Continuous improvement, the past, feelings and rituals

Photo by visualpanic

Nametag Scott wrote an interesting post a few days ago under the concept: “You don’t need an idea – you need an I did”. In it he discusses the idea of continuous improvement or Kaizen (which I wrote about in the past). One part of the post really made me think:

2. What will you do differently next time? Kaizen is the Japanese term for continuous improvement. That’s exactly what this question is all about: Honoring your current performance, yet challenging yourself to envision an enhanced future.

In my first five years as a professional speaker, I employed this philosophy as a post-speech ritual. Once my presentation was over, I’d take fifteen minutes to write a stream of consciousness list. Every thought, every feeling and every evaluation of my performance, I wrote down.

What worked? What didn’t work? What killed? What bombed?

This simple ritual grew into a profitable practice for continuous improvement of my performance as a speaker. How could you apply the same reflection process to your job performance?

I find this particular advice powerful because of three reasons:

1. It acknowledges the past, but puts it behind. Scott says: “I’d take fifteen minutes to write a stream of consciousness list”. That is it. 15 minutes. We fret a lot about the past on analyze every aspect of it. We let out attention be captured by it. While it is important not to ignore past mistakes and make sure we learn from them, the focus should be on the future. Feedfoward instead of feedback.

2. It acknowledges the importance of feelings, not thoughts. Scott says: “Every thought, every feeling and every evaluation of my performance, I wrote down”. Yes, we can and should look at things rationally, but we should also look at them emotionally. When are too focused on the numbers, on the performance on the outcomes, we tend to lose touch with our own humanity. I am not suggesting to sit and cry for fifteen minutes after every failed performance, but I am suggesting that we need to recognize the importance of feeling in our performance and decision-making.

3. It emphasizes the importance of rituals. Continuous improvement is all about rituals and habits. Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”. Yet, most of us trust ourselves to do the right thing, to make the difficult analysis, to put things on the table, to learn from our mistakes. If all of these things were so easy, they wouldn’t be so valuable. There is strength in rituals not only in our personal lives but also in our professional lives. What kind of rituals or habits does your company or team has? What challenges do these rituals or habits help your overcome?


Is multimedia evil?

Photo by Helico


Jeff Brenman from Apollo Ideas writes about a debate around the use of multimedia presentations in the courtroom. He quotes Texas lawyer David Bissinger that in Brenman’s opinion makes “a compelling case for multimedia in the courtroom” in this recent article from

A compelling case exists that using multimedia increases juror competence. At least three reasons should prompt trial lawyers to use, and trial judges to embrace, multimedia devices. First, scientific and other high-level learning depends upon visualization; the best advocates, like the best teachers, teach by using visual aids. Second, multimedia argument advances the ancient art of advocacy through storytelling. Third, the forces of technological innovation will put lawyers who fail to embrace these methods out of business

And I ask: What is so compelling about three reasons?

As a former lawyer and someone who has been using presentations for teaching and lecturing for more than a decade now, I am absolutely shocked by the level of the argument that supporters need to stoop to in order to justify what is obvious .

My question is why do we even need an argument, not to say these arguments?

Multimedia (or put more simply, presentation slides) is just a tool. A tool that helps drive a person message across in a more accurate, simpler and persuasive way. But they are not the presentation. The presentation is made by the person. Be it a teacher or a lawyer. And the presenter doing the presentation has many tools at his disposal. For example, his voice or the way he moves his hands. Would you consider not letting a lawyer in court use his voice or his hands? Of course not.  But people are suggesting and asking for justification to use multimedia. Why?

I know what you are thinking to yourself: “but people built these awful PowerPoint presentations. The damage they do with these presentations is horrible. People can’t do that kind of damage with their voice or hands. Multimedia is used for evil. Let’s eradicate evil!”. Ok, maybe I took that a step to far… But Brenman mentions a similar line of argument: “There are some who think presentations force lawyers to dumb down their content for the jury”. All of that is true (well, expect the eradicate evil part). And you know what, unfortunately it doesn’t only happen in the courtroom.

But it is not enough. Two things should be mentioned here. One, is that I have seen some people who use their voice in a monotonous way or present the idea in a boring, non-compelling (and some would say misleading) ways without using PowerPoint. Do we say that because some people are incompetent we should prevent presenting?

Second, the fact that we have a tool that could be used both in a good and bad way does not mean we should ban it because it has bad uses. Some say Google Earth was used to plan and coordinate the bombings in Mumbai a few years ago. Would we ban Google Earth because it could be used for evil? Almost every human invention and tool has the capacity to be used in the wrong ways. And the immediate reaction is to try to stop it. But the key to progress can never be preventing the future from happening. New tools will always emerge. Instead of fearing them and saying that they change the ways things used to be, we need to learn how to embrace them and see how they change the game.

Multimedia, just like a person’s voice is only a tool. But it is one hell of a tool. There are things you can show with it that even the most talented presenter cannot do alone. Like Seth Godin writes in one of his latest blog posts:

A car is not merely a faster horse

And email is not a faster fax. And online project management is not a bigger whiteboard. And Facebook is not an electronic rolodex.

Play a new game, not the older game but faster.

Should we stop using cars because people make horrifying accidents and use them for robberies?

Let’s not blame the tools. Let put the people who use them accountable for their use of the tools.


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Is listening to customers and employees enough?

Photo by Lepiaf.Geo


I love the movie “Big” with Tom Hanks. It is a classic. There are so many great scenes there, but this is one of the best  (this is the source):

JOSH: I don’t get it.
PAUL: What exactly don’t you get?
JOSH: It turns from a building into a robot, right?
PAUL: Precisely.
JOSH: Well, what’s fun about that?
PAUL: Well, if you had read your industry breakdown, you would see that our success in the action figure area has climbed from 27 percent to 45 percent in the last two years.  There, that might help.
PAUL: Yes?
JOSH: I still don’t get it.
PAUL: What?!
MR. M: What don’t you get Josh?
JOSH: Well, there’s a million robots that turn into something.  And this is a building that turns into a robot.  So what’s so fun about playing with a building?  That’s not any fun!
PAUL: This is a skyscraper.
JOSH: Well, couldn’t it be like a robot that turns into something like a bug or something?
PAUL: A bug?
JOSH: Yeah!  Like a big prehistoric insect with maybe like giant claws that could pick up a car and crush it like that!

I was reminded of the scene while reading Bruce Temkin’s post on the Customer Experience Matters blog titled Don’t Listen To Customers, Understand Them. He reminds all of us of a point I mentioned a number of times in this blog – listening to customers is not enough, because they cannot always tell you what they really want, because they cannot articulate it. Here is a little excerpt:

I really like this quote from Sir Denys Lasdun, the English architect, saying that the architect’s job is to give a client: “Not what he wants but what he never dreamed that he wanted; and when he gets it, he recognizes it as something he wanted all the time”…

Instead of looking at direct responses to questions, breakthrough innovations often require a different type of customer input: Observation.

And I was also reminded of this scene while reading a great post on the Harvard Business Review blog by Roger Martin titled Management by Imagination. In this post, Martin claims that true innovation doesn’t come from looking at the past and measuring it better, but by imagining a future that is completely different than anything that ever existed in the past. Again, a short excerpt:

We need to get away from all those old sayings about measurement and management, and in that spirit I’d like to propose a new wisdom: “If you can’t imagine it, you will never create it.” The future is about imagination, not measurement. To imagine a future, one has to look beyond the measurable variables, beyond what can be proven with past data.

I would like to take these ideas and apply the same approaches in managing our employees. It is important to ask them what they want and listen to them, but it is more important to give them things that they are not even able to think about asking, because they have been schooled to become cogs and bombarded with mistaken conventional wisdoms. It is more important to observe them in their places of work because that is the only way we can understand what they are going through. Above all, it is important to let go of the mechanisms of control and stop trying to limit them with rules that enable their measurement and instead equip them with tools that allow them (and the managers) to imagine a better future.

Do you really understand your employees?


Minus two and a half cheers for sticks and carrots – my short answer to The Economist

Photo by AdamAxon


Let’s say you were born just a little before the car started to be a really useable means of transportation. You grew up watching everybody around you use horses. In fact, you know how people, who don’t have horses, are suffering. With a horse you can do so much more. Get to places faster. Be more productive. Hell, you stick a cart to it, and you can almost do anything with it. It sure allows you to have more time to do other stuff. And you look at this new invention, the car, and you say to yourself – “well, it has its merits, but horses work for me and they are have done so well for civilization, I think I would keep with horses”.

How would you describe this type of thinking? I know human are slow to adapt to change, but looking back from our comfortable place up history’s line, this guy just seems ridiculous to us. Well, I am not sure people in the future would not look at The Economist’s Schumpeter article from January 14th titled: Driven to distraction – Two and a half cheers for sticks and carrots the same way.

In this article, The Economist goes against what they call “… [The] Eminent management theorists [That] have been dismissing payment-by-results as simplistic and mechanical ever since Frederick Taylor tried to turn it into the cornerstone of scientific management in the early 20th century”. Their wrath is turned  especially against Daniel H. Pink new book, Drive. Their claim? The system of sticks and carrots, actually works. So please, don’t bother us with all this “new-age”  Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose propaganda:

How convincing is all this? Mr Pink insists that all he is doing is bringing the light of science to bear on management: “There’s been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” But this argument depends on a highly selective reading of the academic literature. Four reviews of research on the subject from the 1980s onwards have all come to the same conclusion: that pay-for-performance can increase productivity dramatically. A study of an American glass-installation company, for example, found that shifting from salaries to individual incentives increased productivity by 44%. More recent research on workers at a Chinese electronics factory also confirms that performance-related pay (especially the threat of losing income) is an excellent motivator (see article).

I had to re-read this paragraph several times to believe my eyes. The argument is: It works, thus it is good and we should reject anything else. Is it only me, or does it sound a little totalitaristic? Yes, Stalin’s rule worked, for a time, but was it a good thing? Personally, I don’t believe so. To me it sounds like this is focusing on the how and forgetting to ask why?

Carrots and sticks might work, but its underlining assumption is that people are jackasses (that is stubborn, stupid, willful, and unwilling to go where someone is driving him). Carrots and sticks might boost productivity, but they lead to a society where almost half the people are unhappy with their jobs. Carrots and sticks might is measurable, but great things come out of processes that we cannot measure.

It is not the first time I was shocked to see The Economist supporting the conventional wisdom. And while I don’t blindly buy into everything Dan Pinks says (as skillfully as he says it) and I do believe that his approach should be supplemented with other approaches, it hurts me to see such idolism of carrots and sticks and Taylorism.

The past will always to try to prevent the future. I don’t think this future could be prevented for long…


Shorts: Seth Godin and others on Rupert Murdoch

Isn’t it time our past will stop trying to prevent a better future?

Seth Godin writes:

You don’t charge the search engines to send people to articles on your site, you pay them.

Maybe Murdoch should learn from others how to re-invent his business model. Maybe we all will. Trying to resist is just futile. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be able to do it (link in Hebrew).


Connections, piracy, change and business models

2476286356_d86be41e33Photo by Toobydoo

It is funny how sometimes ideas comes from different directions and connect in ways you could not have guessed they will before.

A few months ago I went to have dinner with two colleagues of mine from my AGSM MBA class. We had a wonderful dinner and an even better intellectual discussion. I don’t really remember how we got to the subject but I mentioned Larry Lessig’s talk on TED about User Generated Content (how the law is choking creativity) where he claims that our society is turning kids into criminal by illegalizing activities that are natural to them.

A few days ago I gave a session to a number of people from our Public Speaking & Debating Club about modern techniques in presentation delivery. One of the examples I used to illustrate my point and stimulate the discussion was the same lecture by Lessig from TED which brought the ideas back to my mind.

This morning, as I was going over my Google Reader reading list, I came by Seth Godin’s post titled: “Teaching the market a lesson“. Here is a small sample:

Some book publishers don’t like the Kindle. Either they’re afraid of it or they’ve crunched the numbers and they don’t like what they see. (Some days, 95% of the top selling Kindle titles are free… demonstrating that digital goods with zero marginal cost and plentiful substitutes tend to move to zero in price).

Worried about the medium, they hold back, delay or even refuse to support it.

A few minutes after that, I got an e-mail from my dear friends Ajaya, one of my colleagues from the dinner a few months ago. This is what he wrote in the e-mail:

Remember talking about illegal downloads and what the fact that almost all kids break the law means to society. Finally, it seems the music industry is figuring it out.

And the email had a link to an article from The Economist titled: “How to sink pirates“. The article describes how the music industry is finally starting to relinquish its fight against piracy, starting to use a model of streaming music, gaining money from advertisements. And it ends with this conclusion:

All of this offers a lesson for other types of media, such as films and video games. Piracy thrives because it satisfies an unmet demand. The best way to discourage it is to offer a diverse range of attractive, legal alternatives. The music industry has taken a decade to work this out, but it has now done so. Other industries should benefit from its experience—and follow its example.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. The points just seemed to connect. These lessons keep repeating themselves:

  1. The world is changing. You can jump on the boat. But you cannot stop it. The past will always try to stop the future. Be it the music industry, the book publishing industry or shop owners in 19th century France. They will fail. The answer to change is change and not more of the same.
  2. Peter Drucker wrote that you can never know how a product that was created in one field could be used in another field. Products and technologies will continue to move across industries destroying business models. The answer will not be found in barricading industries and business models, but in inventing new business models.
  3. “Free” is changing the world in more ways than we can imagine.
  4. Law, legal proceedings and fear can only take you so far. Options, Transparency and self fulfillment will win eventually. It might take time, but it will happen.

You think that the smart people running some of these industries would have learned these lessons by now.




Photo by Sebi

This post will be different than usual. I don’t really have a point. Just a philosophical question. In the last few weeks in my MBA I have felt like I am under constant attack of mixed messages.

One of the main things you learn in the MBA is that no company is invincible. So many companies have failed because they were reluctant to understand that their current advantage is what might bring them down. They relied too much on the past and did not consider the possibility, that the future will be quite different. And our professors keep ramming this idea into us.  “Past profitability is a poor indicator of future profitability” says our Strategy course slides.

But at the same time, one thing you keep learning and studying is how to try to forecast: future sales, future demands, and future trends. Half of our assignments deal with some kind of forecast of the future. The same strategy class talked about the fact the historically, some industries were less profitable than others.

Two thoughts on this:

In his novel “1984”, George Orwell’s descries the notion of Doublethink: the act of simultaneously accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs. This is I have been feeling lately. They say that the ability to Doublethink is a trait of great people. I am trying to be great.

Maybe the answer lies in the middle. Understanding that both the past and the future are not reliable. The past is something we should study carefully. But we should not trust it blindly. The future is something we should try to forecast. But we should accept that we can’t.