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In and out

That's one of the most important decisions you'll make today.

How much time and effort should be spent on intake, on inbound messages, on absorbing data…

and how much time and effort should be invested in output, in creating something new.

There used to be a significant limit on available intake. Once you read all the books in the college library on your topic, it was time to start writing.

Now that the availability of opinions, expertise and email is infinite, I think the last part of that sentence is the most important:

Time to start writing.

Or whatever it is you're not doing, merely planning on doing.

Texting while working

Yes, you shouldn't text while driving, or talk on the cell phone, or argue with your dog or drive blindfolded. It's an idiot move, one that often leads to death (yours or someone else's).

I don't think you should text while working, either. Or use social networking software of any kind for that matter. And you probably shouldn't eat crunchy chips, either.

I don't think there's anything wrong with doing all that at work (in moderation). But not while you're working. Not if working is that the act that leads to the scarce output, the hard stuff, the creative uniqueness they actually pay you for.

You're competing against people in a state of flow, people who are truly committed, people who care deeply about the outcome. You can't merely wing it and expect to keep up with them. Setting aside all the safety valves and pleasant distractions is the first way to send yourself the message that you're playing for keeps. After all, if you sit for an hour and do exactly nothing, not one thing, you'll be ashamed of yourself. But if you waste that hour updating, pinging, being pinged and crunching, well, hey, at least you stayed in touch.

Raise the stakes.

Bill James and you

The guy who revolutionized baseball stats had a simple insight: past performance is a good indicator of future performance.

The stock market doesn't follow that rule, but an awful lot of human performance traits do.

The question one must ask before ignoring the past performance rule (if you're doing a job interview, say) is, "what am I replacing the Bill James rule with?" We need to understand how we're predicting the future if we're abandoning the idea of using the past as a guide.

If you believe that pleasant interviewing skills, a good handshake or the right outfit are a better predictor of future performance than what the person has actually shipped in the past, I think it's worth pointing out that you're nuts.

And if you're the one who's hoping to be interviewed one day, it seems as though the best way to market yourself isn't with a slick resume or the right suit. No, the most reliable form of self marketing is to have a long history of stunningly great work, shipped.

[Karen writes in to point out that many people break this rule, accomplishing something great right out of the box. And well they do. In fact, if you do it a few times, then, in Karen's words, "I'll just keep breaking the Bill James Rule, until I become proof of it."]

When was the last time you bought a tie?

My guess is not lately.

When you first got a fancy job, you had a tie shortage, and thus attention was paid to ties. You bought "enough for now." Then you solved the tie problem and moved on.

When you first bought an iPhone, you had an app shortage, so attention was paid to apps. You bought "enough for now." Then you moved on.

Music might be an exception (buying a new stereo doesn't often lead to a new music binge). But in general, some external event occurs that creates a fissure, an opportunity, a problem. We search, we buy, we're done.

The challenge, then, is to develop products that match what the market is looking for, and more important, to overtly and aggressively seek out the people in that situation and ignore the rest. Which is precisely what most marketers large and small are not doing right now.

RELATED: Many marketers I know have a great idea for a product or service that will target a segment of the market that doesn't know to look for the great idea. For example, you might want to sell a better, easier to use hatchet for women. The problem is that women, long accustomed to never being able to find an axe that they're comfortable with, have given up looking, perhaps several generations ago.

Alerting a market segment that isn't looking is a thousand times harder than activating a segment that just can't wait for your arrival. Since it's your choice, since the segment is up to you, why not pick one that is itching for you to show up?

Why I don’t sell Kimchi

Wink kimchi Years ago, I put together a really cool plan to get into the artisinal kimchi business (with a tofu sideline, of course). What, you didn't know there was an artisinal kimchi business?

Here's the first draft of our packaging (click the picture to see the engaging copy).

Why did I stop before I really started?

Because distribution can define your business. The distribution that book publishers offered me seemed more highly leveraged, approachable and yes, fun, than the idea of driving from bodega to deli, hawking my wares.

Just about every business is limited (and thus valued) by its distribution, by the way it is able to get paid for what it makes. Direct mail is different than a salesforce which is different than retailers… And while the food business attracts tons of enthusiastic people, the distribution challenges are significant.

On the other hand, once you overcome the distribution hurdle in a difficult environment, you have the market all to yourself. The dip that's in between you and the amateurs (the dip you got through, congratulations) gives you insulation and enables your business to thrive.

As is so often the case, there's no right answer, there's just a choice.

The shell game of delight

Let's try a challenging thought experiment.

I'm going to pick a number between one and five, inclusive. I'm not going to tell you what it is. Now, try to guess. Focus hard, sharpen your senses, and see if you can guess what I'm thinking of…

Click on your guess (just one, please): one, two, three, four, five.

Cynics have already become annoyed at me. But most people, particularly if I added a little spin, would be delighted at their sensitivity and psi-power.

The point: you can easily create similar interactions in the way you do business with people. Setting up prospects, customers and bosses to be right is almost always worth the effort. It's so much more useful than setting people up to fail.

Why then, do we organize interfaces, manuals, contracts and relationships to have people fail merely because they didn't guess what we had in mind? When in doubt, make it so people succeed.

Eight Lessons from the life and work of Jack LaLanne

  1. He bootstrapped himself. A scrawny little kid at 15, he decided to change who he was and how he was perceived, and then he did. The deciding was as important as the doing.
  2. He went to the edges. He didn't merely open a small gym, a more pleasant version of a boxing gym, for instance. Instead, he created the entire idea of a health club, including the juice bar. He did this 70 years ago.
  3. He started small. No venture money, no big media partners.
  4. He understood the power of the media. If it weren't for TV, we never would have heard of Jack. Jack used access to the media to earn trust and to teach. And most of what Jack had to offer he offered for free. He understood the value of attention.
  5. He was willing to avoid prime time. Jack never had a variety show on CBS. He was able to change the culture from the fringes of TV.
  6. He owned the rights. 3,000 shows worth.
  7. He stuck with the brand. He didn't worry about it getting stale or having to reinvent it into something fresh. Jack stood for something, which is rare, and he was smart enough to keep standing for it.
  8. Jack lived the story. He followed his own regimen, even when no one was watching. In his words, “I can’t die, it would ruin my image.”

He died last week at 96. I don't think he has to worry about ruining his image, though.

Three ways to help people get things done

A friend sent me a copy of a new book about basketball coach Don Meyer. Don was one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, apparently. It's quite a sad book—sad because of his tragic accident, but also sad because it's a vivid story about a misguided management technique.

Meyer's belief was that he could become an external compass and taskmaster to his players. By yelling louder, pushing harder and relentlessly riding his players, his plan was to generate excellence by bullying them. The hope was that over time, people would start pushing themselves, incorporating Don's voice inside their head, but in fact, this often turns out to be untrue. People can be pushed, but the minute you stop, they stop. If the habit you've taught is to achieve in order to avoid getting chewed out, once the chewing out stops, so does the achievement.

It might win basketball games, but it doesn't scale and it doesn't last. When Don left the room (or the players graduated), the team stopped winning.

A second way to manage people is to create competition. Pit people against one another and many of them will respond. Post all the grades on a test, with names, and watch people try to outdo each other next time. Promise a group of six managers that one of them will get promoted in six months and watch the energy level rise. Want to see little league players raise their game? Just let them know the playoffs are in two weeks and they're one game out of contention.

Again, there's human nature at work here, and this can work in the short run. The problem, of course, is that in every competition most competitors lose. Some people use that losing to try harder next time, but others merely give up. Worse, it's hard to create the cooperative environment that fosters creativity when everyone in the room knows that someone else is out to defeat them.

Both the first message (the bully with the heart of gold) and the second (creating scarce prizes) are based on a factory model, one of scarcity. It's my factory, my basketball, my gallery and I'm going to manipulate whatever I need to do to get the results I need. If there's only room for one winner, it seems these approaches make sense.

The third method, the one that I prefer, is to open the door. Give people a platform, not a ceiling. Set expectations, not to manipulate but to encourage. And then get out of the way, helping when asked but not yelling from the back of the bus.

When people learn to embrace achievement, they get hooked on it. Take a look at the incredible achievements the alumni of some organizations achieve after they move on. When adults (and kids) see the power of self-direction and realize the benefits of mutual support, they tend to seek it out over and over again.

In a non-factory mindset, one where many people have the opportunity to use the platform (I count the web and most of the arts in this category), there are always achievers eager to take the opportunity. No, most people can't manage themselves well enough to excel in the way you need them to, certainly not immediately. But those that can (or those that can learn to) are able to produce amazing results, far better than we ever could have bullied them into. They turn into linchpins, solving problems you didn't even realize you had. A new generation of leaders is created…

And it lasts a lifetime.

The pleasant reassurance of new words

It's a lot easier for an organization to adopt new words than it is to actually change anything.

Real change is uncomfortable. If it's not feeling that way, you've probably just adopted new words.

Treat different customers differently

This is difficult if you also insist on treating every customer the same. Or treating every customer the best, which is a better way to describe a similar idea.

No, the only way you can treat different customers differently is if you understand that their values (and their value to you) vary. It's easier than ever to discern and test these values, and you do everyone a service when you differentiate.