Lies, Damned Lies, Google, And Statistics

Thank you, Mark Twain, for helping me put it so succinctly.

I am once again being buffeted by statistics. Statistics, the math of populations, not of individuals. And I am an individual.

Statistics Be Damned

I survived a rare and aggressive form of cancer in 2017, no thanks to statistics. I rang all the bells when it came to triggers; I pulled a perfect score on the list of predictors. My numbers through surgery, chemo, radiation, and afterward were appalling. By all rights, I shouldn’t be here to write this. Yet here I am, statistics be damned.

Early on I decided to ignore the numbers and focus on one thing: getting well. I did some online research to see what I could do to increase my odds. The content from reliable sources was generalized to the point of uselessness. (“Get your sleep. Eat foods that agree with you.” Duh! That second recommendation justified a historic chocolate binge.)

ConeheadsMy oncologist is a data wonk; she has the facts, figures, and population studies engraved in her brain. She knows her stuff. My doctor could tell me the odds of needing a transfusion were high—I never needed a transfusion. She could tell me 80% of the neuropathy in my feet would remain—about 50% has. She told me my hair would fall out. OK, she was right about that. I’d wanted to shave my head for a long time, so baldness turned out to be a fun experiment. (For the record, I liked having no hair. Cool in the summer with minimal upkeep.)

I am not a statistic; I am me and I needed answers for my specific case. I decided not to indulge in any more online searches, pursuing ever-more esoteric links down the proverbial rabbit hole. The news wasn’t good; the statistics did not get me one step closer to my goal of survival. If I’d paid them any attention, I’d have been planning my funeral instead.

I could tell when friends and family had been Googling. They looked pale and frightened, and couldn’t look me in the eye. I ended up reassuring them more than they did me. Trying to explain that statistics is the mathematics of populations didn’t help. They thought I was in denial.

Google and Statistics

Fast forward one year. Now one of my hips is well past its use-by date thanks to poor gene selection on my part, a lot of time spent jumping out of trees as a kid and my love of hiking. Most of the women in my family have had hip replacement surgery, so it’s not exactly a surprise.
I’ve begun the rites and rituals of preparing for surgery. Or, as medical folks call it, “pre-op.” If you’ve been subjected to Western medical practice lately, you’re probably familiar with the drill. Endless rounds of tests and interviews are conducted by various medical professionals so they can pore over the minutia of your body.

StatisticsI sat in an over-heated office with a competent nurse practitioner reviewing my life history. “Have you ever had…” “No.” “Any symptoms of….” “Nope.” “How many times a week do you….” “I don’t.” She nodded her head as we worked down the list.

The nods began to come less frequently. She looked puzzled. She took my blood pressure for the third time; it was still normal. As she asked me questions, she glanced at my honey. He sat calmly, listening to my litany of negatives, smiling in agreement.

The questions continued. The negative answers persisted. A frown began to pucker the nurse’s brow. We reviewed the very short list of medicines I’m taking a second time. Had I forgotten anything? There wasn’t much there to examine, but she dove in with all the enthusiasm she could muster. Her disappointment deepened.

I didn’t know whether to be complimented or apologize. If you buy into the statistics, the number will suggest a woman somewhat younger than I am.
Maybe that explains the ads Google steers my way. I just don’t know where they got the idea I need “male medical enhancements.”

Immigrants: Fear, Loathing, and A Happy Ending

While we’re arguing about the immigrant caravan headed for our southern border, let me share a personal story. I originally posted this on Facebook when a different president was in charge. We were arguing about Syrian immigrants then. I’m sad to see how little has changed. 
 
The love of my life wouldn’t be in my life, in the US, or even alive if his parents had not come here.

Fear and Loathing…

soldiers and machine guns They were Russian/German Jews escaping Nazi Europe. They had to find someone to sponsor them, at the cost of $10,000 per visa. That’s a lot of money even by today’s standards. Good news: a wealthy family member paid the fees.
 
Then they had to fit into a quota that wasn’t already filled. More good news. Josef Stalin wasn’t letting anyone out of Russia and the Russian Jewish quota was wide open.
 
Once here, housing and a job were the top priority. That meant trips back and forth across the US chasing promises that fell through again and again and again. An accident on a snow-covered mountain destroyed most of their household goods. Help was hard to find, as were hotel rooms. Jews were–how do I say this politely–actively discriminated against.

…With a Happy Ending

GymnastMy honey went on to found and run several successful start-ups, one of which helped define the PC industry. In fact, you might not be reading this on your
electronic device without his contributions. He raised two sets of happy, well-adjusted kids who turned into wonderful adults. He’s a proud grandfather to 14 kick-ass grandkids. And he’s been my anchor and support.
 
Before you say, “yeah, but he’s different,” no, he’s not. His family was one of the millions trying to escape war and persecution. They didn’t have much when they got here except for drive, perseverance, and pure grit–and a will to live a better life. Imagine you were the immigration officer that they met at Ellis Island. You would have seen a frightened couple from a despised minority who barely spoke English. Their terrified little boy hid behind his father, clutching a ragged teddy bear. Nothing special. Too many just like them.
When you claim immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to come into this country, you may want to think about the potential you are depriving us of. And while you’re using your computer–or phone or tablet–remember it would all be very different without him.

The Ethics of Good Copywriting

I’m fascinated by the power of the written word. I can spend hours immersed in a thesaurus, picking the precise word to express a thought. I analyze speeches, blogs, and news articles to understand how the choice of words and images can sway readers. Same thing with websites, billboards, flyers, advertisements, and social media posts. And that’s led me to a meditation on the ethics of good copywriting.

Good copywriters tell stories that make their clients happy. Websites get more attention, social media accounts get more followers, blog posts are read and quoted more often. Products and services are purchased, candidates win political offices. Clients are delighted; copywriters get more work.

The Dilemma

What do you do when a client sells something or promotes a point of view that you find dangerous or offensive? Should you write great copy for a bad purpose? Maybe to sell a product you know is defective, or a service from someone you suspect is not ethical? Sounds pretty straightforward: don’t take the job. Or do, and you hold your nose while you sign the contract.

Here’s another example: should you write great copy for someone you don’t agree with? They’re not evil, they’re not out to do harm; they simply have a different viewpoint from yours. Maybe a diametrically opposing viewpoint. Maybe they’re for lower taxes and your cause is funding social services for the needy. Or they want to preserve a natural habitat but you’d like to see more jobs in the area. What do the ethics of good copywriting tell you?

Ah, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Even More Challenges

With the panic over fake news and the social media echo chamber, copywriters can feel driven to shout over the crowd to be heard. We use more emotional words; the tone becomes more hysterical. We play up social divisiveness to drive clicks and views. Us vs. them is an easy way to get attention. Us is the righteous few; them is the great unwashed enemy. Boo hiss on they, them, the others. The not us.

Charts on a laptopAnalytics count each mouse click and record it for posterity. Clients use those numbers to gauge success. Which words drive the stronger response, get more of whatever it is we’re measuring? Let’s push harder to get more of that. It’s like heroin. Our clients are addicted. We’re addicted.

If things don’t work out quite right, if the results are unpleasant or unexpected, the reaction is to say, “I just write the stuff. I can’t control how people react to it.

In a word, bullshit.

What Can Copywriters Do?

Take ownership of and responsibility for your content. Don’t act like a tech bro: you are obliged to consider how people will use your work. You are being paid to stir emotions and drive specific reactions. You need to think the implications through.

Recognize that someone with a different viewpoint isn’t the enemy. Lots of us disagree with each other. Some people like chocolate, some like vanilla. Vive la difference. Broaden your mind a bit by working for the other side. You may even learn something.

Talk to your client and insist on honesty. So much content relies heavily on emotion-laden words and dog whistles. Don’t take that easy road; challenge yourself to make the point in other, better ways.

If you can’t, maybe you need to find a new client.

Words Matter: Teaching a Rescue Dog New Tricks

When I adopted Harley, he was a gangly 11-month-old teenager, all legs and big ears with a long, plumy tail. He was a White German Shepherd, with a bit of Siberian Husky and wolf mixed in. He’d spent the first nine months of his life chained to a doghouse. Other than screaming at him to stop making noise, his owners ignored him. One experienced rescuer called him a “project dog.” I have rescued all kinds of dogs, but I was unsure whether I’d ever be able to socialize Harley. In the end, he taught me how much words matter.

Harley Napping

Harley joined my two Siberian Huskies, Reese (he-who-pees-on-snakes) and Brodie. Brodie was a handsome goofball, a muscular black and white husky who lived for food and held strong opinions about which he could be very vocal. He was not beyond chastising me if he thought it warranted as, for example, when dinner was five minutes late.

It turned out that Harley was indeed a “project dog.” Socializing him took months, and the ever-opinionated Brodie was a big help. The two became best friends. Whenever he faced something new, Harley would look to Brodie for guidance and reassurance. Brodie taught him that pigeons could be fun to chase, to be curious about new things, and to always welcome strangers.

Move Over, Dog Whisperer

Harley settled in. It was time to work on basic manners and I had a challenge. He wasn’t motivated by food and was still shy enough that praise might not work very well. With a flash of inspiration, I enlisted Brodie as my assistant. I figured as long as I kept the treats coming I’d have his complete cooperation.

One fine spring morning, I led the dogs out on the deck. I had a pocket full of treats and an optimistic frame of mind. We started with “come.” I issued the command, Brodie headed for the treat in my hand and received his reward. Harley watched, curious about this new ritual. I moved back 10 feet and said, “Brodie, Harley, come” a second time. Again Brodie trotted up to me and received his reward. Harley started to realize this might work to his advantage, so he strolled over and nuzzled my hand. I gave him the treat and praised him to the skies for being the smartest dog in the world.

Little did I know.

We progressed quickly to “sit” and “stay” over the next couple of days. Things were going very well indeed. Brodie watched me and the treats; Harley watched Brodie and imitated him. I started to think I was a world class dog trainer.

With “come,” “sit,” and “stay” mastered, it was time to work on “down,” as in “lie down.” I figured out my approach. I would Harley to sit then say “down” while holding a treat on the floor in front of him and praising him for doing the right thing. Like all the other lessons so far, it went very fast. Within a few days, Harley had all the basics well in hand. I was quite proud of myself.

Words Matter

Next step: test Harley’s learning without my chief assistant and crumb snatcher. We worked through the litany: stay, come, sit, down. Rinse and repeat: stay, come, sit down. One more time: stay, come, sit down. Harley executed the commands promptly, with a German Shepherd’s dedication to precision. I was starting to think Cesar Millan had nothing on me.

Then I tried mixing up the order of the commands.

“Harley, come.” Harley walked over to me. “Harley, down.” Harley lowered his front end, leaving his rear end up in the air while he proudly wagged his big, white plume of a tail. He was quite pleased with himself. I repeated “down,” a bit more firmly. Another enthusiastic tail wag. “Down, Harley.” Polite tail wag with somewhat less enthusiasm, “Harley. Down!” Barest of tail wags—he was running out of patience. He was doing precisely what I’d taught him to do. Sit was for the back end. Down was for the front end.

Harley on the Patio

For the record, I did try to teach Harley a more conventional “lie down” several times over the years. He understood perfectly well what I was asking. And every time he’d lower his front end, wag his tail, and smile his big, toothy grin. My vet and the techs in his office got no end of laughs out of us.

Not the first dog to remind me I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Or that words really do matter.

Do I Need a Privacy Policy?

A couple of clients have asked me whether they need a privacy policy for their website. The short answer: yes, if you collect any personally identifiable information from a viewer, even an email address.

I started to wonder if this would apply to me, so I dug in and did a little research. Here’s what I found:

  • The Consumer Federation of California has a good explanation of the law, in reasonably plain English. 
  • The Better Business Bureau, bless their hearts, has a simple template that will likely meet most of your needs.

As with all things legal, please have your lawyer review your final document!

How to Script a Memorable Video

There’s a good reason why videos are increasingly popular. They’re easy to consume and, more important for those of us with a message, they are easy to make. You can do a lot armed with just a smartphone. You don’t need an expensive crew, equipment, and studio to produce a decent-quality video.

record a video

In a memorable video, the speaker communicates their message clearly and succinctly. We are gripped by the speaker’s call to action. We viewers leap to our feet, ready to obey. Inspired, we share the speaker’s message with others.

Ah, if it were only that easy…

We’ve all sat through DIY videos listening to speakers “uh” and “erm” their way along. The speaker seems lost and befuddled, wanders off into side-topics, gets distracted by the cat (or dog) that comes into the room, and completely forgets their point.

Don’t be that person. Instead, follow these tips to script a memorable video.

Step 1: Grab Attention With a Powerful Title and Opening Sentence

You’ve only got a few seconds to lock in audience attention. Don’t waste this time. Hook your audience from the start. If you can’t communicate your message right away, nobody will bother watching the rest of your video.

Start with a powerful title that piques curiosity, then lure viewers in with an equally powerful opening sentence. Script the opening sentence to support your headline, then polish, polish, polish.

Tips

There are lots of free tools available to help.

  • Check out this article from HubSpot. Yes, it’s about email subject lines. But you can use this approach to craft great video titles.
  • Use the free headline analyzer at CoSchedule.com to craft a memorable video title. (CoSchedule’s headline analyzer will also score it for search engine optimization (SEO) characteristics.) Aim for a score of at least 70. 

Step 2: Close Out On a High Note

It’s counterintuitive I know, but next, write your closing. Script a sentence or two that recaps and reinforces your message and includes a call to action. Polish until it shines. This is what people will likely remember, so it’s worth the effort.

Hitting the high note

Tips

  • A call to action is the step you want your viewer to take. It may be to enroll in a class, donate to a charitable cause, or hire you. Whatever it is, make sure you clearly state that next step.
  • Don’t forget to include your or your organization’s name and contact information (website, email, and/or phone number).

Step 3: Fill in With One to Three Talking Points

Now develop the body of your script. Here’s where you tell your story.

Most videos are short (30-90 seconds) — just enough time to make a couple of points. You need to decide whether you want to dive into one point or skim lightly over two to three points. The more you have to say about any one topic, the fewer topics you should have.

Jot down a few five or six words for each bullet point. As you write, hone your message so that it is tightly focused. If there’s a specific example you want to use, note it. Write down specific words or phrases you need to remember. 

Tips

  • Worried about forgetting something? Keep your notes on your smartphone or on a pad nearby and refer to them if you need to when you’re recording.
  • I get asked a lot whether someone should share personal information. It depends on your audience, so you need to know who you’re talking to. For example, bankers, accountants, and lawyers may be more comfortable with bare facts. Parents might want to know a bit about you as a person before they trust you.
  • A little humor can work, but it can be tricky to pull off. If you’re not a natural with humor, don’t force it. And if you are, avoid snark and irony; even with body language, it may not work. (Your audience may be listening but not watching the video.)

Step 4: Practice, But Don’t Practice Too Much

Practice enough so you’re comfortable, but not so much that you sound rote. Be able to deliver your opening and closing as scripted, but allow yourself to explore your topic in different ways with each run through. You may discover something you forgot when scripting your talking points or find a better way to say it.

musician practicing

An old Toastmasters trick: memorize your opening and closing sentences. Know the major points you want to make, and let your words flow naturally as you move from open to close. 

Tip

It’s perfectly OK to get excited, even passionate about your subject. Just don’t overdo it and don’t fake it. Too much practice will kill the passion; don’t let that happen.

Do I Need a Videographer For a Memorable Video?

It depends. Some of the most effective videos I’ve seen were shot on a smartphone with no set, script, or video team. They succeed because the speaker is passionate about their topic and they want to share that excitement with you. Their energy shines through and pulls you in.

But there’s a good argument for paying a professional videographer. It takes a lot of pressure off you, especially if you’re not technically inclined. A professional videographer will add polish to the final product, in ways you probably can’t. I’m all for paying a pro to do something I can’t do as well. In the long run, a professional videographer can save you time, money, and a lot of frustration. They can be well worth the investment.

More Examples

If you want to see a wide range of videos, from polished to home-made on no budget, check out Indiegogo. It’s a fundraising site for everything from start-ups to non-profits, and most projects include a video. Some are great, some are awful. Worth the look.

And stay tuned to my website. I’ve been exploring videos lately and hope to be adding some soon.

Oh, and don’t forget to lock the door to the room to keep pets out while you’re recording your memorable video.

Great Lessons in Not Taking Yourself So Damn Seriously

The world is suffering from an overabundance of people who take themselves too damn seriously. Maybe we blame it on social media. Maybe we blame it on the current social and political climate. Whatever it is, people, we need to lighten up! How many of you have abandoned Facebook because of the vitriol, or look at nothing but puppy videos? Not that there’s anything wrong with a puppy video when you’re having a bad day.

The thing about dogs is they force you to lighten up. Most are naturally open, friendly and curious. At least my Huskies were, and they taught me three basic lessons that stick with me today.

Three Lessons

Like clockwork, every afternoon at 5:00 the dogs would wake up, shake themselves off, and take me outside for a half hour of roughhousing. Like the littlest kid in the class, I was always “it.” I’d sit on the deck while one plopped his furry butt in my lap. The other two would stage an elaborately ferocious battle to unseat him. Eventually, someone’s teeth would flash a little too close to my face for comfort and I’d call a halt to the proceedings. We’d troop back into the house, refreshed. The boys would go back to sleep; I’d go back to work until dinner time.  

Stuffed panda toy

It was a much-needed break in my day. It got me away from my desk, and it often knocked an idea or two loose in my head. Best of all, playtime reset my perspective. How seriously can you take yourself when you’re a living sock doll for three dogs?

Lesson #1: Play daily, even if you’re “it.”

I’ve written about Reese, my alpha husky. (He was the guy who dealt with a snake by peeing on it.) His most endearing trait was his welcoming personality. Everyone who came to my front door got the same greeting: an ears-back wiggle, a nod of the head, and a soft woo-ooo-ooo. He’d escort them to a seat and made sure they were entertained, often by graciously allowing them to scratch his ears. The delivery people confused him a bit–they’d never come inside. But even they didn’t leave without saying hello to him. It didn’t matter how he felt. Even when he was suffering from cancer, he’d wobble to his feet, shake himself off, and find the energy to be a gracious host.

He made a lot of friends that way. People would stop by just to visit him. He became a bit of a legend with the Fed Ex guys. He won over people who were afraid of dogs, people who didn’t like dogs, people who were just plain grumpy. The day I put him down, I called a list of people so they could come and say their goodbyes.  His last gift to me was new friends I’d never have had otherwise.

Lesson #2: Always welcome new people into your life, no matter how you feel.

My White German Shepherd-Husky-wolf mix, Harley, was endlessly curious. Sometimes this wasn’t such a good thing. I spent my fair share of time in the shower de-skunking a large, irate dog. But I’ve learned that exercising your curiosity can lead to great things.  

One spring Sunday, we were headed home after a long walk. Cars were pulling over along the curb. People were getting out to stare at the top of the hill in front of my house. Cell phones and cameras pointed upward. I was busy getting the four of us across the street safely so I didn’t look up.

Harley’s radar dish ears turned toward something. He led us straight up the hill to confront a magnificent great blue heron hunting for her next meal. Yes, herons are water birds. They will also hunt in open fields for a meal.  This particular hillside is a condo complex for ground squirrels, and the hunting was good.

great blue heron

We all froze. I had never been so close to such a majestic bird, and I’m reasonably sure the dogs hadn’t either. More to the point, they’d never seen a bird so big. There was some confusion on their part. It smelled like a bird. They knew from decimating the local pigeon population that birds could be caught and eaten. But something this big…? Unclear about how to proceed, three faces turned my way.

The heron gazed down at us with considerable disdain and some annoyance. She spread her wings and slowly, gracefully, soared away.

Lesson #3: Stay curious. You never know what will happen.

How to Write a Killer Bio

At some point in your professional life, you’ve probably been asked to write a bio. When you protest, you’re told “It’s simple. Just a few facts. Really, we don’t need much.” Ack.
It’s not all that simple. How do you know what facts to include and what to leave out? What will your audience find interesting? And what the heck do you do if hate to talk about yourself? Ack!
Here’s an outline to get you started, some tips to help you along, and a great resource with examples and templates.

Write Your Own Bio

  1. write a bioFind out what the bio will be used for and understand readers’ expectations. There are probably length limitations; it’s best to know before you start to write. No point in writing 500 words when 50 will do, or in embarrassing yourself by handing over something much shorter than expected.
  2. Who are you writing for? Your bio needs to be written so that it that meets your audience’s expectations. Bankers, accountant, and lawyers? Keep it formal and fact-based. Moms and dads? Less formal is fine—they want to feel they know you, so including a personal detail or two is good.
  3. Where will they read it? Is this for social media, a presentation you’re giving, or for a website? Length will also be an issue here. You want crisp and tight, especially for Twitter. Longer and more wordy is OK for a handout or a website when there are fewer restrictions on space. But don’t ramble on! You still want to keep it crisp.
  4. Line up your facts. What is it your audience will most likely want to know about you? How much of your professional life/career will they want to know? Would they care what your hobbies are? Use 10 years as a guideline, but know your audience. Academics will want to know your complete CV (space allowing). Parents and colleagues will care more about your more recent experience. Include your degrees; include certifications and awards if they’re relevant or demonstrate something important about you. Add hobbies if you’re comfortable sharing personal details. Some folks aren’t—and some audiences don’t care.
  5. A bio isn’t a resume. Summarize your facts in paragraphs, using complete sentences and correct punctuation. Start with your present situation and write in reverse chronological order. Next most recent situation or job, the one before that, then the one before that. You get the picture.
  6. Let a bit of your personality shine through. This is you you’re talking about after all. Balance your audience expectations with who you are. A stand-up comedian or improv artist would likely show their sense of humor. A doctor might prefer to show her human side, or perhaps mention a research project she’s particularly proud of. If you have a hobby you’re proud of, mention it. For example, I love to cook and knit. It’s something that I’m willing to share with my audience and it helps them get to know me better.
  7. Review review review. Send your draft to others and ask for their input. Review first for factual accuracy. Then review for flow—does the bio make sense? Next tackle grammar and punctuation. (Don’t rely on spell/grammar checkers!!!) Finally, give it a good copy edit. Have others do this for you if you can—another pair of eyes (or two) will catch things you’ll miss.
  8. Submit and ask for feedback. Some folks won’t care; others will want to rewrite your entire bio. Be sure you control the final product.

Tips

  • Explain it to Grandmaif you get stuck, use the grandmother trick. How would you explain what you’ve done to your grandmother?
  • Watch out for humor, especially if you tend toward the ironic or snarky. What’s funny or edgy delivered in person might seem cold and callous on paper.
  • Read your bio out loud and see how it sounds. More and more people are relying on the spoken word from their devices. Make sure your bio flows when you read it out loud.
  • When copyediting, read your bio backward. Errors will pop out more clearly.
  • Don’t let great be the enemy of good. There is such a thing as too much review where you’ll reach the point of diminishing returns. Time to let your baby go.
  • If you are asked frequently for your bio and you feel like you’ve got to rewrite it every time, stop. Do you really need a custom bio for each event? If you do (and you may), create a master bio and select what content you want from that. Stop reinventing the wheel.

Examples

A number of sites offer great bios, templates, and examples. Among the best I’ve found is from HubSpot. It includes examples for everything from Twitter to longer form bios, along with more tips for how to get this job done.

Leader of the Pack: A Snake, A Dog, and a Good Decision

A lot of life’s lessons have come from my dogs, especially the pack of Siberian Huskies that shared my life for a while. Boy, did they teach me a lot. Making a good decision quickly was at the top of the list.
As a breed, Huskies are smart, loyal, independent decision makers. They can sense trouble before a human can. If you’re running a sled team, you want your dogs to refuse commands in dangerous situations. It can save their lives–and yours.

One dim, damp, winter afternoon Reese, my alpha husky, was outside on his regular tour of the backyard. I was inside with the other dogs when we heard a high-pitched bark. Reese was calling out the cavalry. We ran to the back door. I let the dogs out and peered through the mist. 

A very large snake was curled in the dead leaves, giving Reese the stink-eye.

Snake vs. Dog

Gopher Snake
The Enemy

Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes are common where I live. As a rule, I don’t mind them. They keep the local rodent population in check. They eat; I save money on rat traps and don’t have to dispose of the deceased. Although rattlers and gopher snakes look alike, there’s one key difference: gopher snakes are not poisonous. On a bright, sunny day the differences between the two are clear. Not so much on this particularly gloomy Sunday.

If you’ve never seen a pack of dogs hunt, it’s a wonder. Each dog has a role. One stations himself at the prey’s head while the rest of the pack circle and distract. Reese took up a position confronting the enemy. The others ran in tight circles around them, snarling and snapping.
 
I didn’t want to have to drag a snake-bitten, hysterical Husky to the emergency vet.

Battle On

I called them to heel. The backup unit returned immediately, looking somewhat relieved. This was not their idea. Warm, dry beds required their immediate attention. But Reese persisted, brave and conscientious if a bit nervous now that he was flying solo. He paused to acknowledge my call; however, this was an imminent threat to his pack. He was going to take care of the intruder come hell or high water.
 
The snake was none too pleased. It lashed out to strike my resolute Husky. Reese hopped back a couple of feet but immediately leaped forward again with a snarl. The snake lunged a second time. I continued to call Reese. I was getting more worried about the outcome of this little tete-a-tete. Reese was torn. He recognized the danger he was in but didn’t want to fail. This was his backyard and the uninvited guest must be dealt with. It was all on his shoulders.
He paused to think things through.
 
You could almost see a light bulb go off over his head. He launched one last attack. The snake tucked itself down into a defensive curl. Firmly planting himself, Reese lifted a rear leg and aimed a stream of urine at the snake’s head. It hit the target dead on.
 
I imagined explaining the snake bite to the emergency vet.

Good Decision

Reese the Red Husky
Time for a Nap

The snake shook his head in disgust and beat a hasty retreat, never to be seen again. Reese turned and bounded into the house with his tail curled high, very proud of himself. Job done, he paused just long enough to collect praise from me then promptly took a nap.

Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness.

In the Real World: Talk to Stakeholders

Our local hospital has a national reputation as a high-quality institution. If you know anything about healthcare, you understand how valuable that is. High patient satisfaction ratings mean more federal (and sometimes state) dollars. Happier patient stakeholders mean more referrals and more revenue. In healthcare, quality isn’t just a buzzword.
But getting into the hospital is like gaining access to Fort Knox. I understand the need for security, but it adds a good 10 minutes to a visit. The main lobby is always crowded and confused; if you go in that way, bring your patience too.

The Problem

Patient Parking SignMy husband requires a monthly medical treatment. We park at a back door, in a small lot designed to serve out-patients who need access to the few departments nearby. Otherwise, it’s a long, long walk from the bustle of the main lobby. It’s also a convenient shortcut for vendors servicing medical equipment
Getting in and out is quick and easy and the security guards are great: they get to know you and greet you with a smile. I don’t know how they stay so cheerful, because there is no shelter from the elements. Even in good weather, strong winds blow around a nearby corner. It gets brutally hot in the summer, miserably damp and cold in the winter. The equipment they need to look up names and print ID tags never works—it wasn’t designed to be used outside.
 
We asked about the situation as one guard wrote out our nametags by hand on a “Hello My Name Is” label. The hospital refused to invest any money in an adequate guard station. It was only a back door and not as busy as the main lobby. Why bother?
Unfortunately, bad people recognized an opportunity. They began to sneak in. The staff had problems with unwanted guests trying to steal drugs and equipment, or harass patients. It was getting out of hand.

The Solution Worked—Until It Didn’t

Russian guardsHospital security implemented a solution. They installed a camera and intercom system. To get in, you buzzed the security office. They examined you through the camera, asked you to hold up your ID, and then let you in or sent you around to the main lobby. But the hospital was unwilling to invest in a good camera and visitors were unprotected from the elements. Most of the time the guard who answered the call couldn’t clearly see visitor’s faces, much less read the proffered ID card. Many were sent to the madhouse in the main lobby.
A lot of the patients who use that door are in poor health. Walking around the building is difficult, even if you’re agile. Having to go to the front strained parking attendants and volunteers, held up medical procedures, delayed equipment repairs, reduced the number of patients the departments could treat in a day, and, as a result, reduced revenue while increasing costs. Worse, stakeholders were irritated to the point of irrationality. It risked impacting the patient satisfaction scores.
That got everyone’s attention.

Who Needs Stakeholders?

vault lockFrustrated by all the complaints, hospital security went for the cheap-and-easy solution: lock the back door. Grant access only to staff with access badges.  That was it, problem solved. 
Oh, and don’t tell anyone that’s what you’re doing. 
You can see where this is going.

Well, That Didn’t Work Either

Not only did it make things even worse, it caused a number of unforeseen problems. The hospital added temporary staff to answer the increased volume of complaints. Because many patients couldn’t walk from the main lobby to the back of the hospital, more volunteers were needed to push them in wheelchairs. But the volunteers didn’t return the wheelchairs when they were done, so the hospital had to purchase more wheelchairs—and find more people to return the wheelchairs to the main lobby.  Meanwhile, the wheelchairs were starting to pile up in corridors and waiting areas. (I thought the hospital looked like the set of “Dr. Who.”)
 
Vendors were delayed further in getting to their repair appointments. Expensive medical equipment sat unused—and not generating revenue—even longer than before. To keep patient satisfaction scores up, a small nation’s budget in Starbuck’s gift cards were sent out acknowledging the inconvenience and thanking everyone for their patience
Staff schedules were upended because patients and vendors were delayed. Not only did that cost the hospital more money in overtime, it also meant staff was upset. To their credit, they didn’t take it out on patients, though managers sure got an earful.

The Point Is…

Talk to your stakeholders. Start by investigating the following questions for yourself, then check your understanding with your stakeholders.
  • What problem are you really solving? People were sneaking into the hospital through a back door. The real problem: Security guards weren’t equipped to work effectively. (A little root cause analysis would have sussed this out.)
  • Why does the problem need solving? Bad people were trying to gain access to drugs, equipment, and patients. Yup, that’s a good reason to fix the problem!
  • Who is impacted by the problem? Bad people, sure; but also security guards, out-patients, volunteers, parking attendants, staff, and vendors—stakeholders no one thought about.
  • How would your stakeholders solve the problem? Locking the back door seemed like the simplest, easiest solution. Who doesn’t love simple and easy?
A better solution: Invest in a weatherproof station and equipment to protect the guards, help them do their jobs, and make them more comfortable. Yes, it cost money in the short run. But the solutions that were implemented turned out to have a much larger impact on costs, revenues, quality and customer satisfaction.
  • How will you measure results? Clear indicators catch problems in the making. In this case, the solution eliminated security problems at the back door and meant the guards could be reallocated elsewhere. (Yay! Problem solved!) But the unintended consequences were more costly by far–and weren’t uncovered until much later. Oh, and in all the confusion, more bad people were getting past the guards at the main lobby. (Boo! Hiss!)
A final note: By the end of the first week, the back door was reopened and smiling guards were once again greeting us. It turns out cranky out-patients are a force to be reckoned with.