Category Archives: Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

The Intimacy of a Special Collection!

I’ve long been a fan of the restaurant Del Posto. It is stunningly elegant, formal and yet cozy, and the cuisine shines. It is haute Italian, of multi-Michelin star quality (and when they lose a Michelin star, I suspect a wayward night for the inspectors, not the kitchen), and yet with exotic imagination and whimsy.

My wife and I dined at the very bespoke “Chef’s table.” One such table a night, maximum — no more than four. The Chefs personally preside, and deliver each dish, drawn from the best of the season. The dishes are not plucked from the current menu, but are a window to the chef’s imagination and the kitchen’s capabilities.

This is grand cuisine served intimately. Porcelain from Richard Ginori of Florence, copper from Alessi, silver from Sambonet and crystal from Movia of Slovenia. Gorgeous, stunning, at times eye-brow arching and at other times, simply breathtaking.

Warm Tuscan bread arrives, drizzled with the best vintage olive oil. Luscious champagne accompanies it.

A Bagna Cauda is next, a succulent paste made with anchovy, garlic and olive oil, accompanied by a lovely Pigato “U Baccan” by Riccardo Bruna 2008, wonderful minerality to accompany the paste and the variety of vegetables, pastries and cheese to dip into it.

A masterpiece follows! The balance of the anchovy garlic paste serves as a foundation for soft scrambled eggs with caviar and shavings of pumpernickel. Extraordinary! Luscious, and a riot of flavors on the palate. This is matched by an “Alteni di Brassica” Sauvignon Gaja 2007…rendered more exotic because it also has a lovely touch of Chardonnay.

Wonderful wild Black Bass arrives with Moroccan spices, drizzled with clam juice and uplifted by fennel — both sashimi and fish at once. The accompanying Cerasuolo di Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2007 is Italy’s finest Rose — complex and yet palate-puckering.

The intervening salad is more than filler by far. Head cheese and tuna with a lovely rose Champagne. A medley of colors and flavors, on the palate and for the eye.


The Chef switches gear and out comes a procession of extraordinary pasta. It begins with the Anellini with Black Truffle and Reggiano, rich and almost decadently flavorful. It is matched by a lovely, refreshing Chardonnay.

Another masterpiece! A 100 layer Lasagna that simply redefines Lasagna, moist pasta, rich flavorful ragu, interlaced together in a perfect symphony of tastes and textures. The Aglianico del Vulture “Caselle” 2004 has great depth, if not complexity and so picks up the richness beautifully.


The final in this portion of this exquisite collection is Polenta with duck eggs and frozen shaved foie gras. The richness of this exquisite combination virtually jumps up from the sheer mention of these ingredients. The Montefalco “Collepiano” 1999 has dark fruit, good balance, and a wonderful finish.

For the final savory, Veal in ash arrives, abundant with juice , soft, rich, lovely. The Barolo “Sarmassa” Bergadano 2001 is spicy and elegant — a fitting companion!

Simple salt baked pineapple, though sliced and served with magisterial flourish from a handsome tray, comes to refresh and revive the palate.

An exquisite dessert caps an unforgettable experience. An Eggplant Crostata, lightly glazed with chocolate and paired lusciously with sheep’s milk ricotta…moist, flaky, evocative, layering the palate with texture and flavor. The Recioto della Valpolicella 2000 demonstrates the sheer velvety finesse of this delectable dessert wine.

We arose having feasted, having been awash in genuine hospitality of an increasingly rare kind, enjoying grand surroundings but exceptional intimacy — our own cocoon of elegance and enjoyment.

“Del Posto” means “of the place”. Well this meal was of another time,  and with great artistry and culinary wit, that time was brought triumphantly and unforgettably back to life at “this place” today!

GRAND TASTING COLLEZIONE

Pane

FILONE Hot Pot with Vittorio Cassini 2010 served with Champagne Duval Leroy 1996

Primo Assaggi

PINZIMONIO in Bagna Caoda served with Pigato “U Baccan” Riccardo Bruna 2008

Smooth Scrambled EGGS served with Sauvignon “Alteni di Brassica” Gaja 2007

INSALATA CAPRESE with Testina di Tonno served with Champagne Rose, Alfred Gratien NV

Pesce

Fonduta con ANELLINI with Black Truffle and Vacca Rossa served with Chardonnay Isole e Olena 2008

100 Layer LASAGNA served with Aglianico del Vulture “Caselle” D’Angelo 2004

BIGOLI con L’Anatra and Goose Liver served with Sagrantino di Montefalco “Collepiano” Arnaldo Caprai 1999

Carne

VEAL in ash with Grass and Corn served with Barolo “Sarmassa” Bergadano 2001

Intermezzo

Salt baked PINEAPPLE

Dolce

EGGPLANT Crostata with Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Stracciatella served with Recioto della Valpolicella Lorenzo Begali 2000


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Beware of “Facts”

I’ve always urged that consultants are at their best when they help clients interrogate assumptions posing as facts. The almost “holy” question is, “How do you really know that?” Assumptions lead us often into a cul-de-sac of our own paradigms.

The other danger is what is called “research”. All of us can skew “statistics” in infinite ways. There is the Yogi Berra story I love about stats. Someone asks whether the pizza should be cut in four or eight slices. Comes the reply, “You better cut it into four, I don’t think I can eat eight.”  That in turn brings the old saw to mind, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Today there has been a report released, blazing across news channels about how a new study links sugary soft drinks to an up to 87%  increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer. Wow! Well, that is, until you read the small print of the study.

Some news channels segued from this to panning diet drinks and saying they were “poison.”  They may well be, but not on the basis of this study, which only speaks of sugary soft drinks. The same study confesses that fruit juice has virtually the same amount of sugar, but doesn’t have these alleged effects.

Let me say right out, I think the fact that sugary sodas have a host of health ills is probably not controversial. So my taking on the “spin” being given to this study is NOT a defence of soft drinks. It’s an expose of our tending to state definitive conclusions based on ambiguous, if not gossamer facts.

This study, which was conducted in Singapore, tracked 60,000 individuals over about 14 years. Of these 60,000, 140 developed pancreatic cancer. Of those 140, 30 they say consumed sugary sodas on a regular, weekly basis. The balance, 110 who developed the illness, did not consume sugary sodas. So how is this being advertised as a “finding”?  How can these numbers not more persuasively argue for a chance connection at best? The researchers also refer to 4 past studies that found no link between such drinks and pancreatic cancer!

Yet the headlines proclaim, “Sugary sodas linked to pancreatic cancer.”  What ineffable twaddle!  Or, certainly so, on the basis of the facts actually cited in the study. Now excess sugar intake can precipitate the onset of diabetes, which is a risk factor for pancreatic cancer. I get that link and rationale…which though is a sidebar to this study, and wasn’t anything particularly studied here.

The takeaway? Beware of grandiose sweeping conclusions, from scant, inconclusive facts. Consultants be the voice of bracing balance. We can’t solve what we don’t understand. While everyone runs around drowning in data, be enough of a contrarian, enough of a healthy skeptic, to make sure that what glitters in that instance is really gold, not brass.

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The Opportunty Cost of Non-Communication!

We’ve just been at the Shaw Festival and saw a superb production of “The Devil’s Disciple”.

While it has many themes, one of the most intriguing is the story of the British General Burgoyne. Burgoyne is known as the man who lost the Battle of Saratoga, a decisive turning point in the Revolutionary War. The American success there emboldened France to join with the fledgling nation, leading in time to the French navy interceding to help enable the historic victory at Yorktown.

Burgoyne was scape-goated for this, though arguably he had marched south from Quebec with a daring plan that could potentially have turned the tide in their favor. He was to be joined by the army of General Howe (located in New York). They were going to catch the Americans in a pincer movement. Alas, the orders to General Howe from London were very likely not sent, or if sent, were ambiguous. General Howe headed to Philadelphia, and a vastly outnumbered Burgoyne had to surrender. Burgoyne took this philosophically and returned to a measure of eminence after the cronies of mad King George were no longer in power. Apparently the official who was to send the orders to General Howe went on a vacation to Kent and opted NOT to interfere with his plans! But for that lack of communication…history could have been very different, and even a gifted commander could do little, when strategy failed to be aligned upon or executed.  As an American, I’m glad! But it’s highly instructive to say the least.

Laura Secord is a Canadian heroine. She overheard American plans to launch an attack during the war of 1812, and walked 32 kilometers at night to give a warning to a key Canadian outpost. The Canadian troops were forewarned, but for 48 hours the American attack never came. As it turned out the American troops were lost in the woods! The leader of that attack claimed they didn’t need maps or guidance as he claimed to know the woods “like the back of his hands”. Most of us don’t inspect the back of our hands, he clearly hadn’t either! They were picked off trying to find their way.  Better planning, better communication, would have again been critical.

In more recent times we know that the perpetrators of 9/11 were, many of them, wanted by various agencies in the United States. But the computers of various agencies weren’t linked to each other, so amazingly these people weren’t stopped at the airport and actually allowed to board planes! Arguably, all the information needed to identify them was present, but unable to be effectively deployed. When what we know isn’t effectively networked, no amount of knowledge will provide “intelligence”.

It behooves us then to realize that having strategies that are clear to us will be ineffectual if they aren’t relayed to everyone critical for their execution. The Governor of Quebec also received orders to bolster Burgoyne’s forces. But because his rank had been slighted in the communication, he hesitated…at that most critical of moments for British forces with ruinous consequences. So we have to not only “order”, we have to “enroll”. We need more than compliance, we need passionate engagement.

We also have to double-check our plans and preparation, rather than “assume” we know the way through the woods. Ensure, don’t assume.

Finally, we have to find ways of letting ideas, information, insights and perspectives connect and find their way throughout our network. We never know where the next breakthrough will come from, or who will be in position to avert disaster.

It’s easier to scape-goat someone or indeed to wring our hands in the aftermath. But proactive unambiguous communication, coupled with validated information and careful planning, and the sharing of what we’ve learned throughout the entire value chain, is how we ensure we achieve results rather than precipitate disaster.

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Onomastics Isn’t Enough!

Companies sometimes line up to change their names as if the shift of a name will lead to a shift of identity, reality and possibility, all rolled into one.

Onomasts are not psycho-sexual (or other) deviants…but rather those who study names and naming. They claim this study is a “science”.  That usually means it is awash in technical sounding minutiae — the trappings of any pseudo-science and the affliction of much applied science. However not even the most rabid onomast will claim that changing the name has much to do with changing the game.

Currently writing from the UK I read of the UK insurance giant changing their name from Norwich Union to Aviva. Viva Aviva! Meaningless, Latin-sounding new name changes are all the rage here as Tony Thorne has pointed out (Diageo, Altria, Solana). I remember the furor some years ago when PwC decided to call their consulting arm “Monday”. One person heard it as “mundane”. Another said it came about when they asked their marketing people if they had come up with a name, and they answered “perhaps Monday”. Unlikely to be true, but amusing.

When asked about the change from “Blackwater” to “Xe” (pronounced “Zee”), a spokesman for the now infamous security contractor said,  “There is no meaning to the new name. It was just a choice of a name, we thought of it internally.” Wonderful! We internally came up with something that has no meaning! And we thought we should be represented by a random, meaningless set of letters. It would have been interesting to hear less about the self-confessed mindlessness of the change of name and more about how they were aiming to transform themselves otherwise.

We change appearances, we change logos, we change names (The British Museum did so after some consideration, changing the “t” in “The” to uppercase!), we change everything it seems except that which matters. In other words we change the cosmetics, the incidentals rather than the essentials. If someone is silly enough to be hoodwinked by some change in the gloss on our lettering, that may be their bad luck. But it’s an insulting use of valuable resources…which in corporate settings can also include collective credulity.

Of course names have emotive content. And they either amplify or inhibit our ability to communicate who we are and what we do. We have to test drive names at times. But what we call ourselves matters less than what we deliver and offer, and how. Unless there is a change at that epicenter, spray painting a new sign won’t help.

When Andersen switched to Accenture, it took $100 million to communicate that change. When Cingular was dropped by AT&T, $2 billion was needed to communicate that fact! If that’s the best use of several hundred million dollars much less a few billion, that’s a  terrifying indictment of the value equation being engaged in by leaders.  Maybe a recession can be a sanity-restoring experience after all!

Change is an inside job, and it requires changes in more than the marquee. Change is needed in your leaders, your priorities, your reward systems, your team structures, your strategic and tactical priorities, your customer engagement…and indeed your market communication. But let that last accompany these other initiatives…not substitute for them.

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Beware The “Crack Berry”

I was just speaking at the annual HR Summit in Singapore. They wanted to know first if I had been in New York in the last 7 days. Fortunately I hadn’t, or I may not have been allowed in! A speaker from California was canceled in the hysteria over Swine Flu. Nothing we know about it suggests that someone generally living in California or New York is a risk! The sheer size and scale of the places, and the total number of outbreaks, makes it absurd. I noticed we had to ride six escalators to get to the presentation floor as the Convention Center claimed their elevators were out of order. Rubbish! Singapore is a gleaming, technologically proficient marvel. They chose not to run them, due to the fear of enclosed spaces. Gosh guys, if you’re canceling people for just living in California, just say why the elevators aren’t running.  The elevator idea may be a good precaution.

I read a comment some time back that if you had to vote for the three words most critical to life as we know it, it would be a coin toss between “love thy neighbor” and “wash your hands”. The first if achieved would transform civilization. The second if adhered to, might keep us alive long enough to attempt to. If we essentially follow the latter, we should make it through the current situation just fine.

Anyway, at one point in my presentation, I asked if people ever had to present in their company to senior leaders, where the leaders received them from behind a bank of laptops, checking emails, occasionally texting on their “Crack Berries” (my name for the Blackberry addicted), often oblivious to what they were saying. Virtually everyone nodded emphatically. If there’s a greater way to show disrespect for a presenter, I can’t imagine what it would be. If there’s a better way to kill passion in people for the work they’ve done, or for the recommendation they’re making and which you may want them to implement, I don’t know what it would be. If it’s not important enough to pay attention to or attend to, why gather people simply so you can ignore both it and them?

And this addiction continues into our family lives. At dinners, you’ll sometimes see whole families feverishly fiddling with their electronic device of choice…as if they were transmitting information critical for safeguarding nuclear launch codes, or making a decisive input relative to Middle Eastern peace, or calming the markets with some sage analysis. The truth is far more banal, which makes this reflexive behavior both vexing and sad. The casualty is the conversation, the relationship, the community.

The Blackberry, the IPhone, and all their kith and kin, can be wonderful enablers. But let’s give people the gift of attention if we’ve opted to spend time together, professionally or personally.

And then we can add one more set of three words to the earlier two. “Be here now.” It is what being “present” means.

Mindful awareness of the people we’re with and the situation we’re in, makes so much else both valuable, and possible.  Those who are present in this way, will notice things, hear nuances, pick up gradations that the tech-obsessed are blind to. Accordingly they’ll build personal brands for exceptional perspicacity, and demonstrate levels of alertness and corresponding insight that will seem to endow them with superhuman powers.

In truth though, it’s not superhuman at all. It’s human. And sometimes today, being an awake human being is miracle enough.

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As A Last Resort…Once More!

Some time ago I mentioned that human beings will as a last resort, having exhausted every other contrivance, dodge or option,  possibly at last ‘consider’ communicating!

I recently booked into a bastion of fine dining in New York City, for my wife and I, and a special guest. I love the place, so I’m holding off on naming it. Also, because they’re not unique in this disability…not by a long shot.

We had spoken to the Manager. A special menu with wine pairings had been ordered. Numerous communications had gone back and forth to fine tune all the arrangements. The day before the planned dinner,  we got the typical call asking us to “reconfirm” our booking. I asked a colleague to remind the Manager he knew full well we were coming and to make sure everything was in order.

The day of the dinner, another message was left on my voice mail! “Please call us as soon as possible, before noon, to confirm this booking.” Ye gads! How much reassurance did they need? Surely after meticulously aligning on the menu and wine choices, it would be more than quixotic to just not show up. And we had called the Manager again the day before!

Then the penny dropped. My colleague said the Manager probably hadn’t told reservations! The Manager apparently has no idea that reservations staff are maniacally drilled to call, no matter what. To relieve them of their palpitations, I called again. They confirmed the booking but had no idea we had a “special menu”. It would have been nice if they had known and without my asking had said casually, “Of course we’re looking forward to welcoming you, the special menu and wine pairing are all in order.” Another black hole of information! I had to cough up the name of the specific manager so they could ensure there was no further misunderstanding. Even then, the gentleman said, “If there’s a problem, I’ll call you back.”  How reassuring! On the day itself, if there’s a problem…”

I recalled that at another fabled restaurant, I again had made arrangements directly with the Manager who knows us well. Despite that, there were a number of zealous, persistent, unrelenting calls insisting we call and confirm, even though the Manager and I had exchanged emails about the occasion just a few hours back!  So this isn’t an isolated anomaly. It’s an epidemic!

And it’s endemic to organizations at large, not just restaurants. Systems are set up and administered, absent any common sense. Information is received in one location and not shared elsewhere, so that colleagues cannot offer a seamless service rather than pestering the same person to pledge once more their resolute intention to appear!

During the heydey of the Total Quality movement, and then the Business Process Re-engineering movement, and frankly every day since then, gurus and researchers alike continue to report that one of the greatest sources of waste in organizations is interdepartmental conflict.  Dig deeper, and an alarming percentage of that just comes down to inadequate sharing of information, poor consultation between functions, no attempt to co-create rather than to ‘territorialize’ things. Why? It’s easier to hoard than to share. It’s easier to believe that if I know, others can find out.  It is organizational service narcissism.

Do everyone a favor. We have IT, therefore it’s potentially easier than ever to share information. If not, we’re just automating stupidity and inefficiency…and we can now perpetrate THOSE at the speed of light! So let people know what you learn that is of relevance, and make sure there’s a feedback loop from the leader to those on the front line.

Communicate avidly and proactively (rather than reactively and truculently) with those who are a critical part of the value and experience you deliver…as a first instinct, rather than as a last resort. Do that consistently, astutely, insightfully, rather than hanging out in your own functional bunker.  Make that the way things happen in your business and then watch out for the avalanche of delighted, profitable business that increasingly comes your way!

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Absurdities Abound

Here are some absurdities from the road and from the headlines here in the US — all suggesting that we
are at our most absurd when we say things we don’t mean, do things that don’t make a positive
difference to our clients, or at a national level try to solve problems by stoking a fire
rather than putting it out.


© Omar Khan 2009. All rights reserved.

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New Languages and Nostalgia

My wife Leslie and I walked into a neighborhood coffee shop in New York, Juan Valdez. The coffee’s not bad, but you have to read a description of all the farmers they didn’t exploit to get it to you.  As I ordered, the gentleman serving asked what size I wanted. I was flummoxed. “What is your word for small?” I asked. He looked at me deadpan, “Small.” He pointed to the wall menu. Amazing! “Small, Medium, Large.” I congratulated them on not forcing me to decode an alternative language and ask for a Venti Tall Half Mast or something to get a small cappuccino.

And then I realized that much as we can smirk at invented vocabularies, it is also a mechanism of creating a type of community, of people who are ‘in the know’. Maybe, and then maybe today people want something simpler, something that reminds them of the human touch of cafes, not the PR flackery we’ve all been imbibing.

Some of the leaders of Coach Inc, the premium retailer, have been reluctant to tell the story about how their dedication to craftsmanship, something iconically and ardently felt within their company, coming as it does from their beginnings in a loft in New York, defines them. When such stories are true, as they are for Coach, perhaps a tad truer than alleged partnerships with coffee growers (and Valdez forgive me if I’m underestimating them here), I think we should share them…invitationally, but definitely. There is a real hankering today for true stories of real quality, of demonstrations of genuine dedication. We’re nostalgic for things that express artistry and commitment.

Long after today’s hucksters and their ability to trade in their empty sleeves have been forgotten…long may such things, and our appreciation of them, continue…

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