Must Read: Switch by Chip and Dan Heath (out Feb. 16)

     Great book, chock full of great advice and tools.  If you haven’t pre-ordered it and this post is a reminder to do so, I won’t be insulted if you jump right now to the bottom of this post and click through to Amazon (or your own favorite bookseller). 
     I’m never sure how much I should give away with a review like this, but the basic idea of the book (beyond the sub-title, which is How to Change Things When Change is Hard) is that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider and “any time the six-ton Elephant and Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched.”
     I was lucky enough to receive a pre-release copy from the authors (Dan and Chip Heath, who also wrote another of my favorite books, Made to Stick)…and I understand that the idea is to generate excitement so people will go out and buy it.  I only have a couple of quibbles about the book, but let me highlight the overriding themes with the plea that you buy the book and read the stories that surround these themes to really effect change in your life.
     Theme No. 1:  Direct the Rider.  Basic idea here is that because resistance is often due to a lack of clarity, you need to provide crystal-clear direction.  You do this by finding bright spots in otherwise dismal situations and then giving direction to the Rider, creating a sort-of sandwich where you describe both a start and a finish and provide what the Heaths call a “destination postcard.”
     Theme No. 2:  Motivate the Elephant.  Here we’re focusing on driving change through motivation and we need to find the core emotional message that will get your Elephant moving.  The Heaths argue that what sometimes looks like laziness is often exhaustion (i.e., the Rider can’t get his way by force for long).  Knowledge isn’t enough to motivate change; you also need the confidence that you are capable of overcoming the challenge, that you are “big” enough to do it.  The answer:  Shrink the change and/or grow your people.
     Theme No. 3:  Shape the Path.    As the Heaths put it, what looks like a people problem may actually be a situation problem, and changing your environment can often make change much easier.  You can change the rules or the tools needed to do the job  (i.e., “tweak the environment”) or create new habits.  They offer a time-tested tool to marry these two approaches: checklists (which the authors promote with some nervousness).  You can Rally the Herd (of Elephants) and get them to convince each other about the value of supporting change.  And they introduce ways to keep the momentum going.
     I go through books like this with a highlighter and pen, and transfer my notes into a small spiral notebook that helps me remember key points from everything I read.  I took a lot of actionable ideas out of this book that will change the way I approach my life (business and personal).  Had I read this book six months ago, my blog might well have been called Elephant Simplicity. 
     My only quibbles?  It took awhile to get into the flow of the book’s structure — there’s a lot of bouncing between stories making them sometimes feel a bit redundant.  And the Heaths use a tool they call a “Clinic” in which they describe a real-world situation and ask the reader to apply the Switch framework to create change.  It’s a great idea — and they say you can read them as you go or come back to them later.  I suggest you come back to them later, since they’re introduced in Chapter 3 but incorporate materials you’ll find throughout the rest of the book.
     But again, those are quibbles.  This book is a terrific investment.  Here’s an excerpt.  And here’s one place you can order it.  My understanding is that pre-orders get aggregated and help the authors jump to the top of many bestseller lists in Week 1 and the discounts can more than offset the cost of shipping.
     Please come back after you’ve read it and let everyone know what you thought.

Are you missing that next great job opportunity or great client?

Would you have missed the world-class violinist playing in the train station?

An acquaintance passed this story along a while back, and I thought it was appropriate for the first few days of a new year.  The setting is the Washington, D.C., metro station just about three years ago, and the result was a Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post.

The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 60 minutes. During that time, nearly 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

 After three minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

Four minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

Six minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

Ten minutes: A 3-year-old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

45 minutes: The musician played continuously.  Only six people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

No notice.  No applause.  Barely any recognition for the violinist — Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played some of the most challenging pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million.  Two days before, he had sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

Joshua Bell’s unannounced concert in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a experiment that basically asked whether people will see beauty if it’s in an unexpected place at an unexpected time.  The resulting story won the Post a Pulitzer Prize for the way it addressed these questions.  It also raises a quesiton for each of us:  How many opportunities do we miss each day because we’re just not paying enough attention?

In the midst of what is becoming a frustrating job search for many of us…or tense times in the office for those who have jobs, it’s good advice to take a moment and look around.  Who knows?  Perhaps what you see will provide the lead to your next job, client, or business idea.

Where have you found opportunities in unexpected places?

Manning demonstrates value of preparation; JaMarcus doesn’t

Preparation enables Peyton Manning to make what he does look easy

I’ve long been a proponent of the adage that preparation is the only things over which you have total control.  And I’m always glad to get reminders of that…from the world of sports or wherever.

I was reading Sports Illustrated’s NFL Midseason Report on an airplane the other day and smiled as I read how Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning texted Connecticut running back Donald Brown just hours after he had been drafted by the Colts:  “Meet me at the facility at 8 a.m. tomorrow.  Warmed up.  Ready to go.”

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy talked about Manning’s great season so far — despite a number of challenges — saying, “To understand why he hasn’t struggled, you have to understand the way his mind works.  It drives him every day that the offense will be better, not just as good as it was.  The new guys will fit in.  He’ll make them fit in.”

Juxtapose that with a conversation that Mike and Mike had this morning on ESPN Radio with analyst Tim Hasselbeck about Oakland QB JaMarcus Russell and his challenges.  The discussion centered on whispers around the Raiders camp that the now-benched quarterback is always “last in, first out” of meetings and practices.  He won’t put in the work necessary to prepare for the next week’s game.

There are other reasons Manning is a future hall-of-famer, but preparation can overcome many things — rookie wide receivers and running backs, injuries in many positions.  Lack of preparation just exposes you.

How have you helped yourself through preparation (or hurt yourself because you didn’t take the time)?  If you don’t know where to start to help yourself prepare more effectively, please contact me.

Ditka, Grey’s Anatomy have similar views on keeping your focus

So I’m watching the Monday Night Football pre-game show last night.  As much as I’ve always admired Brett Favre and the way he leads his teams, I’ve had enough of this guy’s off-the-field antics.  Last night, it was Brett Favre this, Brett Favre that.  Blah, blah, blah.  How much will revenge factor into Brett’s performance?  Who has more pressure on him, Favre or (Green Bay QB) Aaron Rodgers?  All the ex-football players on the panel were talking about how pumped up they were for games against former teans and having a lot to prove.  Blah, blah, blah. 

But then Mike Ditka speaks:  “Five hours from now, the only thing that’s going to matter is whether you won the game or lost the game.  I don’t want to be (overly) simplistic, but that’s all they can think about.  If the Pack wins the game, they’re 3-1 and tied for the division lead.  If you’re thinking about anything but that, you’re crazy.”

Ditka immediately joined the Bulldog Simplicity Hall of Fame.  He then got attacked by the rest of the panel (and probably by ESPN producers in his earphone).

Later in the evening, my wife and I are watching last week’s episode of Grey’s Anatomy on the Tivo (aka the greatest invention known to man).   Once I got past the notion that the chief (who up to this point in the series has been a pretty sensitive guy) would actually e-mail his residents and nurses that they were being laid off (and then leave the building as they packed and left that night), there was a pretty nice ending that also reinforces the importance of focusing through distractions.

Fastballs tend to help you keep your focus
Fastballs tend to help you keep your focus

The doctors — all of whom appear safe from layoff — took their girlfriends/spouses (all of whom are residents in the same hospital, and we’ll skip over the workplace implications of that) out to a batting cage.  After spending the episode worrying about their jobs (with apparently good reason), the residents wanted to get back to the hospital and do things that would prove their value to management — regardless of whether it was actually to the patients’ benefit.  The doctors ignored them and turned on the pitching machine and started firing balls at them.

“Hit what’s in front of you,” said one of the doctors.  “It’s all you can do in this situation.”

Good advice.  This whole batting-cage idea might actually be a pretty good way for managers to snap their teams out of the funk that layoff after layoff (with the threat of more to come) has created.  The real paralysis in the episode came from the unending talk about what was coming next and who was at risk and, well just like talk of Favre, it was blah, blah, blah.

What are you doing to keep your people on track amid all the distractions?

Simply great service at Zappos

My son lost one of his dress shoes at school the other day.  Don’t ask.  I don’t know how you lose one shoe.

So last night (Tuesday) he and his mother went to the store where he bought them.  Nothing in his size.  They get home and for a variety of reasons they don’t get online until about 10 p.m.  They find the shoes and my wife calls Zappos to confirm that we’ll get the shoes by Thursday with one-day shipping.  I’m not clear on the rest of the conversation, but Zappos waives the overnight delivery charges.  No reason given, but it sounded like it was because we were first-time buyers.

It's like Tony Hsieh was sitting outside the house when we ordered Tyler's shoes.
It's like Tony Hsieh was sitting outside the house when we ordered Tyler's shoes.

So we get up this morning to find an e-mail with a tracking number.  The doorbell rings at 9 a.m. It’s the UPS guy with the shoes.  That’s right.  Eleven hours after ordering the shoes, we had them.  The customer survey arrived shortly after delivery, and guess how my wife filled out the score.  She’s now a customer for life.

Zappos has gotten a lot of great press in recent months and was purchased in July by Amazon, which says it’s leaving management in place after the sale closes.  Smart man, that Jeff Bezos.

As a first-time buyer, Zappos didn’t just exceed our expectations.  They obliterated them.   And that leaves me with two questions for you, regardless of whether you’re a retailer, a consultant, or a person within a large company…

When was the last time you obliterated a customer or client’s expectations?

How can you “Zappos” someone’s expectations the next time you deal with them?

Avoid oversimplification when reporting scary data

“U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings by Record Ratio” says the headline in the Sunday New York Times.  The article goes on to say that job seekers now outnumber openings six to one, the worst ratio since the government began tracking open positions in 2000.

Fair enough, even though to this job seeker the ratio seems far worse.  And that’s the point.  The reporter got a bit distracted in his efforts to put a face on this story.  As I read through the story, I couldn’t find the answer to the question that matters most to me:  How bad is the ratio at my level?  The reporter needed to segment the data by income or industry, and he didn’t.

We didn’t need this story to tell us that businesses are still nervous.  That businesses can increase ouput by increasing the workload on existing employees.  That the economy is powered by consumers and that savings is up.

Elsewhere in the Sunday Times, in The Boss interview with Skype President Josh Silverman, who says “In Washington, no matter how complex the issue, you have to boil it down to one page.  That’s an invaluable skill for a leader.”

In my humble opinion, the Job Seeker story should have tried to break this data down in a chart or copy to let readers know whether their particular demographic (i.e., salary level or industry) has a ratio that’s worse than the country as a whole or better. 

 Simplicity isn’t always about getting to the most general number or the biggest number; it’s about getting to the heart of the concern of your audience and not telling them something they already know.

NYC mayor cleans up a crowded dashboard

So NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg — a guy who knows a thing or two about data from his last job — is under fire because he took a huge book with 2,500 statistical indicators that help his staff and the public assess the performance of 45 mayoral agencies and decided to eliminate the outdated, irrelevant ones and put many of the remaining ones online for people to see.

Bulldog Simplicity praises the mayor’s efforts to actually make his dashboard actionable and outcome-based, two of the most important reasons to compile information like this.  That the naysayers are out complaining about the indicators he dropped isn’t a surprise, and the response from his Director of Operations was great:  “Just because a data element has been collected for 30 years doesn’t make it a useful data element.  We inherited about 2,500 indicators.  We then pared it down to about 1,200.  And that’s pretty much what we have today.”

I have to believe that by the time the mayor and his staff got through analyzing the 2,500 indicators, the information was outdated and it was time to get the next report out.  He’s moved from “widget counting” to focusing on outcomes.  For example, he replaced the percentage of potholes that are fixed within 30 days indicator with one showing the average time to fix one (2.4 days).  The new indicator makes far more sense and is far more relevant to the citizen wondering when the pothole in front of his apartment will be fixed. 

Even better, the data is updated monthly and the Mayor has made the current data accessible online.  That’s terrific!

I’ve been involved in a few efforts like this in the past, trying to consolidate performance indicators across business units.  We got everyone’s input, put out the new report, and then got a call within minutes from someone who can’t live without his or her “special number.”   That sort of thing undermines efforts to create a template and ultimately results in variations that get you away from the real goal of focusing on what’s actionable…and important to your customers and employees.

We should all embrace the mayor’s push to keep the actionable data, identify new indicators that assess the quality of services his agencies provide, and eliminate the rest so his people can focus on actually acting on the data that indicates there’s a problem. 

When was the last time you took a look at your key performance indicators and assessed whether they are still relevant and whether even more important data is missing or housed somewhere else?  And are you sharing that data with your employees and using it to drive improvements to the way you serve customers?