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15 November 2012

The Difference Between ‘Interesting’ and ‘Fascinating’

The capital markets may be going through the toughest times in memory, but a little perspective shift can be a powerful tool in overcoming the challenges.

[Ed. Note: This week, TABB Group senior analyst Paul Rowady will be reporting from SAP’s SAPPHIRE NOW conference in Madrid.]

This commentary is not your normal capital markets fare – it’s not the deep dive into some technical or regulatory topic that you might expect to find here on TabbFORUM. Though it is related to the work that we all do from day to day, there is a personal message in the words that follow, and I hope you will find it useful.

For trading and other capital markets firms, times are tougher than in anyone’s experience. No one currently in the game has actually been through a period like this. Only the history books can regale us with tales of an age when the economic and political climate may have been more adverse. Sorry to be a wet blanket, but the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” will apply, in my humble opinion, for the times that still lie ahead. Therefore, today’s dispatch from the SAPPHIRE NOW conference in Madrid is more of a personal note that can be re-assembled into a mind-set for your business: As you approach your personal growth -- I mean, business strategy for these times -- a small change in perspective can go a long way toward tilting the tables in your favor (or not). Take it from a couple of guys who know, SAP’s Jim Hagemann Snabe, and me:

Once upon a time, I was a foolish, balls-to-the-wall, don’t-leave-anything-for-the-swim-back entrepreneur. Trying to turn a dream into reality, I set out on a course of a thousand meetings -- which felt more like death by a thousand cuts -- to gather interest and resources for my business idea. Of course, I would not be writing this now under this banner had things worked out as planned. Rather, an intense period of adversity ensued between there and here.

[Check out Paul’s first dispatch from Madrid:New Capital Markets Mythology and a New Secret Sauce”]

Of the many lessons that are tattooed on my mind from this exercise is the true meaning of “interesting.” It’s not what you might think, having been hijacked by modern vernacular. Countless are the number of times I was graced with the simple and seemingly innocuous phrase, “That’s interesting.” At first, I had a traditionally Pavlovian response to these words; I thought, “Boy, I must really be onto something.” Yet, in meeting after meeting, I heard the same refrain.

Interesting.

Interesting.

Interesting.

I-n-t-e-r-e-s-t-i-n-g …

Eventually, “interesting” came to mean that I was going nowhere. (Try it sometime. Listen for it. I guarantee it will arrive. And when you hear it, ask yourself: Are you getting closer to your target, or is your audience just trying to be polite?) Not only did this experience cause me to develop a higher-than-normal sensitivity to semantics, it also taught me how to play with subtle shifts in perspective. Like mental jujitsu, it turns out that some of the tiniest shifts are very powerful.

Contrast my journey in perspective with one of the more colorful threads of SAP co-CEO Jim Snabe’s inspiring keynote at the opening of the SAPPHIRE NOW / TechEd conference here on Tuesday, Nov. 13. The setup went simply like this: A friend of his -- the conductor for a world-famous philharmonic orchestra -- is known to exclaim, “Fascinating!” when faced with challenges that would make most people cringe. Instead of a negative response to the inevitable bumps in the road, this example of how a shift in perspective to a more positive view of challenges is a lesson worth paying close attention to. Snabe went on to pepper his presentation with a selection of truly fascinating business challenges that lie ahead and how he and his 65,000-member team intend to help their clients tackle them.

Now, I confess -- based entirely on personal experience -- it is WAY easier to be sanguine about adversity after the fact or when it is not happening to you. But that shouldn’t change the importance of the message. Today’s glitchapalooza, snafu or brouhaha should be viewed through a lens of fascination, if you can manage it. (Some days will be harder than others, I assure you.) Every unexpected glitch is an opportunity in disguise; an opportunity to strengthen your personal and organizational platform. If you can survive it, the use case becomes part of the fabric and strategies can be tweaked to anticipate, or at least manage, the risks of similar use cases.

Now that we are in an environment where return on capital has downshifted to return of capital, staying in the game will be praised as successful more than at any time in recent memory. As a result, taking a longer-term view will pay dividends -- just not necessarily tomorrow or next month or even in the current quarter. Investing in process efficiency will minimize cost structures -- and free up human capital to be deployed elsewhere. Investing in exploratory research, business intelligence, and other feedback loop capabilities will give you new eyes from which to see the next few moves on the proverbial chessboard.

A final word of advice: Practicing detachment from the personal impacts of events and, instead, seeing them for their opportunity for learning is the method I have found to be effective when navigating challenging times. Much easier said than done, which is why they call it “practice.” I encourage you to practice the perspective that we live in fascinating times, and that there are significant opportunities for those with the perspective to adapt.

Stay tuned for an additional dispatch from Paul Rowady in Madrid coming soon: “The Emerging Focus on User Experience and Design Thinking.”

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