Always Go Upstream

I played rugby, which commentators like to say is a ‘collision sport’. As a result of those collisions I spent quite a bit of time with the physiotherapist. Working with physios, the most amazing realization – and many of you will have experienced this – is when you tell them confidently where the problem is.

‘Yes it hurts there, just under the left shoulder blade, when I twist like this’…’ah! YEP. That’s it’.

They start doing their thing. Tracing back.

‘What about this? Hmmm. And now, what about if you try to touch your toes? OK, and now lift your arm and twist to me – what about here?’.

And suddenly – KABLAMMO – they prod a completely different part of your body – sometimes literally your butt not your shoulder, or your inside foot and not your lower back – and you are rewarded with a completely unexpected electric shock of pain.

Physios call this ‘referred pain’. And in these sobering moments you learn a few things:

Firstly, you don’t know shit about your own body. Secondly, physios are not only professional sadists – the experienced ones call on thousands of hours of practice, such that their work can feel more like magic than medicine. Thirdly, the actual cause of your issue will very often be in a completely different part of your body than where you experience it.

Just like our bodies, our teams, organizations and societies are organic, and are interconnected, complex systems. And often I find that – quite understandably – in work our focus is on the symptom that is most obviously present. The customer enquiries left unprocessed and unloved. The high turnover in a particular role or team. The lack of verve in some marketing copy. The failure again to restock a particular product two days before it runs out.

And the takeaway that I find useful today is that most of the time we’re fixing downstream issues. Consequences of something else. The ‘referred pain’. Symptoms, not causes.

As leaders, our job is to always be going upstream.

Like physios, we need to track back. Call on instinct and experience. To trust the curiosity and intelligence of our teams and ourselves and ask why the things happened that led to the particular issue that has presented itself today.

Downstream we can make quick fixes. Band aid the problem. Temporarily alleviate the pain. But it won’t go away.

If we don’t really go and do the work on the root cause, our body, team, organization or society may well cleverly reroute around it, patch things up, do the best that it can. (I have a left knee that doesn’t bend fully, a right forearm that won’t grip totally, a wonky shoulder that leaves me with a stiff neck sometimes – I function, but old unfixed injuries hold me back). Things can still function. 

It’s upstream that we’ll actually solve it.

It’s upstream that we can really amplify our impact by locating and fixing the issue at its cause, once and for all. It’s upstream that we can fundamentally reroute how resources are allocated and directed to unlock the best performance. It’s upstream that taking the time to be calm, deliberate and bigger picture will pay 10x, 100x or often 1,000x back over the coming weeks and years. So leadership – for me – is all about going upstream.

A sidenote to finish.

There’s another benefit to always going upstream. It takes us to interesting places. We learn more. We’ll end up speaking to interesting people about bigger opportunities in areas that are often ‘outside’ of our direct scope. Whether we’re fixing problems in a company we’ve lived in for many years or being recruited somewhere new, when we ask ourselves and the people we’re working with ‘OK, and why is this happening and where does it start?’ we open up a much bigger horizon of opportunity for them and for us.  And that’s not only good, it’s how interesting explorations and big adventures begin.

Always go upstream.

New things

Life is interesting now. I have many thoughts but no theme to wrap them up, so I’m going to slide them into this blog post, like pouring pebbles into a bucket. Feel free to look away.

Learning

I’m in my 12th month at Brandwatch, and I feel that I now fully understand the company, the market, the people, the dynamics. Obviously it hasn’t been linear – probably a nice s-curve – but it’s interesting to me how long it took. 12 months to nail it. As an aside, the company has doubled in staff size in that time.

(Knowing all of that how the company works stuff isn’t necessarily helpful. I feel the value of fresh eyes, when new people join us. As much as I’ve understood the status quo, I am now part of it too. Gotta watch that.)

I have loved taking services-side experiences and skills and using them inside an organisation. Especially having worked with so many different types of personality and spent time learning about listening / motivations / organisational culture etc. So for me the transition from external (consulting/agency) to internal (client-side) has been very rewarding. Seeing things through. Being at the heart of it. I love it. I don’t think I will want to go back to services, but never say never.

The only two things I miss from the type of work you do services-side are:

  • Winning deals – I am one step removed from our sales teams and their selling to clients, so that incredible adrenaline that I used to feed off has gone. There are lots of warm, fuzzy moments when we win, or launch great stuff, or see particularly sweet inbound enquiries from great organisations, but it’s less raw, less heart-racing. I miss that.
  • Space to be creative – I only noticed this recently, in two more creative, spacious conversations with team mates. And I realised how lacking we’ve been in our NYC office in places to draw (white walls, flip charts) and how rarely I’ve been in that mode. We can be very head down – there is so much to do. I can do more of this and plan to, now that I’ve noticed it, but also learned the business.

America

Still loving living and being in New York. We had a great summer (bloody hot, but unseasonably mild apparently – I shudder at the thoughts of ‘normal’).

My subway card swipe (no Oyster card here) still needs work. Really pisses me off. How can I consider myself settled before I can confidently swipe through with 99.9999% success?

Favourite moments are still where the melting pot blends ingredients that were just not available back in Brighton & Hove. Like taking the kids to the playground, and there being 5 or 6 families cooking BBQs for their kids parties, Puerto Rican music blaring out of proper sound systems, while I push the kids on the swings in the sunshine. Or seeing snakes and eagles on our summer holiday. The variety, the difference.

Some of my language has changed. I say apartment instead of flat, even to Brits. Elevator. Resumé. Soccer (I know). But not all. I say Surname. And said ‘trainers’ the other day – I’m never saying sneakers. It’s a non-negotiable. Mrs and kids have gone further: they say chips instead of crisps (this upsets me greatly). Accent-wise, I think I’m still largely unchanged. Some gentle rounding of Ts, maybe. Our eldest said ‘peanut budder’ the other day. Our youngest deliberately pronounces ‘wadder’ to make himself understood at school. Sweet.

Challenges

Perception – this is a bit abstract now, but I am becoming more and more fascinated by perception. It seems to be a central opportunity and challenge for us at Brandwatch, and principally for me given my role. And for anyone who has something they want to share with others. I can’t really explain all of it, but it’s about I suppose it gets called and relates to (but isn’t entirely about) Positioning, a lot. It’s a magical area. How people feel about a product, a company, a sector. I am looking forward to learning and playing in this area.

Face time – I spend the first 2/3rds of every day in Hangouts and on Skype calls, some one to one, many with multiple attendees. It is often a frustrating experience. This area is still so flawed, technologically, for consumers. What’s great is that I have found that strong relationships can continue to thrive through these channels, but really working through challenges when the relationships aren’t there yet or are suffering is very difficult. It’s also hard to contribute to important, dynamic conversations when the majority of a group are together in a physical space and one finds oneself the voice from the screen. A challenge. (And the reason that business travel continues, despite tech).

Time for writing – I write best in the morning. Morning is now when I catch up on 5 hours of the UK’s productivity (and to a lesser extent, 6 hours of Germany’s) and start jumping on video calls with people. I need to find a way to hack this. I enjoy writing and I know it is a great investment.

And those are the thoughts I’ve been carrying around with me.

BAD CLOUD

I’m starting to get a bit miffed with THE CLOUD.

I was on a flight, went to listen to some podcasts I subscribed to especially for time spent on trains, planes and automobiles, piped through a mini iPad bought especially for travelling, and yet none of the podcasts were available because the default setting is to stream them from the cloud.

Making various changes to my iTunes account has also resulted in my biggest commitment to Apple, my music library, first being uploaded to the cloud (iTunes Match) and then gradually disappearing from various devices. I got Genius support early on in the process, but one step after another it went wrong. Somewhere along the line I’ve overwritten the fullness of my previous library, and with it a chunk of my lock-in and goodwill with Apple.

Actually, what pissed me off the most wasn’t losing the back-catalogue of music, but losing my beloved favourites playlist, which had over 600 tracks that I’d manually rated as either 4 or 5 star. It was my go-to music resource, whether head down in some PowerPoint or post-pub kitchen-dancing at friend’s houses. The first transfer of music to the cloud and a new Macbook worked, but that tiny file of metadata was lost, and with it a slowly curated and highly personal compass that helped me find the best of my music. I would pay good money to get that playlist back. Not the tracks, just the listing.

And as I whittle down my inbox of several hundred emails flagged for reply or action, it gets to the point where the 100 or so left all contain links that point to the cloud – to Google Docs, to Soundcloud, or that need reference to my calendar (Google Apps) or just the straight good ol’ internet. I’m in an internet deadzone, thirty thousand feet above the Labrador Sea.

The cloud is great when you’re online, but it rather sucks when you’re not.

I’m not knocking the internet. I love the internet. It’s given me knowledge and connections and a job that I love. But there’s a utopian feel to how the cloud is described. It reminds me of part of Honor Harger’s utterly brilliant talk at Meaning 2013, where she talked about how the dreamy branding of the cloud belies its inherently physical nature of big ugly datacenters. A mesmirising and potent talk.

And I think what else is niggling is that some of the time that this disguises some of what is good for the vendor company than for the consumer. Like those irritating cards in hotel rooms proclaiming green credentials and asking the guest (quite rightly) not to drop towels on the floor unless they really want fresh ones, but pretending it’s all out of the good of their hearts. Why would my brand new mini iPad default to streaming podcasts? I can’t see how that benefits me.

What would help is simple. Better offline support for cloud-based platforms. Offline platforms that work intelligently and carefully deploy precious storage to maximize the chances of me being able to access what I want to. And more wifi everywhere. Good wifi, free wifi.

Then we can cherish the cloud more as we traipse around our busy lives down on the ground.

Thoughts on what’s next after the Twitter Gnip deal

Fun few weeks in the world of social analytics (or whatever you call it now – more of that ‘what do we even call this any more’ conversation another time).

Our partners in Boulder, Colorado Gnip got bought by Twitter, who we at Brandwatch also proudly partner with as a Twitter Certified Product.

Totally unexpected, totally logical. And in our little social data village, this is big news.

This makes complete sense – it continues Twitter’s strategy of buying up or clawing back control of the crucial elements of their ecosystem – buying Social TV companies like Bluefin Labs and Second Sync because TV is so crucial to them, buying TweetDeck for its high-rolling users, and this move buying their data-channel-to-market in Gnip.

If I remember correctly, Fred Wilson who had invested in Twitter and was at the time on the board, wrote back in 2010 that the company would consolidate and integrate the developments on its platform that were ‘hole-filling’. And Twitter did. This isn’t quite that, but it does feel to me like something very similar: integrating core assets that are strategically important.

So the deal is done, or at least announced, and while a lot of the detail is missing, from what we do know we feel positive about this. We know and love the Gnip guys, we recently announced our Premium API, of which part is driven by our partnership with Gnip. So far, so good.

The next question for most people was ‘what does this mean for DataSift, as Twitter’s only other data wholesaler?’. My view at the time was that is must’ve been a blow for them to hear, but that it could actually be good for them.

These were my thoughts that I chipped into an interesting management discussion – for me:

– Their major competitor has been effectively taken out of play (in the broader social data provision business).

– People in our market suddenly need someone else to solve their specialist data source problems

– So didn’t their potential customer base just expand and their competition lessen (outside of the Twitter piece)? My thought would be that this means that their data wholesaling business just got more attractive.

All speculation. And of course they have other paths open to them too that they may well prefer over data wholesaling.

By chance I saw Rob Bailey, DataSift CEO at an enjoyable Altimeter dinner last week, and he seemed happy. He’s saying that they’ve had an acceleration in enquiries and deals closing, which I believe.

Looking ahead it will be interesting to see what unfolds next with Gnip’s integration into Twitter, and with initiatives like Big Boulder.

But with the way this market is popping at the moment, it will also be interesting just to see what happens next. The action is so constant it’s like a soap opera at the moment, but with less douchebags and better acting 🙂

Which reminds me – Susan Etlinger said Silicon Valley is worth a watch. Happy viewing!

Observations in moving to NYC

We moved to Brooklyn from Brighton & Hove 17 days ago. These are my field notes.

Food, drink, etc.

  • I’ll start with food, because I always start with food.
  • The food is better than anything you can get in the UK, including London, by sheer quality, variety and how dense those options are. I don’t care what you say. This is a fact. 
  • Seamless is a mobile app that you can order takeout from – imagine two or three hundred 4 or 5 star options that will deliver to your home within 30-45 mins, stored in your phone with your card details. *PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING*.
  • Brisket.
  • For better or worse, much of the US culinary genius lies in blending salty and sweet. In cookies, with bacon and syrup, or whatever. If it’s sweet, they’ll make it salty. If it’s salty, you’ll get a sweet twist. 
  • Most things taste saltier here (tortilla chips, bread, peanut butter etc). Gotta watch that.
  • Buying food in shops is more expensive in general than in the UK
  • We found a good wine shop with reasonable prices (phew).
  • A pickleback is a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice. Love dem.
  • Smorgasburg – 60 food and drink independents selling their Ethiopian / organic fruit slushies / Donuts / Lobster Rolls, weekly on Saturdays in a small park by the East River. Weekly.
  • The peanut butter part of the aisle in the supermarket is impressive. PB FTW.

Culture and stuff.

  • New Yorkers are as obsessed with the weather as Brits. It’s brilliant! They love bitching and speculating and the whole damn weather thing. They do it well. We unite on this.
  • Related: knowing the location of things is a badge of honour for New Yorkers. “It’s on 14th and sixth”. “No, fifth”. “That’s right, 14th and fifth – they moved their last year”.
  • People talk on their mobile headphones as they walk more than they do in the UK. Jabbering away.
  • We think as Brits we know American celebrities (or I did), but of course we just know the top 10% – many conversations reference celebs I have never heard of. (I hope I retain this ignorance.)
  • Grilled cheese is Americanese for cheese on toast – for once*, we are more literal than them. (See: sidewalk).
  • When people don’t understand my accent, they react as if I am stupid. Like this: “HUH?!”. It happens about once every two days.
  • In NYC, no one cares about your fancy British accent. (SF, also).
  • On the other hand, colleagues tell me that if people hear you have a British accent, they assume you are smarter than you actually are. So it’s not remarked upon, but it gives you a little upgrade in the intellectual dept. Useful.
  • The Mrs has been saying ‘kinda’ way more than usual. Noticeable uptick. (Kids haven’t started school yet).
  • People are friendlier. It’s just a fact. And some of it is lip service, but most of it isn’t.
  • Walking around busy Manhattan is no different to walking around busy London – the whole tough New Yorkers thing is only really apparent when it comes to two things. Hailing cabs. And being a busy metropolitan person in brutal winter conditions.
  • A homeless guy, wrapped in many layers, apparently asleep on a bench in the subway, gave me correct directions when other commuters didn’t know the answer.
  • The Social Security office has been my only real perspective of the real, rest of American life. Grim.

Physical stuff

  • On his impressions of NYC, our oldest offered “on the one hand it’s big and scary, and on the other hand it’s safe and secure”. +1 to that.
  • Subway is quick and easy. Apparently the platforms get horrifically hot in summer (the carriages are AC).
  • Consumer electronics stuff seems much cheaper – from TVs to Apple gear.
  • IKEA Brooklyn is exactly like IKEA in Croydon. For better or worse.
  • Transition from (small ish) house to (large ish) apartment has not been claustrophobic as feared – in fact, to our surprise, it’s actually been quite liberating
  • On the liberating front, we await our cargo shipment not with eager anticipation but more the fear of an impending tidal wave of old junk we’ve been without for 6 months. Shipping companies should offer a ‘nuke it’ setting – push the button, they burn/eBay it. If you ever do this, make a clean break. 

 

Lifecycles, phases, obsessions

I’ve always been through real phases with things.

In recent times it has been mountain biking (no longer an obsession), CrossFit (current phase, but not the white hot obsession that it once was), looking further back, rugby, outdoorsy stuff.  I wrote the book in a kind of obsessive bursty way too: 3 months of disciplined writing, done and dusted from start to finish in 6 months. 

From a work point of view, it was marketing, then entrepreneurship, then digital, then social media, then culture and organisations. Now it’s my new role. I am noticing as I immerse myself. So is my wife.

These phases or cycles last different amounts of time. But the patterns are similar.

I devour everything on the topic. With mountain biking I subscribed to two magazines, read a forum daily, rode when I could, lovingly washed the bikes, took photos of them, ate and slept biking. It is obsessive. These things become ‘my thing’. It has been the same in work. When a world catches my interest, I immerse myself, I turn almost all of my available attention and energy to it. There’s both a learning energy and a doing energy.

Quite funny really.

Family and friends seem to be less cyclical, fortunately. But some of the people I love to be with the most are newer friends. That said, nothing compares to people I’ve known and who’ve known me for decades.

So for me, cycles are interesting.

It’s the winter solstice today (I just remembered, as I write). Another cycle, another turning point. In my work, I am seeing cycles and phases – as Brandwatch becomes a bigger company, with bigger international teams, moves into its next and most ambitious (yet) phase, as our market moves into a new phase, as I move into a new phase, as my team start a new cycle. We are all shifting.

These cycles are irresistable. They just are.

The best advice my mum gave us when we had our first child was that, now matter how rough things were at any time, to ‘remember that everything is a phase’. She was right. And not just about coping with new borns 🙂

Questions

Question 1:
What will it take for women to be equally represented in senior management, and do we think it will happen?

Was chatting with a senior exec of a company where there are many more women than men in the general workforce, yet in senior management there was an equal balance. Broadly in her industry this is true, with many CEO roles being held by men.

I have noticed this in both PR and publishing, and I expect other industries (retail?).

It looks like the ranks get thinned when the roles get bigger. And of course there’s maternity and choices influencing this but is that all? And what is the world of business losing through this lack of balance?

We talked about the usual stuff about some of the characteristics more often found in women that make them great leaders – achieving with people rather than over them, dialogue, willingness to share, emotional intelligence etc.

But the question is what will it take for these profound imbalances to change? And do we actually believe it will happen?

Question 2:
What is the environmental impact of obese people exercising more and eating healthier?

I know this is random. But I keep thinking about healthy living, obesity, health inequality here my home city of Brighton, CrossFit and how that helped me gain control of my body.

And I wondered, what would the net effect be, from a sustainability perspective, of many more obese people exercising more? Because morally it’s a no brainer if there are ways to help people be healthier and happier.

Crudely, we’d use less much resources in healthcare caring for all the consequences of obesity, but I’m imagining that people might eat more (?) to fuel exercise, certainly more unprocessed foods, and they’d also live longer so more years would need resourcing…

If we’re all healthier, do we finish up or down – globally – in terms of calories consumed?

Notes from SF

On a 7 day work-explore week in San Francisco this week. Speaking at a great event out here and feeling privilieged and grateful to my team for being able to be here.

What I done did so far:

  • Flying this way is weird – previous long haul to India and Thailand has taken me into time zones further ahead than GMT – flying into the past, into sunlight all the way as the British day reached 11.30 pm, was quite head-mashing
  • It’s raining and misty here 🙂
  • Walked to Pinecrest Diner and had a fantastic all-American breakfast – sat at the counter, which was fun
  • Then walked up Nob Hill – fucking massively steep in a fun way! – and dropped down into Chinatown, and then looped back to my hotel
  • Did some work, some Skype
  • Then walked up Mission trying to get Mission District – it got a bit rough and suddenly I felt like a proper tourist twat miles out of his depth
  • Ended up around Valencia and near Castro – LOVELY
  • Was hoping to hit La Taqueria but didn’t get that far so serendipitously popped into Super Duper Burger for THEBESTBURGEROFMYLIFE. Photo.
  • Walked back down Market to my hotel – nice couple of miles all in (on top of whatever this morning’s walk was) – with the calories I’m consuming I’m gonna need every bit of that.

Observations from a naive country boy:

  • BRAND USA – at customs they had screens up playing ‘aspirational’ lifestyle videos of cleanly scrubbed people living lives in the great American dreamworld; ambulances and fire engines look like they’ve been designed by toy designers; trucks and vans generally are super designed – this whole country (so far) just feels BRANDED, quite odd and interesting
  • Holy shit the roads are steep – would love to drive down some o’ them 🙂
  • There’s a LOT of homeless people about, much more than I expected – don’t know if this is me unable to filter out a different looking type of homeless person or whether SF actually has a lot of homeless people – wikipedia mention
  • The food is dangerously tasty
  • AUTOS – what’s up with the size of these cars and vans especially?! Monster trucks! One had ‘Fresh Air’ written on it, lulz. It does raise an interesting question though about USA’s ability to adapt in a changing fuel environment, or at least highlight how exaggerated things have been until now
  • Working in a different time zone to your team and clients creates a different kind of productivity – easier, perhaps, to batch tasks and not get sucked into a day of email and meeting zombie-ness
  • Money – all those dollar bills is a bit odd for me, plus it all looks the same, must be hard when one is pissed 🙂

That’s it so far. Fun, different.

Very good marketing outfits?

Question (from one of my business partners Pete Burden)

Can you tell me: if you were working in a big corporation or govt. organisation and you had a terrific totally new product that you thought was going to rock the world – a real game changer – not just a another washing powder to add to your already long list of cleaning and household products, which marketing agencies would you trust to help bring that to market in a stunning exciting way?

(Could be brand agency, could be advertising agency etc; but unlikely to be one of the big guys because this is so damn exciting that you wouldn’t trust one of the really big guys to do this in an exciting enough way…)
I didn’t have a particularly strong answer.
I said:
Really can’t think of anyone… 

I like people like Anomaly, Frog, IDEO and so on.
But they’re pretty established.
http://www.anomaly.com/
http://www.frogdesign.com/about/

The guy that created Gu (those chocalate puddings) used Big Fish.
http://www.bigfish.co.uk/

So I was wondering: who would you choose? Thanks in advance.