Theory of Business Complexity

The father of computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing, created a theory of computation which describes the limitations and capabilities of any computers we can imagine.

Turing’s theory, dumbed down to a basic of rule of thumb, tells us computing power is limited by only three things. These three things are also, I think, the limitations of human ability.

Consider that humans are essentially extraordinary computers. What we call “computers”, after all, are merely tools we have made to replicate facets of human behavior. Therefore, Turing’s limitations of computers applies to human brain power as well.

As a leader in your organization (or just as a leader in your life), these are the same three limitations you face against any complex problem. Here they are:

1.  Size. An easy way to think about this is to compare us to, let’s say, chickens. Why can’t chickens solve problems like transportation, communication, and space travel? Well, one obvious reason is they simply do not have the brain capacity. They are simply maxed out on storage space and memory. If their brains were big enough, though, they would have the capacity to know anything.

As humans, we have an abundance of capacity. Our brains are big enough to understand the mathematics of the universe and still leave room for remembering where our car keys are (most of the time).

Is the size of your team or organization large enough to handle the problem(s) you are facing? Do you have far more capacity than you can use?

2.  Speed. Chickens simply can not compute as fast as humans. If they could, they would be able to outsmart us (assuming they had enough capacity for planning), and perhaps even overthrow us as kings of the Animal Kingdom.

The reason a computer can outsmart a person when playing chess, is not a size issue. The human has the storage space in her head to know all possible moves and think through them accordingly. The obstacle is speed. A computer can calculate those possible moves in a fraction of the time a human can. Given enough time, a human can (and does) beat a computer at chess.

Does your team have the resources needed to move fast? How much of your return on investment goes back into improving training and providing better tools? Are you allowing your team the flexibility, trust, and authority to make decisions quickly, without you as the middle man? How can you go faster?

3.  Society. Actually, the word I want to use here is “culture”, but “society” keeps the alliteration with the “s” sounds. Nonetheless, think about the society chickens surround each other in. It is not a social norm or cultural expectation for them to develop their brains or think about complex problems. Chickens did not create fire or invent the wheel because chickens have not evolved a culture of learning, of problem solving, tinkering, or exercising creativity.

What is the society or culture of your company or team? Do you have a culture that embraces creativity or stifles it? (If you are stifling it, then you are probably doing so by limiting the Size or Speed of your team.) Do you have a culture of problem-solving, tinkering, and trying new ideas?


Turing came up with his theory of computational scalability in the 1930’s. The concept remains useful and relevant close to a hundred years later and in areas he probably never thought about it.

When facing what seems to be an insurmountable problem, take a step back from the issue itself and look at the three things that are actually limiting you from solving it: Size, Speed, and Society. If you focus on the underlying problems of capacity, timeliness, and culture (size, speed, and society), then you just might be able to solve any problem you come across.

I’d like to share more about this but my tablet’s battery is running low, I’ve got to hurry to another appointment, and my pets are looking at me like I spend too much time writing.

Size, Speed, Society.


Finish Last, Not First


Last week I wrote about the importance of starting first. Many people fail simply because they fail to start.

Another way to fail is to finish before the race is over. You know the story already… a product that was ahead of its time and faded away just before the market exploded (think Odeo before podcasts really took off, or Chrysler’s first electric car before Tesla and Toyota timed it right).

In business, the first one to the finish line is not necessarily the best. The one who takes time to hone their product or craft and takes the long route to ensure what they deliver is the absolute best wins time and time again.

While companies like Blackberry, Microsoft, and Palm were rushing to put more and more junk phones on the market, Apple took the time to re-envision what a portable phone could be and when they hit the market, they revolutionized it. The same is true of Netflix (CD’s and DVD’s by mail order already existed but Netflix took the time to get it right). The same is true of Amazon (there were lots of companies with online stores but Amazon took the time to build a faster shipping platform and better return process). The same is true of Starbucks (there were lots of ways to get good coffee but Starbucks took the time to perfect the experience of buying it).

If you want to go from forgettable to remarkable… start first, not last and finish last, not first.




3 Crucial Social Media Tips To Reach Customers

FaceBook, Google+, Twitter, and other social media platforms offer access to customers that has never before been so embraced, inviting, and ubiquitous. It is a shame to watch companies squander this opportunity every day, as I ignore post-after-boring-post on each of these social megaphones. Here are 3 ways (of many) to use Marketing Mojo and reach your raving fans, helping them spread the word about your mission or company:

1. Show some character. If you have a single person or a few people in charge of your social media, let their personalities come through. This is the biggest miss for most companies. I am not interested in a generic question-of-the-day or blanket boring statement about your product or service or a recipe I can look up myself. I want to know what you are thinking about or what you find funny or why I should buy from you or visit your store (hint: a blanket boring statement about your product is not a reason for me to visit your store, nor is a sale unless it is a remarkable one–sales happen all the time, everywhere–boring). Check out the subtle differences between these posts and see how the posts your company pushes align:

BAD: “Summer’s here! What’s your favorite ice cream?”

BETTER: “It’s 80 degrees out! Perfect for ice cream. John’s fave flavor is Rocky Road. What do you feel like today?”

BAD: “Big sale today! All widgets 15-50% off!”

BETTER: “I don’t know what I would do without my widget. When I remember something important while driving, I just use the voice memo button to make sure I don’t forget. How do you use your widget safely on the go?” (In the comments… “That’s a great use for it John! By the way, all widgets are on sale today at our ____ location!)

2. Interact. FaceBook, Google+, Instagram, Twitter, and others offer nearly perfect ways to interact both publicly and privately with your fans (your most important customers). If your profile is set-up not to allow incoming messages or posts to your page, etc., then you are insulting the trust and integrity of your fans. You are essentially saying, “Not only do I not want to hear from you because you might complain or have a question I do not want to be bothered with, but also I don’t trust any of you enough to believe you can be polite and respectful on my page. So screw off. Oh, and buy my widgets.”

3. Diversify or Simplify. Choose one social media platform and lock in on it. Make it THE place to see what is going with your company. Or, choose several platforms but be sure each one has something different to offer. Do not make your FaceBook post the same as your Tweet, your Snap, or your anything else. Let each platform showcase a different side of your personality. For example, use FaceBook to ask questions. Use Twitter to announce sales and share industry articles. Use Instagram to promote pictures of your product. Use SnapChat to highlight short videos of your team outings. You get the idea. Use One for All but don’t use All for One.


I’m not a big fan of posts about timely topics, such as social media, but I love to see great brands succeed. Hopefully these tips help.


Office Spaced

Today’s Lesson: If you want to innovate, invite the Weird.


Traditional office spaces suck.

Cubicle farms, desks with monitors, filing cabinets, pen cups, rolling desk chairs, grayish carpeting, etc… It is all designed to inculcate boredom and efficiency. At the same time, companies and leaders are chanting mantras of innovation, empowerment, work-life balance, transparency, etc…

These are opposing forces. Innovation does not come from maximizing efficiency and following cookie-cutter practices. Innovation is almost, by definition, messy and creative and sometimes a little destructive.

It is easy for leaders to say things like, “We want our employees to have fun and enjoy their work” but how would your top leaders react if your employees were truly embracing their creativity?

Look at your office space. Does it invite creativity? Your people might be weird but does their work space invite them to embrace their weirdness? Are they encouraged (through more than words) to pull forth the creative sides of themselves and blur the lines between “work” and “fun”?

For those companies still not ready to leave the office behind altogether and become a fluid, adaptable, remote work team operating more like a swarm than an old battleship, start by re-thinking your environment. What is weird about it? How can you encourage collaboration as creative play? How can you maximize people colliding (and thus ideas colliding) while also respecting quiet time and space for individual contemplation?

How can you make the “weird” normal and celebrate it?

Would it be weird if you walked by an office and saw a company vice-president sitting in lotus-pose on top of her desk, meditating?

Would it be weird if you were in a meeting where the notes and ideas were being jotted down in multi-colored crayons and pictures instead of words?

Would it be weird if two grown adults went running by your office after you heard someone shout, “Tag! You’re it!”

Would it be weird if you saw someone sprawled out on the floor, head on a pillow, taking a 15-minute nap in their office?

We do not associate any of those things to productivity but I challenge you to consider play, creativity, and rest to be the essence of productivity. The most innovative ideas of our time have not come from project management spreadsheets and TPS reports. They have come as flashes of insight, often in someone’s garage while they are tinkering, or as a result of a conversation in a bar, or having just awakened from a dream, or simply from quiet time in the bathroom (we all know we do some of our best stinking thinking there).

The obvious place to start encouraging the weird is in your office space itself. What would make your team excited to visit their work space each day? What can we do, as leaders, to have our team go home and talk about work and share their passion with their friends and on their social media (as opposed to sharing all the negative parts)?

Here are 3 easy ways to start. You certainly do not have to adopt this list but it might get your inner weirdness to perk up.

1. Look at the obvious and already successful model for inviting productivity and collaboration: Starbucks (or any local coffee-house). Starbucks is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think “weird” but it was the very fact that they were weird that made them famous. A coffee-house is weird in a good way. It has an open floor plan with often kitschy or eccentric local art and decor that invites conversation.

A coffee-house is a central place where people gather and chat while also working. There are tabletops of varying sizes for both group and individual work, couches centered around coffee tables, mellow upbeat music, coffee, tea, wi-fi, and plenty of places to both plug-in and unplug, not to mention outdoor seating. How many of your team members would appreciate some outside time on a warm, breezy day? With laptops, tablets, and smartphones at our disposal, why does work still happen in dreary, dark corners as if it is something shameful, to be hidden away from the light of day?

2. Replace leather office chairs and fake mahogany tables in conference rooms with end tables surrounded by bean bag chairs and Indian-style sitting pillows. Make sure each chair is a different color or type than the rest. If sitting on the floor is too icky for you, then go with high top tables and bar stools. Just get away from looking like a bunch of lawyers discussing politics.

3. If removing most office walls is out of the budget, consider painting them different colors. Have a red wall, a blue wall, a yellow wall. Splash other colors on them. Encourage your team to write their favorite lines of lyrics or poetry on the walls or paint pictures on them if they are artistically inclined. Free, local art! Create an environment both your team and your clients will go home talking about.

There are plenty of ways to make work better for everyone. Go nuts with embracing the weirdness secretly residing in your people, begging to be let out.

Make a nap room full of nothing but big durable pillows.

Make sure there are chairs, pencils, crayons, and swaths of paper or writing boards in the hallways for spontaneous meetings.

Instead of motivational posters, decorate the halls with dry erase boards to capture ideas or share stories as people walk by.

Play games. Instead of a project update meeting every Monday morning, how about a board game meeting every Monday morning?

Make your office pet friendly. How many employees would love to bring their dogs or cats to work? It is definitely a hassle but worth the joy on most faces when the pets come to visit their area (those who are allergic can avoid the pets or be told upfront that the office is pet friendly, or they can work outside).


You get the idea.

If you want innovation, start by inviting the space to be innovative. If you want boring, predictable, drab, mediocre results, then by all means make your business look like every other business… and you will be just like them.



Today’s Lesson: Old Rules Don’t Apply [140904]

With the advent of the internet, social media, crowd-sourcing, and mobile technology, there are more innovative ways to do business now than slow-moving regulators can keep up with.

It is both humorous and frustrating to watch traditionalists resist change. New York City, once known as the hub of business and innovation, now fights new ideas like Airbnb, a service that enables you to travel the world by letting strangers rent spare rooms or couches to would-be jet-setters. The same is true for Lyft and Uber–two services that allow people to rent their cars when not in use. EatWith, another popular service that links up foodies with meals so authentic they are cooked at the chef’s house, is also facing pushback from state regulators.

How do we know the meals are safe (how do you know they are safe at a restaurant…and if your answer is “regulation”, then how do you explain the many cases of food poisoning?)? How do we know people won’t rent rooms for prostitution or to sell drugs (what stops them now?)?

The old rules don’t apply anymore and regulators need to step out-of-the-way or learn to move with innovation and technology instead of trying to stifle it. Being afraid of change is natural and understandable but letting fear cripple you is not healthy. Business is no longer big, bulky, and easy to control. It’s micro-sized and nimble now. It’s Etsy, Pinterest, Kickstarter, and Bitcoin. It is simultaneously local and global, it is a connection economy, and it is growing no matter what.

So today’s lesson is: the way we do business is changing fast. How can we leverage the tools and power of technology, social media, and crowdsourcing to make our lives better and our businesses profitable for the foreseeable future?


Today’s Lesson: The Zen of Success [140829]

I am proud to have a team that regularly outperforms teams double its size in arguably better markets with more tenured staff. My team performs at a high level regardless of moving targets, staffing adjustments, market changes, or customer traffic patterns. I attribute much of our success to two things, and I was reminded of these today while speaking to a peer: Patience and Persistence. Here is how it works:

Patience: I distill information. It is rare for me to make a decision without analyzing available data and asking for input from my team leaders. Even when I am not directing a team, this is true. For example, I read lots of books on leadership but I throw most of the information out. It is not all relevant to my style of leadership and some of it is plain bad (one popular example is the idea of “servant leadership“–an oxymoron that makes great copy but is meritless as an actual principle). When a directive is delivered to me, I do not necessarily pass it on to my team untarnished. I examine the core value of the message, decide if it is right for us and how the team can best ingest it, and then act in alignment with our team values.

An easy way to kill team effectiveness is by delivering conflicting messages. That is why it is important to be a filter for the information coming in. I once worked for a company that had, as one of its core values, “Empower employees” yet required employees to complete a requisition form for the most basic office supplies, even Paper Mate cheap ball point pens–if you wanted one, you were “empowered” to fill out a form. Of course, the irony of that was lost on no one… except the head of HR.

Persistence: I take the long view. I have learned that everybody wants something and they want it now but that is almost never a path to sustainable success. In personal affairs or in business, we deal with agendas. Family, friends, coworkers, bosses, vendors, television news anchors, brands, even our pets have an agenda and they all want you to follow theirs.

Instead, I stick to my team’s agenda, deliver the results we are focused on despite distractions and requests coming at us (distill the information), and ensure we are operating within our team values and principles. If we understand the overall mission we have been charged with (which is usually closer to “grow the business” than it is to “we need to sell more widgets now, now, now!”), then it is easier to quiet the noise, take the long view, and follow our agenda.

In a more than 20-year old company, my team has quietly become the fifth most consistent performing team in only 3 years and we continue a quiet but steady rise. Sometimes we are recognized but usually we don’t make big splashes; we just continue to do well and try to improve day by day. We never seek magic bullets and we do not compromise our team values of Integrity, Honesty, and Trust.

If there is a secret Leadership club where all the popular leadership skills are passed out to every author basically re-writing the same book, I was not invited. I have figured out a few things, though, by simply being persistent and patient. It takes persistence to seek information, edit what does not fit and find those little nuggets that change everything. It takes patience to walk, not run, when others are screaming “fire!” and you know that keeping your team on task sometimes is the task.

Whether in business or personal success, I can tell you patience and persistence always pay off.



Today The Lesson I Learned Is… How To Run A Business (140719)

I was listening to an episode of the James Altucher show and he shared a story about the sitcom Arrested Development. It turns out that show was so successful that it won six Emmy awards and is generally considered one of the best comedy shows of all time (I missed it; I have never seen an episode but will check it out!). Yet, it was canceled after only three seasons.

As James tells it, the show’s success, and the success of most of HBO’s current shows comes from a unique approach to creating these shows: intense focus on the talent. All of the actors on Arrested Development, for example, were professional comedians and the writers wrote for the talent rather than for the executives at Fox who produced the show. Because of this choice, there was a running joke that the head writer never really moved into his office. He was certain the show would be canceled after every episode.

Finally, he was right, but the important part of the story is why Fox canceled the show. For the most part, the producers left everyone on the show to do whatever they wanted during the first season. After Arrested Development won its first Emmy, however, the executives at Fox stepped in to “fix” one of the best shows on television. You see, after all the accolades and attention, there were suddenly conversations that centered around the idea that “now that people are watching, let’s be sure we are not doing anything to mess this up, no more experimenting or taking chances; it’s too important now.”

The show quickly fell apart and only lasted another season and a half (until it was picked up by Netflix several years later for a fourth season). How do you “fix” a show that is already winning awards and gaining an audience? The people in charge thought the smartest thing to do was to take a show receiving incredible critical acclaim and strip it of everything that was making it work…

The bottom line is this: if you want to run a successful company (or team, or project, or anything), then here is how you do it:

Hire talented people and give them whatever they want.

The failure of companies, teams, and projects begins when we forget why we hire people in the first place: to make it better. When we remove trust and barricade talent in policies and traditions, we take away their ability to do the thing we tasked them to do.

How many times have you or your company failed to meet goals because you failed to allow the talent to be talented? How many ideas were rejected this year (or never brought to the table) because of fear of rejection, retaliation, or refusal to try something new? The irony, of course, is nearly every company touts the need to embrace change, revel in ambiguity, and leverage innovation to create success. Of course, reality looks about as far from the truth as the Cowardly Lion looks from Superman.

One more hat tip to James Altucher for the poignant advice: If you want to be successful, then hire talented people and let them run. Give them whatever they want. Free and trust your most talented players to be talented and see what kind of crazy, magical, and yes, even scary, things start to happen.



Manage To The Exception(al)


How often does your company manage to the exception instead of to the exceptional?

You can probably point to the high performers in your organization who contribute more than their share in terms of commitment, execution of skills, and willingness to be innovative, creative, or just downright awesome. They are the people you know you can set free with few instructions and expect a great return on investment (both personal and financial). They are exceptional.

You also have people who seem like the antidote to high performance. They lag behind like an anchor pulling the team down and, although they might be fine people, they either do not understand company values or instructions, or simply do not care. They are the exceptions to the exceptional.

As leaders or business owners, it is up to us to help the exceptional flourish. Yet I see companies harangue themselves with overly complicated policies and standard operating procedures enforced upon every team member in the name of fairness but really only designed to manage the exceptions. I have worked for and with a few companies, for example, that provide employees with laptop computers but forbid the use of laptops outside the office. Or IT departments that, in the name of security, lock down computers so tightly that high performers are actively prevented from doing their best or coming up with creative or collaborative solutions (if your employees can not instant message each other, please step out of 1950–I promise, it is not that bad out here).

There are  many other examples, from the use of technology all the way down to my favorite whipping post–the corporate dress code. If your dress code consists of more than the two words, “Dress sensibly”, then you are doing it wrong. Of course, you will have the one or two people who do not get it and will come in to work wearing hot pants or a track suit, but 99% of your people will get it right. Manage to the 99% instead of to the 1%. Have conversations with the exceptions, explain what “Dress sensibly” means to you, and move on (or move them on if they are never going to get it). In retail sales, for example, neither a tie nor a clown outfit makes you better at delivering the right experience to a customer. If a customer can not distinguish the employees from other customers, the problem is not with the dress code. It is more likely that you have not done a good job teaching employees to greet customers and identify themselves.

Try something crazy: instead of managing your team of adults as if they were a team of infants, manage them as if they are intelligent, professional adults. Instead of deluging your team with step-by-step-by-step-by-step instructions and giving them vague goals to achieve (make more stuff, deliver better customer service, do things differently than our competition, etc.), flip it around. Provide clear and concise goals with vague instructions so your exceptional performers can create solutions and be free to perform. Maybe that sounds like, “Team, our goal is to sell 1,000 widgets this month”, or “Our goal is to delight our frequent customers and have 100 of them refer a friend or family member this month”, or “The competition is dropping their price in half this week; we can not match it but our goal is to create 40 new customers just the same–what can we offer that our competition can not touch?”

Your exceptional people do not need details on what to wear or how to complete a report. They need to know what their mission is in concrete terms. They need a target and the right tools to hit the target. They need to be free to be exceptional.

Please don’t make exceptions to that.





Everything You Need to Know About a Business is in the Toilet.

When I was a teen, I spent a lot of time at our family restaurant, “Mikey’s” (named after my grandfather). I mostly got in the way of my uncle Ahab, who ran the place, but I tried to help out by bussing tables, washing dishes, and generally asking too many questions.

Uncle Ahab was generous and patient, though. He taught me a great deal about business and marketing. One of the great insights he shared with me was this:

“Everything you want to know about a business, you can find out by visiting the bathroom.”

The restroom holds all the secrets of how a business is run. Just by taking a peek at the loo, you can decide if a business is worth your time (and money) inside of fifteen seconds. With no more than a cursory glance:

  • You can see the importance placed on cleanliness and organization. Are there streaks, fingerprints, and soap spots caked on the mirror over the sink? Is the sink dirty or clean? How about the door? Dirty fingerprints over the area by the handle or clean, shiny edges?
  • You know how employees are treated. I am a firm believer if you take care of your employees then they will take care of your customers and the business. Employees who are treated well and trained well have a sense of pride in their work and the company’s mission. You can surely see this in the bathroom… the sink may be clean but how about the faucet and handles, the little things like the soap pump? Same for the light switch and cover plate—smudged with grime? The floor, especially by the urinal (if  a men’s restroom)… is it stained or does it look freshly mopped? What does the bathroom smell like…an outhouse or a clean, inviting area, welcoming customers to relax for a minute?
  • You can tell what the business thinks of its customers. How well the bathroom is cared for indicates what the business thinks of its customers. Are customers a nuisance—nothing more than a necessary source of revenue or does the bathroom seem like a space that respects and honors customers as family or special guests?
  • You know what other customers think of the business. A glimpse of the restroom can also tell you what other customers think about the business. Is there graffiti and profanity etched into the stalls or written on the walls? Does the graffiti look like it has been there a long time (another sign of what employees think about the business)? Patrons who respect a business or have a relationship with its employees will not likely muck up the restroom walls like members of an unruly gang.
  • You see what the business thinks of itself. A business that respects itself will not turn a blind eye to graffiti; they will clean it up as soon as it is noticed and ask themselves why someone thought so little of  the company. A business that has high self-esteem will not stand for dirty walls, floors, door handles, sinks, soap pumps, toilet areas, mirrors, or even toilet seats. Is there enough lighting? Is there dust caking the lights, vents, and tops of mirrors or picture frames?

By the way, the picture for this post was taken at a restroom in Chicago’s Midway airport—the only airport I never mind visiting because every time I am there, the restrooms are spotless. Notice the high privacy walls, the generous space, the lack of dust on the vents; you can see your reflection in the floors and the toilet is clean enough to sit on without a paper barrier (but they still provide seat covers). The sinks and mirrors are equally well taken care of and the airport, in general, is clean, organized, and friendly. Other airports should take notes (but many won’t because they don’t care).

It may seem silly, but everything you want to know about a business you can find by visiting the restroom. To me, this is especially true at restaurants and not just because I have worked in the restaurant business. I figure if the restrooms are filthy or unkempt, I can expect the same treatment of my food. Uncle Ahab would only have one thing to say about that: “Check, please…”