It’s been so many years we might be fooled into thinking we really don’t know each other any more. If we were truly cynical we might posit we never did. But I think we still know each other intimately, at least in a few small ways. And not only that, I believe we carry each other around with us in our every-day lives, without even knowing.

That is, until an image or a sound or a smell shakes that part of us that was shaped by the other long ago. When this happens, all doubt is removed; we are allowed—maybe it’s more like we are led—to relive the moments of the event as we replay the words again and again, re-watching a clip of a black-and-white film in which a word is uttered, critical yet wholly ambiguous.

My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer last December. I was in the middle of an 18-month sabbatical so I drove to Westmount from Boston six times in the dead of winter—between late-January and mid-March. I relished the drive, and all the places it took me—through the Green Mountains, past rivers I’d fished as a boy, not far off the trail from Jay and Stowe, and along Lake Champlain—that great body of mountain water that drains north to the Richelieu, flattening out and irrigating the pastoral lowlands of the Saint Lawrence valley.

If it snowed on the way, all the better as there was a chance I might get hung-up in a small town, snowed-in for the night, and I’d have to wait it out. It didn’t happen, but it might’ve.

My mom was still living in her old house, on Saint Catherine Street at the foot of Victoria, alone as she had for decades. In her mid-70s I’d begun thinking the worst these past couple years—old woman living alone, falling down stairs, slipping on ice, being harassed by juveniles up to no good. I never thought about lung cancer (she never smoked!).

But when I got there the first week, I could see it in her eyes. The fear had taken her and wouldn’t let her go. It was worse than falling or slipping or being burgled; it was inside her, unknown, and with a terrible will of its own.

I timed my visits to coincide with her major medical events. We spent time at the Jewish General, the Montreal Neurological, and even at the Queen Elizabeth in NDG. We walked to Starbucks on Sherbrooke that morning, had a coffee before going to the appointment with her GP. “That’s where Geordie’s grandparents lived,” I said as we walked past the building facing where Murray’s and the old Bank of Montreal had been. I had no idea how I remembered that, but it came out clear as a bell.

My mom held my arm wherever we went. She’s always done that, and it always kind of bothered me and made me feel good at the same time. When I was a kid and she used to hold my arm when we walked somewhere, it made me wish my dad was around, and that she was holding his arm. It reminded me that he was missing. And as I got older, it made me wonder if I would get married and divorced some day. And when I was older still—long since married and divorced—it just felt good to have my mother holding my arm, no matter what it meant.

We waited for lung specialists, cancer specialists, surgical specialists in the unadorned communal offices of the Quebec health-care system. Receptionists in Oncology are noticeably more humane because of the—well, you know—but the system is tired and overworked, and the rooms are not clean, well-lit places.

Most of the physicians were younger than me. And they all carried Blackberries and iPhones, and they showed us MRI scans on desktop computers hooked into the System’s mainframes. The worn leather chairs offered a contemplative contrast as we sat and waited for the young Turks to arrive and tell us more about my mom’s situation.

“You see that little black spot…right there?” the 30-something doctor asked without even looking at us. “That’s nothing—we don’t know what it is.” There was a lot of uncertainty but they had decided whatever it was, they were going to take it out. “The surgeon will make the decision once he’s in; he may only take part of the lung, or he may take two lobes. It depends.”

Walking back to the car in the February wind, mom held my arm tighter than before.

The day she had surgery I got in my car and drove. I drove all over Westmount. I went to every street I knew, and all the ones I didn’t know. Turns out there weren’t many of those. It was a bright, cold, sunny day and I got out at all the places where things had happened—fights, football games, pick-up hockey matches, first kisses, break-ups, pumpkin bashing, trick-or-treating, drinking beer in parks and smoking cigarettes, biking, skateboarding, everything. It was all there.

When I stopped on Roslyn I took a picture of our old house, Six-One-Three. Then I went across the street, and as I did I froze and remembered a shaping moment. I was hanging around that entrance to the Schoolyard killing time when you came over and informed me that the earrings had been found: “My mom found them; they were in the garbage can in the guest room, next to the bed. The cleaning ladies accidentally swept them off the bedside table. I’m really sorry, John, that we thought it was you. I mean it: I should have known better.”

That was how I learned how to apologize with dignity–from you, a twelve-year-old kid, who chose to be direct, sincere, and empathetic. A lesser person would never have even mentioned the lost earrings had been found. Your apology also taught me about the fineness of your mother, and what she had given you: The way you apologized melted me, and dissolved the anger I’d felt about being accused of stealing; your voice and tone and the substance of your words helped me see past the more general anger and sadness I felt as a kid when my parents separated; your words made me feel whole and like there was an order in a world I felt was deeply flawed and unfair. Feeling good about myself and the world has helped me later in life, in tough times like the one with my mom now. I’m happy to have her holding my arm tightly, allowing some of her fear to press into me and lighten her load. That’s made all the difference.


The following is a letter I wrote to my youngest sister, Sophie. I’m proud of her, as she is about to mark the end of her two-year commitment to the Peace Corps where she has served as a community organizer in a remote high-altitude village in the mountains of Peru. She currently lives with her sponsor family in an adobe house, which is state of the art in those parts. You can read more about her incredible experience here. With permission, here is the letter.



As you wind down your Peace Corps assignment in Peru I have some more (unsolicited) thoughts for you around the future. Your future 🙂

Deep, incredible international experience is now part of who you are. I am very excited for you, because I believe that an international education will lead us—and your generation in particular—to a rich life of insights, humanity, and livelihood.

The Economist has a special report about “innovation in emerging markets” in the April 17 issue, and I want to talk with you about some of these ideas as you set the table for your future.

Innovation is a buzzword of our times, in some ways born of the current global economic crisis. In a word, from a US perspective, we are in deep doggy-doo-doo because we’ve chosen to focus on being “the number one consumer society” and on delivering services, rather than on manufacturing things here at home.

We offshore manufacturing to a large extent because there was a time when people and countries with “fewer skills” were “cheaper” to hire than the American workforce. Prior to this era, though, Americans were known around the globe as “the world’s innovators.” Technology, democracy, capitalism (and all the products and services under these mega-umbrellas) are a few of the major innovations we’ve developed or refined.

The approach we took over the past 50-60 years worked for decades, but then problems began to emerge: These pesky things called the Third World and the Second World (that’s what we called them until the late-80s) started to change—and many of them evolved, sometimes (due to their sheer numbers) rather quickly. And they aspired to higher global status—as people, communities, nations, and regions.

And as the years went by, they changed more and we changed less, to the point when astounding events occurred in the global social and economic marketplaces, which caught us off guard.

One problem with the US approach was exactly around this notion of “innovation:” Often times, innovation occurs at the manufacturing stage, or level of an economy. When you outsource that capability, you give away a potential competitive advantage.

Think of how Japan (Toyota) passed the US (the Big 4) in automobile quality, performance, and cost in the 1980s. The Japanese innovated on their assembly lines by applying the ancient principles of kaizen (around “making change for the better”) to car manufacturing.

These innovations in business processes became known as ”Lean Manufacturing,” which in turn spawned another innovation called “Just In Time” business practices, whereby a company only manufactures/inventories products when customers order them, rather than producing millions of units and storing them (which costs money and erodes profits) while marketing them to customers (which costs money and erodes profits).

So finally American firms (like everyone else in the world) adopted Lean Manufacturing and JIT business practices/processes where/when it made sense in order to remain at competitive parity with the rest of the competitive world.

Another problem with the US approach was that it did not account for the rise of emerging economies, which possess the potential to grow vast middle classes (ones that dwarf the US market by factors of 10 and more!) very rapidly.

These so-called “emerging markets” have finally “emerged.” I remember when we stopped calling them the Second and Third World and started calling them “emerging,” to signify their non-static, yet still inferior (relative and subjective) economic qualities and status.

“Emerged nations” (let’s coin the term!) aspire to what they believe is their destiny, just like Americans did in their time of modern emergence.

Emerged nations are not as “cheap” as they used to be, and when they produce goods for the US today, those goods aren’t so cheap for Americans to buy anymore.

This trend toward “economic parity” will continue to drive forward until it costs the same (or more) to produce something abroad, at which point the incentive for the US to outsource the manufacturing functions will disappear.

So let’s keep track: First we lost a competitive edge to innovate by off-shoring critical manufacturing industries and functions; next we lost the benefits that the off-shoring originally held for us; and finally, we might have lost the fire-in-the-belly to “make things” and the business capabilities necessary to do so.

An example of this trend, which hits quite close to home, comes from Canada:

There was a long period of time when the US had twenty-five cents (or more) on the Loon. It was precisely under those economic conditions in 2003 when eBay—searching for an in-expensive English-speaking nation in which to set up a Call Center to serve its growing English-speaking user base (think Canada, US, UK, and Australia)—went to Vancouver (Burnaby, specifically) and opened the eBay Customer Service Center.

The Center bulged to 600+ employees over a two-year period. It was a boon for the B.C. economy, and it looked like a great play for eBay’s bottom line.

Until the globalization tsunami hit Western Canada’s shores:

On July 1 (Canada Day, ironically), 1997 the Brits had handed Hong Kong back to PRC, and many, many HK residents (Chinese nationals, not expats), removed their money from HK and went looking for a safe place (preferably English-speaking, which they’d grown up with in HK), and with better air quality, to invest it.

And they found Canada. Vancouver, specifically, located on the opposite shores of their beloved homeland. Pristine, ready, willing, and waiting.

Over the next decade real estate prices in Vancouver (and Burnaby) went through the roof, and then through the stratosphere, and they’ve been going up ever since.

This global economic shift (from East to West) combined with the softening of the USD (think 2001 dot-com bubble-burst, think 9/11 economic crisis; and then credit defaults, mortgages, and financial scandals since then), caused a “very perceptible” re-balancing of economic power in the North American region.

It was so “perceptible” that eBay Inc. shuttered the Burnaby Center last year because it was simply more expensive to operate in Canada than it was to operate back in the US and offshore, in India (for now, anyway).

I wonder if anyone on the eBay Facilities Search Committee back in 2002 was aware of the impending economic impact of 1997 on Vancouver. If they had been aware, I wonder if they’d have chosen Burnaby in the first place (it’s very, very expensive to ramp up, train, open, operate, and then wind down and shutter a 600+-person operation in a 6-year period).

But in contemporary implementations of corporations in America, we often find textbook cases just like this, where a strategy is formulated, ratified by the BoD, and implemented around the short-short-term (i.e. the Wall Street Quarter) despite knowledge (or at least well-informed strategic insights) that might inform a different course if the Long-Term had been the point of reference.

I wonder if we’ll ever know.

But back to the main point: Not only that, but the larger issue is that those “emerged economies” will begin to focus their attention on their own, truly vast markets of consumers (whom we have almost wholly ignored, btw) instead of “existing to serve the US markets.”

Here are some of the main issues that will confront companies that attempt to market to those “emerged markets” (per the Economist’s special report article called, “Easier said than done”):

“As companies work their way down the income pyramid, the problems proliferate. Distribution is tricky: modern retail chains account for only a third of consumer goods sold in China and a fifth in India. Branding can have pitfalls: the locals may be suspicious of foreign products. Companies may find themselves up against feisty rivals that they have never heard of, not to mention unscrupulous pirates. And China’s rural areas account for 54% of its population but produce a much lower share of its GDP.”

It goes on:

“Companies in search of the much-vaunted fortune at the bottom of the pyramid have to start not with consumers but with non-consumers. They need to get inside poor people’s heads to develop new markets, shaping people’s tastes and establishing habits.”

This plain talk sounds crude and opportunistic at first blush; however, the context of the point about “non-consumers” and “shaping people’s tastes” is we must attempt to objectively define the challenge of marketing to an “emerged market” whose people really don’t know how to be consumers yet, despite their desire to move from ag-based economies toward a more free market-styled one, and that we (in the US and elsewhere) don’t know how to market to “emerged markets.”

The challenge we all face is how to approach this dynamic with a balanced view of capitalism, humanitarianism, and with a view to preserving cultures and values. (An excellent book that delves deep into these issues is “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics,” by Professor Yasheng Huang of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.)

Opportunity knocks—It beckons you, little sister, to have a look deep into the future. Your future:

By any standard, you have a world-class college education. Not only that, you’ve studied broadly rather than narrowly by learning about social sciences, literature, and political science. I remember reading one of your early college papers (I was on a flight to the Burnaby Center, I believe, when I read it) about understanding radical Muslim behavior.

It was a well-researched and passionately written paper, which left me inspired and wanting to learn more (though it could have come off as trite and plain in less capable hands).

As a young person, you were ahead of the Awareness, Passion, and Sensitivity curves.

And now, as the country and other limbs of the economic globe have stumbled and fallen into recession, you chose to employ yourself as a volunteer in Peru, which “is considered an Emerging Market according to the MSCI.”

You were pulled to Peru, as I understand it, for humanitarian reasons, which is the best news because that’s given you even more platform from which to listen and learn, and to help as possible.

Your choice was not (again, as I understand it) motivated exclusively or even partially by capitalism, per se.

Back to the Economist article for a second:

“Some companies even employ corporate anthropologists…Heavy investment in education is also essential. Unilever has teamed up with various NGOs to teach people about the importance of washing their hands and other aspects of personal hygiene. So far more than 130 million people have undergone such instruction, which makes it perhaps the biggest educational exercise in human history. This has helped not only to create a market for the company’s soaps and detergents but also to forge a bond of trust with potential consumers.”

When I learned about Unilever’s initiatives, I naturally thought of your own “Healthy School” initiative in Peru, which the Peruvian Ministry of Health acknowledged by awarding your school and work with national accreditation. My eyes widened as I thought of the possibilities.

Above I emphasized that capitalistic notions did not motivate you and I think you know I applaud that. My reasoning is simple, and twofold:

First, it’s critical for young people to learn how to give when they are young and open to ideas. Volunteering is all about giving. And while parts of capitalism are sort’a-kinda about giving, it really isn’t about that.

Second, going abroad provides you with a critical (and differentiated) point of view about what capitalism could be about. Is our 20th century US implementation of it (along with the legal and social frameworks, our taxation frameworks, and our sense of “community” and social welfare, etc.) really the right one for today and the future? What does the rest of the world–especially “emerged nations”–have to say?

Can we imagine an implementation that is appropriate? One that will serve a broader notion of the terms “worker” and “owner”?

I think so. But I think others in the world will be framing it this time. With contributions from the West, no doubt.

So where will you fit into this? Where do you want to fit into this future that is happening right now?

Is it important to you to “contribute” to the shaping of the future? I think for most people this thought is too abstract to act upon, and too daunting.

For others, though, the notion is only abstract to the extent we are unwilling to grapple with it, to formulate it. For these folks, it is an opportunity not an obstacle.

One answer might be to live and work in the US, either “letting it happen” (passive implementation) or trying to influence as best as you can from within “corporate America” (slightly less passive to slightly proactive implementation).

Another answer might be to live and work abroad, either with a multinational (from anywhere, not necessarily the US), or for a “local” firm. Not sure either of these would be more proactive by definition.

Unilever (an Anglo-Dutch multinational) and P&G (a US MN) both take a longer view than most:

“The techniques they use include “embedding” employees with local families in order to study their day-to-day behavior. P&G sends young marketing people to live with Chinese peasants for months on end.”

Or you can take your own long view, one in which you do not think in short-terms nor do you think about personal gains. Instead, you think about big economic trends. You think of the gaps, and economic dis-parity. You let your mind go to those places for inspiration and information about where things are headed. And, if you’re inclined, you pick one or more of those, and influence in every way you can, by all available means at your disposal.

In short, you continue—as you began in Peru—to develop deep relationships one day at a time, and for the long view, regardless of where you are or with whom or for whom you work.

If you do these things, you will find fulfillment and you will have a tremendous impact. All the rest (passion, love, sustenance will follow naturally).

Here ends the unsolicited thoughts for your consideration.



© 2009 John Dila

As the world becomes “flatter” we are all learning more and more about things we didn’t even know we knew.

Open wide!

Or are we?

A few years ago I read an article about wine-making and wine-tasting, which made some interesting points around the language the connoisseurs use to describe a wine’s “bouquet,” “nose,” and “finish.” Think: oaky, plump, buttery, dry, robust, smoky, huckleberry, citrus, soapy, corky, stony, sour, vanilla, vegetal, watery, woody, and so on.

Turns out we use common language.

And it is extremely accurate, if accurate is defined as a large, normalized group of individuals agreeing on meaning, quality, or some other measurable dimension.

The words we use are common, everyday.

After reading the article, I found that when I closed my eyes, sipped, and listened to my nose, throat, and palate, I really tasted the dark berries, ground pepper, and a hint of earth and dry dirt. Why didn’t I trust my palate before?

Or, more to the point: Why didn’t I trust my vocabulary?

Here’s an excellent quote from today’s New York Times that illustrates just how this works–this use of common language to reveal how something actually (or might actually) work:

“FOOD partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters.

Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy. I don’t hate cilantro, but it does sometimes remind me of hand lotion. Each of these associations turns out to make good chemical sense…

Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects…”

Cilantro (aka coriander).

A piece in the Economist recently put forward that we (Americans) are reading three times as much as we did two or three decades ago:

“The amount of reading people do, previously in decline because of television, has almost tripled since 1980, thanks to all the text on the Internet.”

Quantity is up, which sounds good. But what’s the quality of what we’re reading? And what’s the relevance?

Antioxidants is a fine example of a word and concept which have taken the Internet (and millions of our households and gym conversations) by storm. Watch this to see what I mean:

The problem is, the buzz created around this word by savvy marketeers diverts attention away from the absence of substantial content–i.e. What the hell is an antioxidant, and why should we care?

Which half of Welch’s marketing budget do you think antioxidants fall into–the half they knew worked or the other half?

Literature offers another example. It used to be that a book from any one of the major publishing houses would be solid, timely, and worth reading. But is the content we get from them today worth more than what we get online? Is the quality better? We pay for it, so shouldn’t it be better (more entertaining, more accurate, more complete, more persuasive, etc.)?

How many celebrity tell-all books do you plan to read in your spare time this year? Maybe this one by Andre Agassi (and his ghost), published by Knopf?

The writing about the big houses is on the wall: They’ve chosen to adopt the blockbuster business model and to pursue quantity sold versus the quality of the content.

Fair enough. If quantity is your business.

Metaphor. Now that’s a robust concept worth its weight in syllables. Watch how this unassuming trope reveals a very credible explanation (as much as any one in the world can probably peg it in a meaningful way) of the complex topic of Cilantro (from the same piece in today’s NYT article):

“Dr. Gottfried turned out to be a former cilantrophobe who could speak from personal experience. He said that the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences.

The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions, he explained, because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.

If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.”

Coming up in the next Dila View: Can laypeople really learn to understand all the complex things the “professionals” know just because laypeople can now read about them on the Internet?

Or, put another way:

Can (and WILL) the professionals figure out how to use language to communicate so the rest of us can understand?

© 2009 John Dila

In the beginning, people shopped online because it was “cheaper;” the thinking was that online stores didn’t have the same cost overheads brick-and-mortars had and so they passed on the savings to consumers. This probably was the case, and it likely still is, to some extent.

But the past ten years has brought fierce competition for online dollars, and the online shopping experience is constantly evolving.

Today, “cheap” is not the only (or even the most important) reason why we shop online: Convenience, selection, delivery speed, and even belonging to a “community” of like-minded shoppers (think KarmaLoop and Apple) are today’s reasons for much of the money being spent online.

Getting good, if not stellar service online is more and more important to consumers. Today, if the service sucks, you won’t go back.

Today, The Dila View highlights the launch of a new firm —–which brings objectivity and transparency to assessing and rating online customer experience on the Internet.

STELLA–launching today–will analyze and rate all online businesses and give each one a STELLARating (a number from 0 -100) indicating how good (or poor) its online service is. Formed in April 2009, the company’s Advisory Council and highly trained analysts represent today’s thought-leaders in the area of online customer service, and bring this focus to bear on the independent STELLARating methodology.

Consumers can look for the STELLASeal on websites and will be able to recognize quality online service immediately–and avoid those companies with poor scores.

In turn, low scores will help poor-performing companies identify weaknesses, improve their service, and attract more customers (especially repeat customers!).

In March, STELLAService’s CEO, Jordy Leiser, commissioned an independent research survey “to examine the value of great customer service in the U.S. economy, with a particular focus on how great customer service impacts the online retail category.” The research concludes:

“Consumers in the online retail category are willing to pay even more (10.7%) for great service, which should come as no surprise given the comfort and peace of mind that most consumers want while purchasing from the seemingly distant and remote online marketplace.”

View the results and dollar figures (it’s not a small number)!

Now that the firm has officially launched, watch for the STELLASeal on sites where you intend to shop. If you see it, you’ll know someone you can trust has closely evaluated the company and has rated its performance.

STELLAService would love your comment and feedback. You can find us on FB, Titter, and all the usual places, or you can contact me directly (

© 2009 John Dila

There’s a fascinating report in the Feb27 issue of The Economist about “the data deluge,” which everyone should read.

Photo courtesty of The Economist

Photo courtesty of The Economist

Of course, the article is weeks old by now, and no one is likely to go back to find it.

The topic, though, is fascinating because it’s a snapshot of something that’s been happening for a long time and that’s still in play: As a race, humans are creating more and more data, and we are at a point when we can actually see some of the results of this trend with the naked eye.

In fact, data will only become more important to each of us—individually and as a global community—in more and more practical, structured ways in the coming months and years.

Some economists opine, “Data are becoming the new raw material of business,” and we–teachers, students, buyers, sellers, gardeners, technologists, healthcare workers, bankers, governments, all of us–would be remiss if we don’t take time to understand what this might mean.

Here are a few quotes/highlights from the article, which will spawn several upcoming shorter blogs about these trends in data and policy that are shaping human daily life.


“Torture the data long enough and they will confess to anything.”


“A new kind of professional has emerged, the data scientist, who combines the skills of software programmer, statistician and storyteller/artist to extract the nuggets of gold hidden under the mountains of data.”


“Just as the microscope transformed biology by exposing germs, and the electron microscope changed physics, all these data are turning the social sciences upside down…Researchers are now able to understand human behavior at the population level rather than the individual level.”


“What we are seeing is the ability to have economies form around the data—and that is a big change at a societal and even macroeconomic level.”


“Data are becoming the new raw material of business: an economic input almost on par with capital and labor.”


“The amount of reading people do, previously in decline because of television, has almost tripled since 1980, thanks to all the text on the Internet.”


The data-centered economy is just nascent…You can see the outlines of it, but the technical, infrastructural and even business model implications are not well-understood right now.”


“Best Buy, a retailer, found that 7% of its customers accounted for 43% of its sales.”


“Wal-Mart is a good example. The retailer operates 8,400 stores worldwide, has more than 2M employees and handles over 200M customer transactions each week.”


“Visa, a credit-card company, in a recent trial with Hadoop [a new technology]  crunched two years of test records, or 73 billion transactions…The processing time fell from one month with traditional methods to a mere 13 minutes.”

© 2009 John Dila


I have a big favor to ask:

I want you to take a short survey that will help an early-stage startup company that is launching this spring (go directly to the survey!).

Here’s what’s in it for you:

First, you get to help shape the beginnings of a brand-new company by giving your views on important aspects of customer service; second, you can follow the course of an early-stage startup as it enters the market; and third, you can win an iTunes gift card for doing it!

Here’s the background:

I currently have the opportunity to advise this early-stage startup that’s breaking into the online customer service rating business.

Many companies and research firms today are talking about customer service and user experience; this startup is taking a decidedly fresh approach to it.

We’re running a survey to discover your preferences for customer service when you shop online.

The company, which is in stealth mode (meaning, it has not formally launched yet), will use the survey responses to build key aspects of its strategy and business.

Here’s the link to the survey (it takes about 3 minutes to complete):

Click  EMAIL SUBSCRIPTION over on the right to follow!

Thanks for your help!


Why do we do things the way we do—health care, mortgages, credit/debt, US Senate rules, voting rules, foreign policy, and so on?

“Because that’s the way we’ve always done them,” comes the response, couched in educated certitude and embroidered into the fabric of the flag.

It’s why we require 60 votes to block a filibuster—that’s not a law, it’s just the way we’ve always done it. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in the 1890s) that changes to Senate rules could be achieved by a simple majority: “The constitution empowers each house to determine its rules of proceedings,” so we could change this old rule any time. We just have to decide to do it.

To question these things—for some—is sacrilege. Or worse. For others, to question the system seems daunting, complex, unpatriotic even. For yet others, questioning the status quo poses a serious threat to those who reap benefits from the way things are currently done.

But at a time when so many of our systems are on the brink of breaking, are breaking, and are already broken, some step-changes—not incremental ones—might offer the best solutions for our families and our nation.

I was raised in Canada and I remember when the Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, led the country to break away from England in 1982. Before that, Canada was governed by a constitution that was a British law! That was a step-change.

Pierre Trudeau does a pirouette at Buckingham Palace five years before he breaks away from Britain.

There is no blanket answer that will solve all our problems. We will not unearth an economic or social panacea. Our economy is a vast system—not unlike Avatar’s bio-botanical neural network that Pandora’s Na’vi are connected to—interconnected not only from within but also to all other economies around the globe. We’re very interdependent today; we act alone at our peril.

Also, it is very possible (likely) some of our fundamental values and systems are fatally flawed (like Canada’s Constitution had become).

But short of a panacea, there is something each of us can do, which can have a large impact, and give us more understanding of the issues, and provide better control and focus to fix things for the long-term.

We can stop sniffing the horse’s ass!

Stop accepting the stock responses we give and get.


The Horse’s Ass, in fact, was a key dimension in early Western vehicle design: In Rome, when chariots were the chassis of choice and horses were the state-of-the-art power-plant that pulled them, design was all about the width of the horse’s ass.

Note: Width of chariot's axle = width of horse's ass.

The question, though, is: Why do we still design vehicles the same width (almost exactly) today as we did two-thousand-plus years ago?


You’re driving on a road today. It has ruts—made over time by the weight of trucks and cars, all of which were designed with a similar wheel-axle width.

But why that width?

Well because, of course, the roads were designed to accommodate that size, that’s why!

But why?

Well because, of course, before cars were invented those roads were carriage roads, and that’s how wide they were built, that’s why, silly!

But why?

Well because, of course, before carriages were invented for the masses the roads were used by Romans who rode in chariots, and they were that wide, that’s why, silly!

But why?

Well because, of course, Romans designed chariots to be pulled by a horse, silly, and they designed them as wide as—you guessed it—the horse’s ass, that’s why! (I’ve adapted the horse’s ass myth a little for poetic effect.)

A horse’s ass in the ointment

“Why do companies exist?” is a question we ask a lot in business school. And news reporters often ask it after a scandal breaks at a well-known firm, when evidence of “creative accounting,” or fraud, is brought to light.

In the final trimester of our 20-month EMBA—we’d built up to that lofty pinnacle by studying Organizational Behavior, Statistics, Finance, and Marketing first—our cohort studied “Strategy.”

Oooh. Ahhhhh!

Everyone in the class was excited to dig into the texts, read the cases, and discover enlightenment.

That weekend, as I finished Chapter One: Strategic Management: Creating Competitive Advantages, I found this little gem among the exercises and ethics questions at the end:

“A company focuses solely on short-term profits to provide the greatest return to the owners of the business (i.e., the shareholders in a publicly held firm). What ethical issues could this raise?”

Ah, great question, I thought. Finally we are getting to the good part.

I immediately started flipping through our strategy tome looking for the chapter that would address this question.

Baffled, I discovered the chapter did not exist.

Follow the horse’s ass

And we—collectively—beat up Corporate America for its failings, scandals, and that pesky 400-to-1 top-earner-to-bottom-earner salary ratio in many of our firms today.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some firms put caps on top earners. At Whole Foods, for example, “No one at the company can have a salary more than nineteen times what the average team member makes.”

Whatever else you might want to label Whole Food’s monetary reward practices, it is an example of the planned abandonment of the standard way of rewarding executives.

Whoa! as you would say to a horse when you want her to stop:

People who studied business texts lead our businesses today, so maybe we should draw a line from those leaders to another horse’s ass:

Maybe our business schools—our professors, committees, and chancellors—and the governments, corporations, and large publishers that subsidize them, are not ready to admit the textbooks we write and curricula we develop are too narrow (or wide) for the global road we’re on.

Why do companies exist?

A business student will always answer, “It depends.”

But if you ask your own children, or a small-business owner, or someone from a different country, the answers will have something to do with customers and their needs and wants.

So now customers are part of the value chain of the horse’s ass.

We (customers) save our hard-earned money to put little Jenny into the very best schools our money can buy. The ones—that’s right—that are teaching the wrong stuff at the wrong time to the wrong generation to solve the wrong problems.


It’s difficult to change a horse’s ass, but you may change horses if you like

Peter Drucker (1909-2005)—a writer and business management professor—developed the notion of “planned abandonment,” by observing how business and government tend to cling to “yesterday’s success” rather than seeing and accepting when something no longer works well.

Peter Drucker...planned abandonment.

Peter Drucker...planned abandonment.

It’s easy to understand why we “cling to yesterday’s success:” It takes time to build a company, a country, and an economy. It takes massive investment—of capital and human resources—and deep commitment.

When we finally build something and really get it humming along with a good revenue growth curve, or GDP, it’s hard to say, “Wait a minute, this isn’t any good any more; let’s change it!”

Yet the pace of change in the world is unprecedented today, across all dimensions: From 1986 to ’96 China had the second highest economic growth in the world (11.4%), but from 1996 to ’06 seven new countries had even higher growth than China; and there’s Moore’s law, which describes the long-term trend of how computer processing speed and memory capacity doubles every two years, driving more, newer, and faster changes in society, enabling new kinds of change, powered by social media, micro-loans, and global economies; and we are using our natural resources faster than ever as more nations emerge as buyers and sellers in the global marketplace.

Planned abandonment is about seeing, accepting, and doing something about the situation, rather than giving—and/or accepting—a Horse’s Ass answer, taking a Horse’s Ass approach, and becoming a Horse’s Ass.

When your gut tells you there’s a Horse’s Ass standing in front of you, don’t just stand there: Put on protective eyewear and call, “Horse’s Ass!”

If you don’t, you may as well be looking in a mirror.

© 2009 John Dila

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