Practically Radical

"The most powerful and instructive change manual you'll ever read."

- Daniel H. Pink, bestselling author of
A Whole New Mind and Drive
Wall Street Journal Bestseller!
#1 Bestseller! Inc./800CEORead
 
November 7th, 2013

Seriously…A Smile Is Always in Style

Last week, the front page of the New York Times carried an in-depth report on a “broad and transformative trend” in Russia. It had nothing to do with more democracy or less corruption. It had to do with better customer service—specifically, an intense focus inside Aeroflot, the infamous Russian airline, to teach flight attendants how to smile.

    “Anna, you just showed her the champagne bottle but didn’t say anything,” one instructor coaxed a young employee. “This is the silent service of Soviet times. You need to talk to her. And you need to smile and smile and smile.”

    I found two things about the report especially noteworthy. First, these basic reminders are having a revolutionary impact at Aeroflot. According to the Times, customer surveys indicate that the airline now has the best service of any carrier in Eastern Europe, including the best the West has to offer.

    Second, Aeroflot’s program comes at a time when the business culture in the United States seems to be questioning the importance, the value, even the authenticity of human-to-human connections. In an era of cutthroat competition, deep-seated cynicism, and the digital disruption of everything, does it make sense to make big bets on the power of small acts of kindness?

    Over at HBR, I just posted an essay about the power of emotional labor and why, in a world being reshaped by technology, authentic gestures of humanity count for so much. You can read it here.

 

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September 17th, 2013

Playing It Safe Is Riskier than You Think

There are all sorts of reasons why so many big organizations can be slow to make changes that everyone agrees need to be made. “Our current margins are too good, even though the business is being eroded by new competitors.” “Our current products are still popular, even though a new generation of offerings is getting traction.” “Our current distribution system can’t reach the customers we need to reach to build a new business.”

In other words,  most leaders and organizations are really good at quantifying the risks of trying something bold or striking out in a new direction. What are the downsides of and obstacles to introducing a new product or targeting a new market? They are far less adept at reckoning honestly with the risks of staying the course. What’s the worst that can happen if we do more of the same?

In a very real sense, the first job of leadership is to identify and overcome the costs of complacency. To persuade colleagues at every level that there are genuine risks for the failure to take risks—that the only thing they have to fear, is the fear of change itself.

Over at HBR, I explain why "Playing It Safe Is Riskier than You Think."

 

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September 4th, 2013

Simple Ways to Change How We Change

I devote most of this blog to reckoning with the future of business and learning from organizations and leaders that are helping to invent the future. But I hope you’ll indulge just a bit of nostalgia about the past. It was twenty years ago this Fall that Alan Webber and I finalized our business plan and created a “prototype” issue of Fast Company. We’re in the throes of organizing a reunion to commemorate the anniversary, to reassemble the old gang and toast old times, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the early days and thumbing through my well-worn copy of that prototype.

 

As it turns out, one of the very first articles in that very first issue is a smart and entertaining list compiled by E.F. Borisch, product manager at a long-established outfit called Milwaukee Gear Company. Borisch’s article was titled, “50 Reasons Why We Cannot Change,” and it offered a clever and entertaining collection of objections to and worries about the hard work of making real progress. Reason #1: “We’ve never done it before.” Reason #4: “We tried it before.” Reason #13: “Our competitors are not doing it.” Reason #17: “Sales says it can’t be done.” Reason #18: “The service department won’t like it.” Reason #45: “We’re doing all right as it is.” Reason #50: “It’s impossible.”

 

Now here’s the punch line: E.F. Borisch compiled his list back in 1959, and published it in an obscure journal called Product Engineering. What we found so amazing about the list when we reprinted it in 1993—and what remains just as amazing twenty years later—is that most leaders in most organizations face precisely the same set of worries and pushbacks today.

 

The more things change, it seems, the more the objections to change remain the same.

 

So what have we learned in the twenty years since Fast Company was created, or the 54 years since E.F. Borisch compiled his list? Over at Harvard Business Review, I suggest five simple principles to change how we make change. You can read the essay here.

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May 14th, 2013

Join Me for a Webinar

This coming Thursday, as part of series of activities in support of Small Business Month, the folks at PNC Bank are hosting a one-hour Webinar with me. The target audience for the session is entrepreneurs, senior leaders of fast-growing companies, young people with little more than the germ of an idea or a rough business plan--not to mention anyone else who wants to shake things up inside their company or do something new in their industry.

 

The Webinar will begin at 8:30 AM Eastern time on Thursday May 16, You can register here. I hope you will join!

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October 16th, 2012

Clever Ways to Be Kind

I’d like to say I was surprised by the wave of commentary triggered by my most recent post over at Harvard Business Review, but I had a feeling it would get a big reaction. In the essay, titled “It’s More Important to Be Kind than Clever,” I told the story of a touching gesture by a store manager at Panera Bread toward a customer undergoing chemotherapy, described the huge social-media phenomenon the gesture unleashed, and posed two simple questions: “What is it about business that makes it so hard to be kind? And what kind of businesspeople have we become when small acts of kindness feel so rare?”

Those questions obviously struck a nerve with readers, who spent weeks discussing why and how we’ve drummed basic emotions, and simple acts of decency, out of so much of day-to-day business life. As I argued in my earlier post, “In a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of kindness and compassion that remind us what it means to be human.” Now it’s time to raise the obvious next question: How do we as leaders encourage, spread, and make more “ordinary” ways of behaving that today seem extraordinary? Are there clever ways for leaders to help their organizations become more kind.

Those are huge questions, of course, but my basic answer to is for leaders to think and act in ways that are designed to bring out the best in whomever they encounter. That is, to spend less time scoring, critiquing, and correcting colleagues who make mistakes, and to spend more time identifying and rewarding colleagues who behave the way we wish everyone would behave. Leaders who engage in relentless fault-finding can’t help but lead to a culture of bloodless execution. Leaders who celebrate small acts of kindness, who reward moments of connection, give everyone permission to look for opportunities to have a genuine human impact.

To read my follow-up essay at HBR, in which I explain several clever ways to be kind, visit the site.

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August 23rd, 2012

It’s More Important to Be Kind than Clever

One of the more heart-warming stories to zoom around the Internet lately involves a young man, his dying grandmother, and a bowl of clam chowder from Panera Bread. It’s a little story that offers big lessons about service, brands, and the human side of business—a story that underscores why efficiency should never come at the expense of humanity.

Marketing types have latched on to this story as an example of the power of social media and “virtual word-of-mouth” to boost a company’s reputation. But I see the reaction to the gesture as an example of something else—the hunger among customers, employees, and all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents terms. In a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of compassion and connection that remind us what it means to be human.

My new post for HBR explains why “It’s More Important to Be Kind than Clever.” You can read it here.

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August 13th, 2012

A Quick History of Fast Company

After a recent talk in Dallas, I sat down for a video interview and stepped into the Way Back Machine, to discuss the launch of Fast Company, the ideas for which the magazine stood (and still stands), and what Alan Webber and I hoped to achieve nearly 20 years ago when we set out on our adventure.

It's a fun discussion, and you can watch it here.

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August 8th, 2012

When Bad Service Is Good Business

It’s hard not to be surprised by what you read in the newspapers these days, but a recent report in the New York Times left me downright floored. Richard X. Bove, a high-profile securities analyst who focuses on bank stocks, wrote a commentary that excoriated Wells Fargo for its lousy service—so much so that he announced he had moved his business to a competitor bank. But that same commentary praised Wells Fargo as a company and upgraded its stock to a buy.

Bove’s basic argument? Lousy service can be good business. “I’m struck by the fact that the service is so bad, and yet the company is so good,” he told the Times, which devoted an entire article to his conclusion. “Whatever it is that drives people to do business with a given bank, in my mind, now has to be rethought.”

Fair enough, let’s rethink. There are, I would submit, a few situations where bad service and good business go hand-in-hand. The first is when companies are explicit with customers that service is not part of what they’re signing up for—in fact, that what the company offers requires a rough-and-tumble relationship with customers. There’s a second category of companies for whom lousy service may be good business—companies whose offerings are so compelling, and whose reach is so vast, that making the investments required to deliver high-tough service would be making a big strategic mistake

But what strikes me about the situation that Richard Bove describes is that Wells Fargo (or any big bank, for that matter) does not conform to either of these two categories. When your company offers products that are pretty much indistinguishable from what your rivals offer, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special. What do you offer than no one else offers? What do you deliver that no one else in your industry can deliver?  Those are the questions that most companies have to be able to answer—and so few ever do.

Over the long term, companies that aspire to be great at selling must first be great at service—to give customers, who have a vast array of decent products and prices from which to choose, a reason to come back and do more and feel good about the experience.

Here's my full take on the question of when bad service is good business, over at HBR.

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August 1st, 2012

Practically Radical, Now in Paperback!

I am very excited to announce that the paperback edition of Practically Radical has just been released by my friends at William Morrow. I've updated all of the case-study material for the paperback edition, and I've  added an all-new "Work Book" of questions and exercises designed to help individual leaders change the game in their organizations. I'm just as excited to announce that the original hardcover edition of Practically Radical has gone back to press for what I think is the book's fifth major print run. All I can say is wow—and thanks! It has been so gratifying to experience all the enthusiasm and support for the book over the last 18 months.

And speaking of the last 18 months...Since the publication of Practically Radical, I’ve had the chance to share its themes, advice, and case studies with audiences of executives, technologists, and entrepreneurs from around the world. What a long, strange, wonderful trip it’s been—from urging on hundreds of Russian entrepreneurs in a movie theater in Moscow, to swapping ideas and business plans with advertising hotshots and startup founders on a rooftop in Berlin, to addressing thousands of human-resource professionals in a vast convention center in Toronto, to being grilled by engineers and technologists from one of the world’s leading aerospace companies—literally an auditorium filled with rocket scientists.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest reward for having spent months and years honing the messages for this book is the chance to then spend months and years interacting with people who are interested in those messages. Over time, though, I’ve sensed a change in what these change agents want to hear about—or, more precisely, what they want to talk about. Increasingly, I’m being asked not just to present my ideas and themes, but also to help leaders at every level figure out how those ideas and themes apply to their problems—that is, how to put the ideas in Practically Radical to work inside their organizations and in their careers.

That's why, for the paperback, I assembled the Practically Radical Work Book—questions that define the core challenges of change for leaders in any field, along with exercises to meet those challenges and do the hard work of making long-lasting progress in fast-moving times. I’ve always thought that the value of a book aimed at leaders who want to make a difference has less to do with the precision of the arguments it makes than with the energy of the conversations it unleashes and the originality of the answers it inspires. Here’s hoping the book, in whatever form you encounter it, unleashes energy and inspire answers for you and your colleagues.

Thanks again for the support!

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May 31st, 2012

Please, Can We All Just Stop “Innovating”?

There’s something about the culture of business that tends toward excess—in financial markets, to be sure, but also in the “market” for new ideas and management techniques. The logic is always the same, whether the idea in question is reengineering, six-sigma quality, or lean production systems: A genuinely original strategy is born in one company or industry, consultants discover the practice and turn it into a marketable commodity, executives in all sorts of other companies race to “buy” the product—and then wonder why the technique didn’t work nearly as well in their organization as it did in the place that created it in the first place.

I fear that very dynamic is unfolding today with respect to a piece of language and a leadership aspiration that has become the Holy Grail for business thinkers like me.

That piece of language, that aspiration, is innovation.

Indeed, a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, which did not get nearly the attention it deserved, basically made the case that the word “innovation” has outlived its usefulness. “Companies are touting chief innovation officers, innovation teams, innovations strategies and even innovation days,” the hard-hitting piece noted. “But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating. Instead they are using the word to convey monumental change when the progress they’re describing is quite ordinary.”

Ouch, that’s gonna leave a mark! But I have to admit, as someone who spends a huge amount of time thinking, writing, and lecturing about new ways to build and lead organizations, the Journal’s no-nonsense pushback deserves serious consideration. Maybe it’s time we all stopped “innovating” and set our sights on something more meaningful.

Over at HBR, I make just that case--and issue a plea spend less time with buzzwords and more time on creative breakthroughs. You can read the essay here.

 

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