I'm impatient for change. A good quality on which to build businesses. The status quo and self-satisfaction being the two greatest enemies of value creation. However you define value.

I write this post on technology that didn't exist to me this morning, on an app I didn't know about last Wednesday.

I do so, not because I am certain it will improve the quality of the process or the results.

But because I am not.

And because the cost and risk of exploration are acceptable.

Learning what we don't know is more important than learning what we do. A simple truth I am reminded of in every conversation in which I listen more than I speak.

Cost and risk, however, are subjective. And should always be measured against a fixed point of reference. Which is that the cost and risk of maintaining the status quo are always higher than we think.

And deny us the thrill of waiting, four-year old like, for the delivery of this wondrous window into the future that I now hold in my hand.

The Power of Simplicity. 20x.

Simon Mainwaring, the marketing and social media guru, tweeted a link the other day to 20 unique and creative logo designs.

In a world added to each day by a new technologcal marvel, it is too easy to assume that all original thought comes attached to a piece of code or a microprocessor.

Simon's tweet, and the compilation put together at demonstrate three things.

  1. Technology connects us in new and increasingly powerful ways

  2. What it connects us to is more important than how

  3. The most powerful connections are the result of simple truths and shared experiences

In support of which I offer you a representative sample of the logos from the Toxel collection. I encourage you to look at the entire set, complete with individual accreditation to the designers and companies in question.

Proof, if we needed it, that there is as much value in innovation as invention.

And further incentive to relentlessly challenge how we look at our own businesses.

What Napoleon Can Teach Us About Business

Edward Tufte is one of the world's leading authorities on presenting vast amounts of complex data in such a way that it tells simple, powerful stories.

He has self-published four books that are filled with incredible examples that range from the evolution of music to the design of the Vietnam War Memorial - the genius of which is that it lists the names of those it remembers not alphabetically, but by date. Which allows any visitor to see the context and the relationship in which lives were lost. The story of their sacrifice. Not simply the fact of it.

One of the most illustrative examples that Tufte presents is shown below - sadly in limited resolution. You can buy the poster or his books through his website.

The image is a graphical representation of Napoleon's march on Moscow in 1812. The brown line represents proportionally the number of men under his command on the march to Moscow. The black line, the number during the return.

At various points you'll see the line's thickness changes dramatically, with the corresponding event provided in a call-out below. For instance, at one stage more than half the remaining force was lost crossing a river, a story that is suddenly brought to dramatic and vivid reality based on the thickness of a black line. The date is recorded, as is the temperature. No small factor in Russia.

This diagram represents a historical reflection of fact. But it's not very hard to envision this approach being used as the projection of a proposed strategy. Afer all, many of the facts were known in advance: seasonal temperature; distance; position of major obstacles.

Sadly, it's the kind of analysis that escapes most business owners who, like Napoleon are fixated on the next big win, as opposed to serious consideration of what they are actually trying to achieve and instead rush headlong into short-term glory. Or worse short-term survival. Worse because surviving is the first step to dying.

As we expand our consultancy and talk to more business owners I'm struck by three things.

1. How much potential exists to build truly great businesses

2. How much effort, money and intent is being expended

3. How much of that is being mis-applied

Napoleon was not the first person to have big dreams.

But as the diagram shows, the difference between a dream and a nightmare can be the thickness of a line.


5 Steps To An Information System

You can’t build a better business without better information.

With rare exception, the information management systems of most companies do little to contribute to their success.

At best they are not getting in the way. Most of the time, they are considerably more destructive than that.

A better business is one that knows where it’s going. And is built to get there.

In that outlook it is not surprised by its success. A trait that becomes self fulfilling.

Here are five foundations to creating durable information systems that will outlive their founders:

  1. Strategy. Well designed systems are built to fulfill their company’s purpose. Only when you have defined that can you establish the architecture that will support the journey.

  2. Scalability. Start with a numbering protocol that supports enough digits. Re-engineering platforms in response to success is expensive, distracting and sometimes impossible. Companies as sophisticated as American Express have made this mistake.

  3. Sensitivity. Particularly to the daily needs of the staff that use it. Systems that demand consistent data input but provide no immediate return to the people responsible for its entry, fail prior to installation. Any system must benefit every user.

  4. Flexibility. We absorb information individually. Systems that treat us as two dimensional limit the long-term growth of a business by minimizing the involvement of those who see the business on three planes.

  5. Clarity. Users have little time for and less interest in training. A system built on consistent interface protocols shortens adoption timelines and increases exploration and ultimately use.

Information is the compass that guides a company. Without it your final destination is a guess.

Which makes the journey more exciting.

But more prone to icebergs.

Value 1 Recession 0

A quick thought. I'm struck tonight by dramatic evidence of the value of innovation.

At the conclusion of the worst six month economy any of us are likely to live through, Apple just announced the launch of their new iPhone. It contains 100 new features.

They also launched a new series of laptops with a seven hour battery that will retain its recharging capacity for five years.

We've come to expect these kinds of innovations, wrapped in simple, elegant design. And we find such value in their products that we continue to buy them, even when money is tight.

The result is that Apple just concluded the best non-Holiday sales quarter in their history. $8.2 billion. Their share price which stood at $85.33 in December has gained 85% to $144.67.

Oh, and they did all this while their founder and CEO was on medical leave.

Proof positive that even in economic catastrophe, people will pay for that in which they find value.

How much have your sales increased in the last six months?

Welcome to the Design Democracy

This is the age of design. With a lowercase d.

And whether you realize it or not, you and your business are judged every day by how well you take advantage of that fact.

Design comes in many forms. Aesthetically, we officially moved into the design age in 2004 when the US State Department announced in an internal memo that it was changing the font it had been using for as long as anyone could remember - Courier New 12 - for another because it took up less space on the page and appeared cleaner and more contemporary. The choice was Times New Roman 14.

This piece of history - taken from Dan Pink’s compelling book A Whole New Mind - is remarkable not because the change happened. But because, as he points out, everyone understood what the memo was talking about. Access to technology and software had suddenly given us control over design decisions that used to be exclusively the purview of professionals.

Five years on, the digital age has exponentially increased our capacity to design our worlds so they reflect us as individuals.

This blog is our design. Good or bad. And now you get to judge us not only by the words, but the way we present them. We’re no longer restricted to a designer’s interpretation of us, so what you see now is how we see ourselves. The risk is you won't like it. The reward is that if you do, we’ll be more directly connected. You probably didn’t think all that through when you came to this site today. But it was happening, nonetheless. And if you read this blog before Saturday, you probably also passed some kind of judgement on the fact we changed the aesthetic over the weekend. That, by the way took us 30 minutes. Design with a lowercase d.

The flip side of this equation is that we get to hold you to a higher standard too. As Seth Godin pointed out in his blog this morning, there’s just no excuse any more for bad design. And as a culture we’re increasingly less willing to accept one. Excuse or bad design.

Like it or not your business is being held to that standard as well. Not just in the way it presents itself aesthetically, but in how it works. Which is the other aspect of design that’s now in the public domain.

Nike ID gives us the ability to design our own running shoes. And in the instant that we do, we become Nike designers. To do this, Nike has to open up their IP to the possibility - probability - that I will design something that they would prefer never be seen attached to their swoosh. Risk. But because they trusted me with their brand, I feel responsible for it and loyal in a way that no marketing initiative ever could create. Reward.

TJMaxx changes its clothing every two weeks based on customer feedback. The best websites let me decide which information is important and where I want it to appear. I can design my own computer , phone  and house. I decide what I watch - and when. And I feel pretty certain that I was involved in designing our new government. In fact, I just got an email from Barack last week.

Based on all that, do you think I’m likely to settle for being told that I get no say in how I use your business?

The challenge is to design a model that lets every customer contribute part of themselves to the experience of working with your company.

Unless customer loyalty and innovation isn’t important to you. In which case cut your prices and carry on.

I Cannot Tell a Lie - This Is A Revolution

In revolutions, old stuff gets broken before the new stuff is put in its place. And that frightens people.

This - from Clay Shirky’s remarkable essay strikes me as an absolute truth. His conclusion is that people are so frightened by revolution they demand to be told that what’s happening isn’t really happening. They demand to be lied to.

Which, in my experience, is exactly what happens.

Most business owners argue - with their greatest passion - for their view of the present and the future. Because that’s where they feel safest. They tell themselves a story based on how they want the world to be, and then post-rationalize every piece of information to fit that view.

By the time reality is standing, arms crossed, in front of them tapping its foot, they’re backed in the corner like the heroine in a bad science fiction film. All that’s left is the scream.

It’s time to stop the lie. And to celebrate the unknown. Because that is where the future has always been.