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September 21, 2010

The Anna Karenina Principle of Business

The Anna Karenina principle was popularized by Jared Diamond. It comes from a line in the book Anna Karenina.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way."

This principle states that evolutionary success doesn't occur because of some particular positive trait, it is instead the absence of any serious negative traits that leads a species to thrive. If you were to apply this idea to business, it means a deficiency in any one core element will doom a company to extinction. However, a successful company somehow avoids each and every one of these potential failures as it grows and thrives.

The bigger question then becomes, what are the core traits that lead to business failure? In the case of domesticated animals, these traits are easy to identify (dietary needs, captive breeding, disposition, panic tendency, and social structure).

I propose the following, sure to be incomplete, list of positive traits required for a sustainable business:

  • Ability To Identify A Competitive Niche
  • Flexibility In Adopting Internal & External Innovation
  • Capability To Repeatedly Identify & Recruit Talent At Market Value
  • Ability To Sustain Periods of Frugality
  • Commitment To Organizational Learning

So what do you think? Did I leave anything off the list?

September 14, 2010

You Are Not Your Target Audience

When creating a brand, design, or campaign strategy, it's crucial to step out of your own head and remember: you are not your target audience.

It's easy to think, well, this is how I use Facebook and Google; it must be the way other people do, too. It's easy to create an entire business model based off of your values, and not your customers'. It's easy to think that everyone will love the new logo, because you think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread.

But your customers have different aspirations, circumstances, and passions than you do. They don't notice the inconsistencies in the Love's truck stop logo. They don't know what a Twitter hashtag is or have the slightest concept of link bait. When they think advertising, they think Mad Men.

Now, these examples may be quite specific to us at the office, but the point holds true across industries. Plain and simple, if you're working in a marketing department or on a marketing project, your target audience is rarely, if ever, you.

September 8, 2010

Why You Don't Have Netflix Friends Anymore

Once upon a time, Netflix users had friends. Users could see how their friends rated movies, read their reviews, and see compatibility scores between current and potential friends. But, right before the Labor Day weekend, Netflix finalized a several month transition away from providing these features.


Well, when you find yourself becoming "The Facebook for Movies" (or the Facebook for anything), it's time to reconsider. The Netflix advantage is product innovation -- things like Instant Watch. Everything else is nice, but also distracting.

Moral of the story? Just because something (e.g. social media) is great, doesn't mean it's for everybody. If it's not going to keep people from switching to the competition, it's superfluous.

August 31, 2010

"Task Cohesion" is More Important Than "Group Pride"

Want to motivate a group of people to do something amazing? You don't need a group cheer, and you don't need to fly a flag. The individual members of your team don't even have to like each other (although that makes it a hell of a lot more fun).

Things like group cheers, crazy hats and other "tribal" identifiers are great at building social cohesion among like-minded individuals, and can be powerful tools. However, social cohesion is not a great predictor of a successful outcome.

If you want to succeed in a difficult task, the most important step you can take is to get everyone committed to it. In the military this is called "Task Cohesion", and studies have shown it's the most important factor in determining whether or not a difficult mission gets completed.

So, how do you create task cohesion? It's not easy, but it's relatively simple. The key aspects are:

  • Define the task in realistic and concrete terms. Make it memorable and inspiring.
  • Create a sense of significance. Allow them to understand the "why" behind the mission.
  • Encourage communication from the bottom up and leverage heterogenous skill sets.
  • Emphasize "getting the job done" above all else.

This isn't ground breaking advice, and you've probably heard a lot of it before. But, it's worth remembering. Work is about accomplishing what you set out to do. If you're leading a project team, the best thing you can do is set a clear goal and get everyone's buy in. It's great to have fun along the way, but if the mission fails. It won't matter.

August 25, 2010

Nobody Likes A Know It All

When creating content, too many companies fall for the expertise trap. Whether it's a video, a podcast, or a written blog post, it all winds up being about how much the designer knows about designing, the doctor knows about the body, or the woodworker knows about wood. The question is, does anyone really care?

Don't get me wrong -- educating your client base can be a great tactic -- but there's a big difference between teaching your audience things they care about and teaching them everything you know.

For example, if you're an art gallery catering to the middle class (i.e. not super wealthy collectors), your content would probably better serve you by focusing on how a customer should choose art for their home -- lessons in color theory and stories of interior design -- than by focusing on the frontier of modern art or details of art history, things that only collectors and academics care about.

Next time you're creating content, think about your audience. Are they mothers? Are they business owners? Are they cogs in a corporate machine looking for a way out? Instead of ladening your content with jargon, industry references, and minutiae, it's a lot more effective to create content that people will enjoy reading because it's interesting and resonates on an emotional level.

August 12, 2010

A Reflection on Hard Work

Craftsmanship. It's one of those words you don't hear much in a digital environment. And yet, craftsmanship is just as vital today as it was a thousand years ago. It's analog and pastoral connotations are merely that -- connotations. The pursuit of excellence is just as fitting for the cabinet maker as it is for those of us who spend our working hours in front of a monitor.

Craftsmanship takes practice, observation, and patience. The road is long and paved with repetition, repetition, and more repetition. But, the end result is a product you can stand behind -- something you can point to with pride and say, "I did that."

When you've reached that point, people won't say "Oh, that's neat." or "Hmmm, interesting." The only thing they'll be able to say is "Damn. Good job." And that's the sort of thing that'll put a grin on your face when a lot of other things won't.

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