Wrestling The Devil

In Short
The details, or the weeds as they are often called, get a bad rap, are considered a productivity trap and something the smart leaders steer clear of. But if the devil is in the details, success requires wrestling the devil to the ground.

In-Depth
I’ve made my living by diving into the weeds and wrestling devils. The truth is, most devils are nothing more than a lack of communication. A lack of clarity in either the vision, the starting point or the path connecting the two. This is why diving into the details is so important.

That devil we’re wrestling with right now looks nasty from the outside; it looks complicated and unruly, kind of like a giant knot of twine. But as we dive in, we see it’s a single string that just needs to be untangled, little knot by little knot.

So we start with the most available knot. That leads us to the next, and the next, and the next, as we slowly but surely unwind the mess, a misunderstanding of order.

What we’ll always find is a person behind all those knots. Not a devil, although they may seem possessed by one, it is a person doing what they think is the right thing. That person might be us, or a vendor, or an employee, or a whole team; but someone, somewhere is making this mess or allowing the mess to be made.

Once we’ve identified the little devil causing problems (again, usually unwittingly) the wrestling begins: Obviously not physical in nature… this is mental and emotional wrestling. It is taking the time to change how the individual sees, thinks, or feels; clarifying and aligning the vision, the starting point or the path between the two.

Changing how an individual sees, thinks or feels is usually not easy. Not because change is hard- change is actually quite easy- but because we humans don’t like change. We make change hard.

Change is scary, uncomfortable (at first) and confusing. It makes us feel like beginners again, like we’re not smart or talented or valuable. This is why people don’t wrestle with the devil in the details. Devil wrestling often turns into ego-wrestling, which can get heavy and more real than most can handle.

Heavy and real, now that sounds like work worth doing to me. That sounds like change that can positively impact a person’s life, which can positively impact a whole company, which can positively impact thousands of people’s lives.

This is why I wrestle devils for a living.

A few of my favorite resources for devil wrestling:
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win
The Power of Story: Change Your Story Change Your Destiny in Business and in Life 
All things Seth Godin

P.S. I should point out that not all devil wrestling is hard. When an individual or team sets aside their egos out of a hunger to learn, evolve and do what’s best for the brand, this process of change is fun, fast and yields nearly immediate results.

P.P.S. Sometimes the opposite is true and the devil wrestling requires more time and energy than the organization can bear, there is too much collateral damage and too little change. Sometimes the knot makers need to find another place to play.

 

Management vs. Control

At age three, my daughter was a skilled Zen teacher. During one of my lessons, she was trying to fight back pooping after three days of willful negotiation. As we both found, we can only attempt to manage pooping, we can’t actually control it.

As humans, we learn we can manage nature and over time confuse that management with control. We believe our will is all powerful, and we ignore universal laws. We dismiss the data. We hold tightly (pun intended) to our beliefs.

I’m not so sure my daughter’s belief about her powers over poop are all that different than a climate change denier’s powers over data. Or the business owner’s willful resistance to shifting trends as they cling to beliefs no longer supported by data.

Nature is always evolving, markets shifting, expanding, contracting. So we, too, must always be evolving by listening, watching, measuring and, perhaps most importantly, being honest with ourselves. If we don’t, well, I hope there’s a bathroom nearby.

Blocking & Tackling

In Short
Sustainable growth lies in executing the fundamentals thoroughly and consistently, day after day. The fundamentals are not the flashy, exciting things to work on, but they are what make the flashy and exciting things possible and successful.

In-depth
The Philly Special didn’t win the Eagles Super Bowl 52; blocking and tackling did. Blocking and tackling is what wins every Super Bowl. Only after you’ve got the fundamentals down can the breakout runs, deep passes and methodical movement down the field be possible – oh, and of course, the trick plays.

Going to market works pretty much the same way. It all starts with blocking and tackling.

We often want to do the fancy stuff, especially the go-to-market teams. They want to create emotive videos, redesign logos, come up with clever slogans. Smart, long-tail search engine optimization is boring; functional content on the website isn’t sexy; an automated email series to support a new customer doesn’t win awards; incremental improvements to core products don’t get big events. But all this is the blocking and tackling that ultimately wins market share.

Marketing today, but especially digital marketing, is about the fundamentals. This is because everything is measurable:
We can measure the average order value of a new customer.
We can measure the annual or lifetime value of a customer.
We can measure the viability of targeted audiences.
We can measure the effect of each change to the message.
We can measure the performance of specific pages on the website.
We can measure the return on each dollar spent on each marketing vehicle.

It’s this measurement that allows us to incrementally optimize. Let’s be clear here: This is not to masterfully trick the customer. This is to communicate our value and purpose so that it resonates with our customers (not the whole world, just the customers that see the world as we do and desire solutions like the ones we provide).

Too many companies currently have too much money and are not measuring and optimizing their actions. Marketing budgets are being spent in unsustainable ways. The Silicon Valley mindset of acquiring customers at any cost, which works for bleeding edge technologies and platforms that require a network effect, has made its way into every industry and has created a culture of unsustainable customer acquisition and retention.

Most of us are not building Amazon or the next unicorn brand. For 99.9% of us, it’s time to get back to the fundamentals. For us, growth is all about blocking and tackling. Three of the most effective places to get started:

  1. Measure and analyze all go-to-market efforts.
    If we don’t have time to measure, analyze, optimize, repeat, then we are doing too much or need to hire additional talent to support our efforts. Too many of us are too busy and not paying attention to what the marketplace is telling us. And so we make poor, uninformed decisions about where we spend our money and how we communicate.

a. Measure the performance of every vehicle and the sales channel as a whole.

b. Analyze data at least monthly, preferably weekly; and if you are spending a
significant percentage of your revenue on marketing or have large peaks and valleys to your business, then measure daily.

c. Make decisions based on clear trends in data. Don’t lose who you are, or how you communicate. Optimize your ability to tell your story.

2. Optimize what we own first.
The most cost effective optimization comes from our owned marketing vehicles because, once optimized, they require little ongoing spend. Where paid marketing vehicles require us to continually feed the beast.

a. Our website
Building a better mousetrap will improve the performance of every marketing vehicle. Through user testing, consumer interviews and the data available for free from Google Analytics, we can improve the site experience, increase our conversion rate and drive long-term customer loyalty.

b. Organic Search
“We’re spending too much on search engine optimization”, said nobody, ever. Google is free marketing for life. Allocate marketing spending up-front to make sure Google’s search algorithms can clearly see what you offer. Target the long-tail customers for uncrowded access to highly valuable customers. Support from SEO specialists is amazingly cheap given the return on investment. Moving from page 2 to page 1 in a search, or from the bottom of page 1 to the top can trigger significant growth.

c. Email
Starting with automated email we can deliver a series of valuable information to customers based on if they a) are just signing up to hear about our next promotion, b) made their first purchase or c) have just spent more than $1,000 with us. Once optimized to further develop the relationship with the customer, automated emails are the gifts that keep on giving. They drive repeat buying habits and long-term loyalty without another second of our attention.

As for the weekly or monthly communications, make them useful. Give users a reason to want to open the email. Educate, entertain, surprise. It’s not that we are too busy for email; we have too much choice in how we spend our time.

d. Social Media
Let’s get clear, social media is a distribution vehicle. The question isn’t, “What content should we create for social media?” The question is, “Is the content we’re creating interesting or useful enough to distribute through social media?” What is working? Who cares how many followers we have. What matters is engagement. How many likes, comments and clicks? Understand what’s resonating and at what cost.

3. Expand our audience.
Once we are measuring our activities, and have optimized the digital world we own, we can now cost effectively expand our reach by paying for traffic. We are able to do this cost effectively because we know who our customers are. We know we can connect with them in a meaningful way. We know how to form a relationship so they will come back to buy from us again and again. It’s simply a matter of finding more of our customers.

Whether we use paid search, social media advertising, banner ads or whatever new-fangled tactic arises, it really doesn’t matter. We simply follow the data in search of our customers.

a. We cast a net. Usually the first cast is not profitable. But we are seeking new places to find our customers. Using the proven communications from our owned vehicles.

b. Once we’ve found our customers, we hone the location and message until we’ve found a cost-effective way to introduce ourselves.

c. We repeat, casting a new net. Seeking the long-tail locations where we can compete and win attention. Again, not competing for everyone’s attention. Not seeking all customers. Just our customers.

This is blocking and tackling. It’s not flashy, but it works. We’ve seen it work for sub one million dollar companies and those pushing to cross the 100 or 200 million mark.

 

Groundswell Change

We find resistance to change is contagious. Fortunately, we find change is also contagious.

Few welcome change, because change is hard and scary. For organizations, change is especially scary when it’s instigated from the outside. It is viewed as a threat to the tribe, with the resistance hardwired into their collective psyche; they are not us, therefore, they do not understand us or know what is good for us.

Change from the top down is also met with resistance if there is not a deep level of trust. Because top down change is being pushed on the organization, it requires buy-in from the start, skillful change-management along the way and sustained effort to avoid regression before new pathways are created and grooves worn into place. Few leadership teams are experienced in change or have the bandwidth to sustain such an effort.

Groundswell change on the other hand, starts with a few individuals peppered throughout the organization, slowly moving through teams, building momentum as it travels–occurring gradually and then suddenly.

Groundswell change is triggered by leaders in the organization (not to be confused with leadership which is determined by titles). Leaders are the individuals that people go to when there is a problem because they have proven to navigate the organization to resolve issues, guide colleagues towards solutions or be a sympathetic ear.

These leaders exist in every organization, at every level, and influence across teams. They are lighthouses in the fog of war and cheerleaders through the daily grind. These leaders, too, will start off resistant to change as they protect their tribe and the brand as a whole. However, as trusted leaders, they are also keenly aware of problems in the organization and their systemic nature.

The first step in building trust in leaders is to listen. The team members need to know the change-maker understands the problem–– not just the symptoms, but the problems at the root of the symptoms.

Leaders then need a vision for a better future. How are these issues going to be resolved and how will the organization look, feel and act? They need a clear and honest picture of the future to buy into. They are not looking for rainbows and unicorns. Leaders want to understand the reality of the path forward, the good, the bad and the ugly.

At this point, no trust has been built -only the soil prepared for trust to grow. Trust comes from delivering. Leaders need to see issues resolved. They need to experience improvement–– for themselves and their colleagues. Even better is if they themselves are empowered to resolve the issues.

That’s when the groundswell begins. That’s when people turn their heads to see what’s happening over there. Word spreads about lives improving. The results start to show in ways others can see, experience, or hear about. Actual change, however small, stirs a desire to join.

As momentum builds, larger more difficult challenges can be taken on as the will to power through the dip and the energy to sustain the effort start teeming through every level of the organization.

Change is hard and scary. Fortunately, the feeling of empowerment that comes from shaping the destiny of a brand, organization or our life as a whole is one of the most rewarding human experiences.

 

Our Strategy Is Worthless

Our brand strategy, our business strategy, our go-to-market strategy, our social media strategy, it’s all worthless. All that time contemplating, debating and refining, it’s all worthless. Unless… the organization can execute tactically.

The success of the brand, will be determined by the organizations ability to embody its unique principles and values in all that it does; and to continue to do so as the business scales.

The success of the business will be determined by the organizations ability to understand and execute the business plan; while dealing with market challenges outside of its control and the growing pains faced as the businesses scale.

The success of the marketing will be determined by the organizations ability to align its efforts across multiple teams, internal and external, to put the energy of the entire organization behind the tip of the messaging and experiential spear.

At the end of the day, the success of a business comes down to the success of people. The ability of individuals to execute, and do so as a collective in lock step with their peers.

We spend little time developing talent. We financially penalize those that stick around and reward the new person with that prestigious college and big brand on their resume. We spend little time building leaders and furthering education. Once a year we align the troops on a plan, then send them off to a year-long battle that never unfolds as designed.

Strategy is necessary. Planning is critical. Execution, by individual people, in the trenches, trying to balance work and life and emotions and desires, that is what determines if we live, die or thrive as an organization.

What are we going to do about that? How can we best ensure success? Maybe we should start by dedicating a bit more of our time to our people, instead of our spreadsheets.

The Wisdom of Voltron

Preface: This is not a geeky sci-fi deep-dive.

In the mid-80’s the Japanimation inspired sci-fi cartoon Voltron burst onto our five-channel TV scene (that’s including PBS) to become the number one children’s show. Looking back, the story is pretty ridiculous, five astronauts each piloting a cat-like spacecraft that together form into a mega-sized futuristic knight robot to fight alien robot invaders, using a sword in one hand and a cat mouth as it’s other hand.

Yet me and my brothers were glued to the TV, and not just because of our channel deficiency. Voltron made a comeback on Netflix in 2015 and is currently in its third new season, competing in today’s crowded content field. Voltron is unique in its storyline, standing apart even today.

Most superhero’s act alone. At times, they come together to fight evil, but they are all individuals. Many cartoons and children’s programming will involve teamwork; individuals taking on challenges with help from another. Only Voltron relied on all five characters, each unique in their strengths and weaknesses, coming together to form one powerful unit.

Voltron is the model for organizations today. As our culture moves towards individual sports, the individual as the brand, the individual dominating as the storyline; it’s the team of individuals working as one entity that has always been the key to success, and is only made more critical in today’s complex and rapidly changing business landscape. The challenge for many businesses is that this mindset runs counter to the American culture, creating a vacuum of true leaders and “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” like thinking.

As our sense of community has crumbled, as our culture idolizes the individual, our work environment is now the dominant vehicle for cultivating leadership and the ability to work as one. It’s up to organizations to instill this wisdom and experience in individuals. If an organization isn’t trying to build an army of Voltrons, it’s success will be short lived.

Are we building a boat or a house?

Boats
Boats move and turn- big ones slowly, small ones quickly; but they all turn. If we have a direction in mind, a crew that can communicate and a rudder to steer, we can control its course and speed. The speed and agility of the boat is dependent on the boat design and the capabilities of the crew.

IBM is a boat. Berkshire Hathaway is a boat. Amazon is an Armada.

Houses
Houses are affixed to the ground. The surrounding land is surveyed to select the right site. Then the house is designed and built to fit that site, to be sturdy and never move. Change comes from painting the outside, redoing the interior design, or putting on an addition. The aesthetics, experience and quality of construction come from the team that designed and built the house and is maintained by the homeowner or occupant.

Sears is a house. Toys R’ Us is a house. So is Red Bull, Prada and Whole Foods.

Are we building a house or a boat? Are we developing a specific solution to a specific problem (a house), or are we pursuing a purpose (a boat) no matter where it takes us?

 

Agency Rules

We thought we’d share some rules for hiring and working with agencies (us included) that we’ve developed over years from seeing some truly dysfunctional agency relationships.

  1. Task few with thinking and many with doing.
  2. Manage agencies directly, never letting an agency get between you and an agency.
  3. Take the time to get clear; the clearer the input, the more efficient and effective the output.
  4. Make measurable performance metrics and review those metrics regularly. (See rule 23)
  5. If you are going to choose not to listen to them, then don’t bother hiring them.
  6. When it no longer works, move on. Agencies are not marriage material.
  7. Be of high value to the agency’s image or bottom line, or be fun and interesting to work with.
  8. Make sure you are getting the nerds, geeks and weirdos; the “cool kids” are just for show.
  9. Don’t pay double or triple or quadruple for entry-level talent, hire your own 23-year-old and have the agency tell them what to do.
  10. Get your own references, not the ones they send you.
  11. A worthy agency will push you to the edge of your comfort zone and show you the results of their recommendations, the good, bad and ugly.
  12. If they treat their team like commodity labor, you will not get great work. You will get done work.
  13. If it’s a lifestyle agency, designed for employment while playing in the mountains or ocean, you will never be their priority.
  14. Provide them with challenges they need to solve, not solutions to execute.
  15. Ask lots of questions in order to learn to fish, if not tactically then strategically.
  16. They need to understand your business model (how you make and spend money) and how you operate.
  17. You need to understand their business model (how they make and spend money) and how they operate.
  18. The bigger, nicer and more prestigious their office, the less work you receive for every dollar you spend.
  19. Don’t hire an agency when a good freelancer can do the work just as good, cheaper, and with better customer service (because you mean more to their reputation and bottom line).
  20. Communicate as needed, not just weekly and at a set time.
  21. Play devil’s advocate, -red team blue team- to understand solutions from all sides.
  22. If they are doing work you and your team don’t understand, you need to get educated or get a second opinion to gain that understanding.
  23. Good work is not just pretty work; it’s effective work. (see rule 4, but be careful what you measure)

 

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

When was the last time you heard, “I don’t know” in a meeting? Or, “Let me do some research and get back to you on that.” Instead, what we typically are encountering is the opinions of others.

Opinions spur debate because they are based on our own limited experience of the world. When we try to influence from the point of opinion, we are assuming everyone else in the room shares our same life experience or has the capacity to relate to it. They don’t.

Not only are these opinion-based debates ineffective, they are corrosive and time-consuming, eroding trust between team members and fragmenting the brand platform into personal interpretations.

Saying, “I don’t know” short circuits these debates. It creates a void, nothing to push against. It creates this space by stating anyone in the room might be right, but we don’t have enough clarity to make a decision. “I don’t know” calls into question the equation being used, without directly questioning the individual’s math. In this temporary opinion ceasefire, we can take a step back from promoting our answer and discuss how best to find an answer.

“I don’t know” does not end debate but creates a more constructive one by shifting the team away from evaluating the answer and towards evaluating how one came to an answer and why that’s the right approach.

“I don’t know” is so rarely said during these debates because not knowing puts us in a vulnerable place. After all, our job is to know, right? Wrong. Our job is to figure it out. Let that sink in for a moment.

Your job –at every level, in every department–is to figure it out. Your job is to gather, test, learn, discover, unearth and see what happens. The more experience we have, the better we get at this process and the better we get at figuring it out. The reason the beginner’s mind is so powerful isn’t because of beginner’s luck but because the novice comes to the problem knowing they don’t know, and this forces them to figure it out. The only path forward is to gather, test, learn, discover, and unearth, constantly scanning the environment for clues.

“I don’t know” lets everyone in the room off the hook from having to be a wise, all-knowing sage on the mountain top. It frees us to be scientists, questioning the world and conducting experiments to find answers to those questions – sometimes falling on our faces in the process, but sometimes discovering a breakthrough.

“I don’t know” has the power to transform the culture of organizations, exchanging the massive amount of time once spent debating, for time spent researching. That research shifts teams from designing experiences for themselves to designing experiences for their customers

“I don’t know” has the power to build more cohesive teams by steering individuals towards the pursuit of answers that are aligned with the brand’s principles and values, not their own.

The “I Don’t Know” Process.

  1. Listen
    The first step is not to state that we don’t know; the first step is to let the fly. Again, these opinions are insights into the speaker’s perspective, born from their life experience. So let the team put their answers on the table. Ask questions to understand how they came to those conclusions to better comprehend their point of view and approach.
  2. I Don’t Know.
    State in some form, “I don’t know the right answer” or, “I’m unclear about how to evaluate the answer.” Making yourself vulnerable creates permission for others to be vulnerable. But you can’t leave that vulnerability hanging out there, or the opinions will devour this opening to promote their answer.
  3. Zoom Out.
    Disagreement on an answer is a sign of a lack of a clarity further upstream. Either the team is not clear on the objective, the strategy being used to achieve that objective, how tactics are best utilized or the context in which these are being applied. Quickly pull the conversation back from the “answers” and discuss these clarifying elements; the objective, the strategy, the tactics, the context. Again, be vulnerable by saying, “I need to make sure I’m understanding the project (or decision).” Then you can shift the conversation into clarification further upstream.
  4. Design The Path.
    With clarity regarding where the disagreement or confusion lies, the team can then focus on identifying the best path to finding the best answer possible (the right equation). Note, this isn’t determining the perfect answer. This is figuring it out as best you can given the resources available. Unless decisions need to be made immediately, this usually involves research and reporting back to the team with analyses and findings.
  5. Regroup, Informed.
    Information and data is reported to the team and reviewed prior to regrouping to make a decision. With everyone on the same page, working on the same equation, using the same data, a constructive discussion can be had to determine the best answer.

P.S. This post is most definitely a note to myself

Trust It, Or Fix It

 

Trust the Vision. Trust the Plan. Trust the people. Trust the process. Trust the system. Or fix it.

In building a high-functioning organization, there is no in-between when it comes to trust. You’re either focused on doing your job, trusting others will do theirs, moving forward in lock-step on a clear path towards a shared vision, or you’re not. Organizations that lack trust have an innate level of dysfunction at their core. This dysfunction acts as an anchor dragging on the power, speed and agility of the organization. So growth slows, talent leaves for more fertile ground, competitors begin to catch up or pass by. And if the rising tide of a growing market begins to ebb, the organization begins to collapse.

Trust is the glue and the grease. It’s what creates the bonds between individuals and teams and can often last a career. And trust is the grease that moves information through the organization. It enables that lock-step action, concentrating the full energy of the organization behind the tip of the spear while remaining agile enough to learn and adapt.

The Warning Signs
When trust is lost, our instinct is to centralize control. This is a clear sign of broken processes, systems or relationships. This clamping down constricts the flow of information, either by design or as a byproduct of natural bottlenecks.

Information empowers individuals to decide, act and collaborate. When the flow of information is slowed- or altogether stopped, individuals become disempowered and unable to influence or make decisions. Or, at best, they will lack clarity, often leading to poor decisions and further degrading trust.

To avoid being disempowered, or as an immediate fix to a failing process, system or relationship, our instinct is to grab some control ourselves. While sometimes well-intentioned, this triggers the cycle to repeat, creating silos and fiefdoms of control.

How Trust Is Cultivated & Lost
As Steven Covey described it, building trust is like putting deposits in an emotional bank account. It grows slowly over time, action by action. However, withdrawals happen quickly, with a single act able to undo months or years of deposits.

Because trust is built slowly and lost so quickly, it’s critical for leaders to create fertile ground for trust to grow and reduce the emotional volatility that leads to large withdrawals. When leaders sow seeds of distrust or ignore clear signs of its presence, the rate and size of withdrawals increase exponentially as it spreads to the entire team. This is why the saying “a fish rots from the head down” still rings true hundreds of years after its inception.

When “the fish” is alive, the head initiates all action throughout the body. Likewise, leaders must be hypervigilant in cultivating and monitoring the level of trust in the organization. Again, back to Covey, in his research studying leaders that build trust, he identified thirteen key behaviors:

  1. Talk Straight
    2. Demonstrate Respect
    3. Create Transparency
    4. Right Wrongs
    5. Show Loyalty
    6. Deliver Results
    7. Get Better
    8. Confront Reality
    9. Clarify Expectation
    10. Practice Accountability
    11. Listen First
    12. Keep Commitments
    13. Extend Trust

It’s important to note that it’s the combination of these thirteen behaviors that builds trust. For example, talk straight, but do so with respect and after you have taken the time to listen (#11).

The Process of Building Trust
There is no quick path to building or restoring trust. It is a way of being, a practice. As Covey defined it, “Trust is confidence born of two dimensions: character and competence.” What is the process for developing character or any aspect of ourselves? That is a topic for another day. However, the first step is always the same, START!

Identify trust as a problem. Make it our focus. Become a student: Read about it. Observe it. Measure it. But most of all, let’s act to correct it. We can’t let distrust sit and fester as we work on our character. If there is a process that is creating a lack of trust, let’s make it a priority to fix it. If a leader is cultivating a lack of trust, let’s bring them into our process or remove them. If a system is causing issues, leading to a lack of trust among the team or with the customer, let’s fix it.

A few places to getting started
The 7 Habits of Highly
The Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey
The Advantage

Cut ‘em back

Take the dying limbs, the diseased branches, the dried up shriveled stems and chewed leaves and cut ‘em all back. Cut ‘em back till you have the seasoned, proven limbs and branches with a few strong new growths heading in just the right direction. That’s how you support Nature in producing a bountiful harvest.

Some years, when rain and sun are plentiful, we may let things go wild, allowing for new growth to become established. Other years, the tree tells us it’s been all too much and it needs to hunker down and carefully select how limited resources should be put to use. If we listen, if we allow for a step back after two forward, She will provide. If we fight it, if we push for two steps forward, then four, then eight, despite the weather, ignoring the rain or drought, we’ll see the consequences of our imposed imbalance.

These are the laws of nature. We are provided all the signs to diagnose and time our push forward or pruning. The underlying skill this all requires, the one farmers have cultivated for generations, is observation. Farmers know what to look for, where to look for it, and they have the conviction to take decisive action when the data points to clear answers, whether they like those answers or not. Because for thousands of years, the survival of their business has depended on it.