Don’t look down! awh … told you.

June 5, 2011 Leave a comment

“When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”

Ropewalker

That is how Philippe Petit explained himself after walking the 61 meters wire, 400 meters above the ground. The feat is related in the documentary film Man on a Wire, released in 2008 just as the world economy was losing balance. Moving away from history, it is the art of rope walking in relation to business I want to explore. Between CSR, customers, and stockholders the entrepreneur’s or corporate leader’s performance is nothing short of a high wire act.

Cliché, this comparison has been made a thousand times. The difference is that people making it usually know nothing about rope walking, but I am myself part of the growing number of amateur rope walkers in Montreal (slackliners). The mechanics of rope walking, more precisely balance, applies to business as well. Balance is a combination of two specific skills: stability and recovery. Both concepts apply to business.

Stability

Stability is the ability to be in perfect balance for extended period of time. The rope walker who can peacefully walk his wire with no need for any wild movement has great stability. Similarly, the company that avoids PR crisis, has a robust supply chain and has a diverse client base has great stability. In both cases, stability is something that is acquired over a long period of time.

In terms of rope walking, stability is mostly muscular, and any of us who have given a try to the gym know you need persistence to grow muscles. In terms of organization, it is a matter of having the right policies, of employee training and of business culture, all of these take time to develop. Yet, stability is primordial as it allows resources to be used more efficiently than when putting out fire all of the time. A company is often considered mature when it reaches that capacity to stay in business-as-usual mode for long stretches of time, just as the experienced rope walker looks serene high on his wire.

Recovery

Recovery is the needed complement of stability because stability is not sufficient to confidently stay on the wire. Recovery is the capacity to go back to stability after a misstep. The rope walker wildly swinging his arms in an effort to stay on the wire is the picture definition of recovery. Good recovery allows the performer not to fear the sudden gust of wind. The organizational equivalent is crisis management and business agility. Recovery, for both the rope walker and the organization, cannot be learned while being in balance. The techniques and manoeuvres used to get back to stability can only be learned when unstable, hence the importance of practising all kinds of original movements while the cable is still low.

Crisis management experts tell us it is not only important to have a crisis plan, but equally important to practice and improve it. Just as in Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved my Cheese; you can’t allow yourself to become too comfortable. Recovery also explains the concept of “fail fast, fail cheap”. Keep the wire low and get out of your comfort zone and you’ll learn a lot. Zynga, makers of Farmville, are at any time running hundreds of tests on user samples. Not until they have learned enough on the ground do they attempt the aerial move of implementing a new feature. However stable the walker is, he always need to go back to the ground to train some more.

Conclusion

The great companies are the ones who understand both stability and recovery. They know stability leads to more efficient resource usage thus higher margin and profits. Meanwhile, they realize that the unexpected is always around the corner and you got to be ready for it. The quicker you are back on track as if nothing happened (or even better of), the better the performance. The human body has many answers to complex issues of life and business if we but listen to it.

Rope walker? Share your business insights.

Business person? Share your rope walking insights.

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Fixed Window Theory

May 23, 2011 Leave a comment

I first read about broken window theory in Malcom Gladwell’s Tipping Point. The theory simply states that an unrepaired broken window leads to more vandalism. The theory is used to describe how fighting small law infringements can decrease criminality. The interest of the theory is that you can drive big changes with small action, think applied 20-80 principle. On the path toward sustainability, Identifying that 20%, that could drive 80% of the change would be a game changer. Returning to our broken window, turning the theory around, and applying it to the sustainability cause suggests that seeing more plants and trees in our local environment will increase our sustainable behaviours. It’s a marketing campaign where marketers are guerrilla gardeners and urban farmers.

Marketers have understood long ago that media synergy was a winning strategy. Billboard ads by themselves are of little value but take all their relevance when coupled with broadcasting campaigns and other marketing strategies. Similarly, plants and trees can act as billboards for the sustainability message. Just as billboards, their presence won’t increase sustainable behaviour by itself. Also, people used to be closer to nature AND care less about the environment. In contrast, we are now farther removed from nature but care more about environment. Since sustainability is already being broadcasted, the problem is people not taking action. Thus the next step is bringing nature back in the city to tap into the same power marketers have been taping in. That’s the kind of ad I wouldn’t mind being seeing all around.

Maybe guerrilla gardeners understood this a long time ago. By growing flowers and crops, without permission, on unused public and private patch of land, these generous outlaws take from no one and give to everyone. Their action is visible, but hardly contestable, who hates a beautiful city. Meanwhile they are actively promoting nature in our cities. There are even business initiatives around guerrilla gardening such as the Grenaid. The Grenaid is a seed bomb sold in bubblegum machine that can transform anyone into a guerrilla gardener who can then cover the city with flowers reminding everyone about the environment.

Rooftop farms are another way to bring nature back in the city. Lufa Farms, an organic rooftop farm in Montréal, dreams of a city where every rooftop would be used to grow vegetables. Were that vision to come true, the city would look quite different. In turn, behaviours should change as the physical environment change, and people would adopt more sustainable behaviours (not mentioning the fresh veggies).

Since I have no evidence to back up my fixed window theory, it might be that no behavioural change occurs. If all it accomplishes is filling our cities with green, than be it. At least it’ll be pretty.

My thanks to all of those greening our cities.

The City and the Wild

May 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Is this a city or a forest?

Skyscrapers, erected high above the ground, have been associated with man’s domination over nature. A city’s size and economical power is gauged by its skyline. Almost by definition, tall buildings are downtown, and downtown is where the tall buildings are. Because our economy is mostly based on environmentally damageable activities and because cities stand for our economy, sky scrappers are collateral victims of cities’ bad reputation.

Yet, skyscrappers are green. The higher the density of a city, the lower the travel distance and associated environmental impact. The higher the density, the lower are heating and air conditioning costs. But despite being greener, downtown is also impersonal and cold. With now than more than half of the world living in cities it is safe to say that we are increasingly detached from wilderness. Parks and green spaces do provide some relief from this concrete world. But most of these green islands are overly symmetrical and orderly. What if instead of building parks in cities, we built cities in parks?

Here is an interesting calculation to stimulate your imagination (with many rounding):

Consider a 50 floors building with 9000m2 of floor, you have 450 000m2 in total (Very similar to Place Ville-Marie in Montréal). A US survey reported the average family to live in 160m2. The result is that 2800 families could live in one of these buildings. There are 10 000 000 households in Canada. Thus we’d need 3600 buildings of that size for the whole population of Canada. Assigning to each building a space of 10 time its base, you have 324 000 000m2 roughly the size of montreal.

Would you live in such a city?

Generation Y(es)

May 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Talking to my father, I realized my generation was much more positive than his, despite worrying environmental issues. The media we consume plays a big role on shaping these diverging world views. My father mostly listens to the news on radio or TV; I mostly read news online through social media.

My father news feed: “Four people killed in a car accident on Highway…” “Two people drowned in river…” You’ll need to stay tuned for hours before you hear good news on these channels. The reason is people care more about irrelevant bad news than about irrelevant good news. And since broadcaster cannot adapt their message to individuals, their message is irrelevant to most people. The best strategy then becomes to broadcast the worst news possible. Because of this my father is stuck listening to bad news all day.

My news feed is blogs and social media. In that new space, as Mitch Joel writes, We are media. These personal channels are as they imply very personal — You are the information you share. This drives how I chose the content I share: I follow people more knowledgeable than me and retweet them to others following me. Multiplying this personal brand promoting behaviour by millions of users we get a “makes me look good” filtered media. Add to this the association principle, namely why we hate the weather man for forecasting bad weather, and no one is sharing bad news anymore. Because of this I read good news all day long.

The equation is: You are media + Association effect = Positive information channel

So when I’ll go home, I’ll tell my father about all the good things going on in the world, and he’ll tell me about all the bad stuff. At least it makes for lively family discussions!

If it’s worth doing it’s probably worth fucking up the first time.

April 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Decided last minute to go to the Accelerate MTL conference about internet startups. Whatever you’ll do in life you’ll need the internet to succeed at it, so I went to get some hindsight from the bests. And as Jaques Bernier (Teralys Capital) said, I refuse to raise my daughter in an economy of natural ressources and Wal-Marts.

Had to write notes in pitch black, here’s what I could decipher:

 

Chris Albinson(Panorama Capital):

Moderly Wisdom: “don’t hang out with the bad boys. You are who your friends are.”

By definition, an entrepreneur:

  • Chooses who he work with
  • Chooses who he deals with
  • Chooses who he talk to

So Please listen to mommy, cause her advice never was so true as in business.

To win, you need to get the tough customers. The one who already listen to mommy.

 

Dave McLure(500 Startups):

fuck…..fuck…..fuck….

Small is fucking beautiful baby

fuck…..fuck….fuck…

Consider, in this order, and don’t fuck up:

  1. Users
  2. Monetization
  3. Features

Put your sunglasses on ’cause the future for internet marketing is motherfucking bright.

Howard Lindzon (StockTwits)  :

Run your business as you play risk:

  • Start in Australia and conquer the world
  • Start in Europe and get destroyed
  • Be to small to fail

If it’s worth doing it’s probably worth fucking up the first time.

If it’s worth doing it’s probably worth fucking up the first time.

 

Brad Feld (Foundry Group, TechStars)  :

Still lives and joke around after growing a company to $2G which went bankrupt, followed by him being sued for $150M as a director…

Be generous:

  • Give more than you take
  • Offer more than you ask
  • Listen more than you talk

Belief + Obsession + Will to create change  >   Experience + Resume

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Business Beyond Tomorrow 2011

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The joint effort of all three business schools of Montreal promoted radical ideas that inspired the attendance. Everyone in the room was moved at the end of the conference when a business owner who had no prior knowledge about sustainability stood up to announce his intention to make his business sustainable.  Here follows my selection of the conference best ideas.

Definition of Sustainability

Claude Ouimet from InterfaceFLOR presented a definition I liked for following Einstein’s advice: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

 

Enough — For all — For ever

The Green Mega Trend:

In the last 2-3 years, sustainability has gone from a trend to a mega trend.  Which means companies have stopped hoping the green trend will fade away and are now running to get on the train. A report by KPMG showed that sustainability is becoming part of most businesses’ strategy.

Motivation to sustainability:

  • Cost reduction
  • Regulatory requirements
  • Brand enhancement
  • Risk management

Even big bad WalMart is taking bold steps toward sustainability. In 2010 it even won World Environment Center Gold Medal for International Corporate Achievement in Sustainability. The good thing is that, because of its enormous size, when Walmart decides to favour more sustainable suppliers it creates a huge push on the market.

Ethics of sustainability

John Fullerton from the Capital Institute used the following graph about ecosystems to argue that sufficient resiliency of  our economical system has to become an ethical. The graph represent the trade-off between efficiency and resiliency, sustainability being the ideal combination. Unfortunately there is no way for us to know exactly were our economical system on the curve at a given time. But obviously with the recent financial crisis we know for sure the system is too focused on efficiency. Thus according to John, the moral imperative to steer the system on the resiliency side.


Resilience vs Efficiency in Ecosystems by Bernard Lietaer

You can get a more in depth understanding of the ecological principle at play in Bernard Lietaer’s paper.

Selling Sustainability

Bob Willard from Sustainability Advantage makes a living by selling the idea of sustainability to businesses. He was kind enough to share some of his tricks with us. In fact, he having extensively researched the case,  all numbers are in favour of sustainability. Thus, the task is simply to help CEOs come to the sustainable conclusion by themselves. That is why NGO have not succeeded to directly influence business — opposition creates opposition. Although, NGOs’ role is undoubtedly useful in changing people and government perception which influences buying decisions which in turn influences businesses.

  1. Use your audience language.
    • Environment = natural capital
    • People = human capital and social capital
  2. Talk in term of other people’s interest.
    • Easier hiring of top talent
    • Higher retention of top talent
    • Increased employee productivity
    • Reduced manufacturing expenses
    • Reduced expenses at commercial sites
    • Increased revenues and market share
    • Reduced risk, easier financing
  3. Frame sustainability as an enabler to things they care about.
    • Strategy
    • Customers
    • Investors
    • Culture

Conclusion

The conference ended with a networking cocktail: a fresh and colourful raw vegan buffet,  a live jazz band and optimistic students from Montreal’s three Business Schools. Life could be worse.

Improving Corporate Productivity and Innovation 2011

March 12, 2011 Leave a comment

This conference organized by McGill Desautels Faculty of Management spiced up my reading week, part of the fun being dressing up formal. In short, Canada is lacking in productivity and innovation and something needs to be done. So its our responsibility as student to make sure we acquire the required skills to fix it up. With that in mind, I present you my my take away from the conference.

Investment in HR and Diversity

Vincent Thomson, from McGill University stressed the importance of investment in Human Capital.

ROI in Human Capital > ROI in Fixed Assets


Cultural diversity increases net profits by on average 2.7% in firms dedicated to it compared to their peers, showed Michael Bloom of the Conference Board of Canada. Thus investing in diversity is a powerful way to invest in human capital. Immigrants often come with higher education, are more motivated to excel in their new country, and show greater innovation:

But to make full use of the power of diversity, managers need to empower and encourage employees to use their diversity, or else diverse teams do worse than non diverse team showed Michael Bloom. Here are the best practice from the most successful organizations at encouraging diversity:

  • Value diversity.
  • Hire immigrants at every level of the organization.
  • Match the organization to the clientele.

Once immigrants employee feel valued and start using their full potential your organization gains valuable strategic advantages:

  • Insights on new and more diverse markets.
  • Cultural background to do business oversea.
  • Less group-think.

Risk Management

Risk aversion stops Canadian firms from innovating argued Eric Gales, President of Microsoft Canada. (I’m pretty glad our bank were risk averse thought.)  He was an amazing speaker, mostly inspirational. We all learn about taking risk and innovation in business school, yet he made it fresh and new again. He ended his speech with this great quote:

The best way to predict future is to create it – Abraham Lincoln

Disruptive Thinking

Although not a keynote speaker, President of Epic development & Evaluation: Howard Popliger gave a great presentation on human capital management and disruptive thinking. Thinking, he argues, is a  lost art. The ever speeding up work pace keeps individuals from thinking and turns sharp people into dull automaton.

Although unintuitive, the conclusion from Howards’s consulting experience is that slowing the work pace down improves productivity. The resulting enhanced creativity has much more leverage than a couple tasks added to a worker’s assignment. Howard’s recipe is simple:

  1. Slow down the pace.
  2. Listen to what happens.
  3. Encourage emerging new creative dynamics.
  4. Beware you might not be ready for what’s coming.
  5. Study disruptive thinker to be sure you are ready.
  6. Enjoy your worker-thinker!

As you can see, investment in HR to stimulate innovation and productivity was a recurrent theme of the conference. Here is a short video to help understand how Human Capital Management has to become the new paradigm: When Barry met Sammy – A Funny View of Human Resources and Knowledge Management

Conclusion

A positive experience for my first business conference, not to mention the generous buffet which was a welcome change from my student diet.

Here is a link to the material from the conference.