How you benefit from customer comments you were pretty sure you didn’t want

Due to a misunderstanding, at the last minute before takeoff an airline refused to allow a pair of special-needs passengers to fly. This upset the passengers deeply and stranded them at an unfamiliar airport.

No one should have been surprised that intense criticism of the airline spread rapidly via social media, portraying them as bad-guys even though the incident was (arguably) a one-time mistake by an isolated group of employees.

This wound up being a good thing, because:

The airline discovered this issue, apologized to the would-be passengers and their families, refunded their money, offered them additional free flights, and came up with a new process to keep the problem from recurring. All-in-all, the airline—our hometown favorite here in Seattle, Alaska Airlines—took a regrettable mistake, and did everything possible (considering it was after the fact) to make it right with those affected. In this way Alaska Airlines also earned positive PR by showing they’re the kind of company that owns up to their mistakes and jumps on an opportunity to do the right thing when they can.

> Read more about the “special needs passengers stranded by Alaska Airlines” incident

> Another great PR turnaround story:  FedEx responds after delivery guy caught on video throwing computer equipment over a fence

This post isn’t about Alaska Airlines—it’s about the other guys

I’m pleased to see more and more stories about companies turning customer complaints into positive publicity. But this post is for the other guys, anyone who isn’t sure they have the right attitude, either individually or organizationally, to handle all customer criticism in a positive way.

Poster child for the other guys: Continue reading “How you benefit from customer comments you were pretty sure you didn’t want”

Unwittingly funny GOP social media experiment failed by being generic

A recent US Republican Party social media experiment misfired not because of poor moderation, as some critics have assumed, but because site managers failed to recruit and motivate the right community. This post explores ways to create an open, uncensored forum that can more constructively represent both loyal followers and potential converts who were (presumably) the intended targets of the site.

Saying they want to “give the American people a megaphone to speak out,” last week GOP Congressional leaders announced a new web site, AmericaSpeakingOut.com, an open “town meeting” where everyone has an “[o]pportunity to change the way Congress works by proposing ideas for a new policy agenda.”

Despite an enthusiastic introduction by GOP leaders, wackiness ensued. Notable submissions on the site included unlikely suggestions, like: Continue reading “Unwittingly funny GOP social media experiment failed by being generic”

If you can lead, you can be effective in social media

Trading fives - in Jazz leadership moves aroundI recently participated in an in-person discussion about leadership attended by a number of people I know through social media. Because the instigators of the discussion, Pam Hoelzle and Ethan Yarbrough, publicized the event online, the composition of the group and the conversation itself were flavored by a social media perspective. The discussion delivered several valuable takeaways, but one idea that stood out because it was useful and a little counterintuitive was this: Effective social media participation is like effective leadership.

By “effective social media participation” I mean purposefully interacting with people via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media to find people and information we need to accomplish business and personal goals.

By “effective leadership” I mean motivating high performing people to work towards a common purpose, whether or not we are are the “manager” of those folks (one can lead by influence even when one isn’t in a position of authority).

During our discussion three common threads came out that connect effective social media participation and effective leadership: selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Selection. In both social media and leadership we benefit by choosing our contributors carefully.

In the context of social media I often call this “filtering”. A LOT of potentially useful information is Tweeted, blogged, Buzzed, or otherwise published by people analyzing (or simply regurgitating) what they discover. In fact, there is so much of this information, and meta-information, there isn’t nearly enough time to skim it all efficiently much less read it all. After participating in social media for a time–if it wasn’t obvious to us from the beginning–most of us recognize that just because someone Tweets brilliantly and has a large following doesn’t mean we’ll find the time to read their stuff very often (sorry, @StephenFry). Social media is best managed like a lavish all-you-can-eat buffet: even something that looks very tasty won’t make it onto our plates if taking it would require sacrificing something we desire even more. In social media an information source must be consistently relevant and efficient for our purposes to be useful, not just beautiful in our sight.

Similarly, in a leadership context an impressive resume is just a starting point when determining whether there’s a good fit between a potential team member and a position on our team. Which is why personal relationships and recommendations from people we trust are so valuable when recruiting team members–and when choosing social media sources. One must be selective to be effective.

Delegation is the powerful outcome of good contributor selection in both social media and leadership. Whether social media networks or work groups, ideally we implicitly trust our teams to produce quality results for us. Otherwise we’re tempted to second guess our contributors, which deprives them of the rewards of our recognition, duplicates effort, and leads us down the path of information overload. Like we trust the curator of an art gallery to collect and display a worthy collection or art, like we trust the editors of our favorite publications to discover and accurately portray stories for us, like we trust our auto mechanics to keep our cars running, we should trust our teams to do their jobs. If and when we don’t feel we can rely on our team, whether we’re working as a leader or as a participant in social media, that’s a not-so-subtle sign that we will benefit from improving our approach towards selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Reciprocation. Both social media and leadership require reciprocation to be sustainable. Other people contribute to our successes, and we contribute to theirs. That’s the nature of the bargain. The biggest mistake I see would-be social media “power users” and would-be leaders make is not focusing enough on what success looks like for their team members. A true leader (as distinguished from a “manager”) provides team members with what they value above and beyond their pay checks, for example, by encouraging them to take responsibilities that will help them develop personally and professionally. And just as leadership requires more than a checkbook and a list of instructions for employees to follow, social media mastery requires more than pumping out branded messages to subscribers. Social media rock stars listen to what is said in their networks, recognize needs, and respond by offering referrals, links, analysis, or whatever else they have to help meet those needs.

Vision. Last but not least: to be effective in either social media or leadership we must communicate a clear, consistent vision that lets people know what we want them to contribute, and thus (directly or indirectly) what they will be rewarded for contributing. If we can’t sustain the insight we need to define and communicate our vision we’ll have a difficult time selecting people who can contribute to it, and neither we nor our team members will be particularly good at providing what the other needs.

One final thought. As a leader, or as a participant in social media, we get out what we put in. Just as putting time, focus and energy into leadership is essential to be an effective leader, putting time, focus and energy into social media is essential to be effective in social media. Those of us who believe leadership or social media are among our core responsibilities are thus obligated to make studying and practicing our craft a high priority for so long as we wish to be effective.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the conversation, including but not limited to: Moderators @pamhoelzle and @Ethany; graphic interpreter @pdobrowolski; hosts @petechee and @alyssamag; and @jdkovarik, @colleencar, @ShaunaCausey, @coolguygreg, @cherylnichols, @RJHSeattle, @pmcmortgages, @blainemillet, and @shannonevans (there were other folks not mentioned here but I don’t have their details). The opinions in this post are my own, and these folks may or may not agree with what is written here, but either way I benefited from their contributions.

A social media primer for indie filmmakers

Last week I had the pleasure of spending an hour over coffee with a couple of Seattle-area independent filmmakers to talk about their social media strategy. In honor of the occasion I put together a short (9 slides) introduction to social media.

While there are details that are specific to filmmakers, most of the concepts are relevant to almost every organization, both commercial and non-profit.



A 1 page (2 sided) consensus “cheat sheet”

My previous post describes the benefits and limitations of the five-degree consensus process that I recommend to clients who use consensus decision making as part of their repertoire of business skills.

In this entry I offer you a downloadable chart plus a condensed, one-page explanation of how to use a consensus scale which you may want to print out for your own use or e-mail to friends and co-workers for their use. (If you’re really hard core, print the chart on special white-board paper for laser printers. Then you can mark and erase right on it as much as you want.)

DOWNLOAD IT HERE: > Using a five-degree consensus scale to reach consensus: the cheat sheet (in PDF Acrobat format)

To download it to your computer, right-click with your mouse (or on a Mac, option-click).

When, again, is a consensus process particularly appropriate? See my post from December 8, 2005 for a more detailed answer to this question. In general, a consensus process may be valuable when:

  • you want a proposal examined carefully. A consensus process pushes people proposing a course of action to clarify their reasoning and pushes others to wrap their minds around the proposal, encouraging everyone to understand it, ask questions, and offer input.
  • you fear weak follow-through, and thus you want to secure support up front or quit before setting a decision up for failure. A consensus process pushes everyone in a group to assume responsibility for a decision, including follow-through down the road.
  • you aren’t in a desperate hurry. Although a rapid decision may be reached by consensus, for speed alone you’re frequently better off assigning a qualified solo decision maker.

A simple consensus building process

A simple consensus process can reveal whether the members of a group agree about a proposed course of action while promoting discussion that can lead to agreement.

Polling a group using a five degree consensus scale “takes the temperature” of a group, instantly demonstrating when a proposal requires no further consideration either because it already has universal support or because opposition is overwhelming. When consensus for or against a proposal does not already exist, the scale identifies whose concerns need to be addressed and their degree of difference from others in the group, so that an effort can be made to close the gap or abandon the attempt to reach consensus.

Productive discussion is encouraged because it’s easy and acceptable for group members to express uncertainties, differences of opinion, and alternative approaches without appearing hostile, disruptive, or uncooperative towards the group or the group’s leader. Consensus is not a foregone conclusion using the scale, but the give-and-take atmosphere it facilitates helps with obtaining buy-in, discovering new options and changes in the plan, and enabling movement towards or away from support for a proposal.

Many consensus scales are in use utilizing hand gestures, cards, colors, or numerical tallies. The simplest might be the three-degrees scale such as “hot, neutral, cold” or “yes, maybe, no,” or “go, caution, stop,” but I find that a slightly wider range is useful in most cases. The following is a five-point scale I have adapted from a system sometimes called “shades of consensus” or “levels of consensus.”

After a plan of action has been proposed, each participant in the decision chooses a number from one to five to signal their degree of support. These numbers signal roughly the following:

      1: Yes. Let’s do it.
      2: OK. It’s good enough.
      3: Maybe. I have questions.
      4: Wait. Can we change it?
      5: No. Let’s do something else.

After everyone has weighed-in, all ones and twos show consensus support for a plan, although time might be well spent clarifying what, if anything, could be changed to bring twos up to ones. All fours and fives shows consensus opposition to a plan, although discussion may still be useful to generate a shared sense of why a proposal was rejected and to spur thinking about alternatives. Threes suggest more explanation is needed.

Some number of ones or twos alongside fours or fives demonstrates a lack of clear consensus and need for further discussion or in-depth exploration of options, if consensus remains the group’s goal. Polling a group with a consensus scale is an iterative process, which is to say, multiple polls can be taken to discover movement in consensus rankings, or lack thereof, after discussion.

It’s worth emphasizing that the whole point of this is to walk through the process, not to achieve a pre-determined outcome. What is more, deadlock is an entirely acceptable result using this technique. Using a consensus scale does not guarantee that a particular proposal will ultimately receive either consensus support or opposition. A strong contrary position taken by even one participant is enough to deny “consensus decision” status – but of course, there are always alternative proposals, and alternative ways to arrive at decisions besides consensus.

When a group is deadlocked, the value of a consensus process is that it reveals the existence of the deadlock and, hopefully, the reasons for it. Typically this leads to a new proposals which address the concerns on both sides of the consensus chart in a way which unifies everyone.

If a consensus can’t be reached, but a decision must be made regardless, it may become necessary to abandon the effort to reach consensus and to use another decision-making style instead. For example, if a board must arrive at a certain decision within a certain time frame, a failure to reach consensus may mean that a simple majority vote will be required instead. Or in a business group, it may become necessary for the senior person in the hierarchy to make an executive decision, delegate, or otherwise choose a different course for decision making. Either way, a group should begin a consensus decision-making process knowing the consequences it will face for failing to come to a decision, whether that means accepting responsibility for no decision being delivered or understanding that the decision will pass out of their hands and on to another process or person.

Regardless of the ultimate result, a consensus scale makes it a no-brainer for a diverse group of people to express and develop individual levels of understanding and enthusiasm, while making it easy for leaders to gauge the support a proposal will receive if it is adopted.

Balancing cost and quality in decision-making


AUDIO (PODCAST) EDITION: click here to listen to the audio edition of this topic (just over 4 minutes listening time–it’s a 2 MB download, which may take a while to load). Right-click (or on a Mac, option-click) to download it to your computer.


There is an apparent conflict between making decisions efficiently, which is to say, using a low-cost process for decision making, and making efficient decisions, the decisions that are most likely to lead to good quality results.

Decision process is important in several ways. For instance, delegation is an efficient decision-making process when it reduces the number of people involved and thus the total number of hours put into making a decision. This is true whether or not the person given decision-making authority has the most expertise in the area of the decision. Delegation also has potential intrinsic benefits. It can build decision makers’ expertise and help them develop in their organizational roles. In large part one learns to be a better leader by leading, and a salesperson by selling, and so on. Thus, even if the decision arrived at by a delegatee could have been improved upon by someone with more expertise, an organization benefits by using delegation as a process because of the time savings and the delegatee’s expertise building and role development.

But there can be costs associated with quick decisions, and decisions involving fewer people, as compared to slower decisions and decisions involving more people.

Decision quality, as well as the decision makers themselves, may benefit immensely when goals, assumptions, and alternatives are fully discussed. Even the most experienced, most qualified, most respected, and most intuitively gifted decision makers will face decisions that are outside of their expertise, or for which they lack adequate information, or which fall into their personal blind spots. Properly framed challenges help decision makers “check their math” and discover answers that may have been hidden.

Or as Richard Doherty was quoted by USA Today as saying about the turnaround at Apple when Steve Jobs resumed its leadership: “[H]e asked these amazing questions, and the company started to transform.”

Answering questions also helps decision makers articulate their decisions to the degree necessary to sketch a vision that others in the organization can get behind and follow through on. As well, those who ask questions develop their domain expertise, and refine their art as decision makers, by running through the mental workout of formulating and presenting questions.

But decisions which include the input and approval of larger numbers of people can be inefficient from a process perspective. Learning curves, egos, politics, or simply the sheer volume of people who want to be heard can make group processes extremely time consuming.

Your best practice will be to remain aware of the potential tradeoffs between efficient decisions and efficient decision-making. Make strategic choices somewhere between the two extremes, accept the potential downsides of your choices, and be prepared to deal with pitfalls should they appear.