The importance of reading everything

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My parents had a rule for us when we were young. Well, they had many rules but this one applied only in the summer during our school break, regardless of the weather. They required us to read for one hour after our lunch. It seemed strange to us then, embarrassing, in fact, since none of our friends suffered under such an imposition and we were the targets of mild ridicule.

It challenged us at the time but I warmed to the activity after the first couple of years. After I plowed through the entire World Book encyclopedia set I turned my attention to something a bit more esoteric. I read the Warren Report.  At the age of eleven (fact). It took quite a few days during which I blew past the obligatory hour of reading, which alarmed my mother. But her alarm turned to interest (and then maybe, later, back to alarm) when I shared with her all that I learned about bullet trajectory, Cuba, and some chubby guy named Jack Ruby.

I thought of this today when I saw a link on Twitter to yet another article that discussed the problems associated with too much information. I know life is hectic. I know the Internet age has ratcheted up the volume of written material. I also know we shouldn’t complain too much about that. We’re fortunate. Suffering from plenty is better than enduring the longing of scarcity.

In praise of contemplation

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While synapses are not commonly associated with computing or with business, metaphorically they may hold the key to understanding how to unlock real business innovation.

Medical science has known of their existence for decades, going well back into the 1800s, and even then referred to them by the name we use today. It wasn’t until Charles Scott Sherrington conducted the research that eventually delivered to him the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physiology that the world came to understand that the electrical impulses occurring when brain synapses (the contact points of neurons) connect with each other is what activates the human body at the cellular level. If you’ve read any scientific literature on the subject you will have learned about the diffusion, the binding, the messaging, the triggering, and the reactions that take place at that moment of connection, moments that form the basis of all the activity we undertake through our lives. The connections are, literally, sparks of life.

Innovation, as a word, is a bit more problematic. It’s grown to become a business cliché and a catch-all for all kinds of activity that in less-breathy times we would have called work. Like a lot of other words that slide easily off the tongue without conscious thought, it’s become enveloped in fog and has lost its edges, its meaning. So let’s start then with a definition.

Innovation is the process of making changes in something established, by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. Take a moment to think of how you may have used the word innovation when you’ve described some aspect of your own work, the processes that you execute, the stuff you produce to collect your salary. Was the activity you called “innovation” really that? Did it improve upon something or was it just a really good execution of something that already existed and that produced a great outcome? If it was the latter, that’s good but it’s not innovation (even if you did it with more enthusiasm than your predecessor). It would be innovative if you created a new way of executing tasks that produced a measureable improvement to the outcome’s speed of delivery, quality (reliability), or utility for the end user.

Having stripped the word innovation back to its essence we can now visualize it in the business world as meaning a process whereby companies create something new and that the market values or, even abstractedly and perhaps without direct attribution, benefits from. The pressure to do this well is increasing each week. Static companies are failing but companies that focus on creating something new that the market needs ward off threats of commoditization (as described in this HBR article about artificial intelligence) and survive for another day.

How to create something new? Obviously you must start with knowing what you do and what you’re good at. Then you examine whether that thing you do has upward resonance in the market. Meaning, sure it had appeal at some point but will it still have appeal going forward? You look at what the market needs and will need. Can you deliver? If not, what will it take to deliver it? Start innovating. Start utilizing all your neurons.

Neurons = your people

Recall that neurons are nerve cells and for our business analogy are represented by a company’s people. The synapse is a contact point on a neuron and it’s that point where an electrical impulse is generated and transmitted to another neuron.

Two of your people communicating about solving the same challenge = a synapse

Your people possess both considerable knowledge of discrete aspects of your processes and an informed, higher view of their purpose and the expected outcomes. There are no better individuals to consult with regarding process improvement than your own people. Why do you think management consulting companies insist on interviewing individual contributors when they begin their massive consulting gigs? They know where to go for the details, for the information that will fuel their own ideas for optimizing your company’s efficiency. But the neurons, your people, cannot do it alone. Here’s what they need.

Customers – By this I mean both future customers and existing ones. In both cases, through their behavior, demonstrations of interest and disinterest, pertinent statements on any channel, buying patterns, all should be viewed as critical data elements about the market’s needs, appetite for solutions, and validation for the very reason you exist as a company. Data collected about them is synonymous with fuel and the customers themselves as neurons.

Peers – their peers are their cohorts, the ones who are invested in the company and its success to a similar degree. They share the ups and downs of the day to day job. Their peers are the ones who’ve already shared complaints they have about processes, disappointing results, poor communication between teams.

Contemplation – the effort made to quietly, and thoroughly, examine a subject. Critically, undisturbed solitary time is required to allow staff members the opportunity to review all aspects of the processes they execute in their role. This should be a recurring activity for them and its output should become a recurring subject of staff meetings throughout the year during which staff members would be asked to deliver a brief of their ideas for revamping, improving, and perhaps even inventing new, processes. A prerequisite though is for staff members to educate themselves about their own company’s products, the company’s challenges, the customer’s business, and the market dynamics that affect the customer. Having the opportunity for uninterrupted thought will create the environment for the human synapses to fire and for them to generate ideas that can be shared with peers (through the business synaptic process, to coin a phrase and as shown below).

In the wheel below are depicted the various elements of innovation. The lightning bolts signify the locations where a synapse exists, where new information is communicated and where it has its moment to flourish or die.

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Without contemplation there can be no foundation for innovation. It is the element most commonly ignored in the business world. Make time for contemplation for it’s how ideas begin. An idea begins in the solitude of one person’s mind, as a spark between neurons. Those synapses will be more plentiful in the solitude that accompanies contemplation.

Make transformation mean something for them

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They’re not buying it.

They hear the words the executives say about digital transformation but, unconsciously, they aren’t buying it. They read the periodic communiques from the management team about the various transformation initiatives that have been launched but the messaging doesn’t really stick. They may even take the time to read industry material that describes the urgency for companies to transform the way they operate and go to market but most of it gets sucked into the swirling dark matter of their mind. They attend the town halls and nod approvingly when each VP reviews their plan for the coming year, but they’re also thinking, obsessing, about that deadline that looms this Friday for their own project. They are as close to being riveted as one can get in a corporate setting when their dynamic and engaging CEO artfully tells a story for why the company needs to evolve but they can’t get past the fact they never see her at any other time than these town halls.

Then they go back to their desks.

If they are individual contributors they might first quickly check their Facebook feed to see what they missed before jumping onto the fileserver to locate that document they were looking at yesterday, the one that describes the steps they’re supposed to take when they want to requisition a new territory report. Then they go to lunch.

If they are a manager they might go back to their desk and make a quick note to include a brief reference to the town hall content in the next staff meeting scheduled for next week. Then they’ll quickly open the email app and start working through the backlog while munching a sandwich they brought from home.

The digital transformation messaging they heard in the town hall was both interesting and a little nerve-racking but at the same time it was abstract. If you asked them, they wouldn’t use the word skeptical or cynical about the prospects of the digital transformation initiative being successful or even mattering. Instead they might say this sentence, “I don’t see it affecting the way I work any time soon.”  Or this, “I’m glad the execs are the ones who have to worry about that. I have my own set of projects I need to focus on.”

Can a company’s digital transformation initiative succeed if frontline employees don’t buy into it, or if they don’t even understand it at all? Can sheer will of the management team, on its own, drive the initiative towards eventual success? What are the odds that redesigned processes will accurately reflect intimate knowledge of the customer if their creation excludes the involvement of people within the company with whom the customer most frequently interacts?

Bubbles can be beautiful… in bathtubs and kitchen sinks, or when blown by a child threw a ring. Management bubbles though can be deadly to business.

Communication is critical and we can see from the example at the beginning that the company is doing some of the right things. The missing piece though is their ability to ensure a sustained and clear flow of communication from top to bottom and, almost more importantly once the initiative is launched, from bottom to top.

So how can a company ensure its digital transformation initiative is both clearly understood at every level while being inclusive of every level at the same time? The same way any other successful company transformation has happened in the past, by practicing good, transparent, consistent, fair, and respectful management. By understanding that to be digitally transformed it means the entire company must be transformed. Each layer. Each process. Each person. Each partner.

Communication is the key enabler. Its power lies in its relevance for the listener. If you want the buy-in of your employees, make transformation mean something for them, for their daily work, for their hour to hour work, for the way they see themselves making a meaningful contribution to the company’s success.

I’ll close with this thought on communication. It is my Friday gift to you, the reader. This post is exactly 700 words in length. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, as mentioned in this article, was the same length.

Digital Transformation: Thinking to Level 2

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I attended my regular Friday morning BodyPump class today and the instructor didn’t show up. She called in sick but too late for the gym to organize a replacement and so since the class is filled with very serious regulars one of them simply walked over to the studio computer, tapped the BodyPump icon, and down came a massive projection screen. A 20 second countdown later and I was in my very first virtual class.

I know virtual exercise classes have been around for many years for both studio and home use so I’m not revealing anything revolutionary. What struck me as soon the class was 5 minutes old though was the realization that, in my mind anyway, our real-life instructor, the one I’ve been raving about for weeks as being the queen of the perfect cue and of the engaging and constant chatter, had been digitally transformed (replaced). Has anyone ever heard of Wally Pipp? He’s the New York Yankee who took a day off in 1925 and was replaced by some unknown bench warmer (to that point) named Lou Gehrig. The latter took over Wally’s spot and went on to play in the next 2,632 consecutive games over more than 16 years. I wonder if our real-life BodyPump instructor is going to become our very own Wally Pipp.

Afterwards, the situation got me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of a gym utilizing a virtual class format over a real-life instructor. I wondered whether they’d tried it before on a more programmatic basis and whether they’d ever surveyed the members to learn whether there was an appetite for that kind of class delivery. What are the potential cost savings? What can virtual programming do to the cost structure of the gym when less people are required to administer, schedule, and deliver a set of classes?

I was Level 2 thinking.

Digital transformation is all over just about every form of media and yet for those of us buried deep in its strategy and roll-out we can easily forget that whatever it is, it’s not readily obvious to everyone. Sometimes we’re required to offer up an explanation to people who (mercifully for them… I honestly think this sometimes) lead lives that seem to operate at a wavelength that is at odds with society’s rush to embrace the digital realm. That’s why, for me, the story of our instructor being replaced by the pixels of five perfectly fit Australians, pixels that can be replayed a multitude of times all over the world at any time, is an apt analogy.


When the business world talks about digital transformation, it isn’t just blowing smoke. It’s real. It’s significant. It’s going to separate the strong from the weak, the smart from the not-so-smart. And it’s going to trigger conceptualization on a scale that’s hard to comprehend. Why? Because while we can hazard guesses, we just don’t know the extent of change to come when we apply the power of computing (fast and cheap), robotics (eventually ubiquitous and infinitesimal), process automation (time compression), real-time customer and business process interactions (customers fuel the processes), and the limitless power of the human brain (it still confounds science). It means that for a company to get to the state of being truly digitally transformed it is going to have to systematically excel at exploiting those elements. It will have to have processes in place that automatically collect, compute, and perform actions against customer data. It means that a company will need to be a lot more intimate with the target of its affection. That’s you, the customer. Companies are going to want to get a whole lot closer to you. And you know what? You won’t mind at all. You will actually want them to because up to now through your actions and your choices for how you live you’ve demonstrated that you expect better products, better service, and better solutions, all at a cost you can afford. To satisfy you, to be that responsive and agile, companies are going to need data. Lots of automatically collected data about you, about what you want, what you expect, how you’re doing, why you did what you did with the product, how you managed to get the result you received, what you hope to do next. And this is where the human brain becomes a more significant factor. All that data can be taken at face value (Level 1 information) but what smart people do with Level 1 data is they start wondering about why the data is the way it is (Level 2 thinking). This eventually leads to Level 2 data.


Mostly, today, the data that companies collect is Level 1 information. It’s important but it’s high level and is for now just the first step towards creating stronger insights into their customers’ behavior. The pyramid above graphically represents the magnitude of expansive thinking (the amount of questions that are triggered) at each level of the data.

Let’s use the Marketing department to help explain.

When we consider what it means to measure the digital readiness of a marketing organization we right off the bat look for binary information like this:

  • is the Chief Marketing Office (CMO) a member of the senior leadership team?
  • does the organization consider itself customer-centric?
  • is there a systematic process for data cleansing?
  • are the processes designed to allow for consistent cross-channel messaging?

Those are just a few questions we consider and the answers to them provide us with high level information (Level 1) that helps inform us to a small degree about the state of the organization’s maturity and digital readiness. I say small because even though they are binary questions we actually think of them as open-ended because depending on the answers provided many other questions can follow on. For example, the fact that a CMO is not a member of the SLT and is instead part of another organization (typically Sales) that reports into the SLT tells us something about Marketing’s strategic relevance from a corporate point of view. Meaning, how seriously is the CMO seen as a strategic leader by the members of the SLT? Is the CMO new and relatively lesser known? How much of a voice does the CMO have in the industry through published articles in trade magazines? Likewise, if the Marketing organization has yet to implement a consistent messaging experience across multiple user channels, we can ask why not. Do they know how their peers are doing? Have they bench-marked? It’s highly likely they are behind the curve and are probably bleeding customers to competition that provides a better experience.

Level 2 information is a follow-on activity from Level 1 and a follow-on question can look something like this:

  • if the CMO reports into Sales leadership, how does the Marketing organization gather experiential data about existing customers?

Level 2 information is tougher to do in a binary manner. It’s not impossible but because the line of questioning is more consultative in nature, Level 2 questions tend to be more open-ended. They also tend to surface more actionable insight.

Why does it matter where the CMO reports? Because knowing how a Marketing organization gathers knowledge about existing customers helps determine the state of their digital readiness and the state of their ability to optimize the experience of the customer through their entire life-cycle (not just when they were in the state of buying, which is the conventional focus area of Marketing). Why is that important? Because considering the customer as having an entire life-cycle with you, the company, is the first step in recognizing the need and opportunity for making improvements at each step in their journey. If Marketing reports into Sales they are less interested in pursuing the customer’s engagement post-sales. They have little incentive to do so.

For a company to be digitally ready they must view the customer as a living and breathing entity with a lifespan that can be influenced and enhanced with smart injections of specific and relevant attention and sincere interest at certain points in their journey. This approach ultimately drives up engagement and loyalty, which should translate into stronger revenue. If the Marketing organization is going to be responsible for managing that overall messaging then they defacto represent the customer inside the company. Having the Marketing organization on par with other SLT leaders therefore puts the customer in the same room.

Level 2. It’s richer information for our Transformation Services team at Oracle Marketing Cloud that allows us to plan a strategy for helping our customers evolve to become truly digitally ready.  Level 2 is also a way of thinking for any organization that wants to digitally transform. Level 2 thinking is not just for Marketers. Anyone who works with customers and is interested in evolving the relationship to a higher plane should exercise this deeper abstract way of thinking. It opens pathways to critical information that leads to full digital capability.

Think to Level 2. You don’t want to be Wally Pipp, nor do you want to be my Friday morning BodyPump instructor who was replaced today by a virtual version for a microscopic fraction of the price.

(Pssst…. I’m hoping the gym doesn’t find the cost-savings so compelling that they drop the real-life instructors. I’m still a little old school in some ways).

The best coaching is sublime coaching


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I came of age in the ’70s during a time of nuclear proliferation, the tail-end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, hyper-inflation that hit 20%, high unemployment in the double-digits, Soap (the TV show), drug culture, Three Mile Island, Johnny Rotten, and Watergate. These were just a few of the anxieties of my parents’ generation but they were nothing but noise to my friends and I. What we cared about were girls and sports.

All that other stuff, we optimistically figured, would get sorted out by people in some distant place and since girls were mysteriously beyond our abilities to comprehend or approach we latched on to sports as something to obsess about. It’s why we became such experts at analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of various teams and leagues, both professional and college in both the US and in Canada, and why we dissected games on the following day. (Thankfully, for our future partners in life, most of us eventually grew up and developed more balanced pursuits) How else could we spend our time back then? Yes, school was important to us and we worked at it sufficiently well to smoothly sail through. But school was simply a vehicle that provided a way to put into action the fantasies of our minds, fantasies that our idols of the sports world ignited there. Being on our school’s sports teams was our way of conjoining ourselves with the larger world. And, although we didn’t realize or appreciate it at the time, we benefited from good coaching. We just did what they said and tried to perform to their expectations. What we lived for though was the excitement of the games, the crowds, the noise, the pressure. It wasn’t until later, after college, that I really understood that the coach is the most critical element of the team.

Here’s what I learned from a couple of the coaches I had back then.


  • conducted all their most important work in the days before the game, considering ways to leverage the individual strengths of each player by designing or choosing plays to accentuate during the game
  • forced us to practice, and practice, and get fitter, and fitter, and fitter….each and every (bloody) week. They say a near death experience makes you appreciate life and nothing in my life has brought me closer to that than running agility drills for 60 minutes.
  • supported the team during the game but never sought the spotlight for themselves. They stayed on the sidelines and never showed up the refs. If they had a beef they would, with composure, trot over and express their opinion. By preserving the dignity of the officials they played a long game that worked out better in the end.
  • protected the team by looking ahead at the schedule and planning a strategy for getting over and around obstacles. They were students of the game and students of strategy. They knew their players and they wanted to know the opposing ones as well.
  • screamed and yelled in the privacy of the dressing room but never called out any team member in public. Déclassé and disrespectful, otherwise.
  • always took the time to congratulate meaningful performance that made a positive difference to the outcome of the game. In the dressing room, in front of the team, called out the person by name, described what they did well, and why the performance mattered.
  • always privately consoled someone suffering from anguish about some performance glitch that had an equal but negative effect (I once missed two free throws with no time left in the championship game of a basketball tournament, a game in which we were down by one…. arghh, it still hurts to replay it in my mind)

Since I joined the business world I’ve had exactly one boss who reminds me of those coaches of my youth. One boss out of countless bosses spread over a 36 year career. Don’t you think that as business leaders we should all aspire to be the kind of leader who reminds our team members of the best coach they’ve ever had? Maybe though the secret to good coaching is that it probably isn’t found in a book. More likely it’s found in a person’s character and inner fortitude.

I’ll close by saying this. He wasn’t my coach but John Wooden made a large imprint on me by superbly and sublimely coaching the UCLA Bruins basketball team in the early 70s. His players (Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Marcus Johnson) inspired and awed me but it was Wooden’s style, intelligence, respectfulness, and grace that impressed me most of all.