Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Community of nomads

This past weekend we experienced the Encinitas Street Fair. It had a profound affect on me, a group of artisans, creators, photographers, and more - all selling their wares in the street on Hwy 101 along the coast.

It made me think hard about "community" and whether it is necessarily tied to a physical place. I believe more than ever now that place isn't a required ingredient.

Sure there are lots of street fairs I've been to before, and you have too.

But there was something about this one that said community, and has made me think of all the other nomadic communities out there.

What is "belonging" in a community of nomads?
What are the rights of membership?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Are you lonely out there?

I picked up this month's issue of UTNE Reader, the first time I've read this mag in about 5 years because I was drawn to the cover article called "The Golden Age of Re-engagement". A short article, and the usual UTNE list of books for further reading and exploration at the back, it made me think. And wonder if there is a balance or a solution in here somewhere?

The premise is this - we devote more technology and devices to staying connected today than any other society in history, yet somehow studies are telling us (in case we haven't noticed it in ourselves) that we feel more alone than ever. The article cites a recent study from Duke University, the General Social Survey (GSS) where Duke researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of of people with whom the average American felt they could discuss "important matters" dropped in half.

Then I got to thinking about being "neighborly" and what that means. I lived on the same street in Surrey, BC for 14 years, and I didn't know the names of more than 3 of my neighbors. Sad. We all got in our cars, drove to work (ironic though it is, for 10 of those years I worked out of my home!), spent the day doing whatever we do, drove home, closed the garage door (fortress of privacy) and did whatever we did.

We are just all too busy. It's easier to send a quick text message than it is to call someone. Though I was attempting to do that last night, to make dinner plans with friends and by the fourth text exchange it all seemed really stupid - we could have just talked. There's this feeling that a phone call might interrupt something. So what? Interrupt me already! Being neighborly or being a good friend used to mean visiting people. Now being nice to your neighbors means not bothering them (this according to the article again). I'm not so sure I buy that.

So where's the balance between the technology-mediated world and human contact?
How do we conserve energy in our over busy lives so we have something left for those random neighborly encounters mid-week when Paul and Julieann next door walk over with a bottle of wine and some good conversation?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Will work for food - entreprenuership in a bad economy

Did anybody see Rob Walker's piece in the NY Times Magazine yesterday? He writes a column called Consumed, every Sunday in the NY Times Magainze. Here's a post from last summer about bottled water and the environment:

He also published a book a few months back, still relatively new, called Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. It is a great read, and will give you lots to think about and talk in your communities at work and play about.

Anyway, yesterday's column was great because it was about being an entrepreneur during tough economic times. He focused on a company called GarmentValet.com, started by a couple of college guys a few years back, and now built into a $950k/year gross revenue business. Like the name suggests, these guys will pick up your laundry and bring it back clean. Their core differentiator is service. They realized the market for such a service in downtown buildings without doorman and therefore hard to get in to. To overcome this, and not just do what so many others had done, which was walk away from a captive, busy audience ripe for their service, they developed a "virtual concierge" and locker system in some of these buildings where customers could drop and pick up on-site at their building, but in a location that didn't need a doorman.

So what right? Well, read the article if you can and you may be struck as I was by this simple truth, "The story of the young company is a reminder that entrepreneurship often depends more on successful execution than radical reinvention. Now is the time to show people that you can kick service up and give them what they deserve. The economy is what you make it."

So true, and so totally rewarding, to take the chance, do your own thing, and realize you are in charge of every response your actions create. It doesn't take a complicated "save the planet" kind of idea that you may be paralyzed looking for, convinced that every other good business idea is taken. It just takes a focus on the customer's needs, and attention to detail to ask yourself how you might meet them. We all want clean clothes right? Then it takes discipline to deliver.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Like follows like?

This question has been on my mind for a long time. Does like really follow like? And if so, are we doomed forever to homogeneity? The old systems of order, around land, family, faith, class, tradition have given way. They've been replaced, some would say, by a new order based on individual choice. While we may have created our own "individual" categories or subcultures to belong to, these like-minded homogeneous groups are very strong, and can grow more extreme in their thinking, discouraging dissent and open dialogue.

When I was in elementary school, Grade 4 I think, I remember our teacher showing us a film about a group of students in California who couldn't understand how Nazi Germany flourished in WWII. The film was horrifying and illuminating. It showed how something as simple as a secret handshake can grow into an almost impenetrable subculture. It becomes a giant feedback loop, where we hear our own thoughts bounced back to us about what is right and wrong.

Perhaps naively, I really hope these individual categories and subcultures that we are all creating can develop ways to look across the lines and through various lens at each other's perspectives. If we can do that I believe a whole world will open up for each of us.

On tonight's news there was shock and horror that President Obama would even consider bowing upon meeting the Saudi King. I failed to see what the fuss was all about. So what if they are actually peers on the world stage? His gesture, which I am saddened to see his team now backpedaling to deflect, was one of a person showing up in another country and showing respect to that country's culture. Big deal. Does that make him weak? Or less of a leader? I can't see why. But if we come from the perspective that he is the leader of the free world, and that said free world is predominant over all, then you can see why many folks are horrified.

Like follows like.

Maybe the deal is we need to drop "like" all together, and just "be"?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Eyes for observation

With so much around us to observe how might we break out of the routines we are all in to really see what the inspiration this observation can hold? I try and stay fresh by asking "why" and then "why" again.

Again, credit goes to IDEO's Jane Fulton Suri for making me think about this.

Take any simple example of people and place. How do people and the built environment interact with each other in the simplest places? Why does it work the way it does? Why really?

Innovation and change comes from seeing what is, and then creating new ways it could be.

So why is the key pad on the outside entrance to our building placed just far enough away from the door that I have to stretch to zip my key card over it fast, then reach to yank to door open before the sensor expires? Why is that? I am NOT an architect, in fact, am far from it, but I ask myself that question every morning when I spill my juice trying to balance and juggle my bag and key card.

If someone walked it, lived it, observed it, then built it I wouldn't be asking "why" and "why" again.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Observing the everyday

I came upon Jane Fulton Suri's book again tonight, "Thoughtless Acts" and it made me think about the physical world around us and how we've all become such pros and masters at coping within it.

Have you ever noticed how so many things in the day to day world you live in don't work, or aren't convenient? Like getting luggage on and off the rental car shuttle bus. Or signage on most freeways in most major cities that lead nowhere. Or the chair in the salon when you get your hair cut, and you need to lean back just so to get your head in the sink, but it just never seems to fit quite right.

Suri's point, and I agree with her, is there is a lot of inspiration to be sought from real life and the mundane day to day. It is easily overlooked when we become preoccupied with our routines, roles, and traditional domains, and their established processes.

There's a lot of inertia to be overcome by breaking out of these habitual ways of working and thinking, and even getting out and just observing directly the world around you. It's in this observation of routine things, places, processes, that innovative ideas for attending to things that may be broken that we have learned to take for granted can occur.

Try it sometime and see what you see.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Disciplined, long-term really good marketing

This post appeared on Seth Godin's blog this morning.


He is great by the way, if you don't subscribe, or cruise by once in a while you are missing out on some honest real discussion. Read his post, then meet me back at the bottom for something that occurred to me, then really irked me on a plane home from Houston last night...

Seth says: "Judith comments on her frustration in joining a new website, "Sorry I do not provide passwords or birthdate. I would have like to have joined otherwise." Obviously, there's a trust problem here.

Frank won't read the instructions that come in an email from a trusted company, because there's always so much noise and clutter and legal garbage in the text that it doesn't pay to read it anyway.

Tim is in a bad mood the moment he arrives at the airport, because every other time he's been there, a marketer tries to rip him off, a security guard treats him like a criminal or an airline doesn't keep its promises.

Sarah won't give money to charity because the last two times she discovered that it was a false front for a high-overhead scam operation.

Emily got the three thousandth automated call giving her a second notice that her factory warranty had just expired... and she doesn't have a car.

Marketers have spammed, lied, deceived, cluttered and ripped us off for so long, we're sick of it.

Which means that even if you have a really good reason, no, you can't call me on the phone. Which means that even if it's really important, no, I'm not going to read the instructions. Which means that god forbid you try to email me something I didn't ask for... you're trashed. It's so fashionable to be skeptical now that no one believes you if you attempt to do something for the right reasons.

Selfish short-sighted marketers ruined it for all of us. The only way out, I think, is for a few marketers to so overwhelm the market with long-term, generous marketing that we have no choice but to start paying attention again."

Ok, this is tst again, let's pick it up here. He is so right. We have a responsibility to think about the consequences to people of our latest greatest marketing effort. And to think outside-in, not inside-out. It's the customer stupid. And it's more than just you who has a latest greatest marketing idea, so how will they all play out and play together when people are fed up, distrustful and taking back the media communications channels faster than ever?

So often I see folks who dream up their idea, or promotion, take it to market, and then forget to check back with it, letting this thing run on and on on auto-pilot.

Last night, flying home from Houston to San Diego after a week on the road (Tampa - Houston - San Diego) on Continental 1689 I'm sitting in the bulkhead seat, the light above my head doesn't work so I am forced to read my book by the light emanating from the "Lavatory" sign above the bathroom beside me. No biggee, I can improvise. The movie was "Yes Man", which was perfect mindless fare after a busy week. All good so far right? Typical airline experience.

That's just it - typical airline experiene - one with some nutty outdated things that would be simple and cost nothing to update. Let's start with the lexicon of the announcements you hear on every flight on any airline:

"The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign indicating our initial descent into San Diego, please ensure your seatbacks are in the upright and locked position, and your tray tables are stowed and locked. Please fasten your seatbelts and remain seated for the duration of the flight"

Ok, do you know anyone who actually speaks like this? C'mon! Someone, 40 years ago, wrote that script that every flight attendant reads multiple times on every flight. How hard would it be to update it? SWA took it one step further, and somehow still managed to meet TSA regulations while allowing their team to actually share a personality with the passengers trapped in the steel sausages as they fly around the planet.

How about: "We're about to land in San Diego. Please take your seats if you are up and about, and buckle your seat belt for landing. Make sure your seat is upright and your tables are put away."

Really. Who uses "descent", "stowed", "locked", "fasten", "duration". I could go on. When I recounted this to my travelling companion last night she told me it was proof I had lost my mind.

But seriously, it's the little things that matter to the customer, stupid. There's space to be had for every airline to differentiate themselves, and offer that little better, customer-focused experience by upgrading their lexicon. Better yet, create one that relates to the experiene their particular brand strives to deliver. Or is that the collosal oversight, that maybe they don't really have a particular experience in mind? Just ticket and cargo revenue? Remember, at the end of every wallet is a customer whose experience matters more than ever today. Take the time to focus on the details, and think deeper about what you do.