The Rise and Decline of Twinkies

Greetings.  As a child growing up in Northern California I recall having a severe case of "Twinkie-envy."  While my parents would try to fill my lunchbox with fruit, carrot sticks and other healthy treats, classmates would come to school with packs of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, HoHos, Sno Balls and Hostess cupcakes–the veritable mother lode of childhood cuisine.  Each perfectly formed, perfectly baked, perfectly preserved and magically wrapped in its own perfect little package.  This was "food" for the ages–depending, of course, on your definition of food and view of the ages. Moist, creamy, sweeter than the very sweetest moments in life–truly a gift from the gods (or at least the god of snack food).  One imagined a Twinkie would stay fresh forever thanks to major innovations in the science of food preservation.  A far cry from the components of my totally unappealing lunch wrapped in totally boring wax bags that kept them somewhat fresh until lunch time. 

One also imagined the wonderful company that created these remarkable taste sensations–and also created Wonder Bread–would itself remain fresh forever… bringing new creations to an adoring nation.

So news that Hostess Brands is once again filing for bankruptcy protection comes as a shock to anyone who believes in the power of sugar, corn syrup, enriched and bleached flour and preservatives.  And to anyone who believes that some companies, just like their products, should last forever even when they decide not to change very much.  Not that the products seem to be the problem according the company's latest statements.  No, the real villain is rising health care and pension costs rather than the changing tastes and health concerns of the earth's inhabitants.  From their perspective Twinkies and their delicious siblings remain popular and have even achieved cult-like status in the vending machines, snack bars and meeting rooms of some of today's leading technology companies.  

Though it should be noted that sales have declined.

Twinkies

We win in business and in life when we realize that eventually all of us need to change.  And when we plan accordingly.

Cheers!  

The First Day of School

Greetings.  It's the end of August and most school systems across the U.S. and the rest of the world have already begun their new year.  It's a time of great hope and anticipation as students of all ages meet new teachers, take on new subjects, make new friends and find their clear voices in a wide range of new and exciting "extracurricular" activities.  And, hopefully, expand their horizons as learners, thinkers, creators, innovators, collaborators and individuals in an annual ritual filled with unlimited possibilities.

All based on the simple notion that "change" is a good thing.  Changing teachers, changing subjects, changing classmates, changing lockers, changing approaches to learning and sometimes even changing schools.  All intended, in an ideal world, to unlock the real genius in every student.

And then when our days in school end, we enter a world that lacks in this regular commitment to change.  This annual ritual of thoughtfully stirring the pot.  That instead views change as a bad thing or a necessary evil.  The former embodied by the plodding and incremental nature of change that occurs in most companies–companies committed to maintaining business as usual for as long as possible. And the latter embodied by companies that try to improve their fortunes through a series of abrupt and often radical changes–determined to shake things up in the hope that a sudden and severe burst of "different" will produce a way different and better result.  Different strategy.  Different leaders.  A different organization with different rules and incentives. 

With neither approach appreciating the power of regular and thoughtful change that mirrors the magic of the first day of school.

So this year when you see students and busses on their way to school, why not try to imagine what it would be like to begin a new and more compelling year at your company or organization.  To engage your employees with just the right amount of exciting and nurturing change.  To create your very own annual ritual of energizing your workplace and all of its promise.

School bus

We win in business and in life when we make change the natural order of things.  And when we realize that, at our very best, we will always be students filled with possibilities.

Cheers!

Getting Past the First Bite

Greetings.  The four-hour drive back to Faizabad from Varanasi is a fascinating journey through the Northern Indian countryside and a wide variety of cities and towns that are filled with energy, commerce, unusual traffic, countless railroad crossings, and cows.  More cows than I've ever seen before.  And as result, the road is also lined with the most artistic and (at times) fragrant mounds of cow dung imaginable…formed into small "towers" of drying prairie pizzas.  Towers that are such a significant part of the landscape that they beg the simple question:  "What the heck do you use this stuff for?"  A question I had answered in my mind by assuming that they were used as an inexpensive and decidedly renewable form of energy by folks with limited resources.  But, in fact, the real answer was a bit more interesting (and tasty) because this gift from the gods–remember that cows are gods here in India–is used for cooking food.  And upon learning this I asked my host to "tell me more" as curiosity quickly got the best of me.

"Local people have used cow dung as a special way to grill their food for many years," she noted and continued by asking if I would like to have dinner prepared this way tonight.  "That sounds great," I thought aloud, then paused to wonder what exactly I'd gotten myself into.  "Perfect," she replied, "we'll build a dung grill in the backyard this evening where we can make one of my favorite dishes, and you can even watch the process if you'd like."  Now before I mention that you should not try this at home without the strict supervision of a professional, let me add that one of the responsibilities of an innovation consultant is go where no man or woman has gone before.  And that includes cuisine.

But back to our story…

So tonight when the very special fire was built I watched closely as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and some whole wheat rolls were careful placed inside the burning pieces of dung and roasted to perfection.  Yes, you heard it right.  Carefully placed into the middle of a burning pile of cow dung…not way above the pile on some fancy grill you might buy at Lowe's.  Then I watched as they were removed by hand, peeled, and combined with spices and fresh chilis to create a tomato chutney and a mashed potato and eggplant entree that was shockingly delicious.  I say "shockingly" because it was a bit of shock to put the first bite in my mouth under the watchful eye of Manjula who has enjoyed this unique dish since childhood.  And because I had relatively low expectations for this very thoughtful dinner.  Now I'm not suggesting that this meal is likely to become my favorite food, but I'd gladly eat it again if given the chance.  And I'd venture to guess that most of you would enjoy it too…if you could get past the first bite.  And isn't that what innovation and change are really all about–getting past the first bite?

Dung pile

We win in business and in life when we find interesting answers to obvious questions.  And when we are willing to spice up the world for those we have the privilege to serve.  Maybe it's time for you to offer something really different for "dinner."

Cheers!

Bordering on Extinction

Greetings.  Like most people I know who spent time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the 1970’s, I have a very close connection with Borders—the company that once reinvented the world of bookstores.  Started as a used book shop in 1971 by a pair of brothers, the original store would quickly become one of the most successful and cherished independent bookstores in America operating out of a convenient two-story building on State Street.  Filled with the latest titles, the coolest posters, abundant sale tables, and lots of quite corners and comfortable chairs to get lost in, it was one of my very favorite hang outs during my years as a graduate student. This was a place that made the joy of books and reading come alive.

Several years later this original store would move to a larger vacated department store a block away and, from my perspective at least, begin to lose the very heart and soul that had made Borders such a special place.  But this new formula would become the start of the current company and its chain of several hundred big-box stores filled with books and a lot of other stuff.  And even though they lacked the special feel I'd come to love, these new stores would become an important part of the cultural landscape of the cities, towns, and strip malls where they sprouted up.

Just as a powerful transformation was taking place…

So the announcement that Borders was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection came as no real surprise to me.  I’d seen the signs, read the tea leaves, noticed the obvious change in the world of book buying—both as an author and as a regular customer.  The rapid growth of on-line book selling–which the company failed to embrace, the emergence of electronic books–which Borders never made a serious investment in, and the presence of new competitors like Walmart offering the most popular books at even steeper discounts had all conspired to change the game that this remarkable business had invented.  And it now lacked a brilliant response or sufficient resources to reinvent itself again.  And it's unclear whether Chapter 11, in the absence of a more compelling strategy, will enable the company to survive. In fact, it's unclear whether a better positioned Barnes & Noble has a long-term future in the bricks and mortar book business.

It’s always possible that Borders will find its way.  In some new and smaller form with a clearer and more meaningful value proposition.  Because there’s still room for real bookstores that capture our hearts and imaginations in ways that no on-line retailer ever will.  The power of the written word and the tangibility of a real book are just too important.  But bookstores of the future will likely require a new business model.

Borders

We win in business and in life when we pay greater attention to the world around us and figure out how to remain relevant in a time of great change.  And when we embrace the full potential of written and unwritten words.  

Cheers!

Noah-isms: “Change and Unchange is Good”

Greetings.  During lunch at Panera this past weekend our son Noah asked if his mother and I would ever get divorced.  It was an honest question from an eleven-year-old who sees that the parents of several of his friends are no longer together. "No, Mamma and I will be together for as long as people eat chocolate," I replied. A comparison intended to allay his fears that divorce was a likely event for people with children.  "But why do people get divorced anyway?" he wondered, "and, why will you and Mamma stay together forever?"  "I don't really know the answer for other people," I responded, "because being married is a lot of work and sometimes people feel that they've tried their hardest and they need a change.  But I can say why I think that Mamma and I will always stay together (or at least until the world runs out of chocolate) and I guess it's all about what we've decided is most important in life for us."  

"And what's that?" he continued.  

"Being close and caring about each other no matter what," I suggested.  "Putting family first and always being in each other's corner.  Being together as a couple. And sharing a set of core values as a guide to getting through life's little (and big) challenges and frustrations.  And making a commitment to learn, change, and grow together."  

"So I guess you'd think that change is good but unchange is good too," Noah suggested in his very clear and insightful way.  "You change and you don't change together."

Which started me thinking about just how important this idea is to the success of companies and organizations of all types.  The notion that some things need to change in order for us to be successful for the long haul.  These include the things we have to offer, the value we deliver to customers, the way we find and inspire our people, the way we leverage new technologies, the way we expand to unlock new market opportunities, and the way we learn and share knowledge and possibilities.  And the equally important notion that some things should never change in order for us to be successful for the long haul.  These are the "core values" on which we build our business and base our most fundamental decisions.  Values like honesty and integrity, a commitment to the highest quality, a determination to support and bring out the genius in all of our people, a passion for innovation, an unwavering focus on the needs of our customers, a passion for the importance of learning–and any other core beliefs that are essential to who we are and what we hold dear.

Change is essential.

And so is "unchange."

Noah Boat
We win in business and in life when we embrace the necessity of change and unchange.  They might in fact be the two most important things we ever learn from the experience of living or from the words of a young man growing up too fast.

Cheers and wishes for a week ahead filled with change, unchange, and plenty of chocolate!