Monday, December 22, 2014

Beware of Instant Affinity

Most people learn early in their lives that, in general, the things that are the hardest to obtain also hold the most value.  Why are rocks so cheap while diamonds are so expensive?

I remember a story that I heard as a child - maybe it was an anecdote.  In it, a man was describing his efforts to get rid of an old, but serviceable clothes dryer.  He had set it out in his front yard with a sign that said, "Clothes Dryer, old but still in great shape.  Free to the first taker."  After several days there were no takers.  The man thought about the situation for a while and wrote up a new sign to replace the one he had first put on the dryer.  In less than an hour he had three people come by to try and get the machine, of which he was quickly rid.  Can you guess what the new sign said?  He had changed the wording from the first pass to say, "Clothes Dryer, old but still in great shape.  Only $75!"  It wasn't until he described it as having value that others were able to see the same thing.

Many of us are leaders who also have the requisite power and authority over large IT and departmental budgets.  Consequently, each of us attracts the attention of vendors, partners, and salespeople who want our business.  Although not unique to just the United States, many of us see a behavior from these individuals that is aimed towards getting us to quickly commit to some type of sales transaction or relationship.  So what is this behavior to which I refer?  Before naming it, let me describe several ways it manifests.

Situation One:  You receive a phone call from someone who wants to do business with you.  Within three minutes of the call the person is discussing sports, family, politics, or some other very informal topic with you.  And it's not just the topics, but the tone that the person uses is the same or very similar to what you'd expect from a close friend.  They act like they've known you for years and if they're very good, you feel a sense of comfort with the person that would otherwise seem out of place with a stranger.

Situation Two:  You receive a written communication, usually an email, from someone in a sales or relationship building role.  If possible, they've shortened your name and/or personalized it.  If you are a "Robert", you become "Bob".  If you're an Annabelle you might be referred to as "Anna" or "Belle".  The communication reads like a letter from one friend to another.  There isn't really an introduction per se, just something that gets to the point in an informal way with an implicit expectation that you will respond.

Situation Three:  Imagine the first two scenarios, only this time it's in person.

What I've been describing is Instant Affinity.  There are many reasons to beware of instant affinity with anyone.  If your life has taken you to different places around the world, you will know that most cultures outside of the United States do not facilitate or promote this concept.  I have many stories about the ritualistic formalities that I have observed in Asia, Africa, Latin, America, and some places in Europe.  In order to spare you all of them I'll just cover my experience in Japan.

In the 1990s I was spearheading the efforts of a U.S.-based company to open up operations and sales in and around Tokyo.  The goal was to establish a complete office set-up and be conducting business in less than six months.  From a technical perspective, we got everything in place before the deadline.  However, after a year of operating the company was forced to close the offices and leave Japan.  You might ask "why?" or what happened.  The answer is simple - in Japan people will not do business with others unless they know them in some personal and intimate way.  It doesn't matter if you have the best product(s) in the world.  If you have not taken time to build relationships with your customers and sometimes even your suppliers, good luck with your efforts in that region.  Just showing up and doing business with the belief that "Instant Affinity" will carry you through is a risky proposition indeed.

As a leader, relationships are important to your success.  In fact, this is so much so that I can easily say that any leader without strong relationships with others is just passing through the role - not there to stay.  While I am not advocating that you can or should only do business with those that you know well, I am strongly suggesting that you look to form deep, long-lasting relationships with your key partners.  It is these connections that will help you through the hard times as well as the good.

Why did the tea ceremony develop in Asia?  Why did the handshake originate in Ancient Greece?  Why do Latin Americans kiss your cheek when meeting in person?  Why is business so personal in the Middle East?

Over time, most human civilizations have developed ways to prohibit "Instant Affinity".  Beware relationships that are granted or received too easily...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pay to Play; Work for Free

Wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to get people to do the hardest work for free?  If you're a manager, you already know how difficult it is to get talented, motivated people to come work for you (or your company).  Finding the right mixture of pay and benefits already plays a large part in getting people to do work.  In the companies where I've worked, I cannot remember or find a single example where people did their jobs for free.  (Unpaid internships don't count)

So, is it possible to get people to do really tough jobs not only for free, but to also pay you for the privilege of being able to donate their own blood, sweat, and tears?  The answer is "yes", you can do this through several different approaches.

The first method that I know of is highly impractical.  In fact, I wouldn't recommend it unless you are part of an evil machine "hive collective".  I'm referring to the concept behind the highly popular Matrix movies that starred Keanu Reeves during the last decade.  In the movies (spoiler alert), all of humankind had been put into stasis cubes that kept them alive but comatose.  The evil machines created a fake world where each person had a role to play.  However, while their minds were inside of the "Matrix", in the real world the machines were using the bio-electrical energy of the peoples' physical bodies to power their civilization.

Moving from fantasy to reality, an actual industry has slowly trained people to pay real-world money in order to go to work for free.  Can you guess which industry that might be?  If you own an XBox or Playstation, you already know that it is the video game industry.  This year (2014), one of the most anticipated games in history came out for sale in September.  Called "Destiny", it is built around the concept of an ever evolving world where each person is a "Guardian".  The role of each Guardian is to constantly patrol the worlds of the solar system striving ever to push back the darkness (yes, that is a near quote).

What is interesting about Destiny is that each person who plays must perform what most people would refer to as "work" in order to advance.  That is, the players have to report online at specific times, carry out mandated tasks, interact with friend (aka "co-workers"), and meet deadlines.  Much of this activity is monotonous at times, similar to  being in an actual office environment.  People grumble about it and refer to the repetitive work that they must do as "the grind".  Yet, the average amount of time spent in the game by each player, every day, is three hours!  On the weekends, that number goes up to four hours per day.  Why would people pay for a product that essentially makes them work for free?

Then answer is, "Because it's fun."

There you have it.  If you can make a job fun, issues such as work conditions, pay, location, and many others stop being so important.  Many of us have heard that one of the biggest reasons employees leave their jobs, other than poor managers, is that they are seeking meaningful work.  Might that also mean work that is fun?

Bungie, the company that makes the game Destiny, is not the first company to discover this little bit of insight.  I cannot trace the origins of the "fun-i-fication" of work, but there is a great site called "The Fun Factory" that describes and illustrates how the concept can be put into practice.  They have a number of examples of how making things like climbing stairs actually be more appealing than using adjacent escalators.  There are also examples from companies like Volkswagen about how they are introducing the concept of "fun" into their businesses in order to get more employee engagement.

Now that you've read this post, here is the takeaway:  A great way to engage the hearts and minds of your employees and co-workers is to find ways to make their roles more entertaining and thus more engaging.  By introducing a little "fun" into the daily activities of your work group, you will be guaranteed to get much more willing productivity from your people.  The old adage is true - "Time flies when you are having fun."