Friday, March 29, 2013

Much Ado About the Postal Service

I have relatives in the United States Postal Service (USPS), so I'm always kind of kept up-to-date on the goings on with the Post Office.

Here's my assessment of the current situation.  Let me know if I get any of this incorrect.  The USPS is looking at eliminating Saturday delivery.  This move is seen as required to keep the USPS afloat, as it will save them oodles of money in employee costs.  They have lots of expenses.  In what was kind of a pushy move by the Congress (seemingly to push toward privatization of delivery service), the USPS was required to pre-fund retirement for employees that haven't even been born yet, which has put undue stress on their books, making it look as if they're losing lots of money.

So this kinda stinks, because if that goes through, we won't get stuff on Saturdays, and people won't get their social security checks or health care bills on time.  And all for something they ostensibly shouldn't have been asked to do in the first place.

Combine that with the idea that this is one of the only Constitutionally-mentioned entities that Congress can establish.  It's established for the people and run under the executive branch, and it seems weird that anyone would be gung-ho about eliminating it.  It could be the profit motive from the competition, other delivery companies.

I'm not just going to leave it as my source that I have family in the USPS.  What really got me thinking about this recently was this awesome Stuff You Should Know podcast about how the USPS works.   They talk all about this pre-funding mandate and the original reason that the Post Office is mentioned in the US Constitution.

And that's what I'm really here to talk about.  See, I like to think about taking something that's established and pretending it doesn't exist.  Then I think about what would happen if it were created today.  So given the original Constitutional goals for the Post Office, what would the framers have wanted for the USPS if it were created today?

If you listen to that podcast (and all their other podcasts are great.  They make great commute-fodder) and check the Wikipedia article (not awesome sources, so if anyone wants to throw something I missed my way, I'd listen), they mention that the whole point of the Constitution giving Congress the power to establish and run a Post Office was that it would enable commerce.  That it would improve interstate communications.  And it would create a source of revenue for the early U.S.

So consider for a moment that at the time, there was no other way to really communicate.  The Constitution was set up to drive the economy by enabling communication and commerce.

I'm convinced that if the Postal Service today were re-conceived, it would be a telecommunications company.  That delivers packages maybe.  That's the only thing that would deliver the same economic impact and benefit that the Post Office delivered back in the 1700's would be a massive country-wide telecom company.

So then this came across the wire (and then the wireless) yesterday, and gob-smacked me.

That's right.  The current private infrastructure is so bad that we all cringe at this video.  South Korea has internet speeds much faster than ours.  South Korea?  Really?  This article offers the explanation that it's because in South Korea, competition is much more robust.

Because when I think capitalism and competition, I think South Korea, not the United States.

I'm not saying we should drop everything and reinvent the USPS as a massive telecommunications company.  I think we're too far away from that for it to become a reality.  But I really think there's something in the concept that the telecommunications infrastructure is a public good designed to facilitate commerce and communications between the states, and that the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted it so.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Relentlessly Market to Your Own People

It's no secret that I'm a corporate employee.  I like to study and read about management of companies (well, not to the point of getting an MBA or actually doing the management, but I'm fascinated by the discipline).  I love to share things that I learn from the perspective of the employed to the employer.

It's usually something about morale.  Today it's not.

Today, I have something that benefits not just the employed, but the whole company - relentlessly market to your own people.  I talk to lots of people in corporate IT, who suggest that working for one company is no different than any other.  That the same problems plague all companies. Almost as if the different companies are completely interchangeable.  And these same IT people move jobs a lot.  They're not emotionally invested in the company they're working for.  They're interchangeable cogs.  Their work is not their passion.

By relentlessly marketing to your own people, you can inspire them.  You can energize them.  You can get them to evangelize for you.  And you can do this relatively cheaply, easily, quickly.  I mean, you already have a marketing department, right?  Can they not take a few minutes a quarter to make sure your brand message reaches every single employee?

They're a Captive Audience

Your employees are in your building everyday.  They're surrounded by the workspace you provide for them.    They can't help walking by the front desk, or going into or out of the elevators.  They use your restrooms (if you're not in a shared toilet situation).  You control what they see.  If you can't market to these people, you can't market to anyone.  Put up banners in your lobby.  Put your quarterly ad campaign pictures above the urinals, or in the stalls in the bathroom.  Hang them up in the lunchrooms.

You Do Not Want to Lose Them

Employee turnover costs companies lots of money.  It's not cheap to replace a good person that leaves, and it's even more expensive to search out a replacement, train them, and get them productive.  If your company looks like the same cube farm they've been through five times in the last ten years, you're not going to keep them.  You want them to feel like family, not mercenaries.  You want them to be invested emotionally in your company.  If you can't get them invested in the well-being of the company by profit sharing or an employ stock option plan, at least make sure they know the products well and understand your company vision and their place in it.

They are a Free Source of Marketing

The more they know about the product and your message, assuming they agree with it and you make them happy in other ways, that message will leak out in places all over their lives.  People go to events all the time where the most frequently asked question is "So... what is it you do for a living?"  If you have primed them with an excellent elevator speech, then your message gets out, and you haven't had to pay for it.  Their family will know what you do, their friends, their kids' friends' parents, and so on.  Having an army of marketers in the community where your business is free marketing.  And with social networks, that message can extend far beyond the local community.

It's Easier to Attract People Who are Inspired by What You Do

If your employees understand your vision and share it with others, there's a greater chance you will find people with whom that vision personally resonates.  The most motivated and inspired employees you can find are the ones that share the vision of the company, ones that believe in the company's mission.  Building organizations is really finding that optimal mix of talent, passion, motivation, and mission of employees that can maximize delivery of that vision for your customers.

They are a Great Test Market

If you're a product company, make sure they use your product.  Give them products for free.  Give them crazy discounts.  Make sure that you make it difficult for them to say no to your product.  In doing so, you get free beta-testers.  Take surveys of your employees and ask what needs to be improved.  Ask if they use competitor products, and why (I'm not suggesting here that you should require them to use your product, but if they're not, you should find out why not.  You may be missing a market segment that you thought you were targeting).  They, more than any other customer, want you to succeed.

Why wouldn't I do this?

Well, I can almost hear the arguments already:

"My employees aren't my target market; we make stuff targeted at seniors (or tweens, or some other non white-collar job having subset of the population".  True for sure.  And these people have fathers, mothers, grandparents, siblings, kids.  They know people.  You tell them who your target audience is, and the people they know that fit the bill will pop into their mind.  They may think to themselves, "Oh yeah!  I have to remember to tell Uncle Charlie about that!" 

"Giving away our product isn't financially possible."  Granted, Ford can't go giving away C-Max hybrids to everyone in the organization to show off their wares or get feedback, but they sure can offer an employee discount program.  And really, are you going to get more honest feedback from people anywhere?  These employees have their jobs tied to the success of the products.  They may have profit sharing that incentivizes evangelism.  They will tell you what your product needs.  Ask them.  Listen to what they say.

Call to Action

Market to your people.  Relentlessly.  They can be your greatest advocates.  They can be your best test market.  They can work harder for you if they are truly sold on what you do.  Don't mess this up.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It is a Science; You're Just Bad At It

I hear this phrase misused often: "It's an art, not a science."

To me, this phrase really means that the way something is judged is not objective; rather, it is dependent on the beholder, and different pieces speak to different people in different ways. Jackson Pollock, the artist, had a very distinct, but controversial, style.  Some people liked it, and some people didn't.  It couldn't be judged objectively, because it's art, not science.

You could apply science to this art, by the way.  You could look at color density, color distribution, scope, size, effort.  And all those things that you could measure about it could not predict what any specific person's reaction to it should be.  It's that lack of predictive ability that prevents art from being science.

I heard this phrase, "It's an art, not a science," used a couple days ago to describe project management.  I've heard it applied to creating organizational structures, or defining a management process.  In all these cases, this phrase is being used as a placeholder.  An excuse.  A conversational roadblock.

Just because you don't want to codify your decisions does not make what you're doing art.  It just means you're being sloppy and don't want to talk about it anymore.  Spend the time.  Convince your peers that what you're doing is the right thing at the time.  If it's a one-off, you still have reasons.  It's not art; it's a result of a calculated business decision.

Just because something is difficult to do doesn't make it an art.  It just means you have to work harder and adjust more to get it right.  Take the time to create metrics and repeatable processes.  When you have repeated things a couple times, then tweak and look for different results.  You can't do experiments in an uncontrolled environment.

Just because you can't articulate why you have a gut feeling doesn't make it an art.  It just means you're not communicating clearly, and if you want people to listen to you and get behind you, keep clarifying.  People who follow "gut" leaders are not the people you want executing for you, because they're not questioning deeply enough.

Just because you can't manage to do things the same way twice doesn't make it an art.  It just means that you lack the discipline and will to do things the same way twice.  You failed to collect the requirements completely on this project?  Doesn't mean that it's optional.  It means you failed on that part and that you need to push consistency.  It doesn't make you an artist to fail to follow your defined process or follow through on your commitments.

Project management, creating organizational structures that work, creating cohesive teams, and creating management processes are all disciplines.  They each have a body of literature about how to do things in an optimal way.  There are objective ways to define metrics, make measurements, check against metrics, tweak and optimize. There is very much a scientific approach to doing all these things.  Anyone who says otherwise isn't reading enough about their own discipline.

Beware of anyone that says "It's an art, not a science."  Call them on it.  Often, they're trying to end the conversation because they don't have a good argument.  Because what they want isn't really the scientific optimization, but some other, more politically motivated answer.  In the interest of openness and transparency, call them on it.  Bring the underlying issues to light.  Help guide them to the principles that will help your organization grow strong with evidence-based decision making.