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    On crazy ideas and taking action

    Check the image on the right side of this post. That's me, or at least my hand holding a genuine, original, (sadly without the original packaging), Pet Rock, circa 1975.Pet Rock, unnamed, B. 1975

    In case you're not familiar with the story of the Pet Rock, (read - younger than 35, you have some sort of life), allow our friends at Wikipedia to get you caught up:  

    Pet Rocks were a 1970s fad conceived in Los Gatos, California by advertising executive Gary Dahl.

    In April 1975, Dahl was in a bar listening to his friends complain about their pets. This gave him the idea for the perfect "pet": a rock.

    A rock would not need to be fed, walked, bathed, groomed and would not die, become sick, or be disobedient. He said they were to be the perfect pets, and joked about it with his friends. However, he eventually took the idea seriously, and drafted an "instruction manual" for a pet rock. It was full of puns, gags and plays on words that referred to the rock as an actual pet.

    The first Pet Rocks were ordinary gray stones bought at a builder's supply store. They were marketed like live pets, in custom cardboard boxes, complete with straw and breathing holes for the "animal."The fad lasted about six months, ending after a short increase in sales during the Christmas season of December 1975. Although by February 1976 they were discounted due to lower sales, Dahl sold 1.5 million Pet Rocks and became a millionaire.

    Awesome, right? I mean I still have my Pet Rock as you can see in the picture.

    But the most important part of the story isn't how ridiculous the idea was/is, or the amazing gullibility or boredom of the American public who snatched up one and a half million of these 'pets', (in our collective defense it was a time before Cable TV and the internet, there was not all that much to do).

    The key to the tale is in this sentence from the founder's story:

    He said they were to be the perfect pets, and joked about it with his friends. However, he eventually took the idea seriously

    Four buddies, kidding around at a bar, where they hatch pretty much the entire idea for the toy in one beer session. Three of them head home, forget the entire night, and go about their lives, (seemingly their names forgotten to history).

    One guy, takes the idea, however silly/crazy/stupid and runs with it, sells a million rocks and gets rich.

    And more that 30 years later here I am wirting about that guy. And I still have my rock.

    What wild idea have you heard lately that you just laughed at, and swore would never work?


    Off Topic - Schrodinger's Cat

    Last weekend while enjoying one of my favorite pastimes studying particle physics watching a loop of replays of Big Bang Theory, I ran across a reference to the famous (in scientific circles anyway), illustration of an aspect fo quantum theory called Schrodinger's Cat. Ed. Notethe 'o' in the name Schrodinger should have the two tiny little dots over it, but I don't know how to render that in this text editor. Which is also another indication I probably should not be attempting to post on particle physics or quantum mechanics. But let's press on anyway.SCIENCE!

    So here's the basic idea of the Schrodinger's Cat illustration, (text lifted heavily from the What is? definition page, (apologies and thanks in advance):

    We place a living cat into a steel chamber, along with a device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. Note: he did not actually DO this, it is just an illustration. There is, in the chamber, a very small amount of hydrocyanic acid, a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a relay mechanism will trip a hammer, which will, in turn, break the vial and kill the cat. 

    The observer cannot know whether or not an atom of the substance has decayed, and consequently, cannot know whether the vial has been broken, the hydrocyanic acid released, and the cat killed. Since we cannot know, according to quantum law, the cat is both dead and alive, in what is called a superposition of states.

    It is only when we break open the box and learn the condition of the cat that the superposition is lost, and the cat becomes one or the other (dead or alive). This situation is sometimes called quantum indeterminacy or the observer's paradox: the observation or measurement itself affects an outcome, so that the outcome as such does not exist unless the measurement is made. (That is, there is no single outcome unless it is observed.)

    Did you follow all that? Until you open the box the cat is not either dead or alive, it is both dead and alive, and only by opening the box and observing the contents does the cat actually become one or the other.

    When I first looked this illustration up and read through the description of the (fake) experiment it really seemed kind of silly, I mean it may be a valid explanation of the quantum theory of superposition, but beyond that it really could not have any possible implication to anything I care about in the real world, i.e. the NBA, barbecue, Pawn Stars, right? We know the cat can't really be BOTH dead AND alive at the same time. It is one or the other, but not both. It just doesn't make sense.

    But then I thought about it just a little bit more, and then in the context of many of the projects, roll-outs, system deployments, and other change management kinds of things I'd either been involved with or at least observed in the workplace and it started to make a little more sense to me.

    Truly, how the project or change was presented and maybe even more importantly, to whom the new shiny tool and improved process was pitched to first did indeed impact the actual result. If we made our pitch to the right leader or executive first, and couched our pitch in terms that allowed Ms. Executive to see how they would benefit from whatever goods we were hawking, then we had a much better chance for success. 

    And if we did not make the case early, and convincingly, and to the right folks, well then we pretty much were ensured of failure, or at least, lack of impact, i.e. eventually the box gets opened and the cat is dead.

    The thing is both outcomes, project success or failure, well they definitely both existed the entire time. It was only revealed which outcome actually became real until the impacted organization opened the box as it were and had a look inside.

    That's it from me on this. And after having a quick scan though before hitting the 'publish' button, I too realize this very post is both dead and alive at the same time. It's only now, as you read this final sentence, that the actual state is determined.

    I hope the little post survived...


    Below is a short clip explaining the Schrodinger's Cat illustration, have a look if you are still intrigued, (email and RSS subscribers please click through)

     Have a Great Weekend!


    Speed Kills: Or, what can you accomplish in 90 days?

    As if you needed any more reminders about the importance of speed - to take decisions, to build the right team, to execute a plan, and to deliver something tangible to your customers, (whomever they are), then take a look a this story - 'A Chinese Company Plans To Build The World's Tallest Building In Just 90 Days'.

    Yep, over 800 meters tall, (that is like, 235,450 feet or so I think), and planned to rise 10 meters taller than the current world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. But compared to the Burj, which was constructed at an estimated cost of US $1.5B, and was completed over a period of about 6 years, the Sky City, (the name for the Chinese tower), is planned to be built at an approximate cost of US $625M and be completed in a mind-boggling 90 days.Bolt

    The company behind the Sky City project made news earlier this year with their construction of a 30-story hotel in only 15 days, so even if Sky City proves to take a little longer than three months to complete, (it has to one would think), it does seem likely that on a cost/time basis that Sky City will be erected in far, far less time than the Burj, and really any other similarly massive structure.

    The big point in all this? That speed, ability to scale quickly, and out-execute the competition is fast becoming, (maybe it has always been this way, I suppose), more critical than chasing down absolute cost advantages by adjusting supply chains, relocating facilities, and beating the crap out of suppliers on price. The reason Sky City will cost less than half of the Burj isn't due to relatively cheap Chinese labor, it's that through process improvements, innovations in design and pre-fabrication, and precise and relentless execution the tower can be constructed in a fraction of the time it took for the Burj.

    One more tidbit of data that seems to back up this argument, from a recejt Hackett Group report titled 'Reshoring Global Manufacturing: Myths and Realities', (PDF), that examines some of the key drivers behind firms like Apple's manufacturing and supply chain strategies: 

    The U.S. lacks the sheer labor capacity that would be required in order to ramp up production of iPads at the speed needed to maintain the company’s edge in the hyper-competitive tablet and mobile device market.

    Thus one may assume that Apple’s manufacturing sourcing strategy is primarily motivated by scalability and supply chain risk, and only secondarily by total landed cost.

    Bottom line - easily copied competitive differentiators, like chasing labor cost advantages, eventually, and often faster than you think whittle down to almost nothing.

    What persists is the sustained ability to out execute, and to consistently deliver more, with solid quality, and demonstrable results and impact in shorter and shorter timeframes.

    What's on your 90-day plan? 

    However ambitious it seems right now, remember somewhere out there one of your competitors is dreaming much, much bigger. Maybe even tallest building in the world big.


    More Data for HR Geeks: Wow, it's getting old around here

    Last week Kris over at the HR Capitalist ran a cool piece titled Economics for HR Geeks: The Quitter's Index, where he called out the BLS data indicating that more Americans are now quitting their jobs than being fired/laid off/downsized.  There are lots of possible reasons for this shift, but the takeaway for the talent pro is that more people are open to a voluntary move than in the last few, recessionary years. The climate for recruiting and retention is starting to shift.

    In the spirit of KD's piece, I thought I'd offer a similar, geeky chart for your perusal, first spotted over at Business Insider last week. Have a look at the below graph, that shows the total US employment level for two age cohorts, those from 25-34, and those 55+, and I'll make some (obvious) observations after the data sinks in. 


    Yep, really soon, and for the first time since anyone started keeping track, the number of workers 55 and older will exceed those aged 25-34, typically the next generation of talent that so many firms are trying to recruit, develop, and retain.

    Many workers north of 55 have seen their retirement plans put on hold, some for a few years, many for longer, as the combination of recession, slowly recovering equity markets, and lots of 20-something kids still living at home as they remain persistently unemployed or underemployed themselves.

    Have you walked around the office lately and thought to yourself, 'Wow, when did everyone start to look so old?'. If you haven't noticed, don't worry, you probably will soon. And after you take note, maybe its time to think about the makeup of your specific workforce, in total and in important segments, to see whether or not you are seeing this trend play out for your company, industry, and region.

    And then maybe take a few minutes more to think about what that all means for your 3, 5, and 10 year plans for recruiting, retention, benefits, work assignments, facilities, management succession, and more.

    Gettind old can be a drag. It can be a real drag when it happens to everyone at once.

    FYI - the chart was originally created on the FRED site, which is an absolute gold mine of information. Check it out sometime.


    Unscathed, and still thinking you did the right thing

    Of the many seemingly endless debates that rage in the workplace/human resources/careers blogosphere, ('How can HR become 'strategic'?, 'Do I need a cover letter?', 'My boss/colleague/HR lady is a jerk, what should I do?), one of my favorites is the one centered around the 'Following your passion at work', discussion.

    The 'passion' dialog seems to be split fairly evenly, perhaps the 'You should stop what you are doing and follow your passion' crowd might have the upper hand, (slightly), but that could be because they seem to shout about it the loudest, and it just seems like something we should pursue, or at least aspire to. But often, even the most well-reasoned and reasonable arguments for chasing your passion usually fall a bit flat for me. If I tried to apply the most common passion arguments, even taken loosely, I'd either be trying to catch on with an (unaffiliated) minor league baseball team as a soft-tossing lefty reliever, or hauling a BBQ smoker behind the pickup while working the county fair circuit selling sandwiches. Neither option really seems like a wise choice at this stage.

    Probably the most even-keeled recent take on the subject was from blogger and owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban, with the piece titled, 'Don't Follow Your Passion, Follow Your Effort', that recommends pursuing that which you most often find yourself pursuing, if that makes sense. It actually is a really good piece, tempered only with the knowledge that through hard work, good fortune, and impeccable timing, Cuban himself has countless options that he is free to chase, including things others might term 'passions.'

    But past the passion/effort/I just need to keep the mortgage paid and kids fed discussion, which like the other endless workplace debates eventually, maybe already, get extremely tedious, I wanted to offer up one slightly different, and I think completely realistic, honest, and refreshing take on the matter, pulled from a profile of comic Marc Maron on the Vulture blog. Maron, who you'd classify as a working comic, not a household name, but beginning to become more well-known and recognized or a popular series of podcasts that have featured many comedy superstars, offered this telling observation about how he sees his work, success, and in a way seems to reconcile the 'passion' argument really neatly.

    “Look,” Maron says before going onstage, “I just want to get out of here unscathed. I just want to leave here still thinking that I did the right thing with my life. That’s my only goal, to have a check that doesn’t bounce and still believe I’m on the right path.”

    Nice. Unscathed, with a check that doesn't bounce, and at least a small feeling that you have made (mostly) the right choices and are generally heading in the right direction.

    Maybe not passion, but definitely sensible. Definitely reachable. And a question that can be easily asked and answered by most of us each day.

    Did I get out of here unscathed? Did the check clear? Am I heading in the right direction?

    What say you?