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A memo to the sticklers

In high school, I coached the school quiz bowl team. We made it to the finals. The last question was to name the first man-made satellite. Our team buzzed in and said "Sputnik" to win the city championships. Of course, we didn’t win, because the host said we were wrong. The right answer, he said, was "Sputnik 1".

Playing Trivial Pursuit years later with family, the question to win the game was, "What is the official color worn during the world Ping Pong championships?" My team argued back and forth between black and brown and finally picked black. "No," we were told. "The right answer is ‘dark’."

And on a recent math test, the challenge for students to answer each question to the nearest tenth. Question five was something like, "what is 10.2 plus 1.8?" Answering "12" would cost you a point, apparently, because the correct answer is 12.0.


Please understand that I have no problem at all with precision. Precision is great, it’s essential to engineering and to the function of many elements of society. It’s almost impossible to be on time without precision, and quality depends on it. But when we reward people for senseless precision (and punish them randomly for not guessing what we actually meant when we asked a question) then all we’re doing is muddying the waters about what matters and what doesn’t. Is there a difference between the Dow falling 107.4 points and it falling nearly 1%? If not, don’t try to wow me with needless precision please.

This baseless precision fetish has infected all of the soft arts, of course. Now, we reward students far more for following specific instructions for an essay and not nearly enough for saying something original, powerful or useful.

I want precision where it matters, but only there. And dark is not a color.

It’s easy to be against something

…that you’re afraid of.

And it’s easy to be afraid of something that you don’t understand.

Get to vs. have to

How much of your day is spent doing things you have to do (as opposed to the things you get to do.)

In my experience, as people become successful and happier (the subset that are both) I find that the percentage shifts. These folks end up spending more and more time on the get to tasks.

You’d think that this happens because their success permits them to skip or delegate the have to tasks. And to some extent, this is true. But far more than that, these people redefine what they do all day. They view the tasks as opportunities instead of drudge work.

A simple redefinition transformed the quality of their day, and more important, the perception of their work.


Politics is nothing but stories. Governing, of course, is more complicated than that, but not much. But storytelling is all we’re seeing these days, stories that resonate, stories that spread… Two semi-random thoughts for Sunday:

We need more debates. Not just for President, but for every elected office and for issues as well. (Yes, politics is largely marketing.)

Here’s my idea from four years ago. I wish I had pushed it harder:

Dedicate a half hour every night during the last month to a debate series. Put it on a major channel. Or devote an entire cable channel to this, year round. Or a special section of YouTube.

Each side is invited. There is no moderator. There’s a chess clock. Each side gets 15 minutes total. While you’re talking, your clock is running, but the other side’s is not. When you’re done, her clock runs. You can talk for ten seconds or ten minutes or whatever you choose. You can ask questions of your opponent, answer questions, make a speech. Whatever you want. It could even be done from two different locations.

Every night. Thirty days.

If you don’t show up, your opponent gets the entire airtime slot.

This works best in a limited channel universe, where the airtime is actually worth something, and who knows, it’s possible this will be true in four years (but unlikely). Either way, it goes a long way to helping us find thoughtful people who can think clearly (hard to fake it for thirty nights in a row). It’s also hard to run negative, untrue ads when you know you’ll be facing her tomorrow night.

And here’s a clever way to spread ideas: printthetruth.org. Even if you disagree with what’s on the posters, it’s a fascinating bridge between the digital and the physical world. Find posters you like and print em out and distribute them. If freedom of the press belongs to whomever owns a printer, that makes everyone obligated to print something…

Random travel thoughts

Have you ever noticed that we don’t have a word for the opposite of faceless (as in faceless bureaucracy)? Faceful? Perhaps that’s because bureaucracies, by their nature, refuse to answer to us when something is broken.

Why does a banana cost twenty cents at the supermarket and  $1.61 at SFO? Are hungry people supposed to subsidize non-hungry travelers?

When I go through security, why do I need to remove a cardigan sweater but the woman standing next to me can keep her cashmere blouse on? Are certain kinds of wool inherently risky?

What would happen if Imagineers from Disney designed the security line? Why not let them try?

Why doesn’t the airport have sleeping benches? Worse, far worse, why isn’t there someone you can ask that question to?

After inspecting more than twenty million pairs of shoes, have the screeners found even one dangerous pair?

After seven years, why is random yelling still the way that TSA screeners communicate their superstitious rules to people in line? Will this still be true in twenty years?

Why don’t we spend some of the time and money we’re wasting on security theatre to do things like secure ports or make airport runways safer?

Why don’t hotels have very simple alarm clocks?

It used to be extremely dangerous to give people on planes a metal butter knife and a fork with their meal. Now, it’s apparently no longer dangerous. What happened? If this was an overreaction not based on data, should reexamine other possible overreactions?

If it’s so dangerous to have your ipod on during takeoff and landing, how come you’re allowed to have it with you on the plane at all? Does all the scolding actually increase safety? How?

Why does the FAA require the airlines to explain to every passenger how to buckle their seatbelt? Don’t people who have managed to safely get to the airport but have never mastered this skill deserve whatever happens to them?

Tom Peters told me that he’s grateful that he has flown 5 million miles but never crashed. I’m also grateful that he hasn’t crashed. I’m grateful that I haven’t crashed either. And I’m particularly grateful about café gratitude in Berkeley (go!) and the wonderful chocolate boutique down the street. But should we settle for silly superstitions and uncaring bureaucrats merely because planes rarely crash? I’m not happy to settle for the incredible waste of talent, time and money that the domestic airline system represents.

We can do better. They can certainly do a better of being clear and rational and responsive, don’t you think?

And of course, so can all of us that run organizations.

Looking for a reason to hide

I’ve seen it before and I’m sure I’ll see it again.

Whenever a business cycle starts to falter, the media start wringing their hands. Then big businesses do, freelancers, entrepreneurs and soon everyone is keening.

People and organizations that have no real financial stress start to pull back, "because it’s prudent." Now is not the time, they say. They cut budgets and put off investments. It’s almost as if everyone is just waiting for an excuse to do less.

In fact, they are.

Growth is frightening for a lot of people. It brings change and the opportunity for public failure. So if the astrological signs aren’t right or the water is too cold or we’ve got a twinge in our elbow, we find an excuse. We decide to do it later, or not at all.

What a shame. What a waste.

Inc. magazine reports that a huge percentage of companies in this year’s Inc. 500 were founded within months of 9/11. Talk about uncertain times.

But uncertain times, frozen liquidity, political change and poor astrological forecasts (not to mention chicken entrails) all lead to less competition, more available talent and a do-or-die attitude that causes real change to happen.

If I wasn’t already running my own business, today is the day I’d start one.

Irrationally committed

My friend Lynn coined this phrase, and it really resonated with me.

Parents or other adults who are irrationally committed to a kid’s well being make a huge (perhaps the biggest) difference in that young person’s life.

Entrepreneurs who are irrationally committed to their business are far more likely to get through the Dip.

Salespeople and service providers and marketers who are irrationally committed to customer service can completely transform an ordinary experience and make it remarkable.

Is being irrational irrational? Of course it is. That’s why it often works.

If you’re looking for the sensible, predictable, long-term strategy, this probably isn’t it. Except when it is.

Annoying business school professors since 1983

Fun article in Business Week on yours truly: Seth Godin Profile.

Doesn’t sound like I’m going to be getting an endowed chair any time soon.

Also, as long as we’re annoying business school professors, please consider grabbing your seats to the NY launch of Tribes while we still have some left.

Patricia Barber, Danny Meyer, art and you

The other night I went to see Patricia Barber perform at the Jazz Standard.

It was a tremendous experience. For over an hour, Patricia went to a new place and brought us with her. She used her voice and her piano to make art, right then, right there.

No one in the room said, "she’s just trying to sell albums," or felt like she was phoning it in. She was present and she demanded that everyone in the room engage at the same level.

Danny Meyer
runs the Standard in much the same way. The service standards and generosity that you see in his restaurants aren’t manipulations designed to improve profits. It’s an art. A gift. A different way of thinking about what you do and why you do it.

The wonderful irony (for the two of them and for any of us) is that this generosity and this approach to art just happens to pay off. In an increasingly commodified world, it turns out that genuine expressions of kindness and art are valued more than ever.

Do you know what the difficult part is? It’s not the art. Not the talent or the skill. It’s the deciding. Making the decision to be an artist instead.

Probably not stupid

Your difficult boss, customer, prospect, voter, student… probably not stupid, probably just uninformed. There’s a huge difference.

Every person makes decisions based on their worldview and the data at hand. If two people have the same worldview and the same data, they’ll make the same decision, every time (unless they’re stupid.)

So, there are plenty of times where a lack of information leads to a bad decision. Plenty of times where an out of sync worldview leads to an out of sync decision.

When the board of directors embraces a fading old media model instead of embracing a strategy that leads to rapid growth, it’s probably because each of them started with a worldview about the way things worked and were going to work. Add to that little direct experience, and it’s no wonder they decided what they did. You would too if you were given the same resources to begin with.

Changing worldviews is very difficult and requires quite a bit of will. Changing the data at hand is a lot easier, and that’s where marketing can really help. If you, as a marketer, can package data in a way that people with a certain worldview can accept, you move the conversation forward far more quickly than if you merely dismiss the non-customers or the doubters as stupid.

In my experience, a closed-minded worldview ("I can’t read that book, I disagree with it") is the most difficult hurdle to overcome. But a closed-minded worldview doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it means that you are selling yourself and your colleagues and your community short.

The easiest way to grow is to sell to people who share a worldview that endorses your position. The most effective way to grow bigger than that is to inform those that disagree with your position–more data in a palatable form. And, unfortunately, it turns out that the best way to change the world is to open the closed-minded.