Stuck in a Habit: Is Predictive Adaptation Possible?

Editor’s Note:  I was thinking about this post in terms of a session on Predictive Adaptation I sat in on last month. Dr. Liz Alexander moderated. She is considering a book on the subject which boils down to:

Can we stay tuned in enough to adapt prior to a change in our marketplace?

As the shelf life of companies grows shorter and shorter, the ability to adapt is on the short list of survival strategies. How do we cultivate it? One way is to not be stuck in our habits.

I’m a tea drinker, I have a teapot with an infuser, numerous immersion devices and a cabinet stuffed full of teas – black, herbal, medicinal, green. When I drank coffee, it was the same scenario, with different props. My freezer was full of Peets’ (now, alas, part of Starbucks) Major Dickinson blend and my cabinet, coffee brewers — drip, stovetop, percolator, French and Italian press – you get the drift.

Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing.
Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing. The solution?  Try something new.

Two weeks ago I ran out of tea. I reordered in a such a panic that I used an old address.  My tea — a special blend I’d grown to depend on to get me out of the door in the morning — never arrived. The tea blender refused to fix the delivery snafu.  So I didn’t reorder.

That’s how one habit (getting in a snit when things didn’t go my way) forced me to re-evaluate another (my tea drinking compulsions).  I was forced to rethink that morning ritual. Now I’m brewing tea bags (Choice) I buy at the grocery store.  I don’t enjoy my tea nearly as much, but it’s saving me time. Unintended consequence:  I’m actually getting to work on time.

Habits can be helpful, but they can also lock us into position. I’ve noticed that whatever it is hoard is a habit – wine, ice cream, tea, coffee, graham crackers. In the same way, my response to the tea blender was a habit — he chided me about my carelessness, I felt like a bad child, and I didn’t want anything more to do with him.  Other habits I’ve flagged since my tea disruption:

  • Who I greet in the morning
  • Where I walk the dog
  • What I do with my spare time
  • Who I telephone to spend time with
  • How I think about my abilities (and shortcomings)
  • The books I read
  • How I view people with ideas that are different from mine

A search on “habits” took my to former Googler Matt Cutts’ Ted Talk, “Try Something New for 30 Days.” (Editorial note:  Why is the guys can look like slobs and the women have to look like they’re ready for the Academy Awards?)  Regardless, I’ve resolved, for at least 30 days (when Choice tea bags will probably already be my new habit), not to reorder tea.  We’ll see what happens.

Who knows what I’ll discover.

 

 

 

Can We Adapt Before Change Happens?

If a lifelong attraction to fortune tellers has taught me anything, it’s that the future never turns out according to plan. And a planner I’ve always been.

So I was fascinated when Dr. Liz Alexander posed the question:  Can we adapt predictively?  That is, can we read trends wisely enough to see what will be required for a future that’s still around the corner?

Liz, who among other things, guides thought leaders through the process of articulating and packaging their theories, pointed out that if:

  • The past is a predictor of the future
  • Corporate shelf life continues to drop (it’s now in the low double digits)
  • We remain flexible professionally, accepting that each of us will have multiple professions during our working life
  • Then, if we pay attention to mega trends, we can determine where our professional strengths can best be applied

So much depends on seeing opportunity when it presents itself.  I pulled myself away from watching the Democratic National Convention to write this. Al Franken, former comedian, current U.S. senator spoke, and I was struck by Gail Collins’ oped piece pointing out that Hillary Clinton is running for president at a time when most women are thinking about gardening, grandchildren and the occasional cruise.

These are remarkable people, obviously, but they are also tips of an iceberg of change, reminding us to stay flexible, pay attention and don’t be afraid of opportunity.  Maybe that in itself is predictive adaptation.

 

 

 

 

What Does An American Look Like?

My friend Prithvi was sworn in this week as a U.S. citizen. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation about the experience:     Swearing in

The ceremony was beautiful.One thousand one hundred sixty-six (1,166!) people from 97 countries participated. After waiting outside for about 30 minutes, we took the oath and a lovely band played the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  It was an emotional moment.

Several judges spoke about the United States being a nation of immigrants and as new citizens, our enriching that heritage. They encouraged us to tell our stories and enrich America with our culture.

A woman judge told a story about a Bangladeshi immigrant who became a citizen.  When he was shot after 9-11, he sued to stop his assailant’s execution. We were strongly encouraged to vote:  There were voter registration desks in every corner of the building.

The head of the immigration service there, whose grandfather was from Mexico, asked us what an American looks like.  Then he said, “This!” and gestured at us.  Each country was called out, and the people of that country were asked to stand. Then he said, “Mexico,” and everyone remaining stood up.  There was roar from the stadium.

Prithvi is from Mangalore, India. She is brilliant and well-rounded: a technical manager at Apple, the mother of a three year old, the wife of an equally brilliant engineer.  She also runs a non profit for Indian children. I can’t imagine anyone’s taking issue with her becoming a citizen.

I asked her how it felt to be an American.

I don’t known what that means. I have felt American for a while.  And Indian.  That will not go away.

Prithvi’s experience was a reminder of what we’re about — and it’s not those plastic American flags realtors insist on sticking in everyone’s yard, nor the mattress sales, nor the grocery store aisles clogged with overflowing baskets.

At a time when our world’s politics are compared with — heaven forbid –“Game of Thrones,”  let’s try our best to rise to the occasion, to return some of what we’ve been given — to read, listen critically, write our elected officials and vote. Let’s try our best to make things better.

 

A Marketer’s Lessons from Brexit

Ever failed to gain support for a smart, admirable product or campaign that seemed like a no-brainer?  Something like conserving water?  Attracting technical talent? Remote storage (until it became the “cloud”)?  Saving for retirement?

So it was with Brexit, a seeming no-brainer turned on its head by lackluster messaging, a failure to get voters to the polls and a strong political environment.

1. “Want to Make Sure No One Listens? Deliver a Boring Message

“One of the things that went terribly wrong with those who were campaigning for Remain was to find a passionate way to defend the European Union,” the English historian, commentator and Columbia University professor Simon Schama, told NPR when the vote to leave the European Union was announced.  “The point of the European Union was to be dull and boring rather than violent and aggressive and bellicose, which it have been for most of its history,”

A successful real estate saleswoman once told me that people buy by emotion, not reason. For Britons, the message of peace, protection and prosperity was drowned out a strong wave of  nationalism stoked by fears of uncontrolled immigration a remote central bureaucracy.   Emotion ruled.

2.  Apply the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) test

“A slogan and a message must be aspirational — either give people hope things will get better or that the bad stuff will stop — both, said Ruth Sherman, a political communications analyst, told The New York Times.  “I remember thinking when I first saw [one of Hillary Clinton’s taglines], ‘I’m with her’ — when I saw it, [I thought] ‘Really?’ It’s not my job to be with her. She should be with me.”

The message also has to be strong enough to move people to action. Although 75% of  British 18-29 year olds voted to remain in the EU, these voters did not turn out in sufficient numbers to make a difference in the final result.  And showing up, as Woody Allen reminds us, is 80% of success.

3.  Pay attention

Be it data, news reports or eating lunch with the troops, it’s important to keep you finger on pulse. The ‘Remain’ camp’s ‘Stronger Together’ slogan “failed to ‘personalize, individualize or humanize their campaign,” Frank Luntz, an expert on political messaging told The New York Times.  “The problem with the concept of ‘together’ is that it promotes groupthink…We are in an age of individual action, not collective responsibility.”

4.  We are doing business in an increasingly protectionist environment.

I hope by now you’ve read GE Chairman Jeff Immelt’s graduation speech to NYU’s Stern School of Business.)  Every company is on its own, he warns as “globalization is being attacked as never before. In the face of a protectionist global environment, companies must navigate the world on their own,” he said. “We must level the playing field, without government engagement.”

5.  Yes, it can happen.  Have a plan

The quote I remember most from my first interview with Fred Schmidt of the Capitol Factory was, “Only the economists and realists are planning.”  Everyone thought it was a done deal: Britain would stay in the EU.  Today, United States’ seventh largest trading partner is paralyzed, rocked by what could never happen.

Pay special attention, technology companies.  As Immelt reminds us, the Internet has connected us, but it has not created jobs. Many are questioning the value of globalization and business interests as “elite” and subject to distrust. Stay informed and participate. Organizations like the American Electronics Assoc., the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, many of which cluster around universities, educate elected officials and lobby business interests.  Be active, there is strength in common interest.

 

 

 

 

Appreciate the process

I am firmly convinced there are no straight lines. The goal may be clear – a speech, successful meeting, signed contract — but the path rarely maps with the project plan. A colleague once told me she kept on course by reminding herself to enjoy the process.  These days, I try hard to apply that formula to both my work and my life.

There are no straight lines in life or in work. (Photo courtesy of pimpmycom.com)
There are no straight lines in life or in work. (Photo courtesy of pimpmycom.com)

A friend whose long career includes a Fulbright at age 67, assignments on four continents, a tenured professorship and a close network of fascinating friends told me recently that he realizes now that he was just “stumbling along,” working hard, yes, but seizing opportunities and accepting setbacks as they appeared.

Another term for “stumbling along” might be innovation. A client of mine sells small-batch Irish whiskey, and as I listened to one of his distillers talk about merging technology (containers, process) with the centuries-old tradition of whiskey making, I thought, “no straight lines, ” rather a series of trials with error and the occasional stellar success. How many times have we heard the homily: many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

As much as I think I would like a “happily ever after” plot line, admittedly, it’s been the bumps in the road that have taught me the most and made the trip interesting.  I certainly didn’t plan to take a career hiatus in my 50’s to care for my parents, but I did, dialing back my professional activities and focusing on managing their finances, medical care and stops at more “care continuums” than I care to count.  It didn’t make me rich, but it gave me a sense of compassion that I never would have gained in the corporate world.

Remembering this, I remind myself not to panic if the plane is cancelled or a stray dog appears on the doorstep just as the project is due. It’ll be okay; there are no straight lines.

Beyond likeability: Women leaders on issues that matter

Perhaps we’re getting over the likeability debate. This week, two women at the top of their games cut to the chase and point out a few elephants in the room.

Janet Yellen used her role as Fed chairman to start a conversation on economic opportunity. Why are more Americans locked into a vicious cycle of poverty? “I cannot offer any conclusions. (But) I do believe that these are important questions.”

You bet they are. And thank you, for having the guts to say so.

Janet Yellen inviting a discussion on the growing gap between rich and poor
Fed Chairman Janet Yellen stepping out of her role to invite a discussion on the gap between rich and poor

Then, last evening I watched Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson talk about, among other things, why we don’t seem to be able to have a civil conversation about anything that matters. I wish I had a transcript, so I’m paraphrasing, but in essence she marveled about our penchant for turning complex issues into a SNL skit. As above, so below: entertainment trumps facts and respectful debate.

Pulitzer Prize winning Marilynne Robinson on the dumbing down of our public conversations
Pulitzer Prize winning Marilynne Robinson on the dumbing down of our public conversations

Both Yellen and Robinson have white hair. If ever we wanted role models, here they are, juggling, multitasking their way through successful lives, showing the rest of us how it’s done. Both went to public schools; Robinson was a single mother. It’s interesting Yellen waited until she had the top job before speaking publicly about a topic outside of her mandate. She was a loyal vice chair. Unlike some of her colleagues, she supported her team.

My takeaway was this: “Don’t waste my time. Let’s get together to work on things that matter.”

Take a Moment to Be Quiet

It’s Sept. 11, which is now far enough in the past that many people don’t remember the horror of the day.

But there’s much to be said for pausing to remember that anything can happen at any moment.

Carve out a quiet moment.   (Courtesy of apps.carlton.edu)
Carve out a quiet moment.                                                                                                                                               (Photo courtesy of apps.carlton.edu)