Drinking from the Firehose

“How’s the new role? Are you just drinking from the firehose?” asked my colleague yesterday.

It seemed a new and peculiarly American phrase to me but I knew exactly what she meant and the answer was an exhausted “yes”.

What does that mean?

Wiktionary gives a very simple definition

  1. (idiomatic) To be overwhelmed (with work, information, etc.); to be inundated with an uncapped, unfiltered amount

And it seems the term has been around for more than a decade, as it was picked up in a nicely nuanced way in this 2006 blog post.

Why am I drinking from the firehose?

I took on a new role in February, it’s more global, more strategic, and more fun. I’m now part of a US-based team, none of whom have met me. However I still have some projects to complete from my former EU-based role as I haven’t been replaced. So in the mornings I focus on the EU projects, and the afternoon I switch to the US projects, my agenda is getting crowded and my day is a bit stretched.

It’s cutting into my writing time – but it is temporary. I will be writing more regularly from June onwards as one of my projects finishes sometime in May. In the meantime, back to that firehose.

 

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Buzzwords

The most common post I’ve written in the last ten years has been about buzzwords. My work touches on business, communications and technology and those are fertile grounds for buzzword hunting. In each post I’ve attempted to find the word’s origins, and explain it’s current meaning. I confess I heard more buzzwords when I had an American boss but it’s not an exclusively American phenomenon and friends in Europe and Asia also suggest buzzwords for me to write about.

Some of the words I still hear regularly: Big Data, the Cloud and Socialising projects. In fact their use is growing, and I am rarely called upon to explain “the cloud” any more. Some have thankfully fallen from use, if they ever caught on at all: SoLoMo was a terrible term, and the situation it refers to is so normal that it no longer warrants a specific term.

To date I’ve written 74 posts on various buzzwords, and there seems to be no end in sight as more buzzwords are folded into my work environment every year. In fact it’s so common in the technical field there’s a term to describe wanting the latest feature – buzzword compliant, I’m sure it’s something everyone working in digital projects encounters.

Still haven’t had the courage to play buzzword bingo in a meeting. Let’s see how many buzzwords I discover in the next 10 years.

image: words 

First Mover Advantage

It sounds like something from flatmate hell, where the first person to move into a shared house gets the advantage of choosing the best room, or from sport where the racer first off the starting block has an advantage.

In fact this business term originated in the game of chess, where there is a slight statistical advantage for white who has the first move.

In the business world it has come to mean the advantage gained by the first significant company into a new market. Very often the “first move” has some transforming aspect to it, or combines two formerly separate products or services.

One commonly cited example is Netflix, a DVD rental service that outmanoeuvred the incumbent video rental giant Blockbuster. By developing a huge supply of DVDs, a fast delivery service, and a very simply business model that could be explained online Netflix could take over the market for DVD rentals in the US.

Apple are also often mentioned, although they did not develop MP3, and were not the first to think of portable music players (I had a Sony Walkman way back), they combined the two into a device that people would actually want to use, and developed an online delivery model, iTunes, that has left the rest of the music industry scrambling.

But the first mover advantage is not a guarantee of success, in many cases the first mover incurs expenses educating users, or on R&D, or on building infrastructure but competitors can move in easily before the real gains have been made.

Despite the risks it is something of the holy grail for business seeking to innovate into new space, so this term often pops up at marketing strategy meetings.

It doesn’t always work, just as in running a race where someone can trail the leader and make a last minute sprint to win the race. If I knew anything about sport I could point to examples. So instead a business example; Spotify is now the world leader in streaming music, but it wasn’t the first to come up with the service. It beat out early rivals Napster and Rhapsody by winning the war for user numbers by a factor of at least 20. In the platform economy user numbers are king, beating out profits as a predictor of success.

Sometimes being a smart follower is better than being a first mover – especially in a long race with significant headwind.

Image running

 

Upselling

Upselling is the practice of offering the customer a little more than their original purchase request. The most well-known example is probably the McDonald’s “would you like fries with that?”, in fact whatever you order at McDonald’s you’ll be offered one more thing – even if you’re ordering via a digital screen.

It’s a normal part of service in the US, but it’s less common here in the Netherlands, and there have been times here where I’d have welcomed a little upselling rather than trying to catch a waiter’s eye to order water.

But last week I had a sales experience where upselling almost lost them the sale. I wanted a small item, a nail buffer. I imagined the price would be in the 5-10 euro range. But I couldn’t just buy the buffer, I had to buy a set… I tested the hand cream, it smelt good. I agreed to by the set, my decision helped by it being on sale. At this point I’ve agreed to spend 3.5 times my initial planned spend.

But then they tried to upsell again, for twice what I’d just agreed to spend I could have a body scrub and a moisturiser – telling me that I had “skin discolouration” as part of the sales pitch. I declined politely. Then at the cash register, while I was standing with the money in my hand, I was asked again – I was so tempted to walk.

But on reflection I think the hard sale is one of the reasons this company is being forced to offer big discounts on their products. The Dutch are a bit allergic to this approach.

Image  french fries via pixabay

Breaking Down Silos

The metaphorical silos in a company can be seen as representing boundaries put up by an organisation to keep a group of people focused on accomplishing their goals, and preventing interference with progress by outsiders, so there’s a positive purpose.

But we talk about breaking down silos because when silos are rigidly maintained within a company it creates problems. Silos form in large companies to support the hierarchical structure of the company. It rests on an old model of thinking about work; that managers know what needs to be done and are responsible for directing all those under their responsibility to complete that work.

For me silos are are an outcome of an overly hierarchical company culture, one where people are unwilling to share knowledge, solve problems together or co-operate in any way.  The business directory defines silo mentality as;

a mindset present when certain departments or sectors do not wish to share information with others in the same company. This type of mentality will reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale, and may contribute to the demise of a productive company culture.

Visible signs that your organisation is in silos;

  • people talk about “us” and “them” meaning different departments within your company
  • you need agreement from management of two departments to get co-operation from another department
  • you need permission from a manager to approach someone in another department
  • departments in your company store their information online in team sites or shared drives that are only accessible for department members
  • you do have lunch with colleagues, but only ever from your own department
  • your personnel directory is searchable by name, or department, but not by expertise
  • when you look for specialist expertise, for example a Spanish-speaking tax expert with experience in Latin America, you start by emailing someone who speaks Spanish

Yes there is a need to focus on the work, and that may mean that a project team shuts itself off from the organisation in some way. Yes in regulated industries there may be a need to put boundaries between certain parts of the organisation; the term used for this in banking in Chinese walls. In agencies temporary boundaries are often put in place around a project to prevent sharing of client information.

In general I wouldn’t consider anything temporary as a silo; just as you don’t move a grain silo easily, silos within companies take time to be established. I agree that there are regulatory boundaries to be considered, and while I’m probably guilty of understating those in my enthusiasm for improving knowledge sharing across a company, I’m certainly not thinking of them when I call for us to “break down the silos”.

I watched a TED video that talked about what might be one of the greatest silo breakdowns ever, and it comes from the US military. General Stanley McChrystal states;

The fact that I know something has zero value if I’m not the person who can actually make something better because of it.

He explains that it’s almost impossible to know who is the best person to use each piece of information, and that the army therefore moved from a “tell only who needs to know” to “we need to tell, and tell them as quickly as we can“.

It’s this philosophical shift I am referring to when I talk about breaking down the silos.

In some companies the need is urgent, and in those cases the phrase needs to be upgraded to “tearing down the silos”.

Moving the Needle

I was reading an article on Wal-Mart’s e-commerce business recently and I came across the term “to move the needle”. Since I spend more time sewing on buttons than I do driving cars at the moment the first mental picture I had was troubling. Turns out not that needle.

The expression refers to moving the needle on some instrument of measurement such as a car speedometer, possibly more specifically the analogue Vu meter used in audio recording. In a more abstract form asking whether something “moved the needle” is just asking whether there was a noticeable improvement in the results.

In the Wal-Mart article they were referring to the e-commerce side of sales, which at 0.3% of US sales (by value) is barely impacting the billions in total sales. So although sales are at over $200 million it’s not yet moving the needle. I may not be the only one unfamiliar with the term, the headline reads “Wal-Mart’s e-commerce business: Can it move the needle, be material?” I’m pretty sure those last two words have been added since I first saw the article.

In another take on moving the needle, Lisa Earle McLeod applies the term to personal changes, and shows how making small, consistent changes is significant. She says “You don’t accomplish big things overnight; you move the needle every day.” Exactly.

What are you doing to move the needle today?

Image; Pixabay

Hotwash

This came up on a powerpoint slide of the day’s agenda “4 – 5 pm Hotwash”.

Evidently it means immediate review, according to Word Detective it comes from the US Army where it describes the debrief that occurs immediately after a mission or patrol, possibly from the literal talking while showering, more likely from the practice soldiers have of dousing their weapons in hot water after an exercise.

I’d never seen it before, and nor had any other colleagues in the room. So I’ve asked people what it makes them think of, most people said either laundry or hot tubs (which might say more about them than the subject). But the most descriptive was “hotwash sounds like a painful spa treatment involving large muscular women twisting your body in weird ways”.

In this case it was referring to the last hour of an assessment day, when all teams will discuss their assessments and we’ll check any major inconsistencies.

If I’d been writing the agenda I would have put “4 – 5 pm Review Assessments”, but then, I’m not a management consultant.

Image: Weekly Laundry | Stefan | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0