Consensus is the Foundation of Mediocrity

I consider myself somewhat of a “Lifetime Learner” always trying to learn new things and listen to perspectives of other people, even when I have my own opinions. The biggest reason I started studying business as a developer was because I saw the gap growing between business understanding and technical implementation and wanted to do something about it.

Recently I attended a seminar on “Managing Project Teams” where various areas of the project process were discussed in how you can help make the team work effectively together. Something really stood out for me. During the training the discussion moved to negative team dynamics.

The slide went up showing examples of “Negative Team Dynamics” which showed in bullet point examples. Most of the items seemed to make sense as they included things like, “Team Members Refuse to Work Together”. But then there was one that really caught my attention:

Team members disagree about an important topic.

Think about that for a minute… “Team members disagree about an important topic.

For me this couldn’t be more wrong and is a fundamental reason behind teams that just don’t work well together. If teams can’t engage in healthy conflict and disagree on points they will never grow past their preexisting beliefs. All too often the practice of team building encourages the process of finding consensus within the group. In my opinion, consensus is a lie. When you put a bunch of intelligent bright people into a group the last thing that you’ll ever get them to do is agree on an important topic. If they do, the topic either isn’t really that important or your team has been conditioned to “let the matter go” in favor of a sense of consensus.

Of course the team should decide before the discussion how the solution will be decided upon, and it’s important for the team to stick with the selected solution knowing that they have put all of their opinions on the table. Patrick Lencioni talks a great deal about this type of healthy conflict in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team“.

It frustrates me when I hear the idea of teams and team members that don’t want to stand up for something, that aren’t passionate about a specific solution. Just as I said in Start Standing for Something – be passionate, have an opinion and let that passion pull you into creating something great.

Start Standing for Something

Around my office I can often be heard saying something that has for me, become a bit of a mantra.

If you want clients to absolutely love you, you have to stand for something. There will be those people that don’t like what you stand for, but the people that follow you – they will absolutely love you.

And I really do honestly believe that. If you don’t stand for something, how do you matter?

The example I always use with my conversation is of course Apple and Microsoft. This is not a conversation about which one is better. It’s simply understanding their approach to their market. Think about it… Microsoft has mass adoption. The majority of computer users use Windows and they further target new clients through mass marketing and mass partnerships with hardware vendors like Dell, HP, and the like. Now consider Apple. They have exclusive use of their software on their own hardware. They focus on early adopters and gadget lovers. They aren’t concerned about mass adoption but rather instead target a certain subculture for their success. They believe that beauty is part of functionality and have clients willing to pay a premium that agree with them.

Rarely have I come across, even in my past history as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, users that absolutely loved their Windows machine. Never have I heard a user talk about how impressed they are with how the start button works or how easy to use Microsoft Word was. But look at the Apple folks… the people even call themselves “fans”. They love everything the company is about. Of course there are many people that dislike Apple and find their products silly, but they rarely matter… because the people that love Apple, absolute love them.

Another thing that fans will do is forgive. If they absolutely love your product they will tend to forgive small mistakes or inconsistencies that might come up. They would rather be involved with helping make something better so they often are the types that will email, or tweet you unsolicitedly with ideas of making the experience better, or even reporting a bug they found. The important thing is they want to be involved. They want to feel like they too are making a little bit of a difference by helping you improve your product so it’s important to listen.

Where Geeks and Business Folks Collide

A complaint I’ve always heard from business people tends to be that their technology group is so opinionated about everything. They have a passion for either a specific language, a technology, or whatever. I say, “learn from this!” The business side should take this as an example of passion, and purpose, and start standing for something from the top. Too many companies just sit there, they do the same things that all the other companies in their industry do. If one company pushes out widgets, the other company tries to make a better widget and then push those out. We are greatly amidst an Experience Economy, where purpose and well-functioning, collaborative teams will be the greatest competitive advantage any organization could ask for. The company that can grasp the power of purpose will breed an environment of passionate people ready to stand up and make a difference.

Ready? Because your competitors are hoping you fail at it. They want you to be as mediocre as they know to be, with a templated mission statement and services that hint at average. Seriously, the world has enough “average”, so start standing for something and evolve – or die.

The End of Bullhorn Salesmanship

A few days ago, I was at the car dealership having some routine service done on my car. I was sitting in the waiting area quietly reading. Five other people joined me in the room, some reading, some chatting, you get the idea – they were all generally self-entertained and seemed comfortable.

A pudgy gentleman comes into the waiting area to partake on the coffee machine. Coffee in hand, turns to everyone and asks, “Any decisions been made on the television?” A closer look at the gentleman revealed a name tag for the car dealership. Most people didn’t really understand what he meant about the television. “Would you like the television on?” Again, most people there were quietly reading, only two were talking amongst themselves, and all of us just looked at him and shrugged, not really offering a solid decision either way. “Any arguments to not turn it on?” Some gentle mumbles of, “not really” were revealed from the group. So he walks over and turns on the news. With a new look of accomplishment he looks back to all of us and inquires, “So who here is interested in looking at some new cars while you wait?” Most people didn’t really take it seriously. One person did explain, “my car is pretty old, but it has low mileage.” She talked briefly to him about her car, but said she wasn’t really interested. “We have some great deals”, he offered. To which she gently nodded and declined.

As he turns back to refill his coffee another woman announced, “what a salesman!”, in a similar tone as if she was using it as a synonym for “gentleman”.

I looked at him and teased, “perhaps offering to refill her coffee and at least introducing yourself could have helped?” (as I noticed the woman he was speaking with had an almost empty cup of coffee next to her). “Time is money”, he said. To which I argued back, “looking at things that way will likely assist you in losing more then just that sale.” He nodded, and walked off.

He seemed to be completely disconnected from the people he was trying to sell on something. Starting with the television, if he was paying attention he would have seen that most of us were wrapped up in other things. Saying, “anyone NOT want me to turn on the television” seems almost humorous. Rarely would anyone speak up at that, in my opinion anyway… I mean who am I to tell someone that they can’t watch television? But no one was saying they wanted it on, he turned it on anyway. Then he immediately jumped on us about wanting to buy something. I didn’t even know this guy’s name yet. He didn’t earn my trust yet so what makes him think I would want to talk with him about buying something? It is no wonder why car salesman get such a bum rap.

These people weren’t cattle, and he wasn’t offering anything we needed. We all had cars. A coffee refill, and introduction with a kind smile, and a business card had a better chance at closing that sale, it would have just taken a little time.

Building a Relationship

I guess I’m a little old-school when it comes to these things. I believe business relationships are built on trust, and trust is built through reputation and word of mouth. I might not know this guy now, but I bet if he made it a habit of introducing himself to the waiting area and passing out some cards it would have been a step closer. Additionally learning peoples names that come in often for oil changes and whatnot tells me that he enjoys talking to me (even if he might not) and isn’t just trying to sell me something (even if he really is). If I just learned from the Service Manager that I was going to have to pay for a new transmission, the last thing on my mind in the waiting area might have been how much money a new car would have cost me (or hey, maybe it would have been the first).

About 6 years ago I was doing some freelance web development work. I had about 15 clients that I worked with somewhat often. I was the type that took impeccable notes about each client and kept the information in my address book about them. Everything down to the names of their children, spouse’s name, sports their kinds played, conflicts they were having… anything and everything. When I saw them I would ask about them, or just send them a quick note via email, “I hope the issue with (blank) worked out, you seemed pretty stressed.” I built a relationship with my clients. When I saw something in an article online that I thought would interest them, I would send it over. If it was in the paper – I would fax it. Not everyday, nor every week. But when I saw something that I knew would be genuinely helpful, I would send it. The trust grew. When I was then starting to work in other areas of development, they were interested in hearing what I had to say and how it might help them. I would tell them straight up if I thought something would help or not. They trusted me to help them make the right decision because they knew I valued their success in business just as much as they did, and it was true, because I honestly did.

I still do this today with business contacts using Highrise. All of my notes about my contacts go in there. Anytime I’m about to email or meet with them about something I look at my notes to see what they were up to the last time we chatted. A solid connection is made, and people typically prefer to do business with people they like and trust, rather then someone just trying to get something out of them or sell them something. The experience a client or prospect has with you is a big deal, in every interaction they have with your company, so don’t let it be the last thing you think about.

Stop Leading Your Team to The Destination, Give Them The Map

To start 2009 this will be one of the first of many business oriented posts coming to this blog. It’s great to be a technologist, but it’s important we as technologists can do something with our ideas. So I hope to provide some benefit to those of you willing to listen.

The biggest thing every executive needs to run a successful company is a vision – you can’t do crap without a vision of what it looks like. I’m not talking about a 5-year plan, or a 10-year plan… I’m talking about an idea. What do you want to be? Who are you in the realm of all of your competitors? If you don’t know this, why come in the office in the morning? What pushes you to get up everyday? There has got to be something… and that’s the first step – figure out what it is.

Once you’ve got the idea figured out, don’t tell everyone about it by commanding they follow behind you, because people will get lost and it will slow the entire process down.

Think about it for a second. If a group of people in several cars are all trying to get to the same place, but only the person in the front of the line knows how to get there. With every stop sign and stop light, every turn, and every interruption the people in the line have to check where the leader is… and in turn the leader needs to check that everyone is behind him. So instead of commanding, give everyone the map, explain the vision, and explain how they fit into the vision of what’s going on. Then with the map in hand they can get to the destination in their own right. Give your people the freedom to make small course changes on the way, side streets or pit stops, they’ll meet you at the finish line.

Let’s say part of the corporate vision is to provide a superior user experience in all of your software. If you share the map and embed that ideal in your corporate culture you’ll see how people will take charge. Jill in QA will consider it when testing. Bob in design will research the best user experience paradigm in his interface, just as Sam will do the same when programming the front end.

Have a vision, build a culture around the vision, and then let the smart people work.

Measuring Customer Loyalty with Programs is Bullshit

I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to prefer CVS as my general drug store. Now, while any prescriptions I need filled are done at Publix, I let CVS handle the generalities. But several years ago CVS did something… they created a loyalty program. At first I didn’t mind so much, they handed me card that I was required to fill out and send it in and with that I would receive “special discounts”. I went home unpacked my purchases and there the form sat for about a week until I got tired of seeing it and threw it away. But every time I go to CVS they try to give me another one. Sometimes if I just said “no, thanks” they would covertly add it into my shopping bag to be discovered once I returned home. I’ve gotten to the point now that I say, “no thank you, I have about 6 of your cards at home and I never bring a single one with me.” Sometimes I would watch as the clerk would simply scan their own cards, a ritual I could tell they had done more then once from people not wishing to jump on the card-carrying program. Some stores held a barcode right on their registers that read, “For customers not wishing to join the program, still wishing to receive the special discounts.” The stores were doing what I often refer to as “Hacking the Interface”, they had something that they knew wasn’t working, that people didn’t want, and they found a way to easily get around the policy.

The bookstore that I once frequented (and was a member of their “discount” customer loyalty program) has changed their direction in the way they wish to represent their business and the products they offer. After a few experiences with this bookseller after their makeover I realized that my discount card didn’t mean much to me if I didn’t like going to the store anymore. I paid $10 a year for that card, but the savings seemed of little value to me when I no longer enjoyed the experience of the store. I have since started shopping at another bookstore and have thrown their discount card away.

It’s About Gradual Engagement

Customer loyalty is a funny thing, something we often confuse with customer satisfaction. But customer loyalty will never be found in a card-carrying membership program or a points system. Often these programs guarantee that I (the customer) will have to maintain my information within your system to win awards that I don’t really care about, want, or that have any weight on my desire to do business with you as a company. They just stand in my way, and are annoying.

What customers want is a long-term engaging experience. Customer loyalty is created by several gradual experiences that cause that customer to continue to want a relationship with your company. Recently I purchased some Dvorak labeled covers for both my laptop and my keyboard at the office. Having not been satisfied by a previous cover I once purchased, I went to Google to find another company. The company I came across had one of the covers I was looking for but nothing for the office. I sent them an email saying what I was looking for and received an email back in about 30 minutes telling me that they were currently developing that product and that it would be available at the end of the month. He said, “Sorry we don’t have it for you now. I’ll send you an email when it’s finished up and we’ll give you free shipping on the order.” Sure enough around the end of the month I received an email from him telling me that they were available with a link to the product. Now the email could have been computer generated, but it was personalized and had his name on it, giving me the satisfaction that this individual emailed me back as promised.

So far I’ve had two great experiences with them. 1) They apologized for not having the product I hoped they would, gave me a discount on shipping when it was going to come in; and 2) Followed through on their promise to notify me when the product was available making it convenient for me to place my order. When I receive the covers, and if they are of the quality I expect – I will most definitely use them again, as the entire experience of my interactions with them have been very personable.

So what I’m trying to say is simple, the experiences you provide will build the loyalty that you are looking for. Don’t put programs in the way of buyers, most of them don’t care and find it a pain to deal with (and a poor experience by always being asked if they have their card). In a business world where things change just as fast as the technology we use to measure them it’s time to throw away our 12 year old copies of The Loyalty Effect and start building a more permanent bridge with customers that want to do business with us… not because they have our card in their wallet, but because they prefer the experience that our company provides and would come to us even while being a member of a competitor’s program.