If the government were run like a business…

If the government were run like a business, what kind of business would it be? It’s easy enough to think of the President as CEO, and the Congress as the Board of Directors (kind of), but who would be the shareholders? The customers? How would this effect government employees? What would be the “product”?

Most importantly, where do citizens fit into this model?

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Small, a great destination

Rework - Why Grow?
Illustration from Rework

In their book Rework, the guys from 37signals make a compelling argument for staying small in a chapter called “Why grow?” My favorite quote from that chapter:

Small is not just a stepping stone. Small is a great destination in itself.

And this isn’t just empty talk from someone trying to sell books, this is how they actually run the company. From a recent article on Fast Company, here is 37signals CEO Jason Fried (@jasonfried):

I’m a fan of growing slowly, carefully, methodically, of not getting big just for the sake of getting big. I think that rapid growth is typically of symptom of… there’s a sickness there. There’s a great quote by a guy named Ricardo Semler, author of the book Maverick. He said that only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors. We have 35 employees at 37signals. We could have hundreds of employees if we wanted to–our revenues and profits support that–but I think we’d be worse off.

This is kind of a follow up to yesterday’s post, Living life for a living, which got me thinking again about the 37signals philosophy. What it really comes down to, it seems, is the difference between a businessperson – who wants to run a business that makes money; big is better – and a person in business – who wants to build a business around something they do; the bigger the business gets, the less they get to do what they got into business for in the first place.

Of course it’s about money

Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, programming from the Scripps Network – which includes channels such as Food Network and HGTV – disappeared from the AT&T U-verse lineup last Friday. This surprised just about everyone, since media reports earlier in the week seemed to indicate the two were working amicably toward a resolution of ongoing negotiations. Not so unexpectedly, both Scripps and AT&T very quickly released statements defending their actions and soundly blaming the other for the problems.

AT&T came out of the gate swinging, with the title of their press release, AT&T U-verse TV Customers Denied Fair Deal by Scripps Networks, giving a pretty good idea of their view on the issue. Scripps, on the other hand, came out with AT&T U-verse customers: This is not about money!, letting viewers know that Scripps was only interested in the viewers while implying that all AT&T cared about was money. Of course, both of these companies care about money – they are in business to make money, after all. They just look at it from two different perspectives.

AT&T wants to minimize the amount of money they have to pay to Scripps (or any provider) for programming while maximizing the way they can make money from that content. In this case that means paying once for content, and then being able to distribute the content on as many media and in as many ways as possible and charging their customers for the ability to access the content on all those media. When AT&T says, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice”, what they mean is, “With such an uneven playing field, they are harming AT&T’s ability to provide customers with a new video choice and make money doing it.”

On the other hand, Scripps (or any provider) wants to be paid as much money as possible for their content. In today’s media environment that means getting paid not for the content itself but for the rights to distribute that content, with each different possible medium (TV, web, mobile, etc) being another possible revenue stream. So when Jeffrey at HGTV says, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and innovative ways”, what he really means is, “Accepting their demands would have restrained our ability to deliver our programs to viewers like you in new and profitable ways.”

These two companies are not fighting over the best ways of providing programming to viewers, they are fighting over which one of them will get the most money out of these new delivery methods. We, the viewers, will pay for the programming one way or another, it doesn’t really matter who the money goes to. Do these companies really think that we believe they are acting out of some altruistic, self-sacrificing urge to make us happy?

Of course it’s about money. What’s wrong with that?

The art (or not) of the apology

Wednesday evening I read Apologizing like a human, not a corporation on the 37signals blog (which, of course, reminded me of the similar chapter in Rework). Good advice, seems like common sense.

On Thursday morning I received two apologies in my e-mail. One was a perfect example of apologizing like a human, the other not so much.

The first was from Boingo, apologizing for a rash of e-mails that erroneously went out to their customers. (A slightly modified version of this is also on their blog.)

Subject: An Apology from Boingo

Let me start this off with a big, fat apology.

We’re deeply sorry (and more than a little embarrassed) about any email you received over the weekend that included a database dump in the beginning and a message that your Unlimited account has been canceled and converted to AsYouGo status.

Please be assured that there’s been no change to your account. If it was Unlimited, it still is. If it was AsYouGo, it still is. If it was closed, it still is. The email was meant for internal testing only; the system basically decided otherwise and erroneously sent the test template to a large pool of our customers.

Please disregard these emails and accept our humblest apologies. If you would like additional details, please check our blog “The Hotspot”, which we will continue to update as we gather more information.

Thanks so much for your understanding during this awkward moment in email marketing history. We would never intentionally inconvenience you in any way and strive every day to deliver the best in customer service.

Honest, sincere. “We screwed up and we’re sorry.”

The other “apology” came from a customer service department in response to an e-mail I sent them about a glass picture frame that arrived snapped in two.

Subject: Recent order (#…) – Ticket# LTK…X

Thank you for your email notifying us that your package has arrived damaged. On behalf of UPS we apologize for the inconvenience this has caused as it most definitely left our warehouse in good condition.

We are initiating a damage claim with UPS. Please hold all merchandise and packing aside as UPS can and most likely will come to inspect it. They generally will contact you within 48 hours to make an appointment for inspection.

If you would take photographs of the damaged item, manufacturers box and the outer shipping box and email them to us, would help to expedite the claims process immensely.

Please note that the entire Claims process can take up to 10 business days for UPS to investigate.

As soon as UPS accepts responsibility for this, we will reship the items or issue a refund to your card as per your desire at that time.

If you are in dire need for the items, please call us to discuss reshipment options.

We apologize for any inconvenience or confusion. Please contact us if you have any specific questions.

Boilerplate, shift the blame, impersonal (the template response doesn’t even reference the “product”, a $5 picture frame.)  “Hey, it’s not our problem. We’ll tell UPS, but you need to figure it out with them yourself and then get back to us.”

My response was as straightforward and to the point as I could make it.

You’re kidding, right? Does Adorama really expect me to go through all of this for a $5 piece of glass?

I won’t waste your time with the rest of the “conversation”.  (I’m upset enough that I wasted my own time involved in the conversation). What it boils down to was,

“This is company policy. When UPS gets back to us, we will issue you a refund. In the meantime, please order another frame from us so you can receive it more quickly.”

Don’t hold your breath, guys.

Rework (a review)

Front cover image - Rework

Rework is my kind of book. Written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from 37Signals, it has several chapters  made up of a bunch of short essays (most less than two pages) that each dive into a very specific idea or question related to the chapter. And pictures, lots of pictures.

Much of the content comes from the personal experiences of the authors over the past 10 years. To say that their approach to their company is unusual and unorthodox (at least compared to how you are usually told you should run a business) is an understatement.

The following essays in the book give you an idea of what I mean:

  • Ignore the real world (p. 13) – “The real world isn’t a place, it’s an excuse.”
  • Why grow? (p. 22) – “Small is a great destination in itself.”
  • Scratch your own itch (p. 34) – examples include James Dyson, Vic Firth, and Mary Kay Wagner
  • Embrace constraints (p. 67) – “Constraints are advantages in disguise.”
  • Throw less at the problem (p. 83) – “Your project won’t suffer nearly as much as you fear.”
  • Meetings are toxic (p. 108) – OK, we already knew that
  • Underdo your competition (p. 144) – “Do less than your competitors to beat them.”
  • …and many more…

The individual essays read like blog posts, and they are collected into chapters that could most easily be compared to tags on a blog. The chapters are organized in an almost, but not quite, chronological order based on when you might need the info as you grow (or don’t) your business. The first time through I read the book front to back, but it doesn’t really matter what order you read them.

Though aimed squarely at starters (not entrepreneurs) who want to start a business (not start a startup), Rework contains valuable ideas and insights for anyone who works, whether for themselves or for someone else. Big companies likely will not be able – or interested – in implementing many of the ideas, but anyone can take the lessons and make a difference in their corner of whatever company they find themselves.

The design of the book is also a lesson in the unusual; about the only typical aspect are the inside flaps on the book jacket. For example, when I started reading the book, I immediately had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was only when I finished the book and saw, on the last printed page, the copyright page that I realized the source of that feeling.

Fried and Hansson have pulled a George Lucas, dispensing with all the upfront crap that you usually have to get through to get to the good stuff. Two pages of praise, and then the Table of Contents. Not even a title page. Talk about getting right to the point!

If you haven’t guessed already, I strongly recommend that you read this book. It deserves the place its found on bestseller lists. You may agree or disagree with what they have to say, but they will definitely get you thinking and asking yourself questions about why you do what you do and how you do it.

Update: My review was mentioned on Signal vs. Noise in the post Interesting tangents from REWORK readers.

A(nother) description of knowledge work

I am just about finished reading Garry Kasparov‘s 2007 book, How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves – from the Board to the Boardroom, and have been holding off on posting anything about the book until I do get to the end. But the following passage, starting on page 183, caught my eye as an interesting way to look at and possibly define knowledge work:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis* forming?”

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

See my earlier post, A conversation on the nature of knowledge work, and the links in that post for more discussion on those ideas.

* In this context, Kasparov explains, “crisis” is not a disaster, as the word is commonly used, but rather a “turning point, a critical moment when the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain.”

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