D is for Dog!

The Boston Consulting Group Matrix (BCG Matrix) pegs products/services according to growth and market share. A rising star has high growth and high market share, a cash cow has low growth but high market share. An unknown has high growth but low share and then we have the dog - low growth and low market share.

The riskiest investment is the unknown, growing quickly but without substantial market share - all going well, it will become a rising star and eventually a cash cow. Tesla is a good example of an unknown - for most of its life to date, it has chewed up capital and run up substantial losses. At the moment it's profitable. But whether it can continue to hold or increase market share and generate substantial profits depends on how aggressively competitors with deeper pockets and superior productive capacity approach market.

Applying the concept to companies, dogs are in the majority. And cows make up the next biggest group. Which suggests that growth and market share are not the prime objectives of most companies.

So what are the key motivations of business owners?

Before we look at that, we need to understand a few key facts:
90% of companies employ less than 20 people;
0.1% employ more than 500.

When it comes to business, we live in fantasy land. This one tenth of 1 percent dominate the media and the conversation about commerce. They also dominate government policy and this has huge negative consequences for the small business sector.

Small business owners are fully familiar with the difficulties in funding their companies. Lenders are risk averse and usually demand personal guarantees - something not applied to large companies. An entrepreneur choosing between chasing growth and preserving assets has hard decisions to make. Increasing personal exposure to get access to funds is a very real two edged sword. Get it right, and you can catapult yourself and your business to a whole new level. Get it wrong and you can see everything you've worked so hard for disappear.

A significant minority of business owners would be better off if they got a job. They'd earn more, have less hassle, and minimal risk. If they have a marketable skill, they could make substantially more.

So why do they do it? What drives an entrepreneur to entreprene? A typical owner is what Dan Sullivan describes as a 'rugged individual' - someone who doesn't work well in a highly structured environment, puts a high value on personal initiative and freedom, someone who is willing to take risks and reap rewards based on results.

I've met plenty others who own businesses because they joined and then inherited the family firm, or because that's the 'normal' model for their trade or profession. And multitudes who started their own business after being fired or laid off.

It matters not so much why you joined/started your own business as why you keep doing it.

Michael E Gerber emphasised the importance of systems in business. Most people interpret his approach as working on the business instead of in the business. I don't agree with this - I think it's important to do both. I think the central message is that systems are the path to freedom.

It is difficult to scale a business without working systems. It's impossible to sustain scale without appropriate systems. And this is where entrepreneurs typically get caught. They are experts in their trade or profession and so can deliver the core products and services the business is built on.

But they aren't experts in how to run a business and all that entails, and very often have no interest in learning. When they employ others to look after those functions, they find it difficult to delegate the right level of authority and end up tangled in the day to day admin, or find key decisions being made and executed without proper consideration.

On top of that, implementing systems that determine how the business will run often push the owner right up against the reasons they don't want to work for other people. So they decide that the systems are for everyone else to follow/obey/use. And that usually ends in chaos and disaster.

There are few things more disheartening than to find at the end of your career that what you thought was a business was in fact a J-O-B.

Sadly, that's an all too familiar scene. Think about all the businesses you knew that are gone now simply because the owner retired or died. A tiny percentage of these survive but are usually sold at a discount on net asset value.

If you want to sell your business at the right time, at a premium on net asset value, you need to start today to getting it ready. So look at your business honestly and if it's a dog, recognise and accept that. If it's a cash cow, good for you. But you still need to do the work because the next natural stage after cash cow is dog.

It's never too late to start. Yes, the earlier you do, the easier the transformation is. But even if you're on the cusp of retirement, there are several steps you can take to prepare your business and find a buyer willing and able to pay you for the value built in.

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Paraic Bergin is a Chartered Certified Accountant and started his career with KPMG after which he held senior and board level roles as CFO and CEO in organisations ranging in size from €15 million - €3.5 billion annual t/over. Working with a wide range of businesses he has helped several companies to achieve and sustain rapid growth in sales and profitability and has coached other business owners on how to do the same.

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C is for Cheetah…..or Cheater..

We all want to cheat. Whether it's getting inside secrets, cheatsheets, unfair advantage, whatever, a surefire way to sell something is to position it as giving the buyer some benefit not available to people who don't buy.

We want to cheat death - there are massive industries built on helping us to postpone dying. Sad statistic - 60% of your lifetime healthcare costs will be incurred in the final year of your life. And you'll still die anyway. But it's taboo to suggest that this is a waste of time, money, scarce resources and life even. Most countries outlaw end of life measures that would allow those people actually staring death in the face to choose the manner and timing of their own death. It seems my right to life outweighs my right to die.

I can't speak for anyone else, but when my time comes, if I am awake and aware I will take myself somewhere I can die peacefully. And if I'm not, I already have my DNR (do not resuscitate) order prepared.

Back in the land of the living, cheating is ubiquitous. Being late for work, leaving early, not doing your work, helping yourself to paper, pens, printing, office and kitchen supplies - these are all cheating.

I worked for an organisation that would happily spend $1 million to make sure no-one could steal $1, or avoid paying their bill. But they tolerate presentee-ism by a significant proportion of staff.

In any organisation or society there will always be the 10% who will always cheat, even when there is little to no benefit. And there's the 10% who will never cheat.

The other 80% will cheat if they have a need and believe they will get away with it.

This applies to all laws. It's human nature.

Yet we spend billions of $$ and billions of hours enforcing laws and rules that don't make sense, don't work and even if they did, they still wouldn't achieve the desired aim.

A mind that's changed against it's will is of the same opinion still.

Contrast that with:

A mind, once stretched, can never resume the same shape.

I think our hunger for the shortcut stems from societal beliefs around being shortchanged and/or entitled. If I'm on the wrong side of the economic tracks, I want to get to the greener grass and as quickly and painlessly as possible. If I'm born on the side of privilege, I not only want to preserve it - I want other people to preserve it for me, and pay for it too.

The cheetah is the fastest land animal, capable of 0-60 mph in 3 seconds. Human cheaters are equally speedy burning through whatever is fueling their thirst to be ahead - be that family, friends, colleagues, customers, suppliers, employers, competitors, banks, inheritances, windfalls, winnings - anything really.

And we all cheat. To some degree, some of the time. We cheat on our spouses, our children, our parents and siblings more often than anyone else, because they're closer, and to maintain our fiction, we've got to cheat - doesn't matter if it's lying, or stealing or infidelity - we've got to cheat. And we keep on cheating until we're caught.

But the person we cheat most often is ourselves - every excuse, every pretense, every justification robs us of our integrity. We turn a blind eye to our problems instead of facing and resolving them. We pretend everything is ok, when really we're suicidal and hanging on by the thinnest of threads. We watch helplessly as the last of our self-respect slithers down the drain of mind-numbing distraction - alcohol, drugs, gambling, reckless and dangerous behaviour, over-eating, promiscuity, speeding, frenzied spending, buying and hoarding stuff and property to fill the unfillable chasm.

There are few things more terrifying than stepping into the light from the darkness. From the dark side, we can only see the pain and torment we are suffering being made infinitely worse if we allow others to see and know it.

And as long as we cast everything is terms of others, life outside ourselves, we're doomed to rinse and repeat the cycles. Becoming honest is hard. It hurts. It's inherently painful. And it can kill you.

Those who had to choose between a life of honesty or a dishonest death and chose death number in their millions.

Why?

Because we are conditioned to see life through a lens of what others will think, say, and do. Because we cannot see the burden of shame and guilt being lifted - we cannot forgive ourselves and therefore we cannot imagine that others would forgive us - and we think their forgiveness is important.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that anyone who has sinned is a slave to sin but that "the truth shall set you free" (John, 8:30 KJV)

The truth is that the opinions, thoughts, feelings, words and actions of others are meaningless and unimportant insofar as our lives are concerned.

Shakespeare's Polonius says in Hamlet
"This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."

And the Master Therion, the infamous Alestair Crowley tells us in The Book of the Law:
"Do what thou wilt, that shall be the whole of the Law.'

So, being true to my own self (i.e. my self-interest) and doing what I will (will being an exercise of will, and not a fancy) place me squarely in the realm of freedom and responsibility. I am free to do whatever I will and my guiding star, my North, is the prosecution and advancement of my interests.

There are few things more nakedly honest that to admit to doing something because I wanted to or I willed to.

And the wonderful thing is that having stepped through, from the darkness into the light, I can at last "see clearly" as St. Paul says in Corinthians 13.

Once I take responsibility for myself, I need not worry anymore about my brother. Indeed, being responsible, I am best placed to help him or her. No man's burden is heavy to anyone except himself. What does it cost me truly to lift the monkey off his back? Nothing. It makes both of us better, stronger.

Now, if you've stuck with me this far you may be wondering what's this got to do with business? Everything and nothing.

How I am in one thing is how I am in all things. The late Wayne Dyer tells a wonderful story about a lady who consulted him because her husband was a drunk and no matter what she tried or did, he kept on drinking. Dyer pointed out to her that her husband's behaviour was entirely consistent with what he was - a drunk. Drunks drink. What else would you expect? He suggested she was the one who needed help because she was unable to accept reality.

So, drunks drink, liars lie and thieves steal. Cheaters cheat, conmen con, apples apple and grapes grape. I cannot fix my sister - the sooner I stop trying, the sooner I can be happy. My sister cannot fix me - the sooner I stop expecting her to, the happier I will be.

Commerce is an exchange of items of value. Clean commerce is where neither buyer nor seller is trying to cheat the other. Dirty commerce is the opposite. There is a lot of dirty commerce.

But that doesn't really matter, unless I choose to engage in it.

So yes, I am a cheat, a liar, a fool - and so are you. Some of the time. The key to giving value is to pick yourself up every time you fall, forgive yourself, and go again. And rinse and repeat.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments...

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B is for Buffalo….Wrong again – B is for Branding

The value of your brand. What is it? Can a brand have value?

The answer is your brand is both worthless, and priceless.

Does anyone actually care about your 'brand'? I mean, other than you?

I don't think so.

What we do care about is how being associated with your brand affects or impacts us - in other words, what we think about ourselves, or what we think others think about us.

Wake up call!

If you want to know what other people think about you, just ask yourself what do you think about others? How much, how often and to what degree?

The truth is that we don't think about others very much at all. And when we do, we're usually thinking about what they think of us or comparing ourselves with them. Both of these are just thinly disguised thoughts about ourselves.

So we spend 99.9% of our time, attention and energy focused on ourselves. And so does everybody else.

Now, don't take that to mean that we don't hold opinions (and often very strong opinions) about others and what they should or shouldn't be, do, have, say, or think. Because we do. One of the most emotionally charged topics of conversation at the moment is ex-POTUS 45, the one and only Donald John Trump.

His brand is 'toxic', or so we're told. Yet he raised over $250,000,000 in the 8 weeks AFTER the election and is estimated to have drummed up over $350 million from the beginning of November 2020 through to the end of January 2021. That's very powerful toxicity.

In the 2020 general election he not only won more votes than any other Republican candidate ever, he won more than any candidate ever, other than Joe Biden.

Depending on your point of view, Trump is the worst thing to have happened to America and American politics in living memory, or he was the best president ever.

There's very little middle ground with Trump - you love him or you hate him. And he embraces that. He famously told Republicans in 2016 that even if the hated him, they still had to vote for him. And they did.

What's the difference between self-interest and enlightened self-interest?

Recognising and realising (making real) that we don't matter to others outside their narrow self-interest should set us free.

Recognising and realising that we predominantly act out of our own narrow self interest also set us free.

We no longer have to pretend to be who and what we're not. To care about what 'people' might say or think.

Paradoxically, that's when your brand shifts from worthless and moves towards priceless.

People don't admire and revere Trump for his qualities. They adore him because he is unashamedly out for himself. The key word is unashamedly.

I'm not suggesting you emulate Mr. Trump. I'm not saying he's right or wrong in what he does. I'm just highlighting that while a significant majority of people the world over are aware that he uses truth and lies as weapons in his armory, nevertheless his presentation to the world is essentially honest.

30-something years ago I applied for a loan to my bank and got it. The security asked they asked for was "your good name". I still have that letter.

Because that's your brand, your good name. It is the most valuable asset you will ever "own."

It opens doors, and closes deals.

If you don't have a good name, start today to put it right. Don't waste time or money on logos or brochures or websites. Don't fritter away your precious hours in strategy sessions or re-branding campaigns.

Get real. Be who and what you are. Let the world accept or leave you on that basis. Become known as a person of your word. Respect yourself and you will become respected. Be honorable and you will be honoured.

Tomorrow, we talk about the letter C - C is for Cheetah.

Like it, love it, hate it? Let me know in the comments.

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A is for Aardvark….Only Joking! A is for Advertising

There are only 2 types of advertising - but what they are depends on who is talking.

One basic distinction is between (a) direct response and (b) everything else.
Another is between advertising that (a) works and (b) doesn't.
A third is between advertising (a) investment and (b) cost.

The legendary Dan Kennedy teaches that s/he who can spend the most to acquire a customer wins in the end.

That's may be true, insofar as it goes. But it's not the whole truth.

If the ability to acquire the customer depends solely on the amount spent on acquisition, then whoever is willing to spend the most will win more customers.

There's no guarantee however that those customers will be profitable or viable.

If you and I are competing for the same customers, and I can acquire mine at a lower cost than you then, all other things being equal, I will win.

To have a viable customer base, I need to know a few crucial averages:
1. The cost of acquiring a customer
2. The annual sales value
3. The annual gross profit
4. The other costs of fulfillment & customer service
5. The customer lifetime.

E.g. my average customer spends €1,000 a year with me. My gross profit is 35% and my other costs are €50 p.a. giving me an annual contribution of €300. My customer lifetime is 3 years so the lifetime contribution is €900.

If I am willing to spend €900 to acquire a customer, I will break even over time. However, it would be a foolish and overly optimistic entrepreneur who would consider investing more than 1 year's contribution to acquire that customer.

So it's less whoever can afford to (or is willing to) spend the most to acquire the customer who wins than whoever can afford to (or is willing to) spend the most to acquire the customer while remaining profitable that will win.

Few companies advertise effectively. If you doubt this, pick up any newspaper or magazine, look at any tv channel, social media or other website that carries ads. The majority of ads suffer from one or more of the following fatal flaws:
(a) boring
(b) unbelievable
(c) unclear
(d) irrelevant
(e) annoying

And it gets worse.

Even with a clear call to action and simple, easy to follow instructions most ads fall into the 'cost' category instead of the 'investment' stable.

For an ad to meet the criteria of an investment, several things must be defined prior to running the advertisement:
1. The purpose - what is the objective of the ad, what specific action do I want the prospect to take.
2. The cost - how much am I willing to invest? Is this a fixed or variable sum?
3. What is the value of success? What level of sales do I need to breakeven?
4. How will I measure my results?

Sadly, many advertisers spend money on ads that have at least one fatal flaw and without meeting the necessary criteria.

And it gets even worse.

Imagine creating an ad that avoided the killer mistakes, that met the criteria but still failed to make it an investment...

How could that be? Surely if the spend didn't result in sales or profit but yielded valuable data, it could count as an investment?

Possibly, yes.

But the error isn't failing to collect valuable data. Instead, it's usually hiding in a murky space - the one where data of a single type should be, but where in fact the data are mixed. And because of this, I cannot know for sure what the result of my campaign is.

I was engaged by a client to review his operations, particularly his sales and marketing. He had recently lost his largest customer, a blue chip company that accounted for 40% of his turnover. In among the weeds, I discovered he was spending more than €1,000 a month advertising with a local newspaper. When I asked what proportion of his sales this spend generated, he didn't know. Nor was it possible to know because his ads and campaign were not designed to capture or yield that information.

I suggested a few minor changes to his approach, the most important being a unique telephone number, listed only in those ads. Over the remainder of the contract, we tracked the precise response and used this to test different offers. While we did improve the results (not too hard when your starting point is €Zero) the return never approached the cost. Terminating the contract freed up €15,000 a year to fund more precise and measurable campaigns.

We tend to think of Big Data as something Google, Apple, Microsoft or some other digital behemoth gathers and surreptitiously analyses to magically penetrate our secrets and understand our motivations.

I suggest big data is any set too big to hold in your mind at a sufficient level of detail to make it useable. By that definition, the information we collect on our advertising campaigns would be classed as big data. And because of that, more often than not we don't actually analyse it at all. We take it to mean what we first think it means, whereas interrogating the data might yield a very different understanding.

The net result of this is jumping to conclusions - often wrong conclusions - by continuing ad spends that should be killed and killing campaigns that should be scaled.

The moral of the story is we need to do our homework first, not last. Invest the time, attention and energy in preparing before committing the cash. Know precisely what you want to achieve, how you're going to measure results and what results you need to justify further spend.

Like this? Hate it? Agree or disagree?

I'd love to read your comments...

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Every Day, In Every Way….

‘And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good – need we ask anyone to tell us these things? (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974)

Quality and value, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.

Armand Feigenbaum in Total Quality Control (1961) defines quality as the “total composite characteristics through which the product or service in use will meet the expectations of the customer” (Feigenbaum, 1961).

Disciplines like Statistical Process Control (SPC), Total Quality Management (TQM), Lean and Six Sigma plus derivatives (collectively LSS) are predicated on the assumption that value is what customers/clients value and that quality precedes value.

Activities that customers don't value are classified as "non value-adding". This isn't necessarily true of course. Many activities (possibly even most activities) have little or no direct impact on the 'value' received and/or perceived by the customer.

It may be necessary to drill down several layers to find the connection between what happens inside, beside or before a process and what the customer gets. But that's a rabbit hole for another day...

Today, let's look at value and quality from a customer's perspective. At this stage, almost all organisations claim and promise that quality and value are of paramount importance to them, that customer satisfaction is front of mind, basically that they care. But do they? Really?

Have you ever noticed that the many of the companies with the poorest customer service are in communications or media, e.g telecoms, data, tv and streaming.

And what about airlines? I have had the pleasures and pains of flying with several carriers, into and out of far flung destinations. I've flown APEX Economy, Economy, Business and First Class with flaghship carriers like Delta, Emirates, Lufthansa, Etihad and Qatar Airways. I've flown with budget and less prestigious airlines like Ryanair and Pakistan International Airlines. What they all have in common is that they care little about quality and value from a customer's perspective. Why do I claim this?

 

Simple really - as long as there are different 'classes' of ticket there are different levels of quality and value. So when they say your comfort and safety, the value for money you receive, and the quality of your 'experience' are important, what they really mean is that within the class of your ticket you can expect such and such - as defined by them.

Which is the antithesis of quality and value.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm not having a go at the airline industry. I'm simply pointing out that dedication to quality and value is determined more by what the customer is willing to pay than by what the customer perceives as important. And airlines are not alone - most businesses do it. It's just more obvious with them.

A more controversial sector is healthcare, or what I like to call the Sickness Industry. Providers prattle on about quality of service, being patient-centric, and use meaningless platitudes like 'everyone counts', 'best care always', 'we care' and so on. But as long as access to services is determined according to ability to pay, race or citizenship and services themselves are configured according to the wishes and demands of the service providers, it cannot be true that quality and value to the patient count most, or even at all.

A high quality/high value service from a patient's perspective would give access to the necessary services when and where needed. Those services would be delivered by competent and caring personnel in an appropriate setting, without unnecessary waiting or delay. All pertinent investigations would be conducted and the findings conveyed by staff able to empathise and engage on a human level.

Waiting lists would not exist.

Instead, patients are treated poorly, with little regard for their privacy and little sensitivity towards their fears. Before Covid-19 it was 'normal' for patients to spend hour after hour in a crowded emergency ward waiting to be seen, then hours more waiting to be admitted. It is not uncommon for patients to sleep overnight on a trolley in an emergency department or on a corridor.

It is routine for a 15 min visit to a family doctor to take several hours. It is routine to wait weeks or months, and in some cases years, to see a specialist - and as long again to receive surgery or treatment if needed.

In most Western countries, private health insurance gives fast track access to services while 'public' patients wait and wait. The shame in Ireland is that we have a health system that allows clinicians to mix public and private practice - even in public hospitals.

I've no axe to grind with private healthcare - I've been CEO of two private hospitals. I've nothing against public healthcare either - I've spent 14 years working in public health systems in Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

What I do have is a very clear view that unless and until the patient becomes the most important part of any system, we are doomed to repeat the failures of the past.

I am at the final stages of my part time PhD with Dublin City University. My thesis examines the uses, successes and failures of Lean Six Sigma in acute hospital systems and I propose a framework for the successful adaptation of LSS to general and specialist hospital environments.

It's probably easier for the private sector to be honest - patients understand that access and care depend not only on ability to pay but also the need for the provider to make profits. It would be relatively easy for me as a commercial provider to tell my prospective patients that so long as they are willing and able to pay, here is the level of quality and value they can expect.

It will be more difficult for the public sector to do this, not because the public patient's expectations are too high but because the service is fundamentally unfit for purpose and not capable of meeting even the lowest standards of quality and value acceptable to the patient.

This applies whether you're looking at the HSE in Ireland, the NHS in the UK, HMC in Qatar or the US health market (I can't bring myself to say the US health system because unfortunately for the USA, they don't have one. This has been horrifically demonstrated as the pandemic took more than 450,000 US lives with no sign of relief in sight).

Edward Deming in his 1982 book "Out of the Crisis" set out his prescription for the salvation of American industry. One of the notable exceptions to his work was healthcare because the rising costs of healthcare 'are beyond the scope of this book'.

In January 2021, we saw the announcement that Haven - a joint venture between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase was disbanding after only 3 years. This was anticipated following the departure of Dr. Atul Gawande, Haven's CEO and the author of "Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance" (2007).

The sad reality is that Haven became irrelevant as the three partners advanced their own plans and efforts individually instead of collectively. Shares in major health stocks rose on the announcement.

So, if the Sickness Industry has defeated Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet and Jamie Dimon, what hope is there for the 'little' man or woman in the street?

Sadly, not much.

So-called healthcare is BIG business. All major systems earn rewards and profits from maximising utilisation and treatment, i.e. the more 'sick' patients can be investigated and treated, the better off the providers are. And that's not just in the private sector. Public hospital systems take the lions' share of public health funding and have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

This preference for short term urgent action is endemic. We pour trillions of dollars/pounds/euros into systems that don't work while we starve systems that could and would if the investment necessary was made. In Europe (including the UK) 10% of GDP goes into the sickness industry. In the USA, that figure is 17% of GDP. And what return do we get?

The global pandemic has exposed our approach to health as yet another Emperor Without Clothes (at this stage, maybe I should write a book called Naked Emperors in Your Neighbourhood - I'm only half joking!). Unfortunately for us, the virus has exploited our weaknesses. We each bear primary responsibility for our own behaviour. But when you combine social engagement in a population  accustomed to instant gratification with a highly transmittable disease and creaking healthcare, disaster is only around the corner. We are merely lucky that this virus is less lethal than SARS or MERS.

Promoting wellness is a long term strategy, unlikely to show visible results for years, maybe decades. There are few incentives in healthcare to encourage and reward wellness, or even to measure it. Until this changes, our options for treating chronic non-life-threatening illness will continue to be either symptom suppression (medication) or symptom removal (surgery).

This just isn't good enough.

What have been your experiences dealing with 'healthcare' providers? How do you measure the quality and value of your local health services? What do you feel they do well? do excellently? What might be improved?

Looking forward to your comments.

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The Very, Very Hungry Caterpillar

Without wanting to get into a deep discussion on the nature of evolution, it would be fair to say that a majority do not have a working knowledge of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life".

Many believe, or do not believe, "in" evolution - which is fine and fitting because it was above all else a Theory and not a statement of fact. So you can justifiably choose to accept and believe the thesis, or not.

The other characteristic of this Magnum Opus (literally, great work) is that it does not address the origin of species. Darwin's focus was on the means by which species become differentiated over time. He based his theory on his research and observations as it circumnavigated the globe on the Beagle (1831-36).

While he collected substantial evidence of the "evolution" of species, he did not present any evidence of there being a common root to life. To this day, no such evidence has been presented that would answer the question of how species came to be in the first place.

[If you are interested in a human centered focus on Consciousness and Darwin, I heartily recommend Daniel C. Dennett's "Consciousness Explained (1992) and his "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" (1995).]

All this came to mind as I floated around Facebook - today's font of knowledge, the holy grail of ephemeral illumination. I came across a quote from Trina Paulus' Hope for the Flowers:

"“How does one become a butterfly?' she asked pensively. 'You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.'
'You mean to die?' asked Yellow, remembering the three who fell out of the sky.
'Yes and No,' he answered. 'What looks like you will die, but what's really you will still live.”

Now, I've nothing against Facebook, per se, and certainly nothing against Trina Paulus. And perish the thought I'd have it in for the caterpillar - my children were, like millions more, enthralled and delighted by the adventures of the "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle.

It's just that the caterpillar has no choice - it's dissolve or die. (I recall being fascinated listening to a description of what happens chemically as the grub metamorphoses into a butterfly - it literally dissolves into a fluid out of which the new body is constructed!)

Human's, by contrast, do not metamorphose. You die essentially the same creature as you were born.

Now it's true that we adapt - and do so exceedingly well.

Too well, some would say. If "man" were less adept at colonizing the earth, we might not be at this environmental juncture.

Good nutrition and better healthcare together increase lifespan.

Feeding on animal produce, especially large vegetarian animals like cows and pigs has a knock on effect on height and mass. It's no accident that "Westeners" who feed heavily on dense beef, pork and dairy products are bigger and bulkier that Eastern peoples who eat a largely vegetarian diet.

Our ability to make tools and clothing means no part of the globe is safe and our skin, the largest organ of all, is spectacularly well adapted for light and heat.

But what I'm most concerned with today is this idea that we evolve as beings - in consciousness and spirit. If this is true (and I don't believe it is) I am justified in asking into what shall I evolve? And what evidence is there of this?

I prefer to think in terms of unfolding, rather than evolving. I believe I am whole, not missing anything. Allowing myself to unfold is the optimum choice. Denying my unfolding of that which is enfolded simply delays my state but has no impact on who and what I really am.

I wasn't brought up this way. Unfortunately, my family was Roman Catholic and I was indoctrinated into a seething, rancid cult of self-hatred, self-condemnation, self-damnation with no prospect of salvation or redemption. And all before I was ten!

But I recall very clearly the first time in my adult life I experienced my Self. It was an autumn day in 1994 and it felt like coming Home. I knew in that moment that "I" was safe, was unharmed and unthreatened. Despite everything I feared and dreaded, under it all, I knew I was ok.

And the years since then have been a wonderful and painful journey, uncovering my "programming", discovering my courage, and also - too often - giving in to my fears, my drive to be liked, my fear of rejection and ridicule, my need to be important, to matter.

And I know I am not a caterpillar - there is nothing else I need to become to be ME. If I want to experience me, all I need to do is stop being someone or something else.

That is hard.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Link

Sometimes finding a customer can be a bit like solving a crime. The detective starts with a crime or suspected crime and possibly a crime scene. The entrepreneur starts with a product and/or service that solves a need and possibly a market where people with that need congregate.

 

Sherlock Holmes sifts the details for clues and his main job at this stage is to eliminate everything not relevant to the case and retain everything that is. The sales prospecting process is designed to identify potential buyers or have prospects identify themselves.

At completion of this stage, the detective has a collection of clues and a list of possible suspects. The entrepreneur has a list of leads.

In the discovery phase, our sleuth focuses on matching clues to facts and candidates, sorting truth from lies, verifying alibis, looking to eliminate non-viable suspects and narrow down the list down to only those who had motive, means and opportunity.

Our sales superstar works on qualifying the leads, narrowing the field down to prospects who have a need/desire for what's on offer, who can buy now and who have the means (money).

At this point each of our two heroes has a smaller, highly qualified pool of suspects/prospects and the challenge is to pick the right one.

The consequences in the criminal case may be far reaching - accusing the correct suspect and presenting enough evidence to support an arrest and charge may take the criminal off the streets, prevent further crimes and protect the innocent from further hurt and harm. Making the wrong choice can have life altering negative consequences for the wrongly accused, may leave the real culprit free to commit more crimes and expose the innocent to more injury and damage. And may damage or end the gumshoe's career.

The commercial ramifications are unlikely to be so dramatic but may be equally profound. Making the right offer to the right prospect at the right time can transform the business and life of both buyer and seller. Getting it wrong can be equally transformative in a negative direction. More usually though getting it wrong means not making the sale or making a sale that isn't profitable.

It is tempting to jump to conclusions about why something succeeds or fails. We do this all the time. I was looking at a client's customer profile and saw that 75%+ were international and more than 60% of the rest were national, non-local. The reason I was told was lack of local interest.

So I went around the local town, just talking to people on the street, in shops and in cafés/restaurants. Asking were they aware of this business, did they know what they offered, had they ever gone there/been a customer, what they thought if they did. And if they hadn't been a customer, why not. The most common answer I got was people didn't go there because they "never answer the phone".

Back with my client I shared my findings and we made some small changes, the first of which was the landline was diverted to mobile and that cellphone was carried at all times by the manager was on duty.

This led to an increase in local business. Which then drove development of new products and services specifically for that market. Within 2 years, sales to local customers had increased by more than 500%. But it didn't stop there - national non-local business also grew very strongly, simply because while the core offering hadn't changed substantially, the overall offering was attractive to a much wider audience with broader interests.

One of my traits that some people love and some hate is I do my homework. Clients tend to love it, even when it's extremely uncomfortable for them because I ask deep, probing questions and am relentless.

Lazy people, and those who don't know their onions, aren't so keen - for exactly the same reasons.

It pays to do your homework. If you're considering getting into something, doing your research and due diligence can only help. Sometimes it can even save you from disaster.

If you're already involved in something that isn't working out the way you thought it should or would, testing and validating your assumptions goes a long way and can save you from going down the right road.

We often ascribe big effects to big causes when it's just a likely that a very small action can have enormous consequences. The domino effect demonstrates that a single domino holds enough potential energy to knock over another one 1.5 times as tall as it falls - line up 11 and the final one could be almost 58 times the height of the first! The Pareto Principle teaches us that a majority of effects can be rooted in a small minority of causes.

Sherlock Holmes solved the case in The Hound of the Baskervilles because he reasoned that if the facts as presented were true, the hound should have barked. Because it didn't, he knew the 'facts' were deficient.  - turning Silence into Sales. So next time you're inclined to start or change something, pause a moment and ask yourself, do I have the necessary facts to support a decision? Am I missing something that should be here? Or am I jumping to conclusions?

What do you think? Comment below if you agree...or disagree.

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Fight, Flee or Freeze

I always knew that it wasn't just fight or flight. Knew it in my bones. And found it impossible to identify with that binary choice.

Because my default response was freeze.

I was familiar with the concept of the lamped rabbit/deer in the headlights phenomenon but never related it to my own experience.

Then I saw a diagram that crystallised all this for me and the proverbial scales fell from my eyes.

Fight, Flight & Freeze

There are now major therapies centred on stimulation of the vagus nerve to address and relieve PTSD and other chronic trauma conditions.

I believe my response originated in early childhood - I learned early that fighting didn't work and fleeing wasn't possible. So I became an expert at freezing - mentally, physically and emotionally. I would sit in a room, someone could come in, look around and not see me. They could even look right 'at' me, and still not see me. I could lie so still in bed, you'd never know there was anyone in it. I was brilliant at the hiding part of hide and seek. I was pretty good at the finding part too, because I knew how and where to hide.

Mentally, I learned to remove myself from my environment to a better one. I was a voracious reader and developed a powerful imagination. I also became good at choosing which thoughts I would entertain and which to ignore. When I was in my own little world, nothing could touch me - I wasn't even aware of what was going on around me.

Feelings were dangerous - joy was high risk. I knew and dreaded the moment it ended in tears, as it usually did. Anger was no use against a more powerful force, so I practiced that mostly against myself. Sadness and grief were overwhelming. The viable alternative was numbness, zoning out.

I loved animals and felt a deep sympathy for them, treated them well, protected them. But to people, I was cruel and hurtful and, as I grew up, assembled an arsenal of tactics and weapons to keep the world at bay and keep a lid on my inner volcanoes. I became sharp witted and sharp tongued - could cut you to the bone with just the 'right' insult or sneer, a sarcastic comment. Sometimes just a look would do it.

Although as an adult I learned alternative and better strategies, now in my late fifties I see I'm still rooted in that fetid soil.

We love to think that we're happily perched atop Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, busily expressing our self actualization. The grubby truth is that more often than not, it's a matter of survival. The prime directive is endure. On that foundation is everything else built.

Some people ask me why I'm writing about things like this and what's it got to do with business anyway? Well....

It's like this. Business is just another way of spelling/saying busyness. It what people do when they're being busy.

Commerce is when you're busy exchanging goods and/or services for money (or other value).  Or engaged in activity that supports commercial objectives.

Learning is when you're busy teaching yourself or being taught something.

Loving is when you're busy being real and seeing the real in others.

In Luke 2:49 Jesus chastises his disciples "And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?"

In other words - why did you disturb me? Did you not know I was busy? And none of us think God is a captain of industry.

Now I know what they really mean is Commerce, and that's ok (I just wanted to make a point).

Commerce is the exchange of valuable goods and services for valuable consideration.

Good commerce is when the parties surrender items of lower value for items of higher value (from their perspective). When I'm hungry, food has higher value than money (within the limits I define). When my belly is full, money probably is back to having high value.

So Value is a personal thing. It cannot be defined independently of the person holding the idea.

Commerce is essentially Personal and conducted between People. Not between machines, or assets, or corporations. Or between resources or capital (human or otherwise). No, between People. Commercial success depends on being able to empathise with and understand others. On appreciating their values. Maybe even sharing them (but not necessarily).

If you're struggling today with something life or the universe has thrown at you - be it coronavirus, losing your job or business, the illness or death of a loved one - or if you're grappling with the demons you've been carrying for what feels like an eternity and you're so, so, so tired - no matter what's going on with you, the fact that you're here at all is a triumph.

Where there's life, there's hope. Sometimes the right thing to do is to do nothing. Sometimes it's to fight, sometimes it's to flee. Sometimes it's to accept, even. Wayne Dyer advised that given a choice between doing what is right and being kind, the right thing to do is to be kind. So, can you be kind to the suffering? especially if that's yourself....

From a commercial standpoint, what value are you offering? What personal needs and wants does your product or service satisfy? Do you understand what it feels like to have, or even be in the grip of, these needs and wants? How does your offering transfer as value to your customer? How clearly do you articulate the benefits and convey the certainty that the value you offer is higher than the value of the money they have to surrender to get it?

Zig Ziglar famously said 'you can have anything you want in life if you help enough people get what they want". A good place to start is with what they want, why they want it, what they actually need and then how to give them both what they want and what they need.

If you've enjoyed or been touched by this piece, I'd love to hear your comments..

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Make It Happen!

The first day of Spring. New shoots, new ideas, new paths to explore.

Winter is traditionally the time for taking stock, reviewing and assessing the year just ending and making plans for the coming year.

Spring is action time.

Unfortunately, honest review and pragmatic planning are more observed in the breach than practiced.

The larger a business becomes, the higher the probability that senior management are isolated from what's happening on the ground and insulated against direct contact with their general workforce.

The further an organisation is positioned from commercial reality, the lower the probability that senior management understand the day to day business.

For contrast, consider a public sector entity with 30,000 employees, revenue of $4 billion, and annual deficits (i.e. losses) vs. a private company in the same sector with 13,000 employees, revenue of $3.7 billion and EBIDTA of over $550 million.

Ineffective boards vacillate, even when presented with simple clear cut choices, because they lack basic knowledge of the mechanics of the business and are often paralyzed by their fear of getting it wrong, or falling out of favour.

Isolated, insulated managers are a liability in any company and often compound this with 'group-think' where the only ideas they entertain come from within their cadre, or from sycophants.

It is common for hundreds, even thousands, of hours to be invested in preparing "strategic" plans that no one reads or understands, that are totally divorced from the realities of the business and its position in its market, and whose sole real purpose is to enable the continued employment of its authors.

I spent an entire weekend once on a retreat with 200 senior executives in a luxury resort where we talked about (notice - talked about) lean and agile principles and transforming service delivery by reducing "friction" and focusing on the highest quality of customer service. Which all sounds great. But...

The same organisation required 14 signatures to dispose of a chair. And was paying $100,000 a month to store old and damaged furniture, obsolete plant and equipment, as well as fixtures and fittings ripped out when facilities were refurbished.

Another paid over $10 million for a costing system, yet 5 years later still hadn't started to use it. To make matters worse, despite spending another $10 million and more on implementation fees over the next 4 years, it still didn't have a functioning system.

This same body managed to spend $15 million on a project with an approved budget of under $1 million.

I could go on, and on but you get my point.

How does this help you?

Remember, seniority in rank doesn't guarantee wisdom. Same goes for seniority in years.

Question the position, perspective and prejudices of everyone involved in your business.

Self-interest trumps company interests. Always.

The surest way to advance your corporate agenda is to sell your vision of the future to your stakeholders.

You don't need a big committee and a 500 page strategy document for that. You don't even need 1 page.

What you do need is a clear picture of where you're going, why you're going there and why your audience should come with you.

You will tailor your message for each specific audience - staff, managers, customers, suppliers, bankers, regulators, etc.

But the core message remains the same - this is where we're going, this is why we're going there, we'd like you to join us / stay with us.

Once you know that, the rest is straightforward - figuring out what you need to get or change to bring you there, getting the resources, making the changes and moving forward.

If you and your board can't get that down pat in under an hour, THAT's where you start...

Have you any experiences like these? Or thoughts on the topic? Let me know in the comments below.

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Down And Out In Paris and London

I've loved George Orwell's 1933 autobiographical novel about his experiences in Paris and London, right from the time I first read it at 16 years old.

Little did I suspect that within a few short years, I would be in a similar and then worse situation in London and Dublin. That was 1981-84 and I was on a downward spiral of alcohol and drug abuse, unemployed and unemployable, moving from squat to squat, living in squalor with people in the same desperate situation.

But that's not what this piece is about.

I'll keep those stories for other days - how the guy who broke into Buckingham Palace and into the Queen's bedroom not once, but twice, crashed on our floor - how I arrived in Heathrow Airport on the same day Bobby Sands died and spent nearly 5 hours being "interviewed" by police - how Maggie Thatcher who despised "society" was busy dismantling the up till then cherished welfare state while 3 million were on the dole - how I woke up shortly after 7 am one morning to the sound of anti-terrorist police raiding our house, breaking in through the front and back door, and down through the roof and how I lay on my mattress with 2 heavily armed men standing over me, guns pointed - down! down! stay down! don't you f***ing move!

But yes, that's for another day.

Now, January is almost over. Winter is half-way done. The days here are getting longer but the temperatures are still low and I hear we're in for more snow.

Today let's talk about how little has changed in the almost 232 years since the Civil War better known as the French Revolution of 1789-99

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

This opening chapter of Dickens' 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, set in Paris and London at the time of the French Revolution, is compelling and powerful. And it could easily have been written about 2020-21.

The pandemic has changed the world. Online business is booming. Delivery services are making money hand over fist. Traditional personal contact industries are suffering. For everyone who's winning, there's a corresponding person who is struggling.

Sometime in the most recent, or next, 24 hours we will cross the threshold of 200,000,000 coronavirus cases and 2,200,000 deaths. Who knows when, or if, things will return to normal? I think instead we're going to have to adjust to what will be a new normal.

In any society, 5% game the system. They push the envelope, find loopholes. They exploit everything to their own advantage. A tiny proportion of these are outright criminals - their illegal activities are the result of deliberate and considered choices to operate and live that way.

It is tempting to fall into cynicism, especially when we see the 1%. The 1% that always seem to measure, judge and respond to everything based on the What's-In-It-For-Me principle. Some of them ignore the problem, some accentuate it -it's not what they do that's important, but why they do it. We all know examples of man's inhumanity to man - emotionally tone deaf rules and responses to the suffering of the old, the poor, the powerless.

Because this 1% are highly visible, it's easy to misapprehend what's really going on. We should remember they are the tiny minority.

The 99% are silent and invisible so it's easy to assume they're not there, or not doing active. But we each know many examples of the triumph of Community - that sense of humanity and togetherness that compels us to reach out and help our neighbor.

Nurses, doctors, paramedics, and an entire human healthcare system going above and beyond to save lives and restore health. These same people getting sick and dying in the course of treating the sick, caring for the elderly, comforting the poor. Ambulance drivers, firefighters, police, first responders of every type putting themselves and their lives on the line day in, day out come what may.

It is sad that community and society are negatively associated with the -isms derived from them. Communism should reflect a valuing of community. Instead, it was used as a vehicle for autocracy. Socialism should reflect the importance of remembering that we are social animals, that we need society. Instead, it became sheep's clothing under which the wolves of fascism and totalitarianism lurked and lured otherwise decent people into the depths of inhumanity.

Two of my recent articles focused on Donald Trump, the world's most visible recent example of how close to the edge normality can come in the thrall of a leader with autocratic ambitions. And how easily it happens.

The social order is fragile and danger is never far away. If you doubt this, cast your mind back to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 - a city devastated, 1,800 dead and anarchy on the streets within days.

Will we ever learn?

Did you enjoy this piece? Leave me a comment below...

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