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SMB, Impossible: Transferable Principles of Successful Small Business

May 31, 2015 1 comment

One of my guilty pleasures is the show Restaurant: Impossible with Robert Irvine. Whenever I take a trip out to my parents’ place in Woodstock, they always have a backlog of the show on their DVR.

I’ve always loved stories about fixers, from Winston Wolf to Michael Clayton to Ray Donovan, to real life practitioners like Judy Smith and Gary Sutton. And of course, Chef Irvine. I love the romantic fiction that a special breed of grizzled, hard-knocks teachers can fly in like The Pros from Dover and set everything straight. And of course, those fixers who do not live in complete fiction are still presenting a stage-managed pseudo-reality. We accept this when we watch – that their pronouncements are “for entertainment purposes only.”

Still, there are learnings here for us to take. Let’s take Irving as our example. For those who have never seen Restaurant: Impossible, it’s exactly what you think it is. Irvine has to make-over a failing restaurant within two days and with a $10,000 budget. He’s an imposing former military man, and his brand of love is, as you would expect, a little on the tough side. He’s also a showman and a bit of a self-promoter who raised some controversy in 2008 for resume-padding, so we know better than to take his lionized self-portrayal at absolute face value.

I have no doubt that, in general, the incompetencies, lack of standards, ugliness and muck that he identifies are not completely off-base from how they are portrayed on the show. Among the sloppiness he finds are thing like business partners who no longer like one another, mountains of financial debt, no processes and procedures for running the business, no clear responsibilities, no real leadership, bad food, ugly decor, dirty kitchens, untrained staff, and naturally no customers. There may be exaggerations, and some circumstances where Irving is off base, but for the most part I’d be willing to accept that the initial problems are pretty damn bad.

Irving’s next step is to make some major adjustments to menu, decor, responsibilities to whip things into shape. Let’s see if we can’t take some of these restaurant turnaround actions he would institute, and broaden them out a bit so that we can apply them to our own businesses. Here are my first three principals. More to come in a follow-up post. Let me know your suggestions in the comments.

 

1) Who You Are Is Meaningless; What The Market Wants is Everything

The first obstacle to making a profit that Irvine typically finds is that the restaurant owner has a great deal of ego wrapped up in the restaurant’s identity. It’s as if to say, “Regardless of the dynamics of the world around me, this is WHO WE ARE!!!” These are the establishments that are still preparing Beef Wellington table-side like they did in the 60’s, even though no one today orders it.

There have been some restaurants that didn’t survive the make-over, with some of the doomed owners going on record saying that they undid a lot of Irving’s changes because that’s “what their customers wanted.” And then they went out of business. I have no idea the individual circumstances, but I’m picturing one of these diners in a college town who has somehow made regulars out of the five retirees in the neighborhood. And someone comes in and says, “Are you crazy? This is a college town! That’s the market!” And then the idiot owner points to the five retirees and says, “These are my long-term, valued customers, and I’m going to orient my business around them!”

 

2) Knock On The F*#@ing Doors

One recent episode I binged from my parent’s DVR involved a restaurant in Downer’s Grove, IL that insisted on being THE high-end grocer/bistro of the area. They had a huge rack of $60+ bottles of wine that hadn’t been turned over since they opened, and they wondered why. They were located in a residential complex, and so the first thing that Irvine did was something that the owners had never once thought to do: he knocked on the neighbor’s doors, introduced himself, and asked what they thought of the grocer/bistro. Surprise, surprise…no one went there because it was way overpriced.

If you’re in a small business that’s not executing well, the easiest thing you can do is come up with an internal hypothesis: “Oh, it must be the economy,” or some such. The thing that takes guts, and the thing that you have to do, is find some potential customers and effing ASK them. “Hi, I’m Mr./Ms. Blank, and this is my company/product. This is the price. Would you ever buy something like this for yourself?” I personally suck at this. I’m a digital marketer, which means I hide behind an Adwords or Facebook ad platform all day and “divine from analytics” that which should be changed. This is completely stupid. Find potential customers and ask the question!

 

3) Simplify! Cut Down The Menu and Make Everything Delicious

Here’s another common business problem that plagues the best of us. I happen to be fighting this very phenomenon right at the moment. Irvine orders five or six things from the menu to test the service and the food quality. And most times he’s served reheated frozen food. Of course it sucks.

How many times have managers you known tried to expand their way out of a problem? “Oh yeah, we can do that too. And that too. And THAT too!” If only we added this competency, we wouldn’t have lost that last sale…right?

This is repugnant. Even a staff operating at peak efficiency can only do so many things well. Focus on the 20% of what you produce that’s creating 80% of your good results and start cutting. Take what’s left after the cut and improve it. Improve the quality, improve the presentation, improve the customer experience and customer service. You probably have the skills to execute really well if you’re not asked to execute EVERYTHING.

 

What other general SMB principals (if any) can we take from the tough-love make-over gurus like Chef Irvine? Let me know in the comments.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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The Stoics and the Epicureans

October 31, 2014 Leave a comment

The Stoics for the motivation and achievement, but the Epicureans for the style…

Seneca the Younger

I recently got onto Hellenist moral philosophy after reading The Obstacle Is The Way, one of the books recommended by Tim Ferriss. The book is a motivating entree into Stoic thought, and Ferriss himself is a devotee of Seneca, a famous Stoic philosopher.

Several hundred years before Christ, two post-Socratic schools of thought emerged as to the nature of the universe and how we should behave within it to live the optimum life. Many of the teachings these schools reverberate today.

The Epicureans are my sentimental favorite, and they were astonishingly ahead of their time in deducing how the universe actually works. They were adopters of Democritus‘ idea that objects are made of atoms, and that those atoms move through space. They did not know about how light works, but deduced that something traveled from the object to the eye. They came very close to articulating the conservation of mass theory, millennia before Einstein proved that matter and energy were interchangeable.

Epicureans did believe in the gods, but did not believe that they intervened in the actions of the earth. Therefore, they believed that they had nothing to fear from the gods, and therefore nothing to fear from death. Life was simply to be lived, and therefore they concluded that the optimum life was lived as pleasurably as possible. Happiness was the thing to be pursued, as Jefferson (himself an epicurean) pronounces in the Declaration of Independence.

This leads many people to equate epicureanism with hedonism. And, to be fair, if you know anyone today that you’d call “Epicurean”, they usually know where the best food and drink can be found. But epicureans meant “pleasure” mostly to mean freedom from anxiety. Under their moral code, for example, you would not want to steal from your neighbor – not because it’s intrinsically wrong but because it would result in anxiety from the theft and secrecy, and the potential consequences put your happiness at risk. Better to live simply, treat others well, and cultivate friendships. Don’t worry…be happy.

I love the Epicureans for an outlook on life so far from my own. If I were capable of doing away with my needless anxiety and absorbing myself in food, drink, thought and friendship, I’d be right there. I know people like this, and they’re the right people to chill with. As a matter of fact, Epicurean notions are still present today in modern psychotherapy, where a psychiatrist will try to allow a patient to let go of his or her idea of what the world “should” be, and accept it as it is.

The one place where epicurean thought is largely mute is having to do with concepts like achievement, motivation, and personal development. The ancient Greek epicureans did not seek to achieve greatly, instead they secluded themselves in a commune. Politics and industry brought about anxieties that were detrimental to the pleasures of a simply-lived life. For achievement and growth, you have to talk to the Stoics.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Visual Approximation)

Rather than a concept of the universe that was atomic and mostly random, the Stoics believed that the universe was created by the gods with a distinct universal order, and everything had a distinct purpose. The purpose (and the only purpose) of a horse, for example, was husbandry.

Remember Silence of the Lambs? When Lecter told Clarice to “read Marcus Aurelius” (another Stoic philosopher)? What did he say? He said that the emperor counsels simplicity. Of each thing, ask, what is it’s nature? It’s purpose?

To the Stoics, everything literally had one defined nature and purpose. The nature and purpose of the human, being the only animal that reasons, is to live its life using his natural capacity for reason. This meant living in accordance with nature, natural order, and therefore the reason allows us to understand what the natural order of the world actually is. With me so far?

The optimum way for a Stoic to live is therefore as virtuously as possible. One must try and become a paragon of virtue, because our sense of logic and reason tells us that it best serves the natural order of the universe for us to do so.

You can see that this concept of morality is 180 degrees apart from the epicurean philosophy. One is sensory, visceral, pleasure-seeking, deemphasizes ambition, reclusive, and seeks a mental framework that avoids anxiety by doing away with the concept of “should”. The other is top-down, orderly, reasoning, taming, and harbors ambition to achieve a highly virtuous and logical life. One looks at obstacles and says, “Don’t worry about it.” The other looks at obstacles and says, “Overcoming this obstacle will lead to further development.”

For us simple folk, we probably unwittingly live somewhere in between these two extremes. But you notice that neither one of these great philosophies looks at obstacles and says, “I must whine for sympathy and feel like I’m doomed.” Nor does either school think that the optimum life is lived by creating maximum anxiety in order to compete for wealth, status, and the purchasing of insignificant stuff. Each philosophy is a study in self discipline and mental conditioning, just in opposing directions.

It was useful for me, and it might be useful for you, to look at the anxieties in your own life and ask, “Am I doing this for a purpose that makes sense, or am I just reaching higher?” And if we find that we are constantly making unreasoned, half-asleep choices about achievement and attitude, how might these models serve as something to strive for?

PeopleTriggers Wants to Hear from You!

September 28, 2014 3 comments

Just a short solicitation this month.

Most of the past articles on PeopleTriggers came from whatever fascinating quirk of human nature had my attention in that moment. Many are inspired by books or articles that I was reading at the time. Now, I’d like to put more thought into the topics, lists or how-tos that might be most helpful or valuable to you. I don’t yet do the greatest job of actually asking people what they would like to read, or framing that knowledge in the form of solving a specific problem. I want to get better at that.

As a first step, I’d like to take a few requests.

Are you fascinated by any one particular aspect of psychology, like developmental or educational? Do you want to see articles that are simple explorations (like most that I do now), or do you like the Top 10’s and the 5 Things You Can Do Right Now?

You’ve paid me a lot of kindness, viewing and following this blog. I’d like to see how I can make this experience even more valuable for you. If you’ve been curious about any element of psychology, sociology, motivation, performance or acting, please let me know your thoughts.

Let’s light up the comments field below! Looking forward to hearing from you!

The Five “People-triggers” Discoveries That Most Changed My Life

August 29, 2014 1 comment

Screenshot 2014-08-29 15.31.58I’ve been writing the People-triggers blog since 2010.  After all that time, I’m not sure I’m any closer to understanding why we do what we do, and why we get out of bed in the morning.

Psychology feels like it’s nipping around the edges of this question. Like the moment anyone gets close to an insight, they stop studying, write a book and start trying to teach everyone how to stay motivated and influence others. In the 70’s, we were sure that Transactional Analysis was a scientific approach to relationships. In the 80’s, we were sure that we needed to praise our children regardless of result because self-esteem correlates with success.

Think of what we’re sure about today. Working from home achieves higher productivity. No wait, it kills collaboration. Group brainstorming produces better outcomes than individual reflection. No wait, it shouts down the introverts and encourages rule-by-volume.

In psychology, today’s bestseller is tomorrow’s bullshit.

That all being said, I’ve looked back at the readings and writings I’ve done over the past four plus years and I’ve found five discoveries-five core principles-that I’m willing to bet will stand the test of time. More than that, they changed my life because I was able to 1) become more effective in producing output, and 2) stop wasting energy worrying about certain things. So, here they are: Read more…

The Cutting Edge: 5 New Psychological Discoveries

Hot off the presses this week:

Monastery on the campus of Villanova University.

Monastery on the campus of Villanova University. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1) Jealousy Makes Us View Ourselves as More Like Our Rivals

Three new studies by Erica Slotter of Villanova University (and her colleagues) came out today in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. We already know that the way we view ourselves often changes depending on circumstance. We know that people will change how they view themselves in order to rationalize incongruent behaviors. Sometimes we use distorted self-beliefs as defense mechanisms, etc. So it should come as no surprise that, when we feel jealous about a personal rival, we alter how we view ourselves. But what is fascinating is that we alter ourselves to seem more like our rival, rather than setting ourselves apart from them.

2) Sad Music Could Actually Evoke Positive Emotions

If sad music evokes sadness, then why do we listen to it? Sadness is, after all, unpleasant. A Japanese study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that sad music actually evokes a complex set of emotions – not just sadness but romanticism and blitheness of spirit – and this complex ambivalence makes the experience pleasant. The study also suggests that experiencing sadness through art may feel pleasant because there is no real life threat to our health and safety.

3) The Top Predictor of Divorce: Early Arguments About Money

In a new study from Sonya Britt of Kansas State University, money arguments are found to be top predictor of divorce: “It’s not children, sex, in-laws or anything else. It’s money — for both men and women.” The study, published today in Family Relations, controls for factors like income, debt and net worth – and concludes that money arguments are the best divorce predictors for people from all financial circumstances.

4) Scientists Create a Daydreaming Computer

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in o...

A fMRI scan showing regions of activation in orange, including the primary visual cortex (V1, BA17). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the late 1990’s just as fMRI-based neurology studies were becoming popular, scientists noticed that certain brain centers remain very active even if the mind is idle. Now, an international team of neuroscientists have created a computer model of the brain based on the dynamics and interconnections of brain cells that actually simulates the brain at rest. It can actually “daydream” like a human. This technology can help us understand the brain’s resting-state networks, which are actually very busy and complex.

5) Mass-shooter Psychology and Law Enforcement Strategy

Researcher Adam Lankford’s new study on mass shooters, published today in Justice Quarterly, is “…the first largescale academic analysis of “active shooters,” defined by the US Department of Homeland Security as: ‘an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area'” (Sciencedaily.com). The study shows that there are numerous psychological differences between shooters who commit suicide or suicide-by-cop, and those who survive the crime. The study suggests that training officers to distinguish those perpetrators who are likely suicidal from those who are not may influence the outcome of the shooting.

Blink and You’ll Miss It: Intuitive Thought, Decision and Action

March 24, 2013 6 comments

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times, and (in my opinion) an acute social and political observer. He is not an academic, but is very well read in psychology and sociology. He wrote a book in 2011 called The Social Animal which deals in part with the role of subconscious mental processes in decision making. This is a fascinating area of emerging science, and not without controversy.

That same year, Brooks gave a talk in front of a panel at Harvard, and opened himself to criticism. I’m going to take that talk and discussion as a starting point. It’s not necessary to watch the whole session to follow the thesis, but I’m including it for reference.

As far as I can remember, there has always been a fascination about unconscious processes and intuitive thought. I remember self-help product commercials from the late eighties that would use the power of “subliminal communication” to speak directly to your unconscious mind. Fundamentally we all understand that the brain holds mysterious processes yielding incredible creative and intuitive results; everything from a poet’s sudden inspiration in the middle of the night to a second baseman’s flawless turn of a 6-4-3 double play.

For mainstream readers, this fascination culminated in Malcolm Gladwell‘s book Blink, which further detailed the seemingly limitless intelligence of intuitive thought. After closing that book, one is left with the sense that many problems would be solved by trusting our unconscious impulses at the expense of rational decision making. You can see how, for many, this could be an incredibly seductive thought.

Brooks shares this fascination with unconscious mental processes, although he makes finer distinctions. His interest in the subject came from his political observations, where he noticed that policymakers and economists tend to assume that humans are thoroughly rational actors, and legislate accordingly. His thesis is that we need to better understand and appreciate our unconscious mental processes, which seem also to be very intelligent and might add a context and richness missing from policy and cultural discussion.

The Social Animal (David Brooks book)

The Social Animal (David Brooks book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He notes, for example, that humans tend to emphasize things that can be measured: test scores, income, performance indicators, etc. We therefore, he says, have a rich vocabulary for discussing the tangible. We are much worse at articulating that which is based on the intangible: emotional health, character aspects, biases, and other abstractions that are based in emotion or intuitive thought. He argues that our emotions (an intuitive process), far from acting against reason as the classicists thought, are part of our advanced mental apparatus for ascribing meaning and value, and therefore an integral part of rational decision making. We therefore lose a great deal when we marginalize the roles of emotion and intuition.

Brooks’ argument is interesting, and I would like to begin my commentary by sharing what I believe to be the best first principles of psychology. In a way, I am lucky that I haven’t been exploring the field for all that long, because we are typically most influenced by the thoughts that we absorb early on, and I had the great good fortune to start this blog right about the time that Daniel Kahneman published his excellent research retrospective Thinking, Fast and Slow. Read more…

My Strongest Habit Is Falling Out Of Them

November 29, 2012 2 comments

“A change in bad habits leads to a change in life.” — Jenny Craig

“My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.” — Errol Flynn

The Power of Habit by Charles DuhiggI’m writing this as I puff and wheeze a little. I’m trying to get back into the habit of going to the gym, a place with which I’ve had a longstanding off-again, on-again relationship. It’s funny, I can break myself of the good habits much more easily than the bad ones.

This might be a good time to talk about a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg is a New York Times business reporter, and has a fascination with how habits work. Business theorists have been obsessed with the concept of habit for years. The most famous exploration of this topic to this point was Stephen Covey‘s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Trainers and HR specialists have realized for years that the key to higher performance lies not in intellect or powerful concentration, but in doing simple, constructive activities everyday.

Sounds simple, and yet we all struggle with forming good habits and breaking bad ones. We’ve all been jealous, at one point or another, of someone else’s willpower. Could there be, we wonder, a better way to understand how habits work psychologically and use that knowledge to live better lives? Read more…