Vocab Rehab: The Hobson’s Choice

I’ve always loved language, especially simple words and phrases that evoke complex expressions. This is the first of an ongoing series about language that I’m going to call “Vocab Rehab.” The idea is to provide you with a few handy terms that you may not know but could use in the right circumstances.

One expression I love and am intimately familiar with is a “Hobson’s Choice.” In my childhood, my mother – an excellent cook and a nutritionist by training – would provide us with creative and wholesome dinners. We had it better than we knew. On the occasions when my ungrateful brothers and I would whine about her menu, she would smolder for a moment and then announce that we could eat what had she made or…she could make us peanut butter sandwiches.

Never once did we summon the chutzpah to take the second option. As her children, we knew that there was, in reality, no option at all. She would never have made the sandwiches, and we would have been in deep trouble. And that’s a Hobson’s Choice: a free choice in which only one real option is offered. Well played, mother.

Wikipedia, chronicler of all things, has an excellent description of this term, its origins and uses. According to that source, the phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England who, while owning many fine horses, only “offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.” He apparently liked to save his best horses for other uses.

A more modern example: on film, when the nasty antagonist tells his co-conspirator that she can either assist him or depart unharmed, we easily intuit that he’s never giving her the second choice. If she chooses to leave, she’ll be snuffed (and she nearly always is). It’s not only become a rather cliché plot point, it’s also a Hobson’s Choice.

Why Doesn’t Denver Get the Cool Technologies?

It’s a running joke here in Colorado that Denver was, is and always will be a pokey, fly-over “Cow Town.” While the annual stock show does nothing to dispel that perception, it’s quite fun to attend. Far more harmful to our reputation as a progressive city is when entrenched markets unfairly use their influence to obstruct the introduction of innovative technologies like Uber, the new limo-ordering service. 

Now don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartedly love my adopted city of Denver, flaws, cows and all. Yet I submit that we’re not really as edgy and progressive as we’d like to think. Even Boulder. Often it’s fear of change that makes the rules and ultimately rules the day.

Sure, we have the successful B-Cycle program and our glacially expanding Light Rail project. But I think we’re trailing truly progressive cities like Seattle because they openly encourage an experimental spirit. Here are three examples I saw of businesses in that region that are applying technology in new ways to improve customer satisfaction.

Amazon Locker in Seattle1. Amazon Lockers

I noticed the first of these fairly nondescript golden monoliths while pumping gas in Phinney Ridge. “Willa,” pictured on the left, is an Amazon Locker, a delivery system that offers quick, secure, 24-hour access to decent-sized Amazon.com orders. All you need to open your locker is a code sent to your email or smart phone.

What a discovery! Who knew Amazon would deliver directly to your neighborhood? I certainly didn’t, because Denver was not one of the seven cities chosen to test this service. I’d like to know why we were skipped over.

And I’m still trying to work out why Amazon feels the need to imbue their lockers with personality and a human name. I can sense the confusion already:

Sally (tentative): “Honey, you came home so late last night. Be honest: are you seeing someone else?”
Brad (defensively): “No! Okay, I guess I did visit with Willa, but it’s just business. You know that.”
Sally (beginning to sob loudly): “Oh, God, I hate her. Every time she texts, you run right away to see her. Can’t you see she’s just a cold, heartless machine, incapable of real love?”
Brad: “Huh?”

2. Shopping Cart Escalators

Fred Meyers escalatorNext, I had a George H.W. Bush scanner moment in a Fred Meyers, the Northwest Pacific’s version of Target. Descending to the basement in search of water shoes, I gawked in wonder at the sight next to me: a second escalator adapted to transport your shopping cart between floors.

Like an unsophisticated hick from The Sticks, I took a picture. Of an escalator. Or maybe we should call it a cartalator.

But it was so sensible. So simple. So elegant. So Lean: zero time wasted waiting for an elevator! Sigh. Yet another service innovation we don’t have in Denver. Not even at the new IKEA.

3. Sushi, Delivered to Your Table via Conveyor Belt

sushi conveyor This was Blue C Sushi: “Where Japanese tradition and technique intersect with American inventiveness and genuine hospitality.” What’s not to love?

  • No wait for food: simply select what you want as the conveyor moved by your table.
  • Clearly labeled products in transparent containers.
  • Only six product prices, each visually defined by a system of six distinct plate colors.
  • A snap for the wait staff to count the plates by color and calculate the final bill.
  • Fun for the kids!

Seattle may be wet and remote, and I-5 traffic sucks, but I admire how the businesses there are willing to try out new technologies to improve their customer service. And as a result, no none will ever confuse them with a Cow Town.

Making Waves

I’m just back from vacation in the Pacific Northwest. Exactly what a summer holiday from Denver should be: cool weather, mentally relaxing, and full of new sights, tastes, and sounds. Tempted as I was to post while in absentia, I decided instead to live in the moment, collect my thoughts, and later wring them out onto the blog.

First, a wry observation on the divide between the haves and have-nots:

jane-surfShortly after we arrived in Seattle, we were invited out to tony Mercer Island (median household income of $151,904 and median house sale price of $1,001,405) for an outstanding local outdoor production of The Tempest. Traveling to an island to watch a play about an island. How meta is that?

My daughter – restless little ball of energy that she is – insisted we seek out the park’s beach before the play began. Because isn’t Shakespeare really just another opportunity to don a bikini and get wet?

As we arrived, I was surprised to find the beach occupied by what appeared to be mostly immigrants or tourists (suggested by a prevalence of non-English conversations). Hmmmm. Wasn’t this Mercer Island?

The lake was still and the water warm, and when a sudden cascade of rolling waves crashed against the beach, I smiled as my daughter and the other children cheered, rushed in and body surfed.

Then it dawned on me that I was witnessing an actual ripple effect of the wealth in America. These were wakes, byproducts of the multimillion-dollar yachts that passed by the beach. Here, in one of the most expensive zip codes in the US, the privileged few were providing waves of pure enjoyment to those of lesser income. A perfect metaphor for the benefits of fiscal conservatism.

And no one seemed to care or even recognize that the ripples were an illusion made real by the distribution of wealth. Back at the play, The Bard had it right: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Put Down the Shovel and Pick up the Drafting Pencil

This summer, I’ve purposefully dedicated more time for recreational reading, with an eclectic list that ticks like a metronome between fiction/hobbies (e.g, Cutting for Stone) and marketing/business (e.g.,The Checklist Manifesto, which I highly recommend). I’m fortunate to be married to a bibliophile who carves through books like a hungry Vegan through a field roast. The gems that Lori plops onto my desk are never those I would have spotted for myself.

yardsShe recently surprised me with Yards, by Billy Goodnick, a hipster California landscape designer. I’m a hobbyist gardener who’s always looking for tips and ideas on how to enhance our urban yardscape. Despite my intent to merely skim the book, Goodnick reeled me in with his colorful language and cocky irreverence for traditional garden design.

As I dug through the chapters, I became captivated by (1) his methodologies for defining the garden space and (2) his insistence on weighting the early design process over the urge to immediately plant. How refreshing!

Most non-professionals (myself included) head straight for the garden center to grab the most exotic plants, but Goodnick instead encourages a more strategic approach: mapping the use and traffic flow of the yard, exploring multiple design alternatives, and patiently testing environmental conditions (sun, soil, water). Then, only when the groundwork has been laid, should you begin to consider the right and desirable plants to lay in the ground.

I’d translate his common-sense approach as roughly 50% strategy / usability and 50% tactics. What thrilled me most (geek that I am) was how well I’ve seen the same design philosophy used in business:

  • In marketing, the best campaigns are designed carefully, customer-focused and specific in time and metrics (using a SMART approach, for example).
  • In new product development, you will have fewer delays and far lower costs with an emphasis on planning and solidifying requirements in the early stage of the product design process.
  • And in process improvement, the most experienced practitioners know that without a well defined problem statement and detailed charter, your project stands little chance of moving beyond the first tollgate.
Charles Kettering, the American inventor and engineer, famously stated: “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” Whether we’re talking product design, marketing, continuous improvement, or even gardening, I’d say that the sentiment rings true. Take the time to truly define the issues, look at it from several angles, and resist the temptation to dig in too early. I’ll try to remember that in the frigid, dark days of February, when those vibrant, entrancing plant catalogs arrive in the mail.