Thots: On Staying Humble

Once led by fearsome warriors who conquered vast lands and ruled for hundreds of years, now a furniture category on Wayfair: The Ottoman Empire. It always seems like an empire will last forever, but it never does.


Words. Words. Words.

It is said that the human mind would be pure chaos without language. Language provides structure and solidity to our every thought. It’s strange to imagine that without language, we would have no thoughts. Just raw needs, physical sensations and emotions. We wouldn’t even need a spoken or written language to corral our thoughts, just some sort of symbolic representation of concepts, objects, actions, emotions, memories. Sure, we could find our way to the center of the maze so we could get the cheese — because of pattern recognition. But could we imagine what the cheese would taste like, plan what we would do after our cheese-fest, or tell our friends about our cheese find? Prolly not.

And every time we think we’re coming up with a new word or expression, we’re prolly not. We’re just renaming a concept that’s been around for a long time, or mashing together several previously existing concepts. So take that “lit”, and “salty” and “O.G.” You’re only the latest version of “groovy”, “miffed” and “eminence grise.”

And that’s my final word on the subject.


Why Vendors Don’t Care as Much as You Do

We all employ vendors, consultants, freelancers. Let’s face it, unless you’re a Fortune 500 company, you have to. And you should employ vendors. They provide expertise you do not have.

But how do you know if your vendors care as much about the result of their work as you do? TBH, they almost never will. In most cases you have agreed to pay them a fixed fee for a deliverable, or an hourly fee for producing a deliverable, and they are going to earn that fee on delivery. Regardless of whether it improves your profitability or not.

If you are a decision maker in a huge organization, or a risk-taking entrepreneur, you may decide to engage a vendor by offering them a piece of the action. If, for example, revenue increases by X percent, the vendor gets a piece of that. And conversely, if revenue falls below X percent, the vendor’s compensation may also be reduced. If they have skin in the game, they will care almost as much as you do.

But such engagements are rare. In an agreed-upon fee arrangement, the main incentive a vendor has to perform well is so that they will be re-engaged. Assuming that you did all your due diligence before you hired them — checked past work, got references, evaluated reviews, spoke with them to see if they were a good fit — how can you tell if they are a solid provider who wants you to succeed?

They meet deadlines. Have you provided all the resources they need in a timely fashion? If yes, then so should they. If they are not able to meet a deadline, they should inform you and let you know why. It happens. It’s normal. You might want them to provide good work a little late, as opposed to slap-dash work on time. But you definitely don’t want to be chasing them down to find out where the work is and why they’re not returning your calls.

They provide progress reports and updates even when you haven’t asked for them.

They admit it if they make a mistake, and may even bring it to your attention. They also tell you how they corrected it, and how they’re re-engineering keep it from happening again. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s human. But covering up, denying, or blaming others for a mistake is not a good sign.

They don’t try to get one over on you. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if a vendor is doing this. Especially if you are at an information disadvantage. For example, when the car mechanic tells me what is wrong with my transmission or the dentist tells me why I need a replacement filling, all I can say is “I guess.” Or get a second opinion. BUT, if a vendor seems to be doing the same thing over and over with nothing to show for it, or providing something that seems generic, easily available, or outsourced, dig a little deeper. Where did this come from? How does it work? Can the individual who created it explain it to me in detail? If you have the resources, get a second opinion.

It may be that your vendors are just not great at communicating, so don’t jump to the conclusion that they are ripping you off. In many instances, we are simply not aware how complex certain processes are, and hearing about how things are done restores our faith.

If a vendor does something obvious, such as copying an article in the first page of google results and providing it to you as their custom solution to your company’s problem (as happened to me), then it is likely that all trust is lost. And when trust is lost, the engagement is essentially over, contract or no.

They care about the results after the product/plan/strategy etc. is delivered. They ask you happened. How is the plan working? Is there something that should be tweaked? How do the other stakeholders feel about it? Do you get the feeling that not only are they hoping for more work, they genuinely care about what they have produced for you? Now, that’s a good sign.


What’s your favorite color?

Red. No, blue! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Twenty fun points to you, if you get that reference.

No, but seriously, designers definitely have opinions on color. Some do everything in black, with hits of fire-engine red. Some stick with primary colors or with pastels. Some of don’t have favorite colors, but definitely do have least-favorite colors. (Mine is pink.)

Some of switch favorites with the trends, and some just never budge. I’m looking at you, purple people.

I’ve definitely gone through phases, but I will say that there are certain color combinations that I’ve always adored, and probably always will.

Brown and peach. Purple and chartreuse. Navy and white. But my all time favorite combo is charcoal gray and post-it-note yellow. I love that duo so much that I’ve got their hex codes memorized.

That’s right. Lennon and McCartney. Peanut butter and chocolate. Tom and Jerry. And #333333 and #FFFFCC.

Better together.

web business

Try something different. The second reason why to.

Most people hate risk. A select few really do love it, but willy-nilly risk-taking is not a formula for success. Some say they love it, but not-so-secretly hedge their bets. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s wise.

When you’re asking someone to do something new with their business, you’re asking them to take a risk. First, understand that it may not seem as risky to you as it does to them.

You’re thinking, “I’ve seen this work many times before” or “It’s a relatively small investment”, or “Why would I recommend something that I didn’t think would work?” And they’re thinking, “It’s my money, it’s my business, and at the end of the day, I’m left holding the bag.”

Your job here is to minimize the risk. And one of the best ways to do that is to offer to test. Test the concept in a small region, or for a short period of time, or with a select sampling of customers. In online world, we love A/B testing. You don’t always get what seem like dramatic results, but even a half-percent difference, especially if it holds, can make a huge impact at scale.

Offer to test the current scenario vs. a new one, or Option A vs. Option B — in the case of decision paralysis.

Testing in focus groups or with online evaluation services is useful, especially for real-life ‘debugging’ and idea generation, but it isn’t the best option for business decision-making. The best way to do that is to put new concepts out there IRL — and see what happens.

You may run across an individual who doesn’t believe testing is necessary, because they know best. This can be hard to overcome, but if you can explain the process, include their concept in the test, and make it into a competition, you’re more likely to get the okay for testing. (People who think they know best also often like a friendly competition.)

But remember, be prepared for unexpected results. Even if your concept doesn’t win, at some point it’s hard to argue with the data.

Just keep on testing!

web business

Try something different – the first reason why to.

As humans, we naturally tend to inertia. Change is hard. It’s the unknown. What will happen? It could be bad! Most of us are happy with our familiar, cozy ways of doing things. But what if our familiar, cozy ways aren’t working? Or could be working a lot better? How do we convince ourselves, or someone else, to try something different?

Today we discuss the first, and possibly least sound, way of making the case for a new approach: the competition is doing it.

But will that change anyone’s mind?

Although on closer inspection, ‘everyone else is doing it’ is not a great rationale for making a process change, it is undeniably effective in business.

(Maybe not so effective at home, though. “I suppose if everyone else was jumping off a bridge, you’d do it, too?”)

But because we cannot see behind the curtain of our competition’s external messaging, we assume they are geniuses and have unlocked a key to success that remains hidden from us. When multiple competitors are doing “whatever the thing is”, so much the better. They’re all geniuses! It’s working for all of them!

Maybe so. Maybe not. But we cannot know until we try it ourselves.

Study the competition, infer their reasoning, set up a testing plan, and analyze the data once the plan is in place. With a clear structure and benchmarks for results, you may just make your case.


Thots: On Deliberate Choices

If you never want anyone to pick up when you call, simply change your caller name to ‘Scam Likely.’


The Strange Tale of the Ocean Burglar

These days I can hop in the ocean for a swim whenever I feel like it. This is particularly nice in the summer when the water’s calm and warm and the sea critters keep their distance.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I saw a fellow in full-on wet suit and snorkel gear, swimming back and forth along the beachfront. Wierd — because you hardly ever see anyone in a wetsuit here, even on those few surf-worthy days. What’s more, the guy was just slowly floating along, about 50 yards out, not really going anywhere.

Then one of the lifeguards started to blow his whistle at the guy and gesture in an agitated fashion. Who knew … I had never even seen the lifeguards move before. Kind of like those motionless iguanas who sun themselves on the rocks all day.

The snorkler started half-heartedly swimming downshore, but probably realized he was never going to outswim a rescue ATV. Accordingly, he made a dash for the beach. Dragging along, of all things, a fishing line loaded with what looked to be over 20 ocean perch or red snapper. Despite being loaded down with two dozen fish and wearing a full-body wetsuit, mask and snorkel, the perch poacher managed to elude the (now thoroughly amused) lifeguard.

I don’t know what rule the guy broke, if any. But I definitely felt like I had just witnessed the “ocean perch” version of the Seinfeld “lobster” episode.


The 5 or 7 — or However Many — Phases of my Corona Times

First, I’m very lucky that I haven’t contracted the virus. But I’m only a few degrees of separation from those who have. So let’s get that out of the way.

When my full-time employer issued the decree in March 2020 to ‘go work from home.’ I was pretty excited. It was starting to feel hinky out there. People were acting weird in the office, getting mad if anyone coughed, and then going out to raves, and then dealing with the side eyes when they returned. You get the idea.

I love working in my home office. I love not commuting. I love having lunch break on my back patio. I knew there weren’t going to be a lot of entertainment options in this new world, but even so … I could exercise every day! I could take walks every day! And so began Phase 1.

About four weeks in, when it was absolutely clear the ‘before times’ weren’t coming back anytime soon, exercising every day forever wasn’t so appealing. So ended Phase 1.

Then came Phase 2. Get back to reading books. I’ll read a book a week! As long as it’s fiction. Unfortunately I discovered that modern media has destroyed my attention span. Reading does calm the mind. Even if you’re reading a book about a British girl who can’t stop shopping, it’s still making your brain work better. But my internet brain barely had the patience for it.

After finishing about four books, I thought, who am I kidding with this book a week idea? Do what you can do.

Enter Phase 3. Cooking stuff I don’t usually cook. It’s a cliche, but banana bread happened, so did bagels, soup with cilantro, and brownies. There was a lot of baking. The pendulum had swung away from daily exercise, to lying on the couch watching tv and eating carbs.

Phase 4. Depressing Documentaries. Including Tiger King, The Vow, and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Phase 5. Home Improvement. That’s where I am now. Sometimes it’s just pushing furniture around, sometimes it’s extensive browsing on Wayfair.

The weirdest thing is, that once upon a time I thought this would end. It seems like a million phases ago.

web business

On the Perils of Competency

We all know one. A person who’s just good at everything. They’re good at math, at sports, at cooking, at making friends, at public speaking, at writing, at making doll houses and travel plans. The list never seems to end. (Not to be confused with the person who will freely tell you how good they are at everything, but are mainly good at telling you how great they are. ) The super competent person is usually humble. They know they can do a lot of things, but they recognize that there are others who are more talented.

Most organizations have individuals who are multi-competent. The person who can build a handy spreadsheet for others to use when performing a routine – but complex – calculation. That person who can step in as support during a sales pitch. (They may not be the flashiest presenter, but they provide an aura of expertise and stability.) That person who knows how to get a dancing balloon man for a party, and submit an RFP, all while handling a delicate personnel matter.

If you are an organizational leader, you will be tempted to engage the multi-competent person in an abundance of situations.

For example

  • The Divisional Director of Information Technology picks up the weekly snacks and decorates the office at the holidays.
  • The Controller who personally corrects discrepancies on every Manager’s timesheet.
  • The ace sales rep who writes the company’s weekly blog.

Let’s just point out why this is a bad idea.

An uber-competent person can provide cover for many incompetent people. You will not be surprised to learn that there are many individuals who do not want to perform routine and complex tasks and have zero interest in either just getting through it or figuring out a more efficient way to accomplish it.

Let’s say a manager asks the multi-competent “Chris” to train a new employee, “Pat”, on the preparation of the Weekly Net Usage Reports. Chris does so, creates some shortcuts, detailed instructions, routinely checks Pat’s work while training, and eventually hands off the task to Pat.

But Pat hates preparing the Weekly Net Usage Reports. They are not only boring, they are also hard. Pat loses focus, makes a lot of mistakes, claims to the manager that the system doesn’t work, and there’s no way the reports can be done in the time allowed. The manager says, “Well, Chris can obviously do them, so it’s not impossible, and we can’t have these mistakes, so the manager gives the task to Chris.

You see what’s happening here. Chris is now spending time doing an entry level task, at a pay rate that is well above the difficulty of the task. And Pat is still on staff, perhaps asked to work on tasks that are less demanding, or, even worse, allowed to surf the internet for half of the day. Organizationally, it is important to make sure that the cost of time matches the complexity of the task performed.

In most cases, a multi-competent person has been multi-competent for quite some time. They didn’t instantly become a jack of all trades when they walked into your office. But many super competent people have difficulty saying “no.” It is satisfying to be needed and feel accomplished. But just because you are good at doing something doesn’t mean that’s what you should be doing.

The risks

An organization runs a risk by requiring a competent employee to do a kitchen-sink list of tasks, just because they’re capable of doing it. Every job involves some disagreeable tasks, but if every task is disagreeable and blocks off channels for advancement, the organization may lose that employee.

Further, by permitting the Pat to escape a challenging task, the organization does Pat no favors either. Pat is bored, underemployed, and setting a bad example for everyone else. Pat’s career is stalled as well, as it’s clear the organization has effectively given up on making Pat a valued employee.

By allowing Chris to do so many things, the organization has rendered Chris both indispensable and stymied. Management definitely doesn’t want to lose Chris, but they are missing the opportunity to allow Chris to do things that could legitimately move the organization forward. There is also the question of how to replace Chris. It’s going to take a lot longer than it should — now that Chris has become a bucket into which a pile of wildly diverse and random tasks are tossed.

If you’re a Chris, it may seem like being a swiss army knife is never dull and provides job security. But long-run it keeps you from developing true expertise. You will have to continually draw boundaries — always focusing on the cost to the organization, not on your own personal goals.

If you’re a manager in an organization that employs several super-competent individuals, recognize it, but don’t let it run amuck. Channel their abilities into something that pays off for the organization, and for them. And when a Pat tells you, “I can’t,” don’t concede. Ask them to try again.