Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas to All...

....and to all a good night.

Pink Slip will be on vacation for a few days, but will return to ring in the new year with a renewed eye to things related to business and the economy (however tangentially).

Sunday, December 24, 2006

All I Want for Christmas

I've blessedly gotten to that point in my life where there aren't a hell of a lot of things that I really want, or really need all that much. And there's nothing, really, that I can't take care of for myself. Sure, I like to give and receive presents as much as the next guy, but, in truth, I could pretty much live happily ever after without getting.

Some of this comes with age, of course. It is easier when I already have a lot of stuff. But I never had champagne tastes to begin with - other than for champagne, itself - which has made life so much simpler and easier than it could have been. Lucky me, that I don't want or need a fur coat. I don't want or need bling. I don't want or need to drive a Lexus.

All of this is a very good thing.

It's not that I don't help fuel our consumption-crazed economy. "Tis the season for gift buying, wine-drinking, and tree wrangling, and I do my share - including the nice new bathrobe and comfy new slippers I ordered for myself from LL Bean last month. And I'm sure that, after the first of the year, I'll finally break down and get an iPod. (Which I could really use, given that I make a business jaunt to Syracuse several times a year and the only viable way to get there is to drive. Since someone snapped my antenna off, and since I was too cheap to begin with the get a CD-player when I bought the car, and I'm sick of my worn out old tapes, an iPod will make a wonderful traveling companion.)

But mostly I don't want stuff.

For my family and friends (including all those wonderful former colleagues who became friends), I wish a happy and healthy new year. (And, yes, the "happy" can and should be their definition, not mine. If someone wants a Lexus, I hope they get one, as long as they can afford it....)

For my new friends in the blogosphere, I wish the same - plus many happy returns on their blogs. I'm a blogging newbie - only doin' it since September - but it's been a real pleasure so far. Especial best wishes to Mary Schmidt and Charlie Green, two bloggers par excellence whom I would not have met other than for blogging. I have a strong hunch that if we'd ever crossed work paths, we would have really enjoyed working together.

For the poor and homeless guests of St. Francis House, I wish a lot of new single room occupancy (SRO) housing in Boston this year, a mild (but not globally warmed) winter, and more opportunities to rebuild your lives. (For W, I wish sobriety. Please, W. I don't want to pick up the paper some morning and read that you've frozen to death during the night.)

For my clients, I wish them the best of luck with bringing their products to market, with focusing on what matters, with making their numbers, and with making their customers happy. (Hope I can be of help in making it happen.)

There are so many "big picture" things to wish for... Safe home to our military men and women. A way out of Iraq that doesn't leave Iraq and the U.S. worse off. A better understanding of who the terrorist enemy is and how to deal with them without bringing down so many innocent by standers.

How about a strong economy, but some serious discussion on the fragile and declining middle-class, which is so essential to the health of our nation. More political civility, starting with no pay-back on the part of the Democrats now that they're in charge. (While I'm at it, I'll throw in a prayer for Senator Johnson's swift recovery.)

Some progress toward dealing with our fragile and declining earth, starting with a recognition that global warming - whether it's "natural" or man-made - is for real. (Come on, if we saw a new ice age coming, wouldn't we be using our scientific and technological brilliance to keep those glaciers where they belong?)

Sometimes the tag-lines get it right:

How about "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men" (with the implicit Women and Children implied here).

Friday, December 22, 2006

Partridge in a Pear Tree Index

This has been out for a month now, but the topic is timely: the annual Twelve-Days-of-Christmas index. It's the brainchild of PNC, which has been tracking it since 1984.  (You should definitely check their site out: it's very well done and interesting, and includes among other goodies a ticker that shows the items/price increases streaming across the top. There's also a well-done downloadable flash piece.)

According to the PNC survey, the cost of buying everything mentioned in "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is $18,900, up 3.1 percent over last year's, which - as it has done historically - tracked the overall U.S. Consumer Price Index really well. It also maps the shift in the economy from goods to services.  When the index was introduced in 1984, the cost of goods dominated the market basket. Today, it's services.

Among survey highlights: the tight labor market translates into higher paychecks for ladies dancing, lord-a-leaping, drummers drumming, and pipers piping.

Maids-milking, however, suffer the general fate of the unskilled. Minimum wages haven't budged in nearly 10 years.

For other items:

The Partridge’s home saw the greatest increase of all the items in the index, as Pear Tree prices increased 44 percent from last year.

“Robust commercial construction is sparking landscapers’ demand for ornamental trees, such as the species of pear used in the survey,” said [Jeff] Kleintop [PNC's Chief Invesment Strategist].

True Loves will find no increase in the cost of Partridges and most other birds this year as the cost of fuel to ship them leveled off, according to The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. The exceptions were birds purchased at retail stores.

Like many of the birds, the price for Gold Rings was flat compared to last year, even though the price of the raw material—gold—rose significantly.

“A slowing residential real estate market is making people feel less wealthy this year and is dulling demand for luxury items, like Gold Rings,” said Kleintop. “Investors have been buying gold as an inflation hedge and prices per ounce remain much higher than last year. This may put pressure on profit margins at retail jewelers, who have not been able to pass along the increased cost to consumers.”

Also of note: if you order over the Internet, it's gonna cost you. When you factor in shipping costs, you're paying more. But there is the convenience factor to consider.

If you really want to go for broke, and not just buy all the items, but buy them the number of times they're mentioned if someone actually makes it all the way through all the repetitions of the verses (i.e., buys 12 partridges/pear trees, 2 x 11 turtledoves, 3 x 10 French hens.....), it would set you back $75K.

(What I couldn't find on their site was how their index tracked when adjusted for "real terms".  It may be there, but I didn't see it. This is just a quibble. PNC has done a great job - their index is fun, eye-opening, and - from a marketing perspective - is a great attention getter that also speaks brilliantly to what they do: the PNC Group that does the 12 Days Index is their Wealth Management Group.)

Personally, I'm happy that I'm not in line for a "12 Days" package from my true love. I enjoy birds at a distance (in the sky), but I'm not all that fond of having birds indoors (caged or uncaged). I'm a city girl, so I don't know what I'd do with the geese-a-laying (or where I'd put the minimum-wage maids-a-milking). There's no room in my condo for lords to leap or ladies to dance. A little piping and a little drumming go a long way, and, like most everything in the song, are better suited to the great outdoors than to downtown condo living. Come spring, there'll be 2 swans a swimming in the Public Garden, which is just across the street. We don't need seven of them (and if you count the Swan Boats, there may be seven swans there, anyway).

Five golden rings, however...Not that I'd actually wear them. I'm more or less a one-ring kind of gal. But they're small. They'd be easy to tuck into my jewelry box. They are noiseless and odorless. Five golden rings. And, as it turns out, there's been zero golden ring inflation over the last year (if you buy the rings in a store). If you go online, there was some inflation, but the rings are one of the few items that cost less to begin with. Even with overnight shipping, the golden rings would be a bargain.

There's still time to order. Operators, no doubt, are standing by.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Little Pony (on Steroids)

 There was a terrific article by Neil Swidey in the Boston Sunday Globe on Hasbro's development and introduction of a new animatronic pony that whinnies, shakes its head, and chomps on a carrot - and only costs $300.

Forget the obscene price point, and the insidious marketing aimed at little girls 4-8.

The story about the 3-year effort to bring the product from sketch to prime positioning at Wal-Mark and Target (admittedly, at the big box stores, ol' Butterscotch retails for less than the sticker price) is completely fascinating. For someone who's spent her entire career in B2B software and tech services, well, just the notion of all the expense, risk, and complexity that goes into developing a manufactured product for the fickle kid consumer market is mind boggling.

But when I saw the picture of a little girl feeding a fake carrot to this quasi life-sized toy, I couldn't help but shudder.

This may be a toy that a little girl would crave and whine for, but it's not something that she's going to snuggle up with. And since it already does so much, there's that much that's no longer left to the child's precious imagination, other than imaginary horse poops.

Compare and contrast Butterscotch the pony to Sniffy the mutt, a long-lived survivor of my own childhood.

Sniffy couldn't do much, and was only about 9" long, and - I just put him on the postage scale - weighing in at 3.5 ounces -  but he was, along with my imaginary friends Dooley and Allagy, a boon companion until I learned to read.

Sniffy might not have had any animatronic powers, but that just meant that there was nothing that could break. He could do whatever I wanted him to do, and I didn't ever have to worry about his forgetting how. For the record, Sniffy could growl, bite, talk, talk-back, mock, laugh, double as a pony (with my tiny-little Ginette doll on his back), jump, sing, sniff, and fly.  Unlike the rigid Butterscotch, Sniffy was cuddly. And he was small enough to discretely tuck under the pillow for a little extra companionship long after I discovered that a book and a flashlight made wonderful bedtime friends. 

Sniffy is pretty ratty looking now, and I don't pay him much attention. His "fur" is matted and worn through to the "skin" in many places. His stuffing was long ago replaced by my mother with cut up nylon stockings. His shoe-button eyes are long gone, too, as are the non-shoe button eyes my mother sewed on in their place.  Yet he is still, quite remarkably, here after all these years.

Long decades out, I wonder how many of these $300 ponies are still going to be in the lives of their little owners.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"I'll Have a Blue-hoo-hoo-hoo Christmas..."

I'll admit right upfront: I have purchased dyed carnations. I had a reasonable excuse. I couldn't find shamrocks. It was for St. Patrick's Day. The carnations were green.

I assume that the dyed carnations felt no pain, no assault to their dignity. Still, I felt that they were just a tad unseemly, as if poor little innocent white carnations were being poisoned by being stuck in buckets of coloring to get a dye transfusion up through their stems.

So I was more than a little pained to hear a story on NPR the other day on the relatively new holiday practice of painting poinsettias.

I haven't actually seen any of these travesties, but there are apparently plenty of places that sell them. Purple. Green. Orange. Shocking pink. Bright blue.

Talk about crimes against nature.

Here's an excerpt from story by Andrew Phelps of KPBS in San Diego. "Ecke" is Paul Ecke III, a major California poinsettia grower.

Growers are increasingly ordering white poinsettias so they can spray paint them in colors nature never imagined. Sales of Ecke's white plants have jumped 10 percent a year since 2003. Nurseries and big-box stores sell these novelties for higher prices. Now more homes and hotel lobbies pop, with electric-blue and purple plants. Some are sprinkled with glitter or artificial snow. It's a jolt to the industry of Ecke's grandfather.

Ecke: There are those poinsettia purists out there that think painting is, you know, just not right. I might have started out being one of those people. But I've converted to loving anything that consumers love.

Woman: I think they're horrible.

That's one of the purists.

Woman: They go against God. To me they're, just, they're not authentic. It's just a false deal.

She won’t give her name because she sells the painted plants at a big home-and-garden store,

I'm with the nameless woman. I may not be one of the world's leading traditionalist, but isn't red, and its little friends white and pink, enough colors for poinsettias to come in. Red = Christmas. Blue doesn't. In fact, I distinctly remember - at age 5 - reporting my cousin Ellen to her mom, my Aunt Mary, when Ellen had the indecency to color Santa Claus' hat blue. Everybody knows Santa's hat is red. Same goes for poinsettias.

Not content to just imagine what these painted poinsettias, I found some pictures on the Possum Run Greenhouse site. (I just grabbed the j-pegs and took a pass on signing up for the Possum Tails e-newsletter. I don't want to know what else they're up to there. I can just imagine orange and black poinsettias for Halloween, pink and purple for Easter...)

It's not like blue isn't my favorite color. The best birthday party I went to as a kid was Maggie Shephard - blue frosting (which my mother didn't approve of) and blue-dyed ginger-ale (which my mother didn't approve of, either). But do we really need a business that deals in grotesquely painted poinsettias? Sometimes are brilliant, infinite economy is just a bit too infinite for its own good.

Maybe it's just the association with the song Blue Christmas. Maybe it's that I've always found blue Christmas lights depressing. Might as well go home and put the Kenny G Christmas album on to finish the whole tableau off in style.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Spitting Distance

I've seen some pretty lousy work behavior over the years - tantrums, rages, snottiness, threats, cruelties petty and large - but by and large, in my experience, people have tended to conduct themselves pretty well when it comes to physical assaults in the high-tech workplace.

Sure, there was the passive-agressive young woman who got caught by her boss on an aggressive day. When he asked her whether anything was bothering her, she answered, "Why do ask?" Then she flexed her fingers, got up on her tippy-toes, and slowly carved 10 top-to-bottom claw marks in his door. Perfect execution - she didn't even break a nail. The claw marks were so deep she must have sharpened her talons for the occasion.

Then there was the guy who got ticked off that we'd gone ahead and made a hire that he had some doubts about. He punched a deep hole in the wall, nearly breaking his hand in the process. We had to move a poster to cover up the hole before the new employee started. We didn't want him asking any questions about what had happened.

Another time, my team was finishing up a planning session with a customer who had recommended another company's system over ours. He was overruled, and was none-too-happy about having to suck it up and work for his second (or maybe we we his third) choice. When a junior person on my team who was the project manager took out her yellow pad and sweetly said, "Let's summarize the next steps," we were all more than a bit shocked when our less-than-satisfied customer grabbed the pad, tore off the top sheet, and hurled it at Susan.

Still, petty squabbling, politicking, backbiting, snide comments, treachery, intrigue, and out and out meanness aside, my work place has been largely free of physical violence.

Of course, I would expect to have had a different experience if, say, I'd work in the National Football League rather than in high tech. But even among those rough and tumble guys, there's a Code of Conduct, and apparently the number one item in is a 'no spitting' rule.

At least that's what I understand to be the case now that the Cowboys' bad boy, Terrell Owens, has spit in the face of the Falcon's DeAngelo Hall. According to Hall, "That's the No. 1 thing in the National Football League. You don't spit in another grown man's face."

With all truly terrible things that can happen to you during a football game, both the clean and "legal" hits, and all of those penalities for illegal dirty plays - headbutting, late hits, neck tackles, piling on - I wouldn't think that spitting would be that big a deal.

As it turns out, a follow up article on this not only announced that TO has been fined $35K for his offense, which given his salary really isn't worth spit, but also listed a number of other times when NFL players have been fined for spitting at an opponent.

Every workgroup has a code of conduct whether it's written down somewhere or not. I've just not been aware of any with an explicit or implicit guideline on spitting in an other grown man's face.

(There was, however, that time when I worked at Wang Labs when, on the staircase, I found a major lugie that someone had hawked up...)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Needle in a Haystack

There's been a little buzz the last few weeks about systems that help drivers find a place to park.For anyone who's been met with the "Lot Full" sign, it certainly sounds like a good idea. And there are worse things than being turned away by "Lot Full": I pulled into a parking garage in Lowell, Massachusetts, a couple of years ago and slipped into a slowing moving stream of cars looking for non-existent spaces. After hunting for 20 or so minutes, I drove out in frustration. At least they didn't have the nerve to try to charge me for my time served.

Trawling around for info on these parking systems brought me to ISpot, a local (Cambridge) company that has a pretty good idea - "iSpot technology provides a vision-based monitoring infrastructure to allow for real-time situation analysis and escalation", which translates into "cameras" - about finding the needle of a parking space in the haystack of a mall, stadium, or airport parking facility. It's not clear if they're getting any traction - the web-site looks untouched since a burst of publicity in 2005.

But the other local hot-shot parking finder, the one more recently in the news, is an eCommerce hustle called SpotScout with a tag-line - parking the mobile generation - that I think precludes me, even though I'm a parking-hungry urbanite. And two nifty approaches: SpotScout - Find Parking Before You Get There, and SpotCast - Cash in Your Unused Parking Space.

The premise is that garages, parking lots, and those with private parking lost can make information on available space (and spot-pricing - gotta love the free market) available to those who subscribe to SpotScout, who can then reserve the space. SpotScout gets a cut of the transaction.

That seems straightforward enough.

But it could get certainly get exceedingly ugly when the SpotCasters start casting their eyes on public, on-street spaces. They don't have all the details yet available on their site, and they've got all kinds of caveats there, but here's how OnStreet SpotCasting would work, in their words:

Mary Jones can sell the information of the time of her departure and the exact location to an incoming driver. NOTE: She is not selling the space, but information ONLY.

Right. I'm the incoming driver who paid for the information ONLY and I show up at Mary Jones space, only to find another incoming driver, say Maureen Rogers of the non-mobile generation, who has, with her very own eyes, spotted Mary Jones getting into her car and is sitting there with her flashers on waiting for Mary Jones to drive off. Mary Jones, of course, wants to wait there for the incoming driver who is paying for the information ONLY, but who really believes he's paid for the spot, to show up. Because, of course, the information is ONLY as good as its ability to yield a real parking space. What Mary Jones and the incoming driver have failed to count on is the dogged determination of Maureen Rogers of the non-mobile generation to wait it out. Mary's got to leave sometime. Or the incoming driver has to give up and find his own spot.

Sure, the incoming driver can come back and key Maureen Rogers' car later. Or find a free space in front of or behind it and ram her car bumpers so that they're even lumpier than they are already from all these years of street parking. But how many times are people going to pay for this scenario?

A few weeks ago, I saw a woman standing in parking place on Beacon Street, trying to hold a metered parking space for someone who wasn't quite there yet. As the driver she was not holding the space for tried to back in, it turned into a game of chicken between the driver and the place-holder. Or maybe it was more like a cock-fight, with passers-by forming a crowd evenly divided between those yelling at the placeholding woman and those screaming at the driver. My contribution to world peace that day was to point out that there was an open space three cars up.

Imagine if the woman standing in the space was Mary Jones, who'd just sold the information. And that the guy backing in was Maureen Rogers of the non-mobile generation. And the generation-m driver who'd purchased the info from Mary Jones showed up...

This one certainly could have gotten ugly.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Listening Up: Red Sox Response on the Virtual Waiting Room

Even though it's the address on my blog profile, I don't always remember to check my g-mail account. Today, I looked in and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a note from Red Sox VP Charles Steinberg, responding to my recent post on my less-than-successful attempts to purchase Red Sox tickets online last weekend.

The proof, of course, will be if the Red Sox are able to make the online purchase process work more smoothly. I recognize that this may not be easy, given that demand outstrips supply - a situation that could only be remedied in one of two ways: build a new stadium (which, sentimental fool that I am, I'm not a huge proponent of), or field a really rotten team (which, for obvious reasons wouldn't be all that enjoyable for the fans). Frankly, given that this is such a seller's market, I'm impressed that the Red Sox brass responded to what one disgruntled fan had to say.

Here's the note I received - and keep reading - there's a Blackberry response from Larry Lucchino in there. In any business, I find it impressive when the top dogs get involved at this level. So I'll doff my (Red Sox) cap to them.

And, while I can't be bought off, I'd really love 6 (or 4, even) for Patriots' Day. (Yankees games make me just too crazy.)

Here's Charles Steinberg's note:

Hi Maureen,
I read with interest and alarm your vivid account of the ticket-purchasing process. I sent it to two of my ticket-related colleagues whose consciences I trust. I also sent it to Larry Lucchino, who, though the public may not know this side of him, is fanatical about seeking systems to improve the fan experience.

Below you see his response to my sending your blog.

I don't know the solutions yet, but please know that from the head of the organization on down, your words are read and heeded.

Thanks so much,
Charles Steinberg

-----Original Message-----
From: Lucchino, Larry
Sent: Monday, December 11, 2006 5:48 PM
To: Steinberg, Charles
Subject: Re: Google Alert - red sox

Get back to her please and tell her we are determined to make. It better
Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Device

-----Original Message-----

From: Steinberg, Charles <>
Kennedy, Sam <> Bumgarner, Ron
Mon Dec 11 12:06:02 2006
Subject: FW: Google Alert - red sox
I know we have answers, explanations, and limits, but we must understand the path of the experience that this writer has published for the world to read....

The Red Sox Virtual Waiting Room
By Maureen Rogers
On Saturday, Red Sox tickets for some April-May games, and a few packages, became available on-line. As I did last year, I logged on and took my place in the virtual waiting room. Mostly I spent my two hours staring at the virtual head ...

Tag, You're It.

.Well, I guess that 3 months into my life as a blogger, I've really become on now that Mary Schmidt - who in the weird and wacky way that the blogosphere works, has become a friend - has tagged me.

Rather than redefine tagging, I'll borrow from my friend, colleague, and multi-blogger extraordinaire John Whiteside (who was also tagged by Mary). John is someone I actually know from the real world. So yesterday, so yesterday. Here's how John explains tagging:

In case you're not aware of this phenomenon: tagging is one of the ways that bloggers keep themselves amused. It works like this: you compose a post according to a formula (what are the last five songs you listened to? what's your favorite book? etc.) and then "tag" other bloggers to do the same thing. And they tag more bloggers, and so on. Kind of like a chain letter, but fun.)

Mary's tag invites us to reveal "5 things you don't know about me." Since this is a hybrid kinda blog - business cake and personal frosting - I'm going to do 5 work-related things, and 5 personal things.

Work Stuff:

  1. I once negotiated a VP title and 25% raise on the basis of tips picked up from reading a book called How Men Think by Adrienne Mendell. (An oldie, but still available on Amazon.) In it, she explains that men are less likely to admit to areas of weakness or uncertainty than women, and that this can translate into viewing women as less competent, etc. Until I read that book, I always thought that admitting your weakness was a sign of strength. Silly me. Overcoming that quaint notion for purposes of negotiation was worth a lot of money to me over the years.
  2. When I was a waitress at Durgin-Park in Boston, I learned the trick of carrying 8-10 cups of coffee in my hands and on my wrists. I am out of practice, but I could show you this trick. However, I would only do it if the cups were full of cold water. No scalding coffee. (Once burned....)
  3. My ideal job would be philanthropist. I can think of nothing that would be more satisfying than helping non-profit organizations in human services, the arts, and the environment. I would love to read grant proposals and bestow funds. Turning proposals down would be difficult, but I could do it. Yes, philanthropy would have been fun. Too bad I wasn't born wealthy. I haven't achieved wealth. And I've pretty much given up on waiting for wealth to be thrust upon me. (Apologies to Mr. Shakespeare here.)
  4. I worked for many years at a small software company - many rides on that roller-coaster before it came to a screeching halt that gave me and everybody else there whiplash. Anyway, after blowing a lot of investment money, we became clean and sober, and prided ourselves on attaining regular quarterly profitability (however mingy the profit was). One quarter, we had a verbal agreement from a customer, and a promise to send us the paperwork by the end of the quarter, but they didn't fax the paperwork to us until the first day of the next quarter. Their $100K order was the difference between profit and loss. We weren't public. Nobody cared except us. It didn't really matter, except for our own pride...The sales guy called the client to tell them what we were doing, and they didn't care, so I whited out the date, wrote in the day before, and re-faxed it so it looked like we got the order in time. (Will I end up doing time with Jeff Skilling, who began his sentence today?)
  5. When I worked at Genuity, I went into the ladies' room one afternoon and found a small turd on the floor in the stall. I was going to call the cleaning crew, but then realized that would be ridiculous, so I grabbed some t.p., picked it up, and flushed it. Afterwards, I wondered whether it was an omen....

Personal stuff:

  1. This should come as scant surprise, now that I've confessed my willingness to pick up an unknown turd off the floor, but I don't bother with the 10 second rule. If food falls on the floor or ground, I'm generally OK with picking it up and popping it in my mouth. Exceptions are restrooms and subway stations, where I wouldn't be eating anyway. (I overcame fear of eating off the floor when I saw an Irish mother pick the binky (or dummy, as they'd say) that had dropped out of her infant's mouth onto the filthy floor of a boat in Donegal, pop it into her own mouth to suck of the grit, then stick it back in the baby's mouth.)
  2. My favorite shower songs are Different Drum, by Linda Rondstadt, and The Crystals He's a Rebel. Those detecting a pattern here are probably correct.
  3. I am, for the most part a complete, unmitigated reading snob, but whenever I'm on the road, I pick up People Magazine. (Now that I'm not doing much business travel, I sometimes buy it at home.) Other schlocky things I like are the movie White Christmas. (I know all the words to all the songs: Sisters; Snow, Snow, Snow; even the terrible number Choreography.). My husband and I watch this movie every Christmas season; we'll probably watch it this weekend. We own a copy. I also own a copy of Now, Voyager, with Bette Davis, which is one of the most preposterous, corny movies known to (wo)man.
  4. When I went to Confession for the second time, I confessed to the priest that I had committed a mortal sin because I had bitten my fingernails, swallowed, and gone right ahead and received Holy Communion, anyway. (This was when you had to fast for 3 hours before receiving Communion.) Msgr. Lynch told me that I was being ridiculous, and not to bother him with such nonsense. This was completely at odds with what we'd been taught. The nuns always told us that if you thought something was a mortal sin, and you went ahead and did it anyway, it was a mortal sin whether it was technically a mortal sin or not. In any case, this was the last completely honest Confession that I made. I went every two weeks, on Friday, with everyone else in my class, and confessed the same sins every week: disobey father -talkback to mother -fight with sister. I stopped going to Confession when I was in high school and started to have something that approached a real sin.
  5. As far as I remember, I've never passed a chain letter or chain e-mail on. And I may not be able to pass this one on, either. I don't know all that many people who blog. I know Mary and John, and they're taken. The people I link to on this blog mostly have business-y blogs. I like their blogs (mostly: sometimes a couple of them annoy me). I've had e-mail exchanges with a few of the bloggers I link to here. Some have commented on my blog. I've commented on theirs. But they seem to be more full of purpose. Serious. They don't seem to be as loosey-goosey as marketing people - or maybe it's just that they don't seem to take off on a tangent as frequently as we do. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I should tag a couple of them. In fact there are a couple that I have in mind, even if I don't know about asking virtual strangers. Some people don't believe it, but I'm a Myers-Briggs "I" (Introvert).

One who I will tag: my friend and colleague, Sean, who, with John W is part of Opinionated Marketers. I would tag my friend Ken, who has a personal blog, but I can't find his url, which I thought was in my favorites, but isn't.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Silly String - Practice, not Theory

If I'd given a nano-second of thought to Silly String at all, I would have lumped it in with all those other useless products that are ceaselessly developed and churned out to fuel the insatiable consumer maw of the American economy. I'll do a round-up of my favorites at some other point, and I feel a special post coming on about the GPS parking-space locator that I read about over the weekend.  Silly String by no means stands alone. And it probably wouldn't even make it to the pantheon of useless-inventions-that-have-become-big-products.

And if I'd given Silly String another nano-second of thought, I would have compared it unfavorably (from a grown-ups perspective) to the Silly Putty of my childhood. Silly Putty: creativity-inspiring, lasts forever-never runs out. Silly String: used as a weapon, leaves unpleasant, lurid-colored goop that has to be cleaned up, built-in-obsolescence-in-a-can. (Of course, from a kid's perspective, Silly String is infinitely superior for the exact same reasons why I find it annoying and uninspiring.)

Then I read the AP story about how Silly String is being put into practice in Iraq, used to find the trip wires that trigger bombs.

Before entering a building, troops squirt the plastic goo, which can shoot strands about 10 to 12 feet, across the room. If it falls to the ground, no trip wires. If it hangs in the air, they know they have a problem. The wires are otherwise nearly invisible.

A New Jersey mother with a son in Iraq was tipped off about this, and she's organized a Silly String airlift. 

This was just one of the "boots on the ground" innovations that the article also mentioned, including using a tampon to stuff a bullet hole, and putting condoms over rifle muzzles to keep the sand out.(This battle-field improv is nothing new, of course. I read a book about WWII that partially attributed Allied victory over German to the tinkering and ingenuity of rank-and-file GI problem solvers. I can't recall all of their work-arounds, but one was something ingenious they did to cut through the hedgerows in Normandy.)

 Whatever your feeling is on the war in Iraq - bad idea, bungled from the outset, get out now; OK idea, botched operation, get out soon; brilliant idea, we're winning, stay the course - there is, in general, genuine sympathy with/concern for the troops - it's good to know that some lives will be saved by something as silly a Silly String.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Fun in the Office!

Today's post by Lewis Green over on Marketing Profs is an open letter to some lunkhead who's suing America West for firing him for violating corporate policies on sexual harassment and using company property inappropriately. You never know how these things turn out, but this one sounds like a slam-dunk against the ex-employee. Let's face it, if you want to send your buddies porn-style pictures of women in see-through bikinis, you should do it on your own PC, under your personal e-mail address, over your own connection. And you should keep in mind that your buddies might not like getting this kind of mail at work, so you need to send it to their personal address, too.

Lewis' post did jog my memory of another not-so-clear-cut case of "sexual harassment" I was dragged into at one point.  As this is the time of the year it occurred, here goes.

I wanted to take my team out to lunch to thank them for all their efforts during the year, and to celebrate the holidays. I suggested that, rather than doing a grab, we all bring in a couple of books that we'd liked, put them on the table, and people could take turns picking a "new book" for themselves. I thought this would be interesting, fun, and no pressure.....Hah.

At this point in team history, there was a lone male in the group. One of the books that Larry brought in was a gynecology textbook that had been his wife's in nursing school. Ho, ho. We all groaned and said, "Laaaaar-ee," but someone took it as her choice.

While I was driving her home from the restaurant, a young woman in the group told me that she'd been a little offended by Larry's book. I asked her if she wanted me to say anything to him, and she told me not to bother. Case closed. Or so I thought.

A month or so later, I got a call from an EEOC operative (a.k.a., the sexual harassment police) in the company, telling me that she was investigating a complaint. She couldn't tell me who the complainant was, but I could guess. 

As I found out later from a friend in HR, the young woman who had complained had - weeks after the fact - been down in HR bitching to a friend of hers in HR about how much she made relative to Larry, whose salary she had somehow divined.  (That he was in a more senior position, and had 10 years more experience didn't seem to factor into her thinking.) In the course of her rant, she mentioned the gyno-book incident.  Bing. Bing. Bing.  HR had to report it.

I strongly protested on Larry's behalf for a couple of reasons: The minor and innocuous nature of the "offense." The fact that Larry was a very sweet, sensitive guy who was not trying to be racy or sly, but in his goofy way trying to "fit in" with the women in the group by doing something clumsily "funny." But the real reason I protested was my 100% certainty that the complainant (who was still "anonymous") was motivated by her envy of Larry's salary and position. And by the fact that I was pretty sure that, if the book had been tossed in the heap by anyone other than Larry, she wouldn't have minded. Not that I'm a mind-reader, but this was the same woman who had told me that a senior executive in her prior company had told her an anti-Semitic joke about oral sex that she'd found just hilarious. Hmmmmm.  Gyno book in slightly poor taste vs. grossly offensive and inappropriate joke. You decide which one's worse. But only one managed to bother my little friend.

In any event, everyone on the team ended up being interviewed about "the incident," and Larry ended up with some kind of black-mark warning in his file.

In my heart of hearts, I know that the woman who ratted Larry out was more offended by Larry's very existence than she was by the book. But I also know that the workplace is an increasingly precarious place to navigate when it comes to what's appropriate (and what's funny) and what's not. As I often caution people: you can say something, anything, in front of the wrong person and get in hot water.  Or even have the wrong person overhear you. So best to err on the side of caution and check the questionable comments, jokes, and e-mails at the office door.

Let alone engage in the kind of e-mail low-jinks that are offensive to 99.99% of people in the workplace (and make that six-9's when it comes to women) that were engaged in by America West's favorite ex-employee.

And if there's an office grab or Yankee swap coming up in the next couple of weeks: if you've got an idea that you're even slightly dubious about, forget about it.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Red Sox Virtual Waiting Room

On Saturday, Red Sox tickets for some April-May games, and a few packages, became available on-line. As I did last year, I logged on and took my place in the virtual waiting room. Mostly I spent my two hours staring at the virtual head of a person standing virtually in front of me. I.e., I got to look at a message that read Please Be Advised that Patrons Are Selected from this Virtual Waiting Room on a Random Basis.

My number never came up, so I never actually got the pleasure of entering into the next phase of Red Sox ticket purchase. Last year, when I had more time to devote, I did manage to get randomly chosen a couple of times. All that did, however, was enable me to try for a game, only to find that there were no tickets available. Or one ticket only. Now, I've gone to games solo, but it was in the good old days when - at the last moment - you could find yourself with nothing to do, and no one to do it with, and just walk out to Fenway Park at game-time. I have no interest in planning 8 months ahead of time to go to a game by myself. That's no fun.

As for what was left for these games 24 hours after the tickets went on sale, here's yesterday's message:

The April & May games which went on sale yesterday have very limited availability - only scattered single seats, obstructed view grandstand and/or standing room tickets remain.

Single seat obstructed view? Great. A crappy seat and no one to complain to about it.

Last year, once I cleared the virtual waiting room, I'd try for a game. I was smart enough not to go for a game that a lot of people might be vying for: Yankees, last game of the season, White Sox, Mets - anything that looked like a hot ticket. No, I was after Kansas City and Tampa Bay games, middle of the week, middle of the season, who cares? kind of games. Still no luck. But the worst thing about trying to get tickets was that once you failed to close on the game you'd said you were interested in, you were tossed back into the virtual waiting room for another virtual wait. I sat there fuming that there was no "find me the best tickets you've got against the worst teams" option. Or even "worst tickets for the worst teams."

I came up empty.

This year, I didn't even get that far.

And if I had managed to score a ticket, the Red Sox were going to levy a $4 per ticket "convenience fee." Whose convenience might that be? It's presumably cheaper to sell tickets online than it is to pay for ticket sellers. And just how convenient is it when the system isn't smart enough to find you an alternative if the game you're looking for is sold out? (Maybe it was different in this respect this year; I'm going by what happened last year.)

I suppose that if I want to get any tickets, any game, I'll have to go out to the Box Office in person. At least I live nearby - a half-hour's walk on a nice day (and since we don't seem to be getting much winter this year, the day probably will be nice). Or I can go online to the legal scalpers and pay an amount that will let the $4 convenience fee look like chump change. Or go on game-day and pay an illegal scalper whatever the market's bearing at that point.

It's hard not to succumb to nostalgia for the good old days of Red Sox fandom, but I'm really not going to. They've been much more fun to watch in the last few years than they've been at pretty much anytime during my long history as a member of Red Sox Nation. Sure, there were exceptions during that time, but they've had a pretty good run since the turn of the century.

It's just that I've been a Red Sox fan for such a long time, I feel that I deserve to score tickets. Maybe even sit in an old-timers virtual waiting room.

Just how long have I been with the Red Sox? A lot longer than Theo Epstein's been alive. And long enough to not only remember when Ted Williams' head was attached to his body, but to have seen him hit a home-run in his last season. (July 1960, Red Sox beat the Indian 6-4. We sat in the bleachers. You could look it up - the score, not whether or not we sat in the bleachers. Of course we did.) And as an old-timer, I wish that getting a ticket weren't the equivalent of gearing up for the Oklahoma Land Rush or the Running of the Bulls. Okay, in the Virtual Waiting Room you don't get trampled, but that's about the only positive I can think of about it.

And it gets even worse: a few minutes after I drafted this post, I checked my e-mail. More good news from the Red Sox: they'd put more tickets on sale. I read this e-mail in virtual real-time - nano-seconds after it had been sent. Still, on click through, I found myself yet again in the Virtual Waiting Room. Arggggghhhhh!

All I can say is this is some business they've got there. Where else can you make your customers push and shove each other for the chance to leap over higher and higher hurdles just to make a purchase - when you have no idea whatsoever whether the product this year is going to be any good.

Looks like another season in front of the TV coming up.

Friday, December 08, 2006

All Worked Up

The other day, I blogged on Bob Sutton's forthcoming The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. In my post, I identified the four most common categories I'd run into in the course of my career:

  • Occasional Offenders
  • Credit Grabbers (inverse: Blame Gamers)
  • Weaklings
  • Charismatic Assholes (CA's)

In my book, the worst are the CA's, and here are a couple of encounters with CA's that I got pretty worked up over in the course of my career. Here are a couple of stories - real stories but fake names, based of course of some of the more florid names in the business news in the last few years. (Apologies - for the most part - to anyone I worked with who actually has one of these names.)

"Dennis": The picture in his office said it all. A blown up photo of Dennis hurling his year old son into the air. The camera has perfectly captured the look of sheer terror on junior's face as he starts his descent from 12 feet up - and the look of pure confidence, the exuberant smile that Dennis is wearing on his.

For a couple of years, Dennis played this game with the small, quirky software company that he led along with Bernie his co-CA. At quarter's end, we'd be running out of money, looking at a payroll we couldn't make, and figuring out what bills we could dodge. Then Dennis would fly off to somewhere, find an investor to suck in, and we'd be saved for yet another day.

I had the cat-bird seat for all this, because my job for quite a while was to write the business plans and presos Dennis used to get the money.

Dennis was never actually a mean CA - at least never to me - and you can certainly argue that those of us who worked there (and those who invested) were willing dupes caught up in the excitement and dazzling promise that our technology held. This was the 1980's and we were going to be "The Next Billion Dollar Software Company." Not quite: the company lasted almost 20 years and at its peak of legitimate revenue (i.e., revenue that came from selling products rather than from selling investors) I don't think we ever climbed above $10 million. So we were off by an order of magnitude or two.

Not surprisingly, the magic eventually wore off, Dennis ran out of suckers in his Rolodex, and we had to lay some people off. Dennis needed to fax the lay-off list to someone, and asked his admin to do it for him. I have seldom seen anyone as distraught in the workplace as Ella when she glanced at the list - handed to her without a cover sheet - and found her name on it. No, this wasn't deliberate cruelty, just an incredibly callous oversight.

Dennis's lack of awareness really shone through a few months later. Our investors, finally fed up with the money pit we'd become, started talking about bringing in a turnaround guy.

When Dennis relayed this news to our head of HR, he told her, "Liz, I really think they're trying to screw us." A rationale person might have had a different reaction to who was the screwer and who the screwee.

"Bernie: Sometimes he was co-Chairman, sometimes CEO, sometimes president - but Bernie was for a long time a co-CA of "The Next Billion Dollar Company (TNBDSC)." It is hard to describe what an entertaining and seductive individual Bernie was. Charming, affable, funny, and extremely brilliant, he could not only paint the future and our place in it, he was right up there with Bill Gates in his ability to attract unbelievably talented techies. The technology created at TNBDSC was bleeding edge - just dazzling. (That we could never properly find a home for it in the "real world" was another story.) When you were in Bernie's graces, well, 'Top of the World, Ma." You were really important to him. You, too, were charming, affable, funny, and extremely brilliant. But cross Bernie, disagree with Bernie, look cross-eyed at Bernie on the wrong day of the week. Look out.

At one point while I was on the TNBCD rollercoaster, I reported to Bernie. One day I was sitting in Bernie's office, along with a peer of mine, Martha. In the middle of a conversation that had nothing to do with the organization structure or who worked for whom , Bernie looked over at me and said, "You work for Martha now." Then went back to the non-related point he was making. No hint that this was coming, no foreshadowing, no talk about re-org.

Afterwards I let Bernie that this was a pretty shabby way to let me know I was being demoted. He just brushed me aside, smirked, said "I knew you wouldn't mind," and walked away.

Time and again, I had watched Bernie treat people like this and worse. I had heard him speak dismissively and cruelly about and towards people who were incredibly loyal to him, supporters of longstanding. Made no difference. Pushing back on Bernie or calling him - however neutrally and lightly - on his behavior, made little difference, other than to rile him up. If dagger looks could stab and kill....My big personal triumph was helping to extricate someone from a lay-off list who would have been completely devastated if she had lost her job working for him - even more distraught than Ella had been when Dennis had off'd her. If you were no longer useful to Bernie for whatever reason, that was it. If there were some whim or other that he wanted to follow, that was his reward for being the guy in charge.

Of course, what goes around, comes around....

A few weeks after Dennis got bounced by the new turnaround guy, Liz from HR and I were having lunch with Bernie.

"You're next," we told him.

"They wouldn't dare," he told us. "You girls just don't understand how business works. The turnaround guy is all holster, no gun." (This was because the turnaround guy was unfailingly, excruciatingly polite and well-mannered. Bernie read this as weakness. Hah!)

"But look how easily they got rid of Dennis," we said.

Bernie smirked again. "There's no way that the investors will pick him over me. I'm the founder, after all."

I believe those were the last words I heard Bernie utter as CEO of TNBDSC.

Jeff: Many years later, after I left TNBDSC, I joined what was to turn into one of the biggest financial fiascos of the era. At one point, the company brought its first outsider into its incredibly factionalized and political executive management team. Meet Jeff, our new Chief Marketing Officer.

If Dennis was a mostly unwitting asshole, and Bernie a deliberate one, Jeff was somewhat in between.

Like Dennis and Bernie, Jeff was charismatic, articulate, and made you feel like the most important person in the company - maybe even on earth - for that point in time. I will say that it was exciting working for him, and he had a passion for marketing that I believe was genuine, but may well have been part of the persona he'd cultivated.

One of the first things he did when he blew our way was decide that our business development guys didn't know how to "do a deal." This was because - once burned, errrrr, twice burned - they were now quite appropriately acting a bit shy around a partner deal that had all the elements of the two bad deals that we had struck - deals that were as close to a zero sum game as anything I've seen in business. Only worse. Multiply that big fat negative number by two.

But Jeff swanned his way in and announced, "I don't know why you haven't done a deal with XYZ. I told them that I'm going to show you how we do deals on the West Coast."

Well, it turned out that they do deals on the West Coast exactly the same way we do deals on the East Coast when we don't know what we're doing! The deal he signed, sealed, and smugly delivered for us was the one we had been rightfully resisting all along.

I ended up having a closer encounter with Jeff at his CA best. Without belaboring the details, he got himself involved in another little screw-up that got magnified all out of proportion, largely because he had created so many enemies among the other senior executives. (Antipathy towards Jeff was the one thing they all seemed united behind.) Anyway, no one could get a hold of Jeff, and our CEO asked the senior exec who'd been impacted by the screw-up to compose a note "clarifying" (i.e., spinning) the erroneous information that Jeff had made public, and which our sales guys were starting to get customer inquiries on. I was asked to help compose the note. I left Jeff a message about what I was doing and cc'd him on all the correspondence that related to this task. The note to the field was completely innocuous, and gave everyone cover without implying for one minute that anyone had done anything wrong.

Well, apparently someone had dones something terribly wrong, and that someones was me.

At 7 a.m. on a Friday morning, I read an e-mail from Jeff - written at 1 a.m. on the vaunted West Coast clock - railing against me for "sneaking around behind my back, consorting with one of my peers, and setting company policy, which is my prerogative as CMO of this organization." The e-mail rambled on for a while, making a really out-there claim about something Jeff somehow believed he had ordered me to do, and ended with "I consider this a very serious matter. Call me at 8 a.m. sharp my time. Again, I consider this an exceedingly serious matter."

My first reaction was, 'This asshole's going to fire me.' (My second was to ask two VP friends to go with me to the president and CEO if, indeed, I got fired. I wasn't going to go down easily on this one.)

I took the hours I had between reading the e-mail and the witching hour of our phone call to compose a message to Jeff, in which I outlined step by step what had happened during the "incident"; pointing out that he'd been informed every step of the way; and refuting the preposterous claim he had made. My note to Jeff was a model of composure, clarity, and calm. (Naturally, I had to write more than one draft.)

At 8 a.m. West Coast I nervously dialed Jeff's number. Only to get his voice-mail. I left a cordial message, noting that he might want to read my e-mail response to him before we spoke.

Which we never actually did that day.

Five hours after he stood me up on our phone date, he left me a message apologizing for his e-mail, telling me he'd been under a lot of stress, was tired when he sent it, etc.

Well, a few weeks later, Jeff was gone with the wind. (His tenure as CMO lasted all of 4 months. Someone in my group won the office pool on his departure date. I went way over: I'd given Jeff 6 months.)

When he left, Jeff sent me a nice little note telling me how much he'd enjoyed working with me, how lucky the company was to have someone like me, blah-di-blah-blah, and apologizing "if he'd ever done anything to hurt my feelings."

Hurt my feelings? No. Royally pissed me off? Yes.

I've run into Jeff a couple of times since "then." Our encounters have been enjoyable enough - he's a smart, interesting guy. I put him in the middlin' CA category - not without some guile, but not a deliberate, intentional asshole.

Not that I'll ever work with or for any of these guys again, but there's one thing I'm sure of: I'll never get worked up - or worked over - by them again.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why I'm Glad Manny Doesn't Report to Me

One of the great pleasures of being a Red Sox fan is that there's really no off-season. There are just months when there are games played, and months when there are no games played. (Well, no games on the field, that is.)

Right now we are in yet another "what to do about Manny Ramirez" period, in which the Red Sox do or don't try to trade their talented but erratic left-fielder, and in which Manny does or doesn't want to stay in Boston (which we can only guess at: Manny doesn't seem to be talking).

When Manny's being (good) Manny, he is tremendously enjoyable to watch. Some of my favorite Fenway moments have been watching him launch a couple of dingers into and over the Green Monster seats.

But when Manny's being (bad) Manny, it's demoralizing for his teammates, for the club, and for the fans.

For those who don't follow the Red Sox and/or the Manny saga, the Red Sox nosedived (nosedove?) mid-way through last season and never recovered. The nosedive was not Manny's fault. It was caused by a combination of factors (most prominently the injury to catcher Jason Varitek that proved just how valuable he is). But in September, when it was at least theoretically possible that the Red Sox could have made a run for it, Manny checked out. Physical health. Mental health. Sheer, jack-ass behavior. Whatever was driving it, Manny did not do what we expect of "our" athletes: that they'll try for two, climb the wall to make a catch, talk it up to keep hope alive. That they'll stay in the game.

The claims Manny makes on his website (which does not appear to have been updated since last spring) come across as false advertising:
Welcome to my Official Website, Manny, a place I have set aside to honor my diehard Red Sox fans, and baseball fans in general. ..Playing baseball is a job that gives you a lot of fame. But I don't play for fame. I will always do my best, because I love the game.
"Love the game and you will triumph." Manny, Manny, Manny, would that it were so!

But as I watch the latest chapter in the Book of Manny unfold, I have to think about how god-awful it would be to have someone like Manny reporting to you.
  • Everybody knows what he makes: I once worked for a guy who very wisely said that you should pay people as if everyone knows what everyone else makes. And, in truth, most people have a way of knowing what their peers and managers make: people blab, etc. (I worked in one company where a guy in finance left a paper that listed everyone's salary on a table in an open, common area. I found it there while working late and I swear, I only looked for a moment - or two - before slipping it under his door.) But there's knowing and there's knowing: ballplayers' salaries are public information, so when Manny phones it in, his teammates, management, and fans are big-time aware that he's getting paid an awful lot to do an awful little. This has got to be supremely demoralizing for his teammates, in particular for those who play with force, energy, and enthusiasm. (Sure, maybe some of these guys need to hustle more because they're not as talented or "valuable" as Manny, but it has to get people down when the highest paid team member doesn't live up to his end of the bargain.)

    Plus in real life, even if someone makes more, they don't make that much more. For any given position, you're not apt to be that far off plus-or-minus $10 or $20K. In baseball, the difference between what gets paid at the low-end and what the stars command is colossal - and, in any given season, may have nothing whatsoever to do with performance or contribution.

    So I'm glad that Manny doesn't work for me.

  • He makes a lot more than his manager: I have, in fact, had people on my team who got paid a higher salary than I did. They made more because they were worth more to the company because of their expertise in a particular area or their special knowledge. This is not a bad thing. And, for me, it always worked out that these folks were super at their jobs, and there was never any question about what they were doing or how. What a headache when someone in your group's completely doggin' it and they make tons more than you do, to boot!

    So I'm glad that Manny doesn't work for me.

  • He's got a contract: In real life, when an employee starts acting up/acting out, there are a lot of ways you can deal with it. If it's a one shot event, you can cut someone some slack until they get back with the program. If it's ongoing, you can put them on a plan. Or pray that they quit. Or fire them. Or chicken out, avoid any confrontation, and wait for a lay-off to get rid of them. (I've been in high tech: there are always lay-offs to wait for.)

    So I'm glad that Manny doesn't work for me.

  • You can't talk to your fellow managers about him: As if the whole system doesn't hamstring you enough to begin with, if you really need and want to make a trade, the last thing you want to do is make your "personnel problems" known. Instead, you want to keep making him look as good as possible, so that if you do find a team to deal him to, you get the best value in return.

    In real life, your fellow managers don't play for opposing teams. If you have trusted advisors among them, you can ask for advice on how to deal with your problem child. (And if there's no way to deal with the problem child, you can always complain about him or her.)

    So I'm glad that Manny doesn't work for me.

  • He makes you look and feel like an incompetent: The real key to looking like a good manager is to have good people working under you. For the most part, during my managerial career, I've had excellent people on my teams. But until I finally learned that avoidance is not a good way to deal with problem employees, I did have a few real beauts who made me feel like the least competent manager on the face of the earth.

    So I'm glad that Manny doesn't work for me.
In any case, Manny Ramirez is not my problem. If, come April, he's still playing for Boston, I will cheer him on. I will even chuckle a bit when we get a little Manny being Manny - the "fun stuff" like going behind the Green Monster score board to visit or use the toilet.

But these days, I'm sure glad that Manny Ramirez doesn't report to me.

Real Fake

I live in the same block as the bar/restaurant that inspired the TV series Cheers. I rarely go there, but the other evening we had an out-of-town friend who "kinda" wanted to see it and we obliged. Here's a howler I found on their menu: "Please Visit the Authentic Replica of the Cheers Hollywood Set in Faneuil Hall Marketplace."  Don't know where to begin except by asking just what an "authentic replica" is that a "replica" isn't. And to offer that, before it was the Cheers Bar it was the Bull and Finch Pub, which didn't look all that much like the Cheers Bar (and the bartender didn't look like Sam Malone) which sort of makes the  Hollywood set a "fake replica" to begin with.

But the visit got me thinking of what this place was like in the years B.C. (Before Cheers).  There was a dart-throwers pub downstairs (where I rarely went); a very nice, very beautiful, very grownup piano bar on the second floor; and a middling-but-decent-and-quite-pretty restaurant above that. When Cheers madness was at its height, all of this was given over to pub-extensions and gift shops to cater to the masses who were continuously lined up outside.

I've noticed over the last few years that the Cheers crowds in general are diminishing - although not as rapidly as one would have suspected, given that the TV show's been off the prime-time air for years. Gradually, the place is being "restored" to what it was like in an earlier time. Last spring, I had a drink in the piano bar.  Not quite the same as it was in the day, but then again, I'm not the quite the girl I was either. As replicas go, it was pretty authentic. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Charlie on the MTA

Boston's rapid transportation system (a.k.a., "the T") is replacing its token system with smart cards. They've had swipe-cards in operation for years for monthly pass holders, but you've had to get a new pass each month - there was nothing smart about them. Now the T is slowly, agonizingly, putting a plastic-based system in place for occasional riders, and it will be based on smart-card technology in which you keep the same card and keep filling it up.

I am sure that from an operational standpoint, this not the simple switcheroo it was when the Mass turnpike implemented its transponder-based Fast Lane. While this is not a huge transit system by NYC or London standards, we're still talking about hundreds of cars, dozens of stations. Fare boxes. Card readers. Card dispensers. Human beings. Lots of moving pieces. 

I will concede: I'm no transpo expert. Yet it seems that every step of the way, their implementation has been riddled with confusion.

For starters, while they have understandably rolled it out in piecemeal fashion. Most large scale projects are staged to help work out kinks in the system, etc. But this rollout may have had a tad too many pieces. Here's my first experience: friends dropped me and my husband off at the Wonderland station in Revere.  This is one of the system's few stations where the trains are on the same level as the entrance. It's also a terminus station, so the trains sit there for a bit. Well, we saw a train sitting there and raced in, tokens in hand. Hold on: Wonderland had just turned into a Charlie Card* station, and they weren't being weak-kneed about it. No running in parallel, with an option of using a token or buying a Charlie Card. Get with the program! Charlie Card only!

With the most confusing card-dispenser known to man, this wasn't any good-time Charlie. With the help of a T employee, and considerable curbing, we were able to purchase Charlie Card tickets, but not without missing the train. (The driver just smirked as he closed the door in our faces.)

For over a year, the piecemeal implementation continued. For regular commuters, things may have worked out smoothly - they could keep using their normal T-passes. For us irregulars, it was a nightmare. You wouldn't know from one week to the next whether a station was going to accept tokens or require a Charlie Card ticket. I finally went into a station, at a time when I wasn't actually taking the T, and put $20 on a Charlie Card ticket. A lot of people resisted this approach, since the Charlie Card paper ticket was so flimsy that it was easy to "bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate" - or just plain throw out. (And throw out people do: stations were initially littered with them.)

Now it seems that as of January 1, the T is going to an all Charlie Card system - no more brass tokens. That's fine. It will eliminate a huge element of traveling guesswork . But in keeping with maximum confusion, all the time, here's my understanding of how this final transition will take place:

As of January 1, you'll need to use a paper Charlie Card ticket, or a plastic Charlie Card, which, unlike the paper Charlies is sturdy and reusable - and they claim, much speedier to use, since you just tap it on as opposed to swipe it through, or insert it in, the fare box. So far, so good. You can surrender your tokens and apply them toward a Charlie Card. So far, still good. But wait, I read that you can't transfer your unused paper Charlies toward a new plastic Charlie. Which would be fine if the fares weren't going to be higher for anyone who still uses the paper Charlie.  Plus paper Charlies can't transfer from subway to bus. Plastics can. (Huh?)

Six months hence, when we're all plastic Charlie-ing, I'm sure we'll forget all of this confusion. But for now, it's giving my brain a major Charlie horse.

Easy to be a second-guesser here, but here's what would I have done differently:

  • For the first week or so, I'd have run token boxes in parallel with Charlies, giving people time to get used to the system and purchase Charlies when they weren't in a rush.
  • I'd have given people more of a head's up on when "their" stations were going to be converted. Yes, you could see the new fare boxes lurking there ahead of time, but a clear notice of the "go live" date would have been helpful. If there were any, I didn't see them in the four stations I use most often.
  • I'd have gone straight to the plastic Charlie. Even if you still need to maintain a paper Charlie component for people who are only going ever take one ride, what we're facing now is massive confusion on the "paper or plastic" question

Too late for that, but here's what I'd do about what's likely to be the confuser-ama over the next couple of months.

  • Make paper Charlie's available in only a couple of clearly outlined "denominations": one ride (subway-only); round-trip (subway-only); one ride (subway-bus combo); round-trip (subway-bus combo).  Or make them good for "this day only".  This would help eliminate confusion between paper and plastic. It would be clear: paper Charlie = one trip (or round-trip); plastic Charlie = ride as long as you've got the money on it.
  • DO NOT PENALIZE PAPER CHARLIES with a higher fare. In no case should someone have to try to wrap their brain around why they can put $20 on a paper card and have it worth less than putting $20 on a plastic card.

Tomorrow I plan on getting myself one of the plastic Charlies.  Armed with a couple of tokens, $6.25 worth of paper Charlie, and my new plastic, I will be prepared for any eventuality.

*Readers of a certain age may recall a faux folk song, Charlie on the MTA, popularized by the Kingston Trio. The song's "hero" was the hapless, eponymous Charlie who got on the train, only to find that the fare had gone up and he couldn't get off the train. The refrain ran, And did he ever return? No he never returned. And his fate is still unlearned. He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston. He's the man who never returned.

With the confusion over the transition to Charlie Cards, I'm sure there'll be more than a few occasional riders who, like Charlie, will never return - at least not for a good long while.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Charlie Green, at Trusted Advisor, had a good post yesterday on the "trust factor" between doctors and pharmaceutical sales people.  His post was prompted by Pfizer's decision to make deep sales force cuts.  He attributes the necessity for these cuts to the fact that many/most doctors don't trust the pharmaceutical sales reps because they're all about the sale, and not about "doing the right thing."  Over time, this has backfired into lower revenues.

Rep sales forces, through an array of complex short-term measurements tied to incentive schemes, and deep behavioral training on how to maximize seller impact at the transaction level, have come to be managed as engines of revenue to the sellers, rather than trusted advisors to the physicians.

The result, paradoxically, is lower revenue.

It’s always that way when the paradox is violated. If you want to sell, stop trying to sell. If you want to make money, stop trying to make money. If you drop those as overt objectives at the transactional level, and instead focus on serving the true needs and wants of your clients at the relationship level, you will—paradoxically—end up selling a lot, and making a lot of money. But only if you don’t set out to do so.

Profit is a byproduct of great customer focus—not the purpose itself. If you subordinate focus to profit, you get neither. The physicians know this, and have voted.

Of course, it's note just a matter of trust in the pharma world. I've spent most of my career in "enterprise technology" (software and/or services), generally working with premium priced products.  And generally the premium price was a reflection of our over-engineered products (that went far beyond what the bulk of the market could afford or use) and/or an out of whack cost structure that required us to overprice our products.

The result was we had to overmarket and oversell. Come the end of the quarter, we'd be pressing prospects to sign, convincing them that someday, somehow, they'd need what our product offered when the best piece of advice we could have offered them was to buy from a lower-priced, generally lower-featured (but frankly not always!) competitor.

Since we were not malicious or evil people, we always spent the rest of our relationship with the oversold customer providing them with costly services (consulting and support) to get the product to work better, to make it easier, to hole their hand, to do their work for them.... Last quarter's triumphant sale turned into ongoing costs that contributed to our out of whack costs, that contributed to our having to charge higher prices than everyone else.....("There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.") We also ended up with some brutally unhappy customers, when we could have had happy non-customers who would keep us in mind in the future, provide word of mouth references, etc.

Needless to say, these companies have gone by the wayside. But the lesson is there: if you're not doing the right thing by your prospects - and sometimes that means walking away - you're not doing the right thing by your company, either. Even though the big sale may look really good at the time, if it's not right it will backfire on you.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Pahk the Kah-ching

Last week, the Boston Globe reported the sale of a $250K (outdoor) parking place in the Back Bay section of the city. Talk about Pahk the Kah-ching!. The average for an outdoor space in the downtown area is only $92K. (As we say in Boston, a bah-gin.) If the new parking space owners had been willing to walk about 2-3 minutes, they'd have been able to get an indoor space for only $200K in the Brimmer Street Garage. And if they were willing to take a five minute stroll through the prettiest city park in the country (Boston Public Garden), they could have parked for about $350/month in the Boston Common Garage. Even the lamest investor could squeeze enough return out of $200K, let alone $250K, to cover this fee. I guess that proximity is everything in life.

I can certainly sympathize. Having a car but no parking place in the city is one big howling pain in the butt. When I was a regular commuter, I parked in the Common Garage, which has a nifty overnight and weekend package that when last I checked was going for $110/month. The garage is clean and well lit and, except for the rare mugging, pretty darn safe. Once I wisely stopped commuting, but unwisely decided to hang on to my car, I dropped my parking pass. Now, whenever I venture out, I spend the ride home dreading the search for a place to park. I've been known to spend a half and hour or more getting into a real tight space because the rule is you never pass an empty space, however puny, because it might well be the last one on earth.

Parking of course gets worse in winter, when few people bother to fully shovel out a space they're going to give up. A complete parking nightmare.

So I can sympathize with the desire to have a guaranteed parking space close at hand. But I just can't fathom the big payout for a space of one's own when there are decent monthly rentals around that may be slightly more inconvenient, but make a whole lot more economic sense.

And here's the real interesting little part about unsheltered street parking that I'm sure the $250K parking place behind 31-33 Commonwealth Avenue will run into at some point. In winter, a car with a recently turned off, still warm engine, is what you might call an attractive nuisance. The BMW, Hummer, Lexus, or Mercedes that's parking in the $250K space may well have an engine that serves as a picnic table for rats.

Yes, rats.

A couple of years ago I lifted up the hood of my Beetle to add some windshield wiper fluid. On top of the engine I found chicken bones, pineapple, and frozen fruit cake. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened - truly, my first thought was that someone had popped the hood and held some kind of voodoo service on my engine. Then I noticed the rat scat. Just lovely. (Blessings on my brother-in-law, John, who cleaned it up for me.)

It hasn't happened again since, maybe because I avoid the location where "it" happened. But I know that there are still parts of the neighborhoood where the parking is in an active rat-picnic zone. I was talking with my next door neighbor just this week, and her husband recently found a giant crab shell - among other treats - under their hood. It's not just Beacon Hill and Back Bay. A former colleague of mine had a rat tenant-at-will when parking down by the waterfront.

Good luck to the folks who spent all that dough for outdoor parking in an alley behind Comm Ave. I'd love to see the look on their faces when they pop the hood and find the crust of a Figs pizza and a grapefruit rind.

Friday, December 01, 2006

.....Building a Civilized Workplace

Bob Sutton has an open call for "stories about workplace assholes," and I will be pulling together a few for him. This is all part of the groundwork he's laying for the forthcoming publication (early 2007?) of his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. (To anyone who's offended by the word: It's certainly a word that I have used in "real life", but I would not tend to use on my blog. And you can argue with the notion that calling someone an asshole might not be the way to build a "civilized workplace." But even those loathe to use words like this have to concede that there is really no substitute: there's just no getting around the fact that there are many occasions when the epithet fits. Based on title alone, there no doubt that the book will provoke a lot of conversation. Too bad Bob's missing the Christmas season: gag gift, stocking stuffer, Yankee Swap...)

Anyway, I've been reading Bob's blog, and a number of the workplace asshole stories he's cited seem to be about people with what I would characterize as a personality disorder - completely and consistently inappropriate anger, scorn, belittling behavior. (Either that, or it's a weird delusion that this is how people are supposed to act if they want to show who's in charge.) Fortunately, I haven't run into many of the real psychos. But I've had plenty of experience with sporadic but regular assholish-ness. In my experience they tend to fall into one of four categories: the occasional asshole (which Bob talks about), the credit grabber, the weakling, and the charismatic. I won't go into the occasional offender. Let's face it. Most of us are, if not guilty of it, are at least capable of committing ad hoc asshole behavior. Some of us can repress it more readily than others, but who hasn't wanted to give in to the odd rant, rage, putdown, or sneer? As for regular repeat offenders:

The credit grabber is obviously obvious. There are two flavors: the out and out thief who siezes your work or the work of a team and presents it as their own. And the passive credit grabber who lets everyone think they were responsible for something, and lets the kudos and thanks just wash over them, without acknowledging that the credit should be spread. I'm not talking about Academy Awards obligatory recognition lists, or asking for false modesty. (The flip side of credit-grabbing is accountability-dodging, of course. The people tend to be one and the same, although somewhat more people are dodgers than are grabbers.)

The weakling is the one who, when cornered, throws someone who works for them under the bus. Tough question comes their way in a meeting, a teensy-tiny bit of criticism. Bang, zoom: Bob did it. Patty's fault. To some extent, this is OK in one on one (or very small group) situations/conversations. Not ideal, maybe, but generally excusable where everyone knows the players and circumstances, people are speaking in confidence, etc. But in a large meeting, group forum. Talk about asshole! If as a manager you can't stand a little heat, you're in the wrong position. If someone gets on you about something, the correct response is something neutral and mealy-mouthed. "Sorry to hear about that, I wasn't aware that my team had completely undermined everything you're trying to do, and will likely be responsible for the company going out of business. I'll look into it and get back to you." The correct response is not to say, "Bob screwed that up. Don't worry, I'm going to demote him so he won't be in a position to do something like that ever again." (Which actually happened in one place I worked.)

In my experience, the charismatic asshole (CA) is the worst. They tend to be in senior positions, and tend to be pretty darn seductive: smart, charming, capable on occasion of making you feel like you, too, are smart and charming and the most important person they've been with THE WHOLE ENTIRE DAY. Some of the most interesting people I've worked for have been CA's. Even though I didn't trust any of them, I was still on occasion sucked in to their orb by sheer magnetic force. Unfortunately, for those CAs who were actualy running the companies, the overall results speak loud and clear: none of my big CA-run companies exists anymore.

Over the next week or so, I'll be posting some of my workplace asshole stories, focusing on the CAs, and I'll be sharing them with Bob Suttton. Readers who want to contribute directly to Bob's cause, look here (as of this writing, the request for Workplace Stories is part way down the screen on the right side.)