst of some new projects and designing a new website that has a real chance to impact people’s lives, I’ve gotten to thinking about whether my personal-branding materials go far enough to explain what makes me different, whether I’m adequately reinforcing the “bulldog” brand on my personal website and elsewhere.
I’m not sure I’m being in-your-face enough, because that’s one of the things that makes me different from other communicators. So I’m taking a second look at my website to get away from trying to make my message appeal to everyone who visits my page (or my LinkedIn profile) and appeal to the people who are actually looking for what I have to sell.
It was with that mindset that I came across Dan Pink’s posting from earlier this week and realized that this ad for the DC Metro truly reflects the “bulldog” mentality that I need to more fully embrace…
As way of background, the Washington, D.C. subway system bans eating on its trains. There are many different ways you can reinforce this message, but this is about as visceral as it gets.
Pink (who wrote Drive and A Whole New Mind) notes that he likes to highlight advertising that is emotionally intelligent (i.e., it either encourages empathy on the part of the viewer or demonstrates empathy for his or her situation), this one falls into the category of advertising that just “shocks and awe(s) us into thinking — and occasionally into action.”
I view it from a slightly different perspective, as someone who has embraced a goal of identifying ways that we can “subtract the obvious and add the meaningful” in business and our personal lives. I can imagine DC Metro officials listening to their agency pitch this ad and saying, “you want to use a picture of what?” in our new campaign.
It’s bold. It eliminates the obvious (statistics or a reminder that there are rules against eating on the trains) and gets right to the meaningful.
We need more of that in our writing — visceral images that make a clear and compelling point.
As one group of students prepare to leave college and another batch of high-school seniors prepare to take their place, the importance of technical knowledge takes center stage. Whether you’re talking about undergraduate or post-grad admission offices or potential employers, GPAs and test scores that demonstrate students’ abilities to get the one “right” answer are seen as the primary determinant of future potential.
David Kelley — the IDEO chairman, not the legendary creator of great TV dramas — recently energized the Stanford d.school during the opening of the design school’s new building by arguing that while technical knowledge has its place, it is far more important to teach our future leaders how to work on solving challenging problems where nobody knows the answer. As Bob Sutton, a Stanford d.school professor who attended the speech explains it, the Stanford d.school teaches creative confidence — “the ability to keep pushing forward, observing the world and the people in it, identifying unmet needs, brainstorming solutions, and trying to develop prototypes that work and failing forward through the disconcerting process.” He went on to say that the d.school process — which I discussed in a January post on its publication of the Bootcamp Bootleg — encourages people to “have the energy and will to keep pushing forward, to be undaunted when ideas don’t work, to keep trying new ideas, and even when the deadline for the project comes and they do not have a decent solution, to believe that if they just had another few days, they would have come up with a great solution.”
Kelley has added a great personal-branding phrase to our lexicon. Even without the benefit of a Stanford d.school education, I think there are a lot of people with have struggled to describe a similar skill set on a resume or interview without the benefit of the “creative confidence” phrase. It’s a skill that many displaced corporate executives are using as they look at consulting or 1099 contract work, whether they use the phrase in the sales process or not.
But Kelley’s Not Alone In This
Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel imagined what he’d say if asked to speak to this year’s class of graduating seniors in a posting on the Huffington Post. He also speaks of looking beyond the GPA and the job that awaits and judging oneself on a different set of criteria that mirrors this concept of creative confidence:
“What matters, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, is not how I might assess what you have done, or how your professors graded you, or what your friends and family might say, or even how a professional school or employer is going to view you, but rather how you would now evaluate yourself.
I wonder if you have thought to do this as yet, to measure yourself by standards that you would have to justify and explain, not to us, but only to the man or woman in the mirror. Not only are you the only one in a position to make a full and candid assessment, but you are the one to whom the assessment ultimately matters.”
He goes on to list some questions that might help in that self-assessment; most focus on the intangible. It’s a right-brain approach, which as Daniel Pink and others have argued in recent years is taking on increasing importance over the fact-based left-brain emphasis that has driven business for many decades.
All this resonated with me because I believe creative confidence is a more elegant way — with a bit more structure — of saying Bulldog Simplicity. I believe schools and corporations both need to spend more time focusing on developing creative confidence. And for those who have it, they need to spend more time documenting it as a skill and how it enables them to make a difference in their companies’ or clients’ success.
I’ve written before about focusing on that “one thing” that will remind you what’s important. I found myself recently trying to get myself organized (the catalyst for this is usually my wife telling me to get the piles off the dining room table).
I spent a bit more time on this exercise than usual (the piles often just get moved out of her sight) so I found myself asking what I could do to actually follow the principles of this blog and basically simplify everything, rodeo style. This required me to focus on my one-page project list and trash more than a few folders with articles and project ideas that I wasn’t going to get to in the near (or distant) future.
But then I realized it was more than that. I needed to start asking some tough questions that apply to just about every business — and most likely each of you. These are not questions with yes or no answers — the best questions rarely are. But as we near mid-year, it’s worth carving out some time to sit down, write down the answers, and then commit to focusing on execution.
- What’s the one thing I can do to improve my business and what are the specific actions I should take to do it?
- What’s the one thing I can do to improve my own performance/productivity and what are the specific actions I should take to do it?
- What messages am I failing to hear (or confront) in my business and personal performance and what are the specific actions I should take to overcome them?
- Why should someone hire me (or our company) over the competition? If you can’t be specific and passionate (and brief), you need to spend some time thinking through your answer.
This last question is a good one to ask the people who work for you. In fact, these are all good questions to ask the people around you about you. The inability to receive and process feedback is a critical barrier to success.
What questions do you ask yourself to help you get back on track?
I cancelled my subscription to the relentless Jos. A. Bank e-mail ads today. This has nothing to do with the quality of their clothes (most of my business wardrobe is from there), my need for business suits and accessories, or with reducing my e-mail volume.
It has to do with trust.
Here are a few examples:
- Same e-mail: Buy One, Get Two Free off their entire stock of sportscoats, dress pants, and sportswear AND Buy One, Get Four Free (Buy one suit and get two dress shirts and two ties free).
- Buy One, Get Two Free on Suits and Suit Separates. That same e-mail also included 50% off all sportswear and dress pants and 40% off all dress shirts, ties, and accessories.
- Today’s offer: Buy one suit, get a second suit free PLUS a sportcoat or blazer FREE!
The company’s FY 2009 earnings indicate this strategy continues to be effective (although growth from Internet sales (where pricing like this make more sense) is double that of store sales). But as a longtime customer I’m finding it increasingly difficult to trust a company that stresses quality but undermines that position by using one huge sale after another to drive business. Perhaps the goal is to get busy executives in the door and sell overpriced non-sales accessories (i.e., ties, shirts, belts) but I think the strategy cheapens the brand.
Some analysts say they’re the best of the best in terms of creating a sense of urgency that drives sales. I say that knowing there will be another sale tomorrow eliminates any sense of urgency on the part of the buyer. And maybe it doesn’t matter so long as the customer eventually lands at Jos. Bank.
The Jos. A Bank tagline is The Expert in Men’s Apparel. But ask prospective customers what they think of when you say the company’s name and I’ll bet you the vast majority focus on the sales. Seems like a disconnect to me, although you might argue the relentless promotions keep them at the top of the buyer’s mind.
I get Walmart: Spend Less. Live Better. Setting aside all the Walmart issues that some readers will quickly point out, everyday low pricing works because it’s Simple. You wonder why a company like Jos. Bank that sells clothes that are long lasting, always appropriate, and not flashy wouldn’t embrace a similar simple pricing strategy. As a seller of private label clothes, Bank has a pricing advantage because they’ve eliminated the middleman and one layer of price markups. But the marketing strategy doesn’t feel simple.
Aggressive promotional pricing detracts from the quality image that Bank is trying to cultivate. And that’s not the prescription for an enduring long-term relationship, even in the face of an existing long-term relationship. Jos. Bank has done promotions that promise customers their money back if they bought a suit and got laid off (although that one had “potential abuse” written all over it). That’s how long-term relationships are built.
What do you think? Am I missing something here? Are there other examples of companies who marketing strategy seems to be working, potentially at the cost of long-term trust?
I was recently asked to write a plan outlining how I’d approach my first few months in the job I’m interviewing for. A few people (a couple of recruiters among them) commented on how unusual the request was, but I think it makes a lot of sense.
The interview process can be a beauty contest, with its emphasis on scripted answers and connecting with the interviewer. This task requires the writer to demonstrate an understanding of the role (which probably requires that he or she did a good job asking questions during interviews) and of organizational needs and priorities. It also tests your writing and organizational skills and also provides some insight into your leadership and management style that may not come out through your scripted responses. I kept mine to two pages, so I was forced to balance the creation of a simple, easy-to-understand strategy with the desire to give the hiring manager a sense that I understand the scope of the challenge and will hit the ground running.
The process will also help me in future interviews with this employer — assuming I get one — because I now have additional questions that I will bring to the table, because I’ve thought through ways I’d approach different problems the organization faces, and because I will have better examples of ways I’ve resolved similar challenges that I might not have come up with in a conference-room setting.
One tip: There aren’t many good templates for this task, but Harvard professor Michael Watkins has written a great book on this subject called The First 90 Days, which provided me with a great starting point.
All in all, I will use this in the future when I’m trying to choose between qualified job applicants who want to demonstrate their ability to help us achieve our goals.
Readers, how about you? Have you been asked to do a 90- or 100-day plan? How did you approach it and what impact did it have on your candidacy?
If your new tires fell off after installation, whose fault would it be — the mechanic or his tools?
If you’re a U.S. general, you blame the tool. At least that’s what they’re doing in an article in today’s New York Times about the military’s use of PowerPoint. Lost amid all the jokes and criticism of a “tool that has spun out of control” is a simple fact: PowerPoint done right enhances rather than undermines the quality of communication.
Great PowerPoint presentations seek to persuade rather than dump information. Great presenters crystallize their message long before they sit down to design slides. I was a multi-bullet, heavy-copy PowerPoint people in my previous life, but I now find myself spending more time thinking through the message and the appropriate visuals. I think about the story, the audience, the decision-making journey, and how to make my points as simply as possible.
It’s a joke to see these senior officers moan about the quality of presentations and the time wasted delivering them. As you read the quotes from the “PowerPoint Rangers” about the time spent preparing slides, ask yourself whether the generals delivering them had anything to do with crafting the message…or whether they even looked at their decks before delivering the presentation.
Hey, generals! Fixing this problem is simple:
- Limit the number of slides you can use in a given period of time. General McCrystal, you’re the leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for God’s sake. Tell your people that their slide limit for a 30-minute briefing is five. Period.
- Teach junior officers the right way to present. Start them at West Point, in ROTC classes, and at Officer Candidate School. Highlight the people who do it right; re-educate those who don’t. Reinforce the message at the senior-officer schools.
- At the beginning of a presentation, ask presenters to explain their objective. If they can’t communicate it quickly and briefly, send them back to the drawing board.
- Teach junior officers — and their bosses — how to WRITE clearly and persuasively. There are times you use PowerPoint and times you use memos. My high-school English teacher prevented us from graduating until we could put together a well-reasoned essay (thank you, Mrs. Banikowski). Our children hit college (and eventually the work world) with expertise in Twitter (how persuasive can you get in 140 characters?) and IM’ing. Ugh.
- Know your audience. I’ve spent time with Tyler on his college essays over the past few months and if he’s learned nothing else from our calm, collaborative sessions (he would characterize those conversations differently), it’s that you have to consider who is reading your paper (or listening to your presentation). I hope he brings the memory of our time together to college with him this fall.
Of course, these tips don’t apply only to our soldiers in Afghanistan. You can use them on your own personal and corporate battlefields. Click here for other posts I’ve written about bringing brevity, clarity, and simplicity to your communciations.
What advice would you give the generals?
A few years back, I led a change to the way MBNA America — at the time the world’s largest affinity credit-card lender — negotiated with its partners (and ultimately with each other inside the bank). At the heart of it, we learned to prepare more effectively and taught people that the best way to get what they wanted was to help the other side get what it wanted (for both internal and external stakeholders). It’s my primary accomplishment…and a key component of my professional narrative.
Since being laid off 15 months ago, I’ve focused on consulting while still looking for a challenging full-time position. The reality is the job market is awful and there’s a growing trend toward building a portfolio career of 1099/consulting projects. I’ve been helping companies sharpen their brand and strategic messages, primarily through the creation and/or refining of value propositions, RFP responses, and annual reports. But I keep running into executive-level job seekers — many of them terrific, talented former peers — who are worried that their biggest success is behind them…and feeling their self-esteem slipping away in the absence of traction in their own job searches.
I invite you to watch this video in its entirety — it’s about 20 minutes and talks about dealing with these kinds of concerns, about wondering whether your best is behind you and about channeling your creativity in a positive way.
I’ve long believed that one thing that distinguishes successful people is their ability to consistently ”show up.” I also generally believe in the ”daemons” that Elizabeth Gilbert describes. I do believe you need to put distance between yourself and your creativity — partly because believing in daemons makes it difficult to give yourself too much credit) and partly because I don’t want to run the risk of alienating them.
Over at ChrisBrogan.com, Chris is talking about the importance of story in people’s lives, urging readers to read Donald Miller’s new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. For me, I harken back to A Chorus Line: “I’m a dancer…And a dancer dances.” The foundation of my story is my ability to communicate quickly and clearly (my ongoing challenges to simplify my own personal brand notwithstanding). Blogging — something I never had the time to do before leaving the bank – enables me to do what I love…and the research and effort to generate ideas helps me work through my angst. On my professional side, it can be challenging (but gratifying) to create for someone else, to capture their true voice and deliver something that the client can “hear” and feel as if they could have written or said it. And yet the thing that led me away from business journalism in the first place was my sense that I could be just as effective in business as the people whose lives I was chronicling.
But how do you keep delivering? How do you surpass your past successes? If I didn’t appreciate one thing before the past 15 months, I certainly do now: Creativity takes order and process. You need to eliminate distractions to give the “daemon” room to enter your consciousness.
There are times when I miss the hermetically sealed corporate offices where I used to work. As I sit at home today, it’s 80 degrees, sunny, with a nice breeze flowing through my home office. I’m resisting the urge to stop typing to go shoot some baskets or kick a soccer ball with my kids because I have deliverables.
The truth is, I probably will not resist those urges. But that break will enable me to create something better this afternoon because I freed my mind and let the daemon in. I now keep a little notebook to write down ideas when they hit. In my current situation, I don’t sit through long, pointless meetings and I can try to turn neat ideas into business opportunities (although that poses its own sort of distraction away from the dual goals of feeding my family and doing something meaningful).
I have always worked in a world of real-life deadlines, budgets, and conflicting goals. I’ve always been successful at balancing multiple priorities and executing on great ideas. But life is different today than it was 15 months ago and I have a much greater respect for the process. I thank Elizabeth Gilbert for reminding me that my greatest successes are not behind me…that the path to even greater ones requires me to keep showing up, respecting my daemon, and seeing them when I see them.
How about you? How do you maintain your confidence that your next great success is just around the corner?