At last, the secret to successful business innovation

Time magazine’s “Person of the (20th) Century, “Albert Einstein , died in 1955. Within seven hours, physicians removed his brain. Various scientists received pieces of it in hopes that thorough examination would illuminate the keys to his genius. No insights were ever revealed.

In the same way, management experts relentlessly examine successful businesses and their leaders trying to isolate and harness the keys to innovation. That’s because innovation is now widely assumed to be the god particle of both profitability and sustainability.

God particle or Holy Grail?

Actually, looking for the secret to being an innovative company is more like searching for the Holy Grail and Fountain of Youth. All three are pure fantasies.

Innovative organization is an oxymoron. People can be innovative. By definition, organizations are not. The purpose of organizing is to establish systems, standards, protocols and processes that will enable a group to achieve a goal. Like a molecule that exists only because it holds atoms together in stable form, an organization’s future is threatened rather than sustained when one or more atoms decides to go in a new direction.

For-profit companies need to grow, not innovate. For a few, innovation is crucial to growth. For most, innovation (in other words, disrupting what they do well) is what gives their leaders nightmares.

Smart people don’t reinvent the wheel

Sages of the everyone must innovate movement point to envied enterprises that rocketed to the top by changing the way people do things and (by the way) have luscious market valuations to show for it. The causes of each success story are unique and complex, but share price rarely benefits from nuanced understanding.

Buzzwords are more effective than facts for establishing consensus on marketplace winners and losers, For the last 20 years, “innovative” has been the go-to buzzword for companies vying for an A-list reputation. Naturally, the innovation evangelist industry has flourished as technology vendors, consultants, advertising and public relations agencies, recruiters and others compete to deliver out-of-the-box solutions.

The truth is that innovators fail more often than they succeed. The literature on why companies should avoid innovation is more valid — if less voluminous and dramatic — than the exhortations for it.

Ohio State University business professor Oded Shenkar, author of Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation To Gain a Strategic Edge stated the essential fact:

Imitators make more money than innovators.

In real world of management and competition, companies only innovate (change themselves) in response to crisis. All companies!

You do not have to (or want to) be an innovative organization to make and sell innovative products. That just requires hiring and holding talented people, and giving them the tools they need. From 1925 – 2000, the Bell Laboratories team employed the technology innovation equivalents of Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Dan Marino, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus … you get the picture … all in one place. Its scientists garnered 13 Nobel Prizes. Its 32,000 patents include the fax (1925), transistor (1947), solar battery (1954), laser (1958) and cellular technology (1962) among an amazing list of things everyone uses every day.

How innovative was the company? It was the arm of a monopoly, the original AT&T (Ma Bell). Its salaried innovators devised things that both changed the world and created trillions of dollars worth of wealth. Quite often, the inventors waived their royalty rights just to be able to work at the world-famous “Idea Factory.” Because AT&T stifled free enterprise (the mythical seedbed of innovation) the U.S. Department of Justice tore it apart in 1982. Though not what it used to be, Bell Labs lives on as division on Alcatel-Lucent. More importantly, most of the supposedly revolutionary and disruptive technologies we worship today are nothing more than enhancements to or direct descendants of work sponsored by the biggest, most rigid company in history.

The secret is to look and sound innovative

For companies needing to be known as innovative, the key is simple. Just think about the phrase “New and Improved”. It has saturated advertising for at more than 150 years. Although it has been doublespeak* from day one, it remains every huckster’s go-to euphemism for making people think their products are innovative. Two weeks ago, the Central Intelligence Agency jumped on the bandwagon. According to Director John Brennan in a June 24 news release:

“The (agency’s) new and improved website reflects CIA’s strong commitment to educating and informing the American people about the Agency’s history, mission, and organization.”

That’s the only kind of innovation most companies need. The secret is to look sound and feel innovative without really risking anything. Never forget that real innovation is fraught with risks.

* If I said meaningless doublespeak, that would be meaningless doublespeak, but I could not resist sneaking that in.

"Ideas are wild horses; awesome yet useless and fleeting unless they are harnessed."

— John Ribbler

Tags: ideas

Top 10 Lessons of the Great Recession

Everyone should have learned something from the economic debacle dubbed the Great Recession. Then again, why should regular folks focus on self improvement when the villains were so plentiful and repeatedly vilified, if not actually prosecuted?

Sometimes, the outcomes of historic events are clear even when the causes are arguable. In 2001, George W. Bush did indeed move into the White House. The circumstances about how he got there became incidental if not entirely meaningless.

Drawing conclusions about things like climate change and economic cycles is trickier. Judgements about when they begin and end, who won and who lost are too often in the eyes of the beholders.

C’mon, what’s with the name?

The ubiquitous (for a while) title of this most recent crisis paired it with the Great Depression, an event which defined the lives of two generations of Americans.

The Great Depression devastated both of my immigrant grandfathers. It featured more than the collapse of financial markets and massive unemployment. My parents and everyone else who lived through it could never forgot the years of fear and pessimism. And, it enabled the U.S. Government to engineer projects and institutions that now have been in place for around one-third of our nation’s history.

That’s what it took to earn the title Great Depression. Yet, no one really knows when it was first called the Great Depression.

In the era of Siri and Superstorm Sandy, a nameless recession was never an option. In March 2009, only five months after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson promised collapse of the world economy without government intervention, The New York Times investigated the moniker in ‘Great Recession’: A Brief Etymology. Reporter Catherine Rampell concluded that:

“Nobody can take credit for coining the term ‘The Great Recession during the last year. Why? Because (this) is not the first recession to be slapped with that lofty title.”

It turns out that economic downturns of 1999, 1991-92, 1979 and 1974-75 were all called the Great Recession by authorities including Nobel Prize economist (and NY Times columnist) Paul Krugman, Forbes and Newsweek.

That is a fun fact, but this post is about insights to help people prepare for and face future economic maelstroms.

Can’t write a blog without a list

Blogging gurus suggest that a list is best way to serve facts and insights. They say people love lists and info-graphics, rather that fact-rich analytic prose. (People loved cash-back mortgages too, but that’s another … no it’s actually kind of the same story.)

Top Ten Lessons of the Latest Great Recession

10. Assume an Economic Hurricane Season is Imminent

When I was growing up in Florida, natives knew that hurricane season came every year, yet we never panicked when storms approached. Experience taught us how and when to get ready. But, people who relied on newspaper and television meteorologists were either over or under prepared. Those who who get washed away by economic storms are usually those who ignore or disregard the warning signs.

9. We Should Name Them Before They Strike, Just Like Hurricanes

In the 19th century, the U.S. economy experienced 29 official recessions, depressions or panics. They were simply called The Panic of 1819, The Recession of 1873, and so on. Today, no one will pay attention to unbranded hard times. When the weather people want you to start paying attention, they have Hurricane names ready. If the government did the same thing with economic downturns still on the horizon, people would lose a lot less money. They might want to name them for the first big company that produces an “oops” moment to tremble the markets.

8. Americans Often Misplace Their Fears

Politicians, media windbags and everyday people spend countless hours (and billions of dollars) on the threats to our great nation posed by immigrant restaurant and farm workers, a distant and impoverished dictatorship (North Korea) and other domestic and foreign risks. But, we give little thought to the real damage that was (and can again be) done to our lives by a bunch of greedy, 29-year-old Ivy League MBAs. These Machiavellian punks — who sit cramped together 14 hours a day mainlining energy drinks behind rows of computers almost just like third-world textile workers — toss billions of dollars around the world. They scare me as much as Osama bin Laden did. I know they have destroyed more commercial real estate.

7. Charts Don’t Even Feed Goats Anymore

Until recently, economic forecasts and academic studies were printed on reams of paper, later used for feeding hungry goats, ticker tape parades, chicken litter and packing breakable items. Now, they are digital and utterly worthless. An excellent example is The Failure to Predict the Great Recession. The Failure of Academics?, produced by Banco de Espana in 2012. For these folks, “the key question is to what extent the level of credit to GDP (or its variation) observed in period ‘t’ increases or not the probability of being in a recession in ‘t+1′, or whether it changes the characteristics of future cyclical phases.” They concluded that the evidence shows that it was unlikely, but not conclusive. If that makes you laugh, then maybe it was worth something.

6. Know Your Place in the World

Unfortunately, the most innocent people are punished the most and the guiltiest are most rewarded. During civilization’s 5,000 years of advancement, things have gotten better, but actual fairness is a long way off.

So, you need to know that you are not going to get rich investing in real estate and the stock market if you work for a salary, have dependents and are short on powerful, influential friends. You will get screwed unless you save cash.

5. When It’s News, It’s Too Late

U.S. laws and regulatory institutions represent an honest attempt at a fair and transparent marketplace. At the same time, successful investors will always make their fortunes by knowing things other people do not know and keeping that information secret for as long as it is useful. Therefore, assume that any published or broadcast “tip” — even the premium-paid-for variety — is already a dry well. Do your own homework. If Jim Cramer made more money investing than he does screaming on TV and selling newsletters, you would not see or hear from him.

4. Rib’s Ratio for Foolproof Investment by Normal People

I once watched a man lose $350,000 at a roulette table in 15 minutes while remaining as nonchalant as someone buying a cup of coffee. His demeanor said that he did did not work for it. Before the Great Recession, millions of Americans risked their hard-earned credit and equity just as carelessly. Using Rib’s Ratio you will never lose money again.

Commit a minimum of three hours personal due-diligence for every $1,000 you invest in anything. That means you will spend 300 hours (a total of 7.5 typical work weeks) before you invest $100,000. Of course, it only applies to people earning less than $333 per hour. Anyone earning more doesn’t need my advice.

3. We’re All Children and the U.S. Government is Our Parent

My children have the same attitude toward me as I had toward my parents. We don’t want our parents nosing about our business. We think we know more than they do. We resent paying for the things they do for us. We lie to them and do things behind their backs. But, when we start sinking, after walking right past a sign that says “Warning Quicksand”, we seek and accept their help unflinchingly. Sometimes, we even appreciate it, unless our siblings get more help than we think they deserve. The lesson is: If we help our parents around the house all of the time, they will do a better job helping us.

2. Adversaries and Competitors Have to Respect Each Other

Members of our species who drive the economy are competitive, aggressive and arrogant. But, it is only the third characteristic that causes trouble. Bankers, mortgage brokers, automakers, unions and lots of others thought they were smarter and better than everyone else when they were actually out of touch with reality. Capitalism, like competitive sports, is at its best when rivals work as hard as they can to produce excellent results, rather than cheat or run up scores on weaker players.

1. The U.S. Economy is an Amazing Organism; a Wonder to Behold

It has been five short years since the plagues of vanishing equity, mortgage foreclosures, crippling job losses, bank failures, construction shutdowns, auto company takeovers, Bernie Madoff, etc. The U.S. economy has not only recovered but remains incomparably preeminent in the world, no matter what you hear from media noisemakers and political partisans.

The Great Recession produced a moment of truth requiring the the most powerful people in America work together intelligently, selflessly and tirelessly. The epic problems they solved in days, weeks and months could have shut down every industry in the world and impoverished billions of people. Most importantly, they did it as only Americans can, because only the United States has the character and resources to pull shit out of the fan when it is already being sucked into the blades.

No joke, these guys are heroes

Detailed accounts offer compelling evidence that the mess could have been as bad or worse than the Great Depression. No matter what else you think of them, Bush, Paulson, President Barack Obama, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Steven Rattner (the man who led the auto industry restructuring), Congressman Barney Frank, chairman of the House Banking Committee and others showed the rest of the world that our DNA remains fully saturated with the best kind of leadership.

The paradox of personal branding (Part 2): Beware of gurus & experts

In The Paradox of Personal Branding (Part 1) I wrote why this is an important issue for everyone. This article warns about personal branding experts who sell false promises while ignoring what you really need to do about your personal brand.

The World Wide Web has transformed how people communicate and manage information. But, that is not enough for some people.

A few Internet evangelists and philosophers want us to believe that innovation changes who we are, not just what we do and how we do it. As an example, the enticing ideas pitched by prophets of the personal branding movement offer little real value. Here is how they do it.

The first tactic is renaming an obvious concept. To me, personal branding is clearly about managing your reputation. Why not include it under the Reputation Management umbrella? Because, in the world of digital marketing, the maze of new ideas buries clarity and logic.

According to Wikipedia, reputation management:

“… was originally coined as a public relations term, but advancement in computing, the Internet and social media made it primarily an issue of search results.”

Don’t enroll in the Hester Prynne Personal Branding Academy

Okay? If guiding how others view and think about you can no longer be called reputation management, personal branding works for me. Hester Prynne offers a literary precedent.

The new name helps both well-intentioned gurus and self-serving companies claim that Internet technology changes everything, including human nature. Irrepressible innovation maven Tom Peters first lathered up this horse with a 1997 Fast Company article The Brand Called You in which he wrote:

All of us need to understand the importance of branding. We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

Peters was the first Web kahuna to surf this wave of faulty logic, presuming that anyone can be Steven Spielberg now that digital creative tools and distribution channels are available to all. A parade of personal branding authorities echoed his mantra:

“Stand out from your peers,” William Arruda

“Personal branding makes who you are,” Colin Wright

“We can leverage the same strategies that make these celebrities or corporate brands appeal to others. We can build brand equity just like them,” Dan Schawbel

It syncs nicely with the American dream that anyone can do anything with unlimited desire and elbow grease. In truth, this view of personal branding is a big balloon tempting people with pins, if not pin heads. Their theories deflate because:

  1. Properly building a personal brand is a full time job.Celebrities, CEOs, musicians and other famous people who build a brand either have teams of professionals or are so obsessed with becoming famous they sacrifice friends and family. It is exhausting work and even those with million-dollar budgets miss more than they hit.
  2. How will the boss like your personal brand? Before “defining yourself,” “promoting your achievements,” “making sure people value your brand,” or “dressing like a CEO,” you may want to consider how the-people-you-meet-on-the-way-up think about your efforts to stand out from the crowd. Celebrities and products brand themselves to compete in the marketplace. If you are part of a team, you may just be branding yourself as a narcissist.
  3. If you’ve never been in the spotlight before, you may not like it. Gurus and experts make personal branding sound great because their personalities crave attention. But, most people are not comfortable promoting themselves and/or really do not want to. The empowerment we feel communicating via the web is a lot like singing in the shower. But, in reality more people are in the audience than on the stage?
  4. Is everyone unique? Do you really want to promote your uniqueness? Chris Perry, “Brand and Marketing Generator” says, “Everyone has a unique personal brand (a.k.a. your unique and differentiating value), and you communicate (it) in everything you do.” This is just not true. Most people want to copy, share, conform and blend into groups. We prefer to hide or deflect our differences. In organizations, the most highly valued personal brand identity is Team Player, because people know the downside of uniqueness is usually greater than the upside.
  5. How likely are you to control your destiny? Susan Chritton, author of Personal Branding for Dummies (If want the book, don’t you already have a brand?) says, “Everyone should have a mission statement — an expression that clarifies what you are all about and what you want to do in life.” Why? In truth, people are “all about” being loved, having friends and family, enjoying sports and entertainment, having faith and values, etc. Writing mission statements is for self-doubting, dissatisfied people, who sometimes do become quite successful. But, does everyone want to be like that?

If everyone stands out from the crowd …

In most ways, these personal branding promises mirror the paths to success promoted by Dale Carnegie, Anthony Robbins, Brian Tracy and Zig Ziglar. Sensibly, those oracles acknowledge that only a few out of the millions who buy their books will push themselves to the top.

Conversely, the personal branders unflinchingly embrace the oxymoron “everyone can stand out from the crowd.” Their hype seems to require an Internet utopia where everyone quarterbacks a winning Super Bowl team or wins an Academy Award. Ah, the paradox of personal branding.

In the final rant, I’ll tell you what exactly how to manage your personal brand.

The paradox of personal branding (Part 1)

This article is for all wage earners and business people who have ignored or scoffed at personal branding. You need to know its full meaning even though you may not want to Build a Personal Brand, Not Just a Career (Forbes), create The Brand Called You (Tom Peters, Fast Company) or Rock Your Personal Brand (American Express Open Forum).

Personal branding is more than a yellow brick road to both self actualization and career success. Indeed, most reasonable adults are likely to be put off by the idea that everyone needs to be promoted in ways like Nike, Coca-Cola or Apple.

Who needs a brand? Or a reputation?

Your personal brand is (as it has always been) your reputation*, how people think about you and look at you. Today, as throughout history, the relevance of your reputation (to you, because it really does not matter to anyone else) depends solely on how the opinions of others influence your happiness.

The biggest difference today is that everything we do is recorded, stored, backed up, searchable and indestructible. Everything goes on our permanent records. A person used to be able to keep up distinct reputations within different groups. Or, someone could move to a different city or country and start from scratch. No more; we are all branded whether we like it or not.

The paradox is acute because:

  • Most people have no interest in “defining themselves,” “standing out from their peers,” or “deciding what their brand stands for.” That is just human nature. Unfortunately, no one is anonymous anymore. You have to understand your personal brand and its implications.
  • The people who are eager to have a personal brand may not realize that overt exaltation of “ME” may hurt their careers more than help.
  • Everyone must first address the uncontrollable, undesirable potential of their personal brands before deciding whether they melt in the mouth or in the hand.

It’s okay to Google and Bing yourself

How many people actually Google their own names once a month to see how the old brand is doing? Paradoxically, the busy, successful people who need to mind their brands are least likely to bother. They may be surprised and (hopefully not) shocked.

Your personal online brand is something you already have, whether you want it our not, unless you are a paranoid who has concentrated on avoiding it. Part 2 of this article may help you decide what to do about it.

* Peters revealed how to create a true masterpiece of bullshit by producing his classical 3,815-word Fast Company article without actually using the word “reputation” one time.

The business lessons of a random assault by a crackhead

“When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door,” Robert Hunter

As any writer (or sales person) knows, a metaphor can be worth more than 1,000 words in demonstrating a product, idea or principle. If a sudden, random physical attack in a high-end dining district gives birth to the metaphor, it may be worth much more.

Not so very long ago, I returned to Miami, my hometown, to participate in a promising start-up company’s strategy meeting. My presentation focused on anticipating and addressing risks, the reason many young companies fail. After checking into a Coconut Grove hotel, I walked out to see how the area had changed in the years since my last visit.

For details on the assault and resulting wisdom, read the entire article at


The site of the attack, Commodore Plaza’s northeast sidewalk in Miami’s Coconut Grove district.

"The more complicated the situation, the harder people pray for simple answers."

— Original

Can the truth be told with facts that lie?
From my first glance at this picture I shot in 1980 in Montreal of Roberto Duran throwing a powerful right hook at a cowered Sugar Ray Leonard, I knew that it had captured the bout’s essence. The legendary “Brawl in Montreal” is recognized as the first Superfight of the 80s. Through 15 rounds, Duran pursued and bullied the defending champion and captured the title by unanimous decision.
But, even though the picture depicts the action truly, the powerful punch — which accounts greatly for the photo’s emphatic composition — actually missed Leonard entirely. You can use facts that mislead to tell the truth.

Can the truth be told with facts that lie?

From my first glance at this picture I shot in 1980 in Montreal of Roberto Duran throwing a powerful right hook at a cowered Sugar Ray Leonard, I knew that it had captured the bout’s essence. The legendary “Brawl in Montreal” is recognized as the first Superfight of the 80s. Through 15 rounds, Duran pursued and bullied the defending champion and captured the title by unanimous decision.

But, even though the picture depicts the action truly, the powerful punch — which accounts greatly for the photo’s emphatic composition — actually missed Leonard entirely. You can use facts that mislead to tell the truth.

How to succeed in business by understanding irony

Irony is like the air we breath and breathing itself. They are perpetual, ever-present components of human existence. Yet, we are rarely conscious of them and how they affect our lives. Indeed, millions of people cannot explain them.

Most modern business people do understand the chemistry of air and the mechanics of breathing because their educations and training emphasized practical, quantifiable processes. Breathing is similar to turning raw materials into products or meeting someone and converting that person into a customer.

Yet ironically, the more successful a business person becomes, the less likely he (in fewer cases, she) is to appreciate the inevitable irony of his situation.

The janitor rules

Compare the janitor at the headquarters of a giant corporation with the CEO. The janitor is virtually anonymous, paid little and instantly replaceable, while the CEO is wealthy and responsible for everything that happens in and to the organization.

At the same time, only the janitor is in total control of performing his job and delivering the expected results, a clean facility. Despite wielding power and influence, the CEO is dependent upon others to get anything done, including the sanitary conditions of the rest rooms. That is irony, but the most simple and obvious in the labyrinth of corporate functioning.

Read the entire article to find out the difference between leaders and bosses and learn five things you can do to understand and take advantage of ubiquitous irony.