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.