Archive for April, 2010

Jumping the Shark

April 28th

So I was talking to a postal aficionado friend about the issues that the USPS is facing.  We were having one of those conversations that would have been intelligible to a about 50 people involving the timing of regulators, the implications for policy proposals, the effect on rates, the result for markets, the unintended consequences…then we would change an assumption and cycle through the variables again.   Scenario planning for wonks.

This particular colleague and I have been having these conversations for 10 years.   The problems of the posts are only getting worse.  Much worse.

I always listen to him carefully.  I had asked him the most baffling question of all about 5 years ago.  “Don’t the customers understand what they are going to do to the postal service, the drive train of their livelihood, if they keep going with these retirement payments?”  I had asked.

He said “well you saw it in the reaction to your talk”

[This was a then recent speech about putting the phrase “the regulator shall” into a law.  I was arguing that the customers should be careful about what they wished for.  If you start a regulator down the path of killing an agency, as the British and others have found, you eventually succeed.  And then what?]

He said.   “Maybe they don’t care,” to which I replied, “no one is that mad.”

“Maybe you are thinking about this wrong,” my friend suggested.  “Maybe they know what’s going to happen and they don’t want to be the last man holding the bag.  Maybe risking killing off the institution on which they depend is less of a problem than having it die slowly with enormous debts that they will have to pay off.”

I remember stopping in my tracks with one of those “of course…” thoughts.

So I always listen.

I was explaining that the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee had asked the Postmaster General what he would do with the $75 billion dollars and he answered that if they got the money “they would be OK for a long time.”

I explained in defense of his answer that various Senators had asked him a lot of the same questions and it was late in the afternoon.   I knew he had a better answer and he was being more polite than I would have been able to be.

“Do you think that Snailmail has just jumped the shark? “ he asked and I knew that I was at one of those moments of recognition again, but not for the reason that he might have had in mind.

Jumping the shark refers to the exact moment when you know that something (your television show or anything else) has gone past the peak and its all downhill from here.

Fonzie

From Happy Days

Paramount Pictures

In a 1977 episode that began the fifth season, Henry Winkler (“Fonzie”) water-skis in Santa Monica and encounters a shark.  The critics and the fans found this moment to be such a lame effort to save the franchise that they have agreed for years that this was the moment when they knew it was all over.

There is an argument to be made that when an industry can no longer envision how it would spend a windfall, (even if it deserves the windfall) it may well have jumped the shark.

For the record, it’s useful to note that it wasn’t over for Happy Days by a longshot. The studio owned Happy Days and once it ended its prime time run it made the real money in syndication.

Congress and the FCC had sought to protect “local access” by allowing local stations to have prime television time (technically the time just before prime time under what were called the “Broadcast Rules.”)  Local affiliates of the Nntworks discovered that they could buy rights to show favorite television shows like Happy Days as “counter programming” to the network television news and make a fortune in advertising sales.  The studios may have preferred to have a show end once they had enough episodes of a popular franchise to make serious money in syndication.

The result of this regulatory scheme (the Financial Interest and Syndication Rule’s multibillion dollar syndication market) was no doubt not exactly the consequence that had been intended.  But it was in it’s own way a market solution to the question of what should local television affiliate do for the citizen/viewers?

Is the lesson that there is life after jumping the shark and perhaps it’s time to get on with finding out what it is?  We can see that the current business model is not likely to be sustainable.  The postal service is already going through rapid, even radical change.  But so far, all with an effort to preserve the way things have “always been.”  Whether they have always been the same is beside the point.

Perhaps its time to anticipate what kind of a national institution we want to see, what services we want it to provide for our democracy and how we will pay for them; especially now that we have seen the shark.

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Climate Change: Looking Back, Looking Forward

April 24th

So what were the results produced by the climate change talks in Copenhagen?

When we last left off our story, the 71 nations who made pledges in Copenhagen were committed to try and limit the increases in temperature to 2 degrees.

The various controversies of the meeting have made it clear that the global meetings (Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen) are not likely to be the basis for actions that will equal the scope of the problem.  But there was still hope that the voluntary actions by well meaning, committed nations could offer some hope.  Now it turns out, maybe not so much.

Researchers from the Potsdam institute for Climate Impact Research writing in Nature however have now reviewed the results and they write that “its amazing how unambitious these pledges are”.  The researchers estimate that the increases in temperature will most likely exceed 3 degrees.

We are now beginning ot see the implications of past deals.  It turns out that when the agreements were being made that some of the limits applied to selected countries were lax.  So some were able to do better than their easy targets.  And you could bank these extra achievements.  So the banked extra savings have to be deducted from the promises.  This, the Potsdam researcher explain, is one of the most important reasons that there is a growing gap between rhetoric and reality.

But analysis and explanations aside, 3 degrees rather than 2 degrees is a big deal and leaves us no closer to global solutions.  As the 5 day celebration of Earth Day concludes and the Senate of the U.S. begins the next round of discussion of Cap and Trade legislation we have reached the place where it is time for someone to become ambitious.

The analysis is a collaboration of researchers at PIK, Ecofys (www.ecofys.com) and Climate Analytics (www.climateanalytics.org).

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72.2% Market Share

April 23rd

John Paczkowski writes in All Things Digital of a new survey from MM Research in Japan that has found that the iPhone has captured 72.2 % of the market. I am not sure what I am supposed to learn from this but there is something going on, clearly.

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Design Thinking and 21st Century Leadership Skills

April 16th

Garth Saloner, the Dean of Stanford Business School was interviewed by Lenny Mendonca in the McKinsey Quarterly and explained that at Stanford Business School, as they think about educating the next generation of business leaders, that their focus in a world without borders has moved from the hard skills of accounting, finance and supply chain management to the softer skills related to leadership.

In a world without borders, where the management of global enterprise or even global projects is taken as a given, there is a growing need to train managers who are skilled in encouraging collaboration.

The harder skills are a given. Saloner refers to them as a type of “hygiene.” His focus has turned to leading groups in collaboration where analytic thinking is critical, to communications (especially writing) and to education in the global marketplace. Stanford requires students to work abroad in countries where they have no prior experience.

Innovation is especially prized in a world that is inventing new ways to do things.

The thing that is starting to blossom as an approach and as an idea in universities with business schools as a partner is a whole area of what folks call design thinking. And that’s really the creative process of identifying a need but then working with the customers, through a process of rapid prototyping, to figure out how to develop a product or to solve their needs.