Archive for December, 2012

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Atonement, Hancock, Bonfire of the Vanities…I guess we’ve all got our “sour grapes” list of movies that should have been good, but were not.

As Hollywood has long since shown us, there is no such thing as a sure-fire hit. The potential for creating a product with great characters, an exciting and emotionally gripping plot, and top talent is one thing; executing on it is quite another.

The same applies to books. This thought came to me as I began reading Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race, written by the CEO and Director of Client Services of consulting firm, The Syncretics Group.

On the face of it, this book had it all:

A sexy topic (ocean racing) linked to insights for succeeding in today’s rough and chaotic business world.

A fresh angle on a newsworthy story; as the authors point out, the media focused mostly on the tragedy of the 1998 event—of which more shortly—rather than celebrate the “David vs. Goliath” winning crew.

A “bad guy” in the form of loud mouth, “Ugly American abroad” Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle.

But less than a dozen pages in I began skimming the book, and put it down before things (presumably) got exciting. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with it; the book is well written, offers sound advice and promises a great adventure story. But it just wasn’t engrossing.

The first couple of paragraphs of the Preface began promisingly, pointing out that in the fifty-three years leading up to the 1998 Sydney to Hobart offshore ocean race—held every December 26th—only two out of the 35,000 total participants had lost their lives. But in 1998 all that changed: five boats sunk, “seven were abandoned at sea, twenty-five crewmen were washed overboard, and fifty-five sailors were rescued in an operation involving twenty-five aircraft, six vessels, and approximately 1,000 people.” The event had moved way beyond “extraordinary” to become “extraordinarily dangerous.”

Like a Hollywood screenwriter handed a best-selling novel, this was the fabulous material that Perkins and Murphy had to play with. But they ended up writing a book I wasn’t motivated to skim-read, let alone finish.

Which begs the question: Just how engaging do business books need to be these days? Well, I guess that depends on the purpose for writing them. Some books are written to add “author” to a CEO’s other titles, to help generate business for a consultancy, to have something to sell during events, or to gift to clients at holiday times. Perhaps their writers aren’t really looking beyond that level of success.

Whereas those authors looking for a more widespread, general business readership need exemplary storytelling skills. Some writers have this instinctively: Pink, Gladwell, Johansson to name just a few. Great orators like Steve Jobs and former President Bill Clinton share this ability also.

Sadly, by starting their book with a run-down of the America’s Cup and the Sydney to Hobart race, then introducing us to race veteran Bill Psaltis then his son Ed, the skipper of the winning vessel, then describing how the found their boat, then telling us about various crew members…well, by that time I’d decided it was time to take an alternative journey and go back to the YA novel I was reading. At least that plot had grabbed my attention on page one and wasn’t going to let me go until I got to the end of the book!

As I’ve hinted throughout these columns during the year, knowing how to tell a compelling story is not just essential for business book authors (at least, those who want a sizeable readership), it’s a vital business asset these days. As the author, I would have been inclined to start this book at the height of the excitement, then used back-story to fill in the gaps. As a reader, I would have cared much more about Ed Psaltis and the crew of AFR Midnight Rambler had I met them in the context of doing something extraordinarily courageous, stupid, or crazy, rather than the gentle run-up to the key events that Perkins and Murphy offer.

Which leaves me with just one question for you. What nonfiction book did you have high hopes for this year, that turned out to be a disappointing read?

This is the last Thought Readership review for 2012. Thank you to all those who have read and commented (you’re a rare bunch!) throughout the year. I look forward to sharing with you the good, the bad, and the ugly in books published in 2013. Meanwhile, happy holidays to you and yours!!

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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“Honey, do I look fat in this dress?” That is a question any wise man approaches carefully – very carefully. It is prescient when it comes to change management. Why? Well, we all say we prize honesty but upon closer examination there is a desire to get by which comes in direct conflict with the need to be honest.

Everyone loves to clean house and get rid of the bad guy(s) and girl(s). After the euphoria the sweeping out creates dies down something surprising happens. It is the fear created by the need for those remaining to be honest in a piercing manner. Why is that?

As mentioned in previous blogs, having the bad guy around supports the creation of bad habits. For example, there is the opportunity to fudge billable time and expenses. A while back there was the infamous $500 coffee pot charged to the U.S. Air Force. (I got to talk with one of the lead accountants on that issue and it turns out dishonesty wasn’t present but let’s assume for this blog it was a blatant rip off.) In the every day world of projects how can that occur? All that is needed is a leader out to get as much money as possible and will gouge the client to the extent the client is blind, naive or both. When an engineer has worked under such a person for a long enough period of time it becomes easy to get sloppy and gradually expand what “honesty means right along with “cheating.”

Sociologically, it is well established that we all like to leave ourselves some space, some wiggle room. Let’s say 15 minutes a day of billable time. So, if we only charge for 15 non-productive minutes we can claim we are honest. After a while under a disreputable boss that 15 minutes becomes an hour. The process continues until all hell breaks loose and then all sorts of time is charged simply because we can do it. So what happens when you clean house?

For the housecleaning to be complete there is a need to return to honesty. This is the point at which panic sets in. If your situation is typical a flood of requests start coming in to explain exactly what you mean when you say, “In order to bill for one hour you have to do one hour’s worth of work.” All sorts of lawyering begins. It is accompanied by confusion and more than a slight degree of hysteria. Remember, people have been let go for not being honest. The question on everyone’s mind is, “Am I next?” (For what it is worth, I am championed for bringing the light of day and a breath of fresh air to the organization when getting rid of the bad guy. That quickly turns to pitchforks, tar, and feathers once the issue of accountability is brought to the masses.) What to do? Answer: State the obvious.

“The only way out of the mess you are in is through frank discussions as to what it means to bill an hour of time. This isn’t free-floating. It needs to reference a sound business case.

In other words, know what will work in your industry. Find standards that are reliable. Then add that to a solid business case. Determine what “serving the customer” means in terms of billable hours, expenses, and productivity. By all means, stay away from witch-hunts. Tell the troops you will be out of business if the sloppiness continues. The best way to keep one’s job is to work to acceptable standards. Have them participate in the defining of standards as it applies to their discipline, keeping in mind that who ever is responsible for the business case will have the final say.

What this all amounts to is a focus on emotional honesty rather than a Salem witch trial. When done in a respectful tone those who want to work and feel significant appreciate it. As to the others…well…the human resource changes must continue. The challenges will continue and people will wonder if the housekeeping was worth it. In the long run, though, there will be an appreciation of getting back on track and billing one hour for an hour’s worth of work.

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti
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6 Ways to get Your Customers Saying – Please take my Money!

by Himanshu Jhamb on December 10, 2012

Right. You don’t hear that very often. In fact, you probably don’t even think it! In fact, the reverse is usually what we hear – in stories, from our friends, from our colleagues and pretty much every where from customers.

“Please don’t take my money”

“It was not worth it”

“It’s too expensive”

… and many variants of the above.

But, this post is about great customer service. No, wait! It’s about excellent customer service.

I was recently in Peru with my better half and it was the first time I had set foot in the continent of South America – different people, different language, different food – everything was different and yes, being that it was a self planned trip, the “different” was expected. We had planned to be in Lima for a couple of days and like typical tourists, were looking to do the touristy things – experience the food, the people, visit the historical landmarks ‘et al. Yet, at the same time, we wanted to do something that would give us a taste of Peru; something the locals would do. And that happened on our 2nd day when we met a local couple – Sam & Lucas. OK, it was no accident that we met them; they run a culinary tour company, called Capital Culinaria Lima Gourmet Tours and I found them from their almost perfect TripAdvisor reviews.

It’s true that there are many lessons in business one can learn from others, only if we observe them. And observe I did  and here is what I learnt about great customer service:

  • Make a promise… and then keep It. They promised on the experience (which, I believe is what the adventurous traveler seeks the most) and then delivered on it… multiple times over in the tour.
  • Listen. And get to know your customer. Their tours are designed to listen to the customer. For instance, they do not take more than 6 people at one time so that they can create the space to listen to the customer.
  • Give Personal Attention. Lots of it. Well, there is no dearth of that given that they run quite a few tours themselves and I am sure the ones they are not able to, are no less personal!
  • Run Smooth Operations. Given that it’s a 5-6 hour culinary tour, it can be a bit of a tricky proposition to time 3-6 touristy stomachs for that time! Also, since they visit quite a few establishments in the tour – the timing needs to be exquisite with the local providers, too.
  • Be Nimble. They are immensely flexible. Even though they hit an issue in the morning and had to quickly readjust plans – Lucas was right on time to pick us up.
  • Win the Customer. Yes, with the great stories (they have a fantastic entrepreneurial story on how they started off), the mouth watering cuisine, and (ahem) the fabulous Pisco – it is a sure shot recipe to win the customer.

To be brutally honest, they had won me over as a customer half way through the tour. The rest of the time, they were just winning a friend! Now, how do you put a price on something like that…

Himanshu JhambThis article was contributed by Himanshu Jhamb, co-founder of ActiveGarage and co-author of #PROJECT MANAGEMENT tweet. You can follow Himanshu on Twitter at himjhamb.
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The Soul of a Project #30: Dealing With Shame!

by Gary Monti on December 4, 2012

Ever have someone melt down right in front of you for no apparent reason? Or, has someone dug in unrealistically? What about another person feeding the gossip mill in a rather vicious manner working to get people to side with him? On the flip side, there’s the person who shrugs her shoulders blind to the destruction caused by her last decision. These individuals may all have something in common – shame. Shame as used here refers to situations where a lack of self-esteem has been brought to the surface and the person tries behavior that is meant to provide some form of self-protection.

To learn a bit more about it the etymology of shame may help. At the core it means, “to cover.” So, when someone takes on an apparently irrational behavior it may be an unconscious attempt to protect, to cover the sense of being defective. The irrational part puts it in the realm of a coping mechanism, which is an unhealthy response learned or created to try and deal with a problem, real or perceived. The word “irrational” is a tip that the current events have triggered something from the past about which the person experiences an irrationally low sense of self, a sense of shame.

For example, you might be working with an extremely good engineer who gets angry and belligerent when asked to speak in a formal setting with clients. He might say he has plenty of work to do and insists sales should be pulling their weight and earn their commissions instead of relying on the people who do the work and have to reach billable hour goals to also have to sell the project. No matter how much you talk with the engineer, saying how good his work is, this is a chance to shine, etc., it all seems to go nowhere.

In some consulting situations like this I’ve had to dig deeper (working with a therapist) to find out a grade school teacher in front of the class ridiculed the individual. No other adult was sensitive to or helped this future engineer work through the situation in a healthy way. He was left thinking it was his fault and that he was (and still is) defective. Consequently, he covered the problem by avoiding formal speaking situations and, when needed, through belligerence.  For what it is worth, I run into shame-based problems with some regularity. They typically are a main contributor to the difficulties the organization is experiencing. You know what I am talking about, the person who limits their career or gets fired over something they just can’t get beyond.

So what can you do in such a situation? First, offer compassion, acceptance, and empathy. Be honest and state the problem as you see it and the challenge the individual faces. It is being a friend and, in the words of Carl Jung, “If everyone had good friends there’d be no need for therapists.” Keep in mind you aren’t their mother so limits are required. When that limit is reached it is time to escalate, which can be very uncomfortable when a friend is involved. It is the best thing to do. Without honesty in the situation a cost is incurred which has price tags associated with it, ranging from money to stress. It might be good for an outsider to come in and look at the situation and be the “bad guy” who pushes for needed changes.

In any case, simply riding over it and trying to pretend the irrational behavior can be absorbed or ignored will just drive everyone else crazy and provide no help for the person feeling the shame. On the positive side, as difficult as the situation is, when genuine friendship is extended and a healthy confrontation occurs, if the person with the difficulties really wants to do better, he is eventually appreciative. The situation can get better and profitability has a better shot at going up.

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti
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Call me fifty shades of confused! Why is it that so many books have numbers in their titles?

This question popped into my head the other day, sparked in part by the response by many independent bookstores to Amazon’s publication of Tim Ferriss’ latest book in his “4-hour” franchise: first workweek, then body, now chef. So I went over to the Amazon site and searched for books listing the numbers one to ten and found Ken Blanchard’s classic One Minute Manager; several “fives” (love languages, dysfunctions of a team; and a whole slew of “sevens” (habits, principles, spiritual laws, myths, steps, pillars, wonders….). Other than some books about the management approach known as “six sigma,” that number doesn’t appear to be hugely popular—or 2, 3, and 9 for that matter. But the trend doesn’t stop with the number ten. What, I wondered, would be the outcome if John Kador’s 301 Best Questions to Ask on Your Interview got together with Vicky Oliver’s 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions?

Author Vicky Oliver has established quite a “numbers” trend with her books over the years, moving up from 201 smart ways to handle tough people to 301 smart answers to give during interviews, and now 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions (by Skyhorse Publishing, who more recently published a book of hers with an even bigger number, “millionaire”).

Having had cause to read a number of business etiquette books recently, I agree with what’s alluded to on the back cover of Tough Business Etiquette Questions: Most of them are as topical and fun as a Victorian tea party! What Oliver has going for her is a witty take on 21st century etiquette concerning topics such as “Casual Friday,” handshaking when abroad, and who gets mentioned first when introducing your ex-boss to your current boss. She’s right, they probably don’t teach this stuff in business school (any school, come to that) and more’s the pity!

There’s not just wit but wisdom too within the book’s 370 pages (and Skyhorse has done such a great job of the layout, it’s a very easy and accessible read…the kind of book you can dip in and out of as circumstances crop up). I especially liked what Oliver wrote about that annoying habit of some folks to respond in a different medium every time, as in “You leave your client a voicemail message. He replies with an email. You email him back. He responds with a text message. You text him back. He sends you an IM. The two of you have had six communications yet still can’t find the time to meet in person. What’s going on?” As Oliver rightly points out, “Your relationship is strong” (otherwise you would have gotten zero response!), “but your closure skills are wobbly.” Perhaps it’s time to break the project down into parts that can be dealt with electronically, given that a face-to-face meeting looks unlikely any time soon, Oliver suggests.

But back to my original question. Why are we (authors and readers) so enamored with having books with numbers in the title? What is it about the “ten rules for…” format that nine out of ten blog posts and a significant number of magazine and newspapers articles offer these days? Is it, as Jillian Steinhauer bemoaned in a recent article, that “We risk becoming masters of our own triviality,” because of this seeming obsession with lists? Then again, maybe having “42 Rules for Your New Leadership Role” makes a honking big responsibility feel more under your control and less chaotic. And knowing you can become a 10-Minute Virtuoso for the instrument you have always longed to play, feels more manageable and accessible.

There’s the potential for an interesting debate here, but it’s one I don’t have the time or space to address. Suffice it to say, in the spirit of offering you—as an aspiring nonfiction author—pointers to making the book development process as clear and successful as possible, the “numbering” format is a very useful one. From what I continue to see when consulting with writers who are attempting to write their first book, it’s organization that scuppers them every time. Their material tends to be all over the map, with no discernible route for readers to easily follow and understand.

So, even if it ends up not being the way your book is finally structured, it’s always useful to come up with a list of core principles, steps, habits—or whatever is most appropriate—when brainstorming the content for your nonfiction book, and use those to organize your chapters. After all, it worked very well for Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra, and Napoleon Hill. And given all those book awards, it looks like it has too for Vicky Oliver!

Liz-AlexanderLiz Alexander is a prime example of how childhood passions are the best indicators of future careers. She’s been writing since she could pick up a pencil, was reading newspapers at age two, and Homer’s epic poems by the age of 8. As “Dr Liz” (granted after five years in the educational psychology doctoral program at UT Austin), she draws on 25 years of commercial publishing experience to transform subject matter experts into best-selling thought leaders. Instead of the usual bio blah, blah, you can find an infographic depicting her communications career here, as well as social media links. Liz loves mutually respectful, intelligent arguments; feel free to challenge anything she writes here, or on her website
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