When Wall Street Was Fun

As world financial markets toss and turn following the U.S. sub-prime mortgage meltdown, I can’t help but think the bogus products that led to this mess where the result of a toxic culture. From the retail point of view, I recently reacted to how far customer trust has declined.

Soldier on Wall Street

On a recent morning, in a meeting at a giant bank on Wall Street, I was killing time talking with an old timer and heard some of the employee side of the story. He waxed nostalgically about how fun Wall Street was in the 1960’s and 70’s. They worked hard, but it was fun. The transactions were simpler, the lines between right and wrong were more clear, at lunch they played football in front of the stock exchange, and bonuses would be paid in cash by the boss. Now the products are so complicated the banks don’t understand their own risk exposure, the workplace atmosphere is contentious, and Wall Street is barricaded and guarded by the military brandishing machine guns. Culture begets products, and the culture is sick.

Photo credit: Jennifer Szymaszek, AP

Where’s the Hip Hop Culture Online?

chrysler300.jpeg Hip hop culture (at least here in America) has influenced not only our musical preferences but also our language, clothing, movies, and car styling. But you won’t see much of it online. The websites for hip hop artists resemble those for other artists, and the more innovative things are mostly done by us geeky white kids.

Why is this, and will it change? I asked my friend Elizabeth who’s familiar with both the online scene and hip hop. She says,

i’m not sure if the problem is available tools or simply culture and education. there are many tools available on the web. it may also be a difference in priorities. most of the people I know associated with “hip-hop” culture are more active/interested in making relationships in person and going to events vs. spending time online. online is just somewhere to sell things and post pictures and event invitations… maybe there is some web-evolution that cultures have to go to to adapt themselves to the web…?

I’m fascinated by the possibilities of hip hop infecting the web. And frankly I think the technology is a barrier to many low-income students. Rather than merely educate low-income students on tech issues, framing the offer as hip hop online — starting with what’s being done now like amplifying the functionality of event invites — could be more attractive and generative.

Seeing the Real Difference Between Art and Design

The Sartorialist blog has been a big hit, with each post getting dozens of comments. Why? On the surface it’s the usual blogger story: an individual with insight on a particular topic publishes quickly and honestly sans organizational overhead.

To me, the Sartorialist does something else important. He delineates the difference between art and design. Many publications aimed at the fashion consumer, whether it be men’s magazines or even the New York Times, present clothes as art. I imagine the editors are fashionistas, and publish for (the taste and budgets of) other fashionistas. The Sartorialist on the other hand covers what people actually wear and so has something of agile in it, quickly revealing what people are and do. It’s field research with a point of view.

Shiny, happy, innovative people

…the business world is full of highly touted prescriptions for being more innovative… in my experience, few solutions actually address what I believe to be a fundamental enabler of innovative behavior in organizations… The key to unleashing innovative behavior is asking the question “how can I help each person in my organization achieve a state of happiness on a daily basis?” In other words, help happiness bloom, and innovative behavior will follow.


Happiness and the Art of Innovation

I’d say more is required — innovation is more than just working well, it’s taking risks to try the untried, which takes moxie — but the essence of this message is spot on: happiness is a prerequisite for good work, and managers are responsible for creating an environment where that’s possible (you can test this by asking, “What if you knew everything there was to know about innovation, but you worked for Dilbert’s boss?“). The Knowing-Doing Gap argues this at length, refuting the idea that mean-spirited management makes better workers.

Architecture and employees

I wonder if this flashy, animated building facade — very not-financial services — changes employees’ perception of Lehman Brothers?

Could it backfire and make employees more cynical?

Your future is older, browner, and more feminine

The always entertaining Andrew Zolli has a new article in the current Fast Company mag, expanding on the themes he’s been talking about in person. Essentially he demonstrates the importance of looking through the demographics lens when thinking about the future…

The hourglass society will bring an avalanche of new social challenges, cultural norms, and business opportunities. With a huge increase in the number of older consumers, entirely new entertainment, culture, and news markets will open up–film, television, books, and Internet sites pitched more to the Matlock set than to the Eminem crowd. Also, older people tend to vote more frequently, and they will wield significant political clout: We could see a multidecade “boomerocracy” or, as one gen-Xer put it archly over cocktails, “TRBN: terminal rule by boomer narcissists.”

I’ve found his presentations quite useful in the past, and I’m looking forward to his participation in the Design 2.0 panel. If you were thinking of going, I hear a few seats are available.

Dancing elephants: Lockheed

I love seeing big companies move in agile ways (because it’s so unusual), even if it only arises from panic of losing their old revenue streams. Here’s an example from Lockheed, whose old culture (despite their Skunk Works-style innovation) included bitter internal fights over whether to pursue unmanned aircraft…

…It also designed and delivered the seven-pound Desert Hawk within 127 days of receiving an Air Force request. The total cost for the first six drones and laptop-computer control system was less than $400,000, Mr. Cappuccio says. To date, Lockheed says it has supplied 126 Desert Hawks, which are used for surveillance to protect U.S. bases in Iraq.

When you also produce the most expensive fighter jet in the world, that’s certainly overcoming your innovator’s dilemma.

Incidentally, here’s an article about another group at Lockheed using agile practices.

Everything written about innovation is shitty and useless

Walking home from work tonight I was thinking that most everything written about innovation is useless. It’s generic banter. Fixing companies must be done in the context of their problems by people passionate enough to constantly push against the dead weight of status quo.

If we learn anything useful from the Tom Peters of this world, it’s the need for passion. Arriving home I read, hot on the heels of Culture eats strategy for breakfast, this beauty from Tom Peters…

If Drucker and Bennis and Collins and Peters and Co. (charter members of Guru Nation) are/were so damn smart-wise, why is corporate performance so shabby in general? …the “solutions” were not actionable by “real people” under stress….

Strategy don’t matter for diddly if the “corporate culture” [an anathema word at McKinsey at the time], is disfunctional/mis-aligned.” That is, if the “strategy” ain’t implementable, it’s de facto a shitty-useless strategy.

Ford’s “Way Forward”

Quotes from the Wall Street Journal…

Ford will announce a plan tomorrow called “The Way Forward” that will involve 30,000 layoffs and target “the root of the auto maker’s recent woes: a stifling corporate culture.”

[In the war room,] high on the wall, hangs a big, white sheet of paper on which is written: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Among other maxims on the wall: “Culture is unspoken, but powerful. It develops over time — difficult to change.

…implores employees to remember “conflict is healthy.

Share a home-cooked meal

Joel Spolsky’s Fog Creek Software created a documentary DVD of the summer interns’ experience creating an actual software product. Notice how they cook and share a meal together. I’m a big fan of establishing a relationship over home-cooked meals. Last winter I met the guys from Zago Design for the first time in one of their homes over a meal. We ate delicious food and talked for hours, and by the end I wanted to partner with them more than other firms I’d known for years on a more superficial basis.

Who are the new rebels? (Managers?)

I live in one of the art centers of the world — the West Chelsea section of Manhattan — and my opinion of today’s art can be summed up in one word: boring. Rarely do contemporary artists teach us anything, or even make us feel anything. The best art only manages commentary, as with Banksy’s mockery of Israel’s separation wall.

I’m currently reading Rollo May’s 1975 classic The Courage to Create. As he explores the dangerous work artists created through the ages, I’m reminded of my research into Music and Censorship and this quote from George Bernard Shaw…

Whatever is contrary to established manners and customs is immoral… every advance in thought and conduct is by definition immoral until it has converted the majority. For this reason it is of the most enormous importance that immorality should be protected jealously against the attacks of those who have no standard except the standard of custom, and who regard any attack on custom – that is, on morals – as an attack on society, on religion, and on virtue.

It seems almost quaint to worry about music — or any artistic — censorship now. Artists no longer force us to question our customs. Does anyone else? In the West we no longer share the meta-narrative of the Bible, so religious plurality is old news. Science so routinely announces breakthroughs we’re rarely shocked.

Our shared customs now center around work. Could there be some action so radical it forced us all to reconsider our working lives? It’s described every month in the pages of Fast Company and Worthwhile, but what if there was a figurehead, an event, or a series of events that led to a tipping point to make these magazine proclomations reality? What if all the middle managers at GE demanded different conditions the way unions do? What if a visionary CEO committed to a completely transparent corporation with activist board members demanding triple bottom line performance? Could changes like this send employees home shocked into a different understanding of how to lead their lives? What sort of conditions could make this possible?

Bottom-Up management lessons from no-collar workers

In this latest HBSWK piece, Bain’s talking customer experience. Not long ago, BCG was talking about open source-style collaboration. Naturally, we talk about the vital importance of strategic delivery too, having lived it. I clearly see many ways in which the no-collar working style — natural collaboration, little hierarchy, relationships built on trust, smooth flow of information — benefits performance from the bottom-up, in organizational ways that top-down management styles can’t.

Cultural capabilities: JetBlue vs. Song

Song Airlines is closing. It’s sad that a better customer experience alone isn’t enough to compete, but that in itself is a good lesson. The symptom of Song’s decline was a failure to replicate JetBlue’s service, while the cause is a failure to look beyond JetBlue’s product to the true source of their success. There’s a relationship between product, process, and culture, and JetBlue’s employee-focused (not consumer-focused!) culture is what propels them.

Though I must say the popular doubts about JetBlue’s ability to preserve this culture while they grow and grow are substantiated. As a JetBlue customer, I don’t feel the experience is any better these days, I only fly them for the price. It’s time for change.

It’s alright to cry at work

Stephanie Rosenbloom’s Big Girls Don’t Cry in the NY Times offers many opinions on women crying in the office, all of them against it. When I was a young manager, a woman in my group came to my desk to ask about a resourcing decision I had made. Unhappy with it, she broke into tears. In the middle of an open landscape office. With everyone looking on. It was uncomfortable, but this is a biological reality…

Scientists do not know exactly why women tend to cry more easily, but Dr. Frey said several factors may be at work. One is the hormone prolactin, he said, which is present in mammary glands and induces lactation but is also found in the blood and in tear glands. Boys and girls have about equal levels of prolactin levels in their blood during childhood. But from ages of 12 to 18, the levels in girls gradually rise, and that may have something to do with why women cry more than men.

In my case, we stepped into a conference room, closed the door, and I explained my decision. She agreed, ended the conversation by giving me a hug, and we went back to work. Ever since I’ve thought crying in the office is not only a normal part of work, but to discourage it is to discriminate against women. The 21st Century organization needs to be different from the factory or office of the 20th Century. Especially in companies that strive to push the boundaries of design and innovation we tap into the personal and emotional conduits of our customers and ourselves to create new products and services. That can’t happen when we deny our own emotions.