Web Heresies

All the heresies the web can handle (all opinions expressed here are my own).
When companies try to copy others’ successes by only adopting the surface trappings of that success, they end up like an elephant in a circus act.
The elephant is still an elephant. Its desire to be nimble and agile doesn’t give it magical powers to change into a different species. It’s still the same old beast, but it’s trying hard to be something it’s not by doing the least amount of work it possibly can. We call that “imitation.”
Unfortunately, imitation isn’t transformative. It only serves to highlight the vast and glaring gap between aspirations and reality. Without fundamental change, a pachyderm is still a pachyderm no matter how hard it tries to convince the world that it’s suddenly graceful.
In fact, the attempt to change by doing the least amount of change possible becomes a spectacle, a circus act. It calls attention to itself, and not in a good way. That’s entertaining if you’re in the audience, but it sucks if you’re the elephant trying to sell the act.
And at some point the ball bursts. The air escapes not only the plastic ball, but the facade that an organism or entity can transform itself without hard work in a long, slow process. That’s painful, so organizations try to avoid it by doing the least amount of work possible, i.e. imitation.
The key to avoiding this lies at a senior level. Senior leadership has to embrace the difficult truths and long-term planning that are essential for real change. Without it, a culture of quick fixes, superficial tweaks and imitation trickles down. Leaders need to set goals and metrics that support and enable departments to invest in the kind of fundamental changes that can take years. They need backup, support and time. Without that, spin and short-term profit at the expense of long-term growth get used to show “change,” and leave an organization in worse shape than before it began the process.
Change is hard. It takes time and work. So when you’re thinking about change, remember the joke about the psychologist and the light: “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to change!”
Don’t try to change if you’re really not committed to it.
Photo credit:: https://www.flickr.com/photos/visionshare/

When companies try to copy others’ successes by only adopting the surface trappings of that success, they end up like an elephant in a circus act.

The elephant is still an elephant. Its desire to be nimble and agile doesn’t give it magical powers to change into a different species. It’s still the same old beast, but it’s trying hard to be something it’s not by doing the least amount of work it possibly can. We call that “imitation.”

Unfortunately, imitation isn’t transformative. It only serves to highlight the vast and glaring gap between aspirations and reality. Without fundamental change, a pachyderm is still a pachyderm no matter how hard it tries to convince the world that it’s suddenly graceful.

In fact, the attempt to change by doing the least amount of change possible becomes a spectacle, a circus act. It calls attention to itself, and not in a good way. That’s entertaining if you’re in the audience, but it sucks if you’re the elephant trying to sell the act.

And at some point the ball bursts. The air escapes not only the plastic ball, but the facade that an organism or entity can transform itself without hard work in a long, slow process. That’s painful, so organizations try to avoid it by doing the least amount of work possible, i.e. imitation.

The key to avoiding this lies at a senior level. Senior leadership has to embrace the difficult truths and long-term planning that are essential for real change. Without it, a culture of quick fixes, superficial tweaks and imitation trickles down. Leaders need to set goals and metrics that support and enable departments to invest in the kind of fundamental changes that can take years. They need backup, support and time. Without that, spin and short-term profit at the expense of long-term growth get used to show “change,” and leave an organization in worse shape than before it began the process.

Change is hard. It takes time and work. So when you’re thinking about change, remember the joke about the psychologist and the light: “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to change!”

Don’t try to change if you’re really not committed to it.

Photo credit:: https://www.flickr.com/photos/visionshare/

 

 

Content is the new advertising
Somewhere on the road to the New Economy®, content got commodified. For years we’ve been told that content rules and content is king, which basically means the only reason anyone will pay attention is if you give them interesting or compelling content.
Unfortunately, content got co-opted when business tried to harness it to the profit motive. Most businesses see content as a means to an end: traditional advertising continues to shrivel up as social media supplants it for audience attention. That means business has had to use content production as a way to recapture the eyeballs it lost in the long, slow decline of traditional advertising.
This doesn’t mean business has suddenly and magically embraced authenticity and journalistic rigour. In most cases it simply means business has jammed content production into the hole in its marketing strategy recently vacated by traditional advertising. It’s easier than ever to create content: you can now get HootSuite to automatically deliver content recommendations for you to tweet out each morning without any need to think about it or write a word yourself. Any number of content farms are at your disposal to efficiently and methodically crank out content like liverwurst squeezing out of a grinder. Want to go upscale? Just hire a freelancer, to give it that personal touch.
Unfortunately, this reduces content and turns it into advertising 2.0: a dependable, predictable attention generator for your product or service.
This means the written word itself has become a commodity: it’s increasingly predictable, programmed and unremarkable, a business tool instead of one for self-expression and the exchange of ideas. It doesn’t have to be this way, especially since commodified content doesn’t serve business any better than commodified advertising or PR. Outstanding, original, funny, idiosyncratic or just plain weird content is what captures people’s attention.
The rest is just a commodity, and commodities have low margins, high competition and undifferentiated product. Who wants that?

Content is the new advertising

Somewhere on the road to the New Economy®, content got commodified. For years we’ve been told that content rules and content is king, which basically means the only reason anyone will pay attention is if you give them interesting or compelling content.

Unfortunately, content got co-opted when business tried to harness it to the profit motive. Most businesses see content as a means to an end: traditional advertising continues to shrivel up as social media supplants it for audience attention. That means business has had to use content production as a way to recapture the eyeballs it lost in the long, slow decline of traditional advertising.

This doesn’t mean business has suddenly and magically embraced authenticity and journalistic rigour. In most cases it simply means business has jammed content production into the hole in its marketing strategy recently vacated by traditional advertising. It’s easier than ever to create content: you can now get HootSuite to automatically deliver content recommendations for you to tweet out each morning without any need to think about it or write a word yourself. Any number of content farms are at your disposal to efficiently and methodically crank out content like liverwurst squeezing out of a grinder. Want to go upscale? Just hire a freelancer, to give it that personal touch.

Unfortunately, this reduces content and turns it into advertising 2.0: a dependable, predictable attention generator for your product or service.

This means the written word itself has become a commodity: it’s increasingly predictable, programmed and unremarkable, a business tool instead of one for self-expression and the exchange of ideas. It doesn’t have to be this way, especially since commodified content doesn’t serve business any better than commodified advertising or PR. Outstanding, original, funny, idiosyncratic or just plain weird content is what captures people’s attention.

The rest is just a commodity, and commodities have low margins, high competition and undifferentiated product. Who wants that?

 

 

The secret to management
30% of management is figuring out whether or not what you’re doing is helping the organization.
20% is figuring out how to stop doing the stuff that isn’t helping.
30% is executing the stuff that is helping.
15% is measuring and reporting the results of this stuff.
5% is coffee.

The secret to management

30% of management is figuring out whether or not what you’re doing is helping the organization.
20% is figuring out how to stop doing the stuff that isn’t helping.
30% is executing the stuff that is helping.
15% is measuring and reporting the results of this stuff.
5% is coffee.

 

 

The Virtual Museum

While I was working at the Royal Ontario Museum a few years ago, Google introduced its Art Project, which became the Google Cultural Institute, a platform for showing the contents of the world’s great museums and art galleries online. A group of us at the ROM recognized the project’s value and advocated for it: here was a chance to create a virtual ROM where people could visit remotely and (hopefully) become excited enough to visit in person. We thought it was exactly what the museum needed to raise its profile, position itself as a tech-savvy cultural property, and generate buzz as an early adopter. It would also meet the marketing department’s goal of providing potential visitors with a virtual tour of the building.

The project never became a top priority for the museum while I was there, and when I left after being recruited by Intuit, it seemed like things would stay that way.

Fast forward three years and the project has come to fruition. Over 300 pieces are online. Visitors can navigate around the ground floor, zoom in on art, drag and drop pieces from the collection to compare, and much more.

This is important for a couple of reasons. The first is that the museum increases its marketing reach by leaps and bounds with this kind of interface. It can show potential visitors from around the globe why the ROM is a world-class museum and why they should visit. In a cost-constrained environment, that’s marketing gold.

The second reason is slightly less obvious, but even more important: now my mom can finally visit the ROM, something she’s never done before and will never be able to do in person.

Working at the ROM was my dream job. I’ve always been a museum nerd: growing up, my mom would take me to the Halifax Citadel and the Nova Scotia Museum every summer during vacation. I loved visiting the museum more than anything in the world, especially the dinosaur room. I remember whenever we entered the marine gallery, I would race across to the safety of the other side because I was sure the giant mounted whale on the wall above could fall and crush me at any moment. And the coelacanth always scared the crap out of me. I loved it all, and when I moved to Toronto in 2001, the first place I visited was the ROM; buying a student pass was one of the first things I did in the city.

So I was pretty damn elated when I landed a contract there in 2010: I never thought I’d be given the opportunity. I always wanted to have my parents visit so I could show them around this wonderful place I was so proud to work in.

Unfortunately, my mom will never visit the ROM. She’ll never visit Toronto. In fact, she’ll probably never leave home again because of her health. But with the ROM online, she can finally visit and I can give her the guided tour I always wanted to. In a way….

That’s why putting places like the ROM online is so important: it gives people who will never be able to see the world the power to do so. I’ve been around the globe, all around North America and Europe, to South America and Japan. My mom never has. She’s been a few places, but missed out on the big trip to Europe she had always dreamed of taking, when her health took a turn for the worse. She always wanted to see St Peter’s basilica, Paris and London, but can’t now.

I’d never dream that a museum can replace the majesty of something like St Peter’s Basilica. But for people who will never otherwise have the chance, a museum like the ROM gives them a real, tangible opportunity to see the world in their own hometown. That’s incredibly important, essential even.

I used to walk around the galleries in the ROM when I worked there, so proud that I finally got my dream job. I used to wear my staff ID just to show it off and see if anyone would ask me a question. One afternoon I was on the third floor when I heard voices behind me.

"Let’s go to Africa next!" They sounded revved up about the idea. When I turned, I saw a couple pushing an older lady in a wheelchair. I realized that - most likely - the African gallery was about as close as that woman would ever get to visiting that continent. That’s a hell of an opportunity to offer someone. It’s one reason why museums are important, and it’s the reason why it’s so important to bring the museum experience fully online to anyone and everyone.

Let’s keep that going.

 

 

The Hazards of Perfection

The business culture at academically-oriented institutions (museums, universities, etc.) carries a heavy burden: perfectionism. It’s a reflection of academia’s meritocracy: work is assessed and rewarded, and status earned based on how close to perfect that work is. This is because of the peer review process: work is subjected to adversarial review, and peers try to pick it apart, challenging every assumption, detail and scrap of evidence in an attempt to find flaws.

This approach serves academia well. It’s laudable and necessary for establishing whether - for example - a new medical approach has been designed and tested thoroughly enough to merit mainstream adoption. It’s essential for testing whether observed physical phenomena are bona fide and can serve as the underpinnings for future work. It’s useful for determining whether sociological or psychological theses are valid or based on flawed assumptions and hidden prejudices.

These inquisitions and investigations test the rigor and strength of academic work, because so much depends on their accuracy and validity: the very foundation of knowledge in our society depends on this. Without it, we’re left with conjecture, maybes and assumptions that can undermine the body of knowledge our society requires for progress.

The danger

Unfortunately, this quite necessary emphasis on perfection bleeds into peripheral areas where academia has no place and where it undermines and weakens everything it touches. Perfection is the enemy of done on time and done well. It’s where ego goes to find refuge from criticism. It impedes the ability to get work done in a timely fashion, to make quick decisions, to work efficiently and to keep business processes lean.

Unfortunately, in academic settings business culture becomes academic, adopting all the qualities that serve academia, but which are antithetical to successful business. Quick decisions, good (but not perfect) work, risk tolerance and other essential business virtues are shunted aside in the hunt for perfection.

The result is a dysfunctional business climate. But it doesn’t have to be.

What we can do differently?

  1. Talk up and explain the necessary differences between academic and business values to senior administrators. These are the key decision-makers who most likely come from an academic background, and who may unconsciously bias business operations towards an academic model. The Lean Startup is a good place to begin the discussion, because it explains in simple language the business logic of doing things quickly and iteratively, learning by doing, getting products to market quickly, and - most importantly - not over-thinking business decisions, which is the greatest danger posed by an academic bias.
  2. Focus on metrics. They replace the academic reward structure that values perfectionism, with one that focuses on objective, empirical business results. Those results don’t have to be elegant or academic: if they’re explicitly laid out and align with the institution’s strategic goals, metrics can help an organization make better business decisions.
  3. Talk Agile. The Agile Manifesto and the body of test cases and knowledge behind it approach an academic level of rigor. It’s hard to argue with the case histories, studies and research that validate this approach. Agility can apply to much more than software development, and uses concepts and a language that an academic can relate to.
  4. Stay on strategy. Your organization’s strategic goals - not a drive for perfection - can and should drive your organization’s business decisions. Showing that your tactics align with the organization’s strategy is armor against a whole range of potential criticisms.
  5. Embrace failure. There’s no better antidote for perfectionism than failure. Acceptance of failure is the hardest of these five points to embrace, but the most transformative. Fail Fridays, peer learning sessions and more can help an organization de-fang failure and make risk more acceptable.