Making Connections Blog Looking at the World and Seeing Patterns.

21Nov/11Off

How Starbucks Saved My Life – Chapter 2

After landing an accidental interview for a position at Starbuck's author Michael Gates Gill spent weeks anxiously waiting for a follow up call. Eventually, his new boss did call him back and offered him the job. This chapter covers everything from waiting for the phone call to his first day at work. It includes a lot of back stories and it's clear that this is becoming a pattern.

A word about those backstories. They're all very interesting, but the're also pretty long, and they are placed between relatively short snippets of his present story. This pattern is still interesting during the exposition of the book, while I'm still getting to know the characters, but I'm mildly concerned that it will lose its charm if it continues throughout the book.

Gill outlines more contrasts between his world of white privilege and that of his new boss. Taking the job at Starbucks and working for a young African American woman cause him to reflect on his past. He then realizes the ways he's misjudged people in the past, and that he's given lip service to the concept of diversity without really doing anything to bring it about. His attitude is quite interesting - sincere regret, but not emotional hand wringing. I have not seen this attitude when I hear people talking about the problems we have when different groups interact. Most of what I've seen is either laden with self-mortifying guilt or filled with a righteous sense of truth. I like the way Gill writes about it.

The last scene in the chapter takes place on his first day at work. He got to have three different kinds of coffee and an espresso brownie. That, as much as anything else, is a great advertisement for working at Starbucks!

25May/10Off

Top 10 Ways Branding Helps Associations (or Anyone)

We talk about brands all the time, but do you ever wonder what "branding" is? Or how to do it? How did Kleenex become the default name for a tissue, like "Google" for search?

Here's a great top 10 list of things that having a strong brand does for an organization. It's focused on for-profits, but it's easy to imagine how it would apply to Associations too. Hint: replace the word "customers" with "members". http://bit.ly/b2SM0N

Chicgoans have a great chance to really learn about Branding on June 24 at Brandsmart 2010 - a 1-day conference with CMO's from some of the best-branded organizations on the planet, including McDonalds, FedEx and Walgreens. They'll have non-profits there too, like the Chicago Architecture foundation and iGo Car Sharing. Not to sell it too hard, but you save $100 on registration if you sign up before June 1. http://ht.ly/1KhfD

22Apr/10Off

Restaurants get Customers with Social Media

The Internet connects us to people worldwide, but the best connections it makes are to those nearby.

I really like Bob McCullough's Pub and Billiards. It's got awesome comfort food prepared by a chef, which makes for some really interesting eats, but they also do all the basics really well. The staff is friendly, the pool tables are ample, and the beer and conversation flow freely.

They participate in a rewards program through my credit card. I eat there, earn points, and get an email to review my experience. Since I love it, I go online to tell the world how I feel.

Even better than that, the owner responds!

Even better yet, he answers my question about a changed menu item!

And best of all, he offered a free dessert!

This is a perfect example of how local restaurants can use social media to connect with their super fans, and get the best kind of publicity possible - recommendations.

The key is listening to customers and then offering them something else that they want (even if it costs you a little something, like the price of dessert). After all, that will get me back in the place, and I'll spend more money, and I'll tell people about it (as I'm doing right now).

The most valuable thing for them is building the relationship. That connection is always worth the investment.

8Apr/10Off

It’s Ok to Tweet Your Lunch … but …

... it has to be a really good lunch, and it has to be relevant to what you talk about online.

My friends Tammy and Bridget started Chicago Bites as a restaurant review podcast 4 years ago, and they've expanded it's reach throughout social media.

Now they are one of Chicago's most trusted restaurant review sites. Their site, www.chicagobites.com features interesting discussions about everything from organic farming to cupcakes.

One of their latest posts (which they also tweeted @chicagobites) is below.  I include it here because I ate the spanakopita. It was great, but the picture makes it look even better!

26Feb/10Off

Honesty is the New Black

It pays to be honest in bread, social media and everything else. Sara Lee found that out when it was recently forced to retract claims about its Earth Grains bread, which is not quite as "green" as it said. The watchdog groups protested, social media was alerted and the company made changes within 8 hours. If you're not honest, people will find out fast. On the flip side, people will engage with you just as quickly if you're honest.

Lately, publications (including MediaPost) have been commenting that people don't value privacy as an absolute right. They're willing to exchange privacy for something else they value. Thus, they are willing to let their iPhone broadcast their location to the world in order to earn prizes on Four Square.

What people do want is transparency. They must know how their data will be used and what they will get out of it. And lately, many have consented to sharing it as long as they understand what they get in return. It doesn't even have to be a material reward.

This is exactly what I think when someone invites me to start using a new Facebook app (the pillow fight one comes to mind). If they hit me with an electronic pillow and I want to hit them back, I have to let the pillow app access all my data and do whatever it wants. Depending on who hit me, it might be worth it. I might not want to let them have the last swing!

As the world gets more and more open about what companies and individuals are doing, its wise to make sure that all of our products are exactly what they claim to be, and that we always tell customers exactly what we are giving them. Doing those two things together will ensure that we look great from every angle.

23Feb/10Off

Making Spam Good by Making Good Spam

John Capone wrote this blog about how Hormel is using social media to promote Spam. He points out that they are falling short by asking rhetorical, product focused questions like "What's your favorite time of day to eat Spam". Social media is about the end user, not the company, and there is a lot more they could do to engage users and make a good name for themselves.

I think they should have an Iron Chef style cooking competition for the people who've fanned them on Facebook and who follow them on Twitter. They could give everyone 30 minutes to prepare their favorite Spam dish (cause it's fast) and then have the results judged by a panel of food critics.

In order to take advantage of the social aspect, they should do it as a tournament, with at least 8 people competing against each other (maybe over 3 meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner). Each cookoff could be blogged about and would generate plenty of Facebook and Twitter posts. Then the various recipes could be posted in social media for everyone to share.

Social media loves competition and getting access to cool things. The Spam cook off provides the drama and the recipes give people something for free, but all the while growing the market for (and love of) Spam.

This would help Spam start to get it's good name back by engaging and energizing the people who love it.

5Feb/10Off

Good to Great … Rock Band

As I read Good to Great, I couldn't help but think about some of my favorite rock bands. Several have built enduring great careers.  I realized that some of them have used Collins' Good to Great principles. Rush and U2 are good examples.

I love energetic, dramatic muisic. Rush and U2, consistently deliver. And they've done so for at least 30 years each, producing at least 10 albums, selling millions of copies worldwide through various economic cycles. They've both inspired and influenced many other bands and musicians. Here's how they applied three of Collins' key principles.

First Who, Then What

The members of U2 are pretty well known, especially Bono. The others are The Edge (guitar), Adam Clayton (bass) and Larry Mullen (drums). They met in high school when Larry posted a note on a bulletin board to recruit a band. Bono says this is how he got his "first and last job".

Rush is much more obscure. Geddy Lee (bass/vocals), Alex Lifeson (guitar), and Neil Peart (lyrics/drums). Geddy and Alex formed the band in high school with another student on drums (John Rutsey), who left the band after their first album to deal with medical issues.

Collins says that the most important thing in building greatness is to have the right people "on the bus" from the beginning. U2 has always had the same lineup, and Rush almost always has (adding Neil after the first album).

The idea is that if you have the right people on the bus, they will contribute in ways you didn't expect. A good example: Neil Peart joined Rush to be the drummer, but started writing lyrics because he was reading all the time (and because he used big words when he talked). 30+ years later, Peart's lyrics are one of the things fans love most about the band. As for Bono, he became the singer because he had the most outgoing personality, but grew into a social activist who used his fame to raise money for global causes like third world debt reduction.

The Hedgehog Concept

All of the companies who transformed themselves from good to great focused relentlessly on doing something that met three strict criteria: They were passionate about it, they could be the best in the world at doing it, and they could make money at it. Collins calls this "The Hedgehog Concept".

Bono is relentlessly passionate about what U2 can and should do. I've read interviews where they describe him as "constantly talking about ideas for U2". I once heard a concert recording where Bono said to the audience, "There's no point in going to work if you're not gonna put on the greatest rock and roll show on earth!" This illustrates his Hedgehog Concept - passion and ability to do it best in a way that generates revenue.

Geddy Lee once said, "Rush has always been about musicianship, first and foremost. It just has". They are widely known as a "musicians band", meaning that many of their fans also play an instrument themselves. All three members are virtuosos, and they've channeled their talent into writing music that creates a specific mood (e.g. the song "Hope"). They built up a following through relentless cycles of recording and touring, eventually creating a fan base that still fills arenas throughout North America.

However, both bands strayed from their hedgehog concepts in the past. in the 80's, Rush embraced elaborate keyboard arrangements (played by Geddy). They went so far as to write some songs that didn't use bass guitar at all. This was despite the fact that Geddy Lee saw himself as, "A bass player first, a singer second and keyboard player a distant third." One of those songs, "Red Sector A" is among their best, but overall, the trend moved them away from what they do better than anyone else. Since then, they've reduced the role of keyboards, and the two most recent albums don't use any. They've been well received by fans and critics, and their tours continue to sell very well.

U2 embraced the energy of electronic music, but 1997's "Pop" album sounded too much like a dance record, and it stripped away the soul and passion of "The Joshua Tree". It even lacked the wild, dark moods of "Achtung, Baby". U2's last several albums have abandoned dance pop in favor of songs that play to their strengths, and last year, U2 played stadiums in the U.S. for the first time since "Pop".

Disciplined Action

Rush is extremely disciplined in developing songs for its albums. They only record songs that they will see through to inclusion on the album. Unlinke other bands, they don't have any unreleased b-sides or unfinished tracks sitting around in a vault somewhere. U2 is quite the opposite, generating many songs they don't use. Their discipline comes from dedication to re-inventing themselves with every album and making every song on the album a powerful artistic statement.

In 2000, Geddy Lee released a solo album, "My Favorite Headache". "Working at Perfekt" deals with the difficulty of achieving artistic excellence. It shows how the process can be:

  1. Difficult: "Working at perfekt / Got you down on your knees / Success to failure / Just a matter of degrees"
  2. Rewarding: "But when it's right / It's right as rain / And when it's right / There is no pain"
  3. Compelling: "And when it's right / You start again"

Neither band has talked about retiring, and as long as they continue to apply these principles, there's no reason they would have to. But Collins does warn that if you stop practicing any of these principles, you will start to slide backward.

But in the end, it's great to know that solid principles will produce greatness in any endeavor, from business to music to track coaching. So I'm off to work at perfekt.

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4Feb/10Off

Good to Great … In the Groundswell

I just read 2 books in one month, "Good to Great" and "Groundswell". Now I'm tempted to create a new book that merges the two. But that would take a lot of time, so I'll do something I actually have time for. I'll write a blog about what they have in common.

Good to Great described the processes that 11 companies used to transform themselves from average to extraordinary. "Groundswell" outlined the principles that companies should use to interact with consumers in the social media environment.

So what "Good to Great" principles did the "Groundswell" companies apply?

Good to Great principles include putting the right people in place, understanding clearly what the company should do and then executing that with rigorous discipline. Lego did this in the Groundswell.

Lego knew it had a lot of adult fans who were talking about their product in an online forum that someone outside the company had established. They also knew that they could not set up a competing forum that would be as active as the existing one, so they used what was already there to get their fans to interact with them more (and to buy more from them). They reached out to the people who posted the most and asked them to become brand ambassadors. They shared ideas for upcoming products with the ambassadors and asked them to talk about them in the forum. The ideas that people liked the most went into production, including a Star Wars imperial star destroyer that cost $200! The adult fans were the right people, the existing forum was the best possible way to interact with them and they decided how to work with the people and executed consistently. They achieved greatness in the Groundswell.

Also noteworthy is Dell, which made a commitment to improving its customer relationships through blogs. It applied the "Stockdale Paradox" (confront the facts, but have faith you'll prevail) when it confronted the brutal reality that its laptop batteries were catching on fire. In a very honest post, it acknowledged the problem and the fact that it was still researching the answer. Their attitude was, "we will improve public perception of our company through being honest about our problems." It's counter-intuitive, but it's the kind of thinking that made all the Good to Great companies successful.

There are also some Good to Great companies that used Groundswell principles - specifically listening to and empowering their people. Nucor did that when it organized employee forums for people concerned about the company's plan to make everyone wear the same color of hard hat.  Some people felt that would take away from the status of the managers, and they objected to it. Nucor explained that manager's authority came from their duties, not the color of their hats.  Ultimately, Nucor implemented the plan, but they at least made some effort at reaching out to people (even in the age before the Internet).

But the most striking connection is that Chapter 7 of Good to Great says much the same thing as Chapter 1 of Groundswell. Both show that the companies who have successfully used technology have had a reason to use it. Not only that, but their reason for using technology grew directly out of their companies' reason for being. Therefore, the most important predictor of whether or not a company will be successful in its use of technology is whether or not it is using it to improve the way it does what it is already great at doing (or what it could be best in the world at).

Now that life seems increasingly driven by technology, it's refreshing to see that successful uses of it flow from a clear and relentless focus on people. There's another paradox: The best use of technology is to serve human emotional needs.

3Feb/10Off

Good to Great and the Social Sectors

In Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins applies the ideas he developed for publicly traded companies to a new context: not-for profit organizations. Many of the ideas about how to achieve greatness still apply, but social sector organizations have very different ways of using leaders, staff and volunteer members. Also, their lack of a profit motive requires the adjustment of some of the key good to great metrics.

What Was Good:

  • I love the statement that we need to give up the idea that non profits need to run "more like a business". Collins points out that most businesses are mediocre, so why should we perpetuate the very practices that create mediocrity?
  • It's a great insight that non profits need to invent their own metrics to measure success. They can be qualitative or quantitative but there has to be some measure of success. There are excellent examples of how the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra used signs of its reputation to measure its excellence. They started tracking thins like the number of standing ovations and  invitations to play at Europe's most prestigious festivals.
  • It's always bothered me that people give restricted gifts to charities for only one particular cause when the charity might be able to do much more with that money for another cause. Perhaps $100 donated to help a poor family in North America could feed an entire village in South America. Collins says this practice (while common) is short sighted, and I agree.

What Was Bad:

  • Collins says that non profits should focus on activities that generate the resources they need to accomplish their mission with excellence. This includes, time, money and brand (meaning reputation). The concept is great, but perhaps much deeper than can be explained here.  I hope to find more about this in future writings.
  • All the concepts in this work (a short monograph) tie together, but not quite as cohesively as they do in the book (published 4 years earlier). The links between how organizations create their resource engines and how they use brand building as a way to turn the flywheel is just a bit muddy. Again, I understand his point and I think the concept is valid. I'd just love for him to explain it with as much clarity as he explained the Hedgehog Concept in the book.

What I'll Use:

  • In a social sector organization, it's even more vital to attract and retain people who are passionate about the cause. Evaluation and high standards of commitment are what you need to do this, and the higher you set your standards, the more people you'll attract.
  • As I'm involved in some social sector organizations, I will try to identify what resources they need to generate in order to do their work with excellence, and then try to build ways to generate those resources.
  • I will cobble together measurements (or indicators) that can show if my efforts are making a non-economic impact.

What I Won't Use:

  • There is a 2 by 2 matrix that shows how a number of different social sector organizations get their funding. While I may work for such organizations someday, I probably won't be spending a great deal of time trying to understand how various funding mechanisms work. I'll probably just learn what I have to about the organizations I'm involved with.

Overall, I think it's great that Collins took an interest in not for profit organizations, and showed how they too can apply principles of greatness to achieve things that no business can. He mentions that further study is needed, and I'll be keeping my eyes open for it.

2Feb/10Off

Good to Great Chapter 9

From Good to Great to Built to Last. The last chapter compares the 11 companies that transformed themselves to several companies that have always been great. Collins studied the second group in a book he wrote about five years prior to Good to Great.

What Was Good:

  • One of the key conclusions - that the "Built to Last" companies had been applying the "Good to Great" principles from the beginning. Good to know that we don't have to learn a whole other set of principles in order to start an enduring great institution. These principles seem so solid, after all!
  • It was refreshing to see how companies can (and should) change their practices, not their core values. The example of Boeing growing into commercial jets from exclusively military ones was a nice example.
  • Collins artfully shows how the concept can apply to personal endeavors and activities as he describes a state champion high school track team's transformation to greatness. It shows that these enduring principles work in any setting.

What Was Bad:

  • There is a chart that outlines how each of the seven Good to Great principles line up with the 4 Built to Last principles. I found it a bit confusing (and redundant in some places). However, this is probably because I have not read Built to Last.

What I'll Use:

  • The Good to Great Principles. If I want something I love to go well and to be great, this will be my blueprint.
  • The chapter has instructions on how to set "Big Hairy Audacious Goals" that are in line with a "Hedgehog Concept". This reminds me of Daniel Burnham's famous quote, "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's imagination".

What I Won't Use:

  • I really can't think of anything (except what might only apply to CEO's). The thinking in this book is too clear, and the data and anecdotes are too compelling to ignore.

Overall this was one of the best books I've read, and I love the way in which timeless principles were discovered through deep, empirical research. I also like the fact that I can see these principles at work in other institutions. I see them in successful bands and church groups, and in public and private companies and even non profit organizations. It's exciting to think about applying them in other arenas of life.

See you at the flywheel!