Posts Tagged ‘community’

I dream of Malden

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Lately, Malden, Massachusetts has entered my consciousness. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because a few of my Yelp friends from Boston have told me this is the “in” place for Ethiopian, Sri Lankan or Moroccan food. Maybe it’s because Business Week has made noise about Malden being a great place for kids to grow because of its diversity. Maybe it’s because a member of my family has some political responsibilities there? Or perhaps I’m just tired or organizing business communities in India, Latin America and Europe and want to come home in the evening?

I don’t yet know how to fit all the pieces in the co-creation puzzle, but I’m eager to figure it out. My typical gig involves finding a central business player eager to orchestrate the development of a mini-economy around itself: a large business, a bank, sometimes a public entity (although a profit-seeking business with a community bent provides the best anchor). Maybe Eastern Bank or one of the local savings banks could play that role? Banks – community banks in particular – can become great community co-creators since they make money by attracting local savings and lending that money back to mortgage customers and businesses. By connecting all the parties with each other around local growth and utilizing the physical branch as a local meeting place, one can drain a lot more savings and generate a lot more loans, often at below market rates, simply because people are passionate about making their community a better place. I have done that in Saint-Etienne, France and Guadalajara, Mexico, for example. Why not Malden? Eastern Bank, you look like a supersized community bank with a great community bent. I’ll bet we could significantly increase the income of your savings and your lending business in your Malden branch if we could make you the center of Malden’s renewal.

On the business front, Malden does not have a lot of manufacturing businesses, but has great ethnic food restaurants that could grow and become anchor points for local employment. Could Malden become the food capital of New England? Could it engender the development of an ethnic food supply chain with ethnic grocery stores and perhaps some local manufacturing or distribution centers from the mother countries? I dream of Malden as a mini-Ethiopia, mini-Sri Lanka, and mini-Morocco, a diversity showcase attracting hard-core Bostonians to eat and shop there. (Malden has the advantage of having the Orange line connecting it directly to the heart of Boston).

Maybe we could get the young foodies from downtown Boston who already come to Malden for food to help us orchestrate the growth of these communities? Many of them are idealistic Generation X and Millennials generating good incomes from financial services, healthcare or service firms.  Maybe we can have a “Food for Thought” program (one of them suggested that name to me), where these idealistic foodies become business activists who help Habesha scale its outstanding Ethiopian restaurant business, or supports Moroccan Hospitality Restaurant in attracting more passionate people to its tagines?

Beyond the business imperative lies a social one: Malden needs help because the poverty rate there is quite high at 12%.  It’s a  neighborhood not far from where some of Ben Affleck’s and Clint Eastwood’s tough movies take place (the Town, Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River). Maybe we could get local boys Ben Affleck or Matt Damon to sponsor our Malden business community program?

I dream of this program as a business proposition, however, not a bleeding heart volunteer activity. There is business to be made at the bottom of the pyramid, and it happens to have positive social outcomes. I want the core business that anchors this program to double its profits, the owners of the Malden restaurants to become affluent and the employees who work there to derive good incomes from the new jobs created. I want the politicians associated with this program to become stars and sell the program as a model for other Massachusetts, New England or US towns. Personally, I want my wife and kids to discover what I do for a living and get to sleep in my bed at night.

Malden is the modern version of the American melting pot. It is a microcosm of our future economy, with its huge problems and the opportunity created by its diversity. The future of America does not lie in setting up the right tax rates in Washington, DC. It lies in weaving vibrant business communities at the local level. With politicians, bankers, restaurants, downtown foodies and citizens, let’s go co-create Malden.


The bounty system of the New Orleans Saints as a perfect model of co-creation

Monday, March 5th, 2012

It has been widely reported in the last few days that some players on the New Orleans Saints football team developed a home-grown bounty system whereby players would reward each other with personal money for inflicting injuries onto opposing players. While the National Football League is investigating the New Orleans Saints specifically, there are indications that such a system might be in existence across the league, along a continuum from the clearly legal (players rewarding a punt return) to the apparently illegal variety (the NFL seems to have rules that prohibit intentionally putting a quarterback on a stretcher).

The New Orleans Saints have developed a perfect system of co-creation we should write up in Harvard Business Review, not decry in the New York Times. The system developed by the players has all five ingredients of co-creation:

  • A community. The players who decided they were going to build a kitty to reward injury-causing hits on opposing players set themselves up as a community. Had the NFL not intervened in ill-advised fashion, the player community might have expanded into allowing investment from fans into the bounty scheme. A “Knock Tom Brady cold” Super PAC could not have been far behind, supported by Libyan or Syrian capital.
  • An engagement platform. The platform was an organized spreadsheet where players kept tabs on bets and rewards. The spreadsheet was further institutionalized when an assistant coach started keeping score on behalf of the players. The next expansion would have included an idea generation web site open to the public (, with an injury pricing site and rotisserie league to follow.
  • Continuously expanding interactions. The platform was originally developed as an incentive system to reward legal plays (e.g., causing a fumble), but started sprouting injury-causing moves over time. The community and platform in place could have been further expanded into player gambling on football games, sponsoring dog fights, or financing armed robbery by young deserving football players.
  • New win-win experiences for all parties. We’re told the bounties helped young players round off their modest paycheck, allowing them “to buy shoes” with the proceeds. I understand Zappos and Nike were eager to become involved in the Saints co-creative ecosystem. Elder players enjoyed the developmental experience of providing nurturing advice to their younger colleagues, supported by the team’s Human Resources function. The assistant coach was clearly on the short list for Coaching Innovation of the Year. And the New Orleans Saints fans got a winning football team after years of futility, allowing the entire city to regain its pride after Katrina (well, sort of).
  • New value for the club owner. The bounty system produced a highly motivated work force that fully dedicated itself to the task at hand, ultimately winning the Super Bowl.  Absenteeism was at an all-time low. Career progression was rapid. The bounty system had no cost to the owner since everything was financed by the players.  The system did have a tremendous revenue impact in terms of gate attendance and media revenue. What else could one wish for as an owner?

The bounty system was such a perfect example of co-creation and produced an ever-expanding win for all parties (except for a few injured parties along the way, but doesn’t there have to be some Schumpeterian creative destruction?). The Saints bounty system could have become the new Facebook, the new Google or the new Groupon. Will regulators ever learn?

Frozen French tundra

Monday, February 6th, 2012



It’s a rude awakening. I have arrived in Saint-Etienne, France, where the temperature has dropped down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 85 degrees earlier that morning in Mumbai. A cold suburban train from the Paris airport to Gare de Lyon and a TGV train down to Saint-Etienne, watching the snow-covered French landscape at high speed. I’m here for a workshop with a French bank, hoping to activate an economic community among the small business customers of the bank.

The temperature drop outside is huge, but the one in the room is even greater. Participants in the workshop are reluctant, to say the least. They simply don’t see the point of building a customer community. Yes, they care about Saint-Etienne, the 400,000 inhabitants city where they live, and a former mining town which struggles to find its next economic source of growth. But no, they do not see any role for their bank in activating the local economy beyond what the bank already does, i.e., gather savings and make loans to local businesses. “This is for the government to do”, one of the participants tells me in the uniquely dismissive style of my compatriots. This has to be the toughest workshop I’ve done in five years.

By mid-afternoon, there is a noticeable thaw. The bank advisors around the room are willing to contact one of their customers and ask them to describe their personal community network. The idea is to start with individual networks of individual small business owners, then see whether these individual networks somehow converge into communities we can engage on a larger scale. It’s a start. For the first time, participants start building on each other’s interventions, without my having to prompt every single comment with a question. This approach feels more concrete to them than any conceptualization of what communities and platforms can do: if co-creation starts with one advisor and one customer at a time, they’re willing to suspend disbelief and try it. I look out the window and notice the snow has stopped falling. By the time I sit down, I notice my shirt is soaked, in spite of the cold in the room.

The following day, we are in the small town of Montbrison, in the center of France. I have spent a good deal of time lying awake the preceding night, trying to mentally devise a more effective way of engaging the audience, but also still struggling with my Indian jet lag. By the morning, a miracle has occurred. The people at the workshop are warm. They’re ready to go. Ideas for communities fly around the room. They know exactly whom to engage to get started. It feels like an invisible hand is guiding us to co-creation heaven. Life is wonderful again. Thank you, Montbrison.

I sometimes wish I could predict how audiences will react to co-creation. The only thing I’ve learned is that I’m consistently wrong. My “sure thing” workshops often end up in agony, while my “fear of the unknown” workshops sometimes end up in blockbuster success. One of the teachings of co-creation is that you never know what lies beyond the initial engagement process. I guess I have to re-learn this lesson every day. I have to take my own “let go” medicine. It makes for anxious moments, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.



The US Post Office has it all wrong!

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Three or four times a year, I have to go to my local post office to send a registered letter or collect a package. Joe the Grump is always there, waiting for me, anxious to point out the mistake I made filling in my form and eager to send me back to the end of the line.

In my few moments of wounded altruism, I can even understand why he’s angry. The United States Postal Service (USPS) has just announced it is considering closing 700 branches to stem its losses ($7 B this fiscal year). The New York Times reports that mail dropped by 9.5 billion pieces last year and may drop another 28 billion pieces this year (total volume is 203 billion pieces). So, USPS management is shutting down physical infrastructure and laying off people. It may not be good news for Joe the Grump, but at long last, the postal administration appears to be behaving like a business. What’s wrong with that?

Plenty, actually. In fact, the USPS is squandering a historic opportunity. The current “lights out” strategy misses out on the fact that owning a physical space staffed with local people in the center of every city, town or village in America is a huge asset, at a time where local community activities are making a come-back. Local post offices could be the heart of those local communities. The first wave of community activity was Internet-based, relying on eBay, MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. A second generation of communities is emerging, based on live people meeting in physical spaces at the local level. Food is becoming local. So is politics. Working far from home is so 20th century. Mutualism is back in. Economies of scale are out. So is globalism. Proximity is the new cool. Who could be better placed to orchestrate this human mobilization than the local post office?

We make fun of postal employees because we care about them. In truth, we cherish our (sometimes) friendly mail man, and like the notion of a local business staffed by local people who live among us (even you, Joe). The bank employee or the grocery store clerk rotates every two years, but the teller employee at the post office will be there forever. Greed will not overtake him. Service will remain affordable. Most of the time (when the line is not too long), we love the post office’s egalitarian approach to serving rich and poor citizens alike. In many countries, the post office is the place of last refuge for immigrants and older people. Perhaps post offices represent the socialistic edge of our ruthlessly capitalistic conscience.

If you’re interested in reading a bit more, here’s my thought on how this might actually work. The post office could become a physical place of exchange for goods and services, more like eBay or a farmer’s market. Local markets are notoriously inefficient, and the post office could orchestrate supply and demand for baby-sitting, cleaning and math tutoring services. Many businesses are too small to afford a physical space (local farmers, businesses run from home), but could use the building or parking lot of these post offices on week-ends. Larger, out-of-town companies are always looking for affordable points of distribution to deliver goods to local markets, or cost-effective gathering points for mobile phone and computer repair services, for example. But you have to go look for them.

The unleashing of such community forces would have to come from employees of local post offices. USPS’ top management would have no clue about local markets, but local post office employees would know which local suppliers they should help export to other parts of the country, or what products could profitably be imported and sold locally. Each post office would become a node in a country-wide marketplace where postal employees act as enablers of local commerce, rather than frustrated bureaucrats in a dying business.

This might even bring a smile on the face of Joe the Grump.

Leadership sucks

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I never got the leadership thing. Leadership is the number one issue in most manager surveys. It is the most prominently featured section in managerial magazines. Leadership professors engage adoring HR fans in parsing out the differences between leadership and management. It is the star program in every executive education program. The parables of leadership – particularly those involving polar bears or movable cheese – take on messianic virtue. But none of this stuff ever does anything for me. I clearly suffer from leadership impairment, and it feels pretty lonely out there.

Until yesterday that is. At the end of the day, I ran across an article in the latest Harvard Business Review by Henry Mintzberg, the ever-young professor of strategy and organization at McGill University.

Suddenly, I have a Sherpa, someone who describes the world I live in. Mintzberg’s thesis: leadership sucks. O.K., I may be editorializing a little, but it’s the idea. To him, the US model of leadership, with its top-down, hero-at-the-helm iconography bears no resemblance to the way successful organizations actually work. His view: good managers foster the building of communities inside their organization and engage their employees in a collective process that starts with single innovative projects, and eventually shapes the enterprise as a whole. In the end, it is about communities doing meaningful things together, not fungible individuals who transact with their leader in the accomplishment of tasks. He suggests substituting “communityship” for “leadership.” (Henry, give me a call, I think I can help you a tad with your conceptual marketing.)

The use of the concept of community as it applies to organizational dynamics inside the organization is the new story here. We have long argued that co-creation with communities applies both outside the company – the more traditional marketing-oriented definition of community – and inside the organization – the way Mintzberg describes it. These are two sides of the same coin, an uncomfortable reality for marketing and HR people who think of themselves as having wildly different expertise (knowing “markets” vs. knowing “people,” but failing to realize that markets involve people too). Management is about communities, and there is no essential difference between building a customer community or an employee community.

There’s something annoying about Canadians like Mintzberg. On one end, they’re very much American, er, North American, that is. On the other, they have that “I’m looking at your menagerie from outside the cage” quality, with its vaguely socialistic, French-influenced hauteur. The only problem is they’re often right.