Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Where’s the Beef?" You Mean: “Where’s the Fat?”

First, an apology. I know it’s been a long time, but to borrow a line from the Talking Heads: When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed. And now, on with the show.

Yesterday I was chatting with some friends and one of them mentioned something that I jumped on making the point that it was yet another example of the negative impact of our constant quest to cut fat out of society and the economy. But, you say, “Cutting fat is a good thing, right?” Well yes, but only up to a point.

Some of you may know that I’m an amateur chef. As any chef will tell you, the flavor is in the fat. While the texture of a fillet mignon is unmatched in any other cut, there’s way more flavor in a New York strip. Why? There’s more fat in the strip steak. Nobody’s asking you to eat it, but let’s not forget what it adds to the meal. (As an aside, I’m both excited and nervous about being featured as “guest chef” next month alongside my good friend, fellow snowboard instructor and Executive Chef at The Hunt Club, Chris Fratkin!)

My home is in a neighborhood association that was started around the turn of the century (…the century, not the current one). There are several common areas, and between many of the houses, pathways linking them. When it was being built, they added a small stone house on association property where a full time caretaker kept tools to maintain the common areas. I can easily imagine the “old days” when that person was on the grounds all day, knew every neighbor and their cars, and perhaps most importantly, knew when something was wrong in the neighborhood. That person made a decent living and put his kids through school. To have someone in that role today, with OSHA, SSS, disability insurance… it would be over $100k all in, and no neighborhood could afford it (which is a whole other story, and don’t get me going…). Now, the common areas are badly overgrown and houses are being broken into. In the effort to be “capital efficient,” we keep taking fat out, but we’re losing flavor, too.

Last week I attended Acceleration 2011 at Nutter, and co-sponsored by Halloran. The event was quite well done. Well organized, good facility and excellent panelists. The first panel was “How Lean is Too Lean?” Great discussion, and Bruce Booth of Atlas made some great points. One was the distinction between lean and virtual, and the ensuing distinction in the discussion of what is too lean versus too virtual. I agree that there’s a difference, but as I’ve previously noted, there is a point where companies lose the flavor if they’re too lean or too virtualized.

In a tech company, and certainly in any life sciences company, popping into someone’s office and saying, “Did you see the article in Nature last week on chromosomal rearrangements?” is invaluable. I agree that it’s easier to conduct business remotely these days, and young people are far more accustomed to it than the old guard, but let’s not minimize the value (and flavor) of human interaction. There may indeed be a cost associated with it, but it pays dividends.

On a related note, one of the panelists relayed the story of how he filled a key C-level position in the company using LinkedIn, and was happy with the result. Don’t get me wrong, we use LinkedIn, and unlike many of my colleagues who see it as a threat, we embrace social media, but as a tool. I would argue that he got very lucky. Again, I’m a big fan of efficiency, but don’t overlook the value of having a pro do the research, vet candidates and benchmark them against a known database. I know it sounds self serving, but again, it’s about the flavor.

Wish me luck in Vermont!