The Mumbai attacks

The tragedy that unfolded over the last few days in Mumbai will require some time to process, but I think it is hard to overstate what a big deal this is.  For those who haven’t been there or who don’t have much first-hand exposure to India, Mumbai is a beautiful, complicated, sprawling, cosmopolitan city — so imagine what it would mean, for example, to have heavily-armed terrorists in New York City at the Plaza Hotel, Trump Towers, Grand Central Station and Madison Square Garden over the course of four days.

For Mumbai to be under siege for so many days will doubtless have serious repercussions in the psyche of that city and its residents, and the potential for these events to exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan is troublesome to say the least.

My prayers go out to all of those who lost loved ones in recent days.

I also hope that someday we will live in a world where reports of tragedies like this one won’t single out the number of “foriegners” who were killed.  We are all human beings, and each life is of equal value.  With each article that is written, the news media can either reinforce or undermine this basic truth.

Links I liked

1. Chris Blattman on using Obama as an ice-breaker in Liberia

2. Fast Company Magazine covering Pulse, Acumen Fund’s new initiative to improve measurement in the social sector

3. Post on Harumafuji (sumo wrestler) — just because I like to be reminded that there are things out there I know absolutely nothing about

4. Owen on six ways NGO’s can do more harm than good.

5. Seth Godin on Thanksgiving

Google flu trends

This is just plain cool: go to and you can see predictions of flu activity in your state.  Apparently Google’s data maps closely to CDC data, but tends to be 2 weeks ahead of the CDC.

How do they do it?  Google uses a model of search term activity to get the data.

Some thoughts:

1. Wow – where else could this be applied, and what else could we learn?

2. Google takes seriously its mission of “organizing the world’s information” – it’s a lot more than search

3. Do you get the impression that Google spends a lot of time doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with what people think of as Google’s “main” business (search and online ads)?


Satisfying vs. Delighting

Thanks to a minor flood (that I caused) in my kitchen a few months ago, I had to have my hardwood kitchen floor replaced.  It was a big, expensive job (for which Allstate paid me a few hundred dollars out of the few thousand dollars the repair actually cost, but that’s another story.)

The contractor I hired did a great job.  The floors are beautiful, the work was done while we were out of the house for a week, and they left the place clean.  The price was fair, but it cost a lot of money.

How did I feel afterwards?  Happy.  But being a human being, I couldn’t help but focus on the small stuff – the missing baseboard, the paint that was nicked, the four or five tiny things that were left undone.

Fast forward to last week: I had a leak in my kitchen ceiling.  Same contractor, tiny job.  They came twice, and the second day, without anyone asking, they not only closed up the 1 x 1 foot hole in my ceiling, but whoever did the work took the initiative to go down to the basement, find the matching paint, patch up the drywall…and when I came hope the ceiling looked like new.  No evidence at all of the work that was done.  And no hounding at all on my (or my wife’s) part to make sure the job was done right.

It’s human nature: being delighted is about the gap between what we expect to happen and what actually happens.

Here’s the recap:

Job #1: A big job, the contractor made a good deal of money.  I was satisfied.

Job #2: Tiny job, the (same) contractor probably made no money.  I was totally thrilled.

Which job do you think sealed the deal on who I’m calling for Jobs #3, 4 and 5 in my (very old) home?  Of course it’s job #2.

The lesson?  If you deal with people (customers, donors, partners, family, you name it), you’re missing an opportunity if you just do the big, important jobs.  You also have to look for opportunities to blow expectations out of the water.  That’s your real chance to do something memorable (the assumption is that you’re always getting the basics right).

Some examples: handwritten notes; good customer service by phone; incredibly responsive, personal emails; buying just the right gift when it’s least expected; an impromptu date on a Tuesday night.

Without surprises, you’re just doing what’s expected.  That makes you nice but forgettable.

Nike’s Corporate Social Responsibility efforts falling short? (or, why I’m so skeptical about CSR)

Here’s what struck me in Fortune’s recent article on Nike titled, “Citizen Nike” that looks into labor conditions in Nike’s supply chain: despite real, serious efforts on Nike’s part, conditions in the factories that manufacture their shoes hasn’t improved significantly in the last decade.

Want proof? If you make it to the last page of the article, you’ll find a sobering quotation by Richard Locke, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, stating that:

Despite ‘significant efforts and investments by Nike…workplace conditions in almost 80% of its suppliers have either remained the same or worsened over time.

The article goes on to say that in Nike’s fiscal 2006 audit of its 42 factories, 7 got an ‘A’ (best) rating and 13 got D’s (worst rating) because of multiple transgressions.

(an aside here is how incredibly friendly Fortune is to companies in these sorts of profiles.  If they wanted to write an article titled “Sweatshops Still Haunt Nike” or something similar, I’m sure they could have.)

This is incredibly sobering.  Nike has taken CSR – specifically, improving conditions in their supply chain and lessening the environmental impact of their products – very seriously.  They’ve appointed Hannah Jones, a well respected, senior person in the organization, to lead this effort and given her a team of 135 people around the world.  Plus, she reports directly to CEO Marc Parker.  Nike has taken a leadership role in disclosing who their suppliers, have been transparent about conditions in their supply chain, and they’ve been very public about their commitment to change.  And in some areas (like the environmental impact and amount of waste in their products) they seem to have made some real strides (pun intended).

But on the question of Nike’s factories, things are either the same or have gotten worse.

My point is: if it’s this hard for Nike to move the dial on these issues, then it’s REALLY hard to make an impact as a “responsible corporate citizen.”  Plus, the areas where Nike has made the most progress are those where there’s a strong business case (reducing $800M a year in material waste in shoe manufacturing), which gives me more hope for initiatives that have to do with efficiency and cost savings (read: green) and less hope for those that involve real tradeoffs (read: wage levels, healthcare, benefits, workers’ rights).

I’m incredibly glad that “corporate social responsibility” has gotten traction in recent years, but my personal experience resonates a lot more with what I read in this article about Nike (even with great intentions, commitment and resources, making real headway is hard and slow) than when I see advertisements proclaiming how a given company gives back and makes a difference.

In those cases, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Employees of a Nike sub-contractor in Vietnam
Employees of a Nike sub-contractor in Vietnam

Kiva’s Kenyan customers on Obama

In case you needed more proof about how small the world has become, here’s a video from a Kiva Fellow who decided to ask some Kiva customers what they thought about Barack Obama.

Hat tip to the Kiva chronicles blog for the video.

What stories do you tell yourself?

“I’m bad with computers.”

“I’m too busy to exercise.”

“I’m no good at math”

“I don’t really get…what a 401(k) is, how mortgages work, why people Twitter, what’s going on in Afghanistan, why people blog.”


Stories do more than describe the world.  They define it too. 

You get to chose the stories you tell about yourself. 

Want to change your life?  Change your stories.

Frustration on the 2 train (wishing they had listened)

Last week someone shared the phrase “the discipline of listening.”  I really like this.  It implies commitment, presence, humility, and hard work to become a good listener.  Sounds right to me.

Earlier today, I was packed into a sweaty 2/3 Express subway train in New York, creeping along, and wondering if I’d be late getting home.  The train conductor got on the PA system and crackled, “There is a track fire on Simpson Street in the Bronx.  There will be delays in express train service.”  That was it.

I imagine the conductor meant to be helpful, but I think he made things worse.  Why?  The problem is, he was describing the situation from his perspective (“let me explain to you why I’m driving this train so slowly”) without listening to what was on passengers’ minds (“will I get where I want to go on time?”)

(Now ask yourself: how many times has your communication, your story, your presentation, your message, been more about what’s going on with you – your organization, your product, your division – than about what matters to the person with whom you’re trying to communicate?)

Instead, the conductor could have said, “There is a track fire on Simpson Street in the Bronx.  This train is running slowly but we don’t plan to stop before 96th street.  We’re probably going to take twice as long to get from here to there than we normally do, but we’ll keep moving.  We apologize for the delay.  If I get more information, I’ll let you know.”


NOW he’s talking to me.  Now he’s saying, “I know a bunch of you have a train to catch, a dinner reservation, or plan to get home at a certain time.  This train running in slow-motion is bumming you out, especially since you’re crammed in like sardines.  Let me tell you what’s going on, when you can expect to get where you’re going, and when you’ll get more information.”

I’m increasingly appreciating how important it is to LISTEN to people and to acknowledge them – even when they don’t verbalize what they really want.  People are desperate to be heard, and have been taught over time that you will care more about what you care about than what they care about.

The catch?  You really, truly have to give a damn about what someone else (your customer, your donor, your partner) thinks. Otherwise, no dice.

So here’s your big opportunity: shock them by listening and by acknowledging the validity of what they say.  Better yet, be forthright (yet polite) about where you might not be able to do what they’re asking.

More often than not, they’ll care more about the fact that you’ve heard them than they will about you doing what they’ve said.

You too can be Hans Rosling

If you’re interested in the visual presentation of information, you should already have seen Hans Rosling’s TED talk titled “Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen” from 2006. If you haven’t, go check it out.

What’s incredibly cool is that Google docs will now let you create Rosling-inspired motion charts here.

So, for example, you could create a motion chart like this one that shows the relationship over time between the housing price index and the unemployment rate; or this one that tells something (I honestly can’t explain exactly what) about trends in the top journals.

To me, the lessons here are:

1. Hans Rosling is a genius AND an incredible story-teller

2. The fact that Google is making these kinds of tools available is just one more reason (along with free, simultaneous collaboration) that Google docs may just obviate Microsoft Office in 2-3 years’ time

3. Just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you should use them.  In truth, neither of the two examples I’ve linked to in this post passes my litmus test of making a clear story out of complex data.

Nevertheless, the tools are fun and worth exploring.  Enjoy.

Example of a motion graph on Google docs

On Gene Zelazny (or, Career Advice from the Front Car of the Train)

I commute by train to and from work every day, and I can’t help but notice how the first car of the train is always much more crowded than the second car.  Crowded enough that people are willing to stand, to squish together, and generally to be uncomfortable.

Logically, you’d think people would be balancing how close they are to the front (and how quickly they can get to work or get home) with other criteria (like getting a seat and not being squished like sardines), but they don’t.  People think of themselves as “front car people,” and this shorthand makes them act in a certain way.

Professionally, there are increasing opportunities to be the best at something, and to get noticed for it.

What’s interesting is, you become the best at something, and then the front-of-the-car phenomenon can kick in: people want “the best,” so they squish into the front car to demand your services (your expert advice, your opinion for a magazine article, whatever).

Today I had the chance to attend a PowerPoint training by Gene Zelazny, who is the author of “Say it With Presentations,” “Say it With Charts: The Executive’s Guide to Successful Presentations,” and a host of other books.  I’m pretty sure Gene didn’t tell his second grade teacher that he wanted to be the world’s expert on PowerPoint charts.  But he’s built an amazing career out of this, published a series of successful books on the topic, and he works with CEOs and their teams on effective PowerPoint communications.  Gene has built a platform around something he’s incredibly passionate about, and he’s the first car on the train when it comes to PowerPoint training.

Your platform can (and probably should) be narrow.  You’re probably not the next George Soros, Bill Gates, Stephen King or Peyton Manning, but this doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance to be the best at something smaller, and in so doing you can make a career and life for yourself doing something you’re good at and passionate about.  And whatever your platform, once it’s established it can broaden and strengthen over time.

But first you have to know – or have some inkling about – what this “thing” is.  And if you can’t draw a line (even a tenuous one) from what you do today to this thing you might be best at, you might be in the wrong line of work.