Who Hasn’t Seen the ‘Last Lecture’?

Randy Pausch’s last lecture has come up in several recent conversations I have had, and I am always surprised to find people who haven’t seen it. I mean, the guy was on Oprah, everybody must have heard of this guy or his book by now!

We are coming up on the two year anniversary of Randy’s last public post to his blog (June 26th, 2008) before his death on July 25th 2008 of pancreatic cancer, so it might be a good time to remind the world (well my small world anyway) about his gift to the world: His Last Lecture.

If you still don’t know if you want to invest 70 minutes of your life on this, watch the 10-minute version that was on Oprah. But I challenge you to watch this, then not watch the 80 minute version; so pick… 80 minutes or 90 minutes.  😉

Brand Police: When Brands Go Horribly Wrong…

I doubt it's a 'Chevy'

There was a time when the marking teams held sway in organizations. When Nike was rising to the top, selling bits of rubber at 5x the competition’s prices, it seemed that a simple logo and marketing campaign was the key to success. But, as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The marketing teams –drunk with this power– started enforcing brand etiquette, like some kind of secret police: “Our logo should never be used on a blue background!” or how about “You should never say Chevy, but ‘Chevrolet’!”

The latter isn’t some throwback to some corporate debate from the 80’s, it happened TODAY.

One of the biggest signs that a company is on its last legs (and I, unfortunately, have first hand experience with this), is that it starts flagellating wildly trying to do anything that will right the ship. Some marketeer has convinced the top executive at GM that it is somehow important to call their ‘Chevrolet’ brand ‘Chevrolet’ instead of ‘Chevy’.  It is under the auspice of ‘reducing confusion’ in internal communications:

“I get calls from international colleagues asking me ‘What is a Chevy,” said German-born GM spokesman Klaus-Peter Martin. “It takes quite a long time to explain to them.”

How long does it take to say “You know when you call Alexandre ‘Alex’, it’s like that.”

Instead they waste the time and energy of their employees bringing attention to this ‘issue’, instead of focusing on the key elements of building a brand. I can just imagine the remaining employees of GM rolling their eyes en-masse when –those that still read corporate communications– review this corporate memo. Basically, your executive is telling the world that its employees are too stupid to use your own company name.

Remember guys, your ‘brand’ is your promise to your customer, so how about you quit navel-gazing and BUILD SOME BETTER CARS!

So before you hit ‘send’ on that next company-wide memo, ask yourself: “Is this helping us build a better car?”

OK, So What is With the Logo? –> ē

For my regular readers, you will notice my usual plea for ‘Support Wikipedia’ has been replaced by an ominous green ‘e’ with a bar over top. An explanation:

I have been busy. Since my departure from Nortel I have been working on my new consulting business called ‘Psychē’ and officially (according to the government) called ‘PSYCHE CONSULTING’ in the business of ‘ORGANIZATIONAL DEVELOPMENT CONSULTING’.  Apparently the government likes yelling capital letters.

So why an ‘e’ instead of a ‘P’? ‘P’ logos look stupid IMHO. Except for the Philadelphia Flyers logo, which I only just now realized is also a ‘P’, and it’s already taken.

E stands for engineering, and in this case ‘Human Dynamics Engineering‘ (AKA ‘HDE’) a new term I am coining for what it is I am doing. E is also for ‘Engagement’ which is predominantly what the business is all about, engaging employees in their work environments, large and small. Also, the bar above the ‘e’ is “a macron, from the Greek μακρόv (makrón), meaning “long”, is a diacritic placed above a vowel” to indicate the ‘long e’ sound (‘eeee’ not ‘uh’). This is to distinguish the correct ‘psyche’ from the two possible interpretations:

(Courtesy Reference.Com)

1. The one I intend: psy·che [sahy-kee] -noun “Psychology, Psychoanalysis. the mental or psychological structure of a person, esp. as a motive force.”

2. The potentially unfortunate: psyche [sahyk] -informal verb “to intimidate or frighten psychologically, or make nervous (often fol. by out): to psych out the competition.”

And as a complete piece of trivia, ‘e’ is also the Proto-Semitic ‘H’ which is often used by people as my nickname, and has a symbol that looks like a person with his/her hands up.

Psychē LogoIf you would like to learn more about Psychē please drop by http://psycheconsulting.org. The site is rapidly evolving to become a resource for improving the workplace through ‘HDE’.

While I had always intended to use the ‘e’ with a macron above, the much-improved style of the final version is attributed to my friend and graphic designer Wendy Koch. I will provide a link to her fabulous graphic design website once it actually exists (Wendy: hint hint).

So why have I apparently gone insane, ditched the potentially lucrative field of telecommunications, and started a consulting firm?

In short, during my tenure in the Nortel MEN ESAT team as ‘Career Development Prime’ and then the overall Chair, I spent a lot of time thinking about the business impact of the level of engagement in the organization. I also found a passion for the topic which has led me to study the area ever since, amassing 4+ years of practical experience and research into the field. Based on this background, I have come up with an approach that I think would be very effective in any environment.

Now, off to work…

Oh, and support Wikipedia!!

P.S. I have been receiving a heart-warming quantity of well-wishes for my new endeavour. I am going to need some time to get back to you all, but I plan to do so!

Success at NORTEL

Now there is two words you probably haven’t heard in a the same sentence for a while!

During a presentation to a large consulting firm on Chip & Dan Heath’s ‘Made to Stick’, things got rather casual/direct and I ended up presenting some of my challenges at moving forward with my next career (which we’ll call ‘management consulting’ for lack of a better term):

  1. How do I package the ‘Made to Stick’ principles for my purposes?
  2. How do I translate this information session into a consulting opportunity for me?
  3. And the biggie… How do I address the fact that the last 12 years of my career has been with a company the public associates more with management ineptitude, than an environment that could foster an effective ‘management consultant’?

One of the attendees said something which took the whole room aback: “Why don’t you use this ‘Sticky’ method to convince people that there was ‘Success at Nortel’?” After a pause, and about a minute of laughter from the room at what was clearly a joke, he says: “No, I’m serious, wouldn’t that prove your point?”

While others in the room suggested that the employee in question may be off some important medicine, I told him I really liked the idea, didn’t see a path to get there, but I would certainly give it more thought!

That challenge stuck in my mind until I had a lunch meeting with one of my previous Nortel managers (ironically).  I was discussing how my new venture was going to be focussed on a systematic process to increasing customer and employee engagement in organizations to boost productivity, boost profit and –in Seth Godin’s words– increase the level of humanity. He matter-of-factly said: “Wasn’t our network planning team exactly that [success via customer and employee engagement]?”


Some background: Network Planning is a function that exists in all companies that build telecom networks, but was rather unique at Nortel because we were a company that sold equipment to build telecom networks, and we offered this service for free. As a simple analogy, imagine an architect who works with you to help design your home for free, before you have have even committed to buy it.  Sounds like a bad business model doesn’t it?  Not so fast!

Vendor-provided network planning services started at Nortel (AFAIK) and became an industry table-stake over the years as clients clearly decided to do more and more business with companies that would help them design their networks, evaluate new technology and specify the equipment required. This was widely replicated by our competitors with all companies in our product segment –even the smallest startups– having this function in some way, shape or form.  Some will charge for it (a bad idea, but that is worthy of another post), others offer it as a free service.  I joined Nortel to become part of the planning team, stayed in it for 7 years, unable to find a more appealing job in the whole company.  Anyone who had experience in Nortel Network Planning will tell you how great a team it was, and most of its alumni have moved on to great success in roles such as PLM, market development, sales and planning leadership roles at other companies.

Gallup Research, in their fabulous book Human Sigma (little to do with Six Sigma by the way) identifies two hierarchical pyramids that characterizes what is required for customer and employee engagement to exist.  Gallup asserts, and I certainly concur, that companies that strive to engage customers and employees significantly improve business results. I am going to apply the elements of one of these two pyramids to Network Planning at Nortel to highlight why it was so successful:

Elements of the Customer Engagement Pyramid

  1. CONFIDENCE : Can I trust the company, and do they always deliver on their promises? The kind of business Nortel is in has long product lead-times and product cycles. It is often very hard to develop a rapport with key decision makers purely through standard interaction on products, especially since these decision makers are far removed from the products themselves (they may never actually see them). The planning function allowed for regular and deep discussions about what the customers problems were, allowing us to help them do their job.  By doing this with great competence, and to schedule, we could build trust and deliver on our promises in a parallel stream to our products. To perform this function needed great trust between the carrier and vendor, because we often had as much –or more– information on their network than they did to do our job well.
  2. INTEGRITY: Does this company treat me fairly? Again, planning was in a position to develop a rapport with decision makers that sales or operations could not.  Sometimes this was even taken to extremes: I can remember one case where the customer was under time pressure, and asked us to rework a network design over the Christmas break, which we did (it showed we had engaged employees!).  Reactions like this clearly showed the customer that we were committed to their business and –more importantly– to the individuals that were decision-makers.
  3. PRIDE: Am I proud to be their customer, do they treat me with respect? I think another company providing you with extremely bright and energetic people to help you do your work is a great sign of respect! The planning teams were often providing these clients with detailed network designs and studies which would in-turn be presented with great pride as their own work. In other cases, the planners themselves became an integral part of the customer’s team, even assigned their own office space in some cases.
  4. PASSION: This company is perfect for a person like me, I can’t imagine a world without this company. What more proof do you need of this than the customers hiring the planners to be their own employees? This happened in several occasions. Because the roles of the people we were interacting with were typically cost-centres (not revenue generating) they were often under-staffed and under-appreciated.  They were asked to evaluate many complex options of how their networks were to evolve, and had many potential vendors & products to consider.  Nortel would come in with great talented people and give them a helping hand, and make our customer contacts look like miracle workers with their own executives. If you had someone make you look like a star to your boss, could you imagine a world without them?

So according to Gallup, we had created a function that created a very high level of customer engagement!

Were the results of having the planning function directly measurable? Unfortunately not*, but here is a few data points:

  • The function still exists to this day. It would seem obvious that functions that do not directly contribute to revenue were great opportunities for trimming in a company with severe financial trouble, especially after >80-90% of the workforce has been cut! The function had such a reputation in the industry, and was so leveraged by other teams like market development, sales, R&D and PLM, that I don’t think it was ever considered for the chopping block, even while many other valuable functions were thrown over the side.
  • Alumni of this function were heavily recruited by established industry players and start-ups because of the relationships these people had made with customers, and their broad network & business perspective.
  • As already mentioned, planners were regularly imbedded as key members of the customer’s own organizations or even hired by our customers.
  • Many of the networks in existence today were designed by planners from Nortel with Nortel equipment (the latter was the big payoff).

If I need to make a case for ‘Success in Nortel’, I would have no trouble positioning the network planning function as a great success story that was about engaging people and not technology.  It built stronger relationships with our customers, allowed a deeper understanding of the customer’s challenges and requirements, and helped Nortel build better products while creating a large pool of Nortel employees who could speak the customer’s language.

So now I have the content of the presentation, now I just have to go put it together.

*I have since figured out a way to do this, but you will have to drop me a line for that advice.

Building a Brand Identity: Watch Your Language!

When you discuss with people the idea that a company should have a strong brand, you often get knowing nods and agreement that yes, this is very important for businesses, and people either laud or complain about their marketing departments for their success, or lack of success, in this area.

I think this is very indicative of the attitude of many companies (especially companies not involved in the consumer market) that ‘brand’ is marketing’s job.  I believe that this is fundamentally a language problem; a problem of what words you use to engage each employee in helping to build the brand identity and making it consistent throughout your company or division, not just the marketing department.

You would probably agree that a company that can produce products and services that are consistent with what the customers actually value, has a much better chance of success than one who is inconsistent, or even worse, has lost touch with its customers.

So how do you ensure that 1) there is consistency, and 2) you remain in touch with what your customers value?

In this article I want to try and tackle the consistency challenge, and propose it has a lot to do with the language you use outside of the marketing department.

Talk to most technical folks about ‘brand’ and I guarantee you will see some eyes gloss over, other eyes will avert, and some folks may even run for the door.  It isn’t a word that really resonates well outside the cubes of the marketing department; it is a very right-bained word.  So how do we translate it?

Brand Identity: A unique set of associations that the brand strategist aspires to create or maintain. These associations represent what the brand should stand for and imply a potential promise to customers. It is important to note that a brand identity refers to the strategic goal for a brand; while brand image is what currently resides in the minds of consumers.

Wow, even my eyes are glazing over!

What if we tried translating our ‘Brand Identity’ into the following words:

  • In the Research and Developmet lets call them our ‘Design Principles’
  • For customer support lets call them our ‘Principles of Customer Service’
  • Sales might call it their ‘Elevator Pitch’
  • Portfolio management would say it is our ‘Common Value Proposition’
  • Strategy and Architecture teams would call it our ‘Strategic Vision’
  • Product test or verification would define their ‘Priority Test Criteria’
  • When you get up to the executive ranks, you could talk about the company ‘Vision, Mission or Core Values’

This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list, as I am sure you can think of other areas, and other even better words to capture what the ‘brand identity’ is to each group above; in fact I encourage you to do so in the comments below (I am looking for ideas)!!

But, by using this more functionally-sensitive language, and defining what the brand identity means for each functional group, great strides can be made to create the alignment between the efforts of various parts of an organization, and what their customers experience.  This helps every employee understand  how they contribute to “the promise to customers”.

You might ask ‘who’s responsibility is this’ to drive this alignment?  I can offer you little help here.  I have heard some arguments that claim this kind of messaging must come from the very top of the organization.  But a more pragmatic side of me sees how this can be a very improbable suggestion, especially in companies where marketing is considered a tactical, not strategic function:

All I can offer is, If this post resonates strongly with you, it might just be yours!  🙂

Its Not So Much That I Love Macs, its that I Have a Seething Hatred of PCs…

I’ll admit, I am an odd-duck… My company offers me a brand new laptop with Windows XP with which to do my work. The hardware is beautiful, a nice compact HP with all the bells and whistles. So what do I do? I follow one of my co-workers lead and buy, with my own money, a MacBook, so that I can spend less wasting all of my time on the BS that comes with a Microsoft OS.

I think, conservatively, that I save 1/2 a day a week by NOT having to wait for patches, reboots, shutdown, startup, hibernate, virus scans, and unexplained long pauses where the PC appears to be off calculating the interest on Bill Gate’s fortune.

Every once in a while, I get back to a Windows PC to help a friend, and the rage builds instantly, almost without exception. English is a weak language with which to express feelings, so simply saying I have a insatiable seething hatred for Windows, doesn’t quite capture it. Think more of the ‘rage’ infected zombies from 28 Days Later* … now you are getting close; even strong medication doesn’t seem to help. *Brilliant movie, by the way!

The most recent example was the ‘simple’ task of getting a PC to work with a wireless access point. Oh my god, after 4 minutes waiting for it to wake up, I couldn’t get it to work, even after having to fiddle with the WAP itself and turning off all security settings. Meanwhile, my Mac, attached to the same WAP, adapted to the settings changes and stayed connected. I suppose I should have just rebooted the PC which appears to be the solution for everything. I think I have rebooted my Mac about 5-10 times in the several months I have owned it! I had to reboot my friends PC at least 10 times just to reinstall XP and add all the patches.

The most often pushback I hear about people not wanting to move to a Mac (Linux is good too, but not great for noobs), is the additional cost.

You have to ask yourself, what is your time and patience worth? For a business, the business case for a Mac these days must be ridiculously simple. For one, most of they corporate process applications are web based these days anyway, so changing platforms isn’t the big deal it used to be. The IT costs must be SIGNIFICANTLY lower, which is likely why most IT departments continue to promote Windows, and hence their job security.

If I use my 0.5 days a week as a benchmark (again conservative) and use an example loaded labour rate of say $100K a year, that is ~$10K in savings a year for one employee!! It seems that companies are moving to longer and longer refresh cycles for computers so that Mac could save >$50K over its lifetime! It seems Apples are under priced! This is without considering the IT savings and ESAT benefits that would result in better productivity. If the employees are anything like me, there would also be health benefits from lower blood pressures!!

If you know of corporations using primarily Macs, please let me know in the comments below; I want to invest in them! They have a significant competitive advantage!

Leadership and ‘The Dip’

I just finished reading Seth Godin’s new book The Dip. My opinion is that it isn’t the best or most insightful of his works (Small is the New Big is my favourite, a recommended read!) but the quality of his work dictates that this is still worth a read nonetheless.

The fundamental concept in the book is that the concept of ‘never give up’ is an oversimplification. ‘The Dip’ represents that period in any endeavour where you have passed that first positive phase, in which the learning or results are quick and apparent, and before true mastery or success. This is the tough slog where you have to put aside thoughts of quitting in order to accomplish your goal.

He points out that this is an essential component of anything worthwhile, or there would be so many people that have attained mastery that the accomplishment would not be special. I would characterize things like chewing gum while walking as one of these little- or no-dip kind of achievements.

Where the theme of ‘never give up’ becomes oversimplified, he contends, is that there are things that are clearly dead-ends where quitting is the right answer. These are things that are unrealistic, or not worthwhile to the individual. He gives more criteria to use in deciding when you are just in a dip, or when you are in a dead end; for that, please read his book, because I have to get to my point.

So what can be learned from ‘The Dip’ that can be applied to one of my favourite topics: leadership? Well, my observation is, within a work environment you often have people who are doing things that aren’t worthwhile to the individual. For example, if I were to be asked to come up with some new networking protocol, I would be so deliriously bored out of my mind and ambivalent about the result, that it would be very hard for me to push past the dip. This does not mean that this would be of no value to my employer (however, based on my lack of interest, the result might be less than stellar). In rebuttal you will often you will hear people say things like “Well, that is why it is called work!” or “Why do they think we pay you to do this?” (see my previous blog on the latter comment).

So what is a leader’s role in dips? Well first, it is important that a leader makes sure that business objectives are aligned with individual interests for growth and achievement as much as possible. This helps avoid the employee seeing the objective as simply a dead end, rather than an achievement with a dip in the way.

Second, if you are like me, and have a job where you can spend an awful lot of time in a dip before you see any level of mastery (particularly compared to stellar co-workers) or success, I think it is a good leader’s role to help an employee see the progress that is being made, provide positive reinforcement that they are pushing through the dip, and the goal at the other end is valuable for the organization. It should be noted that people often have a hard time seeing progress while they are in the middle of something, it often takes a bit of outside objectivity to help point this out, so don’t spend any time worrying that you are ‘pointing out the obvious’.

Since managers typically have a broader perspective on their business than their employees, it is also their responsibility to help employees identify dead-ends. If the business environment or objectives change, it is important that employees are warned when they have actually ran into a dead-end, particularly if the dead-end is actually perceived from the business perspective instead of the individuals. An individual can spend a lot of time and resources on something that is personally gratifying, but not a business priority (i.e. see definition of ‘pet project’).

So, IMHO, it is very important for leaders to set business priorities that are aligned with individuals requirements for growth and development. This means you have to understand the business priorities AND the individuals goals. Good leaders will then be able to articulate the progress that is being made on those goals to the employees to reinforce their efforts to help them through the dips.

This effort will come back to you in spades in the form of more engaged and fulfilled employees who help you meet business goals!

Note: I often use the term ‘leader’ and ‘manager’ interchangeably. While I have read work that tries to distinguish the two, I don’t see the difference… perhaps a blog on this in the future.

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