Change. Part 4.

When Cortés reached the new world he burned his ships to ensure his men harbored no second thoughts about their new life.

Apparently in 1504 fire was easier to find than a buyer in the real estate market 0f 2009.

Having failed to sell our Chicago home in each of the previous two years, we entered 2009 with twice as much real estate as we wanted and a shrinking economy. From an emotional standpoint, we also had a boat back to our old life. More than once we were tempted by familiarity and fear to jump in and start paddling back to the midwest.

Familiarity and fear are frauds. Say it three times. Pin it on every door you pass through. Tattoo it somewhere prominent. Less serious measures will leave you vulnerable to their siren call.

For as hard as we try to use our brains, we are animals. Ninety percent of our DNA we share with chimpanzees. And the remaining ten can’t do all the thinking all the time. So, much as we might wish to be smart, pragmatic, strategic and wise, chemistry 101 will often prevent it. Particularly when stress is added to the equation. Like that brought about by a once in a lifetime economic melt-down.

The fact is Cortés was way ahead of his time. He still is. Because he knew that when options are removed, we make the best of a situation. And the best is often great.

But given choices, we reflect, cogitate, rationalize, justify, and then often head back the way we came. It’s called human nature. And it has happened this way since before we stood and walked.

A lot of company owners acknowledge the emotional side of change with words. But then act as though someone else had said them.

Better business is built on a foundation of sensitivity to the emotions of everyone involved. Including your own. Sometimes you need to take physical steps to create the environment for progress. Like burning your ships.

We bought 650 West Hutchinson Street on December 1, 1994. Put another way, George W Bush had barely taken the oath of office as the Governor of Texas. No one had heard of Monica Lewinsky. And Barack Obama - in his second year teaching law at the University of Chicago - was three years away from holding his first elected office. The day we moved into the house, we weren’t married, didn’t own a single dog, and had never hired a single person.

Through all that our home had been our ship.

But as Winter turned to Spring this year still we couldn’t cut it lose. And our broker - a sales genius - told us that it might be another year before we’d see an offer. The alternative - and on many days the temptation - was to head back. Familiarity and fear might be frauds. But their short term narcotic effect is powerful.

It was with relief and some surprise that we received a call in mid May. With it came the chance to begin to focus fully on the way forward. Someone had fallen in love with our house.

We started to negotiate. The match was lit. The fat lady was about to sing.

There’s a reason fat ladies with loud voices don’t hold lit matches.

Planning The Last Day First / STEP 4: INTEGRATION

On 9/11, Chris and I were in a hotel room in Scotland. She was on the phone with our accountant in Chicago about the upcoming deal with the Whitehouse. Suddenly, he told her to turn on CNN. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.As soon as the picture resolved I knew it was terrorism. A clear blue sky. The tallest building within several thousand miles. And growing up in London in the Seventies where bombs were part of our daily life. I knew it was possible. It took four days to get back to the States. We were the first plane allowed in to US airspace from Europe. We landed to applause and sobbing. And a new way of life.

And Then There Were Four

I love change.

I talk about it. Write about it. Preach it. And practice it.

I encourage it in our clients. Expect it of ourselves. And have learned that when change itself is not an obstacle, there are no limits to which the mind can go.

It took me longer than it should to realize that not everyone sees things this way. And that for many, the status quo is a safe and known place.

Today, I know that one of the reasons we get hired regularly is because we have learned to articulate our vision for a client’s future while remaining sensitive to and pragmatic of their present. We make change safe.

Intellectually, I have come to understand the difficulty so many people have with change. But while I could sympathize, I realized this week I couldn’t empathize.

Because I had never experienced the pain that change can bring.

Until now.

Those of you that read this blog know that our eldest dog, Harry, died on Thursday

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I know that for some the death of a dog, while sad, is not a tragedy in the context of the world’s suffering. Particularly not a dog who lived a full and active life, and died peacefully in the arms of two people that loved him.

But I can only measure my pain by what I feel. And this is change that I would give anything to rewind.

I long for the stasis of a few days ago, when we didn’t know he was dying - so he wasn’t dying.

When we could look at every picture and smile.

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I hate change and the pain it has brought. I hate change and how it has made me feel about the present. I hate change and how it has scared me about the future.

I hate change.

But even in the darkness and through the sorrow, there are glimmers of things that are better for Harry’s departure.

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His sister Maya, who for twelve years has taken a back seat, now has our attention in full force. We seek her out when she wanders off. We take her with us on errands. We show her off in public. We love her in a way we haven’t before.

We have time back. The time of helping him onto his bed and off his bed. Of helping him stand and helping him sit. Of supporting him up the stairs, and supporting him down. Of medicating him, and feeding him by hand, and staying in a room to keep him company when everyone else was outside.

We have freedom to leave our four dogs for more than an hour. To go to meetings with new clients. Or for a drive. Or out to dinner.

Small things. But things that are better. And that we can make even better.

I wish Harry were still alive. With all my heart and soul.

But there is a release that has come - for him and for us - that is undeniably good.

This is a new kind of change for me. Unwanted and painful.

And I understand, now, why change is so hard for so many.

But there are possibilities that exist today that did not before. And that is something to embrace.

I love Harry.

And I love change.

And one does not deny the other.

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Change Your Business? Listen To The Birds.

I was with a group of clients last week who have fully embraced the fact that their business will never be the same. Change is in the air, like never before.

It’s been a long time coming. And there have, so far, been many more words than deeds. As a species we try very hard to intellectualize our environment. Fight or flight? Neither, actually. Can we talk about it instead?

Our ability to analyze complex scenarios and evaluate possibilities is one of the attributes that separates us from other species. The other is imagination. The fuel on which the future is formed.

Where are we going? And how are we going to get there? If you’re not asking those questions it’s probably time to think about doing something else.

But analysis and imagination are not enough. The ability to act is the crucial link between the two. And in this regard, other species leave us in the proverbial dust.

Birds fly south for the winter. There is no meeting to debate the pros and cons. No assumption that they should go north again because that’s what they did last time. It is enough that they know they must go and that south is where they want to end up.

As a business owner you need to know where you are going. And you need to know why. And if the best answers you come up with are ‘south’ and to ‘survive’, then that’s good enough to start moving.

The alternative is to talk about it some more or continue in the same direction.

And when an economic winter like this one arrives, all that will be left are a few frozen feathers.

There Are Two Sides to Every Harry

We have five dogs. Which I realize make us crazy dog people. We’re fine with that. In fact I can’t think of a description that would mean more.

Yesterday afternoon we found out that soon we’ll only have four. Our eldest dog, Harry, is 16 and has bone cancer. Depending on how fast it spreads he has somewhere between a couple of weeks and a few months.

We adopted Harry from a rescue organization in Chicago one year after we got together as a couple, and one day after we moved into our house. Now we can’t remember what it was like when he wasn't around.

He came to work with us every day and took us through all the highs and lows of owning our own business. He calmed us when we were anxious, and barked a lot when we we got loud, which always brought us back to earth - a good place to run a business from we realized.

He saved us from a guy who broke into our house one morning while we were asleep, literally chasing him down the stairs and out the door. We made some changes to the locks at home, and then changed all of our network passwords at work. Neither made us feel as safe as Harry’s bark.

He isn’t a perfect dog. The day we brought him home he bit me. Two days later he bit Chris. We found out that he’d been picked up on the South Side of Chicago as an eight month old stray. Someone had tried to turn him into a guard dog and then dumped him on the street when they realized he didn’t have the heart for it.

But their work left an indelible scar on his psyche, and to this day, he fights with his fear that no one is to be trusted - even after fifteen years. Early scars run deep. But the remorse in his eyes whenever that fear gets the better of him is that of a soul who wants only to love and be loved.

I have loved Harry, night and day. Even when he has snapped at me and I’ve been infuriated by his apparent ingratitude for having saved his life.

But I have come to realize that the greatest lesson he has taught me is that how he acts is not always who he wants to be.

I’ve tried to remember that in business and in life. That sometimes fear makes us say and do things that are the exact opposite of what we feel in our heart.

It’s a thought worth remembering the next time something infuriates you.

Because, as I've been shown, there are always two sides to every story.

Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Imitation

Change is tough for a lot of people. And when you’ve built an entire company around one way of doing things, it’s hard to find another way - even if suddenly you really want to.

When someone has the insight, the clarity and the courage to invoke fundamental change into an industry or a company it’s amazing how quickly the initial nay-sayers jump on board once the results come rolling in.

I’ve blogged about Hyundai’s innovation of protecting car buyers from losing their jobs by offering a guarantee that they can return any new Hyundai they buy this year.

While the Big Three were pre-occupied by heading to Congress with hands outstretched, Hyundai got about the business of change. And it worked.

Now that the evidence is in, both Ford and Saturn have offered similar approaches. Typically, they are trying to hedge their bets by limiting the amount of the guarantee.

The good news is they’re trying something.

The bad news is that by putting limiters on the program, they also limit their own learning.

In this case it’s particularly short-sighted because they already had a case study to follow. If they achieve less than Hyundai’s results, will that be because (a) consumers wanted a cast-iron guarantee (b) liked Hyundai better (c) wouldn’t buy an American car at any price or (d) none of the above? Answers on a postcard.

If you’re going to try something. Try something. Even if that means you start by following someone else’s success. The process will teach you something about your business you didn’t know.

And that is the definition of growth.

Head in the Cloud. Feet on the Ground.

Whether you’re a single-owner, home-based business or a multi-office, multi-national, you don’t need me to tell you that you need technology.

An email address and a website for sure. And if you have a web 2.0 perspective, you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, Disqus and possibly Valium.

Today, technology is evolving in real time. We’re literally watching it happen. Last November, the UK press included 40 articles that referenced Twitter. In the month ending today, there will be more than 700. And to coin Winston Churchill, we’re not even at the end of the beginning.

But while all this has been going on right under our very noses, an even more important technological revolution has been taking place in the back-rooms of some of our largest technology corporations.

It’s called the cloud. And in this exact moment, you’re in it.

The desktop revolution that Apple launched in 1984 has powered the PC revolution for a quarter of a century, putting a computer into the hands of virtually everyone we know. Indeed, the growth of the internet has been made possible by the advent of the desktop which gave us all web access - on our terms.

But in the last two years a subtle, and now increasingly significant shift towards a ‘cloud’ of massive, web-based, centralized servers is creating an entirely new set of possibilities.

This blog, like virtually every other blog, was created on a piece of software that exists only in this ‘cloud’ of central servers. The only point of access to it is through the internet.

No longer do I need a state-of-the-art laptop. Or three or four separate applications to create and manage the site. All I now need is a device with internet access. And nothing else. (This particular post was written and added to the site on my iPhone.) Software updates are a thing of the past, because they’re done automatically at the other end of the connection. And no more downloading, rebooting, reinstalling either. Just sign in, and you’re working on the latest version - though as Facebook users recently discovered, this-all-for-one, one-for-all approach can have its drawbacks. (Isn’t it time Facebook provided customized interfaces. Haven’t they heard we’ve individuated?)

The intensity with which some of the major technology companies are expanding the computing cloud, means we’re going to see a lot more examples of services like Google Docs, and WordPress. We’re also going to see stuff we haven’t yet imagined. How about multi-player, real-time video games that don’t need a $400 console or a $24.95 disc.

Of course, the cloud has enormous implications for every business owner. Big and small. A one-person company on a distant mountain top will now be able to have the same technological support as a Fortune 500 behemoth. Not close. Not like. The same.

When size no longer creates automatic marketplace domination that’s good for everyone because then innovative solutions to problems can come from anywhere, not just the giants. For anyone grounded in their business, that’s an incredible asset because now you can leverage the thing that sets you apart from your competition like never before.

Imagine if this concept could be applied to manufacturing. If the cloud could build and distribute cars - meaning anyone’s ideas about fuel, safety and aesthetic could be realized - does anyone believe we’d be sixty days away from the Big Three becoming the Big One?

That’s because the things that allow economies of scale to take hold - standardization, homogeneity, conformity - kill innovation. By definition. Instead, the cloud takes economies of scale and gives them to the individual, releasing the capacity for originality in all of us.

Now, overnight, we can all became Microsoft or Warner Brothers or Penguin. That’s a lot of responsibility. Let’s make sure we use it.

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.

Dream Big

Now is the time for big dreams. We are living in what will seen to be an Epoch. A time so distinctive that history will be measured by what happened before and after it.

So if you were ever going to change the world, this is the moment.

I had dinner last night with two people who are.

Sir Ken Robinson is passionate about transforming the education system so that instead of measuring our ability to conform, it provides an environment in which our individual talents are encouraged and applied. He says it far better than I can here  and here .

The other person is Barbara Royal, DVM who will revolutionize how we take care of animals. I have never met anyone more in their element than Barb, who combines Eastern and Western philosophies to treat animals holistically and, crucially, respectfully. 

Ken and Barb - you will not be surprised to learn - have a lot in common. First, they have incredible energy and razor sharp wit. Second, their entire lives have been devoted to the causes they now articulate.

And lastly, and I think most importantly they are willing to see the world entirely differently from the one we live in today. They want to transform - not reform. And they do not fear the process or the outcome or the change itself.

To quote Michelangelo, “The greatest danger for most of us is not that we aim too high and we miss it, but we aim too low and reach it.”

Lay Off the Lay-Offs

The news this morning is that more people lost their jobs in February than in any month since 1949. Which makes 4.4 million since December 2007. Staggering numbers. We’re on our way to ten percent unemployment.

But why? Aren’t these the very people that companies need to buy their products and use their services? Without a job they’re not likely to be consuming much of anything.

Companies that are choosing lay-offs over salary reductions - and it is a choice - are only looking at one side of the problem. Cutting costs. They’re hoping someone else figures out how to encourage people to spend.

I was in a meeting yesterday in which we heard that a highly paid employee had been told he was being let go last week. He asked if he could take a thirty percent pay cut instead. The company instantly agreed.

I’m sure he and his family are spending less than they were. But they are still spending. And more than if he had lost his job entirely. Which doesn’t take into account the fact that he’s not depleting his investment funds to pay for his lifestyle, or putting his house on the market. That’s a model that will create a natural bottom to all this built on real value.

If every company faced with the need to cut overhead had looked at the problem holistically, the answer would have been pretty clear. Companywide salary cuts give you: better cost saving results faster; more ability to keep your customers happy; a belief among your staff that you’re trying to protect them; a shared willingness to innovate and take responsibility for finding answers and flexibility if things get worse or improve. It also keeps the economy moving forward, albeit at a slower pace.

As a species, we do best when we’re moving forward. And generally we’re pretty good at being able to keep one eye on where we’re going while navigating the broken pavement along the way.

Running a business is the same thing. But if you’re only worrying about avoiding the broken pavement, who knows where you’ll end up?