Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hold It Just a Darn Minute

I've got MSNBC on, and Keith Olberman just mentioned a little gem on a Chinese airline that's trying to cut the crap with respect to the environment. A quick google found a just breaking article on in-flight plumbing from The Guardian (so just breaking the dateline is December 1, and it's still November 30th here).

Could it be the first flush of environmental awareness in China? One of the country's leading airlines has begun encouraging passengers to use the toilet before they board flights as a way of saving energy.

Chinese Southern Airlines hopes to reduce costs with the new policy because it estimates that a single flush at 30,000 feet uses a litre of fuel, the Xinhua news agency reported yesterday. "The energy used in one flush is enough for an economical car to run at least 10km," pilot Liu Zhiyuan was quoted as saying.

They're also thinking of cutting out pillows and blankets in flight, again, to save energy through decreased payload. OK. I guess the little pillow and blanket I'd start carrying on overnight flights wouldn't weigh as much.

Hey, I'm all in favor of green initiatives - especially on a day like today when it's almost 70 degrees in Boston, and the daffodils have already started to sprout in the front garden.

Bad enough that US carriers have cattle-carred the steerage sections, and you're lucky to get a bag of peanuts on a lot of flights. But there have to be better ways to save money (and conserve fuel) than asking people not to use the toilet.  I can see it now: sit down toilets in first class, urinals in business, and a slit trench in economy. Too bad they can't figure out a way to let the guys roll down the windows to pee out - but that would probably cause too much drag. And maybe a bit of frostbite. Maybe they'll issue catheters when they pass out the earphones. 

Maybe this will translate better in China than it does here. But I'd think that any airline that implemented this plan would end up with some mighty pissed-off customers.

No Ford in These Futures

Driving home - in a New Beetle that I believe was hecho en Mexico - I heard that 38,000 blue collar workers had accepted the Ford buyout and would be parting company with The Company.

From the standpoint of  someone who's worked in high-tech and has seen some pretty skimpy packages over the years (mostly  because the companies were running out of dough), the deals look pretty good:

Under the buyout or early retirement plans, workers can choose between eight packages that offer from $35,000 to $140,000 depending on their years of service, age and how close they are to retirement.

One package offers up to $15,000 per year for four years of college tuition, plus half of the workers' salaries and health benefits for four years. There's also an offer that pays 70 percent of their salaries and tuition, both for two years. (Source: Associated Press)

Of course, it's all about expectations and opportunities, and those of us in high tech have had few expectations of longevity, stability, pensions.  And in large part we've had continued opportunities.  Sure, plenty of people I know got sick of high tech and went onto something new. And I know a few folks who - no doubt in my mind - ran into age discrimination and came up empty when it came to finding new work. But mostly there've been new ideas-new possibilities out there. As for expectations, except for the 'these options will make me rich' pipedreams, loss of a high-tech job dashes few expectations. Which is not to say that even under the best circumstances, lay-offs aren't always accompanied by economic, social, and psychological pain.

So with this Ford action, however necessary, there are 38,000 people who are going to have to figure out something new to do with their work lives. My guess is that for a good slug of them, this will be the opportunity to pack it in: House is paid for, kids are grown. Take a time-kill, change-in-pocket job as a WalMart greeter or school crossing guard. Volunteer at the food pantry. Life may not be great, but it's good.

My guess is that another good slug of them will look back in a couple of years and thank their lucky cars that they were able to remake themselves - get a degree, start a business.  Ford will supply the walking around money, and these folks will supply their own "better idea." It's a little nerve-wracking, but it's also exhilerating. Welcome to Work 2.0.

But that still means there's a lot of middle-ground, middle-aged people who are going to be hurt - hurt big time, hurt bad. The money that looks good at first isn't meant to last a lifetime, and will run out faster than you think. The dignity and meaning that work conferred on their lives will be lost. The pride they felt in being part of Ford. The daily routines, the daily companionship.

From a macro point of view, this may well be the best/only move for Ford, just as the export of manufacturing jobs may be a U.S. "win" on the macroeconomic level. Macro in mind, it's easy to overlook the fact that at the micro level there are a whole lot of people who lose. Unless we're related or live next store, we're probably never going to know who they are. The macro winners, of course, get to appear on the "Forbes Richest Four-Hundred" list, buy that new Lexus for Christmas, or high-five and light the cigar when their bet on Ford pans out (doesn't really matter in what direction, as long as you're on the winning side).

Thirty-eight thousand workers. It's pretty easy for the homely little stories to get lost in the big ugly numbers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dreamin' of a Black Friday

From the looks of the news reports, I may be the only person in America who doesn't observe "Black Friday" as a high holiday. Maybe it's because, shopping complete,  I get to spend the day wrapping the gifts I've already purchased and addressing my Christmas cards.

Friday night, I watched with horror as the news channels all showed shots of mobs - there is no other word for it - at big box stores storming in to grab flat-panel TVs and Tickle-me-Xtreme Elmos. It's amazing no one was trampled to death at this "running of the bargains." Who knows, they still might find a couple of bodies kicked under the shelves at Best Buy, clutching their newspaper flyers.

Lord knows that "buying stuff" has long been our true national religion, and the malls our new cathedrals. That makes Black Friday kind of a Holy Day of shopping obligation. I wonder if it's mortally sinful not to have hit the stores for a bit that day?

I understand that Black Friday is meant to signal the day when retailers start getting into "the black" for the year, so a Black Friday that's kind of gray-ish black may well mean that the year will end badly. But a lot of this strikes me as self-fulfilling. If there was less hype around Black Friday, there'd be less panic if the numbers for that one day weren't hit.  Fewer "prices slashed even further" (which can only put a store deeper in the red, no?).  Less market hysteria, fewer market dives (oh, no, Wal-Mart didn't move everything off its shelves...If they can't sell, then I must sell off).

Spreading the spending expectation out over a couple of weeks might  make things a lot saner.

Or how about this for an idea: encourage the retail giants who now rise and fall on Black Friday (and its Shopping 2.0 bro, "Cyber Monday") to go on a fiscal year that starts, say, October 1st. That way, the holiday spending could be managed a little better. Retailers would have 9 entire months to make up for a sluggish holiday shopping season.

Nah, it'll never happen. We're way too invested in the rush and hype that has people lining up a day in advance to storm the aisles in search of whatever it is that, for one day at least, will make everything all better.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


The New England Patriots are suing StubHub (online tickets) for aiding and abetting season's ticket holders who want to unload game tickets at a premium. I have not idea whatsoever what the fine print in a Patriot's season's ticket owner's contract says, but if the owner has indeed agreed that he won't resell his tickets at a premium, then so be it.

But it does get me thinking about scalping in general, and where I come down on it is pretty clear. I'm no "all hail the unbridled free market" fanatic, but in general, beyond whatever legal honor code teams make their season's ticket holders sign, and beyond the tax implications, I cannot for the life of me see what is wrong with ticket scalping.

That said, I take a little half-pirouette here to say that I HATE the fact that teams sell blocks of tickets to the likes of TicketMaster, which then pumps up the "handling charges" so that the prices look suspiciously scalper-like. Why do I hate this? Because I'm one of the boobs who sits there on when the tickets come available trying for 6 hours to get 4 seats (or 2 seats) for an August day game against Tampa Bay or Kansas City or the Beacon Hill Little League, only to come up empty. So I resent like mad the deals done with ticket resellers. I just don't happen to mind the entrepreneurial spirit of "little guy", independent scalpers.

Personally, I've only participated in the scalping market twice - both times as a scalpee. The first was for a Celtics game. Given the current market for Celtics tickets, this was  of course quite some time ago. It was for a "big game": a hyped-up shoot-out between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins. My husband really wanted to go, and I decided to take him for his birthday. I paid through the nose, negotiating down a bit so that we'd have enough cash left over for a slab of cardboard pizza and a plastic cup full of nasty beer, but the guy selling had something I wanted and I was willing to pay.

My other scalping event was also years ago, for a BC football game. Beautiful day. First game of the season. The Eagles were playing Rutgers (my husband's alma mater). College football is fun. Why not? We went out to BC looking for tickets and found a student selling his father's 50 yard liners. We asked him what he wanted for them, but all he was asking was face value since, as he told us "my father wouldn't want me to sell them for anything more than that." We would have been happy to pay a bit more, but were happier - of course - that we didn't have to.

I've been tempted a couple of times to get scalps for the Red Sox, but haven't actually gone through with it. But that's my choice.

If you were smart enough to get tickets for an athletic event or concert that turns out to be SOLD OUT and in demand, why can't you profit from it? Not being able to do so seems downright un-American.  After all, as the initial purchaser, I've assumed the risk: that the team will have a bad year, that no one will want to see the game, etc. 

The bottom line seems to be that the teams themselves want to control the re-sale market. When they do the reselling, it appears that for now they aren't jacking up the prices. But it seems like only a matter of time before the teams get in on the auction act and do some online scalping of their own. This will be an interesting one to watch.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Bob Sutton on the Otis Redding Problem

Stanford Professor Bob Sutton has a terrific post on what he terms the Otis Redding Problem with respect to companies instituting too many metrics. As one of my former colleagues used to say, "There can be only one thing that's MOST IMPORTANT," and the Otis Redding Problem points this out. Here's Bob Sutton:

Recall the line from his old song: Sitting By the Dock of the Bay, “Can’t do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I’ll remain the same.” That’s the problem with holding people, groups, or businesses to too many metrics: They can’t satisfy or even think about all of them at once, so they end-up doing what they want or the one or two things they believe are important or that will bring them rewards (regardless of senior management's strategic intent).”

There are lots of reasons that this problem happens in organizations, but – at least based on those I’ve studied and worked with – four jump-out:

1. There are too many groups that have medium power – so everyone gets a metric to show that what they do is important, but no one has the power to kill a metric.

2. Senior management does not understand its strategy, especially is strategic priorities. So they treat everything as moderately important – the result is that employees can justify virtually anything they do as important. 

3.  Senior management does not really understand what the organization’s actual business model is or what it should be. This means that they can’t figure out the few key elements that drive many things, so they keep adding more and more items to the list in hopes that they will figure it out eventually.

4. Senior management can’t say no.  Even if they can articulate their priorities, senior management lacks the courage to make enemies.  So they cave-in when people act hurt or threaten to leave the organization unless metrics are added that make them and their kind look important. The result is that everyone ends-up being unhappy. At one organization I worked with, there was endless argument over compensation because each general manager would focus on the subset they performed well on and ignore those metrics where performed did poorly. Everyone seemed to be #1 at something and everyone used that as argument that they deserved more compensation. 

Leaders who lack such courage might recall the old Bill Cosby quote: “I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”   Otis Redding’s solution was to “remain the same” because he couldn’t please 10 different people. That is a rational response to a bad system.  Things get even worse when you try to please everyone – at least Otis pleased himself!

 I've highlighted the two that I've experienced the most often in my career. 

Few things have more of a damaging impact on an organization than not having a clear strategy and/or the ability to tie what you actually do on a day-to-day basis to the strategy. When there is lack of direction coming from the top, when there's general lack of understanding on what the organization is about, guess what? The more ambitious and motivated employees will make their own best guess about what they should be doing and go ahead with it - whether it makes any strategic sense of not, and whether they have any real chance of succeeding or not.

I'd need more than my fingers and toes to count all the projects I've worked on that seemed to "make sense", seemed to tie to our understanding of the strategy, seemed to be the right thing to do....but which turned out to be wheel spinning or dead-enders. At least on these projects, we were trying to do something. Naturally, I was generally able to get these projects on the list of metrics I was goaled on - if there was such a list - with little or no management push back. It was always the more metrics the merrier. This would seem to speak to Bob's point four, but it was never a matter of stomping and threatening if "my" metrics weren't added. It was more of "let's not stifle any initiative" which stemmed from managers not understanding the strategy, etc.

What's more typical is people going the full Otis Redding route: "remain the same." They keep on doing what they're used to doing, i.e., whatever's in their comfort zone - whether it makes strategic or tactical sense or not.

Employees need to regularly hold up what they're doing to the cold clear light of the strategy and see if it has anything to do with it. But this implies that there is a cold, clear strategy out there. As often as not, there isn't.

Friday, November 24, 2006

One Card/One Schnook Update

Hilarious news on an aftershock from the painful video that's erupted online - the one in which a Bank of America troubador sings a U2 knock-off at a corporate function. (I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago.)

The NY Times - among other outlets - has reported that Universal Music is suing BofA:

On Tuesday, a lawyer for the Universal Music Publishing Group, a catalog owner and administrator, posted the text of a cease-and-desist letter in the comments section of, a Web site carrying the video. It contended that Bank of America had violated Universal’s copyright of the U2 song.

It's really hard to believe that Universal has nothing better to do than go after this take-off. (Just as it's hard to believe that the leaked video is really "brilliant corporate marketing" to get publicity on BofA's One Card - rather than the snarky little act of some BofA employee who wanted to have a laugh at a colleague's expense.) Ridiculous!

By the way, the singer, Ethan Chandler, "has independently released an album and is working on another," and feels that - despite becoming the subject of ridicule as the poster boy for jerky corporate functions , the episode has had an upside: publicity for his musical sideline. (I'm glad Ethan is OK: I was worried about him.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Along with a lot of folks, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. If you live in New England, there's an "our holiday" aura to it, which makes everyone feel good. Beyond that, just think of the Thanksgiving features and benefits: It's just one day. It breaks the week up nicely, and for most people it now translates into an extra-long weekend. No gifts to buy. No cards to send. No decorating.

And there are no religious requirements. You can thank a deity, your lucky stars, or whomever you want, for whatever it is you are thankful for.

Without sounding too much like an Academy Award winner, I am thankful for things great: family, friends, home, health, etc. , and things small: laptops, Polarfleece, MacIntosh apples, etc.

But I am also inordinately thankful for my work. For interesting projects and thoughtful clients. For the blogosphere denizens I've "met" over the last couple of months.  And I am most thankful for the company I've kept over the last 25 years since I got my MBA* and lucked my way into a career in high tech. Many of them have become "life friends", others were "war buddies," friends in the trenches  that I run into on occasion (and hope we'll have the chance to work together again at some point). But it has been enriching and rewarding to work with so very many of them.

I am thankful for all of those who tried to make our companies "work better" by designing, building, marketing, selling, and supporting better products, and by going the extra mile for our customers.

I am thankful to all the colleagues with whom I've shared interminable bull sessions and interminable bitch sessions. With whom I suffered through re-orgs and de-orgs, and through company meetings that had us all come away shaking our heads. ("Did he really say we are going to 'move ahead with all the momentum of an entrenched juggernaut'"? Huh?) Sometimes I was on the opposite side - management, not rank and file; presenter, not audience - and I'm thankful to those with whom I shared the extra burden of decision-making. (Yes, for all the second-guessing and bad-mouthing about management I did over the years, it is indeed harder when you're one of the folks at the top.)

I'm thankful for (most) of my managers for the opportunities they gave me - or let me take. I am thankful for (most) of the people I've managed who made management easy, and who made me look good.

I'm thankful to those who filled the candy jars and brought in the sheet cakes when someone got engaged. Who tossed the six-month old yogurt out of the fridge and changed the water bottles without being asked. Who raced with me for planes we mostly caught, who sat with me in snowbound airports, who manned the trade show booths when we practically had to tackle someone to get them to talk to us, and who showed up with me for calls that got canceled at the last moment.

Most of the companies I've kept are no longer. I used to have the conceit that my having worked for so many places that ceased and desisted for whatever reason was unique. But it's, in fact, an experience shared at least somewhat by the majority of folks who've worked in high tech - maybe even the majority of folks who've worked anywhere.  You could certainly wile away the evening trading names companies that were once household words but that now live on only in memories or trace elements. (I'm in Boston: Lotus, DEC, First National Bank, Wang, John Hancock Gillette...)

But the folks I've worked with are still out there, and I'm thankful to you all (well, most of you) for being such wonderful colleagues.


*Sloan now awards an MBA, but in the day it was an MS. MBA is clearer, so I've awarded myself one retro-actively.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Chicken Little

We have all come to take exact measures for granted. Oh, we have occasional quarrel between metric and non-metric. Liters may well replace quarts, but kilometers will never replace miles in our poetic or Madison Avenue imaginings. ("And I have promises to keep/and kilometers to go before I sleep" just doesn't scan. Nor does "I'd walk a kilometer for a camel.") Sometimes standard sizes aren't quite - years ago I learned the hard way that a medium Polo shirt manufactured in Sri Lanka fit comfortably, while one made in the Philippines hugged my torso like a bustier.

But we have come to expect a certain degree of standardization. The exception, of course, is those things found in nature that we are hopefully will never be all that standardized. (I hated the idea of the square tomatoes that were rumored a while back.) These items we pay by the pound for. Thus, I can buy a big watermelon or a little watermelon and get precisely what I paid for.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband - recovering from surgery - decided that a chicken sandwich would taste good to him. Although even a non-cook like myself could manage to roast a chicken and slice it up for a sandwich, a friend had recommended the roasted chicken at our neighborhood market. At the meat counter, I asked the butcher for a roasted chicken. He handed me a plastic container that held the largest chicken I had ever seen. $6.99. I brought it home, where my husband and I ooh'd and aah'd over the heft of my formerly feathered friend. "It looks like a turkey," Jim said. And indeed it did. I didn't weigh it, but it was clear that it actually cost less to buy this chicken already-roasted than it would have if I'd bought it by the pound and thrown it in the over myself.

Sometimes large is not better, but this chicken was meaty, flavorful, succulent. We feasted on chicken and cucumber sandwiches. The chicken lasted for three days.

Fast forward a week. My husband is still recovering, still craving chicken, but now able to make it to the corner store on his own.

I came home one evening to find a partially eaten chicken carcass on the kitchen counter.

"Is it my imagination...." I started to ask.

"No," Jim assured me. "It's about half the size."

"How much?" I asked.


I'm assuming the first chicken - a veritable Foghorn Leghorn - was a fluke, and that the second round's meager Easter chick is what we are more likely to find next time we ask for a roasted chicken.

From a business standpoint, Chicken #1 was a delighter, Chicken #2 a disappointment. But it makes no sense to me in either case why we weren't paying by the pound. Just when I'm beginning to think that I have business figured out, there is something new and wondrous to astound me.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Coming Up Roses

I'm on in favor of enterprising little businesses, but one of the local news station had an interesting bit on phoney florists on tonight's news.  It seems that some folks in Wisconsin have gotten a bunch of local phone listings with fake addresses and floral shop names. You find one in the phone - or is it the phoney -  book, give them a shout, and order your flowers. Only the phone rings into a call center in Wisconsin where scammers are standing by to take your order. (Hey, what about Midwest nice?)  They then call a real local florist and place your order for you.  (Thanks!) The surcharge for this effort: $20.

This is all quite illegal, and Wisconsin isn't the only home to floral scams, which have apparently been around for a while.  There's a piece on Florist Detective that gives more details on the scam. (It also mentions an FTC Consumer Alert on it, called "Petal Pushers." Which I'd thought of that!)

Anyway, we are, most of us, trusting souls when it comes to doing business. We see a name and address in the phone book, or online, and assume it's a real business.  And most of us like to buy from locals.

I know that I've ordered flowers through one national outfit and been disappointed. In the worst disappointment, I sent flowers to my cousin after her brother died. It was January. The flowers came frozen. And the vase - well, you couldn't really see what it looked like from the catalog picture because of the size of the bouquet that was just spilling over the sides. Let's just say I was a bit surprised when I walked into my cousin's for the post-funeral get together and saw a bunch of dead flowers in a funeral urn. Ten years later, I'm still hearing pushing-up-daisies jokes. (You may have to have grown up Irish to understand just how this could happen.)

 This floral fiasco encouraged me to start going the local route when I order flowers.  I.e., I find a florist nearby to the recipient and order directly from them. At least that's what I think I've done. Who knows? I may well have been suckered in on this one along the line.

Good timing to give this scam some airtime during one of the big flower-sending holidays.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Risky Business

Yesterday night, one of the local TV stations had a news item on customers who had locked in their home heating oil prices last summer. Unfortunately for these consumers, the price of a barrel of oil and, hence, the price of a gallon of heating oil, have come down. So the customers are sitting on contracts obliging them to pay $.50 - $.70 a gallon MORE than the current price.

I'm not sure if we were supposed to feel bad for those who had locked-in. And certainly, I would have felt more sympathy if the couple profiled had been living in some ancient, uninsulated, innercity house covered in asbestos tiling - rather than in a new suburban mega-mock-Colonial. But I really couldn't see the point of the piece. (Or maybe I just didn't agree with the point of the piece.)

In her defense, the reporter did note that the local oil company had also locked in to the higher price in its futures contract, so there wasn't much they could do without taking a bath, but she also urged consumers who'd signed up earlier in the year, when they thought fuel prices would be rising, to call their heating oil companies and see what they could do for them.

But let's face it. If the price of oil had skyrocketed, those who had locked into contracts at a lower price would be gloating and high-fiving all over the place, congratulating themselves on how shrewd they were.  They gambled and they "lost", but unlike a wager in which they had to put money down, they really haven't lost any money. They just have to live by an agreement they made that was presumably based on a price they could afford to pay.

It's interesting that people who realize that they are "risking" $2 when they place a bet on a pony -  or $1 when they buy a MegaMillions ticket, or drop a $10 roll of quarters in the Foxwood slots in about 15 seconds - don't "get"  (or somehow can't accept) that they're assuming risk when they lock in on a future price (based on a volatile commodity). When they sign up for a balloon payment mortgage (based on the assumption that housing prices only go in one direction). When they put all their retirement savings in Enron stock (ditto on the stock market).

Everyone seems to get the reward part of the equation. I really don't understand why the downside comes as a shock.  I do feel bad for people who gambled and lost, and I hope that next time they'll think twice.  But all the squawking when the rewards don't quite pan out really makes me crazy. 

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Money Changers in the Temple

Don't ask how or why I got there: you know how the blogosphere works...The fact is, I did find my way to The Donald's Blog over at Trump U and he had a post on ATMs that are now being placed in some churches. No surprises that the ever-enterprising Mr. Trump thinks it's a "smart idea," that might just take off.

So far, most of the churches that have picked up on the money-making trend are Protestant and in the South. But if the machines are successful enough, I think this will be a belief that will span all faiths.

Just why this would bother me is a mystery. It certainly makes business sense to put ATM machines where people congregate and need cash. And I can think of few ATM placements that will have less of an impact on my life.

Maybe I don't like the idea because I grew up going to one of those old-fashioned, urban Catholic churches that was actually quite beautiful - you know, the ones that Hollywood uses when they want dramatic visuals. Our Lady of the Angels was a grand "Irish gothic" structure with vaulted ceilings, arches galore, wrought iron lanterns, and some of the most magnificent stained glass windows this side of the Vatican. (One interesting feature of these windows was that they depicted events and people associated with American Catholicism - John Barry, father of the US Navy, etc. If you were bored at Mass, you could "read" the windows and try to figure out who was who.) So it may be that I don't like the idea of ATMs on an aesthetic basis. Maybe they'd be OK in one of the more modern suburban churches: the ones built in the sixties where all the statues kind of look like JFK.

But I also find ATM's in churches peculiar on religious grounds. Not that I know all that much about the Bible - I went to parochial school in a time and a place where most of our attention was focused on "our rules" and the only source document you needed was the Baltimore II Catechism - but I seem to recall something about "money changers in the temple" being driven out by a really ticked off Jesus.

Perhaps the churches are getting around this by making sure that there's no surcharge for cross-bank transactions.

I'll leave Donald Trump with the final, depressing word:

If there's one thing that can cross all boundaries - color, politics, religion - it's money.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Christmas in the Tropics

I walked down Charles Street, the charming and quaint commercial center of my neighborhood, and was not at all alarmed to see that a few of the shops already have Christmas merchandise in their windows, and a few decorations up. It is, after all, well after Halloween. When the street is fully decorated in early December, it will be lovely: greenery, red bows, gas lamps, brick sidewalks, shops that aren't mega-chains. (We do have a 7-Eleven Starbucks, and a Zoots, but the rest are on-offs or small-locals.)

No, the "Christmas comes early" is not going to bother someone like me who's generally done her shopping by Thanksgiving.

But it was odd to see the Christmas tree stand set up in front of Cafe Vanille when it's still 70 degrees out.

Mid-November. 70 degrees. I used to love out-of-season weather: Indian summer, January thaw, freak May snowstorms. Now I wonder.

I know that White Christmas is a statistical improbability, but I also know that, while the leaves have long turned around here, most of them are still on many of the trees around here, included our Chinese dogwood. I've usually raked-up by now. The impatiens I planted last July in the flower boxes out front are still blooming and vibrant.

On NPR yesterday, I heard that fewer and fewer baby polar bears are surviving - to many shrinking ice floes in Alaska. And this week's New Yorker has a piece on our dying oceans.

Whether you accept the global warming argument - or choose to believe that what's happening is, like the Ice Age, merely a natural shift - something's happening and as a polity, economy, and society, we are not taking it seriously enough. Even if you believe that the shifting climate, dying oceans, and shrinking ice floes are just part of the ebb-and-flow of nature, shouldn't we still be doing something more to manage it so that it will do less harm to our homes and businesses, to the people and places we love? When the Ice Age happened, there weren't all that many people to get crushed under the glacier. That's no longer the case. This rising tide is going to lift more than boats.

The insurance industry sees this coming. Obviously their concern is smart business. They're the ones getting the early-on financial hits. We're hearing isolated instances of businesses going greener (those dual-flush toilets in LL Bean that I wrote about the other day). But the level of alarm, and the level of response, are still too low. I hope that we're at the tipping point where our fragile environment will become more part of our business, political, and civil consciousness. And that we're not yet at the environmental tipping point where there's no stopping Waterworld.

Even if most of my New England Christmases haven't been all that white, many of them have been. I hope that I haven't seen the last of them.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Knit 1, Code 2: Why I Miss Techies

Most of my career has been spent in software companies, and one of the great work pleasures I've had has been working with techies. Reading Joel Spolsky on software reminded me why. He has a wonderful rant on management consultants who convince companies to hire them to make their developers more productive. One way the consultants "accomplish" this is by coming up with bogus metrics that don't measure anything other than the developers' ability to figure out clever, clearly counter-productive ways to game the measurement system. Its a great riff that also takes off on bright young management consultants:

The whole fraud is only possible because performance metrics in knowledge organizations are completely trivial to game. The best part is that most management consultants, the stunningly good-looking, bright, earnest chipmunks with 4.0s in Russian Lit from Harvard who work for these companies, have absolutely no way of knowing this, so they can go through this whole exercise without even knowing that they're doing it! They get all the way through the 2-year associate program on their way to MBA school without even realizing that they haven't done a goddamn thing about productivity, all they've done is caused a fairly pointless transfer of wealth from ExxonMobilConoco to BainMcKinseyGartner's senior partners. And it's a lot of fun! First class flights to Houston and Oslo! Helping the world be more productive! Rock on, young stunningly-good-looking Management Consultant.

Talking about software coding productivity reminds me of one of the hands-down most brilliant software engineers I ever worked with. "Tasha" was an incredibly elegant and fast coder, not only adept with her own programming, but a complete wizard when it came to unraveling spaghetti code and improving the programs written by less talented peers. Her managers always loved her. But she had a couple of work habits that occasionally annoyed her peers in development, and more than occasionally annoyed the non-techies who had no idea what she did.

If you looked into Tasha's office as you walked by, most of the time you'd see her sitting there knitting. (She knit the most gorgeous sweaters imaginable.) While she knit, she was also watching a soap opera or Oprah on the tiny TV she kept on her desk. People would go wild, "Tasha's not doing anything! She gets away with murder! It's really bad for morale to see her sitting there."

What the complainers didn't get was that while Tasha was sticking to her knitting, she was also working through programming problems in her head. Once she'd worked something out, she'd put down her knitting and speed code. The QA people would always say that they barely had to test anything she'd written.

A productivity consultant might have looked at how many lines or code she'd written or how many strokes to the keyboard her fingers made - or just watched her sitting there knitting - and pronounced that we could be getting so much more out of Tasha if only she'd work more hours. And wrong they'd have been.

My consulting work has, in large part, put me at a remove from techies. I still work almost exclusively with tech companies, but I have far less day to day interaction and schmoozing with th engineers than I've had in the past. Reading Joel Spolsky reminded me of how much I miss them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

LL Green-Bean

A few days ago I stopped by the new LL Bean store in Burlington, Massachusetts. I'm a long-time LL Bean customer - a big fan of  those never-in-style/never-out-of-style practical clothing items - jeans, t-shirts, turtle-necks, shorts - that comprise 90% of my clothing purchases now that I don't go into an office everyday. And a big fan of their customer-friendly policies: no questions asked replacements when an LL Bean good goes bad, coupon rewards, and free monogramming/free shipping if you use their credit card. That and being a sucker for homegrown New England companies, and someone who loves the State o' Maine...

(My only complaint about them over the years - other than the fact that you have to order navy blue t's and turtlenecks early or they run out - has been the barrage of catalogues that for a while there seemed to be flying at me every other week. But that seems to have subsided to a reasonable and welcome flow.)

And now yet another reason to love LL Bean: the toilets in the restrooms are dual flush. For those who aren't familiar with the concept, you flush in one direction for solid waste (more water used), the other for liquid (less).  I've seen these toilets in Europe over the years, but I don't think I've ever seen one in the US.  Even though water is the one natural resource we seem to have aplenty in New England, it was still good to see.

Of course, they're saving themselves on their water bills, but they are also helping preserve our increasingly fragile environment and raising the environmental consciousness of every shopper that uses their facilities. (And now that they've raised my consciousness, I will foreswear any more trips to the Burlington Store and go back to doing my ordering online, where I won't be polluting the air chugging back and forth in my car.  But wait, if I go to the store, I won't have all that extra packaging hat comes with catalog shopping: the clothes I buy won't be in individually wrapped plastic bags (sealed for freshness?) with all that tissue paper tucked in. And  besides, I'll only stop in if I'm already nearby, so I won't really be using up any more foreign oil, and I do have a fuel-efficient car to begin with, and that way I can check out in person whether those "ash" cords are more taupe or more gray...)

Still, it was nice to see those dual flush toilets, even though I think I may have accidentally flushed up when I meant to flush down.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Garden Office of One's Own

It's not often that I get a real consumer jones for something, but over on Boston Filter, Maura Welch has unearthed a nifty idea from Great Britain: garden offices for telecommuters. I want one. Big time. Too bad I live in a condo.

Although they look like a stiff breeze might send them airborne, I think they would work quite nicely for anyone who wants to work at home but doesn't have a room of one's own to dedicate to work. They're not free - a little under $10K at today's exchange rate - but I would be most delighted to have one. After all, it's something I've been waiting for my entire life.

As any of my siblings can attest, growing up in a house that was way too small for its population, I was always fantasizing about and designing "my space." There were two variants. In one, I just had an armchair (comfy, chintz), floor lamp, and bookcase set up in the attic crawlspace above my (shared) bedroom. That the crawlspace was a) inaccessible, b) wasn't really crawl space, as it wasn't designed to support any weight didn't deter my constant fantasizing about having my reading room.

My more elaborate room was patterned after the sleeper cars our family sometimes used when we went by train to Chicago to visit family. I had it all worked out I how could convert the bathroom shared by 5 kids to a fully functioning apartment for myself. My bed would fold down over the bathtub. The toilet (lid down) would be my reading chair. I'd have a mini-fridge where the hamper stood. Built in-cabinets for my stuff. And a fold-down stove top over the sink. There. Maybe there wouldn't be much room to spare, but I'd have everythinig I needed.

As life would have it, I married a man who's mildly claustrophobic. He likes big spaces. Open spaces. I like cosy spaces. Small spaces. And so I sit blogging in my mini-office, a 5' x 8' glorified closet that I call home office, while Jim sits watching a re-run of a Larry Bird era Celtics game in a living room ten-times the size.

I know that I will go to bed tonight figuring out just how I would design my little garden office. If only I had a little garden to put it in.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Cameo in Borat: Bad Career Move

Two of the three University of South Carolina frat boys who got licker’d up and made racist, sexist remarks in Borat are suing, claiming that they were conned into participating by being plied with booze, and by assurances that were made to them that the movie wouldn’t be shown in the U.S. (Isn't that like thinking it's okay to tell a Jewish joke if you don't think there are any Jews in the room?)

Well, it seems now that, as a result of their Mel Gibson-esque indiscretions, one of the fellows has had a permanent job offer rescinded, and the other has lost out on a “prestigious internship.”

According to the one frat boy not suing:

"He brought us to a bar, and he told us. … 'Yeah guys, I hope you have really good stories. … Don't let me down, just typical frat-guy talk,'" [the non-litigious frat boy] said. "He kind of challenged us to shock him."

Sure, they got suckered, and I'm sure they were trying to be outrageous, but I can understand an employer not wanting to take a chance on hiring someone who says, "We wish" when asked whether Americans had slaves. (It was hard to follow the drunken "banter", but I think the guy who said "we wish" about slavery was referring to having women for slaves, which makes it more frat fantasy misogyny than racism.) Or on the one who said that "minorities have more power...Jews, anybody against the mainstream..." Interestingly, the guy who's not suing is the one who - at least in the clip I saw - was not part of the racist merriment, but was just spewing imbecilic, booze-soaked nonsense about "f-in' hos" that sounded like the yearning testosterone of someone who can't find a girlfriend.

The national wing of the fraternity that these lunkheads were/are members of has weighed in, decrying the comments, because Chi Psi's "values include commitment to the growth of individual members by nurturing integrity, dignity, and maturity." (Integrity, dignity, and maturity. Those are sure words that come to my mind when someone says "fraternity.")

In any event, Career Planning 101 has got to start including cautionary training for students that anything you say - and do – that ends up in MySpace, on TV, in the blogosphere, on YouTube, let alone on the big screen in a mega-popular movie – can and will be held against you.

I don't want to overlook the casual racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism that's thrown a curve into the career plans of these kids. I really hope they take something positive away from this situation - a bit of mirror-looking and attitude adjustment.

But maybe we need to have a statute of limitations on how much weight we give this type of “evidence”. Juvenile records get expunged, don’t they? Why not all these perpetually available bits that demonstrate stupendous errors in judgment but may not, in truth, indicate that the person is fundamentally terrible and incapable of change. Borat-ic frat boys. trying to one-up each other, thinking they're getting one over on a dumb foreginer. Girls gone wild. Mindless, self-dramatizing bloggers. YouTube “stars” barfing into wastebaskets. These are just kids. (One of the South Carolina “men ” was quoted as saying “What if my mom finds out?” What “grown up” would make a statement like that? THESE ARE JUST KIDS.)

Rash, immature, thoughtless, stupid, reckless, nasty, swinish, should have known better, glad I didn't hire them, glad they’re not my kids…

But still kids.

Not that these kids shouldn’t be called on their behavior. And not that we should ignore behavior that is violent and sociopathic. But when it’s really just stupid kid tricks, drunken frat boy braggadocio imbecility, someone needs to point out to them why it’s wrong. (And, no, it’s not wrong just because you got caught or because a potential employer may not like it.) Sometimes the old bromides get it right: learning from your mistakes is part of growing up.

Who among us except for the goodiest of two shoes doesn’t have a few skeletons in our college closets that we now regret. Maybe they didn't entail boozy racist, sexist, and anit-Semitic rants, but there's probably a few things there that still makes us cringe. Somethings that we're just as happy that mom never found out. Ours just weren’t caught on camera.

Friday, November 10, 2006

One Schnook

By now, you may have seen the video that's showing up on business-related blogs, and of course, YouTube. The one where the earnest Bank of America employee sings an anguished, bastardized version of U2's "One" as a paean to the merger of Bank of America and MBNA:

One name that's known all over the world.
One heart, filled with one spirit...and we've got to share it...

We'll live out our values, while the competition crawls...

A lot of the commenting that's attached to this video is along the lines of "is this for real?" You know what? I'm guessing it is for real, and painfully so. Which is why I'm not incorporating the video here. I am cringing for this guy, who I'm guessing is completely mortified and just trying to get beyond a situation in which he's now being subject to WORLD WIDE RIDICULE.

I'm no Mother Teresa, and I am so not above laughing at this video. In fact, I howled when I played it and immediately sent off a link to a couple of friends. But at that point, the nice parochial school girl clicked in and I started to worry about the guy in the video.

Okay, this might, in fact, be a put on. In which case, it's brilliant.

Or the guy might be BOA's biggest suck-up toady, in which case, maybe he deserves being outed in this way. (It's certainly hard to imagine that this guy's the biggest toady in an enterprise as large as BOA.)

But my guess is that's he's just an earnest middle manager kind of guy, who wants to be loyal and upbeat, positive about his company. In his heart of hearts, he's a company guy, while in his mind of minds, he knows that he's just a number on a badge, a box on an org chart, and that - like everyone else - he's expendable. And here we have BOA and MBNA merging, and we all know that merger math is not fuzzy at all. In order to get it to work - to make 2 + 2 = 5 - you always have to subtract. So let's be loyal and earnest and upbeat. This is positive. This is great. This is worthy of my singing my heart out in front of my colleagues. This is pro Bono. This is pro bono.

Here's one big downside of the always on, always there economy: there's no escaping from something like this, no getting away, no living it down. I remember after Elvis died, one of his buddies saying, "he will always remain a living legend." Well, the BOA video guy is going to remain a living legend for as long as he's living, that's for sure.

I hope he's OK (not Elvis, the BOA video guy). I hope he gets through this. I hope he has supportive family, friends, and colleagues. And I hope that whoever sent this one over the wire - no matter how innocently - has the grace and conscience to feel guilty about the damage he's done to one of his/her fellow workers.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Tickle Me, Best Buy

Every year there's something or other that "my kid has to have". This happy holiday season it's apparently TMX Elmo (Tickle Me Extreme) for the littlest consumers, and PlayStation 3 for the bigger ones. You know the deal: eventually (i.e., within six months) there'll be plenty of Cabbage Patch Dolls-Christmas Barbies-electronic-whatevers hitting the off-price shelves, but Mommy, Daddy, I WANT IT NOW. So parents line up at 2 a.m. in the pelting hail, get into fist fights over the last one, bid sky-high on eBay so that their kids can have that pleasant little buzz that instant gratification brings on Christmas morning - and some bullying, snotty bragging rights when they get back to school.

In any case, Business Week is reporting on a mini-fiasco around Best Buy's e-mailing everyone who pre-ordered a PlayStation 3 online that a mistake had been made in posting it online: the game consoles will only be available in the stores.

The article on this messy little situation focused on a 13-year old boy who's father had given him the thrilling news about the PS3, which the kid had "been anticipating ... for a year now, ever since it was first announced." Of course, the boy was excited. You can't blame him. Of course, his father is ticked off at Best Buy. Of course, Best Buy would have done itself a big favor by honoring the pre-orders rather than outright canceling them - and throwing their customers a $10 gift certificate bone. From a pure business/marketing perspective, I think Best Buy could have done better than that, even if they were unwilling or unable to honor the orders.

But here's what I found really interesting in the article:

Gary Lane, Blake's dad, a longtime Best Buy customer is certainly peeved. Gary was also hoping to avoid the lines because he has two discs missing from his spine and can't stand for long periods. Gary says that Blake has worked hard at school and earned the right to his PlayStation. So now he's thinking about lining up outside a store the night before the game console's release "against my doctor's orders."

I'm sure little Blake is quite deserving of his PlayStation, and I'm sure the whole family has a right to be "peeved" at Best Buy. But what's wrong with Dad explaining to his son that, given his bad back, Blake will just have to wait until the PS3's are in more plentiful supply. What will that be? A couple of months?

When Blake's old enough to start standing in line at 2 a.m. to storm the gates for whatever hot item he wants, let him stand there. Until then, a better lesson seems to me to be, "Sorry, kid, but you know your old dad tried but you'll just have to wait a bit longer." Let them all rage against Best Buy - who can blame them - but the combination of kids who "have to have" and parents who "want to give" doesn't do anyone a favor in the long run.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Anger Management

Even if I don't know who half the celebrities who get mentioned in "Personality Parade" are anymore, Parade Magazine is always good for a few tidbits. Here's one from this Sunday.

An entrepreneur in Nanjing, China, recently opened the Rising Sun Anger Release Bar, where patrons can pay to swing at the staff, smash glasses and scream. The employee punching bags are 20 young men who wear protective gear and get physical training. For an extra fee, customers even can request that the staff dress up to look like a particular person. “We get no place to vent our anger,” Chen Liang, a local salesman, told a Chinese newspaper. “The idea of beating up someone resembling your boss seems attractive.”

My favorite is the last line.

For the most part, I've gotten through my career without wanting to beat up my boss, let alone beating up someone resembling my boss. (Where's the fun in that?)

Not that I haven't gotten into some fairly heated discussions with managers over the year. Once I actually did bait my boss into firing me. (We were having a quite emotionally charged back-and-forth on how we were going to explain our upcoming lay-offs to the survivors. To say that we didn't see eye-to-eye on this is mildly understating things. In any case, my final shot was "You say what you're going to say, I'll say what I'm going to say, and we'll see who they believe." Having tossed this grenade on the conference room table, I was not all that surprised to find my name heading the list of lay-offs that were going to have to be explained.)

And when my college roommate and I were waitresses at Durgin-Park, Joyce did smash two bowls containing half-eaten strawberry shortcakes at the feet of the owner/manager, who was bellowing at her for having put too much whipped cream on the shortcakes. When I say that the boss was bellowing, I do mean bellowing. I don't know what Durgin-Park is like these days, but I was there during the era of the mouthy, hostile waitress. The college girls never managed to keep up to the standards of mouthiness and hostility set by some of the old-timers, but we all had our moments. The era of the mouthy-hostile waitresses coincided with the era of the bellowing, bullying owner. One day, I'd served two "poor man's roast beef" lunch specials to two women who were eating together. One of the slices of beef was nice and rare. In our waste-not world, the other serving was composed of four overcooked end cuts. I pointed out to the cook that I couldn't bring both of these to the same table, but he told me to try and if the one with the bad meal complained, I could just bring it back. The owner saw me bringing the refused meal back to the kitchen, grabbed it from my hand, ran over to the table where the two women were sitting, and screamed at them to get out of his restaurants "and don't come back." (Not that he had to worry on that score.) As they gathered up their coats to leave, he screamed at me, "Make sure you charge them 15 cents for the cornbread." (I picked up the tab for them for them.)

So I understand that there is plenty of anger to vent in the workplace. But to have to go to a bar and beat up armed waiters? I'm sure glad I don't work in China.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

If I didn't feel a head-ache coming on, I'd really consider signing up for the Learning Annex Wealth Expo coming up December 2nd and 3rd in Boston.

And why not? I'd like to GET RICH QUICK! and FEEL THE MAGIC! as much as the next guy. And getting to rub shoulders with - or at least rub my eyes and stare at - Donald Trump (who supposedly makes $1.5M for each appearance), Anthony Robbins, "Rich Dad/Poor Dad" Kiyosaki, and George Foreman. (Love the grill, George, I really do.) I'm a little disappointed that I don't get to hear Jim Screamer, I mean Jim Cramer, but he doesn't do Boston. And Kareem Abdul Jabbar is on the program in Anaheim, not Boston. (That sky hook, how did he do it? But wait just a darn minute....Didn't Kareem Abdul Jabbar get swindled out of all his money by his manager or something? And he's going to tell me how to get rich. Maybe he's just there to help people feel some magic.)

And it's only $199. No, it's $179. Hey, I can get in for only $99. What a bargain! Or I can get the "sit up close and personal" package for only $149. That's a great discount off the regular $499 fee for the VIP package. If I go for that one, I'll have already saved $350 even before I sign up. I'm beginning to see how this can work. $350 for just sitting here. I'm feeling the magic alright.

But the Learning Annex can tell you much better than I can what this big expo weekend is all about.

Millionaires will be made at every Learning Annex Wealth Expo weekend. Virtually every area of wealth building expert will give a complete, comprehensive and intensive training course. Seventy two different seminars will be offered which will change your financial future nearly overnight. No matter where your interest lies in making incredible amounts of money, you will be able to learn from the experts in that field. They will teach you how to become financially secure and independent. One life changing piece of advice can make you thousands if not millions. Learn how to:

  • DEBT: Clean up your credit and save Thousands and get loans you never dreamed about
  • 401K or IRA: Self-Invest your retirement funds and make thousands per month
  • SMALL BUSINESSES: Quickly and easily start or grow a successful business. Stop working for someone else!
  • CAPITAL GAINS: Save $10,000 or more in taxes or IRA: Self-Invest your retirement funds and make thousands per month
  • ASSET PROTECTION: Protect your assets so that no one can take them away in a law suit or judgment
  • STOCKS : DOUBLE your income from just a $1,000 investment
  • INVESTING: Go from Wall Street to Easy Street
  • EBAY: Make a Fortune buying and selling on the Internet
  • PRECONSTRUCTION Real Estate: Turn $3,000 into $80,000 in just 6 months
  • REAL ESTATE: Take advantage of foreclosures and run down properties and pay ennies on the dollar
  • LOANS: Take Advantage of Insider Secrets of Millionaire Investors. Start with no money down.
  • VENDING MACHINES : Start Your own home-based business for under $1,000
  • COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE: Buy shopping centers, rental property and office buildings and make millions.

On another page, I found out that I can "find, fund, and flip foreclosures". That should help make me big bucks, and make the world a better place. Or maybe I'll start a home-based vending machine business. I'm not sure yet weather I'll sell perfume and condoms machines to restrooms in bars, or sugary snacks in grammar schools. I can put the $350 I save on the VIP pass towards the $1K I need to set up the vending machine business. Cool!

Well, there's no doubt in my mind that "millionaires will be made at every Learning Annex Wealth Expo weekend." It's just that the millionaires who get made are more likely to be the hucksters and not the huckstees.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Look, Ma, No Hands! Parallel Parking for the Driving Challenged

I wasn’t paying that much attention to the car ad, but something caught my ear. So I looked up, and there it was: a man in a car that was parking itself. My first thought was that this was a joke. Surely this is a feature that no one was asking for. Surely this is feature that no one really needs.

In the click of a google of “Lexus parallel park”, I found that the new Lexus LS460 – and the Prius, too - can actually get into a parallel parking spot. All the driver needs to do is control the brake.

My wonderment here is profound. I understand that there are people who may not know how to parallel park. Who may, in fact, be too scared to try. But parallel parking is one of those things that works just like they say it does in the textbook.

I know that this is how it works, because it worked that way for me the first time I found myself having to parallel park. I remember it quite clearly. I was in a white rental car and had just dropped my boyfriend off at the First National Bank of Boston to run in and – in those pre-ATM days – go up to a teller and get some cash. Double parked, motor running, I figured I could sit there for a couple of minutes, not bothering anyone. But I was bothering a cop, who motioned me to move on. This was in downtown Boston, with its one way streets and convoluted traffic patterns, and I wasn’t exactly sure whether circling the block was an option. I envisioned getting lost, driving around for hours, breaking up with my boyfriend.

It’s not like I could call him on his cell phone or anything.

A few cars down, I saw that someone was pulling out.

I had never parallel parked before. I grew up in a city, but in my neighborhood there were driveways and an average of not much more than one car per household. If you parked on the street, it might be in front of another car. Or behind it. Never between two. Now I was living in a much more crowded urban area. But I didn’t own a car and was seldom in one.

I drew parallel to the car in front of the fresh parking space and put my flashers on. Nervously, cautiously, I started backing up and cutting into the space. With a little to and fro-ing, I was in. It worked exactly like they said it would. A textbook case.

It was years before I had to parallel park again, but when the time came, and I was forced into urban car ownership by suburban employment, I had supreme confidence that I would be able to do so.

And indeed I was.

No one who lives and parks in a dense city environment can get by without acquiring this skill. My neighborhood has residential parking stickers. Since there are 3 or 4 times more stickers than there are spaces on the street, this just entitles you to drive around for an hour hoping to find one.

In self preservation, I have become exceedingly skilled at parallel parking. In fact, I would even put myself in the 99.99th percentile here. I’m that good. My personal best was so tight that I found barely an inch to spare on either side once I’d gotten into the space. That it took me 45 minutes to park, and that I burned out my clutch doing so, is irrelevant. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to snap a photograph of my New Beetle in that little space. I was so proud!

Now this execrable decision on the part of Lexus to help the parallel-parking challenged. The one mechanical skill I have is being automated and obsoleted.

In a parallel universe, where business would focus on “because we should” rather than “because we can,” automotive engineers would spend their time making cars safer, more energy-efficient, and even more comfortable, rather than spin their wheels figuring out how to get a car to do something that any driver with half a brain and enough neck strength to look in his rearview mirror can do for himself.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Boola, Boola: Yale to Reinvent the MBA Curriculum

The other day, the Boston Globe reported that Yale's business school is introducing a new curriculum to "fit modern realities". What's behind this seems to be the Yale School of Management's inability to crack into any list of Top 10 B-Schools. (In the one I just found a-googling, US News, the Elis rank a lowly 15. Business Week's ranking, which I unearthed later, puts Yale at 19. This certainly cannot stand!)

According to the Globe,
[The new curriculum's] centerpiece, set to be rolled out today, is a series of "organizational perspectives" courses focused on managing external constituencies like state and society, customers, investors, and competitors, along with internal constituencies such as innovators, operating executives, fund managers, and employees.

Frankly, that sounded to me like Manipulation 101, so I went to the source - the Yale School of Management itself - to see what they had to say. Naturally, they spin things a little differently:
The heart of the new first-year curriculum is a series of eight multidisciplinary courses, called Organizational Perspectives, structured around the organizational roles a manager must engage, motivate, and lead in order to solve problems – or make progress – within organizations. These roles are both internal – the Innovator, the Operations Engine, the Employee, and Sourcing and Managing Funds (or CFO) – and external – the Investor, the Customer, the Competitor, and State and Society. Each course draws on topics and insights from a variety of functional management disciplines to study the managerial challenges each role presents.

According to Yale, the manager "engages, motivates, and leads in order to solve problems," not just manipulate. Whew, I was worried for a moment there.

I am not all that sympathetic to Yale's need to crawl up in the rankings - who asked them to start a businss school up, anyway? Princeton and Brown don't have them, and they haven't been drummed out of the Ivy League. And what happened to their founding mission of establishing a new degree for public and private management, and not being purely profit-motivated? Guess that went the way of the lowly five-figures starting salary for grads.

What Yale's up to doesn't sound all that wowingly different - unless there's a bigger difference between the old-think word "interdisciplinary" and Yale's breakthrough "multidisciplinary" approach, this sounds recycled. But the idea of a new business school curriculum isn't bad. As a long-ago graduate of US News' #4/Business Week's #7 ranked B-School (Sloan-MIT), I can honestly say that there was not much I learned in school that I actually ended up using in business. The one thing I did pick up that helped me score my first job was an obscure econometric modeling language, TROLL. A variant of TROLL was used in a consulting firm I worked for. Other than that, business school was a place to spend 2 years with lots of smart people taking courses of some intellectual interest but little practical application. What was practical for me was picking up the credential from a ranked school. Without it, I might have stayed a Durgin-Park waitress forever.

Like most MBA's, 99.999 (a.k.a. "five 9's") of what I know about business I learned in business.

Yale may or may not be on to something, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer is "not really."

If Yale really want to innovate, I've got an idea for them.

Have your student spend the first year taking "core" courses - either the traditional "silo'd" approach, or with Yale's new, multidisciplinary curriculum. Year two, everyone gets to work together to actually run a company - into the black or into the ground. I'm sure Yale could afford to buy a few concerns in downtown New Haven. How about a factory - it's not in New Haven, but the factory that makes pink lawn flamingos is for sale, and Leominster Massachusetts isn't that far from Yale. A supermarket might be good - yup-scale or in a poor community. Call center. Book store. Cleaning service. Florist. Restaurant. Software company. Let's face it, most folks in business school have 2 years experience as a flunky in a consulting or VC firm before they race off to B-school. They weren't running anything except numbers, scenarios, and off at the mouth. Give them a company to run, and save all those firms that hire MBA's the cost of on the job training.

Under my new MBA model, the only types of firms that would be verboten are those engaged in illegal activity, hedge funds, and management consultancies.

The businesses wouldn't need to be start ups. Once Yale got a few going, the outgoing MBA's would just hand it off to the class behind them.

Budgeting. Planning. Designing. Building. Procuring. Marketing. Selling. Negotiating. Hiring. Firing. Outsourcing. Reorganizing. Everything you do in a real business. But no quitting.

I can't think of a better way to invigorate a moribund MBA curriculum, and give students a real business education.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Low Down on Sweet 'n Low

I read my fair share of business books. I try to avoid the business mogul puffographies, but I do tend to occasionally pick up the instructional guide types. You know, the ones where the big time consultants and professors write about their clients and set out all those roadmaps for achieving greatness. Given a career spent in companies that no longer exist, these books tend to have a strong element of "read it an weep" in them for me - oh, boo, hoo, if only we'd known the twelve simple steps that help struggling companies get off auto-pilot on the road to ruin and put them on the road to success - but I am always on the lookout for things lessons to apply.

My favorite business book, however, are always the ones that are laugh out loud funny and/or read like novels.

In fact, some of them are even laugh out loud funny novels. Memoirs of an Invisible Man, by Harry Saint, is now almost twenty years old, but it's still one of the funniest books I've ever read that has business in its background. But the business books I've most enjoyed over time are Michael Lewis' hilarious Liar's Poker (a tell-all about Salomon Brothers), and Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burroughs and John Helyar, which was as thick and meaty as a Robertson Davies trilogy (and was also made into a TV movie as funny as anything I've ever seen).

The book is a bit too bittersweet to be laugh-out-loud funny, but I was pretty sure that I'd like Sweet and Low by Richard Cohen, and I did.

The book is a family memoir cum history lesson cum cautionary business tale about the artificial sweetener industry. Cohen admittedly has something of a non-sweetened axe to grind. His grandfather invented Sweet 'n' Low, and built a fairly successful business around it, but Cohen's mother and her children ended up being disinherited.

The book combines elements of the classic American immigrant success story with a classic dysfunctional family - so what's not to like. (Among other "goodies", Cohen's family is cut out of the will because his mother recommended the doctor who operated on the founding father just prior to his death - at the age of 89. So she was blamed for his death. And the person who was most directly responsible for Cohen's family's being cut out was a crazy aunt who hadn't left her bedroom in 30 years.)

From a business perspective, however, what's interesting is watching the business lessons come clear. First there's the decline that occured after the management was handed down father to (first) son to (first) son - the fire in the belly diluted with each generation. This, of course, doesn't have to happen, and there are certainly cases where son topped father. (You may hate his guts, or think he's a total buffoon, but Donald Trump comes to mind.) But I worked at Wang Labs and saw what a drag it was on the company that Dr. Wang's son Fred (first son) had been earmarked to replace his father as CEO. This made it very difficult to attract and keep strong senior management on board: the strong, ambitious ones wanted a shot at the top job that they weren't going to get. That's how John Chambers, who was an exec at Wang when I worked there, got away.

Then there's the business lesson around hiring people who are competent and excellent. Instead of putting competent, excellent people in key positions, the Sweet 'n' Low folks did things like promote a maintenance guy to the comptroller position. And hire a construction worker without even a high school diploma to serve as "VP of Government Relations." (This latter employee may or may not have been put in place by organized crime, which may or may not have controlled the operations at one point.) Not that you shouldn't promote from within, or give people chances - and not, as we've seen with Enron et al., that people with pedigree degrees can't end up doing corrupt things - but having insiders with little by way of professional skills, education, and credentials, made it all too easy for the Sweet 'n' Low-ers to slip into corrupt, crimial business practices.

Then there's the lesson about getting too wedded to your status quo. Rather than keep on bettering its product, Cumberland (the Sweet 'n' Low company) focused all of its energy on trying to keep the FDA from outright banning saccarhin (their key ingredient). While they focused on this, others entered the market with better products like NutraSweet and Splenda. Overall market growth has kept Cumberland alive, but their market share shrinks every year, and they're now pretty much just the low-cost provider of a product that a shrinking proportion of the market prefers the taste of.

Anyway, very interesting read, with great "characters". I'm just happy I don't have to be related to any of them.