The Hug

April 5, 2009


I find myself needing to spend a minute on The Hug. Apparently, in preparing for a royal audience, centuries of protocol can basically be summed up as “whatever you do, don’t touch the Queen.” Forget the curtsey/no curtsey debate. Forget never turning your back on royalty. In terms of national slights, forget even the last-minute trip to Best Buy last month when the Browns visited, and we belatedly remembered the British fetish for exchanging house-warming gifts. The one thing you don’t do is touch Her.

So what did Mrs. Obama have to go and do? She touched her.

And what happened next? Clive Aslet captured the moment in a magnificent Op-Ed tribute to the Queen in the UK’s Telegraph titled, “Now That’s A First Lady.”

And when Mrs Obama – no Lizard of Oz, as Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was dubbed when he dared to put his arm around the Queen in 1992 – committed a similar breach of protocol by placing her hand on the royal back, what was the response? Could one believe one’s eyes? A tiny gloved hand crept around the First Lady’s back, the arm attached to it too short to go more than half way. Is this what psychiatrists call the disinhibition of old age? No, the Queen perfectly judged the situation. She wanted the Obamas, two emotionally explicit people, to feel among friends. She bent the rules. She got it right. We knew she would.

As Aslet suggests, the moment that mattered was not Michelle’s “mistake,” but the Queen’s response to it. In a culture that is still coming to terms with the truth and pain of its racial history, the royal gesture was packed with meaning. The Queen is a living symbol of the worldview that all men are not really created so equal, a worldview that has done more damage to more people on a global scale than perhaps any other, particularly on the continent of Africa. And she chose not to enforce her aristocratic prerogative with this couple of African descent now at the helm of a former British colony.

Michelle invited the Queen to make a basic human connection. Premeditated or not, it was bold. But the truly revolutionary part was that Elizabeth took her up on it.

Think Celebrities in Rehab with the Rest of Us

April 2, 2009

The NYT coverage of Facebook offered another example of a common source of customer tension — not all of your customers want to hang out with each other: 

“People usually spend a lot of time trying to be separate — parents and children are a good example,” says Danah Boyd, a social scientist who has studied social networks and now works in the research department of Microsoft, which has invested in Facebook. “You are already seeing young people sitting there thinking, ‘Why am I hanging out with my mother who is reminiscing with her high school mates?’ You are seeing some reticence with young people that wasn’t there two years ago.”

This is a particular risk for brands that compete on youth and glamour. In the market to feel young and vigorous again, Grandpa shows up at the nightclub and ruins it for everyone.  But the tension between age groups can work both ways, as Build-a-Bear workshops — a highly successful toy service — discovered when the 12-year-old customers stopped playing nicely with the 6-year-olds.  The younger crowd was thrilled to be able to mingle with the older kids, but the older kids were horrified. 

Tiffany’s learned a similar lesson when it tried to serve both mass market and high-end customers. The high-end segment did not necessarily want to spend time with the masses, since it ruined all of the elite fantasies wrapped up in the little, blue box.  

If there is a separate physical location for each segment, this problem is easily solved.  But if a single location attracts multiple segments, then the challenge becomes reducing the antagonism between segments, which typically runs in only one direction (think celebrities in rehab with the rest of us), or tailoring the service away from one segment. The act of actively dissuading customers, often profitable ones, is anathema to most senior management teams. The trouble is, in certain contexts it is essential to maintaining service excellence. Facebook may be one of them. 

That’s Funny

March 13, 2009

“Funny,” at it’s core, describes some variance between what you expect to happen and what actually happens. A monkey is dressed like a baby. A prehistoric man has trouble buying car insurance. A prepubescent kid headlines a meeting of serious conservative thinkers. On some basic level, these things are funny.

Over the past few days, I’ve heard myself saying “that’s funny” more often than usual, despite the growing absurdity of our economic moment.  Even with the world upside down, I didn’t expect most of these things, which I’m deciding is a hopeful sign. Some facts still have the power to surprise:

  1. Sears has had an open CEO search for 13 months and is now soliciting people to apply for the job if they feel “up to the challenge.”  Apparently there is very little interest.
  2. Almost all of the top posts under Geithner at Treasury are still vacant — the Herald Tribune reports it’s because the White House has become so worried about potential tax problems that it has nominated only a handful of people. It’s hard to find more compelling motivation for a flat tax.
  3. Ryanair is considering charging passengers for use of its in-flight bathrooms.
  4. Michael Steele is pro-choice.
  5. Ryanair is also launching a new transatlantic service.  Bring your quarters. 
  6. David Brooks is using his extraordinary platform to attach meaning to Michele Obama’s arms, and has named them “Thunder” and “Lightening.”
  7. Ryanair is also pressuring pilots to fly with less fuel. Don’t assume the flotation device will be free. 
  8. After playing an active role in pushing plastic on America, American Express is paying some customers $300 to close their accounts and walk away.  
  9. Jack Welch calls the obsession with shareholder value the “dumbest idea in the world.” 
  10. Real estate may also be crashing in Second Life

Yep, it’s THAT Anne Morriss (i.e. Starbucks Cup #76)

March 11, 2009

Starbucks started to dispense free advice on the side of its coffee cups a number of years ago, in a campaign they titled “The Way I See It.” Anne’s words found their way onto cup #76, and enough people have asked me about it that I’m reprinting it here. I’m biased, but I remain grateful for the way she sees it:

The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

Righteous Indignation Doesn’t Make It Right

February 22, 2009

I have always had a soft spot for A-Rod. He is so exposed relative to other professional athletes. I suspect other high-profile players have gone to therapy, for example, but how many are willing to talk about it publicly? How many walk around without the public armor and discipline to prevent those disclosures? (It’s hard to imagine Derek Jeter going off message, for example, regardless of what’s going on at home.) It’s the combination of A-Rod’s fragility and pursuit of excellence that gets me. Occasionally, I simply can’t avert my eyes, in that accident-on-the-side-of-the-road kind of way, like when Madonna gets involved, but I’m riveted nonetheless.

A-Rod is human – replete with flaws and insecurities – and we’re not used to seeing that much humanity on the world stage. I guess it’s the lack of polish that I find so appealing, particularly as other players of his caliber lather it on. As for the steroid use, I’m also having a hard time blaming individuals. The system was designed to reliably produce abuse of its policies, which practically had a wink and nod attached to them. That we then blame the individuals and not the system’s architects seems absurd. Maybe if we perp-walked those who benefited the most first – the commissioner, the head of the players union, the owners and network executives seems like a good place to start – then it wouldn’t feel so ridiculous to be focusing on the players.

This is a classic case of addressing the symptom with righteous indignation while willfully ignoring the cause. History suggests that our response will not only perpetuate the problem, but it’s also likely to make it worse.

What Business Can Learn from Basketball

February 19, 2009


One of the more remarkable sentences I’ve seen in a long time appeared in an article by Michael Lewis on  performance measurement in the NBA:

“Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse.”

Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, a best-selling book about understanding performance in baseball. The story was a powerful example of how to use analysis to uncover undervalued assets, in this case, underpaid baseball players. Players who performed well in remote statistical categories (think number of walks, not home runs) turned out to be creating tremendous value on the field (in terms of runs scored or wins, for example), much more value than conventional wisdom had led managers to believe.

The most incredible part of the story was that everyone had the same numbers.  Everyone knew every player’s stats, and yet the experts were simply ignoring some data and overemphasizing other data. This is a common phenomenon, where data is used largely to illustrate existing knowledge rather than as a source for new knowledge.  Moneyball highlighted the value of analyzing all of the data to evaluate performance. The approach is sensible in its ease of implementation and potential for impact.

But basketball is different. A baseball player’s stats can be reflective of true impact. If you have a higher batting average, more home runs, and fewer errors, it’s a safe assumption that you’re a better player. In basketball, that assumption is less safe because of the interaction of players throughout the entire game. With the exception of free throws, there are no solo-sport activities in basketball; it’s all based on what everyone else on the floor is doing. Even though analysts know this, they still rely almost exclusively on individual stats because it’s the best they have. This is where the Lewis article shakes everything up.

Lewis articulates how Daryl Morey set out to analyze the game differently to see if he could gain new insight into player performance. And the results are powerful. Daryl found that individual stats could be looked at collectively to learn how the presence of one player influenced the performance of others. This is new territory — and it speaks to the essence of leadership, which is about making other people better as a result of your presence. Daryl measured how individual players performed on their own, and with the help of new data and improved processing, also assessed how other players’ performance changed as the result of each player.

With this knowledge, Daryl could uncover the “hidden gems” on the basketball court, undervalued players whose presence positively influenced the performance of his teammates, but whose individual stats were unimpressive. It’s an incredible shift in my mind, a way to begin measuring leadership that may have exciting application off the basketball court, in the domain of another team sport, namely business management.

Service Excellence Reading List

February 1, 2009

I’m often asked to provide a reading list on how to compete on service excellence. There are some great public sources out there. Below is a first cut (if you want more focused recommendations, please let me know), and I will plan to update this post on a regular basis.

Harvard Business Review Articles

  1. The Four Things a Service Business Must Get Right – if you’ll indulge me, I’ll start with my own article on how to design for service excellence.
  2. The Contribution Revolution – Scott Cook on how to more heavily involve customers in performing a company’s work.
  3. Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them – Gail McGovern and Youngme Moon on how companies can avoid antagonizing their customers.
  4. Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work – Alfie Kohn’s somewhat controversial argument on why monetary incentives send the wrong signal in a corporation.


  1. The Ownership Quotient –  A book about getting employees and customers to behave like owners from the authors of The Service Profit Chain (which revolutionized service management).
  2. Customer Mania – A book about building a customer-focused company by Ken Blanchard and co-authors.
  3. Competing on Analytics – A book about using the ever-increasing data accumulating in firms in smart and creative ways from Tom Davenport and Jeanne Harris.