Monday, May 31, 2010

Capitalizing on Complexity

IBM just came out with its 2010 CEO Survey. Rather than read through the whole thing, I recommend going to the summary on Irving Wladawsky-Berger's blog (again, one of my favorites!!). Among the kajillions of takeaways here, I want to point out just a couple of basic ideas:

1. You (yourself, your company, your community) can either become intimidated by the increasing complexity of the world and suffer from inadequate response to it, or you can try to leverage the complexity to the advantage of yourself and your stakeholders. This is easier said than done, but it a powerful message and requires a committed mindset to get started.

2. Doing this requires creative and critical thinking skills. Where do we get these from? Not from the teach to the test approaches that are rampant in K-12 education, many bachelors and masters level university programs, and even some doctoral programs I have seen that are trying to satisfy companies by providing "job skills" instead of thinking skills. So where will we find people who can do this? Maybe this should be the core of our immigration policy - a critical thinking test.

3. Organizations that are leaders in creativity and innovation tend to have better customer service AND better stock returns. Take THAT banks (not all of them, but the ones that forgot about their customers in the pursuit of shareholder value)! I found this discussion to be a bit of a sidetrack, but useful to think about nonetheless.

4. Operational Dexterity (read about it on his blog) is a key skill set to master in any domain, whether its manufacturing, services, non-profit, or even managing your family. Maybe I am a bit biased by my background in industrial engineering, but I think this is really important. "Agility" is the new "lean."

Maybe there is a hope for government strategy

This article in Time magazine actually made me feel good about the prospects for the world (I have been a bit cynical and pessimistic lately). It seems there is a region in South Africa that is run by a tribe called the Bafokeng. They were screwed over by generations of invaders - of the military, political, and commercial kinds.

But rather than resort to violence, or to just roll over, they used persistence and strategy. And now, they are one of the most successful regions in all of Africa. Read the article.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Customer service in a low margin business

I was at my local grocery store doing my usual shopping. I had a $1 coupon for an item that happened to be on sale for less than $1. Should the store:

a) take $1 off the total – because the coupon doesn’t say that the item had to be $1 or more.

b) take the sale amount of the total – because that was the item’s cost to me.

c) refuse to take the coupon at all

d) refuse to take the coupon and give me a hard time about it.

As you can tell from the last option being included, that is what happened. Most stores do a). It is the best for customer service and building loyalty. You see these grocery moms on TV doing this all the time and buying $100 worth of groceries for like 35c. But because grocery stores have such a low margin business (and because of all the coupon moms around these days), I completely understand b). But I think c) is wrong. And d) is just a lame brained business. Usually, this chain has good service, so it surprised me. The manager did accept the coupon, but having the cashier call him over was a bit embarrassing (even though there was only one person in line behind me to annoy). And the time wasted was worth more than $1 (to them and to me).

Two lessons we can learn here.

  1. Use the exception principle. If the time required to enforce a limitation will cost more than the limitation will save, make an exception. But make sure that the exception is part of the rule so you don’t get a culture of rule-breakers.
  2. Whatever your rules are, be nice about how you deal with customers. Losing a customer can be a much bigger loss than the savings from the rule.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What do you post on FB?

There are some great stories in the news about job applicants who got busted by prospective employers for things they posted on their FB pages. Sometimes it is directly related to the job and sometimes it is just irresponsible behavior that makes the applicant look bad. As a result, we are all becoming conditioned to fear posting anything questionable.

But how questionable is questionable? One of the purposes of social networking is to communicate and bond with your friends and colleagues. Part of this process is about sharing. If we become too afraid to post personal stories, feelings, or other content, perhaps we are losing out. Maybe the benefits outweigh the costs when posting minor transgressions. If companies really don’t hire you for something that may be questionable but is rather minor, perhaps you don’t want to work for them anyway.

I am interested in hearing about where you draw the line, or where you think the line should be drawn in general. Post in the comments.

What is ethnicity anyway??

As many of you know, I am in the process of moving from downtown Miami to the Boston suburbs to start a new job. I also recently sent in my Census form. What do these things have to do with each other? Both involved checking off both a race and an ethnicity on some official paperwork.

It got me thinking. Race has always seemed to me to be something based on genes and therefore immutable. For many generations, my ancestors lived in Western Russia and Poland. Even though I know that being Jewish, you can probably go far enough back to find ancestors from the Middle East (no, I haven’t taken one of those IBM/NG genetic tests), but basically I am white.

For many years, race was all that these kinds of forms asked. But some time ago they (whoever “they” are) split off ethnicity from race and started asking if you were Hispanic also. This was due to the fact that there are many Hispanics who are white and many who are of African or Caribbean descent. I am sure that there are many places where Asians should be similarly divided into many ethnicities, but I haven’t seen that yet. Ethnicity is different from race. But what is it?

What does this have to do with me? Well, I have been living in Miami for almost 20 years now (about half my life) and this has had a huge impact on me. Not racially of course, but definitely culturally. My Spanish is not great, but I get by when I have to. I cook many Hispanic styles. I dance salsa/meringue pretty well, at least when my knees allow. I know Latin America’s politics, geography, and business as well as I know Europe’s.

So if ethnicity is something different than race and therefore not genetic, could it be that I am half Hispanic now? Compared to the other folks down here, the answer is clearly NO WAY. I don’t compare to the recent immigrants and most of the 1st and 2nd generation neighbors around me. But compared to the other people in the Boston suburbs, maybe I can make that case. When I was recently in Boston househunting, I found myself using Spanish terms by accident. Not the Spanglish words that have become part of the common English vernacular, but real Spanish. And I am sure I can out cuisine and out salsa most of the people up there. So if ethnicity is more cultural than genetic, perhaps I am.

The reason this is important is that I am going to be establishing my identity when I get up there. I have some friends already, but not in the town where I will be living. What persona do I want to promote? Do I want to “be” half-Hispanic? Filling out forms may seem irrelevant to this conversation, but that also matters. When you officially declare something publicly (even when you are lying, but especially if you mean it), it has much more of an influence on your later behavior than most people realize. I can send you some thorough research on this if you are interested. So if I start out with this persona, it will continue to develop and grow in me.

When I fill out my HR forms up in Boston, do I have the background and the interest (and the cojones :-D) to announce myself that way? Is it true? What is ethnicity anyway??