Put your onions in the freezer

MIRIAM: Oh, Barney, put it in the freezer.
MIRIAM: Put the onion in the freezer for a few minutes before you chop it. Then it won’t make you cry.

Barney’s Version, 2010

People love pain. Christina Harbridge of Allegory Training once told me “people naturally do what’s in their worst interest.” Sad, but true.

A few weeks ago I went to see Barney’s Version with my girlfriend. I’m a fan of Paul Giamatti so I expected a great performance. Even still the movie was beyond my expecations. Terrific piece of work and I highly recommend it.

A great scene comes about halfway through when Barney (Giamatti) is cutting an onion in the kitchen with onion-induced tears streaming down his face. His wife, Miriam, comes into the kitchen and feeds him some classic advice: if you put an onion in the freezer before cutting it, then you’ll be tear free. Barney seems amazed and impressed by this discovery. However, a few scenes later, we find Barney chopping onions again, still crying…he didn’t do the freezer trick.

How many times do we find ourselves in the situation where we know how to stop the pain, but for some reason we go with what we know, even if we know it’s the wrong choice?

A former colleague articulated the business version of this to me a few years ago: “It’s like we’ve lost our keys, and we know we left them in the kitchen, but we keep checking the garage because the light’s on out there and it’s just easier.” Classic line. There was so much truth there.

While working with Jim Collins I found that, in most cases, this type of corporate behavior wasn’t an issue of vision, but rather one of execution…or maybe just the willingness to execute.

The trick: create a stop doing list. These serve as a consistent reminder of specific actions that hinder our advancement. They fight against our natural inclination to stick with comfortable, rather than successful, behaviors. Jim talks about it here, and it works wonders.

The common practice for building strategies for work (or for life) is to write down a plan of what action we have to take to hit our objectives. Makes sense. The problem is that this has strong potential to tack additional responsibilities on top of previous bad habits. Not a recipe for sustainable success. A stop doing list forces you to be explicit in what you’re no longer doing so that you can focus on, and likely achieve, your new goals.

Try it with yourself, and try it with your team. They will appreciate you taking some work off their plate, especially in cases where that work is no longer relevant. It’s a great exercise with huge payoffs.

Be SMaC (Systematic, Methodical and Consistent) with your stop doing lists. This way you can throw your onions in the freezer and clear some space for more rewarding behaviors.

February 18, 2011 at 7:37 am 18 comments

Sell what your customers value

A quality user experience is the most talked about but under-executed functionality of a product or service. It’s also the most important.

It’s true that many users will step through broken glass to use your product if the value proposition is strong enough to them, but this isn’t sustainable and will only a create a niche market of users with no visible growth prospects (granted these users will likely be more dedicated than most). Trust me, this is where my company has sat for quite some time, and it’s a struggle that we fight every day.

I was recently helping my girlfriend think through growth options for her printing company, and it all came back to two questions:

  1. Why do new customers purchase your service?
  2. Why do existing customers come back to buy again?

Simply put, understand what value new customers seek as well as what value returning customers want again.

An example of failure here is with hotel.com’s iOS app. The app’s main function is “Find Hotels Near Me.” I’ve used hotels.com for years. It’s my first stop when booking a hotel for an upcoming vacation. I could be wrong, but I would guess that most of hotel.com’s audience has the same use case that I do – upcoming vacations…not real-time bookings. Creating an app for the purpose that it serves makes no sense given the value that the site provides to its average user.

When thinking through the placement, price and delivery of your product or service you have to think about what value the user is buying, which may or may not be the same as what you’re trying to sell.

At Second Life we make a good chunk of our revenue by selling 3D land (kinda like 3D web pages). However, most of our users are buying 1) the ability to meet and engage with people that share common interests or mindsets and/or 2) the ability to create a world limited only by their imagination.

In many cases, buying land is the best way for our users get this value, but the land itself isn’t actually what they’re trying to buy. There is a fundamental disconnect. A tough problem to solve, but we know that this disconnect can’t persist.

In a recent TechCrunch article Alex Rampell provides a great framework for thinking through the value that your service offers. I’m going to be using it for a presentation I’m putting together this week, so thanks Alex!

Here are his 5 attributes to consider:

  1. Price (actual price to consumer + “friction” in ordering process)
  2. Geography (proximity to consumer)
  3. Selection (do they have X in my size, or sell rare item Y?)
  4. Service/Brand (do I trust/like them?)
  5. Experience (is it easy/designed to shop for X?)

Product or service value must be perceived first and foremost from the eyes of the consumer. Match what you’re selling to what your customers want to buy and other pieces of the business puzzle will come more naturally.

February 13, 2011 at 5:24 am Leave a comment

Learning when to drive

out car window
Photo courtesy of calico_13 on Flickr, Some rights reserved

Leading is tough. The vision of your department, your company, the completion of the next project, or the careers of those you’re leading can rest on your shoulders. Added pressure changes perception.

My girlfriend and I went on a Best Buy expedition this weekend to pick up a new TV, a WiFi-enabled Blu Ray DVD player (highly recommended), and the Windows 7 OS for a newly built computer that I dying to fire up.

She owns a car in the city and I don’t, so she’s typically driving everywhere. However, the adrenaline from knowing that I would soon be standing in the spectacle that is electronics heaven made me want to take the reigns, so I drove us around town.

San Francisco is a relatively easy city to drive in. It’s small and, for the most part, grid-like. However, I still managed to get us turned around a few times with what I called “short cuts,” and what my girlfriend called “the wrong way.”

Nevertheless, just as one of my short cuts seemed to be turning into a move of pure brilliance I looked over at my girlfriend for a well deserved bragging session. She was gazing out of the car window.

She’s from here and knows SF well, but the way she was staring you would think it was her first trip to the big city. It was an adorable expression (of which she has many), so I lovingly inquired, “What’s up?”

“Life looks so different when you’re the passenger. I’m always driving. Guess I miss a lot of this.”

She said a lot with those words. While I was getting turned around because I hadn’t driven in awhile, it seemed that she was seeing the city for the first time in a long time.

When leading, we see things differently, just like driving. We often get in the driver’s seat, hit the gas, aim and get to our destination as fast as we can. If it’s somewhere that we’ve been plenty of times, we throw it in autopilot and barely remember the trip.

From time to time let someone else drive. This is a growth opportunity for you and others involved. Like my girlfriend, you’ll see things that you’ve seen many times before, but it may just feel like the first time.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time”

– T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

January 31, 2011 at 10:38 pm 8 comments

Ownership, roles and responsibilities

Ownership over a project or task is important to clarify. Clear roles and responsibilities increase efficiency and effectiveness. More importantly, it creates accountability which means that stuff will actually get done.

When explaining the importance of roles, I typically rely on the OARP framework. I prefer OARP to other models (e.g., RASCI) mostly because I’ve used it more and it’s what I’m used to. But what I really like about OARP is the choice of language: Owner and Participant are explicitly called out. Those are the two most confused roles (though they’re the farthest apart when it comes to responsibility) when it comes to any given project.

OARP framework 1

For meetings, everyone in the room should know who owns the decision, who is there for their expertise, and who is just there to listen so that they’re in the loop (I prefer to leave this last group out of the meeting entirely, and instead sending a summary email as follow up).

In 2008 I performed a 6-month consulting engagement with a Fortune 500 company that had this completely wrong. Everything took forever to do, each deliverable was owned by at least two different teams, and no one had any idea what anyone else really did. It was a mess, and a pain to fix.

We painstakingly went through every deliverable for the department that we were serving and outlined which individuals and/or teams fit into each role. They hated us while we were doing it, but were very grateful for the end result. It simplified all of their lives.

I’ve too often seen ownership and accountability diluted to the point where nothing gets done, and there’s no trail to figure out what went wrong. On your next day at work, ask yourself who on your current project team fits into which role, and share that with the rest of your team. Trust me, it goes a long way.

January 27, 2011 at 7:06 pm Leave a comment

Keep it fresh

Old school bicycle

I was walking around town with a friend recently and we came across this beautiful bicycle. I don’t bike, and I’ve never thought of bikes as particularly eye-catching. But this one was. It had that classic feel, but still glistened as if it just rolled off the production line.

We stopped to take pictures, and this sparked a conversation about our respective relationships. The focal point was that after the “honeymoon stage” relationships become much more deliberate. People describe this as hard work, but I’m not sure that’s right. Yes, it takes effort, but I don’t find the “work” to be particularly hard. It’s desired. I want to try, and if I don’t then I’m in the wrong relationship.

Beyond effort, and the shift from natural to deliberate, the thing that I see as most important is understanding why you’re together in the first place. What has made your relationship work to this point? Don’t forget that, and keep doing those things. You don’t need something new and you don’t need to change. Keep what works.

Look at Southwest Airlines. Many view Southwest as the pioneer of the low cost carriers in the United States. However, most don’t know about Southwest’s predecessor…conveniently named Pacific Southwest Airlines, or PSA.

Before airline deregulation PSA owned the California airline market – the largest in the world. They had a high spirit, fun, no frills culture. Their planes had big smiles on the front of them, and their stewardesses were energetic and attractive. They consistently used words like “love” to describe their philosophy on running an airline. Ring a bell?

PSA facePSA stewardesses

Southwest Airlines was founded in 1967 in Texas and, recognizing PSA’s dominance, they decided that this was the model to follow. Pre-deregulation Southwest was forced to operate only in Texas, and PSA operated only in California, so they wouldn’t be directly competing. Given this, PSA was happy to accommodate the Southwest executives with their operating plans, operating manuals and the like.

Southwest’s motto became “copy PSA in Texas.” According to Lamar Muse, Southwest’s first CEO, creating the operating plans was “primarily a cut-and-paste procedure.”

In time, one thing became clear: Southwest understood why PSA was successful and PSA didn’t.

Deregulation came in 1978. PSA strayed into other models (like the fly-drive-sleep campaign), but Southwest, understanding the reason behind the success of the no frills model, outlined it’s ten governing points:

  1. Remain a short-haul, under two-hour segments
  2. Utilize the 737 as our primary aircraft for ten to twelve years
  3. Continued high aircraft utilization and quick turns, ten minutes in most cases
  4. The passenger is our #1 product. Do not carry air freight or mail, only small packages which have high profitability and low handling costs
  5. Continued low fares and high frequency of service
  6. Stay out of food services
  7. No interlining – a/c costs in ticketing, tariffs and computers and our unique airports do not lend themselves to interlining
  8. Retain Texas as our #1 priority and only go interstate if high-density short haul markets are available to us
  9. Keep the family and people feeling in our service and a fun atmosphere aloft. We’re proud of our employees
  10. Keep it simple. Continue cash-register tickets, ten-minute cancellation of reservations at the gate in order to clear standbys, simplified computer system, free drinks in Executive service, free coffee and donuts in the boarding area, no seat selection on board, tape-recorded passenger manifest, bring airplanes and crews home to Dallas each night, only one domicile and maintenance facility

Two of these points have shifted slightly over the last three decades, but they’ve mostly stayed the same. The result: Southwest Airlines was the best performing US stock between 1972 and 2002 – better than Intel, Wal-mart, Comcast, you name it (yes, an airline!).

This is not to say never to change. Rather, know why you’re successful, and what the criteria for change should be. Southwest hasn’t yet come across most of its criteria for change (whatever it believes those might be), and chances are that your relationship hasn’t either.

Southwest love logo

January 26, 2011 at 8:36 am 2 comments

The teenage years

Photo courtesy of the She Knows Parenting Article “Avoiding Bad Influences”, March 12, 2009

I love the energy, creativity and optimism of kids. They’re called cute when they’re babies, adorable through adolescence, and then when they hit their teens they get a bad rap. They can be called immature, naive, rebellious, inexperienced, etc, but that’s not the whole story. I’ve been working with many teen users of my company’s product over the past 6 months and, truth be told, we can learn so much from them.

The way of thinking that comes with this “lack of experience” is envious. Nothing inherently comes with living more years. Sure, there are more opportunities to learn, and more opportunities to grow and mature. But what do we lose in the process?

My time in Silicon Valley has taught me a lot. Most of all…talent is EVERYWHERE. Organizations like Teens in Tech demonstrate this in action. And I’m helping to make sure this trend continues with my involvement in NFTE (great organization, get involved- look at us getting Obama support!).

I’m amazed at the ability of these young users to take a task and accomplish it in an organized and enthusiastic manner. The result may not be perfect, but the process includes passion. Most importantly, they welcome constructive criticism and iteration. A skill we all could use a little more of.

This last point reminds me of the way that companies operate in that period right after “startup” mode. You’ve got your market, your core community, cash in the bank…what’s next? I refer to this period in a company’s history as the teenage years. Not quite sure where you’re going but you’re excited to get there. You’re willing to take risk and optimistic about the future. You’re insecure and searching for identity but you welcome help in getting there. Sound familiar?

We lose something in the post-teenage years. If you’re a company in that stage, try to get those feelings back. Optimism, energy, and passion among your people (the right people) can be your most valuable assets.

January 20, 2011 at 8:15 am 92 comments

Helpful neighbors and great customer service

tahoe 2tahoe 5tahoe 4tahoe 1

I’m in Lake Tahoe, CA for the first time this weekend with a few friends. It’s beautiful, and we’re having terrific weather. Unfortunately, I’ve been pretty sick this week, so I’m not going to be doing much snowboarding. However, that didn’t stop me from getting my fair share of entertainment this morning.

Everyone woke up a little before 8am to get ready for the slopes. I was sleeping in the living room (the couch is my typical spot) so this meant it was time for me to get up too. I sat up, checked my email and surfed the net while everyone else was showering and preparing for the day.

Finally, everyone was out the door, so I curled back up on my couch, lifted the sheets up to my chin and began to get lost in the glory that is extra sleep. 15 seconds later I heard the distinctive sound of tires spinning in the desperate search to find dry asphalt. I pretended not to hear. Sleep is all that concerned me right now. Eyes closed…starting to drift…then LOUD SQUEALING! There it goes again. I climbed off the couch and walked to the window. I couldn’t see anyone. Maybe it was the neighbors. I headed back toward the couch when Chris walked in.

“We’re stuck.”


“Need help?” I asked, then letting out a small cough to give the reminder that I was sick and helping really would not be in my best interest.

“No, I think we almost got it,” he said.

Great, I was free. Chris walked back out the door, but as I turned around to head back to my sleeping throne I saw his girlfriend trying to push the car off of the snow bank. I officially felt guilty. I changed out of my pajama pants and into some snow-worthy gear, then walked out the front door. I don’t know how they got themselves into this situation, but it was ridiculous. I wish I had taken pictures.

tahoe driveway

  • The driveway leading up to the house where we were staying was long, curvy, uphill, and covered with ice (0 for 4).
  • The car’s owner, JZ, took the chains off his tires…(0 for 5)
  • …right before backing out of the driveway…(0 for 6)
  • …in his front-wheel drive Acura (0 for 7).

Nothing was in their favor.

I have observed that when someone gets themselves into a tough spot, those coming to “help” them unfailingly do two things:

  1. Point out everything the person could have done differently to not have gotten themselves into the situation to begin with.

    I played this role to a T:

    “How’d you even get it like that?”
    “Why’d you back out?…it would have been easier to pull out forward”
    “Sucks that you took those chains off”
    “You didn’t bring a vehicle that has four-wheel drive?”

    Perfect pitch, tone and placement for maximum annoyance, and all while shaking my head with condescension.

  2. Just as the person begins to reach maximum frustration, point out how bad the situation really is.

    In step the neighbors.

    Fifteen minutes into useless squealing, revving, slipping on ice, falling in snow and pushing, an older couple walk by holding the leashes of their two brown-and-white Shih Tzus. They stop at the bottom of the driveway, contemplate the situation, and then peer up with judging and disappointing looks.

    From the husband:
    “You really got yourself stuck, didn’t you?”
    “In that position, it may even be impossible for a tow truck to help”
    “Putting down salt or sand helps with ice on the driveway, but I guess it’s too late for that now, huh?”

    His wife’s incredible follow up:
    “Do you have the ‘Three As’?”

    We look at each other confused, and then look back at her.


    “Yes, it’s really helpful, you should really get yourself a ‘Three As card’.”

They walk away. We look at each other, shake our heads, and call AAA.

AAA: “Hello, this is AAA, how can I help you?”
JZ: “Hi, my car is stuck in a driveway in Lake Tahoe.”
AAA: “Sorry to hear that. What part of New York did you say you’re in?”
JZ: “New York? I’m in Lake Tahoe.”
AAA: “Oh, very sorry. I thought that you were in a physical location. I didn’t realize you were stuck in water.”
JZ: “I’m not stuck in water. I’m in Lake Tahoe, California. It’s a city…umm, physical location.”
AAA: “California? This is the New York office. Let me transfer you.”

AAA: “Hello, this is AAA, how can I help you?”
JZ: “Hi, my car is stuck in a driveway in Lake Tahoe.”
AAA: “Is that in Florida?”
JZ: “I’m looking for the California office.”
AAA: “Oh, OK, please hold.”

AAA: “Hello, this is AAA, how can I help you?”
JZ: “Could you send someone out to Lake Tahoe, California to help me get my car out of the driveway?”
AAA: “Sure thing.”
JZ: “Great”
AAA: “Where in Lake Tahoe are you?”
JZ pulls out the address and reads it off to the AAA agent….
AAA: “Where is that?”
JZ: “What? Do you need directions?”
AAA: “That would be great.”
JZ: “I don’t live here. I’m just staying here for the weekend, but I can try. We’re off 89.”
AAA: “Can you give me a cross street?”
JZ: “Yes, West Lake Road/89.”
AAA: “Is that one street?”
JZ: “Yes, that’s one street.”
AAA: “Which grocery store are you near?”
JZ: “Grocery store?”
AAA: “Yes, so that I know where you are.”
JZ: “I have no idea.”
He turns to us.
“Does anyone have a receipt to the grocery store?”
We shake our heads.
AAA: “Did you see a Chambers?”
JZ: “I don’t know what Chambers is. I don’t think so. Wait…OK, yes, supposedly one of us may have seen a Chambers at some point.”
AAA: “Are you near the Chambers?”
JZ: “We might be. I have no clue. Aren’t you AAA? Do you want me give you the Google directions we used?”
AAA: “That would help”
…he does…
AAA: “Oh, I know exactly where you are.”
JZ: “Thank god.”
AAA: “So that I know we’re in the right place, what kind of car do you have?”
JZ: “An Acura 2.3 cl”
AAA: “And what color?”
JZ: “Color? It will be the only car that stuck across this driveway, I don’t think you’ll get confused. OK, OK, it’s red.”
AAA: “Thanks, we’ll be right there!”
JZ: “Great!”

JZ hangs up the phone, turns to us, laughs, and says, “There’s no way they’re gonna make it here. I think we’re on our own.”

After about 10 more miraculous minutes involving firewood, top soil and what shall henceforth be known as ‘The Mat of Glory’ the car was freed. We called to cancel with AAA, vowed to never use them again (though we will), and then the group headed off to the mountain.

Lessons learned: always carry salt, love thy neighbor, and trust in the ‘Three As’

January 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm 3 comments

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About Me

I'm a San Francisco-based strategic thinker who believes that life is only as great as the people you choose to interact with. I love people, and studying business has given me greater insight into how to most effectively develop myself, and my personal relationships. I look forward to discussing people and business with those that find this area as fascinating as I do.

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