A Eulogy for My Dad – What My Dad Taught Me

My dad passed away on June 19, 2012.  These are the words I shared with the community as we paid final tribute to him on June 23, 2012.

On June 3, 2012, just about three weeks ago, Dad turned 76 years old.  He seemed always to rally for the weekend get-togethers we’ve held since his diagnosis and his birthday weekend was no different.  I’m a lot like my dad, and my mom of course, as is my brother John.  It is true that we as children find ourselves evolving into our parents – physically (those ugly Gettel feet – that Hungarian (hunky) hair!) and in personality and character.

My dad, often had a hard time speaking about his feelings.  As Pastor Jackie will mention, he showed his love in many other ways and most often with delicious meals – our favorites served so many times.  I’m was a lot like my dad when trying to tell him about how proud I have been to be his daughter and to be part of the family that he and mom have fostered.  I have an easier time writing it down, so that’s what I did.  And as I gave him a hug and kiss to head back to Chelsea that birthday Sunday, I gave him a letter which my mom read to him. 

These are what I call, “the big three life lessons” that if I’m asked about what I learned from my dad, my mom, or growing up in a farm family that I try to convey.  There are more lessons to be sure, but these are the ones I share most with my friends and colleagues.

Work like a farmer – I believe I was a senior in high school and I overheard my dad talking with Uncle Earl or perhaps Uncle Tom.  I was in the side room probably studying notes from one of Mr. Thies’ science classes.  I heard him tell his brother something like, “No, I don’t have to get on her at all.  She’s so busy she doesn’t have time to get into trouble.  It’s hard to keep up with her and sometimes I think she should slow down.”  I recall being a bit shocked that he didn’t think that I had time to make trouble.  Why I was rebellious, I thought.  I’d show him, after getting through my science notes, I picked up my flute and only practiced for a half hour. (I had planned to practice for an hour.  This was my rebellion.)

The truth of it is that I learned to work this way from him.  I work like my dad – like a farmer.  I prepare and practice like I am planting or harvesting all that I can before the rain comes.  And when it’s raining, instead of moping around complaining that the rain is interrupting my progress, I make progress on things that the rain doesn’t impact.  I work ahead such that if an unexpected break-down happens, and it always does, it doesn’t severely hamper the process.  This has served me well in so many instances from being well-prepared for final exams to being over-prepared for work deadlines and presentations such that my project managers always wanted me for their projects (cheap labor!) and when things like “downsizing” came along, I somehow was overlooked.

Even if you mess up, we still will love you – This is that story that we still laugh about where on a sunny day in July, I found myself mowing over one of the new apple trees that had been planted in the spring.  After the shock of the sound of a shredding fruit tree between the blades of that old riding mower, I remember running into the house to find the file in the grey file drawer that had the information and map of all the apple trees.  Desperately, I tried to find the price of the tree.  I could not but went and found all the money I had and asked John if he thought it was enough to cover the cost.  He was sure it was not, and dejected, I went up and packed a few things as I figured I would be excommunicated from the house.  I then went and lay down on the couch dreading my fate and waiting until my dad or mom got home.  He arrived first, and upon hearing my story asked me one simple question, “Did you mean to do it?”  I responded that no, of course I hadn’t wanted to mow over the tree.  You said, “Then why would I be mad at you?”  The weight from my shoulders lifted and the sickness in my stomach went away.  Shortly thereafter, mom drove in from her hair appointment (those were the bu-font days – they call them up-do’s now!) that had been lengthened from a persistent Alec Kovach who insisted on buying her a birthday drink at “George’s.”  Not only was Mom not upset with me, she felt terrible because I had suffered so long waiting for a return of a parent to let me know my fate – that even if I messed up, I’d still be loved and still be welcomed into my home.  And that brings me to my last point today.

Go ahead and try.  You can always come home.  There isn’t a specific incident here.  It’s really just a feeling I’ve had of unconditional support.  And while I hope to demonstrate the two lessons just noted above to Nicholas and Alexander, this lesson is what I hope as a parent to duplicate most.  I want my sons to know that they always will have a safety net as long as they are trying their best.  As a girl from the small town of Owendale, heading off to Alma College was one thing, but taking a job in downtown Detroit, then heading to Duke in North Carolina along with a stint in California had a lot of risks.  But I always knew in my heart that if things went terribly wrong and I needed to, I could always come home and start over.  There would always be a tray of lasagna, a crockpot of clam chowder, or a fresh batch of fudge that would help me find my way.  This feeling of home and unconditional support has freed me to take risks (let me emphasize calculated risks that didn’t include bodily harm – except for the skydiving incident, of course!) – to take risks even when I had no confidence of my own success, and this has made the difference in what I have become.

Thank you – So Dad, I wrote, as you celebrate your birthday today, in addition to wishing you a “Happy Birthday,” I also want to thank you for all of the life lessons that perhaps you didn’t know yourself that you were teaching me.  It has and will make me a better person and a better parent.

Welcome home Dad – So that was my birthday gift to him just 21 days ago – a simple thank you with words that I found difficult to share out loud.  And as I think about dad today, there is sadness since from this day forward, so many things will be different for me and for my family.  The family gatherings may take on a different flavor as we try, but just can’t exactly replicate the clam chowder and lasagna and dishes we’ve come to savor; Aunt Mary may have an easier time keeping her Christmas auction gifts since Dad won’t steal all of them; and we’ll likely to struggle with the fine details of our memories of the old days since it was Dad who always recalled even the smallest of details.

There is a sadness for sure, but there is also comfort as I imagine him going to live with Jesus (as we explained it to our boys) and reuniting with his community and friends and farmers who have gone to live with Jesus before him.  I can imagine as he made his way that he may have heard a loud, familiar yawn and sigh coming from Windy Weinlander, that Alec Kovach invited him to play a game of euchre, or that his deer-camp buddies and friends welcomed him home and handed him a pan & told him to get cooking.  I can imagine my grandpa and grandma Gettel smiling at him with their gentle, approving smiles as he came their way.  I can imagine Grandpa Retford giving him the “Grandpa wave” before he gave him a hug and a welcome.  And I can imagine Grandma Retford taking him in his arms, giving him the familiar hug that only moms can give and saying, “Billy, you always knew you could take some risks and then come home to us when you were ready.  Welcome home Billy.  Welcome home son.” 

Welcome home Dad.


Warning: Innovation isn’t Comfortable

Nearly every organization I have worked with, either as an employee or as some form of consultant, wants to be known as “innovative.”  Organizations want to produce innovative products or services, or they want to be on the leading edge of <insert area here>, or they want to be innovative places to work such that they draw the greatest talent to their doors.

So nearly every organization wants to be innovative, but truly, very few ever achieve innovation.  Why is that?  Why is it so difficult for an organization, of any size, to be “innovative?”  After years of working with and for several organizations, I finally have seen the recurring patterns that thwart innovation.  I believe I finally have found the answer.  Are you ready?

Innovation isn’t comfortable.  Innovation doesn’t follow the process.  Innovation is chaotic.

That’s it.  No need to read further.  Okay, for those of you with time on your hands, a bit more explanation, by way of example.

When it’s time to hire in new senior level employees, organizations are often inclined to hire “outside-of-the-box” thinkers.  These individuals are energetic, hard-working, and have an internal passion for the business, whatever it is, that no typical worker can understand.  They tend to come into an organization with a bombastic flair and go forth breaking all the rules.

For the first few years, the typical workers who manage the processes tend to “chuck it up” to the short tenure of the innovative-driven hires.  These innovators simply don’t know the processes.  Why in no time at all, think the process workers, the innovators will conform and fill out the paperwork and wait in line just like the others.

As the process workers tire of the unprocessed innovators, the apple cart upsets.  The process workers refuse to move forward unless the process is followed strictly.  The innovators refused to move backward to processes that worked well for the last generation of customers, but that won’t work for the next generation of customers who too, are beginning to tire of the old product or service and looking for whatever is new and exciting.  Internally, the process-driven are at odds with the innovation-driven, and someone must win.

Along comes executive management.  What do they do?  The most common reaction I have witnessed is that executive management continues to shout “innovation” while holding tightly to the reigns of process.  What follows are closed-door meetings and sensitivity training and team-building exercises.  And in my experience, it never works.  The end result typically finds the highly-mobile innovator moving on to the next organization where the executive management there is also courting innovation (and the scenario often repeats itself).  In addition, the departing innovator leaves behind legions of supporters who got excited and stuck out their necks in the name of innovation wondering what the repercussions will be.  Will the process workers punish the innovator-supporters?  Or will the process workers simply relish their victory and go back to dotting their “i’s” and crossing their “t’s” leaving the innovation-supporters to grieve the loss of their innovator?  And how will executive management react?  Will they again seek an innovator or will they find it more comfortable to put their heads down and just follow process?

The morale of this story?  Executive management – it is up to you to turn the dream of innovation into a reality.  You’re either for it or against it.  In this case, there is no middle-ground.  If you truly desire to be an innovative organization, beware.  Innovation is uncomfortable, and by definition, it upsets current processes.  In fact, sometimes, innovation turns processes upside-down.  It creates chaos and if your organization is not set up to be comfortable supporting and managing chaos from the top down, innovation may not be your thing.

Not every organization needs to be an innovator.  Arguably, most are not, yet non-innovative companies can still be profitable by exercising whatever the competitive advantage is that they maintain.  Non-innovative companies can still be good places to work.  It’s exciting to be an innovative organization, no doubt.  They get all the press in the trade rags and their employees are often on the conference speaker dockets held in exotic places.  But it’s more comfortable adopting innovation slowly and tweaking processes.   So what’s it going to be –  comfort or chaos?  Pick one.

Me & My Migraines – A Preventative Update & a Good Excuse

So it has been a while since my last blog post and even longer since my last update on my struggle with migraines.  It’s all my migraines fault!

As I sat in the patient exam room, the nurse took my temperature, monitored my pulse, and took my blood pressure.  I had scheduled an appointment a few weeks earlier with a desire to discuss further treatment options for my migraines.  They were growing in frequency and intensity and were not controlled real well by the sumatriptans that I have relied on the last ten year to live a normal life.  Though I didn’t mention that I was currently experiencing yet another migraine on this exam day, it must have been apparent since the nurse, with extra compassion, said she hoped I felt better soon and dimmed the lights as she departed for my short wait for doctor to enter.

My former PCP had left the practice several months ago, so this was to be my first visit with my new PCP.  He was somewhat familiar since I had selected him for my husband, and my husband has been under his care for about a year and reported good things about him.

Dr. G entered the exam room, took one look, and realized I was knee-deep in a migraine attack.  He kept the lights low and introduced a medical student who was shadowing him for the day.  Dr. G took a quick history of my migraines and my treatment of them and noted that about 30 minutes earlier, I had taken a sumatriptan with the hope of overcoming the current attack.  It still wasn’t controlling it.  He advised the medical student that with my discussion of my migraine history, my medical chart, and my current state, he was not going to put me through the pain of an exam, particularly the pain of flashing a light in my eyes.  We were all quite confident of what was going on here.

His next question was one that would start a new course for me.  “What are you taking to prevent the onset of the migraines?”  I looked at him with no answer.  “You mean in all these years, no one has discussed prevention?”  My answer was, “no.”  I explained that for the most part, I was able to control the attacks, at least until the last several months.  Historically, I had a handful of migraines each month and the triptans would manage them.  However, for the last several months, I was getting several migraines each week and sometimes the triptans would work, sometimes not.  I was also at the point where I was rationing the triptans because I couldn’t refill the prescription as frequently as my head pain required.  I explained that my work was being negatively affected and my parenting was also suffering since my goal these days was to get through the day such that I could lie down and sleep.  However, even sleep was being interrupted frequently now because the pain would awaken me necessitating a trip to the bathroom to get yet another triptan.

My goal, I thought, was to obtain yet another referral to a neurologist and/or an integrated team of pain specialists.  In years past, I was told my migraines were hormonal and not neurologically based.  But perhaps this had changed I thought.  Perhaps I have both going on.  I had noticed several peri-menopausal symptoms, so my other hypothesis was that my hormones were particularly wacky and that perhaps I could find the integrated team of doctors who could treat me for both neurological and hormonal issues.  I had heard of at least two other women who found migraine relief through this type of integrated treatment approach.

Dr. G had other ideas.  “First,” he said, “We’re going to work on ridding you of your current migraine.  We need to break the cycle of pain you are on.  Then, we’re going to work on preventing your migraines.”  He explained several options.

  • Blood pressure medications.
  • Low-dose anti-seizure medications.
  • Low-dose antidepressants.
  • Lose-dose birth control pill.  Even over age 40 where there is no incidence of high blood pressure and the individual is a non-smoker many migraine sufferers have found relief with a lose-dose birth control pill – essentially, a low-dose hormonal replacement.

My blood pressure is very low, so my perception was that this preventative approach would put me super slow motion like that of a sloth and likely would not be effective.  He laughed and agreed I was not a candidate for blood pressure medications.  I inquired whether the anti-seizure mediations made sense since my migraines have been determined to be hormonal in origin.  He agreed that their effect might be limited.

That left the anti-depressants and the birth control pill (hormone replacement).  I admitted that the pill concerned me because of the research associated with hormone replacement after age 35 resulting in cancers.  I also mentioned that in the past, these pills made my migraines consistent but did not relieve them.  That left the anti-depressants.

Dr. G indicated that he believed these medications would be the best for me, but that so many patients have issues with the stigma of taking anti-depressants that he often has a difficult time convincing people to try this treatment course.  I explained to him that I would much rather be stigmatized with the ability to fully function as a mother, wife, and professional than feel like I do right now.  “Let’s try the anti-depressants,” was my reply.

He wrote out the prescription and noted that this was a first step.  If these don’t work, we can increase the strength.  If that doesn’t work, we try other avenues until we get the migraines under control.  “You have too many years until you are through menopause when it is likely these migraines will largely subside,” he said, and I agreed.

“Now,” he said, “Let’s work on getting rid of your current migraine.  I’m ordering a shot of Toradol.  This should relieve your pain today, so we can start from a painless state.”  He explained that this drug was not a narcotic, since I indicated I was concerned about driving home.  He said that it was much like a super-Ibuprofen and that I would be fine.  He wished me luck, handed me my prescription and orders to come back in about a month to assess.

Though I was still in much pain, I felt optimistic for the first time in several months.  Just the thought having several avenues of treatment gave me hope.  Minutes later, the nurse returned.  This shot will need to go in your hip and I’m told it burns a bit she had explained.  It had been years since I had a shot in the hip.  I followed directions and exposed some hip.  Burns a bit?  Ah, yes, but more than a bit!  For a few seconds, I forgot about the migraine pain since the pain in my backside superseded it!  But, it was over quickly and I made my way to check out.

I dropped off my prescriptions at CVS, took in some dry cleaning, and then made my way to the post office to pick up some stamps.  As I was standing in line, the Toradol took effect.  It was if I had walked out of a dark cave or out of a thick fog.  For the first time since late summer, I realized I was pain free.  I realized only then that I had indeed been in a constant state of pain for several months.  The pain had crept up on me without my knowledge.  I was having migraine attacks that I was progressively treating with triptans, but the medication was no longer bringing my pain down to zero.  It was enabling me to get barely functional such that I could get through the day, but getting through was it.  I was delivering my work projects at the deadline when generally by nature, I deliver in advance of the deadline.  I was parenting with an effort to get them prepared for the next day and not enjoying the current day with them.  I was parenting with very little patience, and the boys indeed were reacting in negative ways to my impatience.

I had forgotten what pain-free felt like.  It was amazing!  I thought to myself that while so many take prescription drugs, legally or illegally, to feel nothing or to feel some type of euphoria, for me, just feeling nothing was everything.  Feeling normal felt so abnormal and it was simply amazing.  “Next,” said the postal clerk, bringing me back to consciousness.

So it has been several weeks, and the daily low-dose of antidepressants seems to be working.  I have had a few migraines, but they have been quickly controlled by the triptans.  I’ve had my follow-up appointment with Dr. G and thanked him profusely.  Now being the aggressive pain manager he is, he suggested that I increase the dosage in an attempt to eradicate the incidence of migraines all together.  I responded that at the current dosage, I’m noticing none of the long list of side-effects that antidepressants can have and that if I can reduce my migraines to a handful a month and that they can be controlled by the triptans, I’m happy with that.  I can deal with this state-of-being for the next 12-15 years until I make my way through the tunnel of menopause.  More importantly, I can look forward to 12-15 years of being a fully function mom, wife, and professional again.

So this is my excuse for the delay in blog posts.  Though I have been largely pain-free for a several weeks now, after five or so months of constant pain and just getting through the day, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.  There are still things undone, but I’m getting there, and importantly, I am no longer attempting to get through the day but rather enjoying the day – well most days.  And even the not-so-enjoyable days are better because, for the most part, they too are pain free!

The Best Sermon

We are quickly heading into the season where we pause to be thankful and where for those of us who are Christians, we pause to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  So in this season, it seems appropriate for me to post about a sermon I received months ago.  And the first thing you should note are the terms, “months ago.”

There aren’t many sermons that I remember much beyond the drive home from church.  While I find the vast majority of sermons inspiring and educational as I sit in the congregation, my retention of the primary message or the main point fades pretty quickly.  It isn’t that the message isn’t important or delivered well, it is largely that as I exit the church, the noise of raising children, managing the household, and getting ready for the week of work and school ahead takes my full attention – except for a sermon I heard this summer.

I should say that I am a practicing Methodist, and my church is not one of fire and brimstone and it is not one where God is presented as punitive.  Rather, my church presents God as loving and providing example by which we attempt to follow.  And, He is presented as forgiving when we stray – and let’s face it; we all stray at some level or another.

My pastor is a good orator, interpreter, and a good deliverer of the message.  She provides very clear messages absent of lofty language designed to show her mastery of scripture while losing those of us who are beginners or novices.  She brings in real life examples using her own experiences and the experiences of other real and imperfect people.  She doesn’t embellish to make the sermon longer or present way too many examples such that we get exhausted and miss the point.  She is also a good leader by example.  I see no judgment in her eyes, just compassion and a willingness to teach, patiently.  And she talks about her calling to the ministry coming in college; however I sometimes wonder if it was bestowed at birth because her name is, “Joy.”

The message that morning was very simple.  It was about being kind to others.  It was in reference to the one of the most familiar lessons that Jesus provided us:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV, Mark 12:28-31).

So the message was simple, and the sermon was even more so.  Pastor Joy walked into the congregation and asked (rhetorically), what if Jesus was here?  What if he was seated right here in this sanctuary?  How would you act? 

And then she proceeded.  What if Jesus spent the week with you?  How would you act, and importantly, how would you act toward others?  Would it be any different?

  • How would you act toward your family the rest of today (Sunday) and on Monday morning as you get prepared for school and work?
  • How would you act if He were your passenger as you drove to work?  Would you tailgate?  Would you honk?  Would you gesture?
  • How would you act as you interacted with your colleagues or friends if He were beside you in your meetings or gatherings or as you spoke on the telephone?
  • And what would you do as you and He walked to lunch and you came upon a homeless man or someone else in need?  Would you look away?
  • And if He were shopping with you, would you rush to get to the front of the line, elbowing your way ahead of fellow shoppers?  (I have to be honest – I added this since the Christmas shopping season is upon us!)

I believe that many of us in the congregation were cringing that day.  I know I was.  My first thought was, yikes, I don’t think I want Jesus with me on all those ventures since my behavior and my patience aren’t all that great.  I’d be embarrassed if He were right beside me.  Indeed, I would act and speak differently.

And then Pastor Joy  from the center of the aisle seemed to speak directly to me and to each individual sitting in the pews that morning as she asked, “How do you know that Jesus isn’t right beside you right now, and how do you know that He won’t be beside you this week?”

The benediction followed and moments later we were walking out of the sanctuary.  It was a pretty quiet exit that day.  I think we were in thought, in reflection, and in shock.  For as Christians, we have some sense that God and Jesus keep tabs on us, but for most of us, they are a bit distant.  They feel a lot like our parents who have birthed us and reared us and for the most part, we obey our parents, but rarely do we let our parents see our most inappropriate behavior.  If mom is along, I’m a bit more patient with my driving, my shopping, and my speech, because I want my mom to feel confident that she raised a pretty good kid, and I don’t want to see her look of disapproval.  And indeed, she doesn’t get to see me much when I interact with colleagues and friends when my behavioral filters are off.

It struck me that day however, that while my mom doesn’t get to see me with filters off, that yup, Jesus does.  And that is daunting and does inspire some behavioral modification.  And the thought keeps coming back.  And that is why one of Pastor Joy’s most basic sermons is what I label as the “Best Sermon.”  It keeps coming back.  It keeps having effect.

Now admittedly, I’m not well-behaved all the time, still not even the vast majority of the time.  And at my age, I have doubt that I ever will be.  But I have made improvements, and I believe God and Jesus know I am trying (and I’m thankful they are forgiving).  I believe that they also know I’ll fall off the wagon often.  But I believe they have given me Pastor Joy and many kind people around me and my own reflection to help me get back on and try again.  It will be a continuing battle and a battle that I will fight now better-armed with my “Best Sermon.”

Market Research Survey Silliness

I’ve spent more than a decade working in market research, both quantitative & qualitative research, and still more years working with market research data in one form or another.  So, I’ve seen maybe not it all, but a whole lot.  I have managed and analyzed hundreds of surveys conducted by mail, on the phone, and online.  I’ve attended and moderated hundreds of focus groups.  I’ve managed segmentation surveys, discrete choice surveys, and I’ve randomized this and that and versioned that and this.  I’ve applied the unknowledgeable-management consultant’s favorite – conjoint analysis – and regressed and forecasted.  I’ve observed natural consumer behaviors, stimulated behaviors, and followed people while they operate cars, computers, and cell phones, and while they dined.  I’ve talked to people about death and dying and about surviving.  I’ve talked to people about how they shop, why they shop, and why they don’t like to bend over to pick up items on the bottom shelf when they shop.

My career gave me a fascination for consumer behavior, from the little decisions they make to the big, life changing decisions.  People are fascinating, and what makes it even more interesting, they very often don’t do what they say they do – imagine that!  Yes, consumers are captivating and indeed, understanding them and catering to them is the product’s best route to success.

I’m in a bit of a different professional position these days.  I use market research data, but it is of the most basic kind.  I currently conduct and use some customer satisfaction and general feedback data with a few qualitative interactions thrown in for good measure.  Yet as a supporter of market research and a consumer myself, I continue to complete surveys whether it’s a phone call at night, an online survey, or one in the mail, provided it is a legitimate survey and not someone trying to disguise themselves as a survey and then sell me a product or a politician.  I continue to respond as a fiduciary duty to my former profession and just to be helpful to the organizations out there attempting so dutifully to figure out their customers.  I continue to support data collection, even when it is excruciatingly painful.  And that brings me to this post.

Earlier this fall, I received a survey invitation via email for the purposes of providing feedback on school supplies.  What timing!  I had just completed purchasing school supplies for my son, and I will be in the market for the next 16 years by the time my youngest gets through high school.  This survey, I thought, would be interesting.

I go through the normal procedure of following the link.  I answer several demographic questions about my age, gender, household make-up, age of my kids, and income levels.  I answer these questions without hesitation because I know that I am one of probably 1,000+ answering these questions and that the 25-year-old analyst reading this data is not going to care about who I actually am (nope, not even my income level) for I am just one of a thousand.  (Just so you know, analysts care about percentages of the total sample; they don’t care about individuals in these instances.  Yes, you are special, but so are the other 999 people completing the survey.  It’s okay to let people know your household income and that you are a boy or girl, and etc. – trust me!  Now if they ask for a social security or credit card number – that’s different:  shut the survey down and/or hang up the phone – that’s not market research, that’s a scam.)

So I’ve now answered the demographic questions, and indeed, I am one of the target customers from which feedback is desired.  I am asked to continue with the survey.  I then answer several questions about which products and brands of school supplies I bought, which ones I considered, and from what stores I purchased the school supplies.  I was asked about how much I spent and how much I had intended to spend.  It was a nicely designed survey and I felt like I was really cruising through it and helping out.  And then it began – I fell into survey hell.

First, there was a battery of questions for every single product I bought and every single brand I considered.  Then there were batteries of questions for impressions of brands I had not considered.  The batteries were endless and included statements where I was to rate my agreement with things like:  “I feel like a leader for having brought this brand.”  “Others will admire me for buying this brand.”  “This brand is like me.”  “This brand is the only brand for my child.”  “This brand will make my child more successful.”  “I talked to friends and colleagues about this brand.”  “I encouraged others to buy this brand” – and many more questions along those lines.   Multiply these brand behavioral questions times the brands I considered and/or was aware of, times the number of back-to-school supplies I ticked off the list that I bought.  This was in fact, a survey that I may be completing for the next 16 years!

Yes, I was in survey hell, and not just at the surface.  I was in the hottest most uncomfortable level with no hope of getting to the surface anytime soon.  It is now several weeks later and having taken some time to recover from this experience, I have some advice to offer those of you developing surveys for your product or service or working with organizations that are doing so.

First of all, good market researchers/questionnaire designers realize that you never, I mean never, put people through endless list of questions on everything they did.  You randomly select a number of products for someone to evaluate.  Why?  Because I felt committed to answering the full survey, but by the end, I was clicking answers just to get through it (sorry about that – I still feel the guilt of providing bad data, but I just couldn’t take it anymore); others will just simply exit the survey.  There are several questionnaire programs that will randomly select a handful of items for a consumer to evaluate if it is the case that a typical consumer has purchased or considered more than 5 or 6 items and these programs will ensure that you have enough sample to analyze each item.  Ask consumers to evaluate more than 5-6 items with associated statements, etc., and your data will be flawed.  Good researchers protect the validity of their data and the sanity of their respondents.

Secondly, let’s think about the behavioral and brand leader issues related to buying a PENCIL!  Buying pencils and erasers are much different than buying, for example, a car, or apparel, or kitchen appliances or major electronics.  The latter are big ticket or emotional purchases that consumers may use to define themselves and that they may talk about with friends and colleagues.  If I’m going to be a brand leader or influencer, it’s going to be with these types of ego-type purchases – a pack of standard #2 pencils?  Not so much.  You might do some brand loyalty and behavioral segmentation on back-packs or on PDAs or other higher-profile supplies, but on pencils?  I’ve no clue what brand I even purchased for goodness sake!  But, I still was presented the battery of questions because I was familiar with some pencil brands.  Whoever designed this survey somehow believed that it was legitimate to apply brand and behavioral attributes/measurements used to describe the purchase process of a muscle car ($40,000) against the purchase of a pencil (40 cents).  Does that seem logical?  Remember that analogy:  the clock-builder will know how the clock is built, how it keeps nearly precise time, how the gears (now chips) work together, and about when it will need repair.  The consumer will know – what time it is.  I’m guessing that same analogy can be applied to the #2 pencil.  Good researchers question their logic and the logic of their clients who often get so caught up in their product they don’t understand its role and importance in the lives of everyday consumers. 

Third, and this one is important, good market researchers need to understand how the purchase is made prior to measuring and interpreting actual purchase.  The survey should have asked me how I made decisions about the purchase of school supplies.  You see, my school district, and all the ones around me (I talked to other parents, yup, I’m an “influencer”), gave me a list of supplies for my elementary-aged son.  They asked for specific brands and sizes and colors (emphasizing “washable” products, of course) because what happens is that we give the entire bag of supplies to the teacher who puts them in community bins.  The kids, when they need it, just get their pencil or marker from the bin.  Then they return it when they are done using it.  It’s a great idea – things don’t get lost, no need to label, there are not equity issues (all the same brand and size and color) and for the kids who cannot afford supplies, they are not left without.  So all this “brand leader/influencer” stuff the surveyor forced upon me?  Unfortunately, it’s all bad data.  If this bin trend for elementary students is a wide one, the individuals that should be surveyed are the teachers who are making the brand decisions, not me.  Good researchers do some research before they do the research.

So if you are a product manager or a market research consultant, I beg you, please consider your product, the product purchase process, and your consumers.  Make it easy for us to provide you good quality data.  Fewer and fewer people are responding to surveys, so please don’t push away those of us who still do respond.  And I should also say, lest I receive emails from pencil managers, I’ve nothing against the #2 pencil.  Why I am one of the few adults who still uses a pencil – not a mechanical pencil that breaks every time I use it – a real, sturdy, old-fashioned pencil that requires a sharpener.  Hmm, I wonder what type of consumer-segment that puts me in. . .

Customers Don’t Care about your Processes

A few years ago, I opened my credit card statement to find a huge late fee and interest charges.  Being neurotic about avoiding such fees, I tend to take care of my payment expeditiously after it is received.  Immediately, I called to check whether the check had been cashed, and indeed, the automated banking system indicated it had cleared some time ago.

I then called customer service at the credit card company.  After making me listen to content I had no interest in hearing (my balance, my next payment due, my cash forward balance, and a few other things I never use), I was put in the queue to speak with a representative.  After a short hold, a live voice came on and asked for the card number, holder name, and a few security questions.

Having made it through the security process, the representative politely asked me how she could help.  I described the problem and reported that my check had cleared, etc., etc.  I heard some typing and she reported back that her records showed the check had cleared their system the day after it was due and therefore, that these charges were legitimate.

I informed her of the date the payment was placed in the mail which from my recall was one to two days after I received the bill.  I heard more typing, and indeed, she was able to find another date indicating when the envelope arrived to their processing center.  I of course informed her that the arrival date was well before the posting date and the due date.  She then went into the description of the process of receipt, posting, and clearing in their process.  It takes two days for this, and two-three days for that, and you should allow seven to ten days for the mail, and another two-three days for this.  I politely informed her that the number of days she just articulated would indicate that I need to mail in the payment before I receive the bill.  She then informed me that in addition, there was a hiccup in the processing system during this cycle as there was a note in her records.

After hearing this, I suspected that she would immediately take the charges off my bill.  But the offer did not come.

I informed her that the only part of the process I can control is my ability to receive the bill and promptly put it into the mail.  As for the rest of the process and any internal delays, I have no control and cannot be expected to be held responsible for it.  In short, “I don’t care about your process.”  And, I need you to take the late charges and the interest charges off this bill and any interest charges you might be thinking about charging me in the next cycle.

She warned me that I get only one “grace” removal of charges per year and if I used it now, I could not request another for a year.  My urge was to inform her that if this happened again, I’d be removing my business entirely.  It wouldn’t be hard as I just need to open one of the three credit card offers I receive in the mail each day.  However, I refrained, knowing that she was simply following the script in front of her, and the script did not allow for the insertion of common sense or problems with the processing system.

Now this isn’t an uncommon problem in business, with either external or internal customers.  Having been in a few organizations, there isn’t one where I have not experienced a failed process that has impacted my ability to get my job done.  And in each organization, I receive the narrative about the functioning of the process, how it is supposed to work, the forms I need to fill out (often with some indication that I’ve filled out an outdated form and I need to fill out the new form to really make the process hum), and of course, I’m informed of the value of the process to me.

And though I deliver the message, most times, with some tact, the message is still the same: “I don’t care about your process.”  What I care about it is that my expectation was not met.  The promise you made to me as an internal/external customer was broken.  The deliverable has not reached my desk, is not working or it is causing me extra, unplanned work.  It is compromising a deadline for the clients I serve or is further stretching my resources.  I don’t care about the forms or the fact that a box wasn’t checked because the software didn’t recognize my click on the box and the individual decided not to contact me to ask about the box, but rather to let the project sit until I checked in to see why I saw no progress or wasn’t receiving my deliverable (again, no insertion of common sense).  I don’t care that now there is a new form or about the hours of committee meetings it took to develop the new form or about the position of the form in the newly revised process flow chart that took still more hours of committee meetings to rearrange.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.  I don’t care.

Customers care about the product or service they are receiving.  How it goes through your system and the quality of your system, not so much.  They care about quality of the end-product or service and the deadlines explicitly or implicitly implied.  They want their expectations managed, and if you fail to do so, customers will defect.  External customers will find different suppliers; internal customers will outsource.  And they should.

So the next time you are putting together or refining processes, I recommend two “reminders” during your development phase.  First, articulate what the customer expectation is and write that as your “purpose.”  Is the purpose of the process to efficiently process a payment, develop a technology, receive an order and ship a product, receive a repair request and get a technician onsite?  Secondly, articulate what the cost of failure of the process is to the customer.  Is it unfounded exorbitant charges, late delivery of a gift, no power or phone service, loss of a sale, or loss of a customer?

And as you develop or refine that process, refer back to the purpose and the customer cost repeatedly.  Further, constantly remind yourself that the customer, external or internal, doesn’t care about your process or your forms, the customer cares about the purpose and the cost.  Don’t let the process be your purpose; make the process serve the purpose.

I can almost guarantee that when your focus is the purpose for the customer and the cost to the customer when failure occurs, the process you design will be efficiency-focused (fewer layers and fewer forms), and in addition, it will also include the opportunity to insert common sense.  Now that’s what I’m carin’ about.

I Used to be Sensitive and Then I Went to Business School

Growing up, I was an extremely sensitive child.  My feelings were hurt very easily, but I wasn’t a crier or a tattler (though my brother would tend to disagree).  Self-confidence wasn’t something I had either.  So in an effort to make people like me, I worked hard, particularly in those early years, in school.  Now while the teachers appreciated this hard work and rewarded me for it, it wasn’t exactly popular with a particular group of my classmates.  And this group of classmates would make life pretty miserable when the teachers, the adults, were not around. 

During my grade-school years, back in the 1970’s, bullies were defined largely as those who physically hit other kids or who stole lunch money.  And it was clearly known who these individuals were and their actions often got them sent home from school.  What wasn’t recognized was the harassment bullies – these were the individuals who harassed others in a passive-aggressive non-physical manner and always out of sight of adults.  These were the individuals who while we were waiting for the teacher to get back to the classroom, would mess with my work and threaten me with physical harm if I said anything, or who would chant awful things at me as we walked from building to building without adult supervision.  These were the individuals that would call my home, sometimes several times in an evening, and either hang up or say something nasty and then hang up – anonymous as these were the days before caller ID.  And these were the individuals who had a sense of who was sensitive and quiet and went after the sensitive personalities like dogs on a hunt.  I wasn’t the only sensitive one they attacked, but it sure felt like it.

Now as I got into high school, the bullying wasn’t so in my face.  The early years of keeping my head low and studying hard and practicing music and sports in the same manner began to pay off.  The bullies were still there, but I didn’t pay much attention as I kept busy.  And for a bully, harassing someone who doesn’t pay attention isn’t much fun.  So they move on.  But, I was still sensitive and strived for perfection in all areas I could.  I wanted people to like me for doing things well as I strived to gain some confidence.  This would be something I’d carry on into college and into the workforce – I was the ultimate carrier of the banner:  “Work hard.  Play hard.”  And as I moved into my twenties, I gained some confidence and the bullies, and they are in college and the work environment too, took a back seat.

And then I went to business school.

Now business school is a different world.  Imagine putting together 300+ largely Type-A people who have in the past, been pretty darn successful in their undergraduate studies and in their early careers.  These individuals have always achieved high marks, some of them quite easily, and most of these individuals are pushy and opinionated and book- and some even street-smart (as in Wall Street).  You put these individuals into a class and they now must compete against each other for grades and jobs.  It’s really quite an interesting experiment and is repeated year after year in business, and law, and medical, and many other professional schools.

So I went to the Fuqua School of Business, at Duke University.  I entered business school thinking it was going to be a two-year conference where we would exchange ideas and think big thoughts.  In reality, it was two years of grinding work, no sleep, no money, and for me, stress about getting a job to pay off the enormous debt I was accumulating to pay for tuition and living expenses.  Business school is not something I would really want to repeat in my lifetime, but it was critical in overcoming my sensitivity and achieving a bit of self-confidence.  (I should also say that I met some of my most cherished friends and acquaintances there!)

In business school, 30%-50% of one’s grade is based on “class participation.”  In short, that means that you speak up or you fail.  Now I’d done my fair share of “speaking up,” but it was generally after all others had spoken and/or I was invited to add my perspective.  Being the first or second person to get my opinion or analysis on the floor was not my thing, but failing wasn’t either.  The first term was hard, but I survived.  The second term wasn’t as hard, and I survived too.  And then I realized that I was surviving and even thriving in some cases in the midst of a pool of some really aggressive personalities.  And while I could never out-shout them and still don’t, I could quietly keep up by offering opinions based on facts and data and experience.  And what is amazing, facts and data are a lot like having an adult in the room – it quiets the bullies quickly.  Moreover, bullies don’t like bullying individuals who bring facts and data.  It’s just not as much fun for them.

On occasion, in the workplace, I challenge my colleagues.  I hope that I do it respectfully, but my fear of being wrong or being bullied back for challenging is largely gone.  If I have data or information or experience that conflict with their opinions or plans, I feel a fiduciary, if not personal, duty to press them for how they arrived at their decision.  Oftentimes, I can’t disagree with their approach, and even if I don’t agree with the approach, I feel the need to support it anyway – more fiduciary duty there.  And I don’t take disagreements personally.  I don’t believe that a difference of opinion makes one of us wrong or right or one of us less intelligent than the other. 

And that is what business school did for me.  It gave me confidence to push my opinions, but even more confidence to support opinions different than mine as our team grades or company survival depends on it.  Business school stripped me of my over-sensitivity – it made me numb to it, thank goodness. 

And while I still cry easily at movies, or when I see my young children accomplish something, or when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner or Amazing Grace, I don’t cry or fret about bullies in the work place, in politics, on the road, or in our own community.  I respectfully face up to the bullies with data, facts, and questions, whether they are testing my bully-tolerance or that of others.

I still haven’t fully figured out how to help my children with bullies, since elementary bullies aren’t impressed with data or facts.  And Nicholas has received the sensitivity gene handed down from his grandmothers, so he is ripe for harassment and has already received some as the bullies test each Kindergartner for their bully-tolerance level.  We talk about it periodically and in addition to advising him to make teachers aware when it happens or if he feels unsafe, we talk much about how to react, which is really quite simply, not to react.  We even practice – I tease him, and we talk about how he should respond and how he should not.

It’s working for now and we’ll see how it goes.  And I suppose that in the worst case scenario, if I simply cannot help him overcome his sensitivity in these early years, there is always business school.