I Don’t Do Politics

Some thirty five years ago I was encouraged by one who knew the game to consider a career in politics. Putting aside any temptation to indulge in such a heady notion, and all of the other reasons to reject this counsel, I focused on, and replied to my friend in terms of, one issue: constitutionally, I don’t have the ability to take and state positions aligned near the poles of either party, on most any issue.

I shade left on some calls, right on a few more, but hardly ever am moved to hold positions, or push arguments beyond a moderate view that encompasses an appreciation for the other side.

Even in those somewhat less polarized days, and without any nuanced understanding of primary and general election realities, my earlier self believed this to be a fatal flaw for one aspiring to elected office.

Perhaps I was proud of my moderate and reasonable tendencies. Or perhaps I was simply afraid to get into the fray, and put at risk the possibility of losing a referendum on me.

In the commercial realm, where I have accepted, and in fact sought, leadership responsibilities subject to assessments expressed in public and private, my instincts also run toward finding centers — areas of agreement, common ground, opportunities for mutual understanding leading to mutual success — rather than sharp differences and one-sided wins.

In the large, this tendency has worked out for me. While I’ve had some noted failures in my day, I’ve been a part of more progress, across a pretty wide front, than of setbacks. And that guy in the morning reflection feels OK while shaving.

I’m certain that I’ve left opportunities unaddressed, in all realms. With harder edges and a simplified focus on attainment of goals, some other version of me could have done more, gone further, and meant more. But then, they wouldn’t be my accomplishments — they’d be his.

Effectiveness in business depends on the gut appreciation that it’s conducted by, my phrasing, “those warm squishy things called humans,” and that they don’t all think and feel as you. In fact, none do. It goes on, at least in the theme of my thoughts here, to benefit greatly from reflection on the words of George Bernard Shaw, “All progress is made by unreasonable men.”

The ability to win the trust and respect of those that don’t see through your eyes, have had your experiences, or share your judgements, especially those at greatest odds with your center (in my case perhaps the principle-first standard-bearers), and to add their sharp voices, their perhaps messy but certainly necessary contributions to the mix, is what a leader must rise to accomplish if he wants to push forward toward any worthwhile accomplishment.

I have never crossed any finish line without their contributions. I value greatly those voices that could not be mine. In business, I smile on those occasions where they sing in a chorus I’ve helped assemble, and am deeply disappointed when I fall short toward this effort.

It is through this lens that I view our current politics. Polarized. Dysfunctional. Embarrassing, and at times seemingly incomprehensible. An avowed socialist? PT Barnum raised from the dead?

Well, I believe that those voices are of, and indeed required in, our time. They are needed to direct great buckets of cold water toward the faces of the sober, reasonable crowd who have allowed rot to take to our roots.

That sober, reasonable crowd has at least one recognizable face in it.

What I’m Up To…

Details to follow (over time), but here's a summary of what I'm up to these days: I'm working with companies, ranging from established leaders to "two guys, a dog and a crazy idea" who are busy:

  • Delivering on the true, high value promise of RFID in huge (really) untapped (seriously) markets
  • Offering the industry's first Cloud-based Mobile Device Management solution
  • Inventing Intelligent Mobile Workspace solutions, around best-of-breed tablet computing platforms (a category they pioneered nine years before the IPad)
  • Leveraging unparalleled skills in custom device engineering services into a foundation for a breakthrough products company
  • Preparing to launch "Groupon on steroids" (from an already very successful platform in the space)
  • Re-conceiving accounting (of all things) as an enterprise and investment management tool
  • Will soon be helping you and me leverage our loyalty program participation to new heights of value
  • Connecting brands and consumers in previously unimagined ways

All are involved with inventing the future.

Oh, and I'm having fun doing it.

Innovate to Create Your Own Future

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it"
Alan Kay

In the chaotic times in which we seem to be destined to live out our days, predicting the future, never a high percentage game, is a no win proposition.  If this is so, just how do we as business leaders decide on our forward course, with the future landscape blurring into a fog of uncertainty just a quarter or two into the future?

Attempting to harness future unknowns through scenario planning is fraught, given the non-linear nature of our complex and deeply interconnected world — the branching of future trajectories creates a thicket of possibilities often too dense to model into a useful road map of practical actions.

I believe that the answer lies, at least in large measure, in creating your own local reality through innovation.

You're unlikely to be able to influence the vast majority of global forces shaping the macro-economic environment in which your industry operates, but you can render them less of a factor in your business by displacing them with forces that enjoy the leverage of proximity and focus.

What do I mean?

The levels of GDP growth, employment, consumer spending, inflation / deflation — and the less tangible but more powerful "animal spirits" they influence — will always have an influence on your prospects, to be sure. They either buoy or depress your customers' willingness to reach for their wallets. Disruptive changes in technology or competitive landscape? They'll remain powerful winds blowing across your bow and churning up the sea ahead, no doubt.

Can you stop these forces? Absolutely not. But you can overpower them with ones that you set in motion… if you have the courage to do so.

Your customers and prospects, appropriately chosen, are subject to influence by you in measure outsized to your economic footprint. Why? Precisely because your actions can be clearly and tightly focused on them — their needs, fears, dreams and desires.

If you amplify that focus with an inventiveness that presents them with a set of compelling future alternatives they did not earlier see as even possible, you can pull them into a local world of your imagining, built around your vision. Invent a new category of product or solution, and YOUR ideas shape the perceptions as to how that category works: what's important, what's not…

Global factors? Still there, but with muted influence. Suddenly they need that red iPod. Not want it. Not weigh the investment in it vs. a week's groceries. NEED IT! This is how Apple, born in one recession, has been able to thrive though this one.

This idea is not just about impressionable consumers and B2C marketing. If anything, it's still more powerful in B2B settings.

Your enterprise customers are just as uncertain about their futures as you are. Be their lighthouse. If you demonstrate insight into their world, and a clearly articulated vision of how you can make it better through your innovations, you'll get their attention. If you deliver on that vision, they'll buy. Do so more consistently than your competitors, and you'll assume thought leader and trusted advisor status, and secure a disproportionate share of their business.

Restrict yourself to only incremental moves (in product development, business model, process…) you'll get stuck in a reactive, poorly differentiated world of low margins and reverse auctions. Your "local" influence is too weak to overcome macro forces, and you'll be just one of the crowd of competitors.

Have the courage to break out of the crowd, accept the risks of innovation and leadership, and hold up a genuinely creative, high impact alternative to the current order, over time you'll be able to mold markets around your vision — in effect defining a playing field where you've written the majority of the rules. And shame on you if you can't win a game where you've done that.

[2011: 1/365]

The Future Of Selling

As a result of a kind introduction by my good friend David Brock, I recently participated in a fascinating project organized by OgilvyOne Worldwide, called "The Future of Selling."

By bringing together a community of interested (and interesting) marketing and sales professionals, it focused attention on how changes in buyer behavior, combined with current and emerging trends in social media, are challenging B2B sellers to think differently about their trade.

Many intriguing and valuable ideas were exchanged, and a great number of new relationships were forged. I was privileged to have the opportunity to participate, and congratulate OgilvyOne's Chairman, Brian Fetherstonhaugh, for the success in making it all happen.

You can view an overview presentation below and download the detailed white paper here:  Download Ogilvyonethefutureofselling.


The Future of Selling

View more presentations from Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.





Innovate or else!

Fact One:
I'm on the Incubation Board at my company, and chair the subcommittee responsible for raising the internal profile and encouraging the use of our "OpenIdea Portal," a tool to allow all of our employees to post, comment on and rate ideas for innovation.

Fact Two:
I used to love National Lampoon.

Combining Facts One and Two:


A Question for Leaders: Are Your Team’s Energies Spent on What Matters?

This is a topic likely of greater concern in larger enterprises than in their smaller brethren, but worth some consideration by all leaders.

The idea behind the title question of this post is simple: there are activities undertaken by your team that add significant value to your company but, almost certainly, others that don't. You clearly want to shift time and energies spent on the latter to the former.

Value creating tasks tend to be outward focused: meeting with customers to develop new opportunities, creating new products and services to bring to market, solving customer problems, communications with the people that influence your fortunes (customers, partners, press and analysts, investors…) and cultivating new partnerships aimed at enhancing your value to customers.

While there are important value creating inward directed activities (e.g. planning processes, meetings and other communications means aimed at ensuring that everyone is pulling in the same direction), it is very easy, especially in larger organizations, for an increasing proportion of available resource to be spent on activities that are entirely about "the inner life" of the organization:

  • Writing and reading internal emails that are too long, poorly focused, distributed too widely, or not directed at value-creating topics;
  • Sitting through endless meetings without clearly defined objectives or agenda, with too many people in the room;
  • Overly elaborate preparations for internal presentations (because they've become the cultural norm);
  • Dealing with the same old problem again and again, because of a culture too weak in candor and accountability or a reluctance to confront difficult people decisions;
  • Wasted time getting to a decision on action because the organization has too many layers, underdeveloped skills in fact-based decision making, not enough focus on the customer or a lack of sense of urgency;
  • Any process that exists more because "that's the way it's always been done" than because it serves a useful purpose today.

I'm sure that you can add many other items to this list. You get the idea.

It's not that anyone consciously sets out to create time-wasting activities. They just sort of happen, typically as organizations grow and mature. In some cases they exist because at some point in the past they added value. In others, they're protected by people whose jobs are linked to them. In many others, they exist only because they're under the radar screen. But they are likely sucking up a great deal of your team's available energy, every single day.

As a leader, it's your job to root them out.

It starts with awareness. That's why I'm writing this. Take another look at the list above. Recognize any of these things going on around you? I'll bet you do. Put a spotlight on them (so others will see the waste) and then put a stop sign in front of them.

[ Note: There are likely many not-so-obvious non-value-add practices scattered around your organization and its work flows. There are surely others that may be painfully apparent, but where the steps toward their effective elimination or retooling are not, or where side effect risks or implementation costs may be great. In all of these cases, you'll need to reach into the Continuous Improvement tool kit for one of the broad array of available structured problem solving techniques (DMAIC, Kaizen…). My notes today are directed at the simpler forms of waste. Those that are obvious to all (or at least most) and easy to eliminate with minimal complication or risk. I claim that dealing with these has great power precisely because they are so visible to everyone. Your tolerance of there continued existence is a tacit endorsement of waste that saps vigor from your team.]

If you focus on this and follow through with leadership action, your team will thank you and your organization will benefit from the application of freed up resource to the real work of your company: delivering value to your customers by making, selling and servicing great products.

When Things Go Wrong

Many of you know that I enjoy photography. Others are aware that I have more than a passing interest in business.

Both of these fields, along with most everything else in life, have in common the fact that on occasion, despite all efforts to the contrary, things can go wrong.

A small story follows…

Following an intimate Christmas at home (just the two of us, on LI), I suggested to Ellie that a day trip to NYC would be a pleasant way to spend a rainy Saturday. She agreed, and yesterday off we went.

Our first destination: Bar Boulud (completing our circuit of the empire of the currently putative reigning king of all things culinary in NYC). Brunch met my expectations better than Ellie's. I'm a fan of charcuterie, El — not so much. But that's not my point here, so on…

The day was wet, windy and cold. Impossible to be comfortable outside.

So, on finishing brunch, we sought an indoor venue for the balance of the afternoon. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was our choice.

We arrived to find the grand hall chock-a-block with fellow weather refugees, but pressed on, figuring that we'd be able to find a quiet corner. Wrong. Hot and crowded here, and here, there and there.

Arriving at an out-of-the-way mezzanine gallery with an open bench, I set myself down for a few moments rest, and a photo opportunity. Pleased to find an evolving scene with agreeable views, I clicked away.

Rejuvenated, we moved on, and I kept shooting, thinking that despite the heat and crowding, a nice album would be a resulting record of our visit.

Wrong again. Turns out that on Christmas Eve, in handing the camera over to a gracious fellow diner to snap our photo…

2009-12-24 18-35-47

…he planted a large, barely transparent, fingerprint that covered the southeast corner of the lens.

Every shot that I took yesterday carried that watermark, the raw images unusable.

With a bit of Aperture, Photoshop and IMovie hand waving however, combined with a soundtrack graced by the playing of genius by another, it proved possible to produce something passable. See below.

My point: Things ALWAYS go wrong. Usually unexpectedly and badly wrong.

Your test: will you find a way through to a positive outcome, or something less?

Customers expect you to screw up; they choose their key partners based on which rise to the occasion and make things right in the end.

Team members don't expect perfection; they hope for grace and perseverance following setbacks.

Thoughts for a Sunday evening in December…

Met Sunday from Richard Bravman on Vimeo.

Do You Really Know What’s Going On?

This is an article primarily intended for leaders at or near the top of their organizations. The reason: the rest of you already know what I'm going to explain.

The more time I spend in business, the more amazed I am at how frequently and how badly leaders handicap themselves by not realizing a simple truth: the foundation for every aspect of their effectiveness is a firm grasp of what's really going on in their organizations. Not what they wish, plan, project or orate about — what's really happening, and not, "on the ground."

Anyone with even a passing interest in politics has likely heard how this is one of the challenges facing a President. How the layers of staff, security, protocol and process combine to insulate the holder of that office in what's sometime called a "bubble," other times an echo chamber.

The former connotes simple isolation, a cutting off from information flows about what's going on outside of the White House; the later layers on the additional distorting effect of the administration being fooled by listeing to itself talk.

You don't need to be the POTUS for this effect to complicate and compound your challenges as a leader. The head of an organization of any size bears the same risks, caused by some combination of the following:

  • Lower level staff being afraid to bring bad news up the organization;
  • The way the "telephone effect" adds incremental distortion with each retelling of a "fact" as it's passed up the line in a hierarchy;
  • Senior leaders failing to spend time with the ground troops, actively inquiring about realities and listening, actively, to what they hear;
  • Leaders who are so caught up in their own story lines and rhetoric that they form their own echo chamber in which all they hear, in effect, is themselves;
  • Leaders who desperately want to believe their plans are working, and are afraid to see if it's so;
  • Leaders who purposefully isolate themselves, retreating to their senior teams and executive suites because they're more comfortable there, in their familiar routines involving abstractions and numbers, than they are in the nitty gritty stuff of the business.

Whatever the causes, this behavior cripples effective leadership. How can you make sound judgments if you don't know the true facts of the situation? How can you lead if your credibility is undermined by the quiet snickering of your team as they realize you don't really know what's going on? You can't.

As vexing as this problem is, its solution is simple. Get out of your office and talk with all layers of your team, one-on-one and in small groups preferably, and engage in an honest two way dialogue about the business, as they see it. What's working? What's not? Why? Are things trending positive or negative? You may have to do this for a while before your team fully opens up and trusts, and you need to be careful not to cut the legs out from under your middle management, but this simple process works.

Not only will your decisions benefit from better information, and your credibility with the troops improve, your team will be and feel more engaged in the business.

While you've likely heard about this issue before, (it's behind the "Management by walking around" idea), I thought this reminder might be useful and timely.

Do you know what's going on? Really?