Time is money, are you using real time data wisely?


busby-berkley-snowflakeTime is money, are you using real time data wisely?

Are you feeling up to date, in sync with the times? Both individuals and organizations find it challenging to fully leverage technology and integrate the sea of real time data that surrounds us.

This past week, I attended a local Internet of Things (IOT) conference, only to be reminded how we’ve been kidding ourselves with respect to the human machine dynamic.  When Factiva reported in 2013, that the previous two years had created 90% of the world’s data, it also reflected the impact of visibly faster technology and emergent opportunities for those capable of wrangling more data. Similarly, the exchange of information machine to machine and the responses that  IOT and the Industrial IOT (IIOT)  make possible  will soon surpass all human generated information.

Information has never proven more valuable to competitive advantage than now. The key istimely mastery and/or the ability to separate meaningful data from noise. Possessing  Real time capabilities merely up the ante. 

Suddenly,  all of the conversations about the real, meaningful  difference of  Big Data clicked. The challenges I knew and had experienced working with volumes of data is not something everyone experiences, and itswhy I missed the significance of the message. Language can do thar. Today’s – competitive advantage relies on learning synchronicity between people, and also between people and machine. 

Yep, syncing as in coincident timing. Timing reactions require coordination on the order of the elaborate dance numbers Busby Berkley made famous will separate winners and losers. 

People learning rates

People are interesting precisely because we begave inconsistently.  These same traits  make us effective competitors and efficient information processors.  We focus and only selectively pay attention, which means we consciously ignore most information in our midst. Unlike machines, we are slow few of us possess capabilities to process high volumes of complex data at high speeds. 

How people integrate data remains a bit mysterious. Part conscious and part unconscious, each of our senses connect to different parts of our brain and the information isn’t always processes with consistency. 

Humans create their own reality. For example, our eyes see things differently than what we describe and not because of language problems. Automatic transformations correct using depth perception and pre existing knowledge to flip the image, while sound tends to retain its integrity. 

Similarly, information new to us versus updates also  process differently; and yet, endless streaming information can overload and confuse us. Today’s powerful computers don’t experience anxiety or fatigue though they may overheat or fail.

The natural limits of time and energy challenge people to choose their focal point, the when and how we respond to data and perceive opportunities. For example, few of our waking moments and activities require conscious thought. Our body takes care of itself and manages to coordinate processing of external sensory information with internal demands. This syncing makes possible mindless activities like breathing, eating, walking and resting.

Consciously, our ability to track our time and energy is spotty.  Still, unstructured/unplanned  moments, especially those that demand little of us mentally remain ideal, while society frowns on the same characteristics when referred to as idleness. The contradiction reflects the value we attach to purpose or meaningful use of effort over time that results in tangible output.

Artists create, builders build, analysts compute and chefs cook for example by adding their effort over time. They make something or transform original materials/inputs.

The notion of efficiency also boosts the value of effort by measuring the effort relative to the output produced over time. Likewise effectiveness, measures the additional value produced relative to the starting inputs. Together, these measures translate into meaningful consistent tokens of value that permit ready exchange, or wealth accumulation.

In this context, the accumulated tokens of value allow us to buy ourselves time to take vacation or be idle as easily as buy us time to learn, create and do more.

Machine learning capabilities

This also explains precisely why technology advances prove so valuable, as they have progressively reduced the amount of time and effort necessary to perform a task. As a result, we DO spend less time on common, routine activities than was previously necessary.  Internal plumbing saves us time we spent fetching water, Wheeled transportation saves us time we spent walking, and similar telecommunications vastly removes the break in communications that once necessitated considerable effort  to cross the distance by one if not both parties, or the enlistment of a proxy to carry the message on their behalf. The human messengers were replaced first and written notes/letters, and then the telegraph dramatically reduced the time between message sending and receipt.  Now text messaging and email is displacing telephone and video conferences.

This evolution in communication methods affects the people’s interaction styles but also their information needs and expectations.

Real time communications savings and benefits are not equally distributed and so inefficiencies persist.  On one hand they present a new opportunity to replace planning and documentation of activities essential when communications were primarily indirect and time lagged. Built-in tracking, boosted transmission capabilities and data recording can both fill in and increase information gaps.  Problems associated with incomplete, unsupported or even delayed information that always created risk persists, but for new reasons.  The flood of data from more sources both people and machine generated pose new challenges to separate out meaning, predict and or respond in timely, relevant manner.

Another opportunity real time capabilities offer are all around us, assisted by the information collected and transmitted from multiple data sensors scattered across the environment.  In fact, it’s how airplanes fly automatically, rail road cars notify switches of their location to either open or close crossing gates, motion sensors in buildings adjust level of lighting and air temperatures, and Tsunami warning systems saves lives.

In general, people are wired to process information in real time. We use an array of body language cues to understand how to  manage the situation and engage with the people in our midst, and yet we do it unconsciously.  Planning on paper is a far more conscious activity, time consuming and energy draining.  Worse, planning often stops us from activating the unconscious real time processing.  We follow the plan, rather than notice the inconsistency or the more obvious information we may or may not have incorporated.  Best example, is the step by step navigation systems that we know are less than perfect.  Have you found yourself using the navigation only to discover it’s asking you to turn onto a one way street going the wrong way? Or your location is “ahead” of the GPS signal and so you miss a turn?

My point is this.  Too many built in business procedures and processes were designed in the absence of real time information.  In order to be more relevant, more valuable people will need to revisit their processes with respect to learning, creating and doing.  It will require a shift in attitude, refocus of needs and adjustment in expectations.  It’s a shift from a look back and partner with machines that look forward, use more data sources and get to analysis faster.

If you have any examples of success or any challenges I’d love to hear about them.

[i] Mike Hogan, “big Data of your Own,” August 2013, www.factiva.com

John Adams, “Be careful or Big Data could Bury your Bank,” January 25, 2013 http://www.factiva.com

Pushing 60, McDonalds needs more reinvention than its latest face lift


Successful change initiatives often result from a deeper understanding of the problem than the questions that initially emerge when something that should work doesn’t.

For example, Does McDonald’s need an activist investor? This question posed by Parke Shall  today suggests McDonald’s may be in need of a more in-depth analysis. One that   looks beyond the basic data level and requires capabilities and alternative perspectives than those currently at the helm . This deeper thinking would take stock, examine the array of assets tangible and intangible as well as the various factors or flows in order to depict the present working dynamics that produce the present situation. For example, the following conceptual view by Donnella Meadows  and her corresponding outline of effective leverage points offers one such perspective.

State of the System

From Meadow’s perspective, data happens to be one of the least effective leverage points and big data is no exception.  After all data alone merely describes what is, was,  or what may result when applying particular assumptions.

Parke Shall isn’t the only one wondering what McDonald’s can do to appease its investors after a year of declining sales. The complexity of managing and formulating strategy have proven difficult for the chain whose market capitalization and earnings exceed those of several small nations.  It’s precisely why internal decision-making and long standing alliances may require more leverage points and even the most effective in changing outcomes a complete paradigm shift.

I’m Not Lovin' Itif it were up to a few active social media savvy shareholder and mommy bloggers, the changes begin with focusing less on appealing to children’ts natural weaknesses and interests.  When the executives got caught up denying that Ronald McDonald’s visits schools only to recall seeing him present, she had to ask a question that resonates with analysts and shareholders alike:

Are the executives at McDonald’s completely out of touch with reality?

It’s just one of a series of signs that suggest the leadership team and operating  executives appear trapped.  Their understanding and sense of how to make necessary changes that may put  their business on a more positive, sustainable path seems to be stuck in time and experience that no longer resembles the present or the future.

The signs

Millenial challenges reported by the Wall Street Journal in August 2014 tops the list of signs that McDonald’s seems to have lost its relevancy with a key demographic.  Ad Age reported that among Millenials McDonald’s didn’t even make it into the top 10 list of restaurants, though overall they remain the #1 fast food chain. For millenials eating patterns wsj 2014McDonald’s there’s significant impact not only across their 35,000-plus global locations, but its flat or falling sales of the past year for restaurants open at least 13 months, this hurts the US hardest where 40% of its locations exist.

Current CEO Don Thompson replaced the head of the US division effective October 15 with Mike Andres who in turn made additional changes in  the structure and leadership across the US.  The hiring announcement included appointing a new CMO and adding its first customer experience officer who quickly began to  usher new changes for the brand.  Beginning with Leo Burnett assuming their advertising responsibilities and refreshing a popular campaign.  Will these changes and renewed focus prove  significant  enough?  Today’s “lovin it” campaign launch hopes to earn back customers  and promote more positivity. 

Another traditional leverage point , McDonald’s long term relationships with key suppliers enabled mutual growth with product consistency and exclusivity.  Coca Cola, for example, has been a critical partner since 1955.  New York Times reported Coke’s contributions to a variety of successful promotions and innovations  McDonald’s introduced over the years, the smoothie being the latest example.   To what extent will suppliers participate in the extensive reinvention process? Given that Coca Cola has seemed to hit a sugar speed bump itself , this approach may be less advantageous.

This bring us to innovation at the menu level brings.  Widely acknowledged to prove challenging, the menu creep  throws off the rhythm of prep and compromises serve time, a key management metric and contributor to McDonald’s overall value proposition.  Expanding offerings such as  McCafe and McWraps, along with efforts to rebrand and position itself as more upscale may appease some consumers, but not clear these additions delivered sufficiently to slow if not deflect the falling sales.

Is McDonald’s too entrenched in the trappings of it’s 59-year old brand strategy?

The amount of  data  and analysts working on this task doesn’t identify a source or clear evidence of higher level strategic thinking.  A 2012  Booz & Company case study of Wendy’s strategy noted McDonald’s had sewn up three key competitive advantages. Brand name recognition for the golden Arches holds an enviable 88% visibility internationally, which helps it win over price-sensitive consumers who also focus primarily on convenience.

Its US location density  places a McDonalds franchise at the very least within 100 miles of every consumer.  This limits acheiving new growth by adding new outlets. It may be why McDonald’s has increased its innovation capabilities beyond what the Huffington Post reported in 2011 were evident in its Romeoville innovation center where it develops, borrows and systematizes operations innovation.  This effort enviable to most corporations prototyped the extensive experience facelifts ranging from re-architecture and mobile ordering.  Still not clear there’s enough in the pipeline to turn the tide against   longer term trends of lost relevance and eroding sales signals.

Among 32,000 consumer reports subscribers, McDonald’s hamburgers came in last when judged for its taste against 20 rivals. This suggests that it’s not just the millenials who no longer find the fast food’s burger offerings appealing, thoguh burgers and shakes continue to draw crowds to other fast casual restaurants at higher price points too.

Bigmac sticker shock Fortune 2014The problem of sticker shock doesn’t impact Chipotle or other restaurants among the ever increasing fast casual segment, but it sure has hurt McDonald’s. As Fortune reported, the growing gap between the dollar menu and higher price points continues to widen making the higher priced items less attractive.

Changes to help the struggling chain regain its growth may require either  McDonald’s board and.or its CEO to resolve deeper structural challenges characteristic of complexity.   It will require some serious assumption busting, re-framing of the definitions of success and aligning more attributes with those characteristic of open systems environment.  No pun intended.  I do believe ramping up prototyping activities in Romeoville and  live testing of customization such as those in sourthern California will also help.

The evident discrepancy between McDonald’s goals and its shrinking share of the markets in which it operates doesn’t only create unease among its various stakeholders (e.g. customers, employees, its board and shareholders. This contrary indicators also reflect the inter-related operating decisions that constrain and limit opportunity while at the same time provide effective command and control that enhance efficiency but at increasing opportunity cost vis a vis growth.  Some of these indicators affect competitors as well as suppliers,  impacting factors that compete and complement American eating attitudes and behaviors.

For example, notice the changes in attitude reported  over the last nine years by International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s “2014 Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health.”

Healthy food attitudes surveyed

This data merely exemplifies the changes in attitude over time and supports or disputes assumptionsin evidence by decision-makers running McDonalds.  It also shows how little the major facelift and experience initiatives matched, let alone change pre-existing attitudes about McDonald’s on items  corresponding to what Booz *company reported as core strengths for the brand.

These attitudes are not independent of each other and reinvention will require exercising leverage that cuts much more deeply than switching out leadership and introducing additional menu changes.   In other words, the complex tasks associated with increasing growth will require fundamentally different approaches than those available to smaller competitors or innovators carving out new space and creating  new categories.  Will their investors be patient and have enough confidence to believe in their existing leadership, only time will tell.

my big Data Donut


Two days in a row I managed to catch very different talks about big data, but came away with one big duh and several new insights.  In short, my prior training and experience using analytics to drive strategic decision-making placed me comfortably up the curve.  In return for my limited investment of time and attention, I gained a few new ideas, collected some cogent descriptors to share with clients and reawakened  elements in my strategic thinking process.

Big DATA , just a conjunction 

We all know Big because we know small. Everything classifies as one, when we decide it’s not the other. Big is also a euphemism for many.  Statistically, the bigger the sample, the greater it’s  significance. Bigness insures enough cases to draw general conclusions about a population.  Most of the time we don’t care about the population but we do care that a sample represents the population we care about.  An “Everyman” should be average and appear at the top of the bell curve, or normal distribution, right? Will being average, change the odds of being big or small? hold that thought.

We recognize data when we see it too. In excel, Big spreadsheets contain many rows and or many columns of stuff that we call data.

Changes in technology bring more data, we record and keep records of events that previously were not possible to record. More data gets created when instruments simplify its recording over ever smaller intervals.  For example, satellite data records and transmits continuously atmospheric particle movements,  Nike’s Fuel metrics measured by its band can provide streaming location data of people’s changing heart rate.

Put the Big together with Data along with the ease of access and you find yourself understanding Big Data coincident with the cultural shift  Big Data’s wider access produces.

If you build it they will come

In Big Data’s case, technology shifts made lots of data more accessible which increased people’s application in their decision-making.  At this hour, I can hear the helicopters hovering over the major highway junctions nearby to monitor traffic and issue the reports broadcast over radio and TV.  Everyone wants to avoid sitting in traffic, and their consumption of this information and decisions of when and which route they drive naturally impacts the pattern.  The widespread availability of GPS and map services rely on alternative information sources to generate traffic congestion maps , and influence consumer travel decisions as well.  Don’t you rely on one or more of these information sources? Why? few of us know the details behind the projection.  Instead,  we feel better with more information available, after all,  traffic information helps us avoid the inevitable–the likelihood of being stuck and delayed in rush hour.

Bottom line, consumption makes Big Data valuable. Its availability  raises questions, but we often skip the critical ones.  We ponder its use, before questioning its reliability as in what do I do with it? How can and should it impact my decisions?  

Why?

Humans’ daily actions rely on the process of cause and effect.  I turn on the faucet to make water come out.  I say “please,” you say “thank you.”  How many miles must I run to burn off the Fat calories I consumed eating a donut for breakfast?   Hmm, can I measure my fat burn rate? If I work for the donut producer, I may focus on the sales effects that result from posting this information.

These sets of  reactionary questions miss the opportunity set that Subway anticipated and took to the bank.  I don’t know the story behind Subway’s marketing strategy , haven’t looked into the chain’s profitability, but they clearly seized advantage of a trend fueling both  awareness and their revenue. They twisted the cause effect to create a successful Cause marketing campaign.

Worry about Bad not Big Data

In the second talk, Casey Winters, the head of digital marketing for a growing web-based start-up called Grub Hub spoke about the poor decisions being made using vanity metrics.  Traffic isn’t a new metric for retailers or commuters.  In business, Cost per Acquisition, Lifetime Value and Conversion rates represent a few key performance metrics that when properly calculated, effectively drive strategic investment decisions.

The challenge today isn’t their availability as much as their reliability.  More sources  of information reflect the ease with which some data can be measured.  For example, Google Analytics offers the basic traffic stats freely to any website who embeds their code.  Advertising agencies spent a decade redefining themselves to be digitally capable, and help their clients use these new tools to distribute their marketing dollars to physical and virtual locations.  The result, more data and Data Scientists emerging as guides through the complexity associated with Big Data.

STOP making Data into donuts

More data spread around doesn’t make anyone smarter, especially when not all available measurements of existing data prove trustworthy. Standards help a lot, but they may not  sufficiently help separate the noise from the signal. Don’t just use the data that’s available but be sure you understand its creation.  Take the case of the glazed donut comparisons shown above between Krispy Kreme’s Famous calculated calories to Dunkin’s Glazed donut figures.  The fact that they appear together in one chart doesn’t mean their calculations used the same computation process.  The information on its face lead to one conclusion, which may or may not support your own experience of these donuts.  Haven’t you already  put that experience to use and attributed  the observed differences’ cause to something other than the method of calculation?   In short, you used cause and effect favoring intuition over critical thinking.

When it comes to talking about strategy,  we often forget to ask the questions before we pull the data.  ROI may justify one investment choice over another and then again it may merely be used to confirm the value of your investment decisions after the fact.  Data should move you from insight to reality.  Remember a dot in one dimension is a line in another, the value of the era of big data increases our opportunity to capture more dimensions.  The challenge is using data to gain more perspective and beware of our biases.

Understanding ain’t believing and yes there are economic consequences!


This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

Recently, I came across this academic article differentiating belief and understanding and it triggered an explosion of thoughts.   When I teach, I  often encounter students who fail to grasp the topic and naturally their puzzled looks make me try to explain the idea again, differently.  I  never considered the possibility it wasn’t  my explanation that confused them, but maybe the ideas themselves.

Lost in Space

Our brains are wired to discard irrelevant information and to some degree if the new information doesn’t jive with what we know or believe–the ultimate cognitive dissonance occurs. Or as the Lost in Space robot would say: “That does not compute!”

As a teacher, I found the article unsettling on multiple levels.  First, because I never considered the potential conflict when preparing my lessons.  Second, what I confirmed talking to a High school math teacher in a large public school in Berwyn, IL:  Teaching helps students meet standards not to understand.

Personally, my limited experience as a public school teacher proved deeply challenging. In choosing to help students understand  not merely to pass.  I taught a vastly diverse population of 4th graders in a suburban Chicago classroom.  Student  IQs ranged from 5-95% on the chart, and the socio economic status of their families were equally diverse with many receiving subsidized breakfast and lunch. One student was severely ADHD, had lost his mother and his medication was constantly being adjusted. I had my hands full and could never figure out how to insure that every kid understood.

My own preference for immersive learning as a young student, in which my students allowed us to  play it out and learn by doing made school fun.  An approach, I actively sought to replicate in my teaching.  Returning to study education later in life, I was first dumbfounded to learn that so little was understood about effective teaching methods.  This isn’t really as mysterious a problem as I pose.  One of the oldest professions remains mysterious becasue the  purpose or objectives of education continue to evolve.  Sure there is wide agreement that everyone should have a command of the basics, the three Rs–Reading wRiting and aRithmetic.  How do you measure competency in these subjects?  what methods make it possible for students to gain competency or even mastery? If you have had a child in school, then you are familiar that new methods continue to be introduced.  Similarly, schools are held accountable to new standards and competency measurements.  Yes, the rules for private and charter schools differ from those demanded by the public.
Surprise, understanding information and knowing something are not the same thing. There are somethings you understand but could never articulate and vice versa some things you know but don’t necessarily understand.  For example, we know or learn how to drive without ever understanding how the car we drive actually works.  We may understand what someone else may be feeling without knowing precisely.
The areas where our understanding and knowledge most align come from ideas that involve multi-sensory learning experiences. It’s one thing to watch someone do something or find the results and another to reproduce them.  I can watch Tiger Woods, study his swing, stance and then when I attempt to hit the ball I discover just how much I don’t know.
This post won’t be able to address the issues fully.  I’m wondering where and how we might be able to resolve some of these contradictions and do it to help more people achieve. Sure high scores matter, but don’t we also want higher understanding that makes it possible for more people to solve more problems  when and where ever they encounter them? Teaching for understanding should count, in fact it’s a great book too!  But I’m also making a quick case for multi-sensory learning that allows more of us to connect what we know to things we understand.
Take history.  The recent Steven Spielberg movie on Abraham Lincoln attempted to show us more of the reality of the politics during the Civil War, but it also brought to life the words Americans are frequently taught.  We know about the civil war, we know that it was about slavery and we may know the Gettysburg address too.  But how does knowing that help me understand the world I encounter today?  How does learning history help me?
Imagine  learning history by role play? Being asked to study and recite the lines of Gettysberg address makes it easier for us to recall them and ponder them. Playing out the issues allows us to wire our brain to make our own meaning, personalize the lessons to connect to our pre-existing experiences.  The challenge may be that owning and personalizing the results takes time but it also complicates the  expectation of a singular correct answer or take on history.  Personalized meaning may prove more useful, stickier and authentic but it makes passing a standardized test much more difficult.
In fact, the accumulation of specific representations of  ideas and details are the only measures of learning that society at large respects and values. Today we value a passing grade and top performance measurable on a singular dimension.  Daniel Goleman‘s work on multiple intelligences increased the appreciation of talents beyond traditional accumulation of facts, but don’t celebrate them as equal achievements. High scoring SAT,  ACT and GPA scores open doors to further academic study and elite higher education opportunities.
This little monograph published in 2006 warrants more attention. In part, our system reflects the consequences of  the larger failure by the education system to differentiate student responses based on their belief and understanding versus answering according to the expectation of the testers.  The consequences of teachers teaching students to pass the test  may help some students further their schooling and many of them may gain understanding in the process.  But what about the others , where school material doesn’t match their knowledge of what matters  outside of school?   Teaching without understanding fails them and represents a failure of the investments to realize the returns of a capable society.
But there’s more.  Personally, this piece opened two divergent avenues of thought.  One,  given the growing research into the workings of the human brain how might cognitive processes  guide our behavior in the face of two truths. Two, findings by the economist James Heckmann whose work focuses on the development of human skills, abilities and health capacities for example demonstrate  the different values of those who graduate highschool and those that pass the GRE.

Two truths

T​he concept of holding two truths at once parallels the paradox of knowing what is right and yet believing it wrong​.

The FMRI of psychopaths who suffer from false delusions or paranoia, found their brain processes to differ from the general population. Interestingly, FMRI scans of democrats and republicans show each population to process information differently.  Both research illustrates the power and influence of different beliefs and explain the differences in our thinking and actions.  The reconciliation or rationalization process literally works differently based on early wiring of beliefs.
Carol Dweck, a noted childhood development scholar’s research explores the opportunities that emerge to rewire in adolescence.  Writing a response for the Boston review to research by James Heckmann that emphasized the value of larger emphasis on interventions to foster huma skills ad capacities, she writes:
“The success of the adolescent interventions derives from their laser-like focus on particular non-cognitive factors and the beliefs that underlie them—knowledge stemming from psychological theory.”
I often explain that my life changed when I began graduate work at the University of Chicago​.  I discovered what thinking felt like relative to merely learning.  I experienced integration of knowledge I was accumulating, the adding to and reconciling of my previous understandings with new, deeper understanding  of how things worked.
Many things I believe don’t require me to defend or explain.The best explanation I can muster extends from the recognition by the researchers on the primacy of self-centered meaning making.  My truth, what I know and what I believe begins with discovery.  The child who asks incessantly why seeks to make more sense of what they encounter.  The information they receive forms a foundation that like the sand on the beach slowly gets replaced with each new wave of information.  The emotional issues that cloud our thinking
 I’m sharing this article with the hope that you may have some additional insight into the topic or further my own knowledge surrounding  the significance of reconciling belief and understanding.

 

Social Impact Strategies: Muscle, Teeth and Bone


In the advent of the sequester bringing the expiration of the continuing budget resolution on March 27, and theWashington DC

2013 budget battles raging in Washington, my concerns echo many others. This gridlock loses sight of opportunities and mechanisms to create demonstrable, sustainable solutions to larger societal issues.

OK, I realize that a $3.6 trillion Federal budget, makes it hard to understand

$85 billion mandatory across-the-board federal budget cuts. Reportedly, the cuts spare many aid programs serving the poorest and most vulnerable Americans.  Putting aside personal politics, little doubt exists that current needs outstrip the quantity and quality of dedicated resources to meet them. Particularly troubling, the March 1 cuts disproportionately affect low-income Americans  adding additional burdens on resource strained charities. The emotions released by the congressional battle further complicate objective program evaluation and consideration of where and what programs warrant

cutting vs. preserving.  It also avoids honest discussion of  historic questions.

What should and can be the net value, or efficacy, of federal funded grants and programs to meet these needs?

The complex interactions, mechanisms and incentives by which government, private enterprise and the third sector operate in the social arena make alternative scenarios and innovation difficult but not impossible.  Change may come based on a new budget requirement that I hope will unleash much-needed adjustments to the system at every level.  I’ll do my best to explain, and in return ask you to consider your own role in perpetuating the divide, and how your investments could be redirected and the benefits redistributed.

How effectively are you using your muscle, teeth and bone?

 The preview: Conscious Government Capital

Effective 2014, a May 2012 budget instruction the White House issued to the heads of executive departments and agencies, requires all Federal grant-making agencies increase the role of evidence in their grant-making formulas. The memo suggested three approaches:

  • Encouraging use of evidence in formula grants,
  • Evidence-based grants, and
  • Pay for Success.

These were in addition to a model developed by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) that ranks programs based on evident  returns on investment.

 Wow! Competitive advantage and grants will flow to agencies whose programs demonstrate greater levels of evidence of their effectiveness.  Program providers who can prove their outcomes will get paid for their successes.  This slight change in policy does more to jumpstart accountability within a sector slow to measure itself.  It also energizes and attracts the interest of unusual bedfellows—players in the larger capital markets.

Debating organizational responsibility for the whole of society typically pits private vs. public players’ activities against one another. Each watches and fights the efforts and right of the other to create the future. In the process, advocates arguing for greater checks and balances exclude careful inspection of a third vital force. I’m describing the third leg’s impact, specifically, the  poorly understood effects and poorly coordinated activities supported by charitable donations, well-meaning grants and volunteer contributions.

Writing for The Daily Beast , Ken Stern eloquently shares his observations on the inefficiency of our current philosophy around charitable giving.  Puzzled by  the surety of faith and absence of critique on this third sector’s intermediary role in our lives, he writes:

“The public—and private—investment in the social sector is one of the critical elements of the American social compact, yet it is one of the oddities of public life that each year we renew this investment without ever pausing to ask the same questions that we ask of every other public and private investment: what are we getting in return, is the investment structured correctly, is the money going to the right places?”

The answers reflect different levels of engagement and interaction ranging– from passive to active. The vast charitable landscape and ease with which individuals establish personal private charities further dissipates impact on any single issue.  Consider where your donations flow relative to your top concerns.

Can additional accountability changes revitalize the third sector and elevate its stature sufficiently to offer a significant counterweight to break the deadlock in Washington?

New mechanisms open new opportunities.  How can performance partnership pilots (such as those embedded into Health care reform and now promoted by all Federal agencies) create new paths and alternative realities?  Can these channeled resources provide the necessary fuel and impact to reinvent  health care systems and access, guaranteed quality education,  preserve the environment, resolve energy issues etc?  Of course commitment levels vary and weaken foundations’ abilities to impact and sustain significant changes that contain or alleviate complications.

These problems and their complexity challenge everyone and explain the growing continuum of investment, participation and contributions in this space. Engagement ranges from  Muscle, using influence; Teeth, making your mark; and Bone, establishing a connective, resilient structure.  Which is right for you and your organization?

 Muscle

Historically, the heaviest lifting done to eradicate disease and increase economic livelihoods succeeded through comprehensive coordination.  In Colonial times, governments leveraged their authority to build necessary infrastructure and disproportionately benefit business and economic interests. These changes rippled improvements and improved the lives of the general populations too.

Today, spiraling entitlement program costs and accumulated  tax credits, tariffs and sector supports  produce exclusive benefits difficult to sustain, making everyone ill at ease.  Intricate problems don’t make them impossible to resolve.  Downstream economic benefits often justify providing credits and supports to resource consuming and output producing organizations. But, as Ken Stern observed, increasing social needs now exceed the capacity and political will of government to act alone to meet them.

Ken Stern is not alone in his assessment of what holds back resources, devoted to this sector from realizing greater impact.  In 2011, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that demand for aid from nonprofits increased at a faster pace than philanthropic giving by companies.

“Because of the small growth, many nonprofits aren’t getting the money they need to do their job…”

 The spirit of personal choice permeates the landscape of charitable giving. Gates and Buffet use their muscle, their influence, to secure significant commitments from fellow billionaires by encouraging that they too dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. The Giving Pledge lists the pledging individuals, but does not pool funds or support a particular set of causes or organizations. It only asks individuals to give the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes or charitable organizations either before or after their death.

Are there clear  benefits using this approach?  It extends charitable activities supported by these donors and the charities reach by introducing much-needed attention and critical dialogue to the merit of these activities.  Stern points to the ever-increasing number of non-profits and specialized, if not duplicitous charities that result. Each carve out a niche and unintentionally work at cross-purposes.

So why did Warren Buffet, known for his prowess in picking great companies that anyone can run, turn over his charitable fortune to Gates to invest? Simply, he empathized with Gates’ action plans that address the absence of good measures of charitable efficacy.  Their charitable interests transcended seeing their  millions merely alleviate pain and suffering  in the manner of many religious charities, whose good work largely continues unquestioned.

Teeth

The concept of Social Impact or making measurable differences quickly captured Gates’ imagination and energy.  Recently, Gates wrote about the value of impact measurement for the WSJ and makes clear that if you aren’t monitoring progress than it’s pretty difficult to make any.

Strategic philanthropy can be defined by dedication personal resources to a singular focused charity, or channeling them to an agreed purpose or outcome that creates real opportunity and situational impact.  Defining the purpose clearly, defining the outcome and agreeing on the measure of success helps every donor make a mark, boost their efficacy and ultimately diminish the problem.

Hunger in America, provides an interesting case in point. Sadly, this problem re-emerged after national awareness generated by the media had it licked in an earlier era. The successful campaign attracted high level politicians’ attention and secured commitments to adapt pre-existing Federal support programs to meet these needs. The result was the Federal Food Stamp program administered by the Department of Agriculture  in  coordination with the farm support programs.  Today, multiple federal public assistance programs exist not from inefficiency but out of a growing understanding of the problem and efforts to target services to specific critical populations, e.g. low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and new mothers and their infants; distribution of temporary hunger relief through food pantries and the school lunch program as well as households in poverty.

Feeding America, in their online FAQs, document how today, food assistance needs exceed the capability and capacity of  SNAP , Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and the other programs.

In spite of ample effort and dedicated coordination and volunteer efforts, the gap has not closed but grown with the economic downturn. The persistent number of households living with food insecurity lives daily with uncertainty not knowing where their next meal let alone access to basic nutrition will come.

Good news once again, activists have kicked up a media frenzy to draw both volunteers and the interest of politicians to rectify this situation. Learn more at TakePart and the film A place at the table. Will and should government assume leadership to resolve?

 Bone

The coordination and interconnections necessary to move beyond marked progress and end the problem requires much more than charitable resources.  It also reflects the long-term trend the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in July 2011:

“[Increasingly,] companies are zeroing in on social issues that threaten their bottom lines, like people’s ill health, high transportation costs, or diminishing fresh water. They are also focusing on causes that help them tap into new markets, appeal to their customers, and use their employees’ skills.”

Case in point, CSX donated $1 million  to the Future Farmers of America, one of a few key national groups it supports. Tori Kaplan, assistant vice president for corporate social responsibility, explained their desire to attract young people with the skills and interests it needs were participating in FFA.

“We’re hoping to foster relationships with FFA where the students would look at transportation and its connection to agriculture as a viable career,” she says.

The numerous partnerships between Non-governmental organizations often supported by philanthropy, the business sector and the government provide the three legs that create a stable platform for society.  Each leg keeps the other in check and accountable.

These partnerships go beyond what Feeding in America highlights on their site. They depend on investments to rewire the mechanisms that created the problem and create value to attract capital to create more mutual sustainable system. That requires a deeper assessment of  problem inter-dependencies. Desperate people engage in desperate behavior to get their needs met. Reduce if not remove the reasons for their desperation and the resources used to combat them can be used more productively.  Instead of relying on redistributing waste, kindness and surpluses to satisfy unmet needs create greater efficiency, employment and opportunity for understanding and accomplishment.

Leveraging the efficiency and accountability of capital markets offers new hope to create sustainable solutions.  Social impact bonds, or pay for performance success instruments offer such a mechanism to make all parties publicly accountable. The example demonstrated how investing in social services for released offenders that successfully integrate into their communities and find meaningful work at a living wage, produced measurable benefits of increased safety and lower future incarceration costs.

The full circle encompasses economic measures of societal impact, and look beyond the benefits to the target population or social service recipients. It means everyone benefits from the success, not just the immediate clients.  In spite of several programs demonstrating this full complement of returns, it took recent calculation of the benefits and the costs to produce the necessary investment instruments to support their funding. In the UK they call them pay for performance or social impact bonds and now slowly appearing in the US.

 Next?

Regardless of how your corporate charitable activities uses its muscle to invest in community causes and provide valuable volunteers, have you looked for more tangible benefits beyond risk avoidance or raising the positive sign on your public profile.  Maybe it’s time to ratchet up your game. Chances are your employees already sit on boards of numerous non-profits and use their teeth to place their mark and  extending with charitable matches your firm’s resources to mutual benefit.

More interesting opportunities come  when going beyond the marginal resources at your disposal in  corporate foundations.  Why not leverage the full force of the economic assets at your discretion?  The Chronicle of Philanthropy noticed a shift evident in 2011 when corporations appeared to concentrate their support in favor of bigger, higher-profile gifts to fewer organizations.

“in part because of a long-term trend of companies zeroing in on social issues that threaten their bottom lines, like people’s ill health, high transportation costs, or diminishing fresh water. They are also focusing on causes that help them tap into new markets, appeal to their customers, and use their employees’ skills.”

Case in point, Walmart. Over the last several years, Walmart’s amount of charitable cash donations, over $342 million in 2011 topped the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Corporate giving list .  In 2013, they joined the Partnership for a healthier America changing their own business practices  to align their efforts to make healthy food affordable for families.  This is the public private partnership that helped Walmart leverage its supply chain efficiencies and prowess while also gaining toe holds in communities who fought their incursion.  Key opportunities cited by the Washington Post following Michelle Obama’s recent Walmart visit included:

  •  Wal-Mart  opened 86 new stores in “food deserts,” areas where accessibility to affordable healthy foods is limited.
  • Launch of its “Great for You” icon, which will appear on more than 1,300 of its house brands of foods and beverages in U.S. stores, making it easier to identify nutritionally sound choices.
  • Cutting salt and sugar in its house brands and encouraging national brands to do the same.

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest food retailer, holds at least one-fifth of the grocery market, according to trade magazine The Packer.

Lots of ideas here, but would love to hear what I may have missed, or other stories that show evidence of more creative innovative approaches to improve the overall system!

 

Prediction and Understanding


All things “new” fascinate us.  Of late,  the business world’s growing excitement about Big Data and its analytic modeling seems to turn up surprising results in interesting places. Predictions mesmerize us, they offer us control in the midst of uncertainty and fool us to believe we understand things more completely than is possible.  The models used to predict an outcome are often confused with underlying mechanisms responsible for the outcome.  Models fuel discovery and yet we get cocky when we rely wholeheartedly on a built model’s power and accuracy.  Risk doesn’t disappear and its infrequent appearance merely challenges our ability to prepare adequately and only in hindsight differentiate the early warning signs.  This is what int he trade we call differentiating signal from the noise and is the focus of Nate Silver’s book.

Power to Predict

In finance, or physics circles the fascination around models is anything but new. Isn’t the primary purpose of analysis and model building discovery or greater understanding of causal relationships and interactions? Observing physical properties of planets helps us make sense of their movements and  explain other observable phenomenon. The notation and models provide insights into other activities and data collected in other settings.  These scientific modeling techniques when introduced into social science formed the basis of understanding economic behavior and a framework for a series of policies governing the money supply to welfare.  Once operating in obscurity, the mathematically trained analysts and modelers impact on society continues to ripple into ever-widening arenas difficult to miss.

Michael Lewis earned his living as a quant on Wall Street. His dual talents manipulating numbers and words led to his successful book Liar’s Poker.  Complexity found a voice and Lewis continued to seek out and tell more stories about the quants in multiple settings. Perhaps it was the popular success of MoneyBall, that attracted the popular interest. I admit I’m an ardent fan.  Michael Lewis and his wonderful story telling ability around number problems, shared how the Oakland As made the playoffs using statistics for competitive advantage. Among the collected stats, the story revealed those overlooked by scouts the Oakland As valued, making it possible for them to compete effectively against baseball teams with much larger budgets.

In Presidential Elections, during 2008 the baseball stats model maven Nate Silver demonstrated how a command of statistics can improve the quality of a candidate’s campaign.  By 2012, his success garnered him personal attention as author of the New York Times 538 column while further upping the fascination with applied statistics in new arenas.

Leonard Mlodinow,  a trained physicist himself, in his sympathetic review of Silver’s new book, shares his frustration with statistical shysters.  “The Signal and the Noise,” Silver shares “… studies show[ing] that from the stock pickers on Wall Street to the political pundits on our news channels, predictions offered with great certainty and voluminous justification prove, when evaluated later, to have had no predictive power at all.”

Quality Thinking

Andrew Hacker’s review of Silver in The New York Review of Books caught my attention when he questions James Weatherall’s intention as author of The Physics of Wall Street and  exposing a different expectation.

“…the assumption that the quality of our thought can be enhanced by new methodologies.”

Certainly, Hacker’s impressive eloquence helps; but invoking quality in reference to thoughts struck a visceral chord.  Variety and range implied by differences in quality intrigue us.  They make the world more interesting.  At the most basic level, variety compels trade  and incites desire for around diversity.  Frequently, recombining ideas defines innovation but does either necessarily signify progress, reflect higher power thinking,  or even spread benefits more widely?

Variety in objects or tangible goods naturally reach their limits and so too does our tolerance for diverse ideas.  In products, declining sales makes the limit recognizable in hindsight.  In ideas, their displacement provides some evidence of their limited appeal as in the transition to capitalism in the communist bloc or the return of Islāmic fundamentalism in the middle east.

Does a valued quality suggest our preference associates with a higher ranking of an object or an idea? Naturally, higher ranking or rating indicates higher preference, especially when done consistently. For example, measuring liquid in litres vs. quarts does not enhance or detract from the quality of the liquid, the measure and the liquid’s qualities are independent of one another.  In the US, quarts are the culturally preferred volume measure and it persists for numerous reasons, some irrational, but few suggest higher power thinking.

Of late, I am reading Scott E. Page’s book entitled The Difference.  He provides a series of examples to  show the  added value produced when multiple perspectives and varying rule based approaches test a situation.  Page’s training draws on the work of social scientists in multiple disciplines and his examples, by design demand minimal mental arithmetic and can easily be scaled.  His fundamental premise challenges  higher order thinking as the ultimate value varying diversity, flexibility and adaptability as ultimately more useful.

Then again, utility or use as an idea in spite of its competitors continues to prove itself resilient over time and earthly situations.  I’m OK with some mystery, the unknowns that both Nate Silver finds challenging and James Weatherall believes his approach can resolve.  Big data regardless of the  measurement methods, analysis models and their possible recombination, I’m betting that diverse human preferences for truth will continue to prove self-limiting.  That’s what ultimately makes life and all its diversity interesting!

Just Try It!


 

Hey, Mikey Likes It!

What’s not to like? Try it!

That’s what my mother would say when her children looked suspiciously at unfamiliar food on their plates.  Growing up,the rule was that you had to eat everything on the plate, or at least try it.  Later, my father modified the rule  to you don’t have to like it, but you had to eat it.  It’s how I came to eat asparagus with a glass of milk chaser and how our dog was well fed.

Clearly, not everything that we do,  or feel compelled to do is likeable.  The doing however can and often does prove incredibly satisfying. Likewise, adding knowledge or understanding also makes any activity satisfying. Doing alters what we know. The coordination effort forces us to focus on details we often overlook, or fail to consider relevant and our actions lead us to understand the task differently than our first evaluation. The expression “easier said, than done,” ring a bell?

Experience and experiment, both French words, describe the process of trying, attempting, a trial or the testing of an idea or impulse. The result? We gain new insights and  understanding when we integrate multiple sensory data points at once–as when things we see requires us to coördinate our moves.

I hear and  forget.
I see and I remember.
I Do and I understand.

Confucius wasn’t the only one to understand the power of coordinated multi-sensory input.  Most learning happens informally and when left to chance the results are counterproductive.  Unlearning or replacing what we know with new information requires confrontation; since we find it easy to adapt to a slight change of circumstance when we recognize the common link.  The history of putting wheels on boxes is quite lengthy but it is only very recently that wheels appeared on suitcases, crazy right? Not really. Perceptions often create barriers that are not easily crossed, particularly when formed from a cultural association and not from  direct experience.  Take a second and think about a  restaurant.  Naturally which one, its kind or style that you imagined reflects a choice among numerous variations. What you know about or understand about restaurants as in how to get served, how to dress etc are secondary to the restaurant you imagined; yet they come together as one package of knowledge that determines your behavior.

Experience vs. Source

Information Central

Information Central (Photo credit: pjern)

Try thinking about Africa. Consider how you came to know about it. Africa, per Wikipedia, represents the second-largest and second-most-populous continent in the world with 54 sovereign countries. These facts differ from my intense study in 1969 of the continent in  my sixth grade classroom. I mention it as illustration of the double bind that catches the education system. Like Wikipedia, the material presented to students is as dynamic as the individual contributors to the system but recourse built into the latter may be inappropriately applied.  Should we rate the quality of sources differently than we do a vocation?  Imagine comparing student learning from Wikipedia vs. an educator who has little flexibility in choosing the content requirements used to evaluate their performance. As a student, my sixth grade teacher gave me experiences to collect information from a variety of sources, refashion it to make it meaningful and most importantly encouraged me to keep learning, stay curious and continue to revise what I learned.  We brought the daily headlines into the classroom to share and inspired me to take an ongoing interest in the news.

Gauging Knowledge

045/365 - Comfort Zone

045/365 – Comfort Zone (Photo credit: TheRogue)

Can one gauge that measures knowledge also measure understanding? Who determines sufficiency or the necessary amount? In the US, each grade level has a set of achievement standards at both the Federal level  and state level.

Achievement can be obvious though knowledge and understanding are fluid.  Typically, repeating a fact demonstrates what we know and our ability to recall it without necessarily understanding what the fact means. For example, US middle school students all study the US constitution, and law students do too; but few possess constitutional knowledge comparable to supreme court justices. The justices’ responsibility call for them to understand the constitution at a level of articulation that is actionable.  What I know or believe may not matter or may prove incomplete relative to their ruling.

It’s not just the gauge, but the dynamics of how and what we know changes both externally and internally.  Every one of our senses has equal access to the input in our environment; and yet very little activates our consciousness and not all the input gets tagged to the same experience. In addition the input gets sorted for relevance. Memory reflects the recall coincident of relevant, sensory input associated together. No wonder no two people can recall the same event identically? It’s also why repetition makes us better.

Do anything again and your attention shifts from the first experience memory.  Additional information gets added and tagged for its relevance.  Even if the first time triggered a negative emotion, such as fear, anger or anxiousness, it added more information  to your memory. Emotion does serve as our lookout scout.  It will steer us clear from upsetting circumstances and raise internally doubt or trust issues.

Try it, you'll like it!As this famous Alka Seltzer commercial reminds us, one bad taste makes us unlikely to repeat the experience.  Similarly a new experience when our senses find a near match to an earlier experience, it may get tagged as suspect. Trying something may require us to overcome a prior, related experience. The action taken becomes more meaningful when we attach or identify benefits.  The attachments also impact our willingness to try the same or related experience.

Is open mindedness really possible? Yes,  if you recast open-mindedness as an interest in knowing more and deepening an understanding. Moments of relaxation and comfortable situations make it easier to acquire new information.  In contrast, our natural movements especially those that require no conscious thought, saves us the trouble of processing new information.  The more efficient we become the less we take time to focus on details that differentiate every moment’s passing. Failure to notice, cuts an experience short, underestimates its significance and we move on.

Without notice, there’s no understanding, very little satisfaction and no wonder we feel less accomplished for time spent. Assuming an active focus will engage more of our senses and quickly exhaust us.  It takes energy to reconcile previously held ideas and beliefs to the immediacy of our reality.

Think shopping.  Regardless of what and where you set out to buy something, chances are the expectation may not hold up in the store. More choices or features

It’s why I stop myself from justifying the merits of something and am keen on having people experience for themselves.  Long ago, my movie course instructor warned us to avoid reading reviews before viewing the film.  Sitting and letting the director reveal the story to me does indeed make the film and my experience fresh. If the movie is good, I may need to see it a second time to catch what I missed.  Repeat viewing allows me to deepen my understanding and see things I may have initially missed.

Think about how rarely we get the chance to repeat an experience. Did your appreciation change with repetition?

The socialization we experience of learning in the classroom biases us to expect teachers to know more than students.  understood on movies  I still count by tapping my fingers and don’t hesitate to see if I can fix things myself.  In short, I try first and ask questions later.

Am I old-fashioned?  No, I merely acknowledge that I learn to do better by direct experience.  Thinking is another form of doing and perhaps the limited opportunity to experience some ideas, make them difficult to revise?   Why do I think that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes? What active experience will help me test this idea and see if it works?  Or the idea that bank CEOs are overpaid?

Stay tuned, the idea of adjusting sensibilities continues!

 

Re-telling our story to see our blindspot

Aside


When we look over the reported numbers in a business, a narrative emerges.  The actions, decisions that made these results possible line up as persuasive evidence of our brilliance or frustration casts aspersions on outside forces beyond our control.

Unless you hold a marketing or sales role, the narrative may not extend to imagine what your customers thinking about your business and what it offers.  We prefer to find immediate causes for the results, and when we come up empty, we start over again.  This is especially true when the results have changed direction.

Scenario A, after struggling for weeks and months, the numbers are starting to go up.  That is revenue, where positive growth in the numbers matter. The cause and effect chain  validates  earlier decisions on investment, strategy, tactics especially efforts in marketing and sales.  All of your decisions, your process and approach are paying off.

Scenario B, after a streak of healthy profits, the numbers are deteriorating.  The supply chain costs are up and revenues are down.  You begin to second guess all of your past decisions, especially the most recent ones that affect your basic cost structure.  But what if you haven’t changed a thing?  What if there’s no cyclical Halloween effect in your business and you are in the middle of five-year contracts on everything?

In both scenarios, the internal self-examination that leads to either accolade or second guessing  doesn’t do justice to your business and its future.  This is part of the deal with metrics that matter, that are meaningful.

We look at numbers and we associate them with behavior we understand.  What we don’t always do is go the extra mile to understanding what the numbers really represent.  Because assumptions behind every reported number dictate what the measure means.

Paul Downs, a cabinet-maker has shared his experience using AdWords in the You’re’ the boss blog.  I can’t find the full story that appeared in yesterdays’ print edition entitled Mistake in a Pay-per Click Campaign, but I can share the link to his series.  Paul’s business was Scenario B and when he couldn’t find any specific thing different internally he began to complain very loosely about wider conditions and blamed them for impacting is business.  It took him months before he was willing to tackle head on the metrics problem .  I don’t want to steal his thunder but suffice to say, that sometimes you have to be sure that you fully understand how a number gets put together before you determine whether its direction means what you think.

Hopefully the Times will post in the online edition the full story, Mistake in a Pay-per Click Campaign soon.  But in the interim, here’s Paul Downs on Why I manage my own Ad Words campaign, and I’d love to hear what you think.  What might have helped him turn things around sooner? What advice would you share with other business owners or division heads?

Spreading Optimism in Data analysis, can it save us?


Last night, I ventured out of my normal routine and headed off to a “Meetup” with folks who sought to “create space and opportunities for ongoing collaboration of non-profit data partners and data enthusiasts to explore interesting data sets for the greater good.”

Four Ways to Slice Obama’s 2013 Budget Proposal,

[Note, the full interactive graphic can be found at The New York Times ]

Big data and Business intelligence or applying analytic and visualization tools to explore and understand data have been steadily gaining their share of business headlines in the last few years.  If I was more deft, I’d be able to show you a graphic illustration.  But that’s the point of why I went to the meetup.  To learn where and how to do exactly that!

I met several people, bolder than I, willing to put their ideas out in front of others before they were fully baked. Even better, these individuals were bold enough to push their initiatives in spite of the usual skepticism.

Compelling policy action with data

For example, the overlap of homeless people in neighborhoods with vacant buildings and apartments, sounds like a solution begging for grease to make happen.  One attendee, a researcher, wanted to document the problem and then find folks willing to help change the situation. The grease might be converting the vacant properties to low-income housing, or an unemployment  PLUS housing voucher system.  Better yet, why not offer training in home and building maintenance,  a program for home repair that puts the homeless to work to earn their rent? The researcher came looking for help to find the data and see what if anything could be done in Chicago.  I happened to have investigated this questions briefly (see my post on the Rosenwald homes) and shared with her that indeed there were lots of organizations and public private partnerships working on this issue.  For her, the meetup proved useful and helped her further her interests.

Policy wonk that I am, I recognize wider issues these simple ideas overlook.  What I applaud however, is the willingness and gumption of technically skilled, many highly educated PhDs who have voluntarily bound together to tackle the status quo.  In spite of my own experiences and deeper understanding of the problem, the Data luck meetup tapped my ever-present optimism and willingness to engage, and I guess that’s what prompted this post.  I too, sense  a good argument, made with honest data,  can and should sway people to correct problems.  Don’t you?

It’s certainly hard to roll back a policy after it’s been implemented.  When new information or new insights emerge, typically the absurdity of the original solution only manages to compromise best intentions.  The results represent the flaws or misconceptions of the original framers of the problem.  The revelations of more problems, as in the example public housing created of co-dependence and how it helped sustain poverty for people who grew up in these projects.  The emergent data just as easily undermines the willingness of lawmakers to find a better solution.  Instead the aggregate data leads them to impose more rules and regulations to prevent cheating which does little to correct the underlying problem.

How is it that we have growing government? Adding rules to correct for the limitations of the original legislation, like any patch, is easier than starting over and addressing the problem from scratch.

Amending vs legislating

The Constitution, of 1789 was an overhaul within 10 years of the final ratification by all 13 colonies of the first constitution, or the Articles of Confederation which had effectively bound the states after the American revolution. Beginning with 10 amendments, in two centuries, Congress has amended the constitution only17 times, while it enacted numerous laws.

Today, Congress appears to be passing less legislation, as illustrated in the following summaries featured by Ezra Klein in the Washington Post and govtrack.

The scare of governmental encroachment, or interference in our lives may be the rallying cry of many; additional data however, suggests other factors.

Congress                       No Action  Action      Failed      Enacted # and %

106th (1999-2000)            7460            922           28           558 (6%)

107th (2001-2002)            7750             841           5              350 (4%)

108th (2003-2004)            7045              932         13           476 (6%)

109th (2005-2006)           9141             930         22           465 (4%)

110th (2007-2008)            9218           1382       39           442 (4%)

111th (2009-2010)            9239             998        26           366 (3%)

112th (as of 8/4/2011)    3956               305         7              20 (0.5%)

(source: http://www.govtrack.us/blog/2011/08/04/kill-bill-how-many-bills-are-there-how-many-are-enacted/  )

Drafting a bill, as the blog points out certainly requires some thought, and the leadership in each party tends to only let those bills with a chance at passage actually reach the Congressional floor for votes.  This explains the relative low # of fails, in spite of the discrepancy between the number enacted and those receiving some action.

Not clear how to interpret the relatively low proportion of enacted legislation.  Is it a sign of efficiency, or the complete log jam that makes progress impossible? Anyone know whether repealing a piece of legislation , such as the repeal of Glass-Steagall would be tallied as enacted?

The challenge

One thing is clear, having more volunteers who are not part of a political action committee, or beholden to a particular ideology other than honest analysis, can only help.  The value of new tools and data visualization certainly helps, but as the presenters at last night’s Data luck meetup reminded, you still have to clean the data before beginning the analysis.  I’m eager to learn how to use some of these tools, and access more data to help tell a different story.

I’ve got no problem using shame to illustrate the inadequacy of a policy, or the stranglehold of private interests that stand in the way of progress.  What do you think? Any and all suggestions are welcome.

The Doublesided Why: How do you get returns on your energy?


 

 

When was the last time you did a quick market reality check to test your assumptions about what you do that  keeps your customers in your corner?  No, I’m not suggesting a survey. I propose you try a much simpler approach, something that easily helps you  simultaneously help them.

Your why makes you memorable

Photo credit Connie Denton, Greenville fountain

Floating Value photo by Connie Denton

When you invite customers or employees to be curios or start a  conversation, do you ever  ask yourself why you took the time, or why you care about their reaction, whether their responses matter?  Do you ever assume the other role, think about why your customers would be interested in engaging with you?  What you do has two sides; and yet is it the same value on both sides?

If  you know your end game and how your efforts to engage customers gets you there, then measure and share that internally as widely as possible, and then begin to report it externally. You’ll discover the true meaning behind Peter Drucker‘s adage, that what gets measured, gets done.  So why not focus attention on the very elements that demonstrate purpose and create consistent value from all perspectives?

Start with Feedback

Whether you have a newsletter, use regular outbound communication, or just ask for comments or feedback  online, make sure the copy delivers on the answers you just gave to the double-sided why.   The questions are harder to answer than their simplicity suggests. Engagement is not the same as attention and revenue follows one and not the other.

The Harvard Business Review Blog published yesterday an obituary for the death of marketing. In this post, Bill Lee does a great job showing how challenging it is to communicate your meaning and he also identifies a series of corrective tactics, but none of them will help you if you can’t answer for yourself the double-sided why.

A better beginning, before you start additional strategic planning, or publish upcoming budget guidelines, I suggest using the remaining weeks of summer to conduct some simple experiments.

Take a few weeks to stop, look and listen. Learn what your employees are saying in the hallways,  the parking lot and the natural way they carry themselves, their changing energy in the course of the day. Similarly, notice your customer’s expression when they arrive and when they leave.  Connect the observations to their behavior. Try not to do it big brother style, maybe hire a sketch artist to sit at the entrance or main traffic corridor.

Spend a few weeks picking up the phone, or dropping a few personal notes, reaching out with no direct expectation to randomly selected customers and  employees.  Drop-in, notice the environment and feel the attitude as well as the climate, consider how the physical space controls behavior both positively and negatively. Collect information and then in a few weeks gather your senior team to review it objectively with no expectation other than surprise to discover what works, what comes back when, why and with what feedback.

3 Simple outreach tips

Here are three things that you can do today to provoke engagement with employees and/or customers.

1. Thank them. Thank them for being your customer and let them know that you appreciate their business. A thank you  reminds your customers you are there, ready, willing and able to serve their needs.

2.  Share some news that might interest them.  This means you have to know something about your customers, their interests, their aspirations and their concerns.

Its easy in light of a national tragedy like the senseless violence in Colorado to merely let them know how you, in your business contributed to ease the pain.  Perhaps you sent a donation to a charity that reminded you that actions make a difference.  The trick?  Connect your news to boost the spirits of  your customers,  let them know that they inspired you to take actions.

3.  Share a nice memory.  Nothing warms people more than when someone else shares something personal. The story or moment you describe and share by definition must be personal, something about you and your business that reminds them that you are human, that reveals a little more about what you value in life.

At the end of the day, we all want security but with inspiration we all do better.  Feel free to share that tag line.

Try it and share

Remember these are merely tips, designed to stir up your own thinking and I’m just as interested in hearing from you as you may be in learning about others.   Hope you will consider dropping a line or sharing what you are learning or the technique that you plan to try, you tried and what works and what doesn’t.

In the last few weeks,  I have followed my advice and the results are already surprising me.  I don’t wait to ask my clients or prospects, I’ve asked everyone  5 key questions.  I’ll be sharing those results in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for more tune-up tips.