Four Lanes to Avoid Traveling on the Net Highway

FRAMINGHAM (03/13/2000) - A sucker is born every minute, but I suspect the birth rate has risen considerably in the Net era.

For every Internet billionaire, there are a billion Internet disappointments: the investors who bet the ranch on frothy Internet stocks, the employees who slaved 80 hours per week for stock options that fizzled out, the parents who ordered Christmas gifts that never came down the chimney.

So I think it behooves anyone involved with the Web - and that includes any IT pro or business strategist - to ask himself an unpleasant question: What am I doing that could lead to disappointment two years from now? Here's one man's list:

Single-mindedly pursuing Plan A: Entrepreneurs talk too confidently of their e-business plans. Trouble is, no plan can stand up to e-commerce. Life on the Web frontier is too mercurial and fast, too full of intangibles and ambushes to bet on a plan. Internet strategists need a Plan B and C in the very likely case that Plan A fails. Better yet, they should talk with customers and keep adjusting their plans to give them what they want. Likewise, IT people must build flexibility into their systems and contracts.

Whacking out on pop management books: Fame and fortune are yours if you can write a business best seller, and plenty of Tom Peters wanna-bes want to be New Economy guru-millionaires. But do they have anything new or even sensible to say? Two formulas that particularly irk me: books on the business secrets of people (real or fictitious) who never ran a business, and books that take everything learned about management, turn it inside out and proclaim these inversions as New Economy gospel. Managers need better analyses than that.

Substituting gimmicks for values: I'm tired of reading articles about executives whose ideas of building morale and encouraging creativity are to make employees go through peculiar initiation rituals or go on some bizarre corporate retreat. I'll bet many employees find these discomforting and insincere and no compensation for the burnout hours they're working. These rituals are no substitutes for the values that build loyalty: respect, honesty and honorable behavior. If creativity is what you want, get serious, not silly.

Train your people to work more creatively. There's an entire field of literature on how to develop one's creative potential, from such authors as Edward De Bono and Michael Michalko. Use it.

Burning customers: I know I've said this before, but too many dot-coms don't get it. Don't let down your customers. Deliver on your promises. Be dependable.

Yes, venture capitalists expect a fast, two-year turnaround on their investment. But your risk - and theirs - will only increase if you start a death spiral of negative word-of-mouth publicity. Yes, there are dot-coms like America Online Inc. that have let down customers, begged for forgiveness and gotten away with it. But do you want to depend on forgiveness? Instead, consider this advice from airline executive Jan Carlzon's 1987 book, Moments of Truth: "The way to win customers is to excel at service when a customer in crisis puts your people to a test." So, when a dot-com flunks that test, don't do business with it. Period.

The so-called New Economy may have opened new ways to compete and may reward flexibility over stubbornness disguised as planning. But it didn't undo the values of reliability or substitute gimmicks and e-business fashion for sound thinking. Let the e-sucker beware.

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