Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Good Jobs Strategy

The Good Jobs Strategy CoverIs only way a company can keep costs down is to reduce the cost of labor? According to Zeynep Ton (a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management), it’s not a requirement – it’s a just a very bad choice.

While reducing labor costs produces short-term benefits for share-holders, it will ultimately produce long-term negatives. People that are employed with minimal benefits, low wages, and poor schedules won’t be able to provide great good service, won’t follow corporate “best practice” procedures, and won’t have any job loyalty.

Instead, the author recommends paying well, scheduling well, and training well, based on 4 Business Operational Choices:

1. Offer Less. In offering a wide range of goods, your inventory becomes a risk: greater numbers unsold goods, goods that are lost in storage, and product choice overwhelm. With fewer choices, employees will be able to better recommend products in your inventory.

2. Standardize and Empower. Identify the best way to perform tasks and standardize them. Standardization makes training easier and provides consistency. Empower employees to go beyond the basic rules (based on their training) as needed, and improve the standardization as better opportunities arise.

3. Cross-Train. Train employees to do a number of related jobs well. For example, an employee that can operate a cash register, stock shelves, answer phones, and ship packages can flexibly adapt to the varying daily needs of a business. When fewer customers are around, employees can do other necessary work.

4. Operate with Slack. In trying to schedule the “right number” of employees for a shift, you’ll invariably have situations where not enough employees are available. Understaffing creates a drain on all aspects of the business. But cross-trained employees can adapt to providing the services that are needed.

Providing “good jobs” will have a long-term benefit your employees, customers, and investors.

If your company implements the Good Jobs Strategy, the slogan Fast, Good or Cheap. Pick two, will be obsolete.

Good Cheap and Fast

A Lot Of Magic Bullets

Magic Bullets To Improve Your Marketing(Photo by David Blackwell)

We’re all trying to find ways to improve our business. Each week, we read about the newest trick or tactic that is a must. We fantasize for a “magic bullet” that will transform our business. But what if there wasn’t a single big magic bullet, but a lot of small magic bullets?

Our business culture constantly spreads the dream of “the insider secret” – something that someone did, that produced a huge result. If you’re just starting out in business, then indeed there are lots of “secrets” – but professionals simply call them “best practices”. These aren’t sexy (deep knowledge of your target audience, clear expression of the benefit of your offering, high-quality backlinks, emotional undertones, etc.). Following through on these best practices will at least put your company in “better company”.

After your initial leap into best practices, the majority of your improvement can be found in a series of smaller tactics, that if done together will result in a big result. For example: website analytic analysis, A/B testing, customer surveys, informational interviews, case studies, SWOT analysis, and value-based pricing. The problem with these smaller improvements is that it’s a lot of work to do more, especially since each tactic may require specialized skills.

Stop spending your days hoping to find a magic bullet. Instead, forge your own success through a continual attitude of gradual improvement. After a while, people will be asking you for your business secrets.

Faster Higher Stronger MarketingThis article was inspired by Mark McClusky’s book Faster, Higher, Stronger, which showcases how athletic achievement is being transformed through a combination of improved science and technology.

Less Is More

Less Is More In Marketing Copywriting
(Photo by Alex Akopyan)

Do you spend a lot of time trying to find the right words to convey the emotional benefit of your product or service? Would you be surprised to discover that there’s a psychology of word choice that can help (or harm) your brand?

When selling low-priced goods or services, wording is aligned with simple phrases that are generally empty of meaning (“tastes great”, “top-notch offerings”, “best-in-class”, etc.). People who purchase low-priced services are generally not looking for high-quality – they’re looking for something that “does the job”.  In fact, if you claim high-quality/low-price, the prospective buyer is rightfully often skeptical (if you have high-quality, why don’t you charge more for it?).

When selling mid-priced items, marketing language needs to distance the offering from the low-priced competition. This can be done by building on a lower-priced benefit, and adding a secondary emotional benefit. For example, “not only tasty, but healthy too!” Alternatively, the language may convey a “non-flowery” tangible benefit (“20% better results – guaranteed!”).

High-priced (luxury) marketing can’t simply use the same technique for separating mid-priced from low-priced phrasing. While the offering may not be measurably better than a mid-priced (or even low-priced) competitor, it needs to convey the status of your brand “promise” (perception).  You convey status with understated elegance in word selection, using words that are rarefied (polysyllabic or foreign) or simple (showing that the offering’s quality will speak for itself).

Sometimes its not what you say, but how you say it.

Bonus: Similar research for effective word in real estate listings can be found here.

The Language Of FoodThis article was inspired by the book The Language of Food (by Dan Jurafsky) which not only provides a fascinating linguistic history of many food-related names (ketchup, entree, flour, salad, etc.) but also an insightful analysis of restaurant menus and potato chip bag advertising.

Social Physics

Social Physics Book CoverHow do people really communicate and share ideas with each other? Researchers conduct lots of surveys. Experts share their “best-practices”.  However, until now, it’s all been basically a little observation and a lot of extrapolation.

The author (Alex Pentland) and his MIT research laboratory created wearable devices (sociometric badges) to measure face-to-face interactions, monitored online communities, and produced a wealth of data to examine the question, “How do ideas spread through networks?”

The field of social physics attempts to wed social science with mathematical data to create a “god’s eye” all-seeing view of groups of people (from company teams, to online communities, to societies). The key findings were:

  • Best performers use their networks differently than the average. They maintain stronger engagement with people (to be able to reach out to them more quickly) and with a diverse set of people (customers, competitors, and managers).
  • People who are energetic create more engaging interactive conversations, producing more idea flow.
  • Ideas flow easier when there’s transparency to seeing what others are doing.
  • Ideas flow better when there are a wide number of unique inputs. It’s dangerous for everyone to use the same inputs and come to the same conclusion (a potential for media control, for example).
  • There’s a wide disparity between what people answer in surveys (what they think) and how they truly act. People are aware of their goals, but often aren’t aware of their actions.
  • People rely upon social learning (it’s easier to see others doing something) more than self-learning.
  • “Common sense” is based on a community’s idea flow (shared, integrated habits, and beliefs).
  • Engagement (cooperatively working together) requires direct, strong, positive interactions between people. Social ties are keys to influencing. Weak online ties don’t create engagement. Stronger engagement also improves productivity.
  • To improve an organization, don’t just reward the “winners”. Reward those that helped the winners, and those that helped the helpers, etc. It gives everyone a vested stake in the outcome.

By having better data available for all, we can make better decisions. But instead of having the data in the hands of corporations (as we do today), we need individual ownership of data and granular control of what we share with others.

The Moment Of Clarity

The Moment Of Clarity Book CoverDecisions based on data models are woefully incomplete – no matter how carefully we collect and analyze the data.  What’s missing from the decision is our customers’ experiences. And the authors of this book (Christian Madsbjerg / Mikkel Rasmussen) claim that human sciences has the answer through the study of phenomena.

Data models excel at solving problems that we’ve seen before and have a tested system to address them. But what about those problems that we’ve not seen before and don’t really have a clue how to tackle? The wrong decision can bankrupt your business because of these blind assumptions:

  1. People are rational and fully informed.
  2. Tomorrow will look like today.
  3. Hypotheses are objective and unbiased.
  4. Numbers are the only truth.
  5. Language needs to be dehumanizing.

In 2000, LEGO was the 5th largest toymaker in the world. By 2004, it was losing $1,000,000/day! It achieved clarity on its tough problems, using sensemaking:

  1. Frame the problem as a phenomenon (instead of “what toys do kids want”, LEGO asked “what is the role of play?”)
  2. Collect the data (instead of analyzing sales,  LEGO watched the family experience)
  3. Look for patterns (instead of depending upon assumptions, LEGO pored over the data to identify common childhood patterns)
  4. Create the key insights (LEGO built on the patterns to create appropriate new products)
  5. Build the business impact (LEGO rejects products that aren’t a match for company’s aesthetics and ethics)

In your business strategy, make sure you balance the quantitative with the qualitative. Numbers without appropriate context won’t serve you long-term, especially in disruptive times.

Branding Pays

Branding Pays Book CoverWhether you’re a job seeker trying to make yourself stand out, an employee wanting to become more visible, or a company looking to attract new clients – it’s vital that you brand yourself. Branding is making your competitive advantage crystal clear. And Karen Kang’s latest book clearly shows you the five steps to do it yourself:

  1. Positioning: What is your unique and compelling value? Fill in the blanks: For ______ who needs or wants __________, I am ________, who provides ____________, unlike ___________. Make sure you clearly articulate the audience and your uniqueness at solving their needs.
  2. Messaging: What consistent wording explains your positioning? If you’re using a elevator-pitch, fill in the blanks: I (want to) do _________. It’s important because _______. And here’s a clear example __________.
  3. Brand strategy = core values + strengths + personality +  image + promise. This is a combination of rational and emotional elements that you have, aspire to, and matter to your audience.
  4. Ecosystem: Once you have a brand message, you need a way to spread it. The best way is slowly, through a well-connected network. Start from those that you know and trust. If they like your brand, then try business colleagues. If they like your brand, then try the general public. Each level of communication will not only be useful for testing your brand, but helping you to share and validate it to others.
  5. Action plan is the specific steps you’ll take to create your 360° brand. It’s more than just the words you use. It’s a complete marketing plan, every opportunity you have to interact with others – how specifically will you test and share your brand?

Scaling Up Excellence

Scaling Up Excellence Book CoverIn an ever-competitive business climate, how can organizations become ever more excellent? If you follow closely the usual best-practices, you’re likely to discover fundamental dilemmas. So, what’s a business leader to do?

In a word, “adapt”. While there are many best practices highlighted in the book, it’s clear that one size doesn’t fit all. You need to clearly know your existing business culture and be willing to experiment to identify the right mix of techniques for your business today. The authors (Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao) give lots of examples of modern companies who have struggled with these same issues and picked a mix that’s right for them.

The authors’ 7 key “scaling mantras” which guide their thinking:

  1. Spread a mindset, not just a footprint. Rather than dictate what you want others to do, help them to see (and share) what you believe.
  2. Engage all the senses. What isn’t immediately obvious may have profound implications.
  3. Link short-term realities to long-term dreams. This is the heart of strategy, making every step of your journey take you closer to your intended destination.
  4. Accelerate accountability. To move an organization requires not just a single leader, it requires group cooperation. Cooperation happens when people are empowered and accountable for their actions.
  5. Fear the clusterfug. Planning for the worst is long-term smart planning.
  6. Scaling requires both addition and subtraction. To scale up an initiative sometimes comes at the cost of something else. You can’t do everything at once.
  7. Slow down to scale faster – and better – down the road. A strong foundation allows for better growth.

The mantras are expressed in 5 scaling principles:

  1. Hot causes, cool solutions. By clearly articulating the “pain point” you can create opportunities to emotionally address the problem (logic alone won’t do it).
  2. Cut cognitive load. We often think more is better. But more is simply more. And too much information induces paralysis. Carefully isolate the key issues to allow attention to focus where it belongs.
  3. Build organizations where “I Own the Place and the Place Owns Me”. Simply trying to make everyone a superstar performer isn’t sustainable long-term. Better is to create a culture of reciprocity – where the workers are truly empowered to do what’s right.
  4. Connect people to cascade excellence. Rather than trying to change an organization all at once, build a domino chain instead. Teach a group your message. Once they’ve embodied it, let the group become the teachers (and repeat). Each group will adapt the changes to their needs, and then pass along a more effective system.
  5. Bad is stronger than good. In a field of excellence, what’s noticed is the outlier – the bad thing. Paying attention to the details will allow the big excellence picture to grow organically and sustainably.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious Book CoverThis book attempts to decipher how ideas go viral – seemingly spreading throughout our culture quickly, effortlessly, and best of all – inexpensively. Surprisingly, only 7% of word-of-mouth sharing happens online. The good news is these insights can be applied to your marketing efforts with a bit of extra work, by sprinkling in some of the following ingredients:

Social Currency. When we share something with others, we’ll considering how we’ll look in the eyes of others. Things that make us seem smarter, cooler, richer, knowledgeable, and leaders get shared more often.

Triggers. When someone mentions something, how often does this idea spring to mind? The more connected an idea is with “life as usual”, the more often the idea is likely to be shared.

Emotion. High-arousal emotions (anxiety, anger, humor, excitement, and awe) are shared much more often. We respond to extreme highs-and-lows.

Public. Most people use “social proof” to validate their choices, since it’s hard to be an know the best of everything. Therefore, the easier it is for others to see people using a product or service, the easier it is to build social proof. Likewise, making public choices private can reduce the spread of an idea (e.g., piracy or illegal drug use).

Practical Value. While quirky videos can be funny, their viral lifespan is quite short. As a social species, humans like helping others. While social currency is about the value of sender, practical value is about the value to the receiver (save money, time, improves health, or increased happiness).

Stories. A great story connects the teller and listener, and intimately meshes the (above) ingredients with the idea. The story can’t apply to another product or service. It must be integral to the idea, otherwise people won’t remember with the story-viral-association (think of all the funny Superbowl videos you’ve seen, but can’t remember what was being sold).

Decisive: How To Make Better Choices In Life And Work

Decisive Book Cover

How good are people at making good decisions? Not very.

  • 44% of lawyers wouldn’t recommend young people become lawyers.
  • 83% of business mergers/acquisitions failed to create any value for shareholders.
  • 40% of doctors “completely certain” of a diagnosis are wrong.

Why? The authors claim there are 4 villains to decision-making:

  1. Narrow framing (too few options)
  2. Confirmation bias (looking for agreement)
  3. Short-term emotion (vs. bigger picture)
  4. Overconfidence (in the future)

To combat these villains, they propose 4 strategies (“WRAP”):

  1. Widen your options
  2. Reality-test your assumptions
  3. Attain distance before deciding
  4. Prepare to be wrong

The book’s full of interesting scenarios that highlight each of the villains and how the strategies have been used to provide better tools for decision making. Here are some highlights:

  • Instead of trying to decide between two options (OR) can you combine them (AND)?
  • In deciding between doing something (or not), consider opportunity cost (what could you do with the resources otherwise?).
  • When presented with two (or more) options – imagine you can’t choose any of these. What else could you do (vanishing options test)?
  • Can you (slightly) defer a decision by deciding to do “all options” (Multitracking) until you have enough real-world data?
  • Shift your viewpoint alternatively between prevention (avoid bad) and promotion (achieve good).
  • Look for others that have solved your problem (perhaps in a different domain)
  • Use analogies to help re-describe your problem in other terms (minor -> major differences)
  • Look for dissenting opinions to better understand what you’re not naturally seeing. If you don’t have any dissension, beware!
  • Deliberately test our assumptions. A mistaken assumption may be a large business opportunity.
  • Compare our inside view of a situation with the “general statistics” for our type of situation. We think we can see what others can’t, but the numbers don’t generally lie. Shift between zooming in and zooming out.
  • Ask experts not for predictions, but for data that will help you understand both your assumptions and the past trends for various options (“What percentage of cases get settled before trial?”)
  • Create small experiments to test theories (“ooch”).
  • People are bad at predicting the future. Instead of looking for giant leaps, test smaller steps (Instead of hiring an employee, can you hire them as a consultant for a try-out period?).
  • Emotions sway our short-term perception. Consider vantage from 10 minutes/10 months/and 10 years into the future (10/10/10).
  • What would we advise our best friend in this same situation?
  • Agonizing feelings are a sign of a conflict in your core priorities (long term emotional values, goals, and aspirations).
  • Ensure you act upon your core priorities (minimize lesser priorities).
  • Instead of trying to paint a single image of a future, paint a range of images (worst- and best-case).
  • To reduce the likelihood for worst-case, anticipate the problems (“What would it take for this to be true?”).
  • Craft tripwires (automatic “wake-up calls”) to ensure clarity of decisions.
  • Group decisions need to feel fair (“process”). Make sure everyone’s options are heard, repeated back, and enlarged.
  • People regret what they didn’t do.

Should you read this book? Make your own decision!

The Why Axis

The Why Axis Book Cover

Many of the assumptions we make in our marketing are based on commonly-held truths (what we think of as “best practices”). We listen to the experts sharing their expertise on what works (and doesn’t) and adjust our marketing strategy accordingly. That’s also how we likely create our healthy lifestyle. We follow the pundits who share their knowledge and meta-analysis of medical studies. But we often don’t do the research ourselves nor actually ask the question, “Is this the best way to achieve my goal?”

Each of the chapters contains easily-understood economic analysis (i.e., “does it make money?”) on important topics:

Incentivization works only in concert with a deeper understanding of people’s values.

Women earning less than men isn’t caused by genetics, ability, or fear of competition. It’s simple assertiveness: the authors show that in our culture, women are risk-adverse (“it’s not lady-like”), and don’t ask for more money (or raises).

Children in poorer communities not succeeding as well their richer counterparts isn’t simply “just the way it is”. It’s a problem because the children (and their families) have trouble meeting their short-term needs and working towards long-term results. Incentivizing the students (and their families) can make huge difference short-term and produce long-term changes (the incentive simply gives them the freedom to do what they know is the right action).

The way to overcome minority pricing prejudice for services is convey the message to your salesperson that you’re comparison shopping (“I am getting three price quotes today”) rather than simply entrusting the transaction to the first person you deal with. That switches the dynamic from salesperson-as-god to salesperson-as-commodity, and pricing will drop to fair levels.

The way to overcome pricing prejudice for products is to do your homework before starting the buying process. Salespeople will give fairer prices to those that are well-informed, thinking that people who don’t know much about the options are likely not to know what a fair price is.

Sometimes changing the default is all it takes to change people’s actions. In marketing-speak, this is the difference between opt-in (“Please send me information”) and opt-out (“We’ll send you information unless you don’t want it”). And people generally stick with the default option. You can even get people to “pay” you to opt-out (called “Once and Done”) – promise to not contact them again if they only will donate some funds (of course, legally they can always opt-out of your marketing efforts).

People follow the crowd in making decisions, since everyone is busy and they figure if everyone else is doing something, then they likely should also. Simply saying that a large percentage of people in your community are doing something will likely stimulate like-minded action.

People donate to charity not for altruistic reasons, but for self-serving ones. Instead of trying to entice people to donate because others are, give them something tangible: a small prize, a chance at a big prize, or even a smile from someone attractive. In marketing, show people that look like your target audience – it’ll make people feel more connected to your offering.

Replacing management-by-edict with testing-by-design-thinking has been shown to produce dramatically better results. Data trumps intuition or ego and the investment in testing is cheaper than the likely cost of management mistakes (including company acquisitions).