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Why Do Companies Stick With Their Mistakes?

Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while. I’ve been traveling. Which is the inspiration for this piece.

No one is perfect. And no company avoids every mistake. But why do companies make mistakes and then do nothing to get rid of them?

Let me propose five reasons:
1. The people who make the policies don’t actually work in the field.
2. The people in the field aren’t given the ability to influence management without appearing to be troublemakers.
3. Customers aren’t encouraged to speak up, and their suggestions are ignored.
4. It’s easier to make a policy than to undo it.
5. Business is complicated and unless you come up with a clever way to measure the impact of a decision, it’s often difficult to tell if it’s a good idea or not.

I thought of all of these reasons as I flew from one airport to another the last few weeks. My heart goes out to the folks working in the airline industry—they are brave and stalwart folks, and they deserve far more credit than they are getting. I also completely support our efforts to make flying safe. That said, I think the airline security issue is an amazing analogy for what’s wrong at most companies (your company?).

First, it’s obvious that most of us aren’t encouraged to speak up about security at the airport. To do so is to be a troublemaker or even unpatriotic . Just as a company can build a culture that makes it hard to criticize a decision from headquarters, it’s been made clear to us that experts are in charge and we should shut up and support any efforts to stop bad guys from flying.

But the experts aren’t in charge! Many of the decisions getting implemented are nothing but superstitions. One person decides that nail clippers are dangerous but ballpoint pens are not, and airports all over the country begin to confiscate nail clippers. There’s no system in place to measure whether or not this policy is effective, whether or not it is worth the thousand of hours and millions of dollars it costs to enforce. Without a way to measure the effect, we can be confident the policy will last a long time.

Today’s USA TODAY says that a whistleblower is accusing the FAA of failing to follow up on security tests and ignoring bad results when they do perform tests. Has that ever happened at your company?

Because there’s no consistent measurement system, we also discover obvious discrepancies across the system. In Montrose, Colorado, your shoes are x-rayed and you need to remove a fleece sweater (IF it has a zipper). In New York, however, shoes are fine, as are sportcoats and fleeces of any kind. At one airport, the guards confiscated all Duracell batteries, but allowed much larger laptop batteries through. Why? Because of superstition. Because there was no measurement system. Because the person who invented the policy wasn’t standing there discovering whether it was working or not. It seems pretty obvious to me that if it’s important to x-ray shoes in Colorado, it’s important to do it in New York.

One last example and one suggestion. In New York, you can’t walk through security with an open bottle of Poland Spring water in your hand. You have to take a sip to prove it’s not acid or something. But why wouldn’t a bad guy just put the bottle in his carry on? I know, I’m not supposed to ask because that would be undermining the system, but come on!

And my suggestion? Here you go. Let’s put an email address on every x-ray machine in the country. Have it say, “Do you know how to make security screening better? Drop us a line!” Now, imagine hundreds of thousands of very smart businesspeople, all travelers, all security experts or consultants or whatever, constantly upgrading the system by feeding back advice, detecting errors or increasing consistency… hmmm. Imagine that both the person making the suggestion and the operator reading it would get a bonus every time a suggestion made it through and was put into action. I could send a note praising the speed, thoroughness and kindness of the woman who patted me down… or describe three ways to make the system at West Palm Beach go more smoothly. The system would evolve—fast. Hey, it might even work at your company!

So why is an obvious idea like this (evolving fast with fast feedback loops based on data) so hard to swallow? Because managers like to make decisions. Because managers like to be right. Because employees have been trained to want the manager to make the decision, and to want stability in the policies they work with.

As our world goes faster, we need to evolve faster. If we don’t, the competition will.

While we’re talking about evolution, note that Richard Pachter wrote a supernice review of my new book in the Miami Herald today: Herald Review

Death of a myth?

There are plenty of myths that have far outlasted the data that showed them to be wrong. “The Earth is flat”, “Heavy objects fall faster than light ones” and Noah’s Ark all come to mind. The most expensive myth around today, though, could be the $220 Billion (with a “b”) spent on unmeasured advertising every year.

Check out mlife for a rare post-dotcom-crash example of big spending for a web launch. Here in New York you’ll see them on taxi tops, posters, big ads, the whole nine yards. Visit the site and it won’t even say what they do until they launch next week. Go figure.

Randall Rothenberg is almost always right, and he’s correct again in the start of this column. Entire media companies are about to bite the dust because advertisers are just now (fifty years later) realizing that almost all ad money is wasted… but now, they can tell which part works.

Myths make people emotional, of course, and there’s bound to be plenty of angst before this argument is settled. I mean, I just bought a lot of ads for my new book, but I did it with my eyes opened and my accountant’s eyes clearly focused on the results we generated. I don’t think direct advertising is in any danger of going away…(like it or not, spam appears to be here for a while too), but I just don’t get the whole Super Bowl commercial thing.

What’s the Frequency?

If you’re hearing a buzzing in your ear, it may be all the wifi radiation out there. A simple in-office networking technology has morphed into a low-cost wireless ISP technology that’s spreading pretty fast.WiFi shows you one example. (Though I’m told there are other options in the NY area that are a little more streamlined for sending mail.

The basic idea is to use 802.11b (aka “wifi”) to do something it wasn’t intended to do. Basically, it’s like using cordless phones outside of your house. By putting repeaters all over the place, it’s possible to paste together a wireless network that truly works.

So, here’s the question: what happens in two years when every single device can cheaply and easily be hooked up with a pretty wide and fast connection to the Net? Brand new world, a lot faster than some people expected.

Opt out nationwide?

Congress is getting closer to mandating a nationwide opt-out list that would make it a crime for a telemarketer to call you at home during dinner if you’ve taken the time to register your phone number.

Readers of Permission Marketing know that I’d much prefer an opt-in list (and that I believe an opt-in list is ultimately more profitable) but this is a fine start. How could anyone be against such a common sense, highly efficient idea? Well, the DMA is opposed. Go figure. The Direct Marketing Association

A Neat Ideavirus

No real business model here, but it’s organic and it’s growing like a weed. Thanks to Joel Kotarski for the tip. Click here to see The Human Clock

I think the lack of smoothness is part of the appeal. Daniel, the creator of the site, isn’t trying too hard. It’s a neat idea, and if you want to share it, go ahead. No prizes, “tell-a-friend” buttons or much of anything else.


Don’t know if you read the column I wrote about passion and One Handed Molly in Fast Company but if you did, you know how impressed I was by this up and coming band.

They’re giving a free (short) concert in New York City.

1961 broadway (at 66th street)
5:00 PM

Anyway, I’ll be there and if you spot me and ask me for a book, I’ll be happy to give you a signed copy. I’ll bring about a dozen with me. See you there. For those outside of New York, you can buy CDs on their site and you can buy a copy of Survival at your local bookstore or by clicking here.

Free eBook

Buy a copy of the new paperback edition of The Big Red Fez and I’ll give you a free copy of the worldwide bestselling ebook Really Bad Powerpoint by email. All you have to do is buy the paperback of Fez from Amazon or a local bookseller and send me an email at this special address and subject line and I’ll send you the ebook by return email within a week. No proof of purchase necessary. I trust you.
By the way, the ebook for The Big Red Fez no longer exists. My publisher, Simon & Schuster, made a significant donation to charity (all proceeds from this project have always gone to the JDRF) for the paperback rights and they asked me to remove the ebook. Since my goals for this book are to spread the word and help the JDRF, it made sense to me. So if you got the electronic version, it’s now officially a collector’s item.

Free Quiz

Find out if you zoom. My friend Red did an amazing job on the Do You Zoom quiz, which is a bunch of psuedoscientific nonsense masquerading as a personality test. The best part of the quiz is that you can send it to your co-workers and friends and find out how they rank as well. For those who are fans of ideavirus, it’s interesting to note that similar quizzes on (but funnier than mine) have had more than 5,000,000 users. Maybe this one will spread…


Survival is Not Enough. hit #4 on the Denver Post bestseller list last week and has stayed in the top few hundred on Amazon since publication. I appreciate your willingness to buy it sight unseen… and thank you in advance for telling your co-workers if you liked it.


I was stranded today. I had to spend hours in Nyack, just over the border from New Jersey, so I shopped. Actually, I TRIED to shop, but I failed. I spent two hours at the mall, and it was boring.

Having done most of my shopping online lately, I’d nearly forgotten how boring it is. Every merchant alive needs to read Paco Underhill’s book, Why We Buy.

The only store I saw that didn’t bore me was the new Apple store. If you haven’t been, it’s worth a visit. Sure, it will be boring soon too. That’s because our tastes evolve faster than retailers allow their stores to.