One of the most beautiful lines in English poetry is Lord Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all”. In many ways, the same is true for entrepreneurship in business. Tis better to have tried than not to have tried at all.
I remember having to wind down one of my companies as if it were yesterday. First, there were the sleepless nights thinking about the legal and financial consequences of shutting down the business. There were tough discussions with my partners about how to divide the remnants of our company. We had to sit across the table from old war companions and fire them. We had to go hat-in-hand to suppliers and beg them to accept a fraction of what we owed them. Most ego-busting of all, I had to go back to the people who thought of me as a star and admit our business had failed. It took years to get rid of the little voice that whispered “loser” in my ear.
I often think of this moment many years ago when I see all the enthusiastic faces of our food entrepreneurs in the Stock Pot Malden incubator we run. Nobody goes into business to fail, yet many of them will. Sadly, this is the cruel way it has to work. Success grows from the compost of past failures. We learn from personal agony, and there’s no avoiding it. Our incubator can teach them about risk, but it will not have the same power as experiencing failure.
Today, I look for partners who have failed at least once. I like wounded veterans ready for another battle. The odds of winning on second chances are better than on first at bats. I like the grizzled faces, the battle scars, the stories of things that went wrong. I seek people who have fallen off the horse, yet want to climb back on it. It’s the circle of life in business.
Staying with Lord Tennyson, “knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” Failed entrepreneurs, you shall rise again.
One of the joys of running a food incubator is to pick the entrepreneurs you like and go the extra mile for them on a whim. Today, I’m meeting Elena, a young Bulgarian mother who recently launched a prepared meals business for kids called Tiny Foodies . She and her husband prepare and deliver cold and hot foods for child care centers in the Boston area. As she is just signing up to work out of our commissary in Malden, Massachusetts, we start talking about who she is and what she wants to accomplish.
In her day job, Elena is a manager who analyzes medical claims data and tries to generate insights that reduce the cost of malpractice insurance for doctors. Her language is cold and left-brained. She describes the nutritional problems of young kids in America whose parents default to the pizza, peanut-butter-jelly sandwich and mac-and-cheese routine that will lead children to premature obesity and diabetes. I smell a Michelle Obama zealot who wants the kids pizza to be whole wheat and vegetable-laden, only to end up on the compost pile. I move to “let’s just collect the rent” mode.
There is something endearing about Elena, though. She has the modesty of her native Bulgaria and seeks advice. She has beautiful eyes that light up when she talks about kids and food. Not the calories of food, but the joy of food. Her particular passion is spices and she can wax lyrical about cumin. She rapidly moves from Morocco to India to Bulgaria, wondering why kids outside the US eat couscous and hummus, while American kids don’t. She wants to expand the palate of young American kids by getting them to try healthy, spicy foods at a young age, because this is what her mother did for her. She has a three year old boy of her own, and whether he likes it or not, he’s the food lab for the enterprise.
Elena’s problem is creating engagement with her customers and prospects. Her web site sells to individual parents (mostly mothers) using different child care centers, and she ends up delivering a small number of meals to widely scattered child care centers over the greater Boston area, which is clearly not economically viable. She also receives minimal feedback on what kids and parents think of the food. To explore new options, I encourage her to organize a live event with one of the child care centers she supplies, but she’s not sure she’s comfortable putting herself out in this fashion. I offer to be there for moral support, she rallies two of her young mother friends from Bulgaria to round up the protective squadron, and we agree to focus on one particular child care center in Cambridge. She suggests we conduct a session with kids, parents and teachers at pick-up time, while providing samples of the food.
As parents arrive to pick their kids on a cold and rainy Wednesday, we observe and ask a few questions on the fly. The child care center manager is our host and encourages parents and children to try the food. The dry nutritional agenda of American kids turns into a rich tapestry of kids, parents, teachers and child care center manager interacting to discover what foods children are prepared to eat at this particular moment.
Food itself matters, we discover. Kids are more adventurous than Elena had been led to believe from teachers report-outs (one of them in another child care center even suggested to a parent who had ordered from the Tiny Foodies menu that she send a PB& J sandwich as back-up, in case the kid did not like the food!). Many kids grab the bite-size food and convey enthusiasm without any encouragement. Lentils are a universal hit and solid foods are preferred to soups because soups are messy and require more teacher oversight. We even meet a two-year old girl who loves bok choy.
Even more important, though, is the human environment through which the food is offered. When parents eat the food, kids are much more willing to try it (we imagine that teachers could play the same role if we provided them with matching food). One Latin American mom silently stares her son down while holding the food in front of him for what appears to be five minutes. The kid finally gives up, reluctantly tries the food, asks for two more pieces, then wants to take the entire food bar home. We learn that mother’s toughness matters.
These mothers are all professional women who work in corporate offices near Kendall Square in Cambridge, and many of them were born outside the US. Two of them explain that they cook their kids’ meals on Sundays, then refrigerate or freeze them, but typically run out of food by Friday. They suggest that Elena talk to the child care center about making Friday a Tiny Foodies day for the whole center, equivalent to Pizza Day on Thursday, which would also help Elena concentrate her deliveries. As we approach 6 pm, the end of the pick-up window for parents, kids are so hungry they’ll try anything, and we run out of food. We learn that letting kids go a little hungry is an effective way to expand their palate, something that European, Asian and Latin American mothers have long known.
At some point, we’re joined by one of the teachers. She’s everything you want a teacher to be, gentle, compassionate, curious and kid-loving. Although other teachers reserve their meal for a break away from the hubbub of the kid’s lunch time, she likes to lunch with the kids because she can role-model eating, can compare her food to the kids’ food, and create improvised little pedagogical modules about the fact that three kids brought bananas, a Japanese kid brought sushi, or a Latin American kid brought vegetable tortillas. We start dreaming of inviting these high-powered professional mothers of the world and some teachers to co-create with us the future menu of Tiny Foodies. We also learn that teachers are responsible for providing snacks twice a day, and they are so busy that they often default to cheese and crackers because these items can be stored easily and require no additional labor, vs., say, avocados which need peeling. Perhaps snacks could also be part of Tiny Foodies’ offering at some point?
At that moment, I realize I am in the right place. Although I advise several governments around the world on various matters, I am convinced the problem of kids’ food and health will never be sold by policy and nutritional standards coming out of Washington, D.C. It will come from food entrepreneurs such as Elena experimenting with individual child care centers, their kids, parents and teachers, and solving the problem at that micro-level. Eventually, some of those entrepreneurs will be able to scale their business and one or two of them will go on to transform the kiddie food chain in America. (At that stage, the government will have a useful role to play).
Elena and her business have a long way to go before she can claim to change the food world. But for one moment on that cold and rainy evening in Cambridge, I catch her proud little smile observing the kids eating her food. She starts asking more questions from parents and teachers on what she should think of next. I can see her self-confidence grow. Watch it, world. Elena is spreading her wings.
In March 2014, President Obama made headlines by announcing the doubling of government funding for the Brain Initiative, a large research project deploying the latest neuro-technologies, which he said would be “transformative” and allow us to “imagine if we could reverse traumatic brain injury or PTSD for our veterans who are coming home.” A month later, a mentally unstable veteran shot nineteen people in Fort Hood, TX. Some commentators – among them Adm. Mullen on NBC’s Meet the Press – pointed to the fact that the Brain Initiative might provide an answer to why the shooter snapped in Texas.
While this may be true in the long term, these comments reflect a consistent belief in government and business that academic, top-down research will bring the silver bullet for our most pressing problems. As a result, we allocate too much public money to the wrong places.
Veterans need help now and cannot afford to wait the ten or twenty years required to develop this comprehensive understanding of the brain advocated by President Obama and Adm. Mullen.
In my consulting experience across a variety of science-driven fields, I have found that top-down scientific or engineering breakthroughs bring answers to major business or societal problems only in about 10-20% of cases (and that trend is decreasing). Rather, 60-70% of solutions come from a bottom-up, practitioner-driven variety, i.e., “let’s work with the local people impacted and develop the solution with them.” And the remaining 20-30% (also increasing) of solutions comes from “analytics”, i.e., looking at the gathered bottom-up data and identifying emerging protocols that prove effective for specific segments of people, usually involving a mix of approaches.
So why focus so much attention on what only yields 10-20% of the solutions? Political and scientific leaders love broad-based initiatives because they give them a chance to create their moon shot. It is more exciting to announce a mapping of the brain initiative than some redesign of procedures to give veterans greater access to therapists. But rather than try to develop a predictive model of why some vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or mild traumatic brain injuries (TBI) will snap when others won’t, shouldn’t we make sure all of them get some basic form of care and reduce the likelihood that any of them start shooting at random? Instead of trying to be exquisitely precise in locating the gun in the haystack, shouldn’t we reduce the size of the haystack in the first place?
In fact, we already have many research-proven treatments for PTSD and TBI that would benefit vets right now. None of them will be one-size fits all silver bullet variety. That’s because effective treatment will always vary from patient to patient and involve a unique combination of traditional therapies and fine tuning of medication, alternative medicine and social support from friends and family. For each person the formula may be different. Dr. Cifu, National Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ physical medicine and rehabilitation program, states it this way: “The key is the right stuff for the right patient at the right time. The veteran needs to be your guide.” In other words, it is an act of co-creation between clinician and patient. The problem with the scientific approach is that researchers in labs have not yet learned how to how to balance the variety of human need with the potential combination of solutions. The best practitioners in the field do it every day. We need to turn to them, because chances are that they have 60% to 70% of the solutions. We need to invest in them to reduce human suffering.
Yes, some breakthroughs still come from brilliant scientists in the lab, but more and more of them come from an intelligent reading of what works in the field. That’s the 20-30% that comes from “analytics”. These analytics involve developing a series of ad hoc protocols that have been found to work, which were co-created between compassionate and innovative healthcare workers and the veterans seeking some relief from their pain. Not all field-developed protocols are good, but many are, at least in the local context of specific patients. This is what we should invest in: delivering these services and studying them in the process. Unfortunately scientists have been trained to minimize the value of this field-based knowledge, arguing that little of it meets the scientific standards of medical trials. (Even if it works.)
If we continue to search for the big breakthroughs in the sky, we may find that all our veterans will have died by the time the great breakthrough occurs. Professors in the research-dominated medical schools of yesteryear used to proudly say to their students: “no, we could not save our patients. But we could publish them!”
I thought I was a great salesman. I was a young partner in good standing in my global consulting firm, selling enough business to senior executives in large corporations to be among the top ten producers in the firm. I thought I was a sales thought leader, and I was going to teach everybody about insight selling and next generation techniques. But when I met SAM the Magnificent, an old-school strategic account manager at my firm, I discovered he was way ahead of me. Here are five things I leaned from watching him.
1. Create a chain of empathy
I did not like SAM at first. He was an older guy, known for being the top salesman of the firm year after year. A strange twist of fate had made us partners charged with developing a large global chemical company account headquartered on the East Coast of the United States. He was as emotional as I was rational. He laughed loud, wanted to know everything about everybody, and always remembered something personal about his customers. I viewed this as an old-fashioned salesman’s trick and thought it was manipulative. “How about those Bruins?” he would always ask me, knowing my interest for Boston hockey, which irritated me no end. Over time, I realized he did not work at remembering those things: he just was that way. He loved people and told stories. He had lots of them, and some of them were, shall we say, mildly revisionist. One of his favorite sayings was: “the best stories are made up,” which to this day makes me cringe. “People buy things from people they like” was his other mantra. “And I’m quite lovable”, he often added.
He was astonishingly intuitive about people. He was naturally curious about them, and would instinctively focus on their hot buttons, or their “red issues”, as we called them at the time. He immediately knew what people cared about, quickly figuring out something deeply personal and emotional to them. He knew they cared about rational business stuff as well, but did not particularly focus on that because to him, this was a given. I of course thought business was the only thing that mattered. He had the empathy of your average Saint Bernard and wanted to help people solve problems or advance their careers. Perhaps because he was approaching retirement himself, he loved “legacy clients”, i.e., senior people reasonably close to the end of their career who wanted to do a transformational project as their last hurrah. He would unavoidably sell large projects to those legacy clients. Like a good Frenchman, I could see his stuff worked in practice, but wanted to know if it worked in theory.
He talked a lot about himself, which I found distasteful. I thought of sales as an altruistic pursuit where we work on the other person’s problem, not our own. He spoke unabashedly about his life, previous projects, other sales he had made, personal family habits his wife would probably not have wanted him to spread around. He could connect any issue to something he had personally been involved with. He even boasted to clients that the project he was about to sell them would propel him to the top of the sales charts in his firm, and how much he was going to enjoy the all-expenses-paid week-end in New York awarded to top producers in the firm. I was hiding red-faced under the table during those exchanges. Not until much later did I understand the method behind his madness. Clients wanted him to win because he was focused on making them win. He believed the buyer’s and the seller’s experiences were inextricably linked. It was more than a win-win, more like a sense of shared destiny.
None of this emotional stuff was intuitive to me. Watching SAM the Magnificent, I learned to think of the customer experience as a small collection of highly emotional issues that made the customer’s life either painful (and therefore needed to be removed or alleviated), or aspirational (and therefore needed to be nurtured or created). SAM was amused by my attempts at conceptualizing in the form of an “experience curve” what he did so intuitively, but later joined me in innumerable training programs, using the experience curve as a foundation to teach what he knew to younger sales people. Much to his surprise, he discovered that even highly rational people can get better at experience once they learn to conceptualize it (although intuitive people will always be better at it).
2. Organize Problem-Solving Communities Who Sell for You
SAM the Magnificent used some strange tools. One of them was an oversized piece of paper he carried with him at all times. It was a full-sized flip chart page folded sixteen times over that listed in tiny hand-drawn letters the names of all the people he and his team thought were needed to make the sale on a given account. There must have been several hundred names on that list, from the CEO on down to maintenance managers in far-away plants. It took him a good two minutes to unfold the chart every time, carefully moving the beer mugs aside in the bar when we celebrated a successful sales call, or taping the giant chart to the car windshield when no bar was available. He lived and died by that chart. Next to each name was a smiley, neutral or sad face capturing the customer’s attitude toward the project we were trying to sell.
When people had a smiley next to their name, he made sure they stayed that way by having someone call on them regularly. When someone had a neutral or negative face, he started looking for people who could influence the reluctant individual. Before becoming an account manager for a large consulting firm, SAM the Magnificent had sold large turbines for US utilities and loved electrical metaphors. He viewed influence networks as electrical circuits that needed to be closed. He thought of non-cooperating customers as “resistors on the line.” He brought on new firm resources “to introduce more amps into the sales grid.” He referred to the moment where negative customers flipped positive toward our projects as “turning on like a 1000 watt bulb”. With SAM, I learned to electrify the sales process by designing high-voltage circuitry.
SAM thought of selling as problem-solving, and he believed each sales problem called for a cross-company group to work on it. “Customers will sell themselves if you organize them properly,” he loved to say. SAM the Magnificent used his giant influence chart to mobilize the people required to solve the various aspects of the selling and buying conundrum. And it worked like magic.
Over time, we learned that the mini-communities we had learned to set up for sales and project design purposes often wished to continue working together on their problems during the delivery phase of the project. This produced an intimacy of relationship that generated follow-on projects and new forms of long-term relationship between our consulting firm and our clients, eventually leading to new business models such as gain-sharing arrangements on operational consulting projects, or joint marketing of services to third parties. Our sales skyrocketed.
Today, when I find myself teaching sales groups about the possibilities offered by the new social enterprise tools available to sales people, I always think of SAM the Magnificent’s giant influence chart and how he would have loved to electrify it. Had he been born twenty years later, he would have been prodding his team to look up customer people on LinkedIn and would have encouraged the use of social selling tools to increase sales. Somewhere out there, he must be smiling.
3. Tell stories from data
SAM the Magnificent was far from an analytical type, but my relationship with him improved noticeably when he discovered I could do numbers. He himself hated numbers. All he could ever remember at any time were his team sales, his team sales quota and how much of a lead his team had over the next best sales team. But he loved being given the analytical fodder for a great sales pitch. He had a way of taking a complex issue and making everybody understand what was at stake.
He once stormed into the team room in the back office of the chemical plant trailer where we all worked and asked how we were doing in the development of the business case for the project. He needed something for a fifteen minute meeting we both had with the divisional head in a few hours. I told him we had some partial elements, including an analysis of which orders on the plant were profitable and which were not. We spent close to an hour going over the hundred pages of analysis my team and I had developed with the help of the plant controller, and showed SAM the company was taking several orders that were highly unprofitable once you allocated all the hidden costs to it.
“What’s the worst order they’ve ever taken?” he asked me. The “worst I’ve ever seen” line was a standard part of SAM’s sales approach. I showed him the ugliest order I could find, a marginal sale that that had required creating a complex production run on a high-volume machine, thereby destroying the productivity of the plant for three days because of the special material and quality control it required. “Let’s tell the story of this order”, he asked. This order became the stuff of legend. Although anecdotal, this piece of data did more to sell the project than any exhaustive analysis of financial opportunities in the plant. SAM had me develop a giant colored chart (for some reason, these charts were called “horse blankets”) and we took our horse blanket to the firm’s plants on five continents. I can still remember waiting anxiously at the Kuala Lumpur airport for our horse blanket to appear on the oversized item carrousel.
SAM did not ever develop data himself, but he knew the power of interpreted data. He had two data principles. He wanted the data to tell a story, and he wanted the data to be the client’s data as much as the consultant’s data. “Better have the data be a little wrong and the client strongly committed, than have the data be 100% accurate and the client uncommitted.” We all learned to fear the “is it your data or the client’s data?” question from SAM. Another more cynical quote from SAM: “if the client believes the data, it is data”. I learned to “co-create” data with the client.
Today, powerful analytic platforms allow the generation in real time of data that used to require large teams of consultants working in batch mode. Even with the advent of such sophisticated tools, the best sales people I work with remain in the SAM the Magnificent mold: they rarely do the analytical work themselves, but they know how to manufacture great stories from the insights supplied to them by the experts on their teams. Somehow, it is still about telling stories from data. I also learned that there are many more good data people than there are good story tellers. I still miss SAM the Magnificent.
4. Invent new ways to interact
Way back in time, long before the sales process had become global, SAM the Magnificent had pioneered the development of a new live communication medium. He hated PowerPoint so much that he had talked the company into hiring people whose sole job was to devise large hand-drawn, PowerPoint-like charts that would fit in an oversized suitcase. We would solemnly open the case for each presentation, thereby bringing a unique artistry to each meeting. This generated a Cirque du Soleil-like buzz, even in the firms with the most deeply-engrained engineering cultures. SAM would sit in the back of the group, gently prodding senior clients to react, while members of the team would expose the findings through those large drawings. We were often asked to sign our presentations. Client members would ask to borrow the charts to make the same presentation to other people in the firm. Client members wanted to jump in the ring and become artists themselves. They wanted to do the show. SAM had invented viral networking.
These hand-drawn interactive presentations were part of a larger SWAT team approach to clients’ problems called Analysis, which SAM had also been a pioneer of. Analysis was, to put it mildly, a euphemism. “The purpose of Analysis”, SAM told me when I first met him, “is to sell large global projects” (just in case I thought analysis was about analyzing). During an Analysis, SAM was the battle field general and the Analysis team was the Marines. A typical Analysis project would last six to eight weeks for complex multi-location transformation programs, and the team would literally move into the client’s location from Monday noon till Friday noon (we did go home for the week-end). The war room where the team worked and where early results were displayed became the hub of all transformational activities at each location, with the Analysis team inviting clients to come and engage in continuous fashion with the consultants. “If there isn’t at least one crisis a day”, SAM told me, “the Analysis team is not doing its job.”
Most clients had never seen anything resembling this level of engagement, and the sheer novelty of the approach became part of the franchise. Other plants in the client’s network would ask “to be analyzed”, generating new leads for SAM the Magnificent. The process was highly collaborative, but we controlled the mode of engagement. Analysis team would set up a joint team with the relevant functional people at the client, and before we knew it, the size of the sales team would double or triple through the addition of client people eager to sell their management on the project. By today’s standards, the tools of engagement we used were crude, relying mostly on 1950s group facilitation and team-building techniques. But the power of engagement was so strong that we were unstoppable. Our conversion rate ran consistently around 95% for years, with the average size of projects roughly doubling every year, producing 40% growth for our firm for a good twelve years in a row.
From SAM, I learned to think of each meeting as an opportunity to engage on the basis of some facts or data. “The question you will ask them from the chart is as important as the facts on the chart” he once told me. “Hardly any sales folks ever think of asking questions. That’s what I do.” He had a little note book where he wrote down quotes for later use. I directed him to one of Picasso’s famous quotes: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” Many years later, he kept quoting Picasso to me, as if I had never heard it before.
5. Let new sources of value emerge from the engagement process
When I first met SAM, I believed in determinism and Cartesian logic. I thought I knew what problems our clients were facing, and having seen them many times before, I knew what solutions they called for. For example, inventories were nearly always too high and I knew how to organize a fire sale for obsolete inventory, reduce the number of storage locations, and teach the inventory management folks how to use the reordering algorithm we developed for them. I wanted to sell inventory reduction services as a packaged solution. SAM thought this was the worst idea he’d ever heard. He hated “solutions”.
The Magnificent approached every problem as if he’d never seen it before. He thought the very framing of the problem should come from the customer, not from us. I first thought this was a gimmick (after all, inventories were often too high indeed), but discovered over time that his seat-of-the-pants, make-stuff-up-as-you-go salesman’s demeanor was hiding a true brilliance. “If you keep selling the same thing over and over, you’ll keep doing the same thing and never find new sources of business value.” He thought of the sales function as the rudder of the corporate ship. Later on, when I became charged with the innovation function at my firm, he gave me the best advice I ever received. “You are what you sell” he told me. At first, I did not understand what he meant. A few years later, I realized he was right. What you decide your source of value to your customers ought to be is theory. What you sales people make up on the fly with their account teams and the firm’s resources is reality: the sum of the projects they sell is what defines your company’s offering, your business value and your business model. We are indeed what we sell. This is why sales forces are one of the best sources of innovation and organic growth for companies.
The world has changed much since the days when I worked with SAM the Magnificent. I have tried to track him down without success. The world of sales has changed dramatically with the globalization of strategic account management, the advent of new CRM and social selling technologies and the rise of Big Data. More and more sales forces accept that account management is no longer a staged process, more like a global dance that requires live engagement with customers and the use of analytics. The five basic lessons learned from SAM outlined in this article have become the foundation for the approach now known as co-creation and we have developed frameworks and tools that companies can tap into the power of these innovative sales capabilities. Behind all the conceptual razzle-dazzle though, I know all I have been doing is channeling SAM the Magnificent.
I can’t help it. Some projects get me excited and others don’t. I like teaching or consulting in the agriculture, food, chemicals, manufacturing, and hospital industries. I’ve never been comfortable with automotive, construction, pharmaceuticals, publishing or telecommunication. Sorry for my late admission to all of you who have hired me to work in those industries over the years. My heart was never in it, although my mind was doing its best to hide it. I gave you all I had, but not being able to “feel” those industries made it hard.
I have often wondered why this is the case. Simply put, I have emotional ties to some industries and this makes all the difference. Agriculture reminds me of the wonderful summers of my childhood I spent on the small family farm in the Vosges Mountains of France, raking hay all day in the summer sun with my brother and sisters for a glass of grenadine and lemonade offered by the tenant farmer in exchange for our labor services. In the evening, we would drink the milk of cows we had shepherded back to their stalls at dusk. I can still remember the taste of this fresh unpasteurized milk and probably owe it the iron stomach which allows me to this day to travel around the world without ever getting sick.
My love of food comes from my French mother who cooked wonderful meals for her husband and four children every day, on top of being a most admired high school teacher. One of my greatest regrets is that I never asked her to teach me how to prepare her boeuf bourguignon or her blanquette de veau. My father did most of the grocery shopping and I often tagged along, asking my dad to add a bag of cookies in the hope it might contain a photograph of the last soccer player still missing in my collection. I love going to Whole Foods and rummage through fruit and vegetables because it reminds me of him. At Christmas, we would go to my grandfather’s house in Northern France and have a réveillon, complete with champagne, oysters, turkey and bûche de Noël. There was not much going on in this austere house in coal-mining country, but food was a feast and the glass of champagne and red wine I was allowed to have made the world into a magnificent place.
At the risk of mixing genres, I also like chemicals because as a German teacher, my father had a friend in Ludwigshafen, home of BASF, now the largest chemical company in the world. He’d periodically visit this teacher colleague of his, and come back with stories of spectacular industrial growth in Ludwigshafen which created envy on the part of his French children to learn about Germany’s economic miracle (the German word for it is the alliterative Wirtschaftswunder, which I repeated to myself like a mantra). I still work with BASF and know my father out there is proud of me. To this date, I love watching economic growth of any kind and have a high tolerance for the environmental cost of this growth, because I have seen how it can take a ravaged country like Germany after World War II and make it whole again.
I like manufacturing because I grew up watching proud textile and paper mills shut down one after the other around me. I remember seeing the hardship those shutdowns created for my high school friends. These plants were unconnected to my school-centric world, but I was curious from an early age on to discover what the dark tall buildings with their smokestacks were hiding. My father was always curious to know where each truck driving by our house was going, so I remember trying to put together an integrated picture of manufacturing in my town. When I finally set foot in my first paper mill much later in life, it was like a revelation, a sense of deep calling, having finally figured out what my life was going to be about.
My interest for hospitals is more recent, the product of having had family members struggle with various ailments. Advocating for patients in life and death situation triggers powerful emotions and I cannot help but feel frustrated in seeing the dominance of left-brained thinking (“the answer is electronic medical records”) when a properly organized group of nurses and doctors in any given hospital could solve immediate patient issues without requiring the large institutional investments currently being made. I will not rest until I have helped transform at least one hospital somewhere in the world.
Like most business people, I masquerade as an analytical, rational person trying to share practices and methodologies that I hope will be of help to others. Deep inside, my energy comes from a secret garden that is uniquely mine. I suspect all of us are like that. One day we will collectively face up to the reality that all business is personal.
If diversity is valuable, why aren’t we seeing millions of dollars directed toward it?
For many of us, a strong philosophical belief in the value of diversity translates into a trickle of charity contributions and perhaps some support for diversity-oriented government programs. But if we believed in diversity the way we believe in, say, new technologies, we should see massive amount of private capital finding its way into businesses that rely on diversity for their markets, their work force or their suppliers. And we’re not seeing that. Not even close.
What gives? Either people controlling financial resources do not believe in diversity as a competitive weapon, or there is some inefficiency in the resource allocation system. There’s arguably a bit of both. Many investors are skeptical that diversity matters economically and in all fairness, nobody has yet made a compelling data-driven case for the return on investment (ROI) of diversity. And for those who believe in diversity, there are few investment vehicles that leverage diversity as a strategy.
And so diversity devolves into this oatmeal of bland corporate statements about the merits of a diverse work force as the firm’s most valuable asset, mandated corporate diversity programs attended by yawning managers eager to return to their daily operational tasks, or minimalist corporate charity programs aimed at diversity-owned businesses. And so, at the end of the day, business people relieve their guilt by contributing some personal money to causes that may include diversity.
After many years of advocating for co-creation as an economic model from the comfortable perch of my teaching, consulting and public speaking platform, I’ve finally decided to put some of my money where my mouth is (literally, the project is about food). I have become a small-scale venture capitalist. I’ve rallied a few similarly-minded friends and together, we’ve decided to invest a bit of our money in the development of a diversity project. My tougher capitalist colleagues still marvel at being called angel investors. As the place for our proof-of-concept, we have picked Malden, MA, a suburb of Boston with a rainbow of ethnic groups comprising its population and strong business and political leadership. Because there is a budding food tradition there, we have decided to start an industrial kitchen that will house food trucks serving the greater Boston area, an event space that we hope will attract both local youth and foodies from downtown Boston, and we are starting a kitchen incubator that helps local youth become food entrepreneurs through education and financing. This is not a charity, mind you. We want to prove that we can earn an above-market rate of return while helping employment locally and fostering greater sustainability of the local food chain.
This has brought a new joy to my life. In some ways, it is a project like any other, with its cohort of cash-flow statements and competitive analysis, with a new layer of personal financial anxiety. The primary difference, though, is that the people I work with are real, from young high-school immigrant kids applying for the incubator, to heavily tattooed food truck drivers working 14 hours a day, to middle-aged cooks who view us as an opportunity to finally create their own business. I dream of convincing some of the owners of long-established Malden businesses, often with a strong Italian or Irish heritage, to invest with us in the latest generation of Haitian, Moroccan or Jamaican immigrants because they remember how they or their parents did it. I dream of giving local Republicans a platform to demonstrate they can be both good business people and have a social sensitivity, and of allowing Democrats to demonstrate that they also know a thing or two about business development. I want Malden to become the prototype of new economic development for the nation, with business as the primary driver of success, in the great American tradition that attracted me to this country in the first place.
The problems we face are equally real. We’re struggling to find both women and ethnic representatives for our angel investment group. It is not easy to find a suitable building that meets zoning and environmental requirements. Finding financing of the scale we require has its challenges. And bringing together a team of such eclectic background into a common vision for the business is a daily grind.
Perhaps the most gratifying part of the Malden project is that I feel whole again. As Stuart Kauffman describes it, I now feel at home in the universe. It does not get much better than that.
When you arrive at the Harlesden branch of the UK unemployment office – called Jobs Centre Plus – the first thing you have to do is convince a giant of a man nicknamed Tiny that you have legitimate business there. When I arrived the first time, Tiny looked amused at the sight of my suit and tie, a little rumpled from my Boston flight that morning, and waved me in. A side-glance at the unbreakable glass partitions reserved for particularly “at risk” interactions between job advisors and job applicants further hinted at the grittiness of the place.
By the time I’d reached the top of the back stairway to our temporary office, I had learned that our mission was to help the local staff engage with the various Harlesden ethnic groups, particularly the Somali and Afro-Caribbean communities, including young black males who occasionally have, in the euphemistic language of the government, “law enforcement issues”. (I later learned that partnering with probation officers is a key part of the solution for job advisors assigned to those populations). I had touched tough neighborhoods before, particularly in our work with the French Post Office and with a difficult Boston neighborhood called Malden, but we’d never explicitly tried to engage those populations. I resisted the urge to jump on the first flight back to Boston.
The first sign of hope came from a conversation with my consulting colleagues who had already interviewed a lot of the Job Centre personnel the previous week. The team on the ground was young and enthusiastic. There was a twinkle in their eyes, a “what do we do now, chief” look that shamed me into rising out of my jet lag. Some advisors had told them about communities they wanted to engage. All we had to do was partner with their local management to set them free and ride the wave of their passion.
One of the advisors wanted to go to local schools and help organize a “work week” program that would allow young students to discover what working in local businesses is like, with the hope of giving them the desire to become productive later on, rather than passively gliding into unemployment. He told the touching story of his own kid who had learned through such a program that he was good at transcribing music into a music score, which had given him a lot of self-confidence. There was a quiet eloquence about him. There was one challenge, however: the program was supposed to be short-term focused (putting people back to work quickly) while his idea was to prevent people from ever coming to the unemployment office in the first place. With great pragmatism, the new head of the Harlesden office endorsed the idea and gave him a team. He was off to the races.
There were to be many other magic moments involving the Harlesden staff. Two women advisors took on the task of organizing the Somali community, from claimant and staff to employer and volunteer agencies. They painstakingly convinced young Somali males to come participate in workshops run by them (the women in the Harlesden office display a wonderful mix of compassion and toughness, which proved able to overcome even deep culturally engrained gender bias), then proceeded to invite to the party small Somali shop-keepers who could give job applicants a first work experience. They also convinced several local Somali agencies to work together in partnership with Jobs Centre Plus (strangely, these agencies had never worked together before). From September on, these Somali agencies will run a Somali desk inside the Harlesden office, a first in the history of the UK unemployment administration.
Perhaps the simplest, most brilliant idea, was generated by the new head of the office: let the advisors co-create the mode of engagement they wish to have with their job applicants. Experienced advisors instinctively know who is truly looking for a job and wish they could spend more time helping them. Conversely, they also know who is trying to exploit the system and collect unemployment money while pretending to look for a job, and wish they could stop meeting as frequently with those people. Until now, administrative rules required that all advisors follow the same process with all claimants. In the system piloted by the new office head, each advisor gets to pick two claimants and can invest whatever time they desire to get them a job. This has liberated a massive amount of energy on the part of both advisors and job applicants who can now jointly define their unique path to success, thereby producing a quicker path back to employment for deserving applicants and generating faster off-benefit results for the office.
I am writing this from my hotel room in London, awaiting my flight back to Boston tomorrow. Today was the final presentation by the Harlesden team to the top management of Jobs Centre Plus in a posh downtown office in central London. These are the best moments in the life of the teacher that I try to be (in those moments, I always wonder who is teaching whom). The management of Jobs Centre Plus was impressed and praised the team, consultants and advisors alike. Watching the smile on the face of the Harlesden advisors proudly presenting their work to their management was the most gratifying thing in the world. I just wish Tiny had been there.
The scientist reviewed the existing scientific literature on the topic, consulted with world-class experts on the problem, and concluded that what the issue needed was a $100MM grant proposal to build a genetic data base of all sepsis patients. He went to the National Institutes for Health and talked its management into endorsing his study. He recruited three leading pharmaceutical and medical equipment powerhouses to fund the proposal. The Obama administration financed the rest of the effort and the scientist became a poster child for government-funded research, next to clean energy and electronic health records. He launched a peer-reviewed, double-blind, 20 year longitudinal effort to identify the genetic markers that put patients at risk of developing sepsis. “It is time to eradicate this killer off the face of the earth”, he told the New York Times.
The nurse went to her hospital. She recruited her colleague floor nurses and took them to the lab in the hospital’s basement. They started talking with technicians and infectious disease leaders on how they could reduce the incidence of sepsis. The hospital’s infectious disease specialist explained to nurses and technicians how the risk of death increases by 8% with every hour that passes before treatment. The nurses learned to identify early signs of sepsis on a patient’s chart and draw blood earlier. They were taught to calibrate the amount of blood required by the various tests. The technicians were permitted to walk up to the floors, and nurses came to the lab. The lab manager was convinced by the technicians to buy better equipment to test for a wider set of pathogens and produce results faster. They made sure the test results did not end up in a mail basket, even on week-ends. They hounded the doctors to look at the results of the tests and act upon them promptly. They told the patient’s family when results were available, urging them to have a conversation with doctors on the test’s outcome. “We won’t solve sepsis,” she told her colleagues, “but maybe we’ll save a few lives along the way.”
The scientist received fame and glory. He appeared at scientific conferences in Cancun and Ibiza. The pharmaceutical firms flew him to colloquia and symposia where he vowed audiences with his protocols. The Sepsis Foundation featured him on their web site. The Journal of Sepsis and Sepsis Daily wrote columns about his seminal work.
Meanwhile, the nurse continued to fight for the right to hold sepsis sessions in the basement of her hospital. The hospital’s Chief Medical Officer told his doctors he had reluctantly agreed to the effort: “they seem so motivated”, he said. The Chief Nursing Officer cajoled the truth a bit and told her nurse colleagues: “the CMO is fully on-board”. The Quality people started tracking infection results from the nurses’ data and showed sepsis going down at the hospital. Together, they went to the CFO and showed evidence of the improvement. Intrigued, the CFO agreed to go talk to the CEO.
“Of course, we can improve some medical outcomes through practices of this type”, the hospital CEO conceded. “But this sort of stuff is incremental and people-dependent. But our resources are so scarce with the new healthcare regulation coming on and we’re already on projects overload. I can’t very well generalize grass-roots initiatives of this type to the rest of our network, can I? What we need is an authoritative study with a peer=reviewed, double-blind protocol. I think there is a national study on sepsis, and we should join in and contribute our patient data to it.”
The nurses and technicians stopped meeting in the basement. The scientist continued to triumph on the lecture circuit. One day, the great genetic predictive algorithm for sepsis may emerge. Meanwhile, patients will continue to die.
Working with a good editor involves a disturbing intimacy. The ostensibly professional relationship unavoidably grows into an invasive friendship when the editor gets inside your head. While massively grateful for the creation of order out of their synaptic chaos, most authors I know feel violated when someone rummages inside their head in this fashion (my wife expresses similar feelings when a cleaning crew shows up at our door).
I‘ve been working with the same Harvard Business Review editor for close to thirty years now (Steve Prokesch, senior editor), and we just completed our third article together. While an article every ten years does not exactly make me into Balzac (or Peter Drucker, for that matter), our relationship has gone through the same cycle every time, something I await, dread and ultimately love. I‘ve found there are editing seasons, each with a distinct experience of the interaction with him. Only upon completion of the full seasonal cycle does the beauty of our co-creation reveal itself.
When I approach Steve with a new idea, it feels like fall. We may have enjoyed sunny beaches together, but the leaves are long gone. I’m getting wet at the HBR door, he’s dealing with publication deadlines on more developed articles, and his mental space is limited. He points to the overlap between what I’m advocating and material already published by others. It feels like I’m being coached into oblivion, with an occasional ray of hope. I imagine Steve at editorial meetings, wondering whether to throw his weight behind my concept, in what I imagine to be a free-for-all of passionate editors each with their pet projects. Our experiences are inextricably linked: I’m looking for business immortality and I hope he’s looking at my proposal from an equally selfish standpoint, evaluating whether I’ll be fun to work with. He knows most authors to be arrogant and mercurial (Harvard professors are trained in condescension, particularly toward editors), allowing me to offer myself as a French pussy cat who’s modestly trying to express thoughts in a second language. Paraphrasing Victor Borge, I remind Steve periodically that English is his language and I’m just trying to use it.
Paradoxically, getting accepted for publication marks the beginning of winter in our relationship. After the Christmas party anticipating the literary birth a few months down the road, comes a season of barren landscapes and tall shadows. What I thought was a masterpiece in search of a few punctuation marks turns out to be a scarecrow with a carrot for a nose and sticks for limbs. Steve moves into his patient, but unrelenting mode. I‘ve learned over the years that an HBR article (at least in my field) needs a core framework, an anchor narrative showing a company applying the framework in some detail (ideally with live characters), a smattering of vignettes confirming others also use the approach, and a process sidebar for readers adventurous enough to who want to try it at home. Steve’s role at this stage is to poke at crevasses in the snowy landscape, exposing content holes and logic flows. When I start shivering in total nakedness in the bleak mid-winter, wondering why HBR accepted such a flawed project in the first place, he starts mentally rebuilding the piece and its author bit by bit, convincing me this is what I had in mind all along. When I hear “let’s work on the introduction first”, I know the snow blizzard is over and the slow march out of the winter woods has started.
Spring is now in the air. Steve is now like Edward Scissorhands, clipping leaves and carving out branches in our bushy manuscript, hacking at the Track Changes-induced multi-color foliage. Every paragraph that survives his cuts is a new bud. Corrections are the easy part, because I’m just asked to agree or comment. Queries are to be feared, because their Socratic framing often hides a “you don’t really know what you’re talking about” implication. Most anguishing is the laconic “huh?” that unavoidably conjures up the Niels Bohr-like comment that “this theory does not even rise to the level of being wrong”. The word count is still too high, the exhibits too numerous and the sentences too long. Steve’s favorite author is William Faulkner, mine is Marcel Proust, and while both are noted for their very long sentences, Steve keeps chopping up my paragraph-long lyrical sentences into small factual bits. Stress level grows higher at this time, as publication deadlines become more proximate. (HBR deadlines are still roughly patterned on the Gutenberg printing press process, the advent of digital printing notwithstanding).
It’s time for summer and fun in the sun. Publication time is close, bringing with it the anticipation of the finished product. Steve moves back into the shadow, his deed done, leaving me in the hands of other types of editors. It feels like being dropped at the beach with kids you don’t know, hoping your parents will come get you at the end of the day, though you’re not really sure. Executive editors come in with different views of what the piece should be about (no editing adventure is complete without at least one major thunderstorm late in the process). I‘ve learned to say “head” and “deck” instead of “title” and “introductory paragraph” to look good in publishing circles (Steinbeck-like cargo pants are my next move). HBR’s editor-in-chief makes the ultimate call when it comes to head and deck, giving him the right to call co-creation schmo-creation if he’s so inclined. Other types of editors become involved in nitty-gritty aspects (there are as many types of editors at HBR as there are pages in an average Dostoyevsky novel).
My first thought when I see the finished article for the first time is always for Steve. Of course, other people play a key role in the development of business articles: my co-author who’s framed the core argument with me, or the managers who’ve been the true actors of the stories we tell. When it comes to the quality of writing, though, the world may never know the extent of his contribution, but I do. I often think of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web’s last line: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” So is Steve.
PS: Steve has not edited this blog entry, which is why it contains mixed metaphors, split infinitives, Gallicisms and assorted grammatical and vocabulary errors.
I will always remember an old professor colleague of mine. I had not seen him in twenty years. He was the last person coming off the plane in Boston at midnight and looked quite old. He was disheveled, slowly dragging his oversized suitcase up the jet way, holding a half-open shoulder bag full of flip charts. He was still wearing the same patched-at-the-elbows rumpled suit, and his shirt was stained by markers ink. He saw me waiting for him, and a large smile illuminated his face.
“I’m just back from the West Coast”, he shouted at me from twenty feet away. “Three-day-workshop with a bunch of kids managing a high-tech start-up. Not so bad for a ninety-year old guy who does not even use Facebook”.
This image of my old friend’s triumphant smile has stayed with me all these years. The ancestral anxiety of any educator is irrelevance. This is particularly true those of us who teach innovation. I want to look like my old friend when I’m 90. I want to come off the plane, physically exhausted, but exhilarated at the thought of having just learned about a new industry. When my consciousness starts waning on my hospital bed, I want someone to whisper in my ear how neural networks and 3D reservoir modeling algorithms are built.
I’m not quite 90 yet, so I’ve got a bit of a head start. The front-end discovery part of any new business is by far where I have the most fun (I feel like I’m being paid to go to school). Writing-up success stories based on consulting work I have done and teaching them on the lecture circuit is the second best part. Everything in-between is just hard work.
I’m learning about six industries right now and feel like a butterfly in the orchard of knowledge. Three of them are fairly easy to grasp at the beginner’s level: we can all visualize how a grocery store, a hotel or a movie theater chain work. Three others have a higher educational bar: few of us have an a priori knowledge of flow cytometry, software-designed networks, or smart grid optimization tools. And even the “simpler” industries become complex beyond the basic level: there’s nothing trivial about figuring out how to manage the supply chain of a grocery store, optimize the occupancy rate of a hotel chain, or improve the average spending per spectator in a movie theater chain. As my synapses fire at decreasing speed, I pray that the wisdom of my years and the presence of younger brains around me cover for my reduced mental agility.
This is where the power of a cross-industry framework helps. In the co-creation business, one sees opportunities for new connections everywhere. Some people’s experiences can be connected together to form “chains of empathy” (for example, suppliers, employees and customers can all help a grocery store figure out what its strategy ought to be). One can fairly easily visualize data flowing across previously disconnected individuals and companies, and new insights being generated between them (in the medical, telecommunication or energy worlds, for example). I am like the Haley Joel Osment character in the movie the Sixth Sense: I see dead people. Unlike him, though, I arrogantly think I can make them come alive.
If you one day see an old disheveled guy dragging heavy luggage and coming last off an airplane at midnight, do not feel sorry for me. My dream is being fulfilled.