Tag Archives: Abilene

There’s No Crying in Investment Banking, or Don’t Take a Ride on a Snake’s Back

So there’s this mouse who wants to cross a river, and a poison snake who offers the little fellow a ride. “Will you bite me?” squeaks the mouse. “Of courssse not,” replies the snake. The mouse gets on the scaly back of the helpful snake, and they begin crossing. The snake flips around and mortally bites the mouse. “But you said you w-w-w-wouldn’t bite me,” cries the mouse, as darkness descends around him. The snake merely replies, “I’m a snake.”

I feel bad for the mouse.  And, I feel sort of bad for Gregg Smith formerly of Goldman Sachs, or anyone for that matter who spends a quarter of their career traveling down a path they never should have been on. All of our careers have been on the road to Abilene at one time or another. (To paraphrase a bit…Let he who has not imagined smashing a cheeseburger in the face of a horrific boss throw the first Big Mac.)

So Gregg…you rode on the back of a beast that uses “Atlas Shrugged” as its owner’s manual, and sharpens its claws on the bones of its competition. Did you really expect a culture rivaling that of Habitat for Humanity? These are not people looking for win-win situations. They are fierce competitors, and ultimately most of their clients remain fabulously happy, or they don’t remain clients. It regulates itself.

Looking past the press memes and poor career choices, it is fair to ask whether Goldman Sachs should learn from this. The answer is yes and no. Reputation is everything, as evidenced by the $2.2 billion drop in Goldman’s market cap, but I’m sure no one in the company is going to respond well to sensitivity training.

There are 14 principles already embedded in the corporate culture at Goldman, which are as good as any out there. Perhaps, though, it is time to revisit them. I believe there are two principles (#13 and #14) that seem to be most at odds with each other, and perfectly capture the conundrum of having to act like a shark with table manners:

13.  Our business is highly competitive, and we aggressively seek to expand our client relationships.

14.   Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.

It is the word “Aggressively” that bothers me here, especially in the context of Integrity and Honesty. Aggression contains a Darwinian nastiness that permits sharks to eat each other in utero. I think the word they were looking for was actually “Assertively.”

It is a fine point, but with vastly different connotations. On the one road, your client is at your side, and on the other your client follows you. With your client at your side, you’ll always know where they are and where you should be headed. With your client traipsing behind, you may one day turn around and find them gone, and the road you’re traveling paved with fool’s gold all the way to Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Arrogance, Culture Change, Employee Engagement

The Power of Tension and Trans Fatty Acids, or why 2012 is like 1984.

First let me say this: No one should judge advertising under the influence of Cheese Whiz and Funyuns. Now that thirty days have passed, and I’ve worked off nearly a third of the calories that I consumed during our Super Bowl party, I’ve rethought my opinion that there was no “1984” ad moment. There was, but it just took longer to realize. I blame what obviously was a trans fatty acid induced stagger towards Abilene. Don’t worry. I’m good now.

Much has been discussed already about the lack of great advertising during Super Bowl 2012, and so I don’t need to spend any time here rehashing that. One ad though has continued to remain in my thoughts well past the others: Wieden + Kennedy’s Clint Eastwood Half-time ad.

My previous definition of a “1984” moment is when ad is so astounding that while watching you could be induced to join Scientology. This year it didn’t happen for me. In fact it hasn’t happened for me since 1984. Then I began thinking: maybe my definition is flawed. Maybe.

Well, here’s my new and improved checklist for determining the existence of a “1984” moment during Super Bowl, and how “Half-time in America” fairs:

  1. The production value is astonishingly good. Check.
  2. The writing is perfect. Check.
  3. The message inserts itself into an acutely felt cultural tension. Check.
  4. The ad gives me goose bumps or a lump in my throat. Check.
  5. The tone of the commercial is distinctly different than all others playing during the Super Bowl. Check.
  6. It only needs to run once, and the world continues to discuss it. Check.
  7. It pisses off “The Man,” (or at least Karl Rove). Check.

Not that you haven’t seen it a dozen times, but please take another look, and see if it doesn’t hit all these attributes squarely in the face like Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. 


Oddly enough, when I first watched it I thought it was a rip-off of Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” spot, and in fact it seemed very conservative to me. Clint is my favorite gun lover. On the other hand, those in politically conservative circles viewed this as pay back for political patronage (to put it mildly). In this case, both sides are right, and that’s the beauty of the spot. It allows for multiple, intensely felt interpretations. It’s like that joke about the psychiatrist who is accused of sharing dirty pictures, even though he keeps explaining to his patients they are just inkblots.

Even if you think that Chrysler will never produce a product as significant or wonderful as Apple can, one thing’s for sure. The Chrysler ad did what few ads will ever do. It continued to move our jaws well after we were done gnawing on buffalo chicken wings, giving us pause long enough to look down to make sure our feet are pointed in the right direction -180 degrees away from Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Brand Strength, Branding, Super Bowl Advertising

Prestidigitation and Brand Strength – A Hypothesis

When I was about 10 my father took me to the Magic Castle in Hollywood. What a strange and wonderful place. In every nook and cranny there was something mysterious and amazing (at least for a 10 year old). However, what stuck in my mind was not the lady cut in half, nor pianos that played themselves, but the roaming magicians who would perform small miracles up close with sleight-of-hand. If you have ever witnessed a true hand mechanic, you’ll know of what I speak. Your mind bends as your eyes defy your intellect. Hands are truly amazing instruments.

What sparked this memory was a recent trip to a good Dunkin’ Donuts. You know what I mean by a good Dunkin’. There are Dunkin’ Donuts and then there are Dunkin’ Donuts. All the food is the same across the franchise: the donuts are fresh, the coffee is hot, and the bagels toasty. The employees even smile the same amount. Until now I couldn’t put a finger on why I felt a difference between my favorite Dunkin’ and the rest. I think I know now.

The secret is in the hands.

The next time you go to a retail establishment, be it Fast Food or a Car Wash, watch the employees’ hands. They tell a story. At my favorite Dunkin’ the employees’ hands move like olympic synchronized swimmers. They exhibit fluidity, speed, deftness, and the practiced hand movements of concert pianists. At my least favorite Dunkin’, the employees seem to be wearing invisible weighted baseball mitts. To watch them mix cream and sugar makes me crazy, and don’t get me started on spreading cream cheese. It’s like watching a glacier move across the tundra. Eyes may be the window to the soul, but hands hold the light of truth. Hands don’t lie.

Our hands connect us to the world. They are our interface. Our language is filled with metaphor incorporating the word hand. “Let’s get a handle on this.” “He’s got the upper hand.” “Let’s give her a hand.” “He’s got the whole world in is hands.” For some, physical hands are the primary means of communication.

My theory is this: you can tell a great brand by how deftly the employees’ hands interact with their environment, from handling merchandize to ringing up items to filling out return forms. I think hands are a leading indicator. Slow, hesitant, close to the body, clumsy = brand in trouble. Snappy, outstretched, active, practiced = brand on the rise. The hands are in the driver’s seat. More precisely, they are on the wheel, and the moment they come off, you’re on the road to Abilene.


Filed under Abilene Paradox, Brand Strength, Branding, Employee Engagement, Marketing, Prestidigitation

The Tao of Barnes and Noble, and a New Year’s Resolution

One way to be certain you remain off the road to Abilene is to chart your path in bookstores and make sure you spend equal times in every section, including cooking, science fiction, self-help, and children’s books. It’s all too easy to put a rut in the carpet from the entrance to the business section. In my attempt to keep a certain balance in life, I try to mollify the effects of over-consumption of the latest “business must-read” with a frequent dip into the philosophy section of the actual “bricks and mortar” Barnes and Noble. (I suppose I’m trying to become a two-rut reader.)

Here’s my usual and unenlightened route at B&N:

Recently I came across “Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks: 1960-1969, by Alan Watts.” In one of his talks, Watts describes the Hindu view in which the fundamental game of the universe is Hide and Seek. “It is as if the Lord God, or Brahman, had said in the beginning, ‘Get lost, man. Disappear. I’ll find you again later.” Something clicked when I read those words, which made me think of the choices business people make (back to my other rut) all along their career. How risks like jumping off the corporate ladder feel suicidal. How following the “obviously” right choices leads to beige outcomes for which no one gets fired, IRA plans are funded, and no one does anything remarkable.

A long time ago, when I was at U.C. Berkeley, I read the “Tao of Pooh,” in which Piglet and Pooh are lost in the fog and cannot find their way home. After many trials of looking for the way home, Pooh declares perhaps they should try to get lost, since trying to find their way home has proved so unsuccessful. Of course, it works.

The notion of getting lost as a means of finding the right path is so foreign to Western thought and the commonly accepted climb to success. Ironically, it is essential to the spirit of adventure shared by successful entrepreneurs. Here’s a list of 11 college drop outs who are not Mark Zuckerburg, who got lost:

  1. Henry Ford, dropped out at 16
  2. Bill Gates, dropped out at 19
  3. Larry Ellison, dropped out at 20
  4. Larry Page of Google, graduated at 35 (show-off)
  5. Kirk Kerkorian, dropped out at 12
  6. Michael Dell, dropped out at 19
  7. Paul Allen, dropped out at 20
  8. David Geffen, dropped out at 21
  9. Steve Jobs, dropped out at 18
  10. Richard Branson, dropped out at 16
  11. Ralph Lauren, dropped out at 20

I fully acknowledge that more dropouts fail than succeed, but you do see a certain pattern, don’t you? The combined fortunes of these icons exceeds the GNP of many countries, yet for many of us the “right path” is a straight line from kindergarten through MBA to cubicle to dreams of leaving the rat race that never occur. Somehow we look at these business icons, these great personalities, get inspired, and dig in harder on a path they never took.

As we begin the new year, I’d like to suggest we all add one more resolution. Try to approach our careers and endeavors like someone with all the time in the world to wander through the bookstore. The road to Abilene is perfectly straight with deep ruts from those that travelled before. My advice for a happy new year? Get lost. Here’s a map:

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Filed under Entrepreneurialism

Arrogance and Opportunity, Or Fear the Rotting Apple

My multitouch Apple trackpad quietly stares up my nostrils with the malicious muteness of the Berlin wall. I’ve watched the Quicktime videos on how to operate my MacBook Pro with “simple” gestures. A single flick for this. A backwards triple swipe for that. A reverse axle double knuckle twist for something else. My hand looks like an epileptic octopus attempting to breakdance. I reach back for my trusty mouse with the speed of a gunslinger. Safe again. My little pointer finger is now back in control.

My first computer was an Apple that used a tape recorder to store data. As I type this I realize I might have to explain “tape recorder.” Here’s a link you young whipper snapper. With the emergence of the Lion operating system, I now hear Mac addicts saying things like, “Oh don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.” Really! I’ll get used to it. Yeah, like I got used to Vista. The whole point of Apple, its raison d’être, was to make me feel that I was born “used to it.” The products knew me better than I knew me.

Much has been made of the power of Steve’s visionary leadership. As he once said, “It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what’s the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse.’’’ Hmmm…”We figure out what we want…” Let that sink in for a moment.

Technically speaking, I think the multitouch mistake was simple. The wild success of the iPad convinced Apple of the power of interacting with software through touch. So why not try to replicate that on laptops and desktops. However, the core of the problem is not technical, but rather the result of the cognitive dissonance that comes from being right a lot. Welcome to the world of AOL, Microsoft, Kodak, and Polaroid. Being right a lot can thoughtlessly send a company down a path it never would choose to go. The logic looks like like this “I’m right a lot, so therefore I must be right again.” And our customers will just get used to it…

Opportunity comes disguised in many forms. Giant killers are born out of the arrogance of those that are “never” wrong. Peering from under their garage doors, or working from their basements, they see a world that can be different. They are tired of being forced to live a certain way and decide to do something about it. Like those two young entrepreneurs Steve and Woz at 2066 Crist Dr. in Palo Alto, California, who were humble, eager, brilliant, and iconoclastic.

The Birth Place of the First Apple Computer.

The future success of Apple does not lie in trying to encode Steve’s fearless decision making. Rather it depends on building in the willingness to turn right when everyone is turning left, and that is much harder for a company with the largest market cap in the world. Not to worry though. Abilene’s bigger than it looks.


Filed under Advertising, Arrogance, Entrepreneurialism, Indie, Listening, Management Theory, Marketing

Workability – The Antidote to Abilene

Thanks to a long time friend, I almost joined a cult. Well, not exactly a cult, but it was a reboot of EST from the 70’s, called the Landmark Forum. Three hundred people were shamed by a very charismatic speaker for wanting to leave to go to the bathroom. She said, “You can go to the bathroom if you want to, but the benefits of the program would not be available to you.” Seriously. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my supply of NASA space diapers. Though, to be fair(ish), the goal of Landmark is to help people get over themselves and lead a more authentic life, but their method was not for me.

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Filed under Branding, Workability

The Abilene Paradox

Why does corporate idiocy sometimes feel like one of those things you just have to get used to, like mimes and gravity? How is it that normal, well-educated, well-meaning corporate citizens act like terrorists within their own organization? It’s the equivalent of an auto-immune disorder for companies.

The answer goes back to a low-budget short film I saw in business school (when the earth’s crust was still cooling) on the Abilene Paradox, a concept introduced by Jerry Harvey on the perils of groupthink. The parable goes something like this:

In Coleman, Texas, on one of the hottest days of the year, a family is happily playing dominos on their porch. The father-in-law (of course it’s the father-in-law) suggests they all get up and go 53 miles to Abilene for a meal. The group gets in a classic american rear-wheel drive oven, otherwise known as Buick without air conditioning, and starts the trip from hell. (Truth be told, it probably wasn’t a Buick, but the story seems hotter this way.)

Several hours and 106 miles later, they’ve had one of the worst experiences of their lives, including a crummy meal. The paradox is that they all come to realize that no one, as an individual, actually wanted to suffer through Dante’s inferno. They each thought that’s what the group wanted and followed. Death by committee. In the branding business, the road to Abilene is all too familiar. It is wide and welcoming.

To quote David Ogilvy,

“Search the parks in all the cities. You’ll find no statues to committees.”

The advice I give is simple. Have the conversation that is not being had. Tim Ferris, one of my heroes put it this way:

“The quality of one’s life is directly related to one’s willingness to have difficult conversations.”

The quality of an organization is directly related to its own ability to have difficult conversations, as well. Ask yourself this everyday:

“Am I on the road to Abilene?”


Filed under Abilene Paradox, Branding, Group Dynamics, Management Theory, Marketing, Workability