My friend Matt Mower recently pointed me to the Blueprint CSS Framework, a very nifty set of modular CSS stylesheets and accompanying sample files that help a neophyte web builder create nice looking sites with multi-column layouts while still using CSS.

I can’t point you to my results yet, but I can say that it’s helped me immensely and allowed me to actually structure a multi-column web page without the use of tables.

About once a year I foolishly take on the task of designing a new website. As you can see from the HTML on this very page (assuming you’re looking at my web page and not the RSS feed) this effort has never actually resulted in a new design for b.cognosco. But never mind that.

What normally happens is that I spend days and days with high blood pressure, evolving a blue-streak vocabulary, throwing temper tantrums, and being cruel to small animals while I try to get HTML to do what I want with my limited understanding of the all too cryptic CSS.

Once I have good and well failed at that I try to hire someone to help me. I am a cheap bastard and have no interest in going out to *real* designers who will charge me $3,000 – $10,000 for a website that is basically for some hobby interest of mine or some freebie for a friend. But I am also a contrarian – so I do not wish to click over to TypePad or WordPress and grab up a template that is in use by a few hundred other people. I like to do a lot of stuff that simple templates don’t cover.

So I do various mockups of the page in something I can understand (like Adobe InDesign) until I have something I am happy with, create a PDF, and send it to some HTML slice-and-dice service or con one of the many web people I know into doing a little work for me on the side.

Sometimes this last approach works out ok except that no one creates CSS stylesheets I can really understand. So even if the site looks good I have to spend days of frustration trying to understand the nesting and tagging and inheritance and hacks and browser-specific workarounds that everyone uses.

But Blueprint has made it a lot easier, and more understandable, to use CSS by providing a discrete grid for layout and a well-documented set of stylesheets that explain what things do. I’m told the grid is even quite useful for experienced web designers to speed their basic development. I’ll put some links to the new site(s) here when they’re ready. In the meantime, try out Blueprint. It’s nice.

Tuesday night I rode my motorcycle down to Fayetteville, just south of Atlanta, to attend Lisa Haneberg’s “2 Weeks 2 a Breakthrough” talk And talk about your breakthrough ideas – Lisa is riding her motorcycle across the country to promote her new book. I feel safe in saying this is the first time a business book has been promoted in such a way. And I’m certain it’s the first time ever by a woman. Pretty cool.

So what did I think about the talk? Lisa’s premise for this talk (and the book) is that little things matter. She relates in terms of chaos theory and the Butterfly Effect — which is a little new-agey — but the analogies are for inspiration more than analysis. The main idea is that continual forward progress, even in tiny increments, builds velocity and forward velocity leads to breakthroughs. To illustrate Lisa uses the consulting mainstay — the 2×2 matrix:


I think many of us spend our lives either in Dreamer or Stuck modes. Those with adult ADD tend to be in the Victim quadrant — confusing motion with progress and paddling furiously but getting nowhere. But where we all want to be is in the Peak Performer quadrant.

Lisa offered two points that stood out for me:

  • Breakthroughs happen in a social context: If you aren’t out actively promoting your goal or idea — discussing it regularly with friends, colleagues, and strangers and sharing your challenges, achievements, and objectives — you aren’t going to make any breakthroughs.
  • Introverts, no matter how smart, rarely make breakthroughs: Breakthroughs do not happen in front of your face. They happen in the connections and gaps and networks that emerge from constant forward action and focus. [Editor’s note: Following a comment from Lisa the above bullet point should read “Introverts, no matter how smart, rarely make breakthroughs until they break out of introverted behavior patterns …”]

I am a natural introvert. I’m more comfortable sitting alone in my office than I am in a crowd. Over the years I’ve worked hard at developing my extrovert capacity and done a lot of public speaking and presentations. But at my core I’m always more comfortable alone. That makes it easy for me to slip into the Stuck or Dreamer states.

And that’s a dangerous thing. It’s like exercise, or eating habits, or any other behavior you want to modify. What’s required is constant forward progress, even in small steps. If you stop, even for a little bit, getting started again is difficult. The inertia that builds is deadly. This is really the underlying principle behind all behavior modification, from Alcoholics Anonymous to Weight Watchers.

And so it is with Lisa’s program — simple, proven principles packaged in an easy-to-read program and supplemented with specific plans to help you move forward. More important, Lisa is building her own network and cult following. She asked each attendee to contact her by the end of the week and let her know how it was going, and if she could help, she would. Her goal for this tour is to help as many people reach a breakthrough as possible. Lisa has quite a few cities still to visit as she heads back west. Check her travel itinerary and go see her if you get the chance.

The cover story for the May 3 issue of BusinessWeek was “World’s Most Innovative Companies” The big point was that the idea of running around as a multi-millionaire CEO chanting the word innovation as if it would magically alter your organization has now been recognized as another in the long line of stupid management fads.

[…] At the behest of an “ideation” consultant, he donned a blue superhero costume — cape, tights, and all — to put a little extra oomph behind the company’s innovation-boosting campaign. “I guess the thinking was that if you free people from the norm, you’ll unleash a torrent of creativity,” says Scott Anthony, president of Innosight, a consulting firm co-founded by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. Anthony refused to name the company because it was a client. “Innovation Man led to a lot of laughs,” he quips, “but it didn’t lead to a lot of innovation.”

The same might be said for many gimmicks that companies have tried over the past few years in their attempts to boost growth. Suddenly trendy, innovation took on the flavor of an elixir, as companies raced to hire “chief innovation officers” and build innovation centers complete with purple-painted walls and conference rooms with funny names. Ford Motor Co. (F) boasted in a press release about its new Innovation Acceleration Center in Dearborn, Mich.: “It’s amazing what a room filled with radio-controlled cars, a 3-ft. Statue of Liberty made of Legos, and some comfy couches can do to stir the imagination.” […]

According to the article many CEOs, having failed at turning their billion-dollar behemoths into innovation engines, are experiencing “innovation fatigue.” I am shocked! Shocked, I say. Shocked to learn that innovation is not a commodity that can be ordered up like Papa John’s Pizza. Shocked to learn that innovation doesn’t exist on its own like, say, cotton.

It turns out that innovation is actually a result – something that happens after you change every aspect of your stodgy, corrupt, inefficient, overbearing, outsourced, badly managed global corporation where everyone spends 80 percent of their time in meetings, 20 percent of their time doing reports, 10 percent of their time fixing stuff someone else did wrong, and 5 percent of their time doing something valuable that a customer will actually pay for. (I know, that’s 115%. That’s called increasing productivity. Guess which 15% gets dropped when your average, everyday human realizes they can only give 100% today.)

And this turns out to be very, very hard.

But there are a few innovative companies. And they’re innovative because, well, because they just are. Because they actually do the hard things most companies can’t, or won’t, do. Because they focus on things far more tangible than “being innovative.”  Things like finding and hiring talented employees and then not stomping on them or burning them out. Things like actually listening to employees with good ideas. And things like not letting the accountants and lawyers decide about what does and does not get done.

Mostly, innovators just seem to understand that innovation is a fundamental result, that comes from getting the fundamentals of running a business right. What a shocker.

The US auto industry is in turmoil – rising gas prices, changing buyer tastes, stiffer environmental laws, and massive labor costs, among other things – have cost US automakers tens of billions in losses in recent years. And now the pompous jackasses at Daimler-Benz have killed Chrysler. It’s bad enough that my beloved IBM ThinkPads have been sold to Lenovo – I can’t even imagine buying a Chinese-made Jeep! Chrysler was in trouble when Daimler bought them in 1998, but the Germans were supposed to make it better, not spend $40 billion to make it worse.

Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” may well be at play here. In fact, then entire auto industry may be heading for fundamental change not only in product design, but in who it sells to and how [see Shaping the Future by Charles Stross.] What Hannaford describes is very much a “Barbarians at the Gate” scenario. Pay particular attention to his analysis of what Cerberus Capital (the distasteful but quite necessary carrion eaters of the capitalist world) will do with the decaying corpse. Oh, and you can be sure that somewhere the government (that means you and me) will get pegged to pickup the tab for some significant portion of this fiasco.

The Chrysler deal

What to say about the Chrysler deal that already hasn’t been said. A few thoughts:

The deal was even worse for Daimler than the putative $7.4 billion that was announced. That sum was just for show, a pitri enough remnant of the $36 billion Daimler paid for Chrysler. What Daimler will receive for the Chrysler division when all is said and done is nothing – in fact it will pay over half a billion dollars for Cerberus Capital Management to take the US automaker off its hands. As we’ve said before, this makes the merger the 1998 Daimler-Chrysler “merger” in year the worst deal ever. As one commentator said on NPR, “It like when you have a broken down car in your front yard, and pay someone to haul it away.”

The deal is likely to end up in the chop shop. The valuable bits will be sold off eventually, and the brand names (especially Jeep) may be attractive to, say, a Chinese company. Cerberus will be ruthless in cutting pensions and healthcare costs. It may operate a much reduced business, with SUVs and pickups as the main assets, at least for a while. It will dump dealers mercilessly, lay off workers, and move more operations overseas. And, like the airlines, it will plead extreme duress to outflank the unions.

Meanwhile, Cerberus will suck the company dry, so that the investors get their money back with a hefty profit quickly. It set up a labyrinth of holding companies to preserve the good assets from an eventual bankruptcy, much as was done at Kmart.

It will be curious to see if the company has any development in the pipeline, now that Daimler will have all the R&D assets. It’s hard to believe that, for example, a hybrid or electric car, or even a cool sports car or luxury vehicle could originate form a stripped-down Chrysler.

buying a company that looks like it is in freefall. What value will a five-year warranty have, for example, if the company could close its doors at any time. And how motivated will workers be to make dependable cars when their health benefits and pay are threatened?

It’s hard to imagine a renaissance, especially in new product areas. And it seems clear that with $5 gasoline looming, auto companies are going to have to adapt quickly in the next decade, something Chrysler is certainly not ready to do.

As for Cerberus, it’s interesting to speculate on their motivation. They have been make increasing bets in the auto industry. Lat year they bought 51% of GMAC, General Motors’ financing subsidiary. They recently bought Tower Automotive for $1 billion. They also one auto parts suppliers CTA Acoustics and GDX Automotive, and were in hot pursuit of Delphi, the parts maker spun off from GM. Do they think they can derive some synergy form these vaguely related firms and weld them into a new auto empire? Call me a skeptic on that one. These guys are investors, not “car guys.”

For Daimler, it’s a retreat from an attempt at world dominance. Like Ford and GM, Daimler’s dreams of profitable investment in other companies have become a liability. No synergy, but plenty of culture clash and inner turmoil, has made both brands-Mercedes and Chrysler- weaker. Meanwhile, the single-minded, organic -growth approach of Toyota and Honda seems to be the winning one.

I worked for IBM from 1995 to 1998. During that time I met some great people and had the privilege of working on more than one world-class project. As part of the benefits package I was allowed to buy IBM stock at a discount, and I did so. A few years ago I sold the stock off, as it had stagnated for a while and my general fondness for the company had dwindled. I still have friends there, many of them working for IBM Global Services. Now Robert Cringely reports that Big Blue is planning to axe more than 100,000 people from IGS, moving all the work offshore:

I, Cringely:The Pulpit – Lean and Mean

The IBM project I am writing about is called LEAN and the first manifestation of LEAN was this week’s 1,300 layoffs at Global Services, which generated almost no press. Thirteen hundred layoffs from a company with more than 350,000 workers is nothing, so the yawning press reaction is not unexpected. But this week’s “job action,” as they refer to it inside IBM management, was as much as anything a rehearsal for what I understand are another 100,000+ layoffs to follow, each dribbled out until some reporter (that would be me) notices the growing trend, then dumped en masse when the jig is up, but no later than the end of this year.[…]

This cannot be good. As Cringely notes, offshoring of this scale creates massive communication and support problems – at least if the customer is in the US. My experience with BellSouth’s lame, dysfunctional, globalized tech support has been a disaster. Dell, same story. In fact, if you have ever had a good experience with offshore tech support I’d like to hear about it. But more importantly, if Cringely is right IBM management is going to axe 100,000 jobs knowing full well that it may cripple the company. I don’t care if the stock price rockets upward for some brief period. I’m glad I no longer have any financial stake in Big Blue.

My friend and colleague Sean Murphy, who is a great synthesizer and sensemaker, came up with an excellent presentation idea a while back. He’s done this a few times now and if you’re in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area and have a chance to see Sean’s “12 Books for the Busy CEO” you should do so. Links to his next session is below:

Crucial Marketing Concepts for Consultants @ PATCA May 10

I will be presenting a revised and improved version of the “12 Books for the Busy CEO” presentation on Thursday May 10 at 6pm at the PATCA monthly dinner at the Embassy Suites Santa Clara – Silicon Valley on 2885 Lakeside Drive in Santa Clara.I will cover a dozen books and offer a synthesis of the key marketing concepts (this is not a sequence of twelve book reports) that they offer. I will have an article on crucial marketing concepts that I will give out for attendees. There is good content here for entrepreneurs, whether they are starting out as consultants or embedding their expertise in software or a SaaS offering.

Spend an hour and leave with a summary of key marketing insights and some rules of thumb for successful innovation in Silicon Valley. You may even identify one or two books that you haven’t read that will be worth your time. I will cover a dozen books that form the basis for conventional wisdom on marketing in Silicon Valley. They provide the terms, the metaphors, the parables–in short the language–that successful high technology firms use to develop their plans and monitor their execution. Some of these books are old–most have stood the test of time, which in Valley years is a decade or more–but still provide succinct guidelines for new product introduction and sales.

I want to thank Mark Duncan for helping us turn a set of black and white PowerPoint slides that were primarily text bullets into a colorful and illustration rich article.

John Robb, independent military analyst, futurist, and author of “Brave New War,” on Friday posted this interesting tidbit on Friday regarding the move by GlobalCos into the intelligence and security space:


By John Robb

A strong sign that the nation-state is in decay is the frequency we see announcements of companies that are replicating some of the most sensitive government services. The most recent mover is Walmart, which is in the process of putting together its own intelligence arm (it’s being built by a former CIA/FBI officer Kenneth Senser). For those unable to afford their own global intelligence unit, Blackwater’s Cofer Black is building one called Total Intelligence Solutions.

If you want to get up to speed quickly, the background for this is available in BNW.

This makes sense, of course. As these companies plan long-term deployments across the globe they can little afford not to know the risks involved. And the intelligence fiasco of Iraq WMDs showed how unreliable government intelligence can be. This looks, to me, like another area where oligopoly control of a market makes sense. I wonder how the potential for shared intelligence organizations, and perhaps shared risk, will alter the oligopoly landscape?

This would be funny if it weren’t true. From Oligopoly Watch:

Chocolate or Mockolate?
Big world’s biggest confectionery companies, including Nestle and Hersheys, are doing what oligopolies do beat, influencing government regulation in their favor. At stake is the very definition of chocolate. According to a Bloomberg article (“Hershey Battles Chocolate Connoisseurs Over Selling `Mockolate'”. April 24):

The Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members include Hershey, Nestle SA and Archer Daniels Midland Co., has a petition before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to redefine what constitutes chocolate. They want to make it without the required ingredients of cocoa butter and cocoa solids, using instead artificial sweeteners, milk substitutes and vegetable fats such as hydrogenated and trans fats.

The reason for the requested change is the great expense of cocoa butter, a required ingredient. Big Candy would like to substitute cheaper stuff, included the dread trans-fats. […]

Business pundit Steve Hannaford needed a new term to describe the value of today’s billion-dollar-plus mergers and acquisitions. The disaster that is DaimlerChrysler has given Steve just what he needed:

How Many Chryslers?

Truly the Daimler-Benz purchase of US-automaker Chrysler in 1998 was a stupefying disaster. Through the alchemy of its business acumen, Daimler management transmuted the value of Chrysler from an estimated $40 billion to a value of, to judge from the current bidding, around $5 billion, give or take a few hundred million.

But some good can come out of the merger. Based on what seems to be the approximate price of the company, we will describe big mergers and acquisitions henceforth in terms of Chrysler unit, that is to say, in $5 billion increments. For example:

WSJ [subscription required]. Sue Shellenberger, in her April 26 Work and Family column titled Read This and Weep: Crying At Work Gains Acceptance, writes:

Crying at work has long been seen as verboten. But there’s evidence that a growing number of workers, especially those in their 20s and 30s, see it differently. Some think it’s old-fashioned to hide your emotions. Others are quick to cry over negative feedback. And many find themselves at odds with managers who grew up with a more repressive definition of professional conduct.

crying_manCast my caveman vote for keeping it verboten. Thanks to Opra, Jerry Springer, The View, and loads of other cultural schlock we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that wearing our emotions in public somehow makes things better. It doesn’t. In fact, it makes things worse. Carried to its logical conclusion this whole absurd idea is at the heart of much of the social violence and conflict we have. Yes, I know. I’m a caveman. But you tell me, what’s the difference between the crying, sniveling whiner and the disrespected hoodlum who’s about to blow your head off because you happened to look the wrong way? Not much. Both have lost all context for emotional outbursts.

On the one hand, you have some bosses who probably aren’t very good managers and lack people skills (I have worked for some of those.) On the other hand, you have employees who are lousy workers (I’ve been saddled with a few of those.) Many years ago I was a plant manager for a large prepress company. I had a successful track record, had good relations with most of my employees, and had a very productive plant. Don’t get me wrong, not everyone thought I was a great guy, but they were all very happy when the plant went from losing $1 million a year to turning a $500k profit and they got substantial bonuses. And no one was worked to death, no one was abused, no one was treated unfairly. We just identified problems, agreed on solutions, and put them into action. Everyone was involved, and everyone shared the load.

Because of this I was asked to move across the country to take over a plant that was in trouble. I walked into the new plant expecting things to be rather mucked up, but I figured there would be some good people there who could get the job done with the right tools and expectations. What I found was entirely different. I found a plant full of people who wanted to do everything just as they’d always done, even though the plant was on the verge of closing. The slightest suggestion of change was seen as some sort of personal insult:

Gen-Yers — who, it is often noted, are accustomed to lavish praise from their parents — are often ill-schooled in taking criticism and burst into tears at negative feedback, Dr. Twenge says. Kathy Lyle, 55, owner of a Chagrin Falls, Ohio, accounting firm, was dismayed when an employee in her early 30s cried in response to a request to install software on a computer. “When I asked her why, she said, ‘You scare me,'” Ms. Lyle says. Startled, Ms. Lyle told her to pull herself together.

This mirrors my experience — perfectly reasonable, rational requests treated as terrifying challenges. Being deemed a tyrant for merely asking another to do something they haven’t done before. What sort of logic is that? A big problem is we have failed to teach our children how to be good losers, how to accept criticism, how to take a bad performance or mistake and make it a learning experience. For that matter, we’ve failed to teach them anything at all about accepting challenges. The vast majority expect to be praised for little more than turning oxygen into carbon dioxide. As Jeffrey Zaslow write in his April 20 WSJ column The Most Praised Generation Goes To Work:

You, You, You — you really are special, you are! You’ve got everything going for you. You’re attractive, witty, brilliant. “Gifted” is the word that comes to mind.

Childhood in recent decades has been defined by such stroking — by parents who see their job as building self-esteem, by soccer coaches who give every player a trophy, by schools that used to name one “student of the month” and these days name 40.[…]

[…] Employers are dishing out kudos to workers for little more than showing up. Corporations including Lands’ End and Bank of America are hiring consultants to teach managers how to compliment employees using email, prize packages and public displays of appreciation.

And so we have two sides of the same coin — a generation that cries at the slightest negative word or challenge, or shoots you for a sideways glance. Is that really what we want?

It’s not what I want. Sure, there are times when emotion is appropriate, but getting things out in the open is far from a universal cure-all. If your emotions aren’t based in some fact, if you can’t prove your point in some real way, if you don’t actually have a grievance other than something just isn’t fair, then exactly what are you crying about?

Life is not fair, never has been. I’ve tried to teach my children that the dirtiest four-letter word is F-A-I-R. It would be great if life was fair, but it’s not. Some people win, some lose. Some live a long time, some die young. Some get all the good stuff, some slog away in poverty. All we’ve done with this insistence on fairness and self-esteem and gratuitous flattery is teach our children to base their lives on shallow emotion. We haven’t taught them to achieve, to accept challenges head-on, to do the things that generations before have done to be successful.

It’s no wonder we have such social turmoil. It’s what happens when you stop accepting life on its own terms and working to change yourself, instead spending your days in a fantasy-land of fairness and hoping everyone else changes to suit you.