Ideas Are Everything (IAE) Moves to New Location!

The IAE blog (including all posts, comments, etc.) has moved to a new Web site:

Please visit the new site and share it with your friends and associates. I have several new blog entries authored up and ready for release. See you there!

–John R. Durant © 2011

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Green Baloney Feasts: What It Takes For a Shot At the Top

One of the easiest and most common things to do is look at people who’ve “made it” and say, “I wish I had that kind of success.” The truth is that this expressed wish is very rarely sincere. The simple fact is that except in unimaginably exceptional cases there is no such thing as a supernaturally lucky “big break” that just hands out wild success against all odds.

That’s just not the universe operates.

Reality has always been pretty very clear about  this: Getting to the top of any business, field, or market generally happens to those who sacrifice the most. Let me provide an example of sacrifice and suffering I learned first hand from the The Jets, a hugely popular band in the 80’s and 90’s.


Many years ago when I was 15 I met an unusual family that changed the course of my life. My family was struggling after a financially disastrous sojourn to Arizona. We returned with lots of debt and no money, so we took up residence in a rather dumpy duplex.

We eventually had enough money to buy a very used green stationwagon that leaked an enormous amount of oil which we dubbed: the Lizard. Behind our raggy home was another duplex whose driveway was soon filled with a large blue bus. A huge family had moved in, and I was especially curious. I made friends with this enormous family (eventually totaling 17 children) who were dedicated musicians even though most were not even in their teen years. Eventually, I moved in with this family (21 of us in a 4-bedroom house), the Wolfgramm family, entirely and went to work for them. In doing so, I received the greatest education I would ever acquire in life: I learned the value of passionate purpose, maniacally hard work, and the health benefits of green baloney.

Because I was truly an aimless kid with no idea what to do with my life, I was immediately struck by how hard these kids worked just because they wanted to do. The older ones attended high school with me, but all of the kids would attend school, then return home and practice until the evening. Then, they would pile into a green cargo van (no insulation, no seats except for the driver and one passenger, no heat—entirely devoid of safety and comforts. Each weekday they would load the instruments in a trailer and take off to perform from 9pm-1am at local bars. They would return home by 2:30am and were awake and ready by 5:30am the next morning for school. I had never seen anything like it, and I soon became a regular companion to nearly every show. All along, they were still getting better grades than I was in school! These kids were something special.

As the oldest of us graduated from high school, things became even more serious. Their father’s vision of what the family could achieve became clearer, sharper, and more urgent. He felt the time was coming for a big break. At this point, they hired me to work as their sound man (a clear sign of a–Their incredible generosity and b– How short-handed the business surely was. because was I wasn’t a very good soundman). I immediately went on the road during a year where we did 200 shows in many different cities. It’s an exhausting lifestyle that leads other bands to turn to drugs, sex, and alcohol to pass the time and stay engaged. We were different despite the ubiquitous temptations. To this day, many people who became attracted to the positive message and example the Wolfgramms and I set express gratitude for helping them change their lives.

It’s important to know that during a grueling 18 month period I gained only a taste of the hard and satisfying work these kids had lived since they were old enough to dance or hold a microphone. They were stage veterans at 13, and I was an entirely green stage hand at just shy of 18. Each day on the road was spent:

  1. Driving to some remote city with a bar that reeked of stale beer and decades of cigarettes
  2. Unloading all the instruments, setting them up and rehearsing all day into the evening
  3. Taking a small break to eat a burger and soda before the show
  4. Playing 4 sets from 9pm to 1am
  5. Tearing down the stage, lights, instruments, etc. and loading it all in the trailer
  6. Driving all night to another remote city with a bar that reeked of stale bear and decades of cigarettes. (repeat steps 1-6)

If you do this long enough and with enough passion and stay united, good things WILL happen. Eventually, word got around about an amazing and talented family. We landed a pretty nice gig at John Escuaga’s Casino Cabaret in Reno Nevada where Jheryl Busby from MCA came to see the band perform. He was blown away, and an impressive recording contract followed.


To the outsider who does not know the full story, how we froze in a van with no heat in the dead of Minnesota winters, how we ate moldy baloney, how we fit 15 people into a small hotel room, and how these kids had given up so much of the entirely wonderful and good play time that all their peers enjoyed—that outsider will most likely look at the final success and think, “I wish I could be a star like that.” As I said at the outset—that wish is usually not very genuine. Few people are willing to make the relentless sacrifices it takes to get there. However, for the kids who suffered and sacrificed, it wasn’t just a wish—It was a mission, a commitment, an incredible attitude for people at such a young age. I was fortunate to come in contact with them and “get” it. I became one of them in my drive to succeed among other things. I learned what it takes for a shot at the top of any endeavor.

As we turn our attention to business, family life, developing talents, and so on, we can learn a lot from Maikeli and Vake Wolfgramm and their remarkable family who remain my very closest friends to this day. The principles that led them to achieve their successes, including the great success they have their vast clan of children and grandchildren are ones that apply elsewhere—You need to eat a lot of ‘green baloney’ for a shot at the top, my friends. There are no shortcuts to the top.

–John R. Durant © 2011

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Leading By Letting Others Lead Themselves

We frequently hear messages about ‘must-haves’ and how we’ve ‘gotta have it.’ It seems we spend much of our lives aspiring to acquire. In so doing, we can easily fail to recognize what we shouldn’t own, especially the challenges and difficulties that others need to solve through their own personal leadership. Wise leaders know when to step back from the decisions others must make including the consequences of those decisions. Let me provide an example from parenting. While I do not think of business leadership in terms of paternalism, I hope that my analogy conveys an important principle of leadership.

I have six sons, three of whom are in the teen years. As of this writing, my oldest is about to start his senior year in high school. Last year, companies that provide ACT/SAT preparation courses started spamming our home with offers. He seemed uninterested in the prep tutorials. Now, most parents know from experience that ACT/SAT scores are pretty important. We see that great scores there (often) lead to acceptance at better universities which (hopefully) means a better experience which (probably) leads to a better career and more pleasant life etc.. My son became (understandably) annoyed by our initial entreaties for him to consider these prep courses. I finally asked him, “Son, how involved do you want us in your ACT preparation?” He looked noticeably relieved to get this off his chest and quickly but politely responded, “Not at all. I’ve got this.” I told him, “Great. Just let me know if you need anything.” When his scores arrived I said, “It’s a great score, but even more important: This is your score. You did it your way. You owned it and earned it.”

As we lead organizations we sometimes let our experience get in front of the chances for others to learn. Think about it: It is very likely that the lessons you value the most in your life, the one’s that have shaped your thinking and action the most spring from experiences that probably entered with your saying, “I’ve got this.” You then marched forward learning from successes and setbacks that you owned. This is very true for me. Not all of my decisions have been brilliant, but I’ve learned from every one of them. I’m glad that I either had wise leaders who stepped back enough to let me learn or, in other cases, where I had enough resilience and confidence to not let others keep me from going ahead with what I knew must be done.

There is inherent risk in this kind of leadership. Some initiatives will fail (even spectacularly). People will sometimes let us down. But, it is only in creating the adequate space for failure will there be room for success. As we demonstrate personal leadership and recognize the need for others to do the same within their sphere of influence the organizations we will be in a better position to drive innovation and operational excellence.

Quick Questions To Ask Yourself:

  • Is this really my problem?
    • I have never done my kids’ homework. I’ve always told them, “I’ve already graduated and have multiple degrees. Your grades won’t help my career.”)
  • Is this a safety/security issue?
    • Sometimes leaders have to step in and lay out the safety perimeter and plan so nothing catastrophic occurs. Failure is not the same as catastrophe!
  • Am I hiring talented people who deserve the trust?
    • It’s much easier to step back from decisions others make when we believe the risks are lower. When a trusted and competent member of the team tells me, “I’ve got this,” it is comforting rather than terrifying.
  • What’s the best way to offer support here?
    • Aspiring leaders will not want to be left entirely alone. They need to know that while they own the initiative and are accountable, they also can get the help they need (for example, increased resources, stronger sponsorship, and so on).

–John R. Durant © 2011

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Citi’s Message Gets “Sticky” Using Stories

In this case, I’m talking about the Dan-and-Chip-Heath sense of “sticky” meaning an idea or message that endures—something that sticks with you. Citi recently launched a new marketing campaign, “Citi Stories,” that is undeniably sticky, and it stands out as an excellent example of artful marketing. I watched each of their quick videos, and their simply persuasive message stuck with me: “What’s your story? Citi can help you write it.” Even more importantly, in a few short seconds Citi was able to show me how they might help consumers write their own story.

To get this kind of message across for a big bank, or any seemingly faceless corporation, is a tall order. My readers are probably a lot like me in how we view big companies like Citi and Wells Fargo, or non-financial companies like Unitedhealthcare, Apple, and countless more. We tend to think, “Sure—these companies are going to tell me how much they care and how important I am to them, but it’s just insincere marketing. To them I’m really just a dollar sign.” This thinking is so universal and so thoroughly embraced I often wonder why most companies bother trying to change it. But, they do, and nearly all of them fail. Except Citi.

In their best-selling book, “Made to Stick” the authors lay out five descriptors of something sticky. They say that the message or idea must be:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credentialed
  • Emotional

Let’s briefly look at one of the “Citi Stories” examples and see how well it matches up with these attributes. We’ll take the “Weather Balloon” story as an example. The 30-second video introduces us to a guy who got a Citi credit card, gained some points by making purchases and bought a weather balloon. The video shows him with his buddies busting out the weather balloon and some other gear. They are giddy with excitement on a beautiful hillside as they inflate the balloon with a camera and launch it into the sky. Next, we see them huddled in a van celebrating as they watch a live stream from the camera now somewhere approaching outer space. We see the earth below and the mysterious blackness of space ahead while the balloon launchers are high-fiving somewhere on the blue planet.

  • Simple: The guy got a Citi card and bought stuff which led him to a truly unusual adventure.
  • Unexpected: The Citi card allowed him to do something unexpectedly cool: launch a weather balloon.
  • Concrete: The card didn’t just give him a bunch of abstract “points.” It led to a great experience he shared in the real world with real friends.
  • Credentialed: Citi fulfilled its promise. It claims to give people rewards, and here is the proof. The video comes across as genuine and believable.
  • Emotional: We can all relate to the exhilarating experience this guy had with his friends launching the balloon. Each of us yearns for an analogous experience, even if completely different from the launching of a balloon.

This is only one of several Citi “stories,” and they are all quite good. I recommend any of them as great examples of marketing and the power of persuasion. Like all of us, I’ve been conditioned through thousands and thousands of experiences to see banks as icy-cold number-crunching institutions that have little to do with me as a person. I salute Citi’s marketing team (and the agency they hired Smile)for taking seriously the enormous task of challenging those many entrenching experiences with some fresh and “sticky.”

–John R. Durant © 2011

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We’ll Soon Say ‘Goodbye Best Buy’: Traditional Retailers Ignore Customer Service At Their Peril

I predict that within 10 years many large brick-and-mortar retail brands like Best Buy will disappear, and the main reason why is that most retailers all but ignore their best weapon when competing with purely online retailers: Customer service as part of an overall experience. The same problem exists in other industries and markets, especially (and not without perfect irony) in purely service industries like automobile insurance.

The sad reality is that in-person customer service is almost universally bad everywhere we turn. What’s worse—this is occurring in the context of an American economy which, as of this writing, features 9.2% unemployment. If people are lining up to apply for jobs, are we to believe that the “associates” that regularly disappoint us at the store are the best an employer could find? If so, then the situation is more dire and perhaps indicative of even larger problems in the fabric of our society. But, I am persuaded that with true leadership and innovation in this area, better customer service is still possible. Without it, many traditional retailers will fade away.

Let me describe just one. My recent experience purchasing a computer from Best Buy confirmed my conviction that Best Buy’s demise is virtually unavoidable. Finding the right computer for my needs was pretty easy. I did a lot of Internet searching including reading forums and reviews, etc. Once I knew what I wanted, I moved to the purchasing phase where price is seemed to matter most. I wanted a good deal. I could purchase the computer online, which I have done several times. But, I was near a Best Buy store doing other shopping and thought I would check models and prices there while asking a few more questions to see if I had overlooked anything in my selection process. Staff at the store were a mixture of scarce, disinterested, uninformed,  and even visibly annoyed by having to wait on customers. I left the store concluding that my experience there added no value to my purchasing effort. In fact, it was a detraction—a major turn-off that turned me back online.

Another example occurred recently while at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Several of us were waiting in line to purchase items. One young woman was handling a return item at the customer service desk while two other employees were 15 feet away folding clothes near two displays. They gaily discussed their weekend plans while the other worker became tense as she saw the line growing longer. I finally asked the other two workers if one of them could help us at another register. One responded, “Uh…Sure.” She then came to the register. I was shocked that I had to prompt this to occur. But, I knew very well that if I had not done so we would have all just continued waiting. Unfortunately, this kind of scenario is becoming the norm.

We all have had similar experiences in our travels as consumers. With greater frequency I have come to expect sales “associates” to be apathetic and disengaged—barely present. And, they are often rude when a sincere customer asks for extra assistance or make requests that do not fit a very short script.

This is not to say that customer service with online retailers is flawless. I am keenly aware that with an online purchase I am forced to rely on email or other virtual means to get any help, and the personal touch is absent. But, that is what I expect from a Web site. It’s essentially the modern version of a catalog with an order form.  In much younger years I never expected the Sears catalog to do much more than help me find things and give me a means for ordering it so it could be shipped to the house. Most Web sites are refined versions of this experience, and many now feature live chat assistance and other helps that do augment the experience quite well. In one of my recent online purchases the live chat feature added a lot of value to my experience. I’ve never endured rude, apathetic, half-hearted, or misinformed customer service representatives in an online retail experience. It’s biggest weaknesses are its messaging latency and the inherent feeling of detachment that comes from interaction through screens and keyboards. But, these are improving every day.

The sad fact for non-virtual retailers is that they are providing less and less value to, and are even interrupting or obstructing, a customer’s experience. Because of worsening customer service consumers will continue the trend of going online for things they used to purchase at a store. What’s lacking with most retailers is the leadership to innovatively invest in customer service as a key part of the experience at a store. I see no evidence that Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Eddie Bauer, JC Penney, and so many others are investing in the experience at their stores and the key role that customer service plays in that experience. Meanwhile is very quietly looking better all the time.

© John R. Durant 2011

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Coke Zero, U2, and Randy Couture: Driving Successful Innovations

When I worked at Microsoft I found discussions about innovation to cause me the most reflection. As expected, in a large company with a well established product line there are all sorts of dilemmas and discussions about innovation. Opinions within Microsoft as well as opinions from critics and supporters outside about how well the company innovated varied wildly—and that should not be a surprise. A couple of the best things to come out of Office at time were the Microsoft Office Fluent UI (aka the ‘Ribbon’ and a feature named by an exceedingly talented friend of mine) and Microsoft Office OneNote. It’s been interesting to see a lot of non-MSFT software now adopting the Office Fluent UI-style menus. After people adapt to it, they tend to love it. It’s evidence that big companies can innovate. Not all innovation comes from small, fearless startups. But, how do they do it? What are some common principles that guide them? And—can the question be answered in a brief blog post? (No—at least to the last question Smile)

Other examples abound. Apple comes to mind. And, so does one of my favorite drinks: Coke Zero. Let’s look at the challenges:

  • Big company (Coca Cola): Check
  • Complex and massive business with plenty of built-in inertia (product dev, production, advertising & marketing, sales, distribution): Check
  • Global implications for everything it does: Check
  • High sensitivity of consumers to altering the product line: Check
  • Highly valuable brand that cannot be compromised: Check
  • Publicly held (so—EPS runs the show): Check
  • Already in nearly every market in the world: Check
  • Already delivering a robust and successful product line: Check

For many companies—this is, pardon the pun, a recipe for stagnation. But, Coca Cola did what companies are supposed to do: lead in the marketplace by meeting consumer demand in novel ways. Some attempts will fall flat (too easy to pick on New Coke) and others will be great successes. Here are some more facts:

In 2009, a year in which overall soda sales shrank by about 2 per cent, Coke Zero sales jumped 20 per cent in the U.S., from 97 million cases to 116 million, according to trade journal Beverage Digest. Among big soft drinks, only Diet Mountain Dew, Diet Dr Pepper, Crush and Coke Zero posted gains. — Coke Zero Becomes a Hero for Coca-Cola Co. (Sept 19 2010) Jeremiah McWilliams The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Here are some commonalities I have noted in successful innovation at any company—including the large ones like Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Comcast. Zooming out a little, I am persuaded that these principles also guide innovations in music, visual arts, and more. These commonalities assume that we have a highly talented and reliable organization.

  • Appetite For Risk: After all the tide of books, articles, and bloviating speeches recedes, the simple fact is that there is no way to innovate and progress without risking a lot. It’s not enough to make little forays. Walking is a risk (going out of balance, and taking a step to catch ourselves). Relationships are a risk. Not all executives and middle management are willing to put it all on the line and then withstand in the blowtorch of accountability. When I was at Microsoft, I gained a lot of respect for Steven Sinofsky. He led Microsoft Office into new places, and he now is firmly at the helm of Microsoft Windows which I think will do great things with Windows 8. One of the things I loved about the Beatles or Elvis (or more currently U2, David Bowie, Billy Corgan, Metallica, Randy Couture) was/is their willingness to “mess” with their legacy. They were or are willing to risk it all in order to rise higher. It’s not for everyone. It’s a posture known only by the “greats.”
  • Commitment To An Idea: Coke Zero was not an immediate success. It faltered a bit initially. Rather than walk away management stuck to it, re-tooled in smart ways, and remained committed to Coke Zero success. I have a reasonably good idea of how conversations were probably going in senior leadership meetings. They managed the doubts that arose internally as the numbers rolled in and outside pressures increased. They managed pressure from the board. They managed pressure from shareholders. They managed challenges in not only rolling out a new product but then re-rolling out a new product. They finally figured out that what consumers wanted was “Real Coke taste, zero calories.” I love marketers. Among them are the boldest of modern explorers.
  • Respect for Engineering: You see, it’s not enough to just have a great idea. The idea means nothing if there is imprecise and incompetent execution. Innovators respect the value of great engineering. By engineering here I mean not only the product development engineering but also the final production, distribution, marketing, and sales. Dell was able to innovate in how it sold and delivered PCs because it delivered a tightly executed process. It all held together. Coke Zero looked, felt, and landed like people expect a Coke product to do. The marketers could have never re-tooled the value prop message if the product was bad or was poorly operated. Coca-Cola’s marketing team knew they were on adequately solid footing with the rest of the product roll out. U2 have had amazing success with their ‘U2 360’ tour because of a great tour manager and supporting team. The band remains relevant not only because of its message but also because their shows are consistently mind-blowing (I can say from first-hand experience).
  • A Clear Purpose: Roy Spence talks about “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For.” That is true of a whole business, but it’s also true about the separate innovations and ideas that drive the business forward. Coke Zero succeeded because management helped the organization and the consumers understand what it stood for, why it existed in the first place—it’s purpose. This means, among other things, assuring that the innovation fits into the organizations strategy. Walt Disney innovated in a lot of ways, but he and his team have remained convicted and clear about “what Disney is about.” Southwest Airlines knows what it’s about (low-cost air travel, plain and simple). Innovations in these organizations get lift and support or are shoved aside based on their purpose.

I recently asked the CEO of Savvy Sherpa (my employer) a simple question about innovation: “Given how much of yourself you put into various ideas and initiatives, do you ever take it personally when one fails?” His answer was what commensurate with how I have always thought about things as well. He thought for a moment and said, “No. Not at all. Because, in any so-called failure I look for something, anything I can take with me and leverage as I pour myself into the next idea that I fully intend to make successful.”

–John R. Durant © 2011

Posted in Economics, Experiments, Innovation, Marketing, Retail | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Books and Articles Recently Read Feb 2011

Like most people it seems, I read a lot of books. I’m frequently asked what I just read. I thought it might be helpful to keep a running list of my latest reading (and RE-reading) including books, magazines, etc. I’m providing no ratings or commentary. If I start a book and toss it aside, I don’t include here. These are just the things I thought were worth reading or that others recommended to me and I followed their advice.

· The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (history of woman who gave us HeLa cells)

· Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi

· Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

· Bounce : Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed

· Authenticity– What Consumers Really Want by James H. Gilmore & B. Joseph Pine II

· Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else what It Means for Business, Science and Everyday Life by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi

· K2 : Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain by Ed Viesturs, David Roberts

· The Dragonfly Effect : Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways To Use Social Media to Drive Social Change by Jennifer Aaker, Andy Smith, Carlye Adler, Dan Ariely, Chip Heath

· American Prometheus : The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird, Martin J. Sherwin

· The Currency of Life: Uncovering the Clues to Why We’re Here by Mark Klein

· No Shortcuts to the Top : Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks by Ed Viesturs, David Roberts

· Decision Points by George W. Bush

· The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

· One Eternal Round by Hugh W. Nibley

· The Drunk’s Club: A.A., the cult that saved my life by Clancy Martin in Harpers January 2011 issue



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