tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Early lessons in the presidential race

While they failed to clarify the race for presidency, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries taught us a lot.

Mike Huckabee's victory in Iowa over Mitt Romney shows that it is more important to connect with people than it is to be organized. Romney, the man with all the business experience, set up a highly sophisticated operation in Iowa. He was the clear leader before Jan. 3, based on the money he spent to put a professional campaign team in place in the state. Huckabee ran a much more modest operation. He didn't have nearly the money nor the organization. And he won. Whether you like Huckabee's message or not, it resonated with Iowans, and that is all that mattered when the results were tallied after the caucuses.

John McCain's victory on the Republican side in New Hampshire shows that we shouldn't pay any attention to the so-called experts. You might remember my post of April 19 last year where I reported on a presentation I heard by James Carville in which he predicted John McCain would drop out of the race before the Iowa caucuses. Carville, a political expert if ever there was one, clearly got it wrong. Not only was McCain still in the race, but he actually finished on top in one of the early states.

And third, Hillary Clinton's victory on the Democrat side in New Hampshire shows that we shouldn't pay any attention to polls. Going into the Jan. 8 primary, all the polls had Barack Obama winning handily. There was even talk about Hillary getting out of the race after her dismal showing in Iowa. But she won convincingly in New Hampshire, exposing the various polls as utterly worthless.

These lessons have application in the business arena. While it is important to have good systems in place, as Romney had in Iowa, it is far more important to have a product which resonates with potential customers. If your market is excited about your product, they will put up with minor delivery inefficiencies, but if they don't like your product, the best distribution system in the world won't do you any good.

Also in business, there are a million consultants who want you to pay them to tell you what to do. They position themselves as experts who know more than you do. Maybe some of them do, but most of them don't. If you are running a business or a department, you probably know more about what to do than anyone. People in business have to figure out who to listen to, and what expertise to pay for. But ultimately they have to make the important decisions themselves. A sure way to tank your business is to rely too heavily on the experts.

And finally, a lot of businesses spend big money on customer satisfaction surveys. I think these kinds of surveys are fine, but people in business should refrain from over-relying on them. Clinton proved that surveys provide only marginally-reliable information. Let's face it: a lot of people lie on surveys. People wrestle with all kinds of influences with they respond to pollsters or survey-takers. A lot of people simply tell the pollster what they think they want to hear to get it over with. Honest communication about anything takes a lot of time; a survey is rarely the best way to get an honest story.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Lindbergh and aviation made the world smaller

Flying to Florida and back last week got me to thinking about the best book I read in 2007, which was a biography of Charles Lindbergh. Born in 1902, Lindbergh was 25 when he flew nonstop to Paris from New York in May of 1927. A. Scott Berg in his 1998 book, "Lindbergh," offers a very detailed account of the aviator's 72-year life. I also really enjoy the insight the author provides into 20th century America. A lot changed between the time of that trans-atlantic flight and Lindbergh's death in 1974.

The book gives you a sense of a country growing up. Far-away places became accessible in the course of those decades. In the beginning of the century, it seemed inpossible that things going on in Europe and Asia could have much to do with the United States, but World War II changed all that. Aviation made the world smaller and suddenly we were living in a global community, enjoying the world's blessings but also entangled in its problems.

In the early 20th century, aviation was a curiosity. It took a daredevil to fly in an airplane, let alone pilot one. But aviation quickly developed, initially proving particulary useful for mail delivery. Those mail routes paved the way for passanger service. Lindbergh did a lot of work to scout out the best routes and make recommendations about landing systems and airport design.

Aviation was a tremendous development in the history of humanity, but Lindbrergh ultimately lamented the progress. He said that during his lifetime the world changed from when "men flew airplanes to when airplanes flew men." Lindbergh was clearly a controlling personality and he wanted to control the machinery, he didn't enjoy being controlled by the machine. It's a tough trade-off for an adventurer but it was a necessary trade-off for bringing aviation to the masses.

The book offers a detailed account of the abduction and murder of the Lindbergh's first baby. We also get the story of Lindbergh's political thinking during the late 1930s and early 1940s. He desparately opposed U.S. intervention into the "war in Europe." Lindbergh made a lot of speeches urging the country to stay out of the war, a position similar to the one his father, a congressmen from Minnesota, took during the first world war.

Charles Lindbergh traveled to Germany several times during those pre-war years and people began to call him a Nazi. The book paints those allegations as being unfair. After the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh completely changed his sentiments regarding U.S. involvement in the war.

One of the most interesting parts of the book was the description of his relationship with his wife, Anne Morrow, the daughter of the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico who became a U.S. senator. They met shortly after Lindbergh's historic flight to Paris. She was stary-eyed and worshipped him. They married quickly and initially she traveled with Charles all over the world. As the children came, she traveled less, although Charles continued to travel frequently. He was gone for long stretches. As time passed, Anne wanted to make her own name. She was a writer who wanted to be recognized for her own skill rather than simply for being the wife of the aviator. The tension is well-described by Berg.

One of the things that is a little difficult to comprehend for a 21st century American, is the world-wide celebrity status Lindbergh gained completing that 33-hour flight to Paris. It was a celebrity status that lasted the rest of his life. Others who completed longer, more dangerous flights never knew such fame. There was something about Lindbergh that the whole world latched onto.

We have it so good in 21st century America. It is easy to forget it wasn't always like this. It wasn't always easy to get to Florida and back from Minnesota. Most Minnesotans throughout history never had a chance to fly to India. A book like Berg's "Lindbergh" helps a reader maintain some measure of perspective. And the natural result of that perspective for me is a certain measure of gratitude.

Friday, January 04, 2008

New Year's Day at Disney World

My family traveled to Disney World in Orlando for the New Year’s break, along with about a million other families from around the world. As we walked the streets of the Magic Kingdom on New Year’s Day, it seemed like everyone was here. I wondered: Why do they all come here?

Maybe it’s the weak dollar. The Euro and other foreign currencies are at historic highs against the American dollar, making it a very opportune time for foreigners to visit the United States. I heard many other languages being spoken by visitors around me.

But I suspect the reason throngs of people flock to Disney World is not so logical. A Disney vacation is clearly an emotional buy. If you thought about it too much, you wouldn’t do it. It’s too expensive, too hectic, and too crowded. When it comes to non-essentials, like winter vacations, people almost always buy with their heart, not their head. Walt Disney figured this out a long time ago.

The Disney experience appeals to the heart. It pushes the emotional hot buttons. We visited four theme parks in four days: Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park. We experienced only a fraction of what each venue has to offer, but what we saw was tremendous – from the thrill show at the Hollywood Studios, to the musical version of Finding Nemo at the Animal Kingdom, to the Buzz Lightyear ride in TomorrowLand at the Magic Kingdom. All the buildings and infrastructure looked new and authentic, whether we were in recreated villages from around the world (Epcot), or recreated scenes of classic Americana from a century ago (Magic Kingdom).

The entertainment in the parks is magnificent. The stage shows featuring the various Disney characters are very well done, with music, dancing, amazing costumes, and even fireworks. I liked the stage version of The Little Mermaid we saw at Hollywood Studios, and I liked the behind-the-scenes look they gave us at the soundstage featuring The Chronicles of Narnia.

I am intrigued by Walt Disney who created all this – not bad for a story teller. Sure, he was a businessman and movie maker, but his core ability is telling stories. And people have been attracted to his stories for decades. Often he does not even tell his own stories, but stories written by others. But he chooses good stories and tells them in a compelling fashion.

Essentially, the stories typically involve someone looking for happiness. In those stories, happiness is usually equated with finding the love of your life. Some good-versus-evil conflict often adds depth to the story. In the Disney version of the Hans Christian Andersen story, the Little Mermaid, for example, Ariel puts her soul on the line and gives up her voice for a three-day shot at the love of her life. I think the story is relevant today in a culture that regularly encourages young women to trade a valuable, un-retrievable personal asset for a chance at love.

There is something about the whole Disney experience, however, that has always rubbed me the wrong way. I used to think it was the commercialism, and gross over-exposure of the brand. But watching Mickey, Minnie and others dance on the stage in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom made me realize it is something else. The theme of the 20-minute song-and-dance was “believe in yourself.” At one point, Mickey says:
“All things are possible if you just believe in yourself.” Well, I think I have heard that before, only Mickey changed the last word. All things are possible if you believe in God. Believing in yourself is important, but useless if you don’t believe in God first. The God part of the message is never communicated. That is a sorry omission.

I liked the Disney parks, and my family will probably return at some point. People of any age can have a great time there. Disney tells a great story, whether that’s in the form of a movie, stage play or some kind of roller coaster ride. But it would be a mistake to look to Disney for theology. If you keep in mind that the theme parks are all fantasy, you won’t be misguided.