Monday, December 28, 2009

The Best Business Books of 2009

The Miami Herald's Business Monday books columnist offers his highly subjective list of favorites.

I didn't — couldn't — read every business book published during the past year, but I was still gob-smacked by the number that I did read in 2009, including a few just for fun. (Imagine that!)

But among those that I read and reviewed, these titles represent the ones that I thought were exceptional, have lasting value and were worth my time — and yours.

A few things that may have deserved inclusion didn't make the cut for one reason or another, and some worthy titles that came out in 2009 won't get reviewed until January. Them's the breaks. You may have a few choices that aren't here either. If you'd like to share, I'm always happy to hear from readers. After all, you make this all possible, so please leave your comments.

Thanks for reading!

(Click on each title to read the original, full review. Date of original review follows each title. Books listed in chronological order by review.)

A wise plea for the strategic imperative of being different and distinctive asthe best way to avoid commoditization or worse — extinction. McKain insists that it's a competitive advantage, in fact. "Good enough'' just isn't "good enough'' any more, if it ever was.

Griffin suggests ways to connect with customers and prospects through the intelligent and proactive deployment of blogs, social networks and other resources that provide support and rapid responses to criticism, problems and concerns — real or imagined. Her deep understanding of thiscomplicated subject and her intelligent and actionable assessment of the necessary strategies are impressive.

Economist and investment guru Barry Ritholtz's blog, The Big Picture, is a mandatory daily stop for many. This honest, unvarnished look at the forces that screwed up the U.S. economy is a worthy candidate for a time capsule so that future financial operators can avoid the same traps that we fell into. Or at least howl when history repeats itself.

Movie stars, media figures, captains of industry and book reviewers are doing it, but how can businesses discern the twits from the tweets? O'Reilly and Milstein present as lucid and intelligent an overview as you'd want or need. The format is concise but quite rich, and there's plenty here to convince skeptics that employing Twitter as a marketing tool is a very good way to engage customers.

The "operating system'' behind the world's economies and monetary systems is flawed and antithetical to productivity and most other human values. Greed, avarice and (unenlightened) self-interest flourish. So do artificial scarcity, perpetual debt and empty allegiance to the slogans and logos of oppressive corporations. A less elegant and gifted writer might have produced a dour and plodding polemic against materialism and consumerist culture, but Rushkoff's persuasive prose is a pleasure.

Elegance is simplicity itself, is often self-contained, or damned near, and has nothing to do with wealth or fashion, yet it can affect both. Patterns and the need to look for them and make them work in an elegant manner are hard-wired into human DNA. May's sagacious and engaging book demonstrates how successful organizations can engage elegance and benefit from the engagement engendered by uncomplicated and intuitive choices.

I devoured these two fascinating books over the last Independence Day weekend, a propitious occasion to learn that one of our most cherished American freedoms may soon evaporate. Each depicts the ways our lives will change as the price of oil, gasoline and petrochemicals continues to rise, and both posit a future that resembles, in many ways, our pastoral past. Much of what these guys write reads like science fiction, though like the best SF, there are recognizably plausible elements therein to enable the suspension of disbelief.

If you're enticed by all you've heard and read about the benefits of deploying online tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, search engines and the rest for your business or personal enterprises but were not sure what to actually do and where to begin, this terrific tome will help hook you up. Joel doesn't just provide directions but also thoroughly explains a variety of things that may seem painfully obvious to the cognoscenti but somehow eludes others.

Alan Deutschman's short and readable book examines a number of people and the failure and success they achieved for themselves and their organizations based on whether or not their deeds aligned with their words. He does a fine job explicating the importance of moral equanimity and the effectiveness of leaders who are consistent in their values and actions. It's a lesson that transcends business but is especially important in it, where trust and integrity can ultimately determine failure or success.

Advertising-supported mass media is dying, and Ad Age columnist and NPR host Garfield, though currently part of its status quo, is simultaneously gleeful and distraught, mourning the decentralization of power while grabbing a bit of his own by blogging about the death of his cable provider for lack of support, dishonesty and general idiocy. What makes his insights valuable — even essential — is Garfield himself. He's an enormously entertaining and engaging writer, and it's a blast to observe the machinations of his so-sane-he's-crazy (or is it the other way around?) mind. Witty, world-weary, wildly knowledgeable and endlessly curious, Garfield is your perfect tour guide to the end of the sponsored world as we know it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Media Meltdown

Uncertainty looms as the ad-supported media infrastructure continues its death spiral


 The Chaos Scenario
The Chaos Scenario. Bob Garfield. Stielstra Publishing. 294 pages.

When advertiser-supported media — print, broadcast, online, whatever — cease to exist as audiences shrink below the critical mass needed by businesses to justify placing advertising therein, it's what Advertising Age columnist and NPR host Bob Garfield calls "The Chaos Scenario.''

He began documenting this meltdown in 2005 with a column that engendered widespread industry hysterics. The book took all this time to write, he said, because the chaos was ongoing and accelerating. But he told me at the Miami Book Fair International that he was compelled to write this. Driven. This was something that needed saying.

If he'd managed to do it quickly, this book would have been even more explosive and mind-blowing, four years ago. Now, his tour of the emerging media-less landscape is slightly less shocking. Most mavens and everyone else already know what's ahead and take Facebook, Twitter, blogs, social networking, crowdsourcing and all that other Googlely stuff pretty much for granted.

But Garfield's take remains invaluable and is still quite timely, even urgent. Major components of the scenarios he describes are still unfolding. For example, Jay Leno's nightly TV chat show is a direct result of NBC's plummeting ratings and the relatively low cost of producing that show compared to (more or less) original dramatic presentations. Daily newspapers' diminishing circulation numbers have publishing execs considering patently suicidal tactics like charging for online access or withholding content from the great god, Google. (Good luck with that one, Rupert!)

What makes Garfield's insights valuable — even essential — is Garfield himself. He's an enormously entertaining and engaging writer. It's a blast to observe the machinations of his so-sane-he's-crazy (or is it the other way around?) mind. Witty, world-weary, wildly knowledgeable and endlessly curious, Garfield is your perfect guide to the end of the world.

He trudges through Lego's Danish headquarters to see how the makers of those annoying bits of shaped plastic profited from tapping into the hive-mind of its fans. He journeys to Australia, Estonia, Israel, England and through his own living room as he investigates the twilight of one media age and the genesis of the next.

To be sure, there are thousands of other books, blog posts, PowerPoint presentations, podcasts, vodcasts and speeches on the subjects Garfield covers, but he's unique and his discursive by-the-ways, rude asides and dead-on skepticism provide the ideal balance to the mash-up of endemic excitement and widespread panic pervading the affected industries and culture at large.

Mass media is dying and Garfield, though currently part of its status quo, is simultaneously gleeful and distraught, mourning the decentralization of power while grabbing a bit of his own by blogging for the death of his cable provider for lack of support, dishonesty and general idiocy.

One nit to pick: the "real" last chapter of this tome has yet to be written and will appear online, per Garfield. Whatever. But the final one herein, explaining the book's origin and publication path, ought to have appeared up front, I think. No biggie, though.

Failure, however, to see what Bob Garfield's discovered — the chaotic and uncertain world we're entering — could be a very big mistake. You've been forewarned.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Say it, mean it and do it

Your words must match your deeds

by Richard Pachter

Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders 
Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders. Alan Deutschman. Portfolio. 208 Pages.

Each of us may be the star of our own movie, but that doesn't guarantee an intriguing plot. In a similar fashion, most war stories recounted by business leaders are dull cautionary tales rather than inspiring works offering useful examples and actionable instructions.

In many cases, the problem is that deeds fail to match words. These captains of industry may be legends in their own minds who can glibly talk the talk, but may not walk the walk. No one is perfect, of course, but most leadership failures can invariably be ascribed to the disconnect between the walk and the talk.

We see it all the time in Washington, D.C., and in our local governments. Two-faced politicians, for example, call for austerity, slash spending on important programs yet reward allies, cronies and lackeys at the expense of the public. But when other supervisors fail to follow their own rhetoric, especially in business, there's a ripple effect. ``Leaders'' are supposed to lead, and their behavior is far more revealing and meaningful than mere words.

Alan Deutschman's short and readable book looks at a number of people and the failure and success they achieved for themselves and their organizations based on whether or not their actions aligned with their words. Military leaders, coaches — even companies — that were consistent in their rhetoric and practices are profiled, as well as those who failed to live up to their own responsibilities and standards.

You may not cheer for his team, but there's no way that you can read Deutschman's observations about University of Florida football coach Urban Meyer and not admire his integrity and behavior. His actions communicate more about his values and expectations than any hackneyed half-time speech or sideline exhortation.

Historical figures including Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Eleanor Roosevelt are profiled along with business people such as Berkshire Hathaway's Warren Buffet, Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, politicians Al Gore and Mike Bloomberg, and a bunch of unknown figures whose behavior demonstrated unambiguous leadership and set examples for the people they led -- or fell short.

It's an interesting and absorbing set of stories, sure, but invariably, while reading these exemplary tales, one immediately is reminded of all the moralizing political hacks who condemn the behavior of others while cheating on their wives, lying to their staffs and defrauding the public.

Also springing to mind are thoughts of the more mundane managers who demand standards they fail to achieve. It's especially telling in tough times when bosses expect employees to trim budgets, endure salary cuts and take on additional work, yet somehow those same budgets still accommodate the leaders' high salaries and perquisites.

Deutschman does a fine job demonstrating the importance of moral equanimity and the effectiveness of leaders who are consistent in their purported values and their actions.

He also does a terrific job of portraying the deleterious effects of failure with examples from General Motors' plants to failed military campaigns, plus politicians who preached what they failed to practice. It's a lesson that transcends business but is especially important in it, where trust and integrity can ultimately determine failure or success.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Connecting through six pixels of separation

How to use online tools to expand your enterprise.
Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone Is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone. 
Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone Is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone. Business Plus. 304 pages.

The very first book I reviewed in this space in 2000 explained how the Internet had transformed marketing into an ongoing conversation between and among interested parties.

Since then — nearly nine years later — I've looked at and reviewed an endless stream of books that built on the proposition set forth by the creators of The Cluetrain Manifesto (Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls and David Weinberger), who, along with Seth Godin (Permission Marketing) and Guy Kawasaki (Rules for Revolutionaries), helped define our brave new age of interactive affinity marketing.

Other than subsequent works by those authors and not many others (Dan Pink immediately comes to mind), few proved worthy successors. I'm not absolutely certain that Canadian marketing maven Mitch Joel will join the virtual pantheon, but his new book Six Pixels of Separation has sparked my synapses in ways that only the aforementioned visionaries had previously done.

Like them, Joel quickly brushes aside jargon, pretension and artifice. He's engaging, witty and wise, with book smarts and pop-culture savvy. He's also endlessly inquisitive and employs this peripatetic curiosity to explore the vagaries of human behavior.

Even the better books about online marketing and networking tend to give the view from 30,000 feet (or a comparable number of pixels), but Mitch Joel operates at ground level. So if you're enticed by all you've heard and read about the benefits of deploying online tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, search engines and the rest for your business or personal enterprises but were not sure what to actually do and where to begin, this tome will help set you straight.

A couple of months ago, I read a book that purported to be a repository all known Internet and social networking resources, so I kept it on my shelf as a reference but didn't crack it more than a few times. In contrast to that work, Joel's practicable and actionable handbook might actually come in handy more than once in a while.

He doesn't just provide directions but also thoroughly explains a variety of things that may seem painfully obvious to the cognoscenti but somehow eludes others. For example, why should newspapers or other content creators continue to aggregate — and not abandon — their offerings? Duh! By archiving their content, it increases their site's value and makes it more available to search engines, thereby building traffic and revenue opportunities. Seems like a no-brainer, but have you ever tried to find an article on some newspaper sites a few weeks after original publication — or later? Oy! It has driven many writers to create their own websites as a defensive strategy to protect their own work (which is not a bad idea, regardless.)

I also liked Joel's invocation of General Eric Shinseki's prescient admonition, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less,'' a gentle and subtle reminder that those who fail to embrace the future will be stuck in the past.

If there's any criticism of this book, it's that Joel covers a lot of ground and might have divvied the material up among several shorter books. But I frankly like the wide approach, even if it means that he'll have to think hard about what comes next. I look forward to whatever he decides to write about if it's as well presented and provocative as this.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Out of gas but a better future awaits

Two new books say the rising price of oil-based energy will force us to change our lives for the better.

$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the BetterWhy Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization  

Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization. Jeff Rubin. Random House. 304 pages.

I devoured these two fascinating books over the recent Independence Day weekend, a propitious occasion to discover that one of our most cherished American freedoms will soon disappear. Both books spell out the ways our lives will change as the price of oil, gasoline and petrochemicals continues to rise.

We may already feel that current prices at the pump are outrageous, though both authors agree that they're actually quite low — but will be rising shortly. The resultant climb will affect nearly every aspect of modern life around the globe. In the United States, more than anywhere else, where we work and live are functions of the low price of gas. When it rises to 10 or 20 bucks a gallon, we simply won't be able too afford to live far from our jobs. But that's just the beginning. Both authors ably demonstrate that our food and other real or imagined necessities depend largely upon the plentiful supply and low price of petroleum.

Authors Steiner and Rubin agree that we're burning around six gallons of gas for every one found. Most of the major oil deposits around the world have been tapped or soon will be, they say. The ''Drill baby, drill'' crowd is just blowing a bilious cloud of natural gas; there just ain't that much to be had. But the world's demand for oil hasn't gone down. It's gone up and is growing rapidly. The nascent middle classes of China and India represent millions of new drivers and a huge demand for an untold amount of fuel. The numbers they say, clearly, indicate a steep price rise; we may in fact be looking at $6 a gallon by next year.

Both writers separately posit a future that resembles the pastoral past in many ways. The suburban sprawl that has become the hallmark of contemporary America will be impossible to sustain when high gas prices eliminate the personal automobile as we know it. It will be supplanted by an infrastructure that includes mass transportation systems like rail but doesn't include very much internal combustion-powered personal vehicle traffic -- except for some small cars fueled by ammonia. Hydrogen fuel cells? Not so much. Electric cars? Maybe.

But the population will either live in small towns with local services or dense cities like New York. Agriculture will be local too, as it will become prohibitively expensive to ship over long distances. You can also forget about eating things like sushi, unless it's cut from local fish. Globalization and world trade will essentially cease.

Much of what these guys write reads like science fiction, though like the best SF, there are recognizably plausible elements therein to ease the suspension of disbelief.
As scary as they are, I enjoyed these two books and recommend them both, with Steiner's getting the slight edge for readability as his more expansive outlook is engagingly depicted — but he quotes Rubin several times, so the unanimity between the two seems strong.

Neither author, however, presents the alternative, dystopian scenario that would result if we fail to successfully adapt our lives and livelihoods to accommodate the new, nearly gas-free way of life. Perhaps the possibility is far too horrible to comprehend, or has already been ably depicted by Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and others.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Elegance is a matter of simplicity

Businesses can benefit by engaging customers in unintrusive ways
Matthew May shows how elegance is actually a matter of simplicity.
In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing
In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. Matthew E. May. Broadway Books. 224 pages.

The term elegance is popularly misunderstood. It's not about luxury, avarice or Fred Astaire. It's simplicity itself and often self contained, or damned near, and has nothing to do with wealth or fashion, yet it can affect both.

An elegant solution, to me, is one that solves a problem in a minimal and unintrusive manner. For example, what to do with the thin sliver of soap remaining in your shower? I slap it on a fresh bar of soap, then use it. It doesn't sit at the bottom of the shower. It's also not wasted. That's an elegant — albeit mundane — solution.

My expectations of Matthew May's elegant new book were, I admit, skewed a bit by my own misconceptions. I'd expected something about design and how it confers an advantage in the manner of the iPod, which solved the MP3 listening problem and opened up a new market along the way.

May touches on design, but mostly looks at the subject in terms of problem solving, covering seemingly diverse topics, such as how monks think, why roadways without traffic rules are safer, the final scene of The Sopranos, the art of Jackson Pollock, the ''Broken Windows'' approach to crime fighting and the proliferation of fractals, a recurring theme.

More than anything else, though, he looks at elegance in terms of decision making, which is very important for business, of course, and his discourse on its key elements (seduction, subtraction, symmetry and sustainability) may very well trigger something in the reader that inspires a new way of looking at ordinary things.

May is a fine writer, though at times the reader is left wondering where the heck he's going, as though he's taking his subtitle (''Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing'') a tad too seriously. And I'd quibble with that subtitle, in fact, as it's not strictly true, nor is it a major theme of the book.

But adding by subtracting or doing nothing, as opposed to something/anything, is demonstrated to be quite useful. May, summarizing a section on the absence of traffic lights in an area, paraphrases the designer Hans Monderman in explaining that "when you are fully involved in a process governed by very simple relationship rules, a natural inclination takes over, and a self-organized pattern emerges that is far more orderly than any legislation can produce. Under those circumstances, you're connected with what's around you. Lose that connection and a mess ensues.''

When you think about how the Web works and that the simplest sites such as Google and Amazon are among its most effective, the lessons of elegance and their applications to business are quite simple, indeed.

Patterns and the need to see them and make them work in an elegant manner are hard-wired into human DNA. May's wise and engaging book demonstrates how successful organizations can emulate the elegance and benefit from the engagement engendered by uncomplicated and intuitive choices.
Originally published in The Miami Herald


 Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back 

In a review of one of his earlier books a few years back, I referred to author Rushkoff as a Renaissance Man, though after reading this new one, he'd clearly be more at home in the latter part of the Middle Ages between the 11th and 13th centuries. According to him, that era was a more productive and people-friendly period, with many of the advancements attributed to the latter one actually occurring in this so-called First Renaissance.

This new one is an interesting and challenging book. Its primary theme is that corporations, which were originally devised to suppress competition and preserve the wealth and power of monarchies, have evolved to possess more rights than individuals and most governing authorities. Furthermore, the ''operating system'' behind the world's economies and monetary systems is antithetical to productivity and most other human values beside greed, avarice and (unenlightened) self-interest. Rather, says Rushkoff, through manipulation of markets, resources, production and labor, the world's ascendant corporate interests have diminished humanity. What we're largely left with is artificial scarcity, perpetual debt and an empty allegiance to the slogans and logos of the oppressors.


Rushkoff writes: 'There are two economies — the real economy of groceries, day care and paychecks, and the speculative economy of assets, commodities and derivatives. What forecasters refer to as `the economy' today isn't the real one; it's entirely virtual. It's a speculative marketplace that has very little to do with getting real things to the people who need them, and much more to do with providing ways for passive investors to increase their capital. This economy of markets — first created to give the rising merchant class in the late Middle Ages a way to invest their winnings — is not based on work or even the injection of capital into new enterprises. It's based instead on 'making markets' in things that are scarce — or more accurately, things that can be made scarce, like land, food, coal, oil and even money itself.''

Though eschewing the tone of a manifesto or screed, the narrative is a tour de force survey of the economic history of the modern world. A less elegant and gifted writer might have produced a dour and plodding polemic against materialism and our consumerist culture, but Rushkoff's prose is a pleasure to read. He's clearly lecturing, but his seasoned teaching chops result in a painlessly enlightening and consciousness-raising experience. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but it's a fascinating view and one that's rarely presented with such élan.

Rushkoff's not a socialist or communist, to be sure, though he's clearly opposed to corporatism, or as it's also known, ''fascism.'' He questions and exposes many of the things that are taken for granted, such as home ownership, which he exposes as a means to tie workers to their labor by giving them a tiny stake, albeit one with enormous debt attached to it. But for all his slow-boiling outrage, Rushkoff's proposed remedies are modest and local, as befitting a near-impossible endeavor dedicated to chipping away at the foundations of civilization.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

How to discern the twits from the tweets

The Twitter Book 

By Richard Pachter

My dear mother asked me recently if I tweet. I nearly choked on my chopped liver but regained my composure quickly enough to query, ''Do you know what that is, Mom?'' ''No,'' she replied sweetly,"`but everyone's doing it.''

Indeed, the mainstream media has been buzzing about Twitter and its 140-character messages, called ''tweets.'' Movie stars, media figures, captains of industry and others seem to be doing it, but how can businesses discern the twits from the tweets?''

O'Reilly and Milstein present as lucid and intelligent an overview as you'd want or need. Twitter is clearly not for everyone, but it's quickly becoming as important as e-mail for certain professions and this terrific primer shows why.

The format is concise but quite rich, and there's plenty here to convince you to employ Twitter as a marketing tool and a very good way to engage customers.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Big Picture

Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World EconomyBailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy. Barry Ritholtz. Wiley. 332 pages.

By Richard Pachter

Over the past decade, a diverse assemblage of bloggers have established themselves as a self-appointed truth squad for the so-called ''mainstream media,'' though most of them draw from the MSM for actual reporting and content. A few, however, consistently provide some original material. Among the more worthwhile blogs is The Big Picture, a blunt but stylish one presented by economist Barry Ritholtz, whose daily analysis is a mandatory stop within the blogosphere.

His new book expands upon many of the themes he has already hit upon online, but in this package, there's more space for him stretch out and provide a more thoughtful and expansive look at our current economic and political messes.
originally published in The Miami Herald

Hunters and Gatherers

Taming the Search-and-Switch Customer: Earning Customer Loyalty in a Compulsion-to-Compare World


There are hunters and there are gatherers. With the advent of online commerce, hunters are now ascendant. And why not? Thanks to Google, anyone who can key in a name, even one spelled incorrectly, can suddenly gather information about a product, service or provider in detail that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

For those of us who tend to obsessively research prices and features before making a purchase, it's heaven, but the extra edge afforded by discovering testimonials (or cautions) from users is the real killer app. Some online retailers, most notably, recognize the value of this and encourage buyers to post reviews and ratings of products.

The same situation exists in the nonconsumer sector. In fact, the b-to-b segment is usually tougher in its ratings, since they generally employ more exacting requirements, and technical and legal standards may be involved as well.

It's great if you're a buyer, but if you're a provider, what the heck can you do to, at the very least, participate in the process? And can you control it?

Jill Griffin may not have all the answers, but I was blown away by her deep understanding of this complicated subject and her intelligent and actionable assessment of the necessary strategies. Having a firm grasp of the obvious is all too rare.

Rather than counsel obfuscation and deception, she recommends going at it full-bore. Of course, the internals have to be worked out first, though some of the tasks can be done on the fly. The first rule of promotion still applies: make sure the product (or service) is tight; if it isn't, then the criticism may be deserved. The whole point of Griffin's strategy involves doing the right thing and telling the truth. If the message emanating from you and your organization is bogus, you're sunk. If you start with honest communication and customer satisfaction as the primary goals, it's easier to formulate company policies and practices, even if they have to be made up as you go along.

Griffin suggests ways to genuinely connect with customers and prospects with an intelligent and proactive deployment of blogs, social networks and other resources to provide support and rapid responses to criticism, problems and concerns -- legitimate or otherwise. She also offers a guide -- several, actually -- to assess key aspects of the initiative. Customer loyalty is the ultimate goal, after all, and it's an ongoing process.

These elements usually require a fair degree of attention and consistency. But this type of behavior is now mandatory for businesses seeking to thrive in the context of the new reality.

Griffin covers a lot of ground in this book, but her organization of the material is excellent. It's not enough to have great ideas and to write well. If it isn't presented in an entertaining and compelling manner, making a lasting impression will be difficult. But if any business or other organization that sells or serves is serious and sincere about engaging customers, prospects and other stakeholders, they'll benefit from the principles, strategies and tactics of Jill Griffin.
published 5/11/09 in The Miami Herald

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best Business Books of 2009

Coming Monday 12/28/09

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Avoid Germs!

by Dick DeBartolo and Gary Hellgren

Monday, September 14, 2009

I’m not cold, and you only think you are

If I’m cold, then we need to raise the thermostat; if you’re cold, you must be delusional because it feels fine in here to me.

By Richard Pachter

This is anecdotal, not scientific, but I swear that men and women perceive temperature differently.

Judi Smith, humorist Dave Barry's assistant, tells me it's not just a matter of perception.

"These goose bumps are real, " she declared, and I knew that she was not making it up.

But I see plenty of mostly young women wearing sandals, flip-flops or other minimal footwear, short skirts, sleeveless tops and bare midriffs, shivering and protesting about the frigid interior temperatures in their offices.

I'm certainly not complaining, but I would suggest that rather than bowing to style or the desire to be provocative, they put on some clothes — or something — to cover their extremities.

Shoes and socks might be a good start, although those shocking pink-painted toenails will be obscured. Long pants would help too, as would a top with sleeves. As proud as one may be of a belly-button ring, sacrificing coolness for warmth may be wise.

But that's just me, and I'm not usually cold, especially indoors in South Florida. After all, I went to college in and around Buffalo, so I know what cold is. (It's bad. Very bad.)

I also know what to wear. I'm not Mr. Fashion, but I usually toil in my cubicle (and wander the halls) in a short-sleeved cotton golf-type shirt, cotton pants, and the ever-popular leather-shoes-and-cotton-socks combination.

No danger of my being profiled in Esquire, but I don't complain about the thermostat either — unless it's too high and a torpid malaise sets in, especially after a big lunch.

But plenty of women in my workplace — including Judi Smith — dress warmly and still suffer from the chill. One even keeps a blanket stashed under her desk, which she occasionally pulls out and drapes over her lap, as if she were at the Army-Navy football game. (Hope her team wins.) I've also heard rumors of stashed space heaters, but that sounds a bit far-fetched.

After digging around a bit, I learned that according to a study ("Comparison of Thermoregulatory Responses Between Men and Women Immersed in Cold Water," Tikuisis et al, Journal of Applied Physiology, October 2000), the difference in the way men and women respond to the same temperature is a function of their size and percentage of body fat and not some hard-wired physiological variation.

Makes sense, but I refuse to get involved in anything involving the assessment of body fat. I've been married too long to fall into that trap (to a woman of perfect weight and proportions, of course).

And I'll concede there are some offices that even I find chilly. There is one meeting room where I expect one day to discover ice-cube trays placed on its oaken credenza in testament to its near-frigid Fahrenheit mark. Another conference room could easily have meat hooks with sides of beef hanging from its ceiling.

In this age of sky-high energy costs, one would think that building management would aim to conserve, or at least equalize, room temperatures to eliminate frigid zones.

But it may be futile. WFOR/WBFS Communications Director Lee Zimmerman reports that in an attempt to offset the hot lights, the television news studio is usually kept at 67 degrees, though visitors and staff often feel chilly. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard 'Why didn't you warn me? I would have worn a sweater,' from guests," he says.

Dr. James Kraut, a psychologist in Coral Springs, reports that his office's thermostat is subject to centralized control by the building's custodial staff. "It's usually a bit cooler than we prefer. We tried closing vents, but it's just no use. I keep a sweater on hand, which I often have to offer to my patients," says Kraut.

Hopefully, none are traumatized by the experience.

The solution may require a bit of group collaboration, but ultimately, your "cold" may be my "hot." In that case, it feels just fine in here, so keep your hands off that thermostat, willya!
originally published October 10, 2005 in The Miami Herald

Friday, September 11, 2009

Asking for money

A few months back, I did a freelance job for a new client. They'd found me on the Web, read my stuff and wanted to work with me.

Their business was a bit technical, but they asked me to write about an upcoming seminar, keep it accurate but make it breezy and fun, with a little edge. Sounded like I'd be the perfect guy for the job.

They're based a few thousand miles away, though they supplied all sorts of source material. They answered as many questions as I had, and we bounced a few iterations back and forth by e-mail until they got what they wanted.

I cut them a bit of a deal on the price, as they'd dangled the promise of future jobs. But it was still worth my while and I had no complaints. They paid promptly and all were happy.

Shortly thereafter, one of the partners asked for a press release based on the article. I was happy to do it and explained that a press release needed to be "newsy" and that I'd have to basically start from scratch but I'd estimate about a two-hour job at my "normal" rate.

He was cool with that, I did it, sent it along with an invoice and waited. No feedback. Also, no payment.

Sent another invoice a month later. Still nothing. Today, I sent this e-mail to the partner, copying the requester:

Hi (person);

(Your partner) asked me to write a press release based on the article I wrote for you.

I explained that there would be an additional charge and quoted a price.

He gave me the go-ahead, I wrote it, sent it to him, sent an invoice and never received payment or any further communication from him.

If he's had an accident, is deceased or is no longer with you, I extend my sympathies.

Regardless, could you please see that I am paid for the work I was contracted to do and performed? I've attached the invoice. Thank you.

Richard Pachter

I immediately received an e-mail from the requester. He said he was not dead but the invoice had been misplaced. Payment would be forthcoming.

I responded:

So glad that you are alive!

Will toast to your continued health upon receipt of payment.


Stand by.

UPDATE: Payment received.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Oh, behave!

The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About ItTwo new books examine the importance of accountability and civility in the workplace


As President John F. Kennedy said, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.'' When good things happen, there's usually no problem identifying the responsible party. But we've all encountered situations where there are few clues at the scene of a crime — or business problem — that would readily indicate responsibility. Funny how some "leaders'' have never made mistakes or are never involved when their subordinates screw up.

Regardless, one doesn't have to be a leader to act responsibly. Good behavior involves accountability and civility. If I may have your permission, with the able assistance of my editors and this newspaper, I'd like to humbly present two new books that consider these important issues.

How Did That Happen? Holding People Accountable for Results the Positive, Principled Way. Roger Connors and Tom Smith. Portfolio. 272 pages.

Connors and Smith are consultants who provide "accountability training'' for individuals and organizations. The notion that such a thing is not only necessary but is apparently a thriving enterprise disturbs me greatly. But after leafing through their book, I'm impressed by the thoughtfulness, intelligence and pragmatism they bring to bear on this sticky matter. It's not a
matter of "blame,'' which is simplistic and can be divisive and unproductive. Instead, they view the issue holistically and systemically, which is a far more productive approach.

The requisite examples and anecdotes are included, which work well, but their assessment tools are worth the price of admission, along with the remedies they suggest. But, as with most problems, recognition of the situation and a willingness to deal with it are the first steps toward a solution.

The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It. Christine Pearson and Christine Porath. Portfolio. 240 pages.

You can rationalize and excuse all you want, but rudeness can hurt business. It's not just bad manners, according to Pearson and Porath, but incivility in general can be damaging -- if not disastrous. Customers, naturally, can be lost, but the deleterious effects of unkind and thoughtless words and deeds can have a major impact on all stakeholders. Life is too short to deal with nasty people but when there are choices, competitors gain an extra edge just by providing a respite from the rudeness.

The authors have ample data to back up their contentions, though almost anyone could intuit the fact that humans tend to void unpleasantness. They cite 12 percent of the workforce who say they've left jobs at which they were treated badly, but given the ability of some people to withstand pain and others' desire to remain employed at all costs, the actual number of those who've endured hostile workplaces might represent a much higher number. But some managers may not believe they have a problem, especially during this time of high and sustained unemployment. Regardless, this is a solid and thoughtful look at the little things that can make a big difference. The two Christines, Pearson and Porath, provide a useful summary at the end of each chapter and suggestions for assessing and addressing a variety of problems.

While every company may not be suffering from incivility, this book could help them avoid any such problems in the future.

published 8/17/09 in The Miami Herald

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back soon

Please watch this in the meantime.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Get Back in the Box

To succeed, don't let yourself get boxed in
Innovation and most out-of-the-box thinking will fail if the fundamentals are ignored.


Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. Douglas Rushkoff. Collins. 336 pages.

The new age of marketing books is upon us. It has actually been going on for a while. The author of this latest entry, Douglas Rushkoff, is calling for a business Renaissance, or says that we're already in the midst of one (I'm not sure which). That's easy for him, since he's certainly the embodiment of, well, a Renaissance Man, having covered culture, media and technology as a journalist for NPR, The New York Times, CBS News and other venues, and has been a consultant to various organizations. He's also written graphic novels, the latest, Testament, is a science fictional explication of the Torah, which he refers to as ''a media hack.''

Whatever . . .

In this book, Rushkoff joins people like Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Daniel Pink and the ''Cluetrain Manifesto'' guys who understand that business has changed dramatically, mainly due to increased choice, media fragmentation and the Internet. But, like dinosaurs with a huge bodies and tiny brains, many firms just can't seem to move fast enough, or break their old, bad habits. Worse, they seek quick fixes, fast turnarounds and overnight transformations without making the fundamental changes or commitments required to really improve the ways they interact with their customers and employees. And when the needle fails to move after their half-hearted atmospherics fall flat, they're baffled.

Rushkoff's mission here seems to be to bring companies back down to earth. They should rely on their core competencies, and anticipate and fulfill their customers' needs based on their own knowledge, experience and insights. Innovation is worthless unless it's backed up with what made the business successful in the first place.

Rushkoff provides a pleasant narrative, contrasting companies that get it with those that don't, adding asides and insights on what they're doing right or wrong. He's witty and a bit silly (but with a purpose), as when he asks, ''Who would you rather be? Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?'' to illustrate the differences between Apple and Microsoft, and how it's important and powerful for employees and customers to be engaged and have fun.

And that leads to another point; Rushkoff makes a strong case for employee involvement and empowerment, correctly pointing out that customers, employees and vendors all hold important stakes in the success of a business. This may be painfully obvious to all but the most oblivious, but anyone working in an environment where morale is low knows the effect it has on every interaction.

He is also quite wary of consultants, particularly those who seem to ''understand our business better than we do.'' Executives who feel that way, he says, are in big trouble. If an outsider knows your business better than you do, it may be time to look for another gig.

Rushkoff is a good writer, but there is very little herein that I hadn't read elsewhere. Getting back in the box isn't a bad idea at all, but he clearly values the out-of-the-box stuff as much as the next guru, so the title is a bit of a misnomer. Perhaps a better one would have been "Before You Get Out of the Box," but maybe I ought to stick to my fundamentals, too.

Published 1/9/06 in The Miami Herald.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Business can rock

Two books extrapolate business insights and lessons from the world of rock 'n' roll.

As much as I am obsessed with biz books, I often find business wisdom in tomes that seem to have nothing to do with commerce. A few years ago, for example, I reviewed a book about the underground culture of pick-up artists, since many of their principles and practices were applicable to sales, marketing, promotion — even human resources.

I once read a biography of Neil Young strictly for pleasure and realized that it, too, was a biz book, with lessons on branding, product development, marketing, logistics and more. Plus,
he owned Lionel Trains at the time. I switched gears and reviewed the biography from a business perspective and got a lot of great feedback. The review was picked up by newspapers all over the country; even in Australia, much to my surprise and delight.

Here are two recent books from people who learned valuable business lessons from their rock 'n' roll experiences.

Jam! How to Run Your Business Like a Rock Star. Jeff Carlisi, Dan Lipson, Jay Busbee. Jossey-Bass. 254 pages.

Jeff Carlisi was a guitarist and songwriter in the Jacksonville-based band .38 Special. I'd worked with him a few times and was always impressed with his positive, professional demeanor. It should have been no surprise, then, to read this upbeat book that uses his career trajectory as the basis for some very smart and practical business and personal guidance.

Carlisi, now a principal in a corporate consultancy specializing in team building, is joined here by his partner, Dan Lipson, and professional writer Jay Busbee. The trio tel
ls the story of how the band got started and developed, up until he left in 1997. Carlisi's carefully selected anecdotes emphasize hard work, collaboration, tenacity and other vital attributes. While there are few, if any, surprises herein, his breezy and entertaining text presents a solid primer for success in most any profession or endeavor. I'm sending a copy, in fact, to an itinerant musician I know who might benefit from learning these fundamentals.

Rock to the Top: What I Learned About Success From the World's Greatest Rock Stars. Dayna Steele. Brown Books. 135 pages.

Steele was a rock jock and radio station music director in Houston and her book is a bit more nuts and bolts that Carlisi's. She also utilizes an impressive résumé in an entertaining and instructive way, but her unique perspective -- from both the talent and the business end -- offers a view from each side of the stage.

The glitz and glamour of the music business during the latter part of the last century belied much its hard economic realities. Nowadays, it's far from uncommon to encounter entertainers who are more involved in their business than in their art. Steele's observations from the back and front of the stage are witty, incisive and applicable to a variety of situations. True tales of encounters with Michael Jackson, Sammy Hagar, David Crosby and others add flavor and atmospherics but the real value of this book is Steele's levelheaded and intelligent insights and extrapolations.

Gene Simmons, relentless marketer and TV personality, contributes the book's foreword and he was either paid a fortune to do so or recognizes and respects the author's expertise. My money is on the latter.

Published 05/25/09 in The Miami Herald

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

So, what's the story?

Using the power of storytelling to make strong connections

The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling. Annette Simmons. Basic Books. 272 pages..

When we're little, we love to hear stories. It's so deeply rooted, most never lose their hard-wired affection for tales. Perhaps it's the narratives' natural hopefulness as they attempt to make sense of the seeming randomness of existence. Or maybe we just like to be entertained.

Before written language, elders and shamans ensured the preservation of tribal legends and traditions by reciting stories conveying lessons and values to their people. Myth and parable are potent tools for maintaining cultural and religious continuity, observance and loyalty. Stories involve the listener in ways naked facts cannot.

Humans preternaturally identify with stories, filtering things through their own psyches and experiences. In McLuhanesque terms, storytelling is a "hot" medium, eliciting responses on a number of levels.

Tales resonate for a variety of reasons, according to Annette Simmons, a Greensboro, N.C.-based speaker and author. Lots of psychological explanations are offered, fortunately without excessive mumbo jumbo. Suffice it to say, stories tap into our consciousness — individually and collectively — in emotional and intuitive ways.

Marketing theorists (and six-year-olds) understand that most purchases are triggered by "want," not "need." Again, emotion beats rationality. It's the difference between "I love you because . . ." and a passionate hug and kiss. Arguments, after all, are usually won on emotion, not reason, in spite of all pretensions to the contrary.

Even most "logical" advertising (like Volvo's campaign emphasizing safety) is loaded with visceral subtext. No-brainers succeed because they're usually all-heart. The most memorable television commercials possess narrative threads, however thin they might be ("Wassup!?").

Companies tap into the power of stories for advertising and marketing, but there are plenty of internal uses. In addition to conveying corporate culture (a form of tribalism, to be sure) an organization's plans and goals can be communicated in this manner, or in variations thereof. Business models are, after all, attempts at telling a story in advance; a pre-metaphor, perhaps.

Great leaders set examples; living their stories and communicating by action (emotion), not instruction (logic).
Stories are the best way to convey these things, says Simmons, serving up a host of stories to illustrate her points. Some, as you would expect, are more compelling than others, and fail to leap off the page. Others are more memorable (just don't ask me to recall them right now).

The problem is that Simmons covers a lot of ground, which tends to diffuse the focus. If any book begged for an abridged audio version, this is it, as an aural presentation of the material might make the process less cerebral and more affective. But if you have a little patience, Simmons' thoughtful book ably demonstrates the power of storytelling, and the many uses for it — mercenary and otherwise. Be careful, though; as the venerable storyteller Stan Lee once wrote, "With great power comes great responsibility."

published Dec. 30, 2000 in The Miami Herald.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Klaus Voorman

This looks quite cool.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Cross Marketing

In conjunction with his forthcoming novel, Vanished, author Joseph Finder produced a comic featuring his creation, The Cowl.

From his site:
The Cowl is written by Brian Azzarello, one of the greats in the comics world and the author of 100 Bullets and the bestselling Joker, and drawn by talented new comic artist Benito Gallego. There are limited quantities of the comic book available in print. This is an exclusive offer for fans who pre-order VANISHED. (Click here) for a letter from Joe explaining the origin of The Cowl.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Marketing with Neil Young

Neil Young has been promising — and working on — a release of his archival recordings with all sorts of extra material in a variety of formats.

Now, when it's ready for release, the economy is tough
. Disposable income ain't what it used to be.

But Neil Young fans — like me — remain interested.

So canny old Neil provides an online demo. Nice.

No surprise. Neil knows business.

h/t to Bud Scoppa!

Monday, May 18, 2009

What’s “Whuffie”?

Learn how and why you need to build good will, help people and expand your enterprise.

The Whuffie Factor. Tara Hunt. Crown Business. 312 pages.

According to Wikipedia, “Whuffie is the ephemeral, reputation-based currency of Cory Doctorow's science fiction novel, ‘Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.’ This book describes a post-scarcity economy: All the necessities (and most of the luxuries) of life are free for the taking. A person's current whuffie is instantly viewable to anyone, as everybody has a brain-implant giving them an interface with the Net.”

Though the term seems annoyingly cute, Tara Hunt’s eminently readable book does a terrific job of explaining this slightly counterintuitive notion, which might be expressed as “the more you give, the more you can get.”

Starting out as a blogger, Hunt slowly built some capital of her own as she connected and interacted with a bunch of online contacts. She assisted people with their businesses, causes and other concerns, and accumulated lots of virtual brownie points along the way. When she was hired to develop and grow a start-up firm’s Web initiative, the enterprise boomed and her reputation was established in the business sector. She subsequently partnered with a colleague, established a consultancy and was encouraged to write this book on her experiences and insights.

Facebook, Twitter, blogging and the rest are all ways to connect and interact, but if you spend any time with these media, you’ve undoubtedly encountered virtual or actual “friends” who repeatedly post what they’re doing with links for you to click that will take you where they want you to go to sample whatever delightful thing they’ve encountered or created. The problem, of course, is that there are always a few jokers who do this to excess and provide little that’s of value, except, of course, to them.

Hunt cracks the whip here and pointedly shows how this type of behavior adversely affects the value of an online persona and the attendant accumulation of whuffie. In fact, Hunt makes it pretty obvious as she offers an actual table of whuffie “deposits” and “withdrawals” (p. 158) to demonstrate how one can parlay their contributions into a major score — an introduction to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, for example.

In addition to the mechanics of the subject, Hunts takes it to a higher plane by discussing the notion of having a bigger purpose, rather than merely pursuing a mercenary course. And that’s the difference here; the time-honored sales tactic of “asking for the order” becomes outdated in this setting. Helping people achieve their goals while pursuing your own is the way to go.

That doesn’t mean that one cannot profit from this creation of good will. Far from it! One-way exchanges of value — products or services for cash — still exists; you don’t necessarily need to build a close personal relationship with Steve Jobs, for example, to enjoy your IPod Touch. But there are implicit promises made by companies that can serve as catalysts for commerce, and establishing connections with buyers and other stakeholders has emerged as an important element of commerce.

As “The Cluetrain Manifesto” authors stated nearly a decade ago, “marketing is a conversation.” Tara Hunt’s book can help businesses and individuals gently break the ice.

published 5/4/09 in The Miami Herald