The Final Word

It’s the last thing said. The ultimate decision. The period on the proverbial sentence.

The final word was once perceived to be of great value. It was not just a signal of power, but often the result of hard fought victory.

But in a world of increasing complexity and continuous improvement, that’s no longer the case. And while everything is changing, it’s all archived and searchable. So comments can be made and perspective can be added days, months, even years later. Nothing is really ever “done.” Ideas evolve. Contexts change. Conversations rekindle.

There is no final word. Finality is just a foundation for what’s next. A transition to the next stage, the next conversation, the next idea.

Fast, Cheap and Good

The old axiom used to be “fast, cheap or good – pick two.” But expectations change. And in this age of rapid prototyping, agile start-ups and minimal viable products, the “or” has turned – more and more – to an “and.”

Fast and cheap on their own are often – at best – a race to the middle. But fast AND a commitment to continuous improvement? That’s how new opportunities are discovered. Being cheap AND then seeing if further investment is warranted? That’s an investment in innovation.

The AND is incremental, iterative… and often overlooked. And the AND is what the Good is dependent on.

On not settling. On committing to better. On understanding that the definition of good today is not the same as good tomorrow. And so the deliverable is either good enough for now – and only now. Or good enough to continue to invest time and / or money in.

Bursts of fast and bursts of cheap can even lead past good, to great. As long as everyone is clear that “Fast, Cheap and Good” is not the destination, it’s the journey. And the most important word is AND.

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Where To Start With What To Say

Our available attention is being stretched. And yet we all seem to have more to say. As a result, lines can be crossed. Meanings can be missed. And it’s not likely to get better any time soon.

Tom Peters has an important rule for communications at a time when success can seem harder than ever: If there is a miscommunication, it’s your fault.

Think about that for a moment. Please, because I don’t want any potential misunderstanding of it to be my fault.

How would this change what you say? How would it change how you say it? As a person? As a professional? As a brand?

One simple change that most communicators could stand to make immediately is where they start.

My favorite definition of communication is: It isn’t what you say. It’s what your audience hears. The illustration below isn’t complicated. But it is often forgotten. And it is a big cause of many miscommunications.

Where to start with what to say? Not with what should be said. But with what should be heard.

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Where to Start Communicating

What To Learn From: Pixar

Pixar is a creative powerhouse. Its fourteen feature films have earned 27 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, and 11 Grammy Awards.

But for all of its innovation – and its related refusal to accept the status quo – Pixar has an important relationship with reality. Its approach depends on its ability to create a world that is recognizable, but different. Expectedly unexpected.

And two quotes from Pixar directors – taken together – paint a smart, productive approach that any company could learn from:

“I believe in research. You can’t do enough research, believability comes out of what’s real.”
– John Lasseter (Cars)

“We don’t want to reproduce reality; we want to make the unbelievable believable.”
– Brad Bird (Incredibles)

Most companies do research in order to understand. And that’s a good thing. Understanding allows marketers to make things relevant. But relevance has a dark side. Make something too relevant and it becomes expected. Or worse, invisible.

Pixar’s approach is successful, in part, because it doesn’t settle on reality. Understanding the world is a first step to diverging from it.

You have to know the rules in order to break them.

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Q and A

A recent tweet from @COVRTER – “Having good answers is much easier than having good questions” – got me thinking.

We’re surrounded by data. Connected to an endless stream of resources. And swimming in a sea of answers. What does this mean for the relationship between As and Qs? And what’s the true value of each?

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.
Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of modern anthropology

My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.
Peter Drucker, business thinker, consultant and author

We suffer no shortage of quantity of answers. But the quality – at least the consistent quality – is in decline.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Better questions lead to better answers. As such, the importance of questions has never been greater.

So if the answer is eluding you, it may be worth stepping all the way back to the original question. Questions are not one-dimensional calls-for-response. Instead, they should both frame the situation and focus it appropriately.

Bottom line: If you happen to be in a situation where the answer isn’t apparent, maybe you just haven’t asked the right question yet.

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The Longer Distance Between Point A and Point B

The Busy Trap” – an oft-shared op-ed piece from the New York Times – was making its way around Facebook again the other day. It’s a topic du jour in these increasingly cluttered times. Even the venerable Economist is touting the benefits of getting away from the grind with its recent piece, “In Praise Of Laziness.”

But it really isn’t about being lazy. From Archimedes and Isaac Newton to Bill Gates and Jack Welch, important ideas are borne from actively playing, consciously resting and purposefully wandering.

Said another way, we can’t be busy being busy. We must be busy being better. And that can mean being efficiently inefficient – trying new ideas, processes and paths. A recent trip to a children’s museum (see pics above), for instance, reminded me that the occasional trip to places like a children’s museum are valuable to the creative process.

Now, the value of getting away is not new news. But when was the last time you ventured away from the shortest distance between points A and B? Will Rogers was right about limbs. They are where the fruit is.

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Benjamin Franklin, Project Manager

Charles Darwin, business consultant. Albert Einstein, account planner. Pablo Picasso, creative director. Benjamin Franklin… project manager.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

“You may delay, but time will not.”

“Energy and persistence conquer all things.”

“Well done is better than well said.”

“Lost time is never found again.”

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The Evolution Of The Fox

Twelve years ago, Jim Collins’ book Good To Great was a breakthrough best seller. One of its most memorable anecdotes was in praise of the hedgehog:

An ancient Greek parable distinguishes between foxes, which know many small things, and hedgehogs, which know one big thing. All good-to-great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs. They know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea—the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes, and guides all decisions.

Nate Silver’s breakthrough best seller from last year, The Signal And The Noise – written about making predictions in the world of increasing clutter – values the other animal in the parable duo. And it’s a good example of changing sensibilities in the Digital Age:

Hedgehogs, Silver says, are those who believe “in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws.” Foxes, by contrast, “are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem.”

The fox has come a long way in the last dozen years. Foxes see complexity, acknowledge nuance and aren’t afraid to test new ways. They adjust as necessary. And account for all the information available – even if it doesn’t fit their preexisting framework. As a result, they consider more. Have a broader perspective. And, Silver argues, make better predictions.

Being able to simplify the complex has always been important. But has never been more so. The ability to consider more from more sources has earned the fox not just a seat at the conference room table – but an increasingly important voice.

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The Speed Of The Spread

An article in this week’s New Yorker titled Slow Ideas provides a fascinating look at how medical innovations spread – and don’t.

At the core of the article are the stories of two nineteenth century inventions – anesthesia and antiseptic. Just two months after its first public demonstration, anesthesia was being used around the world. Antiseptic, on the other hand – despite being the solution to the single biggest killer of surgical patients – took decades to gain traction. The author offers observes two key differences in the ideas that affected the speed of their adoption:

  1. “[Anesthesia] combatted a visible and immediate problem (pain); [antiseptics] combatted an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation.”
  2. “Although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors. Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal, time-pressured assault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered procedure. [Antiseptic], by contrast, required the operator to work in a shower of carbolic acid. Even low dilutions burned the surgeons’ hands.”

The first difference speaks to immediacy. The second to ease. All you spreaders-of-ideas, take note. The equation isn’t complicated. But it’s often overlooked.

Take the Surface RT. Microsoft recently announced it was taking a $900 million write-down to reflect unsold inventory at a time when the iPad continues to break sales records. This despite the fact that the Surface RT has some features that are genuinely interesting and differentiating. Times blogger Nick Bilton writes its undoing came from the fact that it made people… think. And that can be a recipe for disaster.

Successful idea spreaders get this. Focus wins. Or, in the words of Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester, “Apple gets this, and limits options to connectivity, storage and black… or white.”

It’s immediate. It’s easy. Now start spreading.

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Exciting vs. Good

Stability is rarely exciting.

Lengthy tracking reports have a way of driving this point home – for both the presenter and the audience.

It is important to remember, though, lack of excitement has no bearing on amount of “good.” In the same way that good research doesn’t have to include new findings, it need not be “exciting” either. Stable, expected results – while not newsworthy – can be among the best presentations to sit through.

I was reminded of this when the Nate Silver news (he’s leaving the New York Times) hit this week. While we all want to report soundbites breathlessly, many meaningful changes happen in small increments. Slowly. Over time. Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is a great example of this. Within stable returns, there is still a powerful story to be told.

And stability? It can be good – even great. Especially when it comes to results.

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