31 August 2005

When is it okay to be angry?

Like many people I have struggled over many years to learn how to be a good manager. If you have ever managed a team, you know how hard it can be. One day, in a moment of sheer frustration, I asked a wise man “When is it okay to be angry?”

His answer: “When it’s about facts.”

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Are you one of us?

Pop quiz! Answer TRUE or FALSE to each of the questions below:

  1. You navigate. When confronted by a challenging, complex or confusing situation, you find a way. A brick wall doesn’t stop you because you have so many options: you can go over it, under it, around it or through it. And you do.

  2. You love puzzles. The questions that don’t have predefined answers are the ones you find most interesting. And you know that you can find the answer if you put your mind to it.

  3. You draw. You can’t explain a concept without scribbling. And you’re pretty damn good at it.

  4. You love language. You’d prefer a mosquito bite to a misspelled word or awkwardly constructed sentence.

  5. You edit. You won’t use two words when one will do.

  6. You love clarity.

  7. You love design. You breathe easier when there’s adequate white space. You care about typography. Your information hierarchies are clear and distinct. You expect good thinking to lie behind every design decision, and are vocal in your criticism when it doesn’t.

  8. You like working with people. You work not just for yourself but for a higher cause which serves others. You enjoy collaboration and working with a team.

  9. You need to be the best. Second place won’t do. You hold yourself to the highest standards, and you won’t play on a team that doesn’t share that drive.

  10. You take work home with you. You work on weekends, not because you have to but because you love what you do. Not everyone in your life understands.

If you can answer yes to all ten questions, you might be an XPLANER. We want to talk to you. Right now our creative team is desperately seeking illustrators, information designers, and concept developers/storyboard artists.

And if you know somebody who fits the mold (you know who they are!) please forward this to them. We are on a mission, and nothing but the best will do.

XPLANE conducts Visual Thinking School nearly every Thursday in our St. Louis-based headquarters. If you share our vision and are going to be in town, drop us a line or comment on this post. We’d love to have you join us.



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30 August 2005

Nobody looks at the org chart

The org chart is a useful tool: it’s a visual way to represent the chain of command and in large, complex organizations it can be helpful. The bigger the company, the more it can help you navigate.

But most of the time, nobody ever looks at it the org chart. When it comes to their daily lives, the org chart is irrelevant.

It’s the same with flow charts and process maps: they’re helpful to define things; as thinking and planning tools; but far too often, people try to use them to communicate.

Communication is a task for which many charts and process maps are woefully unsuited.

People don’t like to think of their role in the organization as a name in a box, lost in rows and columns of identical boxes. They don’t like to think of their jobs as diamonds, boxes, lines and arrows.

People think of their roles as important links in a chain that delivers value to customers. They think of their jobs as interactions between people that help drive that value: teamwork, decisions, action, results.

Org charts and process maps can be clear if people invest the time to read them, but most of the time they don’t, because the very format the information takes is dehumanizing.

Next time you want to convey a process, or discuss people’s roles and accountabilities, think about visualizing what’s really important to them instead of drawing boxes and lines. Your people will appreciate it, you’ll see more “light bulbs” go on, and in the end you’ll see better results.

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Master the art of asking

If you want to be an effective communicator, you need more than just communication skills: you need to have something meaningful to say. You can start by

1. Collecting good information, and

2. Taking the extra time and energy to make it relevant to others.

You can do both at once by learning to ask good questions. The benefit of collecting information this way is that you automatically get deeper context than you would ever get from other kinds of research; you learn what people really care about.

Questions can be broadly categorized into two types:

1. Open questions provoke dialogue. They begin with “What” “Who,” “Where,” “Why” or “How.” Open questions can never be answered “yes” or “no.” Examples:

How do you go about doing this today?”
What area do you see as needing the most improvement?”
Who will make the final decision?”
Where are the biggest problem areas?”
Why hasn’t this been done before?”

2. Closed questions confirm your understanding or seek commitment. They begin with do, so, is, are, if, can will, would, should, or could. Closed questions can only be answered “yes” or “no.”

Examples of closed questions that confirm understanding:
Do you find this acceptable?”
So you think the situation is deteriorating, is that right?”
Is this common?”
Are you saying that these kinds of initiatives have failed in the past?”

Examples of closed questions that seek a commitment:
If I guaranteed immediate delivery, would you buy today?”
Can you think of a reason not to do this?”
Will you decide by Tuesday?”
Would you like this today?”
Should we talk to your boss?”
Could we call him now?”

Ask good questions, for good reasons.

Adapted from Selling to the VP of NO by Dave Gray

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What color is your tone?

Tone is one of those interesting and ephemeral words that refer to sound, environment, voice, color and emotion, both in a tangible and literary sense. Something’s tone is what makes it unique or distinctive; it is a physically recognizable “something” that uniquely tags a person, place or thing:
  • Sound: The bell's tone announced the arrival of the Keaggy

  • Environment: The tone of the room changed noticeably as he entered

  • Voice: As he took the podium, his voice took on an anxious tone

  • Color: He looked up at the sky, which had assumed a torpid tone of gray

  • Emotion: The general tone was one of nervous energy

Let’s talk about your emotional tone for a second. Any time you interact with another person, whether it’s by phone, by email, in meetings or in person, it’s important to know: what color is your tone?

You could think of your tone as living somewhere on a color spectrum.

VIBGYOR is a way to remember the order of the color spectrum, which is important in this case (When I was in fifth grade, a science teacher named Mr. Holt (Wish I had a link, that guy was a character) helped me memorize the color spectrum using the acronymn VIBGYOR, which stands for Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red).

At one extreme end of the spectrum, which we could call deep purple, is low energy, where you will find a tone of isolation, which might be thoughtful and contemplative, or could also be sad and lonely. At the other end, which we could term hot red,you will find a high-energy, volatile tone, which could be either angry or highly creative.

How do you gauge the tone of a conversation? Trust your instincts. What is the other person’s facial expression or tone of voice? Note the surroundings. Are they appropriate, or conducive to what you want from the interaction? If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask.

Generally, good communication lives in the “middle tones” of green and yellow. Green is a color of nurturing and growth, and yellow is a color that denotes warmth, happiness and contentment. But more important than your tone is the rapport between you and the person you are communicating with.

If you are both red, you might find a highly productive and creative dynamic. Both blue? You might find it valuable to sit together, but work independently.

Start matching your tone to others’ and see how it changes the degree to which you can connect with others.

As always, I very much want to hear your thoughts – and especially the tone of your thoughts!

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29 August 2005

The leader's job

The most often forgotten part [of defining progress] is the daily guidance of a team. It’s the leader’s job to continually reflect back to individuals how their work fits into the goals. In every meeting, discussion and e-mail the leader must reinforce, remind, cajole, and motivate people’s work towards whatever the collective goals are, flagging work that is questionable and activities that are unnecessary.

From Work vs. progress by Scott Berkun, author of The Art of Project Management. Thanks to bblog for sharing.

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28 August 2005

The new PR

If you’re a communication professional, there’s no doubt that the media landscape is shifting under your feet – some would say it’s turning to quicksand, where no footing or approach feels secure. Are press releases dead? Will blogs soon replace them? For dialogue and debate on this and more, check out the New PR/Wiki.
It looks like a fantastic resource for executives, PR professionals, and anyone else who is interested in the points where business, new media and public discourse intersect
Here’s the site’s mission:
  • A repository of relevant information about how the PR practice is changing

  • A collaboration tool for PR professionals and people interested in the practice of public relations

  • An open space where anyone can ask questions, post ideas, or start a project
As always, I want your feedback to help me keep this blog useful and relevant. Please let me know what you think.

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27 August 2005

Paintings from my personal collection

Inspired by Flickr and the new Google sidebar, I decided to publish selections from my art collection. These are personal works of art; primarily still lives and landscapes, and this is the first time they have been published in any form. If you like the one above, you can see more here.

Also, if you download the new Google sidebar, you can get my artwork delivered directly to your desktop. Here’s how:
  1. Go to the options menu

  2. Click the tab marked “Photos online”

  3. In the “Add URL” field, paste the following link: http://www.flickr.com/services/feeds/photos_public.gne?id=38075047@N00&format=atom_03

  4. Click “Add URL”


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Google's master plan

“To some extent, Google is bringing back the architecture of the mainframe to render Microsoft obsolete. In the future, all computing devices, whether it be the PC, mobile phone, TV, etc., will simply be terminals that “plug-in” to Google’s massive server grid and application services.”

— By Robert Young, guest-posting on Om Malik’s Broadband Blog.

Read more about Google’s master plan to dominate your desktop.

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26 August 2005

Map shock

From my friend Cliff Atkinson, presentation expert and author of Beyond Bullet Points:

“Have you ever been so confused by the complexity of a map, chart or diagram, that you didn't know where to begin to make sense of it?

If so, you may be a victim of "map shock" or "visual shock", according to Donald F. Dansereau, Ph.D., of Texas Christian University. Don is Professor of Psychology and Senior Research Scientist in the Institute of Behavioral Research at TCU, and teaches graduate statistics and cognitive psychology.”

Read on in “Map shock.”

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How to handle an emotional conversation

How do you have a productive conversation with someone who is upset or otherwise emotional? Well, the short answer is: you don’t. But you can make the best of the situation and often turn it around if you can recognize the dynamics that are at work.

Emotional conversations don’t just bubble up out of nowhere. By the time someone has gotten to the point of having an emotional conversation with you, there is probably a history there, even if you are not aware of it. The history could take several forms:
  • It could be that they were talking to someone else in your organization and they just got “escalated” to you.

  • It could also be that you were not actively listening to them; that is, you may have been paying attention to their words but not their tone of voice or body language.

  • It could also be that you unintentionally (or intentionally!) triggered an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with you but could be buried deep in the other person’s psyche or emotional history.

If people worked like web browsers (thank god they don’t!) you could just check the “history” button or look at the log files and figure it out. Since people are biological beings (thank god they are!), you need to take a more biological approach.

It may have taken quite a while before their emotion reached the level that it is visible to you. The more controlled the person, the more startling it may be when they “burst out” at you. Warning: I am not a psychiatrist; my observations come from my practical experience running a business and managing people. That said, here are a few tips for getting through an emotional conversation:
  1. Don’t defend yourself. People who are emotional usually feel that their point of view is rational and justifiable, and you won’t get anywhere telling them otherwise.

  2. Verbally recognize the feelings at play. You don’t have to think the emotions are justified or find the conclusions logical. Simply try to confirm that you have recognized the proper emotion and let the person know that the emotion, at least, is legitimate. For example, “It sounds to me like you are feeling quite angry about this.”

  3. Try to understand and play back the “emotional history.” Ask questions to help you understand how the person got to this point. Usually this won’t be difficult because they are probably burning to tell you the story of how they were wounded or offended.

  4. Don’t feel that you need to solve the problem immediately. If you can solve the problem instantaneously, great. If you need time to think about it, or need to gather more information, tell the person that you understand the importance of the issue, and you need some time to think about it/get more information.

  5. Follow up. If you don’t solve the problem immediately, make a promise to follow up at a later time with resolution. Be specific, as in “I will get back to you by the end of the day.” Then be sure to make good on your promise.

  6. Above all, don’t get emotional yourself. If you find yourself going there, take a deep breath and remove yourself from the situation as diplomatically as you can.*

*There are some exceptions to this one. Sometimes a conversation that is emotional on both sides needs to continue, especially if it is with someone you know well. If you sense that you may be nearing an important emotional breakthrough, keep going and follow your instincts. Sometimes an emotional conversation is just what it takes to strengthen a meaningful bond between two people.

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"You're the one who's paranoid"

Here is an actual exchange of words I heard yesterday. It was so bizarre that it must be shared:

“You guys are so paranoid you take a simple question as an insult!”

“You’re the one who’s paranoid.”

“About what?”

“About us being paranoid.”

Can you unravel that one?

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The craftsman-to-manager paradox

Do any of these things sound familiar?

1) You do work that your employees should be doing because “It’s easier to do it myself than hand it off"?

2) You work long hours, getting in early and staying late

3) Your team lacks morale, or seems stressed out most of the time, or both!

You may be suffering from the craftsman-to-manager paradox. Here’s how it works:

If you are a craftsman, you were probably promoted because you are highly productive. Most likely you are productive for a few reasons:

  • You manage your time effectively

  • You require minimal supervision

  • You are reliable

  • You take pride in a job well done

Here’s the paradox: You meet the above criteria because you are a self-reliant perfectionist: your philosophy might be summarized as “Do it right the first time” and “If you want it done right, do it yourself.”

As you move into management, the very things that made you effective as a craftsman are now deadly threats to your success as a manager. Your independence and self-reliance, which was an asset, is now a liability.

As a manager you need to change your focus, from being productive to making other people productive, which requires a wholly new set of skills. You were promoted because of your skills, and now you need to stop using them and start transferring them to others.

And that’s the paradox: To be successful in your new role, you must turn your entire philosophy inside-out. You need to stop doing things and start managing things, which is counter-intuitive and takes a leap of faith. That’s right, a leap of faith.

Sounds like religion? You bet. It sounds like religion because it is religion. Here are the ten communication commandments for managers:

  1. Make your expectations crystal clear. Leave no room for interpretation. WHO will do WHAT by WHEN?

  2. Listen actively. What is the person saying? What is their tone of voice saying? What is their body language saying? Pay attention.

  3. Be observant and proactive. Watch what’s going on around you. MBWA (Manage by walking around). Learn to anticipate problems and address them before they are problems.

  4. Master the art of asking. Good questions help you diagnose root causes and understand underlying dynamics, so you can solve the problem instead of trying to fix a symptom.

  5. Teach. Every mistake is a learning opportunity. In fact, nearly every interaction you have with your team is a learning opportunity

  6. Delegate. Anything you do yourself is a wasted opportunity for someone on your team to learn something. Stay close to help if necessary, but only if they ask for it.

  7. Coach. Spend quality time with your high performers, making them better. It’s easy to forget this one and waste lots of time on the underperformers.

  8. Don’t avoid difficult conversations. As a manager it’s your job to initiate them when necessary. And never have difficult conversations by email; always do them face to face if possible, by phone if necessary.

  9. Learn how to be tough. If you’re going to set expectations, there need to be consequences if they are not met. Face it: If you’re going to be a manager you will have to fire someone sooner or later. It’s a true communication challenge and the toughest part of being a manager. When the time comes, just do it.

  10. Develop your farm teams. You’ll need a stable of people on deck, ready to come on board should you need them. Ongoing and proactive communication is key. Keep them warm.

Many thanks to Gorpik for translating this post into Spanish.

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25 August 2005

Why most business strategies fail

Many companies have brilliant strategies (some have a lot of them!), but most fail to execute them successfully. Why do brilliant strategies fail?

  1. The company bit off more than they could chew. Some strategies are simply beyond the company’s ability to execute. The company may not have the financial resources, or the right people with the right skills, to succeed.

  1. They can’t coordinate. Even if the resources and abilities are there, the strategy may fail because the company cannot successfully organize the activities of its people – think of an army with multiple divisions and columns. Each division may march and maneuver flawlessly, but if they are not aware of each other’s activities they will bump into each other and ultimately be unproductive. This is a communications breakdown – a failure to get the right information to the right place at the right time. One of the most fundamental military strategies is to disrupt the enemy’s ability to maneuver by disrupting their lines of communication. Many modern companies don’t need an enemy – their lines of communication break down all on their own, because traditional communication methods can’t handle the level of complexity that is required in the modern business world.

  1. Failure to effectively translate strategy into tactics. Even if the lines of communication are open and information flows freely, if the people who need to do the work fail to understand, the strategy will fail. Companies that do this successfully are exceedingly rare, and they tend to be phenomenally successful, even in difficult or troubled times. Examples are Dell, Southwest Airlines, and GE. One of the reasons these companies are successful is that they simplify their business strategy so that it can be clearly and easily shared with anyone in the company in a way that guides decisions about action. For example, Southwest is the only profitable airline, and it has been consistently profitable for 30 years, because the company is relentless in its focus, and because any Southwest employee, investor, or customer can tell you exactly what the company does and does not do, and why. This is because the company has made difficult strategic decisions, and honed the message over time so that everyone understands.

Bottom line: These strategies fail for one of two reasons:

  1. Executives failed to understand and fully confront their current business reality, or

  2. They failed to effectively communicate their strategy to the people who had to execute it.

Often, this type of failure is due to the differences in how executive and functional managers see the world.

Executive managers live in the world of strategy and leadership – the what and the why. Their job is to understand their business universe and make the decisions about what needs to be done, and make sure people understand why.

Functional managers live in the world of tactics and management – the how. They organize people and materials to get things done.

The frontline deals directly with customers. They do the work.

Customers ultimately decide whether the strategy succeeds or fails. If they pay for the work, it succeeds. If not, it fails.

Because each has a different perspective, they often tend to speak and understand things differently. When they fail to understand each others’ worlds, huge rifts or understanding gaps often emerge.

For example, if senior executives understand the business context but fail to understand how functional managers will organize to execute their plans (or even whether it is possible), functional managers will end up in a no-win situation, and end up frustrated and failing.

If functional managers understand how to execute but fail to understand the why of what they are doing – how it fits into an overall strategy – they may do the wrong things – and no matter how well they execute, if they miss the larger point the company will fail.

And if the frontline doesn’t understand the what, the why and the how, they will not do the right things, and customers won’t pay. At every stage of the process – from executive to functional management, from functional management to frontline, and from frontline to customers, effective communication – sent and received – is critical for successful execution.

The line: A direct line can be drawn from executive management through customers – the line of value creation. In business this is called THE LINE – and there is a big difference in the business world between line and staff employees. The concept started in the automotive business with the assembly line. Line people live and work on THE LINE – that is, they do the activities that directly cause cash to flow into the company. The people who support and advise the line are called staff. They do things like administration, human resources, marketing and finance: things that must be done but which customers will not pay for.

The field, as discussed earlier, is where all the action happens. THE FIELD is the place where the organization comes into direct contact with the customer. The frontline workers in THE FIELD, like you, have more impact on the success or failure of the business than anyone else. If they don’t do it, it doesn’t happen.

What can we do?
XPLANE’s core philosophy can be boiled down to one simple statement: If it can be drawn, it can be done – and if it can’t be drawn, it can’t be done. This simple idea came from a couple of insights about the act of drawing.

  1. Drawing makes abstract ideas concrete. You can’t draw a picture of a strategy, plan or process without asking some important and fundamental questions about how that strategy will be executed. Simple questions, like “Who will do that?” “How will they do it?” “Who else is involved?” “You’d be surprised how often these kinds of questions get overlooked in corporate boardrooms (or maybe you wouldn’t).

  2. You need to know what to draw. Before you can make a drawing, you need to know what to put in the picture and what to leave out. “What to draw?” is a creative question. It forces you to think about and focus on what is important, because it can only be answered by addressing specifics – the most important part of the decision “what to draw” is the decision “not to draw” everything else.

  3. You need to determine how to draw it. Once the decision about “what to draw” has been made, the analytical question that must be answered is “how to draw it.” This “how” decision is equally as important as the creative “what” decision. The same thing must often be drawn quite differently, depending on the audience. For example, if you decided the right “what” to draw was “how airplanes fly,” you would draw it differently for an airline pilot than you would for a child, because they will translate it into action in different ways.

The question “what to draw?” is strategic. It can only be answered with creativity and vision. Like a corporate strategy, it requires you to select one thing from millions of possibilities. The question “how to draw it?” is tactical, because it can only be answered when you understand specifically who will do the thing, and how it will be done.

At the end of the day, a picture – in a single page – can connect the strategic with the tactical in a way no other communication possibly can. It can clearly articulate who does what, with whom, and when, in order to turn the strategy into reality. And that is surely worth at least a thousand words.

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What’s the big deal about blogging, XML and RSS?

My friend Richard Black, Technology Strategist, answers that question eloquently in his email, below, which I share with his permission. I am sharing it for two reasons:

1) It was helpful to me, and could be helpful to others who are new to blogging, and:

2) When people ask you “What’s so great about blogging/RSS?” you can send them this link and save yourself the time and trouble of explaining it.

(I made minor edits to add emphasis, and “Americanized” the spelling)


Let me try to explain why I think RSS is so important (at the end of my story, I'll add why the BBC think it's important).

WARNING: I've told this story many times, but I've never written it down before. Welcome to my first draft.

I have a habit born from a fear. I feel uncomfortable operating, working, creating (maybe even living) without some assurance that I have some wisdom, some “anti-ignorance.” Some of my most spectacular learning opportunities (a.k.a. mistakes) were made whilst I was operating in complete ignorance. I wrote software without understanding the first thing about UNIX, I went bicycle racing without understanding about preparation, I went car racing without understanding technique, etc.

The web was made for me; a sort of modern replacement for spending hours in libraries figuring things out. At least that's how it seemed in mid-1990s. But the web rapidly became very very large. No longer could I read all the new web pages everyday. No longer could I even find all the new pages everyday. Actually, I started to have trouble finding anything on the web any more. And so, it seems, did a lot of people.

People like Dave Winer and Tim Berners-Lee recognized that the web could be improved with a simple but far reaching shift: namely, giving computers the ability to understand more about the information presented on web pages. Instead of just plain-old text, they introduced ‘smart text;’ XML-encoded text that computers understand.

So what? This turned out to be just about the smallest possible change that could produce the greatest possible effect. Maybe some of you have heard the butterfly-flaps-its-wings story from complexity science. In the space of about a year, the web has been transformed - mostly because of XML, specifically one type of XML called RSS.

What happened next?

  • Firstly: in a great many areas I'm interested in, people are aggregating and editing the ‘best of the web’ into wonderfully useful, cutting-edge sources of knowledge. My computer (well, my feed reader) automatically brings in all that is newly of interest to me (all the time). It surfs the web so I don't have to.

  • Thirdly: RSS and other forms of XML will soon ‘fix’ some huge knowledge management problems for corporations. Much corporate memory and knowledge is stored in plain-old text documents, which in turn are stored in shared (or unshared) directories. This way of storing knowledge is broken; the assets sit un-discoverable and un-read. Soon, documents will become XML-enabled, and the knowledge will become discoverable, and read.

  • Fourthly: Microsoft, Apple and others are building RSS and XML inside everything they're working on. This technology is about to become part of the everyday fabric of computing.

In short, this piece of technology has now passed the “go/no go” test for adoption. It has become so easy to use my Dad uses it.

And now, I'll let the BBC have their say on RSS:

What is RSS?

In a world heaving under the weight of billions of web pages, keeping up to date with the information you want can be a drag.

Wouldn’t it be better to have the latest news and features delivered directly to you, rather than clicking from site to site? Well now you can, thanks to a very clever service, RSS.

There is some discussion as to what RSS stands for, but the majority plump for ‘Really Simple Syndication.’ Put plainly, it allows you to identify the content you like and have it delivered directly to you.

It takes the hassle out of staying up-to-date, by showing you the very latest information that you are interested in.

Not all websites currently provide RSS, but it is growing rapidly in popularity and many others, including the Guardian, New York Times and CNN do provide it.

For more information, including details about:

Richard also shared another link with me: an article from the breaking point blog called Why we need RSS. This article made a business case for blogging, pointing out that while a small number of web surfers use RSS feeds, a high proportion of them are decision-makers, because of their need to aggregate information from a variety of sources.

Overall Richard’s summary was so compelling that I had to get started right away. I asked him: “What news reader did he prefer?” Here’s his reply:

Good question. I've tried a few, and these two are the ones that madeit into my daily routine:- Firefox with Sage extension. (you'll find Sage here -> http://sage.mozdev.org)/.- Google's new personalizable home page (http://www.google.com/ig).

Of course, being an “early majority” as opposed to an early adopter, I had to get a second opinion, so I asked my friend Evan Williams, CEO of Odeo, (formerly Google and founder of Blogger) for his opinion. Evan’s pithy response:

“i use bloglines. I like it ok.”

Now Evan is way ahead of me: he founded Blogger in 1999, and I am just getting serious about blogging now, in 2005. So generally speaking, Evan is at least six years ahead of me when it comes to technology adoption. Evan is into podcasting now; so I predict, if you are patient enough, you may see a podcast from me by about 2011.

So, if Evan says bloglines is ok I’d say it’s a good bet.

By the way, if you like audio, check out Josh Minton's one-minute-fifteen-second explanation of RSS.

Beginning late last night, I am experimenting with a combination of Google’s personalizable home page and bloglines. To complicate the matter, I just installed Google’s new sidebar which claims it will bring everything I care about directly to my desktop.

Not being an early adopter, I can’t tell you what the next big thing will be. But I can say this: When it comes to blogging, it’s not a fad: the train has left the station and it’s gaining speed.

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24 August 2005

How to win a deal after it's already been lost

Some of the best communicators I have ever met are salespeople. And one of the most interesting salespeople I have ever met is Tony Tyson.

Tony is in charge of “closed lost” analysis at a company that sells complex solutions in a crowded market. In a recent interview, Tony told me that he converts about 50 percent of the “closed lost” deals he investigates to “closed won” using the following approach.

You don’t have to be a salesperson to learn from Tony’s approach. It’s about optimism, persistence and a spirit of inquiry.

First principles:

  1. Rule number 1: You MUST believe in the product and believe you can win.

  2. Keep in mind that you have a fiduciary duty to both yourself and your company

  3. Keep your conversations “All about business”

Closed lost analysis

  • On your first call, say (Probably by voicemail initially)

  • I am working on improving our customer engagement process

  • I understand you recently decided not to work with us (or to go with another solution)

  • I want to understand how you arrived at your decision

  • Did you understand our solution fully?

  • I want to understand how my sales reps can improve

  • I would like to ask for 5 minutes of your time, to help me understand what happened.

  • I am not trying to change your mind, I just want to understand what happened.

  • In the live phone call, repeat the above, but you may want to explore the following:

  • Maybe the rep didn’t do a good job explaining our solution

  • Maybe there was something you missed

  • Continue to probe until you are satisfied. It doesn’t surprise me that Tony gets results with such a sincere and customer-oriented approach.

You don't need to take Tony's word for it either. Here's some proof that this works.

Here are some other gems from my interview with Tony:


  1. Set aside one day a week just for cold calls: Make 40 calls that day

  2. Knock on every appropriate door in your territory

  3. Being aggressive about internal resources is half the game

Dealing with prospects:

  • Nobody will give you a dime unless they have a problem that you can solve

  • Telling people they can save money is not a way to win. They need to see you as an investment

  • If they don’t see the problem, you have to show them. If they don’t see it after one sales call, move on

  • If you can solve a problem you should expect them to buy it

  • Once you have identified the problem, ask for commitment: “If we can meet your criteria, will you commit to buy our solution?”

  • Ask your prospect if they can make the decision.

  • If they say yes and you have doubts, ask: “Once you decide to proceed, what happens next?” If they say no, ask who can

  • If they say it’s a team, you are talking to the wrong person

  • People have to like you and feel comfortable dealing with you. They have to understand you’re not in it for yourself.

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Memo to the boss: Stop complicating everything!

Someone just posted this anonymously to my blog. If you are a manager, it’s worth your careful thought and consideration. You can bet money this person works for you:

“Making something overly complex is more frustrating than anything else I encounter at work. The utter failure of management to effectively communicate what they know with employees, before they need to field a question or issue about it.Instead of trying to simplify a process and help other employees be more productive, management (which often doesn't know what it's really like to do our jobs because they have never done it) likes to create untold permutations of rules and exceptions, leading to confusion when, ultimately, they encounter issues that don't fall within those rules and exceptions. This leads to "the exception that fits the rule".And they never communicate these types of things until long after you needed the information, and it's often in the form of an impersonal email with a cryptic subject line and terse, unclear wording, leading you to question it as well.”

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Next generation of real-time communication

Check out GoogleTalk, the next generation of instantaneous, real-time communication, combining chat, voice and email seamlessly on your desktop.

A great intro to it from my friend Jay Cross on his blog, Internet Time.

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Poor communications skills cost company $253 million

In last week’s high-profile Vioxx trial, Merck’s case was based on science. But in a short, one-hour deliberation, the jury dispensed with the science completely and based their judgment on other matters.

Why? The jury was befuddled by Merck’s scientific explanations. According to the Wall Street Journal,

‘Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their heads. “Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah,” said juror John Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown’s teacher makes in the television cartoon. “We didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.”’

The mighty Merck was humbled by Mark Lanier, an attorney who takes communication seriously. Among other things, he hired my friend Cliff Atkinson – author of Beyond Bullet Points, a book on how to improve your presentations – to help him design his closing argument. Here is Cliff’s take on the trial that took down Merck.

How many of your arguments “sail over people’s heads?” Let’s hope it never costs you $253 million.

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23 August 2005

Change your management default settings

Are you a manager? I have a few questions for you:
  • How many emails do you get in a day ?

  • How many decisions are required of you?

  • How often is your approval required, and for what?

Is the answer “Too many?” If so, I have a suggestion: Try re-setting your default from NO to GO. Approve the people, not the proposals. GO means trust. Change the dynamic from “approval required” to “approval assumed.” Expect a good rationale for any NO decision.

Set up a passive approval loop: Unless we hear back within 24 hours we will go ahead with this. Support your GObodies and fluster your NObodies. Institutionalize the GO dynamic.

Try it for a week and see what happens. What have you got to lose?

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Classrooms are passe

My friend Jay Cross is working on a book about “informal learning.”

His point is that most of the learning we do as adults is self-directed and happens outside the context of classes and classrooms. Nevertheless, companies spend most of their money on “formal learning” – Jay thinks if they spent more of this money enabling the informal learning process they would get more bang for their buck. I tend to agree.

Jay was recently rated the number 2 eLearning guru in America by Epic Group plc. He gave a presentation recently that I found fascinating. It takes 24 minutes to watch it but it’s completely worth it.

Jay is looking for case studies of how informal learning works in practice. If you have one I am sure he would love to hear from you.

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We need a P&L for communication effectiveness

We all know that measurement is important in business. We measure cycle times, revenue, profitability, and production.

By measuring something we begin to get a baseline, against which we can measure our improvement over time.

How do we measure communication effectiveness? I believe we need the equivalent of a “Balance Sheet” and “P&L” which will measure the effectiveness of a company’s communications. If you have ideas about this I would love to hear them.

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22 August 2005

Message to the CIO: Step up to the plate!

Complexity and confusion are overwhelming businesses everywhere. The bigger the company the bigger the problem. We are drowning in truckloads of data. It is supposed to be helpful but in fact it defeats its own purpose; information has become unwelcome: a cause of much pain and anxiety.

As Michael Doyle, a friend of mine, said to me recently:

“We’ve made vast improvements in the technology of communication, which now allow us to spread confusion faster and more effectively than ever before.”

Why is this happening?
The org chart is one problem. Communication is fragmented and disconnected in today’s organizations.
  • Training is held by HR.

  • Investor relations is the province of Corporate Communications.

  • Customer communications belong to Sales and Marketing.

  • The media and public probably belong to an outside agency.

  • Internal graphics teams belong to this or that department.

  • Relationships with sales channel and supply partners seem to fall through the cracks.

What happens when the ad agency makes a promise that HR can’t train people to deliver? Or when conflict arises between what investors and the public need to hear?

CIO, where are you?
We need you to help us communicate. Stop playing with technology! Stop accelerating our path to confusion and anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, the technology is great – I love it in fact – but our brains need to catch up with the potential. Our communication skills are still in the Neanderthal age.

Help us CIO, you are our only hope.
The CIO is the newest major role in the corporate world. Your title stands for Chief Information Officer. Your job is to turn data into knowledge, to help us find meaning and relevance from this chaos.

Someone needs to look across the organizational silos.

Someone needs to help us bridge the turf wars and territorial gaps.

Someone needs to help us be productive in the internet age.

Someone needs to tell the CEO, and the rest of the world, what being a CIO is really all about.

Someone must help us contextualize information, prioritize it, visualize our plans and mobilize them into action.

Someone needs to take on the true demons of the information age.

Step up to the plate, CIO. That someone is you.

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A group of one

My friend Richard Black, Technology Strategist, just recommended a series of articles about social groups that relate to my concept for a better kind of email. One of the articles which I found especially intruiguing is called A group is its own worst enemy by Clay Shirky. I’ll summarize the article, with some of my thoughts below.

The very cohesion of groups seems to be driven by a few simple dynamics, noted by W.R. Bion and captured in a book called Experiences in groups.

The dynamics Bion identified are:
  1. Sex talk

  2. Identify and vilicate external enemies

  3. Religious veneration; that is, worship of a religious idea or “text”

A compelling part of Shirky’s article is about the idea of “attack from within” as a key vulnerability that any group must recognize.

I immediately recognized the symptoms above – especially “attack from within” as closely related to the problems I have had trying to be more productive with email. Attack from within can take many forms: You can discuss an issue to death; stall an issue by stretching out the calendar or with a lengthy email trail; ignore an email, etc.

I found out at one time about an unwritten rule in my own organization: “If Dave asks you to do something, ignore it. When he asks you the third time, he really means it.”

You can imagine how frustrating this was for me and what a damper it put on my productivity.

Many people are working on group collaboration or communication tools.

This is great, but I like to think of my email as an individual productivity tool; one that leverages the power of groups.

My idea is that the individual makes the rules for their “group of one,” by which I mean, begin with the idea that the individual wants to be productive with his email; that he wants to generate meaningful results (whatever he means by that). Then, with the help of a “productivity system” he can categorize email responses by how much or little they help him achieve that end.

This is not only true for managers but for everyone who wants to increase productivity. Business life is made up of not only direct reports but promises, commitments, and requests; communication with suppliers, peers, internal and external customers.

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Clear away the fog of confusion

The business world suffers from an information glut. Information is everywhere, but so much of it is complex or unclear that it’s hard to know what anything means or why you should care. This is not only disconcerting, but confusing, frustrating and overwhelming.

This feeling – sometimes called information anxiety, information overload, or analysis paralysis – causes people to put off decisions so they have more time to think. Time drags out as they try to process information. It takes so long for them to find, understand and prioritize their options that business processes slow to a crawl. By the time anyone takes action, situations have turned into crises and stress levels are high – the worst possible environment for good decision-making.

A visual explanation is designed to clear away this fog of confusion by depicting complex information visually, in order to make it more clear, concise and concrete. This allows people to quickly grasp key issues and make faster, better decisions.

Click to see an example of a visual explanation.

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21 August 2005

Pictures vs. words

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Five dimensions of quality

At XPLANE we measure five dimensions of quality for any customer engagement. The dimensions include the quality of the output as well as the process:

  1. Visual look and feel: Is engaging? Does it command and hold attention?

  2. Information design: Are information hierarchies clear and distinct? Is it accessible, does it flow logically, and does it make sense?

  3. Story: Is the content engaging? Does it answer the question(s) likely to be posed by the reader?

  4. Text: Is it easy to read and grammatically correct?

  5. Change control: Did we effectively manage changes, versions and alterations throughout the work process?

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New PC

Just bought this online. I have read some of the reviews but never actually seen or touched one. Keeping my fingers crossed! It has gotten good reviews. Mossberg (Wall Street Journal) hates it, but he hates tablets in general. I will let you know how it works out.

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The Whykiki

The Whykiki is a simple but brilliant way to ensure you fully think through a project before you begin. Why is it called Whykiki? I used to know but I forgot. Ask Alberto Boin, the friend of mine who designed it. Here’s the template:

Title: What you want to do

What: What is it? What will the product be?

Why: Why do you want to do it? What’s wrong with things the way they are today, and what will be better tomorrow?

How: How will you do it?

Who: Who is involved? Who will do the work? Who will help? Who will benefit from it?

When: When will you begin? When will you be done? What are the significant milestones along the way?

How Much: What resources do you need?

Then What?

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Templates for more productive email

Here are some templates for the email tool I have talked about in previous posts. The idea is that we can increase our productivity by putting in place some standards for measuring communication effectiveness. I strongly believe email is the place to make it happen, and that email is long overdue for a redesign.

They are high-level at the moment. I would appreciate any thoughts or ideas you might have that could make them better.


Date and time of request: [Automatically generated]
Request number: [Automatically generated]
To: Name
Subject: Request: [What I want you to do] -- RSVP

Hi [Name],

Please [request].

Please respond with a yes or no by [Expiration date]

[YES]  [NO] [Please clarify] (html buttons)

If you need any more information please contact me at [Contact info].



Date and time of order: [Automatically generated]
Order number: [Automatically generated]
To: Name
Subject: Order: [What I want you to do] -- RSVP

Hi [Name],

Please [order].

Please respond with a yes or no by [Expiration date]

[YES]  [NO] [Please clarify] (html buttons)

If you need any more information please contact me at [Contact info].



Date and time of confirmation: [Automatically generated]
Confirmation number: [Automatically generated]
To: Name
Subject: Confirmation: [Item for confirmation] -- RSVP

Hi [Name],

This is to confirm that [Item to be confirmed].

Please reply to confirm the above by [Expiration date]

[Confirmed]  [Not confirmed] [I have a correction] (html buttons)

If this is unclear in any way please contact me at [Contact info].



Date and time of message: [Automatically generated]
Message number: [Automatically generated]
To: Name
Subject: FYI: [Information] -- RSVP

Hi [Name],

[Reason for sending information].


Please confirm that you have received and understood this by [Expiration date]

[Acknowledged]  [Please clarify] [I have a correction] (html buttons)

If this is unclear in any way please contact me at [Contact info].



Date and time of message: [Automatically generated]
Message number: [Automatically generated]
To: Name
Subject: FYI: [Information]

Hi [Name],

[Reason for sending the information].


If this is unclear in any way please contact me at [Contact info].


6. NO

Date and time of message: [Automatically generated]
Message number: [Based on incoming message]
To: Name
Subject: Declined: [Initial subject line]

Hi [Name],

In regard to your [Request, order, confirmation] (Below), I am declining for the following reason(s)

[Reason(s) for declining].

If this is unclear in any way please contact me at [Contact info].


[Initial email]


Date and time of message: [Automatically generated]
Message number: [Based on incoming message]
To: Name
Subject: Not confirmed: [Initial subject line]

Hi [Name],

In regard to your email (Below), I cannot confirm for the following reason(s)


If this is unclear in any way please contact me at [Contact info].


[Initial email]


Date and time of message: [Automatically generated]
Message number: [Based on incoming message]
To: Name
Subject: Request clarification: [Initial subject line]

Hi [Name],

In regard to your email (Below), can you please clarify the following?

[Information that needs clarification].

If this is unclear in any way please contact me at [Contact info].


[Initial email]


Date and time of message: [Automatically generated]
Message number: [Based on incoming message]
To: Name
Subject: Correction: [Initial subject line]

Hi [Name],

In regard to your email (Below), please allow me to clarify the following:


If this is unclear in any way please contact me at [Contact info].


[Initial email]

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Rules for communication

Here are some basic rules of communication that could improve communication flow in a business. Some of them are fundamental “rules of engagement” that could set the overall tone for a company. Others are specific concepts for categorizing and measuring communication flow.

The idea is that the link between communication and action can be measured and reported. We do this for financial and product flows: Why not do it for our communication?

These ideas map to my concept of a new kind of email tool. Part of the idea requires that the sender classify every message as one of the following types: Information, Request, Order or Confirmation.

Rule 1: IROC.
  • Classify all communications as one of the following:

  • Information: No reply required.

  • Request: Reply options are “Yes” or “No” (System asks “why?”). No response is considered “No”

  • Order: Reply options are “Accepted” or “Rejected” (System asks “why?”). System follows up aggressively when it gets no response.

  • Confirmation: Reply options are “Yes” and “No” (System asks “Why?)

Rule 2: Passive approval.
“Yes” is assumed for all intra-company requests unless you hear “no” within 48 hours. “No” requires a rationale.

Rule 3: Brevity.
Use short words. Use short sentences. Use short paragraphs. Be clear.

Rule 4: If it wasn’t said by email, it wasn’t said. “I told you on the phone last week,” “I told you in the hall” etc., are unacceptable.

If you have questions post them here – I will answer them.

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Book ideas

Here are a few book ideas. I already wrote the first one! Let me know which of the others you would be most likely to buy.

1. Selling to the VP of NO (Selling for technologists)
Six steps to get from “No” to “Go”

Meet the VP of No. He may be your boss, your prospect, or your lead investor. He’s a tough, hard nosed businessman, and whatever you’re selling, he’s not buying. He’s not even listening? Spend 15 minutes reading this short, visual book, and learn how to break through that tough exterior and turn the VP of No into the VP of GO!

2. Wi Fi
The future of mobility

The Wi Fi revolution is upon us. Unleashed from their tethers to phone and electrical jacks, the world is about to change forever for consumers and business people. How can your business take advantage of the opportunities and avoid the threats that will inevitably result? This short, visual book paints a concrete picture of the future, showing how consumers and businesses will interact in this new, mobile world.

3. Information security
How vulnerable is your network?

If your network touches the Internet, it is vulnerable. Hackers, criminals and terrorists are becoming more technologically sophisticated every day, and fraud is on the rise. Taken together, the cost is staggering and the potential dangers even worse. This short, visual book details the vulnerability points of a typical enterprise-level network and describes some of the strategies and technologies available to make your network safe and secure.

4. Greasing the gears of business
An executive guide to XML and Web Services

Every business is part of a network – a chain designed to deliver value to customers as efficiently as possible. XML and Web Services have a profound affect on your business ecosystem. Do you know what opportunities exist for your company? Are you aware of the risks? This short, visual book will help you understand XML and Web Services from a strategic perspective, so you can make more informed decisions.

5. The new supply chain
How the Electronic Product Code will change your supply chain landscape

In the near future, the famous UPC bar code will be replaced. Its successor is the EPC code – a radio frequency ID, or RFID, tag. These small, cheap tags, now in development, will change your entire supply chain landscape. As broad industry support grows around the EPC standard, are you ready? This short visual guide shows how the EPC code will affect consumer privacy, supply chain security, warehouse management and the retail and pharmaceutical industries.

6. The selling gauntlet

How do you get past the gatekeeper? Which customers should you cultivate, and which should you lose? How do you build a long-lasting relationship with a large enterprise? These questions and more are answered by this visually engaging book, a collection of best practices, tips and tricks compiled from the popular XPLANATiONs published in Selling Power magazine.

7. Selling to BigCo

Welcome to BigCo, land of the complex sale, where each meting could be your last. Each step in the sales process can move you forward – or torpedo your sale, for good. This short visual guide shows the most common pitfalls, and some strategies for avoiding them so you can make sure you are fully understood, and close that complex sale.

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Before you walk into a meeting, send an email or start a call, take a minute to think about what you want to achieve.

1. WHO are you talking to? This is the decider, your prospect, the person who, by direct action, can get you the result that you want.

2. What do you want that person to DO? This is your call to action – the single, specific action you want him to take.

Let me know what happens.

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What frustrates you?

People tend to be most motivated by the things they find most frustrating. What do you find most frustrating about your current work situation? Frustration can be a driving force toward personal growth and innovation. Areas which cause you the most frustration can be driving forces of change.

Action: Set a goal to change some aspect of your life that frustrates you.
What frustrates you? I want to know.

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Why is it so hard to sell new ideas?

Selling is the only way to quickly move people from indecision to action. It’s also one of the hardest things in the world to do well.

Why is selling so hard? Because at its heart, selling is about change, and most people don’t want to change. Change is difficult. It requires them to think, pulls them out of their routine, and forces them to learn new ways of doing things. Change is also a big risk. If you start doing things differently, how do you know it will work? What if it doesn’t?

People have lots of strategies for avoiding new ideas. They can be skeptical, dismissive, impatient, rude, inattentive, apathetic or disinterested. You might find it impossible to get an appointment, and even if you do, the most obvious and rational arguments may fail to convince them to act.

Deep down, people also know that change can be necessary, even inevitable. But because it makes them uncomfortable, most of them will put it off as long as possible.

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Email needs a redesign

Email today is being used in ways for which it was never intended. People use it for task management, workflow management and knowledge management, when it was intended simply as a messaging tool.

It is hard to manage people and tasks with email. Email just wasn’t designed for it – yet the technology is perfect for it.

It’s time for a new kind of email (or a plug-in) that allows the user to keep track of workflows, projects and tasks, and confirm that they have been completed. Such a system could also allow a user to categorize the people he/she communicates with according to their levels of productivity, enabling the user and anyone he/she communicates with to increase both individual and group productivity, and to ignore or isolate those who don’t make productive use of their communication.

This is an open offer to anyone out there with money or software development skills who wants to finance or build such a tool: I will help you design it. I am prepared to give generously of my time because:
  1. I am sick of business communication that does not generate results

  2. I am certain there is a better way

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