Saturday, September 29, 2012

Do These Bus Handle Ads Work?

As I was commuting to work one morning, I noticed these advertisements sitting on the handle bars in the bus. Perched strategically where your hand would be, they offered a special promotion for a new F&B outlet for those who bothered to bring them there.

While the idea was pretty novel (kudos to SBS-Transit or Comfort-Delgro), I thought that the adverts could be further improved with some enhancements:

1) Focus on a simpler message that speaks directly to the consumer. For example, "Hungry for juicy mouth-watering chicken at only $___?" or some other copy that shows the value upfront.

2) Remind commuters where they can drop off the bus to patronise the outlet. Telling us your address alone isn't enough if we're on a bus.

3) Tie up a deal with EZ Link card (since almost 95% of commuters would have one) and make the deal sweeter for commuters. For example: "Exclusively for commuters - flash your EZ Link card and get two drinks for the price of one!"

4) Make it easier for commuters to stuff this flyer into their pockets or bags by shrinking it or making it softer and foldable, althought I'm not sure if that may make it less evident. The last thing that a standing bus passenger want to do is to fumble around with a large stiff flyer.

5) Do something more imaginative and creative, leveraging on the unique ambient media of bus handles. Compare the example above with the one below by Jung von Matt/Alster for watchmaker IWC in Berlin, Germany:

Courtesy of Creative Guerrilla Marketing

Do you think that such ambient out-of-home advertisements work? How would you improve them?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Our Iceberg is Melting: A Book Review

In this day and age, change is the only constant. Global economic uncertainties, socio-cultural shifts and technological breakthroughs make it necessary for organisations to adapt and transform themselves to remain relevant.

The question, however, is how one can drive change successfully in a stage littered with numerous failures.

Enter Harvard professor John Kotter, his collaborator Holger Rathgeber, and a fable about a penguin colony in Antarctica called "Our Iceberg is Melting".

With an invisible nod to fears of global warming, the highly charming tale weaves Kotter's eight steps of leading change to the lives of a group of emperor penguins. The escapades of avian characters like Fred, Alice, NoNo, the Professor, Buddy and head bird Louis are portrayed in vivid fashion with each playing a different role in the penguin organisation.

Faced with a seemingly inevitable disaster of a melting iceberg on which their home was built on, the penguins employed different ways to set the stage, decide on what to do, make it happen, and make it stick. These change management approaches model after Kotter's famous 8 step process (popularised in Leading Change):

1) Create a Sense of Urgency - Help others see the need for change the importance of acting immediately.

2) Pull Together a Guiding Team - Putting together a powerful group to guide the change, with the right mix of leadership skills, credibility, communications ability, authority, analytical skills and sense of urgency.

3) Develop the Change Vision and Strategy - Clarify how different the future will be from the past and the present, and how the future can be made a reality.

4) Communicate for Understanding and Buy In - Make sure as many others as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy.

5) Empower Others to Act - Remove as many barriers (they often include people) as possible so that those who want to make the vision a reality can do so.

6) Produce Short-Term Wins - Create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible.

7) Don't Let Up - Press harder and faster after the first successes, be relentless with initiating change after change until the vision is a reality.

8) Create a New Culture - Hold on to the new ways of behaving, and make sure they succeed, until they become strong enough to replace old traditions.

Through the clever use of metaphors and analogies - penguin chicks as junior staff, parent penguins as middle management, and the leadership council as senior management - Our Iceberg is Melting provides a compelling read for anybody driving change in an organisation. The use of practical approaches such as "iceposters" to communicate change and "hero medals" to acknowledge penguin scouts can easily be translated into human equivalents in the corporate world.

My favourite part of the story is how a band of chicks (the analogy for junior staff I suppose) created a penguin carnival as a way of securing much-needed fish to feed penguin scouts tasked to find a new iceberg for the colony. By working together, they circumvented an age-old tradition amongst penguins which demanded that penguins could only catch fishes for their young. Doing so allows the scouts to swim further in pursuit of their equivalent "land of flowing milk and honey" without worrying about food.

If you're responsible for changing an organisation (as I currently am), the book provides an excellent way to frame an often difficult and sensitive topic.

My next step? Finding a way to imbue these principles to my organisation.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Finding Your Muse

The nine muses of Greek mythology (courtesy of Greek Myths and Mythology)

Inspiration often comes in the most unlikely and inconvenient places.

For example, I may be sitting in front of my computer all ready to write a "change the world" blog post. I strain my brain. I close my eyes. I try to create. Unfortunately, I end up watching Youtube videos, responding to an oh so witty tweet, or comment ad nauseum on my friends' Facebook updates.

On the other hand, a flash of brilliance may strike as I'm pounding the asphalt on one of my runs. I feel clever, energised and on-top-of-the-world, and tell myself that I must write it down the moment I've reached home.

And then, I forget all about it.

How can one eliminate those writer blocks? How can we drink freely from the flowing rivers of textual epiphany?

Before you bang your head against keyboard, take a break.

Go for a walk, observe flora/fauna and people, and stretch your hands and legs.

Bring along a small notebook so that you can jot down thoughts as they come. A smartphone with recording or a note taking function may work equally well.

If your genie of ingenuity is still evasive, read an inspiring book or watch a favourite movie. Music may also help.

Should you need an added "boost", stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol or nicotine may help trigger those flashes of brilliance. A glass of ABC (Apple, Beetroot and Carrot) juice may also do the trick.

Having allowed your mind (and heart) to wander a bit, you should get back to your desk. After all, genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

If at first you can't write sh*t, try try again.

Sooner or later, your word smithing muse will visit you again. Don't agonise too much. Just move your fingers over your keyboard, engage wholly in the moment, and let it rip.

Of course, you can try everything under the Sun and still be unable to produce anything noteworthy. Perhaps what you write may even *gasp* sound illogical, insipid or dull.

However, don't kill yourself over it. Leave your judgmental, critical self far away when you attempt to put digital ink to screen.

Just shut all those voices up, focus, and write.

Over time as you practise writing frequently and often - even when you feel least like doing it - the repetitive exercise will strengthen your writing muscles. Your prose will be more smooth flowing. Your thoughts will be more coherent.

Heck, you may even be good enough to summon your muse at will!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cybergeddon - a Cinematic Cybercrime Thriller

Agents Chloe Jocelyn (Missy Peregrym) and Frank Parker (Manny Montana)

Imagine this nightmare scenario.

You log into your Facebook account. All your friends have disappeared. Ditto with Twitter.

In horror, you quickly check your email. An ominous message appears on Whatsapp. Wait a minute, isn't that your face on the evening news as the police searches for a "Wanted" criminal?

Fact blends with fiction in the world of Anthony E. Zuiker's (creator of the CSI franchise) Cybergeddon. Launched exclusively on Yahoo! in over 25 countries and 10 languages on Tuesday, 25 September, Cybergeddon is the work of Zuiker's company Dare to Pass in partnership with Dolphin Digital Studios. As one could guess, the movie is supported by online security giant Norton by Symantec.

Touted as a "new digital blockbuster", Cybergeddon warns us of the growing threat of cybercrime through the talents of stars like Olivier Martinez and Missy Peregrym. While the scenario I've painted above doesn't appear in the movie, such a situation could very well happen in this day and age.

The story revolves around FBI agent Chloe Jocelyn (Missy Peregrym) and her online and offline escapades. Investigating a series of seemingly unrelated cyberattacks with her partner fellow agent Frank Parker (Manny Montana) and master hacker Chase "Rabbit" Rosen (Kick Gurry), the female protagonist manages to outwit and outlast an evil Eastern European accented criminal named Gustov Dobreff (Olivier Martinez).

Having watched the entire movie in one sitting, I must commend the producers for trying to weave in a degree of human interest and nail biting excitement into the plot. It does have its thrills and spills, and I like the humourous interludes between Chloe, Chase and Frank.

However, I felt that its format probably works better online where it will be released as nine chapters in an episodic manner - three per day over three consecutive days - as opposed to a big screen endeavour. I guess that's how it was meant to be produced.

You can catch the trailer and the movie on Yahoo!'s website here.

In the words of Zuicker himself,

"Cybergeddon is a cinematic experience that breaks traditional rules. With the global distribution arm of Yahoo!, we will give viewers a way to have more to do after watching the segments to gain more knowledge and further interact with the storyline and cast. The best part is that all of this can be experienced on any device, anytime and anywhere, day and date with the launch of Cybergeddon."

I personally enjoyed the fact that Cybergeddon has some elements of transmedia storytelling, leveraging on consumers to unravel various parts of the storyline through an interactive web experience. Apparently, Zuicker is an expert in the field of cross-platform storytelling with his pioneering of the "Digi-novel" genre through the Level 26 series.  

Go check out the move website for its trailer, and remember to tune in to Cybergeddon this coming Tuesday!

Cybercriminal mastermind Gustov Dobreff (played by Olivier Martinez)

Friday, September 21, 2012

Social Innovation Comes Alive at GSIF 2012

Ms Lim Sinni and Ms Penny Low of Social Innovation Park

Have you heard of social innovation?

According to Wikipedia, social innovation refers to "new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds... and that extend and strengthen civil society." Those that are well planned and orchestrated could trigger social movements that address critical gaps in our world today.

Social innovation often include social entrepreneurship (the adoption of entrepreneurial principles to solve social issues) as well as partnerships between the public, private and people sectors (3P). It is a strategy used to foster positive change, addressing prevailing social, community, health, or environmental problems.

With the theme "Inclusive Innovation - Walk The Talk", Global Social Innovators Forum (GSIF) 2012 aims to show how social innovation is done. The event showcases worldwide examples of enterprises, technologies, communities, art and environmental initiatives that embrace the tenets of inclusiveness.

GSIF is organised by Social Innovation Park (SIP), a non-profit organisation founded by Member of Parliament Ms Penny Low which aims to develop social entrepreneurs and bring about positive transformations to society.

Happening 18 to 19 October, the forum features renowned speakers like Tony Buzan (Mind Mapping), Parag Khanna (Hybrid Reality Institute), Jim Jarvis (arctic explorer), NTUC Fairprice CEO Seah Kian Peng, DBS Bank's Karen Ngui, and many others.

 Key highlights include:

- Plenaries by moderated by thought leaders on areas of social innovation leadership;

- "Big Ideas Lab!" sharing ideas on bottom-up change;

- Master classes on topics like ground up innovation, art as an inclusive tool, and the power of social media for social movements;

- "Social Innovators Accelerator Track" for innovators and social entrepreneurs to gain support from international or local support groups;

- "FirePITCH SPOTLIGHT!": a platform for aspiring social entrepreneurs to pitch ideas to potential investors.

Accompanying the forum will be a 2 day festival (GSIFest 2012) held from 20 to 21 October which feature organisations and individuals who demonstrated social innovation. The festival will be held at various venues: City Square Mall, Uniqlo Bugis + & 313, The Central, Orchard Central, VivoCity, Punggol Community Garden, and MacPherson estate (covered walkway from Blk 43 to Blk 51).

Let me highlight two noteworthy examples from the festival.

Project Health (City Square Mall) spearheaded by Social Innovation Park and students from SMU seeks to promote lifelong habits of healthy eating working with primary school students and their parents. A key figure in this initiative is Chef Benny Se Teo of Eighteen Chefs. Touted as Singapore's very own Jamie Oliver, the reformed ex-convict is now a leader in creating healthy, tasty and easy-to-prepare recipes in partnership with Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Eu Yan Sang as part of Project Health.

Tee Story, founded in August 2011 utilises recycled tee-shirts to produce laptop sleeves. They work with disadvantaged women from social welfare organisations to create environmentally friendly products, killing two social "birds" with one stone. Achieving the triple bottomline of profit, purpose and people, the fruits of this noteworthy initiative will be displayed at Uniqlo 313 and Bugis +. 

Personally, I'm inspired by what the SIP team sets out to do. With a bold ambition to reach one million eyeballs, 100,000 lives, and 10,000 event participants, Penny Low and her team hopes that all Singaporeans will join them in this worthy cause.

Be a part of this social movement and sign up for the GSIF 2012 today! For more details on the programme as well as registration, click on this link.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Six Tips to Raise Productivity in Singapore

Teamy the Bee (courtesy of Singapore Visual Archive)

Teamy the Bee should be worried.

Labour productivity in Singapore has dropped by 1.9% in the last quarter, making it the 3rd quarter by quarter decline. With the manufacturing sector showing a 3% growth in productivity, it is clear that the service sector is the main culprit for productivity drops.

This is further aggravated by the reduction in non-oil exports, indicating a serious slowdown in global markets.

In a global economy which seems to have more downside than upside, the only way for enterprises and employees to thrive may be to do more with less. Raising our individual productivity helps us to boost our bottomlines while minimising the need for painful retrenchment.

How can we improve our productivity then? Let us consider the 6 Ts.

1) Trimming

The first T is probably the hardest to do. We humans have an uncanny ability to add, increase and multiply. However, we're often loathe to slaughter those sacred cows at work or to simplify our processes for fear that something would be lost in translation.

To truly transform our businesses, we need to "kill our darlings". Start with meetings, reports, updates and emails. Reduce unnecessary paperwork. Streamline processes. Pare things down to the barest minimum (and then some).

You'll be surprised to learn that the world wouldn't fall apart with one less KPI!

2) Templatisation

The second T looks at how we can systematize those burdensome documents so that they don't keep returning to haunt us. Instead of trying to reconcile a hundred different formats on excel, find a way to adopt a consistent standard in capturing and sharing information. Standardise data capture so that you need not key in the same stuff over and over again.

Adopting fixed formats does not mean being rigid. There will be room for creativity. Note that even the most innovative organisations like Apple and Pixar are heavily focused on documenting and following their key processes.

3) Transmission

Clarity in internal communication is critical in improving productivity. I've seen countless instances where misunderstandings have led to countless emails to-ing and fro-ing over a simple issue.

To eliminate this, consider how information can be captured meaningfully and shared amongst those who need access to it. Build systems that allow information and data to be transmitted and shared to those who need them where they need them. Wherever possible, reduce the need for employees to produce and transmit multiple copies of the same information to different parties.

4) Transparency

Boosting productivity often involves painful change. You can't be side-stepping the elephant in the room and pretend that the problem will blow away when the ship comes in.

To gear up an organisation for change, you need to have an open conversation. Share what's right and what worked, but also be honest about the areas of improvement. Any productivity measure requires changes in job scopes and processes.

5) Teamwork

As Michael Jordan has said, "Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships." To do well in the productivity stakes, you need to work in partnership with your colleagues, suppliers, distributors and partners to address system and process issues. There is no place for prima donnas in a productive organisation.

6) Thoughtfulness

Finally, productivity is about being thoughtful of one's work and one's colleagues. It is about making things easier for both you, your colleagues and other stakeholders. It is about consciously improving processes, practices and policies so that onerous work can be reduced while not compromising on service. It is also about thinking beyond one's traditional area of work to consider how the organisation functions holistically as a system of systems.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Execution - The Discipline of Getting Things Done: Book Review

How do companies like GE, Wal-Mart and Honeywell succeed? What is the secret of Jack Welch, one of the most legendary CEO in the business world today?

The secret, according to Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, is Execution. Subtitled The Discipline of Getting Things Done, the New York Times bestseller emphasises the importance of execution in business, how companies with an execution culture conduct their business affairs, and its three core processes: people, strategy and operations.

Laced liberally with stories from the warfront, the book is heavy on pragmatism and short on management theory. Written by former CEO and Chairman of Honeywell Larry Bossidy and academic Ram Charan, it drives home the point that a CEO must be wholly immersed in his business - from the topmost rung of corporate strategy to the nuts and bolts of operations.

In the section on the building blocks of execution, we're taught that a leader needs to have 7 essential behaviours. These are:

1) Knowing one's people and business;

2) Insisting on realism;

3) Setting clear goals and priorities;

4) Following through;

5) Rewarding the doers;

6) Expanding people's capabilities through coaching; and

7) Knowing oneself.

A leader also needs to create a framework for cultural change. He/she needs to set the tone for the employees' attitudes, beliefs and behaviours from the top down.

Getting the right people in and building an "A" team is highlighted repeatedly as a core tenet of execution. Leaders must spend their time understanding their staff's strengths and weaknesses, coach and mentor them, and be unafraid to highlight sensitive issues when the time arises.

Once the building blocks are completed, a leader needs to institute three core processes which must all be closely inter-woven with each other, namely:

1) The People Process - The most important processes in any organisation, a robust people process evaluates individuals accurately and in depth, helps leaders to identify and develop talent, and creates the pipeline for a strong succession plan. Non-performers must be adequately dealt with while rewards must be closely linked to business results.

2) The Strategy Process - Here, the "Hows" are just as important as the "Whys" and "Whats". An executional leader has an intimate understanding of his/her customers, competitors, environment, and critical issues. Good strategies must consider both short (1 to 3 years) and longer term (3 to 5 years) plans, and be realistic about an organisation's ability to implement the strategy.

3) The Operations Process - Spread out over a year with quarterly reporting (in the case of public listed companies), the operating plan needs to closely align performance targets with resources and budgets. Execution savvy companies will develop action and contingency plans to accommodate various outcomes. They will also conduct quarterly reviews to reallocate resources according to varying market conditions.

Perhaps the most insightful lesson I've learned from the book is the need for business leaders to follow through while ensuring that their people meet their promises. Both Jack Welch and Larry Bossidy (who was also a former GE executive) write memos to key executives after review meetings. This habit helps them to communicate key points while ensuring that milestones are met. Such practices are almost non-existent in most organisations.

In a world inundated with numerous management theories, Execution provides a great reminder that winning companies are not built through brilliant strategies but a relentless focus on implementation. Its timeless lessons are relevant throughout all ages.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Don't Monkey Around with Kipling's Ape

A perennial favourite amongst my family members, Kipling has carved a niche for itself with its selection of well designed handbags, haversacks, satchels, wallets and suitcases. Arrayed in an attractive range of colours, designs and styles, Kipling offers something for everybody.

What I find unique about Kipling is that furry little simian dangling from the zipper. My son goes ape over those little critters. He has amassed a tidy little collection of different gorillas in shades of orange, green, red, brown, and black.

Those Kipling apes are what I call a "social object". According to renowned cartoonist Hugh MacLeod, a social object is...

"...the rea­son two peo­ple are tal­king to each other, as oppo­sed to tal­king to some­body else. Human beings are social ani­mals. We like to socia­lize. But if we think about it, there needs to be a rea­son for it to hap­pen in the first place. That rea­son, that “node” in the social net­work, is what we call the Social Object."

In a fashion and consumer market flooded with hundreds of brands, Kipling's little apes have become conversation pieces. They help the brand differentiate itself from its competitors while building the affinity between parent and child.

This uniqueness helps Kipling to endear itself to its customers beyond the designs, materials, styles and functions of its bags. It provides that little "Aha!" factor which allows it to stand out from the rest. It also adds an element of irreverence and fun to an otherwise utilitarian and commodified good.

The next time you think about creating a new product or service, consider introducing an element of meaningful quirkiness so that it can stand out from the sea of brands. Make it an artefact that becomes a social object - one that can help the brand increase its social quotient. Better yet, make it a feature which helps to bond your customers and their communities. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Who Killed Change? - Book Review

Written by Ken Blanchard of "The One Minute Manager" fame, together with his co-authors John Britt, Pat Zigarmi and Judd Hoekstra, "Who Killed Change?" is a whodunnit with a business twist. The slim volume is easily read in one sitting and imbues one with useful pointers when implementing change management.

The plot goes like this. Somebody in the ACME organisation has killed Change. In this case, Change of course represents Change Management - a very necessary ingredient for enduring organisational effectiveness when things no longer become business as usual.

To investigate the ghastly affair, cigar chomping Agent McNally interviews various key employees in the organisation - from nondescript Carolina Culture, lackaisaical Ernest Urgency, uptight Bailey Budget, short-sighted Victoria Vision to ill-disciplined Terry Trainer, amongst others.

Each character in the motley crew of managers represent a particular dimension of an organisation, and the way they were described implied that they were often far from what they were supposed to be (eg Perry Plan always being late and not on time). Now doesn't that sound familiar to us working in real organisations?

In total, 13 aspects of the organisation were "hauled up" for questioning, namely:

1) Culture - defines the predominant attitudes, beliefs and behaviour patterns.

2) Commitment - describes a person's motivation and confidence to engage in the new behaviours required by Change.

3) Sponsorship - a senior leader with the authority to deploy resources towards the Change.

4) Change Leadership Team - leads the Change into the organisation by speaking in one voice and resolving concerns.

5) Communication - creates opportunities for dialogue with change leaders and those affected.

6) Urgency - explains why Change is needed and how quickly people must change the way they work.

7) Vision - paints a clear and compelling picture of the future after Change has been integrated.

8) Plan - clarifies the priorities of Change relative to others and develop detailed and realistic implementation plan plus support infrastructure.

9) Budget - analyses Changes from financial perspective to determine ROI and resource allocation.

10) Trainer - equips staff to change with necessary skills needed to succeed.

11) Incentive - recognises and rewards people to reinforce desired behaviours for Change.

12) Performance Management - sets goals and expectations, tracks progress, provides feedback and formally documents actual versus projected results.

13) Accountability - follows through with people to ensure behaviours and results are aligned to goals and expectations, with leaders walking the talk.

After the murderer was announced (go read it to find out who!), the last chapter of the book provides useful tips on how to infuse change management into the 13 aspects of an organisation. We're taught that successful change management must be fully embraced by different divisions and functions. The buy-in of all affected staff needs to be sought beyond that of the senior leadership.

Change must also be woven into all the key corporate functions - from strategy and vision setting to budgets, performance management, training and project management. It needs to tackle both the "hard" factors (budget, plans, performance, accountability) and the "soft" factors (culture, training, urgency, and communication).

Overall, I find the book both entertaining and enlightening, serving as a useful reminder of what many of us already know. Change is always a difficult subject in any organisation, and using a management fable helps to bring to life some of these important lessons that one must learn. The challenge of course is in the implementation of change, and that probably requires more than what a fictional tale can achieve.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What is Your Employee Value Proposition?

Source of image

In the world of business, we're often focused on our customer value proposition. What makes our products or services stand out in the marketplace? How do we draw the right customers at the right price?

The unfortunate thing, however, is that we often neglect to pay attention to the most important stakeholders in our organisation. Namely, our employees.

With a shrinking talent pool and a tight labour market, organisations need to focus on what they bring to the table to attract, retain and motivate their staff. A good way to do this is to focus on enhancing their Employee Value Proposition.  This was defined by Brett Minchington (2005) as follows (source: Wikipedia):

"...a set of associations and offerings provided by an organisation in return for the skills, capabilities and experiences an employee brings to the organisation."

To offer a compelling value proposition to current and future employees, an organisation should consider its Employer Brand and how these are communicated internally. Quoting from Wikipedia, this can be understood as the...

"sum of a company’s efforts to communicate to existing and prospective staff what makes it a desirable place to work, and the active management of a company’s image as seen through the eyes of its associates and potential hires."

While ensuring that it builds up the right image in the eyes of its workers, companies should also consider the comprehensive package that it can offer to team members. In doing so, Sibson Consulting's framework for total rewards may be useful as a point of reference as seen below:

Courtesy of Sibson Consulting

While most organisations focus on the Compensation and Benefits which a new or seasoned hire would enjoy working with them, they often place less emphasis on developing the other three dimensions of Work Content, Career and Affiliation.

This isn't unexpected. Doing so requires extensive effort to map out the growth trajectories of every employee, match individual aspiration with organisational needs, and build a positive organisational culture.

To succeed, however, organisations must embrace a more holistic approach to employee attraction, retention and motivation. They need to develop a strong set of vision, mission and values which steer and guide all employees towards a common direction, and build a climate of collaboration, camaraderie and trust. They need to also look individually at how each and every valued team member is progressing, how she/he is being valued and groomed, and whether she/he finds fulfillment, joy and meaning in the work she/he does. 

Building a robust organisation doesn't end with hiring the right people for the right jobs. It comes with ensuring that these individuals grow along with the organisation.  It also comes with understanding the various social and psychological triggers that can motivate or demotivate one's workforce.

Employees are not just headcounts - they are passionate individuals with views, thoughts and feelings. By paying attention to their Employee Value Proposition, organisations can greatly increase their chances of winning in the race for the brightest and the best. As legendary business leader Jack Welch has shared: "The team with the best players wins."

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Why Businesses Need to Sweat the Small Stuff

Dining in Canada
Great food, environment and service made Banff's Wild Flour our favourite dining place

Finally, its Friday night! After a stressful work week, you can now let down your hair and party the weekend away.

The first item on the agenda? A slow dinner at the latest fine dining restaurant.

As you make your way to the much vaunted venue, several things pricked your senses. First, the carpark seems to be rather dark and gloomy. As you walk through the narrow staircases leading up to the restaurant level in the shopping centre, you noticed the cigarette butts and tissue papers strewn on the stairwell.

OK, you've reached the entrance of the restaurant. Sniff sniff.... Where is that peculiar odour emanating from... within? A loud voice interrupted your reverie: "Have you made a booking for tonight Sir?" chirped the enthusiastic waiting staff. You said yes and proceeded to walk to your seat with your dining partner.

Ah. Finally. Bliss. Or is it?

Wait a minute, isn't that an odd looking stain on the table cloth. "Clang, chink, bzzzz, bonk.." goes the cacophony of sounds arising from the kitchen and the seats. The waiter serving you looks harried and appear ever ready to dash off for a 100 metre sprint.

When your food arrived after a good 20 minute wait, it is so dark that you can hardly make out what you're eating. While talking to your partner, a loud K-pop tune emanated from your neighbouring diner's table, further jarring your frayed nerves.

Sounds familiar?

In any consumer facing business, it is often the little things that can make or break a business. These hygiene factors or "atmospherics" cover the whole gamut of experience - from cleanliness of the environment, noise levels, lighting, aromas (or smells), and movement. Their absence or presence can sometimes tip the balance between good and great customer encounters.

To sensitize yourself to the "minor irritants", learn to become a consumer yourself and notice your surroundings more carefully. Do the following:

- Visit a successful competitor with a couple of family members and friends. It is good to have folks who are not within your industry so that you can get an outsider's view.

- Pay careful attention to how the outlet's environment is designed and maintained. Where are the key customer touchpoints? How are payments made?

- Notice how the staff of the outlet behaves. Are they responsive to customer needs? Is there a standard script that they use to put guests at ease?

- Pick up the good points and discard the bad.

In evaluating your own business, pay particular attention to factors that affect one's five senses - sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. Notice how the outlet's staff behave and their body language to customers. Do a regular audit of various factors and list them down systematically.

When your customers visit the outlet, pay careful attention to how they react to the environment, staff and various stimuli:

- Are they frowning or smiling?

- Do they appear tensed and hesitant or relaxed and at ease?

- Are their conversations lively or hushed?

- Do they look lost and in need of assistance? 

Paying attention to the little things can make all the difference in one's business. It is critical to remove these minor pain points first before thinking about incorporating any "heroic" service gestures. 

Often, it is the basics which could make or break a consumer business. By focusing on these fundamentals, you're able to create positive "moments of truth" that go a long way towards building positive brand affinity and generating repeat business.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Newsjacking - A Dirty Little Secret in PR

Are pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia the next meme for newsjackers (courtesy of

Have you heard of the term "newsjacking"? If you haven't, here's a quick definition from its originator David Meerman Scott:

"..the process by which you inject your ideas or angles into breaking news, in real-time, in order to generate media coverage for yourself or your business."

According to HubSpot Blog, there is a small window of opportunity for one to newsjack successfully. It may range from a few hours to a few days, depending on how big the news item is and the amount of public and media interest in the subject.

This is represented figuratively by the diagram below (courtesy of David Meerman Scott):

To maximise the benefit of newsjacking, we should interject as soon as the news starts to break and gain traction. When such opportunities arise, dive in and swim to meet the big surf so that you can ride its crest. By piggybacking on a breaking news story, you're able to benefit from the momentum of the story as it unfurls.

What are some examples of newsjacking in action?

Well, the recent Diner en Blanc case in Singapore is one such example. Following the incident, several different parties have organised their own thematic "pop up" dining events including the Make and Eat Tau Huay Day. The most successful of these spin-offs was probably mrbrown's Makan Day at Raffles Place.

Makan Day is a successful example of newsjacking (courtesy of mrbrown)

Over in the US, Steve Wynn, owner of the luxurious Encore Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas (where Prince Harry got famously naked), publicly waived the tens of thousands of dollars hotel bill. According to Scott, this act alone got Wynn into 3,657 stories by Google news count!

Prince Harry brought new fame to the Royal Family (courtesy of TMZ)

How does one newsjack successfully? Here's a useful six step guide from HubSpot blog:

1) Set up alerts via RSS feeds, Google alerts, Twitter alerts or other social media monitoring tools.

2) Check keyword search volume on Google and find out which keyword phrases have a higher search volume around the topic. Yes, its all about Search Engine Optimisation here.

3) Read about your search topic so that you know what has already been written about the news story and how you can develop an original and credible angle.

4) Write quickly, but accurately. Yes, time and tide waits for no man and here, speed is of the essence.

5) Differentiate yourself and present something unique, different and fresh which is of interest to your audiences.

6) Finally, get the word out. This is probably the most straightforward for those with an existing network on Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds and other online channels.

Before you gleefully newsjack the next available news story or Internet meme out there, do consider the following ethics of newsjacking (courtesy of PR Daily):

1) Be tasteful. While negative news can present opportunities for piggybacking, you should not capitalise on major disasters, calamities or deaths for your own gain.

2) Be credible. Don't simply ride the "Gangnam Style" bandwagon just because it's such a huge YouTube hit spawning tonnes of parodies. With two left feet, I'm certainly not taking that chance!

3) Be timely. Yes, trying to do it too late would result in you missing the boat. PR Daily recommends a 48-hour window (a bit longer for trends).

4) Be catchy. This means creating the right headlines so that you can catch attention and employ all the PR tricks you can muster.

5) Be relevant. This is probably the most useful tip on ethical newsjacking. You need to show that your business offers something of value and relevance rather than just capitalising on a "cheap shot" at fame. Do also consider how your actions will influence your brand identity.

Do you feel that newsjacking is an ethical PR strategy? If not, why not? 

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Good to Great: A Book Review

Are charismatic superstar CEOs the answer to enduring success? What about dramatic mergers and acquisitions - aren't those the panacea to ailing companies? Finally, cutting edge technologies ought to at least have an impact on greatness, right?

Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), the answer to these are "NO". Not at least according to "Good to Great", a phenomenal business bestseller published in 2001 by renowned business author Jim Collins

The fruit of an exhaustive study tracking the performance of Fortune 500 companies over a 30 year period, the book recorded that "good to great" companies had an average of 15 "good" years followed by 15 "great" years. During the latter years, their market valuations leapfrogged their industries by at least three times.

The 11 companies which made the cut? Abott, Circuit City, Fannie Mae (I'll talk more about this case later), Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Philip Morris, Pitney Bowes, Walgreens, and Wells Fargo.

According to Good to Great, the key ingredients behind enduring "greatness" stem from six key disciplines divided into three categories. These characteristics were common to these 11 firms, and they are:

Disciplined People

a) Good-to-great companies are usually led by highly driven "Level 5" Leaders who embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will, focused on producing sustained results and displaying a workmanlike diligence - more plow horse than show horse.

b) Good-to-great companies began their transformations by getting the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) before figuring out what strategies to employ. The is embodied in the statement "First Who, Then What". Contrast this with comparison companies that employ the "genius with a thousand helpers" model where discipline is imposed only by the sheer will, charisma and force of a "superstar" CEO.

Disciplined Thought

a) Good-to-great companies Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith) in what they do. They have cultures whereby people have opportunities to be heard adn where, ultimately, the truth is heard. This is epitomised by the Stockdale Paradox where one retains absolute faith that one can prevail to the end despite the difficulties and confront the most brutal facts of one's current situation.

b) Good-to-great companies adopt the Hedgehog Concept (ie focusing on being the best at only a few things at a time). To do so, it is suggested that companies can form a council comprising the leading executive and between 5 to 12 key members of the management. The council should focus on asking the following three questions (which form 3 circles):

1) What you can be the best in the world at;
2) What you are deeply passionate about; and
3) What drives your economic engine.

Courtesy of Good to Great (image source)

Disciplined Action

a) Good-to-great companies closely follow a strong Culture of Discipline. They often use words like rigorous, dogged, diligent, precise, fastidious, consistent, accountable and methodical in their corporate lexicon, and are characterised by having a "stop doing" list. A culture of discipline involves getting people to adhere to a consistent system yet have freedom and responsibility within that framework - its about self-motivated people who display exreme diligence and a stunning intensity.

b) Good-to-great companies use Technology as an Accelerator, not a creator of momentum. They do not chase after fads and shiny bright objects, yet become pioneers of carefully selected technologies. The key is that technology must fit into their Hedgehog Concept (three circles) and to respond with thoughtfulness and creativity, driven by a compulsion to turn unrealised potential into results.

Beyond the application of Disciplined People, Disciplined Thought and Disciplined Action, the book also described how good-to-great companies build momentum through continued improvement and the delivery of results in a "Flywheel Effect" as seen below:

Courtesy of Good to Great (image source)

In the final chapter, Collins ties in key ideas in Good to Great with Built to Last (his earlier bestseller authored with Jerry I. Porras). Key concepts in Built to Last such as Clock Building. Not Time Telling, Genius of AND, Core Ideology and Preserve the Core/Stimulate Progress are related to the six concepts highlighted above.

As a caveat, Collins highlighted that not all good-to-great companies will necessarily stay that way. He mentioned that Gillette started faltering in 1998 when its leadership became distracted by non-core projects in the book. More recently, we've heard about Fannie Mae's colossal demise and how the US government had to bail it out. Obviously Collins has an answer to why great companies don't stay great and this is captured in an article in Businessweek linked to his more recent book How the Mighty Fall.

Good to Great shows that there is no silver bullet or shortcut to corporate success. Companies that make the cut do things the hard way and are willing to stick-it-out despite what naysayers (or Wall Street) says.  By emphasising the hiring of good people, building of robust cultures, and implementation of rigorous and disciplined systems, it provides a good road map for companies willing to bite the bullet and do what it takes to succeed in the long term. Definitely highly recommended!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Warren Buffett's Management Secrets: Review

Known as the "Oracle of Omaha", Warren Buffett was once the richest man in the world. With an uncanny ability to sniff out good companies that beat the market time and again, Buffett was able to amass an amazing fortune of US$44 billion. What's amazing is that he also intends to give most of it away to charity. Buffett's company, the world famous Berkshire Hathaway group, own some 88 businesses and employ 233,000 workers worldwide.

What few people know is that Buffett is not just a savvy investor but a great manager and business leader. In the audio book, "Warren Buffett's Management Secrets", Mary Buffett (Buffett's former daughter-in-law) and David Clark depicts some of the management philosophies behind the billionaire's success.

Written in a simple, storytelling fashion interspersed with little stories and anecdotes from Buffett's management style, the book seems more suited for entrepreneurs and new managers than experienced leaders although some of its precepts are timeless. It is divided into five key sections:

1) Pick the Right Business (and Business Model)

Here, we're told that the best companies to invest in and to work for are those with strong financials and balance sheets (as opposed to the touchy feely stuff like values, vision and so on). Buffett goes for companies that have unique products, scale advantages that allow them to generate significant margins, have healthy price/earnings ratios, generate good margins, and stay away from debt.

Those he admire include Coca-Cola, Wrigleys, Wal-Mart and Apple, while General Motors comes with a huge "stay away" warning. Known for sticking to long-term rather than short-term investments, Buffett prefers to address the fundamentals rather than adopt technical analyses of businesses (he poo poos much of the investment banking community).

Quoting from the book: “..if you find yourself working for a company with poor inherent economics, it is better to get out now than it is to stick around year after year waiting for things to change.” Good advice indeed, at least for those who want to succeed financially in a company that issues fat paychecks!

2) Delegate Authority (and Choose the Best Employees)

In this section, the authors shared how Buffett delegated and empowered his CEOs (there are 88 of them), and focuses on a few outstanding individuals among the pack. Warren's style is one of picking the right people and giving them as much leeway as possible to get the job done. Painted more like a coach and mentor, he doesn't scold his business leaders if they make mistakes but instead, encourages them to do better.  

Adopting a principle of management by asking questions (rather than issuing orders) - a stark contrast that with the other legendary business leader Steve Jobs - Buffett focuses on the major things and leaves the rest to his managers.  The mantra used is "Delegation to the point of adjudication".

3) Find a Manager with the Right Qualities

Buffett looks for managers and leaders with integrity, intelligence, and a passion for the business. Through various stories, we're told of people that embody those qualities and joined the Berkshire Hathaway group in diverse businesses ranging from machine tool parts manufacturing, jewellery to retail. Business ethics and the propensity for "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" is key. Buffett highlights that “Managers who always promise to ‘make the numbers’ will at some point be tempted to make up the numbers”.

According to Buffett: “In the management of our lives, the rule is: Love what you do. In the management of our businesses, the rule is: Hire people who love what they do.”

4) Motivate Your Workforce

Apparently, Buffett is a keen fan of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, adopting many of his precepts in people management.  With the right folks in place, Buffett finds various ways to motivate his managers and employees.  Key lessons here include encouraging others to come up with the right ideas, speaking to the other person's wants and needs, and using praise (rather than criticism) to encourage.

An anecdote I remembered was one where Buffett went all the way to the airport, driving his gold Cadillac and picking up a new business leader who was just recruited to join a business. He brought her around his hometown in Omaha, Nebraska, bought her lunch at a fancy restaurant and introduced her to employees in the company. I think its quite amazing that a business leader of such stature was willing to do that for a new joinee!

5) Focusing on Key Managerial Axioms (Managerial Pitfalls, Challenges and Learning Opportunities)

The final part of the book focuses on 10 key managerial axioms that underscore how Buffett lives his life. One can tell that he has a huge aversion to borrowing money of any kind - personal or professional. We're also told that we should learn from our mistakes instead of ignoring the lessons contained therein, keep our business costs low, bank on the tried and true, pursue excellence and "scale up" in life, amongst other "Warren-isms".

While I enjoyed listening to the audio book (much of it over a two hour bicycle ride), I found that many of the lessons aren't really rocket science. One can't really embrace all the tenets of the slim volume and hope to become a billionaire through osmosis. Having said that, I was personally motivated and inspired by Buffett's emphasis on simple solutions and philosophies to business and management problems.