Celebrating Chinese New Year with a new book release on A Story Before Bed

Chinese New Year falls on February 14th this year and to celebrate it, we are releasing a new book on A Story Before Bed. Check out Immedium’s Year of the Tiger by Oliver Chin and Justin Roth. While you’re there, you can also record other great chinese zodiac books: Year of the Dog, Year of the Ox, Year of the Pig, and Year of the Rat for that special youngster in your life.

Goong Hai Fat Choi from Jackson Fish Market!

Maverick by Ricardo Semler

The formula for successful business books as of late is often as follows:

  • Novel observation: highly improbable stuff happens/little things make a big difference/committing to success leads to failure
  • Distinctive title: The Black Swan/The Tipping Point/The Strategy Paradox

Maverick, by Ricardo Semler, doesn’t follow this pattern. Not that it’s formula is particularly original (business leader recounts success story). In fact, the book is almost quaint and cute in terms of its style. First, it was published in 1993 – eons old in the world of most business books. Second, the author, Brazilian CEO Ricardo Semler writes with an energy and an almost kid-like passion that I think would make most CEOs self-conscious.

The book follows the journey of the author as a 20 year old being passed the keys to his father’s successful corporation, firing the bulk of the executive ranks (20-30 years his senior) and then spending the next couple of decades evolving Semco’s policies and culture to what he calls a “natural business”. I’ve always hoped that as we build Jackson Fish Market it will grow in a natural and healthy fashion… I’ve informally referred to that notion as building an “organic” business. Semler’s “natural business” (while based on experience instead of hopes and speculation like ours) doesn’t seem that far apart. And frankly, it seems pretty logical.

Semler’s basic philosophy is to treat employees like adults. He points out that even the most die hard believers in democracy and individual rights of the citizen come to work and become die-hard believers in autocracy, central authority, and rigid conformity. And it’s a good point. Why the difference? No doubt some CEOs would explain that running a society and running a company are diametrically opposite with a competitive industrial enterprise requiring thousands of cogs (people) to operate in perfect unison to achieve success. Semler would beg to differ.

And it’s not like he started out with these philosophies. He began his career pushing for efficiency and standardization that often infest all large companies. And, as they often do, these mechanisms result in greater productivity and profitability… for awhile. But Semler noticed that even as profits improved, the employees at the company seemed less motivated and committed than ever before.

The answer, democracy and common sense. They had tried to write new rules describing their new culture, but as Semler puts it:

“Only then did we say aloud what we had been thinking: that we were trading written rules for common sense. And that is the system we have today, which is barely a system at all. When you get a company car at Semco, you can do anything you want with it. If you have a friend who is a mechanic, have him take care of it. We want our employees to treat Semco’s vehicles as they would the family sedan. We’re comfortable having their judgment apply to our car as well as theirs. But this was all terribly frightening to some of our people, especially at first. We had to do lots of hand holding. Clerks in our finance department, for example, weren’t comfortable deciding how much Semco should keep as minimum balances in its checking accounts. ‘Just think of them as your accounts,’ I would say. ‘But Semco has so many accounts,’ they would reply. ‘What happens if we have an emergency and need cash.? And I would take a deep breath, and implore them, one more time, to use their common sense.”

This is just one example but they go on and on throughout the book. Not only are they entertaining, but the principles he espouses don’t just make sense, they reawaken your faith that there’s an alternative mechanism for running a business.

While not every large business is run in the traditional way, or experiencing the kind of problems mentioned above, I would imagine that most people who have experience with one or two large companies will be dreaming of sending copies of this book to those large company CEOs by the time they’ve made it through the book. Semler’s philosophies seem just the prescription for enormous companies that are struggling with employee morale, product quality, and customer loyalty.

Since we don’t have any full-time employees just yet (only full-time owners) it’s probably a little premature to start implementing all of Semler’s philosophies. However, it’s hopefully not too early to start thinking along the lines of the business as being a collection of talented and creative grownups who are coming together to do great things. It’s the basic premise on which our business was founded, and it’s so nice to have Ricardo Semler’s inspirational book to reaffirm the direction we hope to take.

Marketing IS User Experience

In so many (though not all) of my past work experiences there was always this weird dividing line between the people that made the product and the people that told the world about the product. I never understood it. To me the customer’s experience with our company and our software always started at seeing the first ad or hearing the first comment from a friend and continued all the way through usage of the product itself. I used to tell the marketing folks that the effective budget of the UX people in terms of making an impression on the customers dwarfed the dollars the marketing guys were going to spend. Users spend countless hours in front of the software they use all the while forming and reinforcing brand impressions both positive and negative. Customers don’t all of a sudden consider themselves dealing with a different company when they transition from potential purchaser to purchaser. So why do so many companies so obivously and unceremoniously hand off the customer from marketers to product development and support?

In the worst case the promise made by the marketers is completely out of sync with what the product actually delivers. The marketing may over-promise or under-promise or it may just be off-base altogether. Either way, the customer is left feeling confused and disappointed. Even when the product may be good, if it doesn’t match what the customer was expecting it’s an opportunity lost.

And the truth is that so many of the things that preserve continuity between the promise and the delivery are small. Little visual cues, coherency in message expressed in word choices. Companies trying to build relationships with customers need to present an authentic voice that is coherent in multiple situations. If you meet a person and they act one way in one situation and then give you a completely different impression in another, you will like not quite know how to feel about them. Which face was authentic? Were they both just a put on? Is there any way to know what to expect from this person?

I like reading books with gossipy tales from various business debacles. I especially enjoy stories where there’s lots of nutty spending and inappropriate behavior. (We’re using these tales to write our HR manual. ;)) The latest (for me) of these quick reads is Hit & Run — How Jon peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood. I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s fun. One passage struck me the other night. I don’t know why I was surprised to find this same disconnect in the movie industry but in retrospect this might just be a function of (many) larger companies. This passage discussed the marketing of the first Batman movie:

“‘Jon made the Batman campaign,’ says a Warner source. ‘It was Jon who insisted on no music in the first trailer.’ By bringing Furst [the production designer from the movie who designed the Batmobile and the whole look of the film] into the marketing process, Peters unified all the film’s visuals including the merchandising tie-ins. He even turned down a $6 million offer from GM to build the Batmobile because the car company would not relinquish creative control.”

Whatever you may think of Jon Peters (if you even know much about him), I love the commitment of turning down the cash to make an experience that has no weird moments that don’t work (other than Kim Basinger’s performance of course).

the myths of innovation

Years ago I got to work with Scott Berkun at the big software company over the bridge. After that time Scott started to figure out how he wanted to evolve his career and what he enjoyed doing. Ultimately, Scott is a really thoughtful and articulate person and enjoys helping others succeed. His transition to educator and ultimately tech industry persona started almost imperceptibly and arguably is still in its early yet blossoming stages. But clearly Scott had a plan, and he has executed consistently and well on that plan. And because of his dedication and focus, now the world gets to share in his thoughtfulness. First from his inaugural publication The Art of Project Management, and now through his new book (all lower case cause innovators think Caps are for lemmings pg. 80) the myths of innovation.

(For the next book that comes out on innovation I’d like to see iNITLOWERCASE as the convention used for the title. That would be truly iNNOVATIVE! It’s coming. You heard it here first.)

The thing that’s great about Scott’s books is that he writes the way he talks. Clearly, amusingly, and most importantly practically and in a down-to-earth fashion. Scott neither makes sweeping pronouncements that are too vague to attack or implement, nor does he act like his advice is the only way to get things done. The things I like about Scott in person are the things I like about his writing. the myths of innovation is a compact volume and enjoyable to read (full disclosure: I skimmed) skim.

You think your project is tough?

Anyone who builds software for a living sees the similarities between the architecture and engineering of real-world structures and the software we build every day. And anyone who is trying to build something original, authentic, detailed, and beautiful can’t help but look at the real-world structure of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with awe as one of the most incredibly beautiful physical creations they’ve ever seen. At least that’s how I felt. Stunning doesn’t do it justice. When I saw the book Basilica, The Splendor and The Scandal: Building St. Peter’s, I knew I had to read it. (And the “scandal” was a bonus.)

The book was quite enjoyable to read. I’m a fan of history books told in a narrative form. I do wonder sometimes when the author is claiming that someone felt this way or that how the hell they know (clearly they don’t). But you allow them some license to make it a good story. And the authors of this type of book usually use devices such as “So-and-so must have thought…”. That aside, getting to see what went into creating St. Peters is super interesting. Fans of engineering will immediately relate to the challenges they had during construction.

“Instead of the thirty months allowed by Sixtus, della Porta and Fontana had achieved the impossible with time to spare. They had raised the highest dome ever built in just twenty-two months. Dwarfing every other construction, it soared 438 feet and spanned a 138-foot diameter. The dome of St. Peter’s is three times the height of the Pantheon dome, more than twice the height of the Hagia Sophia dome, and 100 feet higher than the Duomo in Florence.”

Including the cross, ball, and lantern, more than 616,000 tons rest on Michelangelo’s drum, and the height from the ground to the tip of the cross is 452 feet.

In order to make the layout around the basilica make sense they had to move the obelisk to its current location in the plaza well in front of St. Peter’s.

Since the imperial days of Rome, an Egyptian obelisk had stood in what had once been the Circus of Caligula. The obelisk had posed a nagging problem for every pontiff whose ambitions turned to a new Basilica. Its position on the south side of the old St. Peter’s was a distraction, drawing the eye away from the main entrance. In Nicholas V’s utopian plan for a papal Palatine, the obelisk was positioned where it is today, int he center of the piazza in front of the Basilica. But 320 tons of granite rising eighty-three feet in the air are not easily dislodged, let alone moved, and no engineer could figure out how to reposition it.

Way cool!

If you “enjoy” the politics of engineering within the confines of a large international corporation (which is essentially what the Church was even 500 years ago) then there’s plenty of fun moments. Remember, the construction of St. Peters started in spirit with Julius II being installed as Pope. It didn’t “end” (no project of this size ever truly ends) until roughly 150 years later. In that span there were 22 popes, and at least 7 chief architects one of which was Michelangelo himself! There is no organizational dysfunction that this project didn’t experience. And just imagine, you might be worried about the direction your project will take when you go on vacation. These guys had to worry about what happened when they died since there was no way anyone working on the project at the beginning or the middle would see its end.

At one point the corruption and lack of progress was so bad that the Pope installed a committee to oversee the construction and make sure everything was going according to plan (sound familiar?) – the Fabbrica. While they definitely helped early on when the project was completely in disarray, (and this is certainly no comment on the Fabbrica of today which cares for St. Peter’s) there was definitely a point where they were the committee designing the horse that ended up with a camel. When Michelangelo was brought onto lead the effort (after already having worked on various efforts around the Vatican) he was already an old man, but knew he needed absolute control. His deal was that he answered to the Pope and nobody else.

“Still a firebrand defending truth and beauty, Michelangelo built with undiminished fervor – and received the unwavering support of a succession of popes. Although repeatedly challenged by younger architects and Fabbrica administrators, he would not concede a pilaster, a cornice, or a column. For seventeen years, through five pontificates, he battled attempts to dislodge him or dilute his authority… [Finally, one of the Popes, Marcellus II, tried to be more conciliatory. In an appearance of evenhandedness, he allowed the Fabbrica a hearing to vent its grievances. The officials rebuked [Michelangelo] with bitterness.”

Michelangelo’s response to their complaints of their impotency?

“I am not and will not be obliged to tell either you or any of the deputies what I expect to do. Your only business is to collect and administer the funds, and see that they are not squandered or stolen; as regards plans and designs, leave that care to me.”

Basically, go fuck yourself.

Finally, the insight that made the biggest impression on me was the unbelievable dedication of some of the leaders of the time (not every Pope, but many of them) to art and beauty. To be clear, it wasn’t necessarily an altruistic or idealistic viewpoint they had. Art was the communication medium of the time. People couldn’t read. Art told the story. It was Hollywood, the internet, newspapers, tv and everything else rolled into one. And the leaders knew not only that controlling the message was key to controlling the people, but that great art was a way to preserve their legacy. There is one story about how there are a team of painters making frescoes all over St. Peter’s. And then in 1508 Raphael Sanzio arrived in Rome. (Yes, that Raphael.) Raphael was only twenty-five. His long-time mentor Perugino was already hard at work with the other painters with most of the rooms at the Vatican already frescoed.

“When [Pope] Julius saw Raphael’s first fresco, he recognized a special gift. Overnight, Perugino, and the rest found themselves unemployed, their paintings obliterated, and the entire work of frescoing the papal apartments given to the boy-genius ‘so that he alone might have the glory.’

The more seasoned and celebrated artists were packing their cases when the workmen came in. They brought chisels to chip off the old frescos and cloth bags of sand and lime to mix into plaster to recoat the walls. As the frescoes began disappearing, the floors were covered with a blanket of brilliant flakes, the labor of months now broken plaster. Raphael would not allow the work of his old teacher Perugino to be touched, but the other walls were chiseled bare, then replastered, rendered smooth and blank to receive the genius of the wunderkind.”

All in all there’s a lot in this book for every good software designer and engineer (and even manager) to love in Basilica. Just imagine a 150 year long project with enormous egos, constantly shifting plans, tons of corruption, and the highest stakes in society. Now your project doesn’t seem that tough.