Monthly Archives: January 2012

Creative Experimentation

I caught the announcement of a free webinar from MIT entitled “Creative Experimentation: Developing a Skill critical for Managing Complex Operating Systems” via Paul Levy’s blog. This offering looked quite interesting, but it conflicted with an important meeting I had scheduled at the same time. Nonetheless, I registered just in case I might have a chance to listen in. And sure enough, I had a 10-minute walk to my meeting and I was able to listen in to the webinar from my phone. I thought it quite interesting how you can learn *anywhere* nowadays – even from a professor at a remote university while you are a college president walking between meetings. Here are my notes from what I heard on the initial minutes of the call:

  • “Don’t think your way to an answer. Discover your way to an answer.”
  • “Your first pass doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be directionally correct.”
  • “Unless you are generating new data or generating new insights, you won’t be doing something differently.”
  • If you don’t know enough, do it in a way that is small and unobtrusive as a pilot.”
  • “Organizations throw their own obstacles in the way.”
  • “Organizations are nested. Each nest deals with the problems appropriate to their own boundaries. When a problem crosses boundaries of a nest, there’s a need to move up in the hierarchy of the nests … or else a need to change the boundaries of a nest.”
  • “See the problem. Run the experiments. Validate the data.”
  • “Identify the problem. Create Experiments. Test the solutions.” (this was a refrain)
  • “Knowledge gets shared through communities with shared interests.”

As with all things in life, I wish I could have listened and learned more. Oh well. -JM

Women Power at Davos

I favorited these tweets by Bill Gross from the Davos special session on “Women Power” – I couldn’t find an article online that covered the session as succinctly as Bill did:

  • “Just last week I saw shirts that said ‘Smart Like Daddy’ & ‘Pretty Like Mommy’ at Gymboree” Sheryl Sandberg of #FB #WEF #Davos
  • “As a women gets more powerful & successful, she becomes less liked, opposite of men.” A passionate Sheryl Sandberg @ #WEF #Davos
  • “An extra year of primary school can increase a girl’s future wages by 10-20% or more” Michele Bachelet of UN @ #WEF #Davos
  • “We don’t raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons.” laments Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook at #WEF #Davos
  • “Imagine if 1/2 of the world’s population were allowed to reach its full potential.” Women as the Way Forward @ #WEF #Davos
  • I’ve lived in a society that judged me on something I could do nothing about, the colour of my skin. We’re doing the same w/women -Tutu #WEF
  • “I got to where I was because I only had to compete with ½ the population” Sheryl Sandberg quoting Warren Buffet @ #WEF #Davos

This article from the Guardian is close. I was reminded of one of my favorite commencement speeches from last year by Sheryl Sandberg. -JM

Mom’s Magic

When I first arrived at RISD, I was given a book by our talented head of dining and retail, Ginnie Dunleavy, called “Setting the Table” about the concept of hospitality. I always enjoyed the basic thesis of the book – “Is the customer always right?” The answer is no – but, “They must always feel heard.”

Four years later, I became suddenly compelled to read, “The Cornell School of Hotel Administration on Hospitality” – it makes a precise distinction between hospitality and service in a variety of ways. It reads:

“If hospitality is heavily qualitative, then service is more quantitative. Service can be scripted and dictated, mechanical, and drilled. You can evaluate service more easily than hospitality. Service is repetitive, efficient, consistent, continuous, tailored, customized, and sustainable. Unlike hospitality, service is much easier to perfect through training, drill, exercise, and continuous commitment. With such practice, service can be taken to the highest level of technical perfection. But for true excellence, service and hospitality must combine. One cannot exist without the other.”

It goes on to describe hospitality as those qualities that relate to certain keywords like: warmth, friendly, listening, respect, treatment, guest, sensitivity, genuine, memorable, and unique.

As someone who grew up working in a small factory in Seattle and having had the privilege of serving many customers from dawn to dusk, six (and sometimes seven) days a week with my family, I never thought much about what made it a solvent business. Our product was priced lower than our competitors, and yet the quality was much higher. There were no employees besides my siblings and mom/dad, so you could say that labor costs were lower than normal. It didn’t quite make sense to me.

My father believed in the quality of work as something vital to his being – as trained to be someone who makes things exquisitely well. So if he needed to sustain the quality of his product, tofu, at an absurdly high level, he would select the best soybean seeds and the best natural ni-gari that he could procure. And of course, he’d progressively reduce his margins in the process.

My mother didn’t have a business background as well, and yet somehow their little business survived many ups and downs. And their overall “business” goal could be achieved – which was to send me and my siblings all off to college so that we might not have to make tofu for a living.

The Cornell book was useful because it gave me the “aha” I could not articulate for all these years. Dad was service – which was embodied in the product that he made to a high level of perfection. And mom was hospitality – which is the real reason that customers came back.

I recall countless arguments between my parents because my mother would often talk to customers at length – she was from Hawaii and with her inimitable charm could keep customers in our storefront forever. The arguments would be grounded in my father’s silent need to silently make the product in the backroom, and to want her help in that process. Meanwhile in the storefront, because of my mom the customer has lingered for so long that they can’t help but buy a few of the Japanese canned goods (with higher margins) on our shelves. And furthermore, the customer has personally committed to come back again to if at least chat with my radiant mom with her Hawaiian warmth as an antidote to the famous Seattle rainy weather.

The line above from the Cornell book says it all:

“But for true excellence, service and hospitality must combine. One cannot exist without the other.”

Luckily they stayed married all those years, and still are. -JM

Battleship, Nicotine, and Vitamin C

I’m a big believer in acupuncture ever since an episode I had 17 years or so ago where my hands were numb from typing. After seven visits to the acupuncturist I could use my hands again. Since I’m not getting any younger and I still type a lot (witness this post), I’ve been visiting the acupuncturist again.

My first acupuncture therapy was in Japan with Dr. Shuichi Katai who is a prominent researcher in the field who made it interesting for me. Dr. Katai would often teach acupuncture outside of Japan, and he suggested that when I have acupuncture done again in the future that I select a doctor who could read Chinese because the way it is practiced in “the West” is less holistic way than the way it is taught in Asia. He explained that in the West, the various needle points on the body (at least 17 years ago) are labelled with letter/number combinations – much like playing the Milton Bradley (now Hasbro) game “Battleship” with “E-17” or “H-22” etc. Whereas if you read the Chinese literature on acupuncture, there’s a narrative logic between the various meridians in the body that can describe a more holistic connectivity of all the various points. The Battleship analogy still holds, I believe, because frequency is important with acupuncture because the doctor is trying to metaphysically “sink” a few battleships in your body.

Luckily like Dr. Katai, my new acupuncturist Dr. Z doesn’t silently administer her needles – we often talk about the nature of acupuncture and how it all works. I like how she describes acupuncture as being able to address three important health factors: 1) the immune system, 2) blood circulation, and 3) mental and physical stress. She described two situations that I thought have some connection to leadership that I haven’t fully connected in my mind, and leave this note for the future.

Dr. Z has many patients that come to try to stop smoking. She described to me how it is much easier to stop smoking when you smoke 30 per day versus someone that smokes just six a day. Her rationale was that in trying to quit smoking, you are going from “a lot” to zero. The attack path is clear, the goal is clear, and it is felt throughout. Whereas when you are trying to quit from six a day, your mind has already acclimated to a “this is just as good as smoking zero” rationale. It reminded me of one of the concepts in the Heath brothers book Switch where they talk about how important “motivating the elephant” can really be. It’s like when they say how easy it is to make a change happen in the face of a major perceived need; whereas it’s much harder to change when the need is only slight. Nonetheless, Dr. Z is proud that she’s been able to help many of her patients quit smoking. How does she do it? Dr. Z coyly smiles and says, “Because I address their immune system, their blood circulation, and their mental and physical stress.” She also added, “Because everyone loves to look a little more beautiful – reducing smoking makes their faces look much more fresh.”

The other story I enjoyed from Dr. Z was her take on Chinese medicine and herbs. She felt that there’s a problem with medicine in general where people believe that if they take more, it’s proportionately more better for them. As an example, she said that it’s long been known in China to prescribe 10 milligrams of Vitamin C as herbs. But she finds it odd that we believe here in the States that 100 mg or even 1000 mg will be ten or one hundred times better for us. It made me think of how there’s a limit to the power of a solution. And if you can’t see that limit, and stop at the right moment, then you’ve actually made a new problem instead. It’s an argument that supports the classic, “Less is better than more.” Or perhaps said differently, “Enough is more than good enough – it’s great.”

This post is not in a fully organized state, and I leave it as a note for myself. I hope that someone out there can use it somehow. -JM

Leading with Humility

Last week I was fortunate to have lunch with one of my favorite thinkers, David Brooks. It felt a little bit like when I had a chance to hear how Charlie Rose thinks up close – I was inspired, thrilled, and frankly in absolute awe for how they think and approach the world. I tried to take notes while he was talking but I can’t quite read my own notes … so I’m posting this note on the Web to try and jog my memory.

The main takeaway I got was David’s deeply rooted sense of curiosity around the concept of humility. He’s written one of my favorite essays on the topic for the NYT here and more recently here. he told me a story about a newspaper publisher he once worked with who would tour the country seasonally to generate sales. David would be invited along on these trips once in a while to give a short talk. He commented on how the publisher would tell his clients in all frankness, “You know … we’re not doing a good enough job in our work. We could have done *that* differently, and *this* differently, and there is so much we need to do better.” Note that this was a “sales” call – which is quite extraordinary when you think about it. David mentioned that it wasn’t a gimmick. It was exactly how the publisher felt about how well (or not) he was leading his organization. And clients signed on for even more ads.

I find this story interesting, because it works counter to what we usually expect of leaders: for them to be perfect, to know and to be able to say exactly how great a job they are doing, and to never, ever, ever express doubt in their own ability to lead – when in reality, we know that in this complex, ever-changing world today, nobody really has the answers that pave the 100.0% perfectly prescribable path to the future.

We closed our lunch on a thought that will pleasantly haunt me for the coming weeks. David asked out loud, “Is it possible to be argumentative and humble at the same time?” I humbly leave this thought for you too. -JM

Catfish Boss

I learned of an interesting story about the Korean loach fish from a long time friend when we were sharing thoughts about how large organizations exist. Our conversation eventually centered around a common friend who unfortunately had a boss that was making this person’s life miserable. So he brought out the loach fish to help me see the world in a whole new way that I wanted to share with you.

Apparently, according to tradition this fish is a special delicacy to be enjoyed freshly caught, but only during summer months when they are particularly scarce. They can’t be caught in Seoul anymore and must be transported many hours away from the countryside. There was a longtime issue with transporting these fish because not only were they scarce, but they would often perish during the trip into Seoul during the hot summer months.

My friend then introduced the catfish into his story, “You know that the catfish is a carnivore — it eats other fish.” I didn’t, but I took note and wasn’t sure about the relation to the challenges of the loach fish that die before they get eaten (we can argue later which form of demise is better). He further described the solution that was introduced to assure that more loach fishes make it from the countryside to cityside: put a catfish in the tank of loach fishes.

“Huh?” I thought. This method of placing a loach-hungry catfish in the presence of lots of friendly, law-abiding loaches apparently improves their survival in transit by over 60%. What does this say? I think it confirms that old adage of, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So if you out there may have the apparent fortune of having a “catfish boss” — ie one that is out to eat you — congratulations! You will be luckier for the experience, and are more likely to survive for another day (or at least between a few more meals). -JM