Methodology versus Management

I’m working in Dubai for several weeks this month, and struck by the management and leadership structure of the country. The political system is the antithesis of the democracies usually favored by the west: essentially a monarchy with no voting and no meaningful citizen participation, but also one of the new breed of “benevolent dictatorships” that many look to admiringly. Fans of this system point to places like Dubai and China and their ability to accomplish massive infrastructure projects in months, and an ability to implement a clear and consistent vision for the benefit of their citizens, without having to deal with the objections of those same citizens they aim to serve. Projects that would take western democracies years of debate and consideration are planned, approved, completed and forgotten before a western country could pick up a shovel or pass a relevant law.

In Dubai’s case, effective leadership drives expansion more than some inherent benefit of the political system that’s employed. The Middle East and Africa have no shortage of patriarchal monarchies, and Dubai’s individual leaders seemingly have leveraged the system to exploit their talents, essentially a victory of management and leadership over political methodology.This of course brings up the nagging question and inherent flaw of absolute rule: are the economic miracles in places like China and Dubai sustainable if the next generations of leaders lacks the talents of their predecessors?

The great power of western democracies is their considered advancement, and the general inability of a single person to completely corrupt and change the system without consent of the citizenry. Without delving too deeply into a political discussion, this is a nice analogy for the old debate in the corporate space about whether individual leaders or disciplined processes and methodologies create maximum benefit. In extreme cases, one can compensate for any flaws of the other, but they are most effective together.

Travel contrasts

Travel is an interesting and complex industry, particularly when you contrast air and lodging. The various US flag air carriers offer a virtually indistinguishable service offering, and are all seemingly racing to the bottom. Most airline news seems to be about an additional fee being tacked onto the ticket, a service being stripped from the offering, or a passenger, security agent, or employee becoming enraged by the process and doing something uncouth. My favorite quip from a flight attendant nicely sums up the whole experience: “We’re here for your safety and not your comfort.”

Contrast that with hotels, where there are a variety of product offerings at different price points and with different and diverse services. Even medium-sized cities offer everything from a $30/night basic room, to suites with butler service and Tiffany crystal chandeliers. I’m a frequent consumer of both air and hotel services, and the latter always seem happy to work with me, from telephone agents, to high-quality websites, to the housekeeper that’s quick with a “good morning” and a smile. Contrast that with the airlines where even decent customer service is an exception, and front-line employees treat customers as an inconvenience rather than their raison d’être.

My brand of choice, Starwood Hotels, even called me earlier this month to award me with lifetime membership in their elite club (all for the somewhat dubious distinction of having spent approximately three years of the last ten in their hotels), which entailed several new benefits, without action or prompting on my part. When designing your customer interaction points and service offerings, do you have a variety of levels of interaction? Do you offer new and exciting products, some of which are completely unbidden by the customer? In short, are you there for your customers’ comfort and safety?

Beating Jet Lag

While not directly related to IT management, I wanted to relay some of the best advice I ever received for beating jet lag, a frequent nuisance for the travel-heavy schedule that many IT leaders endure. The “cure” for jet lag is simple: stay awake until at least 8PM upon arrival. If you’re completely dead on arrival, a nap of no more than 45 minutes is fine, but the key is staying awake until 8-9PM, even if you feel like a complete zombie.

I’ve used this trick when travelling to and from the US, EU, and Asia, and usually am adapted to the local time zone within a day, or at most two days when enduring the 12 hour time change from the eastern US to Asia. I used to take a long nap upon arrival, then spend 2-3 days waking up around 2AM local time and being unable to get back to sleep, but the 8-9PM trick has solved that.

I hope this helps the jet-set among you, and I wish you safe (and jet lag-free) travels!

Greece and Turkey

I am sitting with my wife in the Aegean lounge at the Thessaloniki airport after a wonderful few days in this city to deliver a speech on how Breakthrough IT can help companies become more flexible to deal with the Greek economic crisis. The people, food, and city have been wonderful, although I can barely comprehend having to live through this economic crisis. Business owners I spoke with mentioned everything from wondering if their company will succeed, to concerns about their children leaving Greece as they see little future here. Heavy stuff and much more real than the TV images and editorial commentary that glibly places blame without consequence.

We are now off to Istanbul, the supposed sister city of Thessaloniki from the Byzantine period, and a place we have never visited. I’m looking forward to more Mediterranean food and exploring this amazing part of the world.

Time off!

My family and I are off to New Hampshire, to spend some time in the mountains, and more importantly see my parents and help my father with some “inventory control” in his wine cellar. Now that’s some supply chain optimization I can get behind!

Pat versus the Volcano

Like many other travelers, I am currently stuck in Europe, due to the volcanic ash cloud spreading over the continent. My flight was supposed to leave this morning from CDG airport in Paris, but was cancelled yesterday and rescheduled to next Sunday.

Not being one to easily admit defeat and sit around waiting, I had booked backup flights out of Madrid and Rome for Thursday and Friday, battling travel websites that would show a flight one minute, and then have it fully booked seconds later. With all our technology and seeming invincibility it’s a bit humbling to be at the mercy of a volcano a few thousand miles away, and the whims of the trade winds.

Either way, I am off via car to Madrid in the hopes of clearer skies and functioning aircraft. Wish me luck!

Travel Tips

While this topic strays a bit from our usual IT management fodder, I’m frequently asked for packing tips since I spend an ungodly amount of time in airplanes.

Perhaps the best tip I’ve found is the most simple: lay out what you think you will need, and then put half of it back in the closet, especially for a longer trip. Bring flexible clothing that you can layer, or that serves multiple purposes (for example a comfortable “upscale” pair of shoes you can use for evenings out on the town yet also wear for long walks around an unfamiliar city).

I also recommend creating a reusable packing list (this could be as simple as a document on your computer that you print for every trip). When you get home, remove the items you didn’t use from the list and after several trips you will have the “perfect” packing list customized for your needs. I categorize mine for groups of items that I may or may not need depending on the type of trip, so I have a group of items for international trips, items for running if I’ll have time for a run on a trip, and cold weather items.

Finally, nearly every town in the world has a dry cleaner with a “wash and fold” service that is priced quite reasonably. Most hotels also have this service, but it can be quite expensive except for many hotels in Asia. For long trips, this can really cut down on your packing, since you can stop in once or twice during the trip and have undergarments and whatnot washed and folded. I even do this occasionally before heading home so I don’t have a “gift” of a suitcase full of laundry for my wife!

Reflections on China

I spent about 60% of the last 8 months working for a client in China and wanted to share some observations, particularly around the Chinese economy. I grew up as the Berlin Wall fell and “casting aside the yoke of their oppressor” seemed to be an apt phrase to describe the images of the times. That experience gave me a pretty naive view of communism and I expected to land in China and see decrepit buildings, and sad-faced folks walking around in Mao frocks waiting to be delivered into the wide open arms of the West.

What I actually found surprised me: free markets in their most wild form, with all the good and bad that entails. The Chinese I worked with told me that it was extremely simple to open a business, corporate tax rates were very low, and concepts like the EPA, OSHA, etc. largely don’t exist. Free markets at their best and worst were on display: you could quickly start a business and keep nearly all of your earnings, but you could also dump toxins into the water, disregard intellectual property protections, hire and fire with little oversight, etc.

The major cities like Beijing, Shenzhen, etc., have conspicuous consumption that makes 5th avenue look like a flea market, and there are luxury cars and shops everywhere (Audi’s are the choice of party officials, and the highest level ones have top-of-the-line A8’s. I guess in a society of equals it pays to be “more equal” than others). Beijing has amazing avant garde buildings that would impress Howard Roark, and is surprisingly green and airy although the air pollution is as bad as you’ve heard if not worse.

While the society is traditionally patriarchal, women inhabit lots of high-level jobs in the companies I interacted with, and there seems to be less sexism in the office than in the US, but women take a more traditional role in the household than the US.

I was really interested in the political aspects of the country. There is obvious media censorship, and justice has a swift hand (9 people associated with the riots in the western provinces were executed while I was there to little fanfare), but the Chinese I spoke with don’t feel particularly oppressed or limited by their government, despite the sense you get from Western media that every Chinese is just biding their time to adopt a democracy. Most people I talked with were more concerned with how China will reconcile the haves and the have-nots as income gaps widen that replacing the communist party.

The final thing that threw me was that China is the first country I’ve visited that shares the US’ lack of outward focus. In the US we seem to have an attitude that we’re on the top of the food chain, and need not heed the trivialities of other countries. China already seems to feel it is destined for the top of the heap, and the US and Europe are old news that need not be paid much attention to. Despite this, I did not come across many anti-US or anti-Western attitudes. Oddly, the only country I heard some complaints about was the usually benign Canada, since they had been “starting trouble” over human rights.

Over it was an amazing place, and well worth a visit should you have the opportunity.