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3:00 PM

Remembering JFK

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Today, November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. Fifty years is a long time. This past week the airwaves have been flooded with remembrances of Pres. Kennedy and those tragic events in Dallas so many years ago.

CNN aired a nice piece this week, featuring the black-and-white coverage of 1963. In one 50-year old clip a newsman (they were mostly all men back then) looked into the camera and boldly predicted that years from now (1963) people would still remember where they were when they heard the shocking news of the assassination.

How prescient. I’ve seen several clips of now middle-age baby boomers talking about where they were when they heard of the President’s death. So here’s my story:

It was a day not unlike today is on the East Coast. Cloudy, but warm for late November. It was Friday, just as today is. I was sitting in my last class of the day at St. Paul School, the parochial school in the little town in which I grew up. The time on the clock was about 1:40 Eastern in the afternoon. The classroom door swung open and our principal swept in. The sisters of this particular religious order back then wore long flowing black habits that seemed to fly on the breeze when the good sisters walked with any great purpose.

The President has been shot in Dallas, she announced. Along with the governor of Texas. Then she began to lead the class in prayers. The President being Catholic, the staff and students had more than just a passing interest in the story. The teacher continued the prayers as Sister left to tell the next class.

We were dismissed shortly after 2:00. This was a different era. The town was small enough that most of us walked home from school. As I neared my house a schoolmate, Mike Shea—still remember his name—came running breathlessly up from behind.

“He’s dead,” he announced. “Kennedy’s dead.”

The first thing I did after entering the house was to flick on the television. And it stayed on for four straight days. Both of my parents worked so as they arrived they home they joined me in the living room. I remember being mesmerized by the coverage.

Even prior to the assassination I had been a little news junky. Probably why I ended up in a newsroom. I was aware that only three weeks before the president of the Republic of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm, had been assassinated, in a coup allegedly approved or tacitly agreed to by the American government.

That was of great interest to me since my older brother was in the second year of his four-year Marine Corps hitch, certainly ticketed to end up in Vietnam at some point.  I remember thinking, first Diem, then the President and the governor of Texas. Is this what a revolution is like?

We watched the coverage all day Saturday. And then Sunday.

I remember waking up Sunday morning and turning on the television. My father was with me. My mother told me to get ready to go to Sunday Mass. Out of the living room I heard my father shouting. I came running to see what happened. A gunman had just assassinated the alleged assassin live on national TV. And I had missed it.

Monday was like a grief-filled national holiday. Stores, schools and businesses were closed. We watched the funeral on television. I remember Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston presiding over the funeral Mass. I actually remember wondering for some reason what non-Catholics who were watching were thinking, listening to Cardinal Cushing intoning the Creed, the Eucharistic Prayer and the Preface in Latin. I remember the slow funeral procession.

Six days later we celebrated Thanksgiving. My parents asked me to say the blessing. I included a prayer for President Kennedy. I remember my parents thinking I was cute.

Mostly what I think of when I remember those four days wasn’t the actual events. Sister Alice sweeping into our classroom. The President’s young wife with his blood incongruously splattered over her pink outfit. Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV.

What I mostly remember was the feeling that that the big, wide world had suddenly intruded on the small world of a little kid. And the realization that there’d be no going back to the way it was.

I was Huck Finn on the raft and the Duke and the Dauphin had just come aboard. And they weren’t leaving any time soon.

A year later my brother was in Vietnam. And the images of that war morphed into the images of anti-war riots. And two more assassinations at home. And more riots. Two presidents in a row driven from office. And two more assassination attempts on the lives of U.S. presidents. And then 9-11, my children’s Kennedy assassination. And for their generation…there would also be no going back.
That’s what I remember today.
12:05 PM

Lemonade from Lemons

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Making Lemonade from Lemons

Forget about the cratered launch of ObamaCare. There is one sign of life still among the rubble. That sign of life is the free market.

There are any number of new companies that have sprung up to take advantage of gaps in the sprawling new law.

Extend Health, Inc. is a start-up that launched one of the first private insurance exchanges. Last year it was sold for nearly a half billion dollars.

How about Castlight Health? Their products put the transparency back into healthcare costs so consumers and employers can make more informed decisions about their costs and healthcare utilization.

And there’s Benefitter, Inc., whose software and support products help employers and their workers navigate the murky waters of Affordable Care Act regulations.

All of these entrepreneurs share one thing: They saw a big change coming and decided to manageit, rather than being managed by it.

At Chaddsford Planning Associates we’ve been part of a similar phenomenon. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it.” 

The cry against welfare reform, passed by Congress in 1996, was not unlike what we’ve seen with the Affordable Care Act. Each was a radical re-working of the social safety net.

I launched Chaddsford Planning the following year to take advantage of the fact that states, recipients and the private sector were facing a compliance issue with very little in the way of support.

Our first client was a trade association representing the food retailing industry. That was followed by another lobbying group representing the financial industry. Then came a major transaction processor. And a group of states. Then more states. And an equipment manufacturer. Then a company from France wanting to take advantage of its experience supplying product to that country’s social safety net. And then an Asian company wanting to sell to Hispanic Americans. And on and on.

The business environment changes all the time. If you’re a business you either take advantage of that, or be taken advantage of. That transaction processor? We helped develop two products that threw off $25 million in the first six months. The equipment manufacturer? A contract for 10,000 units within the first four months.

During the past 16 years we’ve helped more than 30 states plan for the adoption of electronic payment technology to replace their outdated paper benefit payment systems. All part of modernizing how we delivery social benefits. 

The next time change hits your business, tackle the problems it creates,  but don't stop there. Look for the opportunities that change can create for you.

As for the Affordable Care Act, who would have thought that a law, which at its core essentially converts one-sixth of the U.S. economy into a public utility, could rile up the animal instincts of the free market?

Welcome to America!
9:20 AM

Stubborn Little Things Called Facts

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Predicting Customer Behavior

I was watching a couple of talking heads hotly debate ObamaCare the other night on a news program. What struck me more than anything else was that neither speaker had much of a clue about healthcare, much of a command of the issues, or, frankly, much concern for the facts.

I know that facts can be stubborn things. And it can become pretty obvious that some people don’t like them because they interfere with one narrative or another.

Years ago, in my last stint in a newsroom, I was covering a pretty contentious issue. Seems the local power company wanted to divert water from a nearby river to its nuclear power plant about 20 miles away in order to provide water for the plant’s cooling towers. The plan would have allowed the utility to produce and sell more nuclear energy from the plant.

Supporters and opponents of the plan lined up along the usual fault line: on one side, college kids, liberals, greens, and suburbanites opposing the plan; on the other, businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, and lower-income people hoping for lower heating bills.

The plan’s opponents were able to get a referendum on the issue on the November ballot. The station’s GM asked me to conduct a survey of voters so we could predict whether the referendum would succeed or not. Most people thought the vote would support the water diversion plan.

With little more sophistication than pencil and some copy paper I conducted a survey from the newsroom. My numbers showed that the voters would kill the power plan by a pretty comfortable margin. We ran with the story.

Because of the predicted margin of victory for the plan’s opponents, we had other news organizations contact us. The survey had becomethe story.

Some reporters ran with the story: Local survey shows residents oppose power plan. But others walked away from it because it contradicted what had been their story line—that the opposition to the power plan was being fed largely by out-of-town celebrity protesters. And that was good enough for them.

By 8:00 on election night it wasn’t good enough. Voters approved the referendum that killed the water diversion project. Unstated anywhere outside the newsroom was the fact that the large percentage of voters turning thumbs down on the power plan closely matched the percentage of surveyed voters who said they would approve killing the project.

We went from a small, backwater broadcasting outlet to one that had outfoxed and outworked our city slicker cousins. It was a lesson I never forgot.

Today in business we use surveying to uncover the facts on which we base our conclusions for clients. For example, we survey retailers on their level of electronic payments sophistication in order to predict their ability and willingness to adopt new forms of electronic payments like electronic benefits for WIC, a government-sponsored nutrition program for young families.

We’ve also survey state agencies to determine what effect, if any, pending regulation will have on our customer’s clients. Those regulations could have severe adverse consequences for companies that supply those agencies with technology.

In all these cases, advance surveying yields tactical, actionable data that can be filtered, modeled, and hypothesized in order to predict behavior.

The next time you’re developing a business model regardless of what it is, consider surveying. Without it you’re an attack column without scouts.

Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of your target customers!