Saturday, July 23, 2011

Giving our best, in the words of Joe DiMaggio

All I ever learned about maintaining a reputation for being the best came from the mouth of Yankee great Joe DiMaggio. When asked why he always hustled so hard, he responded, "There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best."
Now compare this attitude to those of business owners, who risk their own reputations, as well as those of their companies and employees, to unethical practices. Or entertainers who don't perform at their best and create an everlasting impression -- fairly or not -- on the ticket-buyer who showed up for that day's performance. Our brands, our names and our reputations are sometimes all we have. Do you tend your image every day as you should? Will the people who encounter you today remember a superlative effort or a lackluster try?
I know this may seem harsh, and believe me, I have both benefited and
suffered from this, but it is a reality to which we must all attend.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Marshall McLuhan at 100: The Media Are Still the Messages (and more)

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of famed academician, philosopher and media observer Marshall McLuhan. In reflecting on his life, it is stunning to see how his influence and his relevance have only grown in this era of "The Social Network." Consider that McLuhan coined now-common phrases such as "the medium is the message, "information overload" and "hot and cool media" decades before we would understand their full significance.

His watershed book, Understanding Media, was
written 20 years before the PC revolution and 30 years before the rise of the Internet. Yet his insights predicted how we would engage with the world through the wide variety of media available to us. In 1964, Understanding Media seemed to be the rantings of a crazy man. But in the light of the 21st century digital world, he makes perfect sense. One can argue that Understanding Media is the most important book ever written on communication. (I would accept that premise.)

Like many other future-oriented thinkers, such as H.G.
Wells and Louis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan accurately predicted many events. For example, he believed that printed books would become obsolete, killed off by television and by other electronic information technology (e-books, anyone?). In War and Peace in the Global Village, he predicted that a coming, vast electronic network (read: the Internet) would recreate "the world in the image of a global village" (another McLuhan phrase that has entered our lexicon). And quite a village it is: When Time magazine proclaimed Mark Zuckerberg the 2010 Man of of the Year, they noted that Facebook users around the world comprised "a social entity almost twice as large as the U.S. If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest, behind only China and India."

Though he is somewhat forgotten today, McLuhan's popularity grew throughout the 1960s and 70s. His work was translated into more than 20 languages, he appeared in magazines
across the world. Embraced by the counter-culture and acknowledged somewhat by the mainstream, McLuhan had an hour-long TV special on NBC in 1967, a Playboy interview in 1969, and an appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, a cutting-edge TV show of the late 60s. However, McLuhan may be best remembered for his ironic cameo in Woody Allen's 1977 Oscar winner, Annie Hall, where Allen makes McLuhan appear magically just to settle an argument with a pedant in a movie queue.

McLuhan never claimed to be a crusader, and in fact, he never was. He was an observer and a documentarian. His various epigrams are testimony to this, and they have gained increased significance in today's media-encrusted world:
  • "A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding." (Think of all the media talking heads who provide much heat but little light.)
  • "All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values." (One example is that people who watch more news on TV than average believe that crime rates are higher than they actually are.)
  • "Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either." (Sesame Street, anyone?)
  • "Art is anything you can get away with." (McLuhan foreshadowed Warhol and Basquiat with that one.)
  • "Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be." (Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit as Exhibit A, Ronald Reagan. As Exhibit B -- Barack Obama.)
  • "The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man." (From fast food consumed in cars to the docks for our various electronic gear, he nailed this one.)
  • "There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew." (This statement was made before "Ecoimagination" became an advertising buzz phrase.)
  • "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us." (Is there any doubt that our perceptions have been influenced first by television and later -- today -- by Facebook? Our whole notion of what constitutes a "friend" is entirely different.)
McLuhan continued to influence even after his demise. In 1988, eight years after his death, his son published McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media. These questions resulted in the formulation of the following four laws of media, and how they affect us. Using cell phones as an example, here is how McLuhan's Laws manifest themselves:
  1. Extension/Enhancement: Every technology extends or amplifies some organ or faculty of the user. What does the medium enhance or intensify? (In this case, the voice is enhanced.)
  2. Closure/Obsolescence: Because there is equilibrium in sensibility, when one area of experience is heightened or intensified, another is diminished or numbed. What is pushed aside or obsolesced by the new medium? (Answer: the telephone booth.)
  3. Reversal: Every form, pushed to the limit of its potential, reverses its characteristics. (In this case, the cell phone does not free us. Instead, it puts us on a leash because we are always accessible.)
  4. Retrieval: The content of any medium is an older medium. (Childhood yelling has become the content of cell phones, as we raise our voices to be heard.)
McLuhan found significance in the most mundane matters. For example, he could see how typography, with its specific variations of form and aesthetics, became forms of expression in themselves. Even print was not a monolithic medium to him.

So in this media-oriented world, where jeans have special pockets for iPods and the backpacks of most self-respecting kids are loaded with electronic gear, it is good to consider the visionary insights of Marshall McLuhan. His star grows ever so brightly, perhaps even directly proportional with the glow of display panels and their increasing influences on our lives and psyches.

Note: While I admire McLuhan greatly, I also direct you to this more critical article by Paul Seaman titled, "Marshall McLuhan: A Media Guru Reconsidered." While I don't agree with much of what Mr. Seaman has written, I appreciate his even-handed approach to McLuhan's legacy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Father of Future Thinking

If we want to develop a future-oriented mindset. we can learn from the great science fiction and fantasy writer, H. G. Wells (1866 – 1946). His keen observations of scientific phenomena, combined with logic and math, allowed him to predict a number of trends and developments over the course of the 20th century.

Considered to have an overall accuracy of as much as 80 percent, Wells's predictions covered a wide range of subjects, such as urban living, transportation, government, defense methods, education and sociology. His accuracy rate was estimated to be as high as 80 percent, and he attributed his own success to the following methodologies:
• INDUCTIVE REASONING — Wells taught that inductive reasoning — the process of making inferences by observed repetitive patterns — was key to making reasonably

accurate predictions.
FUTURE-FOCUSED THINKING — Wells did not live in the past. Instead, he thought constantly of things to come, and he believed that change could not be ignored.He also thought of the present in terms of how it could drive the future. This was an extension to the notion that the conditions of the past would drive the future.
GROUNDING IN SCIENCE — Wells kept himself knowledgeable of scientific principles and developments, as he believed that science was predictive by nature. For example, he flew in the face of the thinking of his time by predicting that aircraft would be heavier than air, rather than lighter than air, as with balloons and dirigibles. His reasoning was that if a craft were to conquer the air, it would need to be stronger than air.
KNOWLEDGE OF THE PAST — Wells believed that all future events were preordained by past events, so it was important to know the past in order to know the future.
LAW OF LARGE NUMBERS — Wells used statistical probability to make predictions. He believed that while small, incremental human events may influence outcomes in some way, broad trends can tell the story more accurately, smoothing out the effects of anomalous events. Another way of saying this is that Wells looked at the big picture.

Wells used the following process to make his predictions:
1. Assume that prediction is possible.
2. Use a combination of facts, logic and math.
3. Gather data.
4. Identify the drivers in science and technology that could change the future.
5. Identify central tendencies using the science of statistics (i.e., find the most common occurrences).
6. Identify the areas that will affected by change.
7. Pursue causal changes.

How accurate was Wells? In 1901, his book on the coming twentieth century, Anticipations, predicted what the world would be like in the year 2000. He wrote that trains and cars would move workers between the cities and the suburbs, that women would seek and achieve greater sexual freedom, that there would be two world wars in which German militarism would be defeated, and that a European Union would be formed.

In an era when we feel buffeted by change, we can still reasonably predict the future by studying trends and making informed inferences. As I often tell my audiences, we don't need to pay a fortune tell to know the future, we only need to pay attention.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Hidden Costs of Missing Goals

When we begin to excuse or rationalize our less-than-successful efforts or our failures, we are on the unstable and dangerous path to making such shortcomings a habit. If we tell ourselves that it was okay to miss one goal, then what about the next? And then the one after that? Here are some notable misses and their consequences.

• According to the website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the U.S. Congress sets the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) for automakers. (CAFE is the average fuel economy, expressed in miles per gallon, mpg, of a manufacturer’s fleet of passenger cars or light trucks.) Many years ago, the EPA set a goal of
doubling the 1974 fuel economy average for passengers cars to 27.5 mpg by 1985. However, these standards were lowered between 1986 and 1989. Then the standard of 27.5 mpg was reset in 1990, where and it has remained unmet ever since. Imagine how much more competitive the American car industry would have been had the CAFÉ standard been met on time. Instead, Americans who wanted better gas mileage turned to autos made outside the country, and the American auto industry began an inexorable decline.

• In late 1998, Compaq Computer Corporation began a major initiative to sell their personal computers (PCs) directly to consumers, built to order. The company wanted to regain its place as the number one seller of PCs. Dell, an upstart at the time, had taken the top spot with a methodology that combined a sales force, orders over the phone, and Internet marketing. The process was faster because it eliminated the middle seller. Furthermore, once an order was placed, Dell was able to build a computer in six hours. Compaq could not do that, and the difference was Dell’s superb execution. Compaq simply could not perform as efficiently as Dell.
Eventually, Hewlett-Packard, another major PC-maker, acquired Compaq, so the company is no more.

• AT&T was once the world’s biggest company, the world’s biggest employer, and creator of the most advanced and reliable phone network, which was the envy of industrialized countries. The company also put a reliable telephone in virtually every home in the U.S. But AT&T suffered a tragic fall. After the telecommunications industry was deregulated in 1982, AT&T lost its reason to exist. Facing competition from smaller providers that were once part of AT&T —the so-called “Baby Bells” — the company made a series of missteps. AT&T invested hundreds of billions of US dollars into cable TV systems, cellular networks, local phone providers, long distance and global data networks — services in which the company was not competitive.
Management even split the company into four to provide services in cable TV, wireless phone, business services, and consumer services. But the end came in January 2005. AT&T and
SBC Communications announced an agreement whereby SBC would acquire AT&T to create the industry's premier communications and networking company. The company that had stood alone in the telecommunications world had become just another player because it could not find its footing in an altered marketplace.

What is significantly absent in the examples above is leadership: Leadership in conveying a vision to make it meaningful to others, leadership in motivating teammates toward that vision, leadership that is confident enough to share information on the progress of the project and foster cooperation, rather than withholding it to maintain personal control.

How are your leadership skills? We all must be able to lead the people around us to the change that will help us and our organizations survive in an uncertain world. More important, we must all understand and accept our goals and targets so that we know exactly what defines "success" in each case.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

To Betty Ford, and All Those Who Build Platforms

As we celebrate the life of Betty Ford, who passed away yesterday, I am reminded of her courage to speak out on issues she embraced. Of course, her work on behalf of awareness of substance abuse and breast cancer were well known. However, she also supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which was not common to do in the mid-1970s, access to abortions, and the rights of gay Americans to serve in the military. (She was someone who acknowledged that gays had already long served in the military.)

Beyond Mrs. Ford, I began thinking of the people who found causes in their personal lives and pursued them relentlessly against the tides of their times.

  • Rachel Carson, a sounder of early warnings against DDT and the dangers facing our natural environment when most people did not even know what she was speaking about.
  • Martin Luther King, who spoke so beautifully on such a wide range of topics — freedom, justice, good vs. evil, mob mentality, even the nobility of work — that students should learn to look well beyond his “I Have a Dream” speech and hear words that resonate even today.
  • Elie Wiesel, turning his survival of Nazism’s “final solution” to justice for all humankind.
  • Dorothy Day, often a lone voice on workers’ rights.
  • Ronald Reagan, who spoke so long, passionately, eloquently and consistently against Communism that his entreaty to Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall was, comparatively, one of the mildest statements he ever made on the subject (partially because he lived long enough to see that battle won).

In this era when “branding” is all the buzz, it is appropriate to review what we each stand for and the positions for which we will be known. It need not be even a global, noble cause. Perhaps we are exemplars of courtesy, disallowing coarse treatment of others in our presence. Our language and writing can make us defenders of good and proper English. Or we may choose to extol our free enterprise system.

It is commonly said that perception is reality. So, too, is legacy. Betty Ford’s passing reminds us of that. What is your platform?

Friday, July 8, 2011

What's in a Name? For Google, it's Value

Google will soon be saying goodbye to several non-Google name brands, such as Blogger and Picasa. Most important, the products will remain, renamed as Google. Blogger and Picasa are two of Google’s most popular products, so it makes sense to give them names to reinforce the Google brand.

Currently, it is not so obvious that these blogging and photo sharing products are associated with the world's most popular search engine. But that will become more apparent once they are known as "Google Blogs" and "Google Photos." (I did not know that Picasa was a photo-sharing service. The name implied some kind of art creation software to me. The new name, colorless as it may seem, makes the function of this product immediately clear, at least to me.)

Of course, Microsoft has been successful with this practice for years, as every product in their office suite carries the name of the company. This is a good practice for any business enterprise, extending their brand way beyond the obvious. Note the number of home products that carry the "Mr. Clean" name or oral hygiene products named Crest or Colgate. On the other hand, note how the Coca-Cola company eliminated confusion by branding their bottled water as Dasani rather than another Coke name. (This is in stark contrast to how the company shot to the top of the diet soda ranks by simply naming their product "Diet Coke.")

So now, Google will be known for more than "search." In fact, there are many who believe this is the beginning of remaking Google into a social media company. It is a reminder of the value of all of our names. It makes us more acutely aware of how and where we attach our names. What image does your name conjure? Are you associated with a particular habit or ideology, either of which could pigeon-hole the world's perception of you? In the simple words of Al and Laura Ries in their book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, "Marketing is brand building."

This strategy will become clearer once Google launches their new business initiative, Google+. An apt name if they actually become known for more than searching on the Internet. Let's check back in a few months.

Monday, July 4, 2011

It is Mid-Year; Do You Know Where Your Goals Are?

The year is now half over. It is a good time for us to review our goals and objectives for the year and mark our progress.
What, you don't have goals and objectives for the year? If not, how will you know if you have advanced in 2011 and made personal progress? I keep two "To Do" lists posted: one for every day, and one for the year. My daily "TO DO" list is an ongoing challenge, but as I step back, I'm doing well for the whole year. I have already read as many books as I planned, I created a new keynote address for my repertoire, my retirement plan is finally on track, and I have reviewed the Italian language for an upcoming trip. (Forgive me if I don't share the other items on my list. I take the advice of self-help guru Derek Sivers that you should not share your goals with others, because that automatically decreases the chances that you will achieve them.)
Over the years, my annual list of goals have enabled me to accomplish a number of interesting things, such as hitting certain income goals, learning a new language, paying off my mortgage and publishing my first book.
If you haven't yet put together your own list, don't fret. Better to finish the year with a smaller list than one at all. The more important thing to remember is to work at actually reaching your goals by prioritizing them, putting them on schedule, focusing on them and eliminating the time wasters that get in your way. One could find no better role model than a mother on public assistance who became one of the richest women in the U.K. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, told the Harvard graduating class that "achievable goals are the first step to self improvement."