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Ben Kunz
Ad guy, father, chin-upper. You found me.
Ad guy, father, chin-upper. You found me.

Ben Kunz's posts

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Marty McFly arrives tomorrow. Did we get what the film promised in tech?

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What is the real far-future of media?

Here are our predictions: (1) Environment monitoring, driven by sensors around us; (2) virtual visual overlays that are constantly on, created by the inevitable shrinking of screens until they fit in your contacts; (3) ambient personalization, as you control what you see everywhere; and (4) societal upheaval as we relearn how to interact with other humans in a virtual world.

- See more at:

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"The irony of our quest for AI is that it may be here already in a form of crowdsourced intelligence, built partly from individual human minds and partly from the technology networked connections that accelerate our group action."

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What will the new Apple iWatch look like? I predict 6 things in Digiday. Look for the Apple product announcement next Tuesday, Sept. 9.

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It strikes me that anticipating someone's needs is not only nearly impossible, but it has little utility in commerce. Here's the story why.

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A riff on group dynamics that could save your next meeting
Decisions are difficult in business because hierarchies and org structures, however well thought out, culminate in small groups trying to reach consensus on difficult issues. Funny thing is, the strongest influencer in a meeting is usually not the most senior manager. Often, an unexpected player steers the decision to a biased, wrong-headed conclusion. This is the danger of "propinquity."

Propinquity means "nearness in relationship," and was outlined by management consultant David Hillson in a 2009 paper "How Groups Make Risky Decisions." Hillson suggested that if the risk of an issue being debated by a decision group is very close to one individual, that person will become a vocal force as influential as a top officer.

Don't make it blue!

To see how propinquity works, imagine a group of managers convening to decide which color to paint a new office. Participants include:

- Sally, a senior manager who formerly led a paint department
- Frank, a mid-level manager with expertise in interior color design
- Tom, a junior manager ... who as a child was frequently locked in a small blue room for "time outs"

As the color committee begins to discuss choices, Tom proclaims, "Blue is a horrible choice, it's too babyish. We can't include it." The other participants, swayed by Tom's strong opinion, agree. Blue is off the table.

What happened? Tom -- unbeknownst to others, and perhaps unknown to him -- had high propinquity to the color choice. His passion swayed the group, beyond the opinion of the other members who had more expertise.

Hillson suggests this type of group-member bias is important to recognize, because studies show that participants in decisions with high propinquity skyrocket in influence -- rivaling or surpassing that of individuals with high power. This results sub-optimally in the group decision really being made by one person, who of course does not have access to all the data for the most rational execution.

It's a bad choice, but I saved my bonus

Color choices are a silly example, but propinquity often arises in important business decisions. Imagine holding a team meeting deciding to:

- Develop a new service that could drive new revenue ... but that might reduce the bonus for one manager who works in a competing department.
- Launch a communications campaign that could generate positive PR ... but that conflicts with the power of an internal manager.
- Merge with a new organization that could triple annual profits ... but undercut the power of the current team leaders.

It's not hard to envision someone in each scenario above making strong points to nix the best decision for the organization.

Business history is littered with examples of decisions missed based on individual, or business unit, fears. IBM could have owned Microsoft's early operating system, but dismissed it because its fortunes were tied to mainframe computers. Microsoft could have launched cloud-based apps before Google, but doing so might have cannibalized its PC software division. Kodak could have led the digital camera market, but doing so would have threatened its old film business. Clayton M. Christensen defined this macro-business illogic in his book "The Innovator's Dilemma," in which radical innovation can lead to enormous future profits ... but is often blocked if seen as threatening to existing business groups. Entire businesses can make suboptimal decisions if they have too much propinquity, or nearness, to the risk.

In simple terms, propinquity inflates perceived risk

Boil it down and if a decision has a potential outcome that affects us personally, we often over-emphasize the risk ... and end up not making any decision at all. Propinquity creates a type of "risk inflation," where the peril may not be large to the overall organization, but challenges our current reward structure.

The solution is to self-regulate, to step beyond the shell of our personal rewards or fears to really evaluate how the decision may benefit or harm the organization as a whole. A good test is to ask two simple questions: If we do ____, where will our organization be one year from now? Is that a better place? And if it is, then leave your propinquity by the door.

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Chevron's use of global warming for bold branding
Mention climate change and you get hot responses from some conservatives who believe the risk is falsified, earth's temperatures are not rising, satellite data is fudged and human-made CO2 and methane don't absorb heat from the sun. Some liberals leap far the other way, accusing energy giants such as ExxonMobil of disinformation campaigns bent on disguising facts about global warming.

Chevron has its own strategy: cut through the denial and talk straight about the issue.

Punch "global warming" into Google and the third sponsored ad you'll see is from Chevron, inviting you to a webpage describing how it is concerned about global warming and working to build cleaner energy solutions. On its landing page, Chevron pulls no punches:

"At Chevron, we recognize and share the concerns of governments and the public about climate change. The use of fossil fuels to meet the world's energy needs is a contributor to an increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs)—mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane—in the Earth's atmosphere. There is a widespread view that this increase is leading to climate change, with adverse effects on the environment."

This is a bold statement from an energy giant with a $209 billion market cap. Why is Chevron pushing such statements to the world? Well, first it could be a lure to investors -- if half the population does believe that scientists can count and earth's temperatures are rising, those investors are more likely to place funds in a company they believe may do something about it. Chevron could also see that energy will change, and be positioning itself for leadership in emerging markets for wind, solar, thermal, fracking, cleaner coal, carbon recapture, or other new technologies that might someday give oil a run for its money. (Chevron has run such brave ads as "It's Time Oil Companies Get Behind the Development of Renewable Energy.")

And of course running ads inside Google searches for "global warming" means you'll only be talking to people hunting for the issue, in essence partitioning off environmentalists with their own communication stream. But I don't think that's it. Chevron's main tagline is now "The Power of Human Energy: Finding Newer, Cleaner Ways to Power the World." ExxonMobil by comparison says "Taking On the World's Toughest Energy Challenges." Chevron is becoming the 7Up to ExxonMobil's big cola. It's a crisp, clean, different alternative. It's focused on the multi-billion-dollar emerging renewable energy market. At least for branding, that's a warm story.
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