Coffee Interrupted

I was at a client’s office recently where they had a fancy new coffee/espresso machine installed. This machine required a PIN to operate it. I thought to myself, what a terrible idea this is. The PIN is presumably to keep outsiders, such as myself, from using what appears to be an expensive coffee machine.

I understand that a single department within this company invested in this coffee machine. But everyone in that department exists for the good of the company overall. And it would benefit the company overall if everyone was appropriately caffeinated, myself included.

I had a colleague that used the phrased “penny smart, pound foolish” in reference to companies that would save pennies by making decisions that would have major negative implications to their bottom line. This coffee machine PIN strikes me as such a decision. Or maybe I just get cranky when I can’t have coffee.

The next day I found a different (less fancy) coffee machine that was available to the masses. I was happier that day. Just give the people coffee. They will be happier. And more productive.

Permission To Play

I came across this phrase in a Fast Company article on “Creative Imposter Syndrome”. The reason “permission to play” struck a chord with me is that the author mentioned that she felt like she received permission to exercise her creativity after something her boss said to her. She is not suggesting that she needed to ask for permission, but I think there are lessons in here for anyone that wants to try something new in their careers.

It is important to realize that no one is going to approach you to do something you’ve never done before. They are going to look for people that have done it before. That’s just how the world works. People are always looking for someone that has done the work before.

So if you are trying to pick up a new skill, you have two approaches available:

  1. The Nike approach. Just do it. Don’t step on anyone’s toes. Don’t go over anyone’s head. Don’t negatively impact your or your company’s position. But take initiative and do the thing you want to learn. When you hear a client or colleague talk about an initiative in your area of interest, take a first stab and set up time with your boss to talk about it. Send them an email that says “Hey, I put some thoughts around Client X’s request”. Odds are this new initiative was going to soak up lots of their time, so they will be happy to see someone willing to pick up the ball and run with it. Just make sure this doesn’t interfere with your day job.
  2. Ask. For when the Nike approach would get you in trouble or you need someone else’s help to get started. Ask in a way that will benefit the person’s permission you are asking. Things like “hey – I noticed that department ABC could benefit from XYZ, do you mind if I work with Person X to think about their options?” What’s the worst that they can say? No. Then you are back to where you were in the first place.

There is  third route to be taken, which is to go back to school or take training in your desired subject matter. This is always an option, but much more time and resource intensive. It is essentially your way to earn permission to play as a degree or certificate is often all the permission you will need.

What matters is that you are the only person in charge of your career. Most other people around you want to see you succeed and be fulfilled, but they are also probably incentivized to keep  you doing what you are good at. If something is new to you, you are probably not good at that thing yet. So until you express a desire to do this new thing, no one is going to ask you.

Aside: obviously don’t threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, but by expressing a desire to take new things on (in addition to what you currently do), you are announcing to your company that you want to grow and take on new responsibilities. So if they want you to keep doing the thing you are good at, they should make sure you stay fulfilled. It may not seem like it, but if bring value to your team you do possess leverage in these instances. You aren’t just asking for a handout.

Digital Memories

I came across a tweetstorm of mine from years past on Timehop today. It was after the Bills had just drafted EJ Manuel, a pick I accurately assessed misguided. The memory of the draft pick, my reaction, and the tweetstorm also brought me back to how I learned about the pick. I had been traveling for work and had been keeping up best as I could, but was about to hop into a taxi. My dad called me and stayed on the phone with me as the Bills made the pick.

My dad is no longer with us, and I think about him regularly every day. Moving on is difficult, but making sure he is still a part of my life is one of the things that brings me comfort. The fact that social media forces me to think about him from time to time helps me see the good in it. I, like many others, have been hard on the social/tech giants lately. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many hiccups along the way to the future (think about the car). The lesson for me is to keep social/digital as a piece of my actual life, and not let it occupy an out-sized amount of my time or energy. The small ways it enhances our real-world relationships and experiences are good.

Go Bills.

Ads That Follow You

Do you ever buy something online, and then have an ad promoting that same product follow you to every website you visit for the next two weeks? I remember complaining about this to someone at Google, who told me “that should never happen”. I took this to mean that technology and digital media buyers were savvy enough to know the difference between me buying a product and me showing interest in that product.

I think it is now time to draw the conclusion that we have not reached that point. My experience was not an aberration, I still see this consistently. I don’t think it’s a technology or a strategy issue, it’s an incentive issue.

Media buying companies want to connect supply with demand, and remove as many barriers as possible. If I fall into a bucket of customers that are interested in a product,  they have more supply and demand to make money off of. I believe the technology exists to segment me out from the people that never actually purchased the product, but that would require more effort on their agency’s part. Effort = cost, and for now clients aren’t screaming loud enough for that extra effort.

I am not inclined to be overly critical of clients here. These media buys are likely a small piece of their marketing plan. They correctly allocate their time elsewhere, generating the demand that got me to buy their product in the first place. However, there has been a lot of talk about major CPG companies reviewing digital spend, so maybe there is hope.

I hear clients talk about personalization to the point that the term loses its meaning. I think Seth Godin makes a great point when he says that personalization is overrated and personal marketing is underrated. Market to me like you know me, and we might develop a relationship. Showing me ads for a product I’ve already bought is not how you do that. Marketers should seek to use technology to return to the days when we’d shop at stores where everyone knows us by name. The recommendations should make sense, and further our trust with the brand. It really isn’t that difficult to just show me a similar or complimentary product to the one I already purchased. Unfortunately, I think we have a long way to go.

They Grew Up on Instagram

As a millennial, I am used to being talked down to by older generations. My generation had and has many perceived weaknesses. One of those weaknesses is an addiction to our phones. I think this is a real weakness, but is by no means exclusive to our generation.

Cue Gen Z. This is a generation so addicted to their phones, they supposedly have no real-world skills. They don’t understand the difference between the virtual world and real world, and will have no skills to contribute to the economy by the time they reach a working age. Or so we were told.

What happened after the tragedy in Parkland has flipped a lot of that on its head. The day after the shooting, students looked straight into CNN’s cameras and spoke eloquently and directly to those that hold power in our country. At first, skeptics said it was like outcries for change following previous tragedies. But this time felt, and still feels, different. The actual victims of previous massacres haven’t been so direct in their response. Also, never before had victims of a tragedy seemed so prepared to lead a movement.

I don’t think this is an aberration or even a coincidence. Instagram and Snapchat are designed to make us feel like celebrities. We pose for the camera, select the picture that will most impress our followers, and we send it out into the world. Then…we get feedback. From the likes and comments we receive, we determine the best time of day to post, the best subject matter, and the best filters to use. To those that know social media the best – those that grew up on it – the lessons run deeper. They learn how to pose, how to engage the camera, the best facial expressions to use, the best way to posture. When I was entering the real world, we called these presentation and interpersonal skills.

It struck me about a month after the tragedy in Parkland that the students always seemed so poised in front of the camera. They know how to interact with all forms of media, social and otherwise. It is very clear that this generation understands how to navigate the complex world we live in today, which has been exacerbated by social media. Older generations have scoffed that high schoolers only know how to communicate through tweets and snaps. Guess what, those teens engaged a US Senator face-to-face on national television. It was clear that they weren’t fighting fair. Rubio was engaged in a game of the past, they were playing by the new rules. Just because they are effective on Twitter, doesn’t mean they can’t communicate effectively in person too.

Gen Z possesses skills for the world that is coming. Whether they possess all the skills society needs for them to move the world forward is something that we will only learn with time. All I know is that the brief glimpse we have gotten into the future through the actions of students from Parkland has me feeling better about the future than I have in a long time.

Running

I was just sitting down to write a post that I had already written in its entirety. My only issue was that I had written it in my head while I was running. And now the details are gone. I remember the general theme of the post, but I struggle to replicate what had come to me so naturally while I was running. This isn’t entirely surprising because I had been running a few days ago, and never bothered to write anything down. It was also a reminder of how valuable running is to my creativity and productivity at work.

Running has helped me solve some of the more challenging riddles I have faced in my career. I don’t receive the spark of a brilliant idea, like you see in the movies, but I seem to gain better perspective on the problem I am working on. This is especially important, as it is often crucial for me to understand what my client’s true motivations are. This isn’t to suggest anything nefarious, but client requests can often be filtered through several layers of people. Or situations aren’t necessarily well understood by senior leaders that engage consultants.

I think there is a larger lesson here about stepping away. Stop working and go do the thing that you enjoy, relaxes you, helps recharge your batteries. No matter how “in it” we are, how close we are to a looming deadline, how much work there is to be done, sometimes you need to step away. As strategists, we don’t solve problems through brute force. There aren’t always linear progressions to the right answer. Life can be messy, and it can help to step away and just let your mind wander.

We’re all addicted to this?

That’s what I think any time I log into Facebook anymore. Clickbait quizzes, horribly off-target ads, pictures of people I don’t really know or care to know anymore. Why do I keep going back? It’s unclear to me whether my actual friends don’t use Facebook anymore, or if Facebook’s algorithms are just that bad.

The one thing I do believe Facebook knows about me is the number of times I am so bored that Twitter and Instagram no longer hold my attention. Although, I guess Facebook does understand what I’ve been up to in Instagram.

Another piece of data I think might be interesting to these data hungry companies is sleep habits. Netflix knows (or could if it chooses to) my sleep habits. When I can’t sleep – it knows. When I’m about to go to sleep (I usually watch the same show before I go to bed) – it knows. I don’t think they are using this to sell ads yet, but they certainly could. And how long will their investors ignore this obvious revenue stream?

I guess what confuses/disappoints me is not that we have gotten addicted to something and willingly allowed it to harvest our data to the detriment of society. That makes sense to me. I guess I’m disappointed by how lame the product was that did us all in. Maybe Aaron Sorkin can make this interesting for us in the movie version.

Bob Dylan is an Intovert

I just finished reading Another Side of Bob Dylan, which I recommend to Dylan fans. I try to read a book on Dylan every year or so, because the man is a fascinating genre and many people that know or studied him have written extensively about him. This book is written by Jacob Maymudes, with help from tapes recorded by his late father, Victor, about his relationship with Dylan.

What is unique to this book is Victor Maymudes’ proximity to Dylan as he wrote many early songs. I was heartened, as an introvert, to hear Dylan’s introversion described as an asset to his writing. I guess it’s always been pretty obvious that Dylan is introverted, but I always kind of assumed it was part of his eccentricity or reclusive nature. I never thought about his introversion contributing to his brilliance and creativity. That is exactly what Maymudes describes. For Bob Dylan, the world happens inside his head. He takes in world events, and formulates the ideas and words that changed the world through introspective though. When workshopping a song, it was almost always complete by the time he was sharing it with Maymudes and others.

As introverts, we are often told that our introversion is something to overcome. I have actually received feedback that said “seems introverted”, as if my personality is a professional misstep to be corrected. Sure, meetings with large personalities can be a challenge, and we certainly don’t excel in networking situations. But while extroverts are busy proclaiming every thought that comes into their head to the world, introverts are observing, learning, thinking, formulating ideas, arguments and beliefs.

Extroverts are absolutely capable of complex thought, I would never suggest otherwise. However, it is refreshing to hear introversion described as something that aids critical thinking, creativity, and the development of Nobel-prize winning poetry.

 

Coffee / Beer / Sleep

I’ve been on the road for work all week, which almost always leaves me drained. As an introvert, this can be especially tough since it often involves long days surrounded by coworkers and clients. They are great people, but as any introvert can relate to, I need my down time in order to recharge.

It has reminded me of the three things I use to recharge. The first is coffee. I love coffee. I drink it several times every day. I spend a lot of time searching out great new coffees. When I was studying for the GMAT or applying to business school, I would get home from work every day drained, but knew I had to march to Starbucks to load up on caffeine and study/write. Coffee is how I power through when I need to.

Grabbing a drink with friends is another way I recharge. When I was younger, it seemed like the natural course of action. I needed to make sure I wasn’t burning myself out from too much fun. In my 30s, and as an introvert, I actually need to make sure I make time for this kind of thing, especially with coworkers. It’s important, and a night spending quality time with people, especially those I haven’t seen in a long time, can do far more to recharge my batteries than anything.

Finally, sometimes you just need to go home and rest. It’s obvious that this will need to take priority over social outings, but there are times when it is critical that it takes priority over the coffee. Pulling an all nighter might seem like the right thing to do, but it’s important to consider the quality of your work. If faced with the option of working from midnight until 2am or shutting down and working from 5-7am, I will always do better work after getting some sleep.

Keeping Too Much

More wisdom from Marc Maron’s podcast arrived today, this time from Bill Simmons, someone that I have mixed feelings about (best summarized by Deadspin). My personal feelings aside (which are 99% due to me being a Buffalo Bills fan and him being a Patriots apologist), there is no question that the guy is brilliant and was a visionary for sports media.

The insight that Maron unearthed today is about directing a documentary. Simmons said that the number one mistake that documentary directors make is that they keep too much. They fall in love with what they have created and they don’t cut material that doesn’t add to their overall story.

This is directly relevant to life in consulting. Often the work we do culminates in a powerpoint presentation, of which 20 slides are presented to a client, and another 40-300 slides are relegated to the “appendix” (aka slide grave yard). These presentations are usually developed by teams, with individual contributors “owning” certain slides. As the presentation date nears, senior leaders get involved and, more often than not, completely obliterate everything that the team has developed.

This can be frustrating, but it is a very important step. It took me a few years of consulting to learn this, but the goal of any presentation should be to tell a story. Narratives are how we organize our thoughts as humans. No matter who we are, how smart we are, how senior we are, our thoughts are organized in narratives – and that is how we make decisions.

Frequently, someone will put a week’s worth of work into creating a slide that turns out great. It makes sense of complex data, it is visually appealing, and it makes the team look very smart. But when it comes time to review the presentation in its entirety, it doesn’t fit into the story. The mistake I would make early in my career is to force the story to fit around these impressive slides. What I have learned, however, is that nothing is more important than the story. I will never forget the time a very senior person in our organization said, “we create great slides, and fall in love with them, but we have to kill them”.

Which brings us back to Simmons. I can only make assumptions about what it’s like to create a documentary, but I imagine there are parallels to consulting. A documentary typically covers a complex topic, one that requires viewers to understand a backstory. There are generally interviews or first-hand research that needs to be conveyed. Finally, their needs to be some sort of resolution.

This is what consulting is. Clients come to use with their most complicated problems. We often need to help them to define the problem – or at least help them articulate it for their counterparts – in a way that communicates business impact. We need to present findings – often employee interviews or customer data – in a way that makes sense to a broad audience. Then, depending on the scope of the engagement, we need show a path forward for the client. The path forward is really what drives the narrative of any presentation. Anything on a slide – a graphic, text box, sentence or word – that does not add to the story, should be removed.

Fred Wilson expresses a similar thought on his blog today, about entrepreneurs considering alternative formats to pitch decks. His key message is to find the medium that works best for you to convince him to invest in your business. I would argue that the goal is to tell the best story. To help the VC understand who you are, why your business will be successful, and why your team would work well with theirs.

I imagine that it is more difficult for documentarians to know what the narrative is, because they are usually covering a very broad topic (someone’s life, a war, jazz, food, a year, a country, a state, a city) and the narrative can go off in any number of directions. In consulting, we have the benefit of direction from our client – and the ultimate understanding that we are there to help our client save money or make money.