Looking for Patterns

Continuing excerpts from my book each Monday:

In a TV ad, basketball great Bill Russell says he usually “made” the rebound before the other player even made the shot. Whenever you discuss any subject or any event, think like the chess player who sees three moves ahead while his competition sees only two: get on the elevator and take it to another level. Whenever you see A take action B, the first questions that come to mind should be next-level questions:

  • What did A do yesterday? What will A do tomorrow?
  • What are A’s peers (the other A’s) doing?
  • Who else does B?

Note that this is different from looking for hidden agendas, a favorite hobby of the cynic. It is about looking at the plain, obvious facts and taking them to a higher level.
If we see that Prudential is going to acquire Aetna, the headlines will be talking about the two companies’ press releases, about how much the stocks went up or down, and about who gets to run the new company.

But we also need to ask:
  • Who else was considering buying Aetna?
  • Who else might those companies be thinking of buying, since they didn’t get Aetna?
  • Who else might Prudential be looking at buying?
  • How will owning Aetna change Prudential?
  • What are the cultures (personalities) of the two enterprises? Will it be a hard marriage or an easy one?
  • What are the things that could go wrong?
  • Who will benefit most if they go wrong?
  • Who outside the companies involved will benefit most if they go right?
  • What does this mean for my company?

Every year, I watch the TV stations do a story about the decline of the family farm and how sad that is. I have never once seen a broadcaster take this story to the next level, see the pattern that is the real story — the decline of small family businesses in general. Rare is the story about the slow extinction of the family pharmacy, the family shoe store, the family grocery store, or even the solo practitioner doctor. And yet there is no way we can understand the whys, wherefores, and “solutions” for the family farm without this broader understanding.

When a big corporation gets a new CEO, we are told the bio of the new person. As to the old person, we know only when he or she is stepping down. But we need to be looking for patterns:

  • What kind of people has this company hired as the last three or four CEOs? Is the new CEO the same, or different?
  • How does the new person’s age, gender, and years of service compare with historical patterns? Compared with the other companies in this industry?
  • How does this person’s background compare with that of his or her predecessors and peers? Is this the only marketer in an industry run by lawyers? Is this the first finance person to run the company after years of engineers?

Then, for each answer to the questions above:

  • What does it mean, or what might it mean, for this company and for other companies in the industry? For your company?
  • What can be learned from this event?

There’s always another level you can take your thinking to. We hear that people are migrating to city X because of jobs. But many other cities have jobs available, too. What else about this city makes it the city of choice? What can we tell from knowing which cities people are moving away from? Are they coming from somewhere with a higher crime rate?

In everything you see, look for patterns. Look for the essence. Sometimes it’s hard to see, sometimes not.
One of the most striking things everyone notices about Austin is its low voter participation. We have some bond referenda and other votes where well under twenty percent of the people vote. But no one notices that state, national, and local elections and primaries are scattered throughout the year. It is not unheard of to have an election for a major race, then a bond election sixty to ninety days later. The real issue is not so much the voters’ lack of interest as the inconvenience and complexity of the process. Moving elections to two days per year might do more good than additional “get out the vote” campaigns.

Is the frequent-flyer mileage system really that different (in concept) from S&H Green Stamps? We think of one idea as the hottest thing going and the other as ancient history, but they are of the same essence — giving customers an incentive to be loyal.

Old ideas come back again and again. Scooters are back after a twenty-plus year absence. I thought that Ted Turner and his people had a great idea when they started the CNN airport channel — little snippets of relevant news just the right length for people waiting on airplanes. Then I read an old article and found out that in the 1930s the New York City airline terminal showed newsreels to waiting passengers. Not only is this idea not an invention of the late twentieth century, but maybe we’ve even regressed: that 1930s airline terminal was conveniently located in mid-Manhattan and had shuttle cars that took you directly to your plane at the airport just in time for departure. Maybe this is another idea worth bringing back.