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Keeping up standards

December 14, 2011 1 comment

I’ve titled this post “keeping up standards” even though this is exactly what I’ve not been doing. Ages ago I planned to write a post every couple of weeks – or at least monthly. Unfortunately I’ve failed in this aim – not because there hasn’t been a lot to write about: all the changes at Google such as the closing of Google Labs, Google+, changes to Google’s search methods, interface and algorithms; the Online Information Conference I spoke at and the Internet Librarian International conference; the Euro zone crisis; and many other news stories.

I even started a few posts – but never finished them, and my excuse is that paid work has to come before blog posts, and I’ve had more than enough to keep me going since the last post. (Actually it’s been non-stop so I really can’t complain).

What’s prompted this post has been another blog post that set me thinking about how important it is to maintain standards, even in the smallest most trivial areas – such as making a cup of tea.

Keeping up standards is always important – as you want to guarantee the quality of what you produce. With more and more mechanisation this becomes even more important. The old-style tea-lady who would bring around tea or coffee and biscuits has long gone from most businesses. Now, you walk to the dispensing machine and select what you want: cappuccino with extra coffee, tea with double milk (powder) and sugar…

There should be a standard to guarantee the quality of the finished drink. And that brings me to a recent blog post from Neil Infield of the British Library where he describes the British Standard BS 6008 for a cup of tea (See also ISO 3103). I’m not sure that this standard actually relates to tea and coffee machines – but at least it shows that keeping up standards is still important. (Although I don’t think it addresses the detailed minutia of whether your little finger should be pointing out from the handle of the tea cup, or in – and whether a coffee mug is an acceptable receptacle for a good cup of tea?)

One of the ways that businesses stay competitive and remain competitive is by keeping up their standards and continuing to delight their customers. This has to be ongoing – as competitors will continue to try and do the same. Letting your own standards drop or stay static will allow competitors to eventually win out against you.

So keep up standards – and make it your cup of tea to do so.

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The car that hated vanilla ice cream!

November 1, 2010 4 comments

I was speaking to a colleague today and he commented that the terrorists who tried to send a bomb from the Yemen to a Chicago synagogue were pretty stupid. His view was that any package sent from the Yemen to a synagogue in the US would be suspect – and so the terrorists had to be stupid.

In competitive intelligence it is important not to make assumptions – and assuming that your competitor is stupid is one of the most dangerous assumptions you can make. It is possible that they are stupid. Alternatively, it is also feasible that they see things differently from you – and their viewpoint may be rational and logical from their perspective. Effective competitive intelligence should always involve you trying to see things from the perspective of your competitor rather than from your own, possibly subjective and biased standpoint.

I cannot really understand the rationale of the Yemeni terrorists sending their bomb, presumably intended to blow up en-route, with an address of a synagogue. It does seem stupid – but that is because I am not an Islamist terrorist. However trying to see things from that perspective I could envisage a conversation such as this:

Terrorist 1: So what address shall we use – something that would not be suspicious?”
Terrorist 2: How about a synagogue – the Jews control the USA / World so they must get lots of mail. Also they need to print their subversive material so won’t suspect our fake printer cartridges packed with explosives.
Terrorist 1: Good idea – which synagogue?
Terrorist 2: Obama came from Chicago. Let’s find the synagogue that he would take orders from….

Of course belief in a Jewish world conspiracy is nonsense, as is the idea that President Obama takes orders from a Jewish cabal. However that is not the opinion of large parts of the Moslem world – who sincerely believe in this, and that the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers was a Jewish plot, etc. If that is your world view, then sending suspect packages to a synagogue probably is completely logical and rational and the best way to ensure that they don’t raise suspicion.

The point is, that even if your enemy IS stupid, they will act based on their own warped rationale. In order to anticipate their actions you need to try and see things as they see them. This is even more important if in fact you are the one who is wrong – as in that case, switching your viewpoint should allow you to spot where your mistakes actually are.

There is a great story that illustrates this point – that what seems crazy may in fact not be. The story is apocryphal – and may be true.

Several years ago, the Pontiac Division of General Motors received a complaint:


     This is the second time that I have written to you. I don’t blame
     you for not answering my first letter as I must have sounded crazy.


     In our family, we have a tradition of having ice cream for desert after
     dinner each night. Every night, after we’ve eaten, we vote on which
     kind of ice cream to have – and I drive down to our local store to
     buy it. I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then I’ve had a
     problem when I go to the ice cream store. Every time I buy vanilla
     ice cream and go back to my car it won’t start. If I buy any other
     type it starts first time. I realise this sounds insane but it’s true.


     Please help me understand what it is that makes my Pontiac fail
     to start when I purchase vanilla ice cream and easy to start with
     any other type.

The complaints department was naturally skeptical about this letter. However it was obviously written by somebody educated who knew how to write clearly and lucidly. Furthermore the area the writer came from was an affluent area – and a Pontiac is not a cheap car. They decided to take it seriously and an engineer was sent to investigate. The engineer arranged to meet the man just after dinner time – and the two drove to the ice cream store. That night, the vote had been for vanilla ice cream – and just as the man had said, the car wouldn’t start. Bemused, the engineer returned the following night – and the night after that. The car started first time – the votes had been for chocolate on the first night, and strawberry the second night. The fourth night, the choice was again for vanilla – and the car failed to start.

The engineer now realised that there was a problem that needed identification and fixing. He started to log what happened from the moment they arrived at the store – arrival time, time taken to make the purchase, and several other factors. Soon he had a clue – purchases of vanilla ice cream took less time than the other flavours. The reason was that the freezer containing vanilla ice cream was at the front of the store near a quick purchase till,  while other flavours were at the back and required lining up to get checked out.

Quickly the engineer realised that this was the answer to the problem – not the ice cream flavour, but the time required. When purchasing vanilla ice cream there was a vapour lock which prevented the car restarting. With the other flavours, there was sufficient time for the engine to cool down, allowing vapour to dissipate and the car to restart.

Of course the moral of the story is that even if something sounds crazy it may not be. Competitive Intelligence analysts should always bear this in mind when they look at a competitor and fail to understand why they are doing something that seems stupid.

Leadership and the Terrorist Plague

July 30, 2005 Leave a comment

The last couple of weeks have set me thinking about what leadership is or should be. This entry will be fairly rambling – as I want to throw up ideas. I’m still unsure myself what the ideal leader should be like.

Maureen Sharib’s blog entry (Psychopaths in the Hallowed Halls touched on this. Maureen mentioned an excellent article – a must read at www.fastcompany.com/magazine/96/open_boss.html. This great item looked at the psychology of business leaders. However it did not go far enough in my opinion, by looking at national leaders. If your boss is a psychopath at least you have the option to change jobs. If you live in a democracy, then if the President/Prime Minister is psychopathic then he/she may not get re-elected. But what if you are not in a democracy – what then! Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria under Assad, Myamar (Burma), Zimbabwe….

A couple of years ago there was a session at the SCIP London conference (SCIP Europe 2003) entitled “Advanced Analysis: Pychological Profiling” by Jens Hoffman and Everhard von Groote. The aim was to teach methods of leader profiling, and several of the examples were national leaders. Four leadership styles were discussed:

  • Narcissistic (feelings of grandiosity, lack of empathy, need for admiration, power fantasies);
  • Paranoid (General distrust, jealousy, provokes interactions, aggressive, feeling of superiority);
  • Compuslive (High structure, perfectionism, rigid, highly adapted socially);
  • Pyschopathic (Superficial charm, grandiose sense of self worth, a liar, manipulative, no guilt, lack of empathy. Often impulsive and reckless – and lifestyle may be parasitic, feeding off others).

Several national leaders were discussed – Clinton, Margaret Thatcher. There is a wealth of literature on the topic. (For example: Profiling Political Leaders: Cross-Cultural Studies of Personality and Behavior edited by Ofer Feldman – containing essays on several political leaders e.g. on Mao Zedong’s Narcissism).

What worries me about all this is that it gives the impression that those who reach the most senior positions in countries or companies are all suffering from some kind of personality disorder – paranoia, narcissism, pyschopathy and so on.

At the same time, there is a second element to leadership – trust. Without trust, you won’t get people to follow you. Instead you need to rely on control and your status.

In the bible there is an odd story – of Phinehas, who was the great nephew of Moses (and grandson of Aaron). The book of Numbers discribes a plague that came about following an episode of immoral behaviour. (See Numbers ch 25). It appears that none of the leaders of the Israelites did anything to stop this – other than talk. That is until, Phinehas (who was not in the chain of command) caught one couple in flagrante delicto. In a gesture of righteous indignation, Phinehas killed the couple. The strange thing is that instead of being condemned for murder, or taking the law into his own hands, Phinehas is praised, the plague stops – and Phinehas is granted a covenant of peace.

The Jewish Rabbis spent a lot of time on this story – discussing what was meant by it and what was meant by the covenant of peace. They also raised questions on leadership and what it involved.

Re-reading this story (the weekly reading in synagogues this week) set me thinking about all the above issues – what is leadership?

  • Is leadership managing others and controling them?
  • Is it the ability to be decisive – like Phinehas – and take actions which might be unpopular, damning the consequences?
  • Or is it something else?

A lot of this thought has also been tied in with recent events in London. How do you fight terrorism? What do you do with a suspect who runs? (As happened last Thursday, when an innocent man was shot dead – in a Phinehas like act by the police. He’d been linked to one of the bombers, although the link appears coincidental, and when ordered to stop, he ran. He was also wearing a quilted jacket on a hot day. The police thought that this hid a suicide bomb belt, and rather than risk shooting his torso and setting off a possible bomb belt, or allowing him to set it off, they shot to kill).

Mistakes may be made – but in fighting terrorism the leader needs to be prepared to take positive action, even if this is unpopular. Appeasement and other approaches to avoiding an unpleasant decision are not really options as they only sort things out in the short-term – deferring the problem until later. (Think of Chamberlain, the pre-WW2 British Prime Minister who followed a policy of appeasement with Adolf Hitler – letting Hitler carve up a bit more of Europe, and proclaiming peace in our time, while giving Hitler a chance to arm up).

Terrorism is a plague! (Blaming it on the Iraq war, the situation in Palestine/Israel, and so on is just such appeasement in my view. Otherwise how do you explain the weekend bombing in Egypt, or last week’s bombs in Turkey – both unrelated to the Iraq and Palestine issues.) I believe that the only approach is to hit hard at the terrorists and not give them a chance to group up. Obviously you also use other approaches to try and stop people joining the terrorist movements – and without clarity and a willingness to emphasise this is wrong some people will continue to be brainwashed into believing that setting off bombs on buses, trains or in shopping malls is an acceptable way of reaching heaven or achieving political aims. Perhaps this is what the Bible is trying to say when it talks about the covenant of peace. That it is only through strong and decisive actions that will we be able to defeat such plagues and gain peace?

There is leadership story told about Presidents Bush and Clinton.

When President Clinton turned over the reins of government to George W Bush the public and political pundits were all quite surprised how short the two of them met to discuss transition issues. In a recent exclusive, it was revealed what Clinton discussed with Bush.

It appears that Clinton handed Bush three envelopes, each consecutively numbered from 1 to 3. Clinton told Bush that his father, George Bush Senior, had provided him with the same briefing and the same three envelopes, as had all Presidents done from the time of George Washington.

“When things get tough,” said Clinton, “open the envelope marked Number 1 and follow the instructions. If things get worse, open the second envelope. And, when things get really impossible, open the third. Do not,” emphasized Clinton, “open these envelopes under any other circumstances” The envelopes were passed on to a new era of leadership and the two shook hands and took their leaves.

Bush, being an intensely curious and impatient man and one who is frequently up at all hours of the night, became rather curious as to the contents of the envelopes opened the first. He read “Blame your predecessor.” His curiosity piqued, he opened the second. “Blame the Senate.” He then tore open the third. It read “Prepare three envelopes.”

Competitive Strategies – the dog fight!

July 25, 2005 Leave a comment

Sometimes selecting the right strategy is not straightforward. You have to think laterally.

People talk about competitive strategy – and how important it is for the business to have an effective competitive strategy. In fact, this is a redundant use of words. If a strategy is not effective, then it is not competitive, and vice versa (i.e. if it is competitive, then it will be effective). So why not just say that businesses need effective strategies.

The following story comes to mind in the context of designing an effective strategy that will beat the competition. (It is also timely, considering the recent London atrocity – still in the news of course). There are five lessons from the story:

  1. You need to know what you are up against (so do a full SWOT analysis)
  2. You need to ensure that you have all the facts
  3. You need to be wary of assumptions – just because you think you know what something is, does not always mean that that is what it is!
  4. Never underestimate your opponent – they could have a more effective strategy than you have
  5. Sometimes, to win requires lateral thought. The obvious or standard approach will not win out.

It is now the year 2010. Around 2007, the US and the Al-Quaida network realised that if they continued their fight they would someday end up destroying the world. So they sat down and decided to settle the whole dispute with a dogfight. The negotiators agreed that each would take five years to develop the best fighting dog they could. The dog that won the fight would earn its owner the right to rule the world. The losing side would have to lay down its arms.

Al Quaida found the biggest, meanest Dobermans and Rottweilers in the world. They bred them together and then crossed their offspring with the meanest Siberian wolves. They selected only the biggest, strongest puppy from each litter, killed all the other puppies and fed the lone dog all of the milk. They used steroids and trainers in their quest for the perfect killing machine, until, after the five years were up, they had a dog that needed iron prison bars on his cage. Only the trainers could handle this beast.

When the day of the big fight arrived, the US showed up with a strange animal: It was a nine-foot-long Dachshund. Everyone felt sorry for the US. No one else thought this weird animal stood a chance against the growling beast in the Al Quaida camp. The bookmakers predicted Al Quaida would win in less than a minute. The cages were opened. The Dachshund waddled toward the center of the ring. The Al Quaida dog leapt from his cage and charged the giant wiener-dog. As he got to within an inch of the US dog, the Dachshund opened its jaws and swallowed the Al Quaida beast in one bite. There was nothing left but a small bit of fur from the killer dog’s tail. Al Quaida approached the US, shaking their heads in disbelief. “We do not understand. Our top scientists and breeders worked for five years with the meanest, biggest Dobermans and Rottweilers. They developed a killing machine.” “Really?” the US replied. “We had our top plastic surgeons working for five years to make a Florida alligator look like a Dachshund!”

Moonwatching – Google goes out of this world!

July 20, 2005 Leave a comment

Just visited Google, and saw that today (20 July, 2005) is the 36th anniversary of man landing on the moon – the first extra-terrestial tourist walkabout.

Take a look at the moon map – and for another example of Google’s humour zoom in on the map (I can’t bring myself to call it ElGoog!). The result is really cheesy! (http://moon.google.com). (And of course this is another reason why Google is pre-eminent in the search engine world. Google is a great example of a company that encourages lateral thought – so that all staff think differently and rather than fall into a rut of mediocrity, continually try and come up with new ideas. Some may be oddball, some objectionable, but many will help enhance our web experiences. That is what marks a great company: a company that is satisfied with itself – while at the same time willing to push the frontiers of what is possible, without fear that eccentricities and failures will be penalised).

It seems strange to think that man first landed on the moon so long ago. I was still at school but remember the occasion vividly. It was an example of all that is best in mankind. Adventure, bravery, challenge, daring, excitement, fearlessness…. yes I could cover the whole A-Z! Yet by 1972 the dream was fading – and moon trips stopped.

The world today is completely different to that of 1969 with its hopes of peace, as symbolised by the One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind speech as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin disembarked from the lunar module. Just think about how different the world is today: no more cold war, the fall of the Soviet Union, medical advances that were dreams back in 1969, instant communication (mobile, Internet) – the average computer in 1969 was probably less powerful than the credit card sized calculator given away as a freebie at many of today’s trade shows. Yet – the promise of peace is still as elusive; the world may seem smaller, but the cold war was replaced with other ideologies that still separate us from recognising that we are all part of a global community living on the only planet we know that can support human life.

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