"Challenges make life interesting, however, overcoming them is what makes life meaningful." - Mark Twain
I'm still hard at work on my marketing book and blog at www.marketingwithmeaning.com, but wanted to stop by and say thanks for sticking with me. Here's a quote to tide you over for now, dear readers:
"Failure is the only opportunity to begin again more intelligently." (Henry Ford)
I'm sorry for falling off on my blog updates, gang. I've been very busy at work and on my other blog, Marketing With Meaning, which will become a book with McGraw-Hill in 2009!
I've got tons of topics piling up, though, and will get back on the stick soon.
A few weeks ago our company took all employees out of work for the afternoon to catch a back-stage look at rehearsal (then later saw the show) for the Cirque du Soleil show, Saltimbanco, which was appearing in Cincinnati. We went in celebration of making the Best Place to Work list in the Small Business category for the third consecutive year. It was not only a fun time, but a chance to hear a great story...
After watching the rehearsal, a few of the tour managers came over to talk about their roles and answer our questions. Some had 20 years experience while one was still in his first 6 months. Regardless of their time on staff, they had consistent stories about the benefits of risk taking.
We learned that they actually work to tweak the show after nearly every performance, in order to improve it. This is pretty amazing given that a show like Saltimbanco has been ongoing for more than 15 years. But they said that "the only way to screw it up is to not change it."
We also heard the story of Cirque's first show outside of its home in Montreal. Founder, Guy Laliberté, took the show on the road to Los Angeles. However funds were tight and they only had enough money for the trip out, and would have to earn enough to get back. I imagine the stress was high, but the show was a huge success and proved that the demand for Cirque's novel form of entertainment was strong outside Montreal. It reminded me of Cortez burning his ships to focus his men on the task at hand.
Finally, they shared a story of how Cirque was perhaps too slow to adapt. Saltimbano happens to be the first show performed outside of the traditional circus tent and in moving arenas. There are plenty of benefits to using arenas: set-up time and expenses are much lower, and more people (an additional 1500) can attend in more cities. But Cirque feared that its artistic experience would be compromised. I have been to three other Cirque shows, and I found this to be consistently strong. Look for more arena shows in the years ahead.
Of course, I've missed the biggest challenge dividend of all around Cirque du Soleil, the fact that the company continues to create new shows each year. The creative challenge is to meet or exceed the results of every previous show, while giving its rapid following some new jaw-dropping stunt. We learned that this creative development process can last 5 years, and scouts from Cirque continually travel the world looking for amazing new talent.
So next time Cirque is in your city (or you're in its psuedo-home of Las Vegas), be sure to catch this living Challenge Dividend case study in action!
I have been intentionally quiet about the tanking economy and how it might offer Challenge Dividend lessons. The reason is that it seems far too early to draw conclusions, as we seem to be still in the midst of the storm. But I recently came across an interesting piece of thinking that makes sense for any business crisis.
Fortune magazine senior editor, Geoff Colvin, recently published a book called Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else. In a blog at Fortune, Colvin explains his key beliefs:
It is difficult to accept the rallying cry that "the good news about the economy is that you will be pressured to improve!" That really doesn't help anyone get to sleep at night. However it is an important lesson to remember - that the hard work we have and will continue to do is not just helping us save our jobs and companies, but it is making us tougher and smarter every day.
A few weekends ago I had the chance to join a Digital "unconference" in Athens, Greece, hosted by WPP Digital. An unconference is a relatively new format in which a group of diverse people go somewhere isolated and create discussion forums for anything they would like to talk about. One of those discussion leaders was Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP group and my ultimate boss. As expected, the other discussion leaders stayed away from his designated time slot.
Sorrell is always a pleasure to listen to at events. He is remarkably candid and smart as hell on a wide variety of topics. One topic he covered particularly stuck in my mind. In answering a question about the company's growth in China, he discussed its overall culture and society. Sorrell said that, "The Chinese government's number one goal is to maintain social harmony...and it believes it must keep up a high growth rate of 7% to 8% in order to keep this stability." Anything more could make its economy overheat, anything less and their could be angry, unemployed men stirring up trouble.
This challenge of growth makes a lot of sense. We see it in our own company, digital and relationship marketing agency, Bridge Worldwide. As an executive at the firm for four years, I have seen how growth can be the cure and cover for many ills. Growth allows us to hire and promote often, we are able to splurge on added benefits, and people tend to focus on getting the work done rather than engaging in political plotting. Luckily, we've had double-digital growth for several years, and we've had remarkable stability in our own little society. But we are carefully watching the economy and client spending. Like China, we are susceptible to market conditions no matter how hard we work.
The challenge to grow clearly drives improvement both in national economies and small businesses. It offers both the incentives of success, and teaches us to avoid the pitfalls of stagnation. So at the same time we're watching costs carefully, we must double down our investment in growth and figure out new ways to win.
UPDATE: China's growth is falling significantly. Good for the price of oil. Bad for its stabilization.
The ongoing conflict between Russia and Georgia is providing some interesting lessons in the Challenge Dividend. A few weeks ago I wrote how Russia's aggression led to a 50% drop in its stock market (even before the recent worldwide drop), meaning that world investors were effectively challenging unruly military action.
Over the weekend I read an interesting editorial in The Moscow Times (via The Week). Boris Kagarlitsky opines that countries without ethnic diversity whip up unchecked nationalistic frenzy. He compares the heated discussion in Russia, "one of the most diverse countries in the world," against that of Georgia, where there is no diversity of ethnicity nor opinion. He also compares tension between Armenia (single ethnicity, no debate) to Turkey (diverse, much debate), and between Palestine (single ethnicity, no debate) and Israel (diverse, much debate).
I agree with Kagarlitsky that this presents yet another example of how diversity drives debate. Debate is a form of challenge to thought, and challenge leads to improvement. In one of my first blog posts over two years ago I wrote about the importance of women's equal rights and status around the world as a key ingredient in the improvement of nations. Those that supress women, like many states in the Middle East, face another obstacle to advancement when half their citizens have little voice.
The challenge of multiple, dissenting voices drives improvement by helping to ensure that groups and nations do not make poor decisions. By bringing mulitple perspectives a better path can come to light. This is a lesson we can take back to our schools, our offices, and our national politics.
I'm not a political adviser and I'd rather not make my political leanings in this year's election part of what I write about in this blog, but I feel compelled to apply the Challenge Dividend philosophy to something that is getting a lot of discussion on both sides: Sarah Palin's media interview performance.
By now you've probably heard that Sarah Palin is not the greatest interview subject in the world. Her answers to Katie Couric's questions a few weeks ago are still causing ripples of laughter from YouTube to Saturday Night Live. She is obviously still learning about national politics and campaigning after relative isolation in the friendly confines of Alaska. John McCain knew that going in, and the American people know that she's an outsider. Instead of rolling with the punches, McCain's campaign is now isolating her from the media and she is relegated to whipping up fervor among those who are already firmly in the right wing.
The problem is that by isolating Palin, the campaign is fighting with one hand behind its back. Kirsten Powers wrote in the New York Post recently that "there's only so much ground McCain can cover" and CNN notes that Joe Biden has conducted nearly 100 press interviews since his nomination, compared to Sarah Palin's 3 interviews. This latter point is incredibly important, as each press interview is like free media from a trusted source. Meanwhile, Sarah Palin's approval scores are sinking.
Only through the challenge of the media's harsh glare will Palin have a chance to improve her voice and connect with the undecided voter. Instead of preaching hate for Obama to the converted in Republican rallies, I would send her to the reporters of every one of the critical swing states. With each interview she will learn and improve. If she makes a few mistakes, it won't feel like a novelty. Meanwhile, she will have the platform to bring her campaign's message to millions of people.
After her first interview, my wife made the comment that, "She looks like I felt during my first job interview." I think we all remember those first fearful job interviews in our lives. But we also know that each one made us more comfortable and confident for our next. Eventually we refined our stories, were ready for any questions thrown, and we got the jobs. If Palin wants the job she has to get on the air and get the gaffes out of the way. Otherwise she won't be ready for this job, or the next one.