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Monday, April 29, 2013

Random ideas from me and others -- the overarching concept being to entice the customer to come to you first rather than the other way around.

1. "Have breakfast with the customer" -- a former boss taught me this. Excellent salesman, he thought from the client's perspective at all times and actually did have breakfast lunch and dinner with them.

2. "Let it be their idea"--another former supervisor who was brilliant at this. I don't know exactly how she did it.

3. "Solve their immediate problem well" and then they will call you to solve others - e.g. sell them stuff they need.

In School

...we would let children go with their parents to work and have childcare and tutors available there.

...we would focus on helping children discover rather than on teaching them.

...we would eliminate standardized tests completely in favor of the essay, the presentation, the model.


At Work

...we would end the distinction between working and learning activities.

...we would embrace noble failures rather than worship success.

...we would work and learn in whatever setting feels natural to us.


In Our Communities

...we would make the outdoors more accessible and safe.

...we would have free, safe libraries and learning labs everywhere.


In The World

...we would unlock the data and use it - to end poverty, sickness, inequality and social repression.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Some thoughts in response to a question on GovLoop--
1. Organizational Innovator
  • Always an outlier
  • Can see the whole, the future, the vision - very big picture thinker
  • Future-focused
  • Technology-oriented
  • Put things together that don't seem to connect
  • Idealistic not practical
  • Optimistic
  • Humanitarian on a grand scale but can be rude one on one
  • Not power or money hungry but definitely want to influence others
  • Not diplomatic - it's either innovative (good) or not innovative (bad)
  • Tend to overvalue your contribution and be a poor listener
  • Not swayed by "feeling" arguments - "we can be more efficient but it will hurt people's feelings"
2. Government Innovator
  • You understand and value government for what it is and your agency for what it is uniquely
  • Try to make things better within the subjective logic that is every unique agency system.
  • Achieve innovation that may not be much by private sector standards but that is significant in an agency setting
  • You don't attack or undermine the system because it's slow, bloated or inefficient - you focus only on making things better incrementally
  • You work in a team with other motivated people - you do not try to do it on your own
  • Examples: popularizing alternative dispute resolution or the concept of 24/7 employee staff care; getting people to use collaboration technology not hoard information
3. Private Sector Innovator
  • Focus is on making money
  • Creates a market for a new way of doing things that involves buying a new kind of product (e.g. Kindle when people are used to paper books) or brand (e.g. Lexus when people already buy cars)
  • Or - achieves significant operational efficiencies to cut costs (e.g. robotic surgery or virtual admin assistants; microtasking)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

So I hesitated to write this post for a lot of reasons. In the end I decided to try.

(If you are curious, I am worried that I will sound like a snotty know -it-all or maybe worse, like an incompetent fool.)

Here is what I learned from a year of trying my very best and making a lot of mistakes:

1. Nobody cares what you did before or who you are outside. All that matters is here.

2. You can never know enough or learn enough. Not for a single day.

3. Listening is not just something nice to do. It is a whole brain activity that is essential to do about 80 percent of the time. Even when you are talking you should be listening.

4. Find people willing to teach you. These people are everywhere. Don't be afraid to ask for advice, for five minutes, for help. Executives as well as success-minded people are generous.

5. The people at the hierarchical bottom of an organization know the most.

6. Don't be an ass. Interpret this as you see fit for your situation.

7. Don't get involved in gossip but you should know what it is.

8. You are getting paid to solve problems and you have no right to make excuses.

9. Have compassion for others but you can't let this cloud your judgment.

10. Make way in your life for the work responsibilities. The higher you go, the more they overtake your life and that is a fact. If you don't love that fact you can't stay.

11. The higher you go the more you represent your employer's brand personally and professionally.

12. The skills you need are not in a book.

13. Don't tell people what your real success secrets are.

14. Hire the best and promote them as much as you can.

15. Work closely with your boss. Trust their vision and make it real.
"Shouting" via JacksonBrown.com, "Teaching Cultural Diffusion in Medieval China"

There are definitely two kinds of people in this world, "data people" and "feelings people" (Myers-Briggs: Thinkers and Feelers or Ts and Fs). 
  • "Data people" tend to do work aimed at maximizing efficiency on a mechanical level. Currency traders, policy analysts, surgeons, programmers.
  • "Feelings people" tend to do work aimed at enabling psychological & social adaptation. Parents, nurses, psychologists and counselors, customer service.
Most of the time each one has no idea what the other one is talking about.

In addition there are some people who take the existence of G-d for granted while others are vehemently agnostic or disagree. Each can be terribly offended by the other to the point where they will in effect stick their fingers in their ears going "la-la-la, I can't hear you" with the sentiment being that the other person is responsible for all the world's ills. (Singlehandedly.)

This is a sorry state of affairs because in the real world data and feelings not only go together but they overlap. And the spiritual realm - or how about this, let's call it the intangible - has a reality as well. Whether you believe in G-d or not, a room has a "vibe," people have "auras" and so on beyond what we can see and measure.

All of this matters more today than it did in the past. Because to get work done you have to be able to consider all factors related to efficiency at once. 
  • It's not enough for your hands to work so that you can sew a shirt. 
  • Remembering how to do the surgery, or what the case law is - only goes so far. 
  • It's nice, but often inadequate if all you can do is hold someone's hand while they cry. 
  • And talking hocus-pocus about good and bad vibes can get people laughing at you.
At the end of the day what data people are looking for - is the most output with the least use of resources. And what feelings people want is the highest level of adjustment in the most challenging set of circumstances.

It's not necessary to understand or master what other people do. You can't anyway, you were not built to know all things. But at least you can credit them for knowing something. When we acknowledge that all of us live on different planets, and that the scenery has some merits, we're in a better place to work together the way we need to. Rather than simply shout each other down.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Take a good look at your audience - any ordinary person. Here, the actor Michael Cera, via Wikimedia.
Having worked in a law enforcement environment I think it is fair to say that the culture features chain-of-command thinking, jockeying for power and general discomfort with managing emotion in a real way.

These factors have a direct impact on public affairs because in today's environment - where social media has a gargantuan influence - you will literally be shouted down from your post if you cannot engage the public.

The rule of the day is to treat the public with respect, as a peer group equivalent if not greater in influence and power, as an ally to be persuaded. To be humble. And most importantly to engage them equally emotionally and intellectually.

Therefore, 5 tips for law enforcement public affairs--

1. Tell people what is going on in a way that conveys expertise but also deep concern for them. If you don't know how to do that watch any movie with Morgan Freeman. In fact I would actually hire Morgan Freeman. I am not kidding here.

2. Never say anything confusing, vague, inaccurate or misleading. If you make a mistake say so. If you can't tell people what is going on, say so and shut up.

3. Don't manipulate the public's emotions, don't try to manipulate the public's emotions, don't appear to try to manipulate them. You can explain why your mission is difficult or challenging. But you cannot cross that line. Watch "The Hunger Games" - the first fifteen minutes.

4. Welcome citizen journalists. Nobody should ever feel scorned or afraid for engaging with public life or public narrative. Have them examine the data. Crowdsource, don't crowd them out.

5. The stagey looking press conferences look staged. There are about ten million better ways to get the public engaged with what's going on, including embedding reporters and/or citizens with the subject matter experts to the greatest extent possible.

*As always all opinions are my own.

Monday, April 22, 2013

It's a free country, everybody has freedom of speech, and it is statistically impossible that you will agree with every single thing your agency, another agency or the government does as a whole.
You want to make the government work better.
Every day people take to social media, face-to-face conversation and everything in between to say what they think.
And honest conversation promotes transparency and therefore credibility. To my mind it shows the public that we care.
However, there are times when speaking your mind may not be the best choice.
Here are five factors I use to guide and sometimes limit my public comments:
1--Focus on the general (rules and best practices) not the specific.
2--Remember that I am in a sense a representative of my Agency's brand (and the brand of government) whether I am speaking in a personal capacity or not. This is true of any employee of any organization.
3--Stick to designated roles and responsibilities - in my Agency only Public Affairs or designated experts on specific topics are authorized to explain or comment on what we do publicly, and to address controversy. 
4--Do not do anything that may interfere with mission performance. In some Agencies this is written into a code of conduct.
5--Confidentiality--don't talk about things that are nonpublic information.
From your experience, expertise, or just plain common sense what can you say, and not say, as a government employee writing in a public forum and signing your name? 
(Important note: Nothing here constitutes official advice, and I am not a lawyer. When in doubt, please seek the advice of a competent legal professional.)


Saturday, April 20, 2013

If you tell a kid to limit TV viewing they will sneak out and do something else. Just because.

Order an adult to eat fruit. They will ignore you and find cheeseburgers.

After a politician makes any speech, people will find reasons to howl in protest. What a hypocrite!

That is how authoritative speech works. The more you try to force a thing the more the people rebel.

Photo by me.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Man with sick child in hospital waiting room, Mozambique. Photo: Eric Miller/ World Bank via Flickr 

Proactively identifying and solving problems. Those are leadership traits.

But they're not always useful.

Often the skill is simply to be there.

Being there does not mean imposing yourself on the situation, on the problem -- shoving your agenda around.

It does mean physical, emotional and spiritual presence. Sitting with the people. Holding somebody's hand. Showing that you care.

Leadership often means empathy and not action words. Action-oriented people have difficulty understanding this. "What should I say? There are no new developments."

Especially in times when there is chaos and fear, the calming support of a leader is not just helpful. It is required in order for the organization to continue running.

People may not show it but they are frequently wracked with physical and emotional pain -- anxiety, apprehension, fear. Not to mention anger: "It's not fair."

A great leader does not play into negative emotions. Rather the leader calms them. "It's OK. We will pull through together."

You can be a leader at every level. In times of trouble what is required is to put yourself away for awhile. And let forth a healing energy.

It is possible to solve a problem without any problem-fixing words.

A great leader knows when to not say them.




Thursday, April 18, 2013

Starbucks corporate social responsibility values are key to the brand -- because they position themselves as part of the community. Screenshot of Starbucks coffee cup label via Tara's Tidbits.


People get brand values (a.k.a. core values) mixed up with humanistic ones. They're not the same thing.

You, as a person, have a basic set of values. They are the principles that drive you as a human being -- your conscience. Your values may make you "not nice."

For example let's say these are your top three: freedom, integrity, and honesty. Freedom means choices; integrity means doing the right thing; honesty means not lying.

  • Standing up for freedom can mean fighting very vocally and sometimes physically. 
  • Integrity may mean turning in a thief. 
  • Honesty may involve a very direct and undiplomatic response to someone who's being deceitful.
All of those values are nice. None of those values involve being nice.

What is the purpose of having personal values? They are your compass; they guide you through life. They can be grounded in religion, or not.

The purpose of brand values is very different. They are your compass, too. But they're not about personal meaning. They are about adding value to the product you sell.

Brand values gain traction through consistency. The more you are who you say you are, the more believable your "promise." Meaning, the more credible you are when you say your product is worth more than a competitor.

That promise may be true or simply an illusion. But it is always founded on living the same values day in and day out.

Steve Jobs is one of my favorite examples on this. He valued innovation, simplicity, focus above all else. He was not known to be nice.

Porsche cars are luxurious, fast and showy. The salespeople treat you well. But not because they are nice people. Rather, they assume you are important.

McDonald's is not a luxury brand. The cashiers at McDonald's don't treat you especially nicely. But then again, you're paying for the dollar menu. It's not what they're about.

What is a brand that treats you nicely? Here's one: Trader Joe's. At this supermarket, the salespeople are all like, "Ho-ho-ho, welcome to the store," and they should be. They are selling an experience, they want you in the fantasy of a community, and to do that they have to reach out.

A long time ago I was part of a conference held at The Four Seasons in West Palm Beach. There ought to be a training series taught by the staff of The Four Seasons. I have never been treated so nicely in all my life. For the duration of that conference, the guests' feet were literally not allowed to touch the floor.

Niceness is a good quality to have. But it's not essential for brand.

Distinguishing the pursuit of brand equity from the quest to be a decent human being is important. You can definitely work on both. And every executive has to have some serious polish. But niceness as an end in itself is sort of meaningless.

Success in any sphere -- work, friendship, family, hobby, life -- means knowing what the goal is, having a strategy, and assessing whether that strategy is getting you there periodically. When it comes to personal values as versus those related to brand, it's very important to know your metric for each. And how you can realistically measure your progress.




Screenshot via Improbable Research

1. Receipt: What does it look like? What does it say? Even the lack of a receipt can mark your brand, as at Whole Foods where you can get one automatically.

2. Pre-Recorded Telephone Message: How does it sound? Does it drone on and on? What does that say about you? BOR-ING!

3. Cashiers: Are they thinking human beings or just drones? People like to chat when they're checking out, can your staff make conversation?

4. Seamless Experience: Does every point of interaction focus on solving the customer's needs? Or is the entire shopping experience stove-piped? (My favorite is when customer service starts explaining why bad service is not their fault.)

5. Third-Party Republished Information: Other websites are taking your data and aggregating it with similar providers. Or you are getting rated. Are you collecting information about how you appear on these sites? People may trust them more than you. (Please tell me you aren't writing your own reviews.)

6. Garbage: Do you recycle? Do you respect the community around you? People notice everything not just what you want to portray. I took this photo behind a popular deli that shares its trash facilities with its neighbors. Due to the parking situation, many customers have to walk past the dumpster to get to the food. The repetitive experience of park - dumpster - food leads to an association in the mind, rightly or wrongly.



7. Causes: What do you care about, sponsor, promote? It says something about who you are.

8. Employee Reviews: What is it like to work for you? To be interviewed by you? Vault and Glassdoor are sharing that information with the world.



Tuesday, April 16, 2013


"Just 28% rate the federal government in Washington favorably. That is down five points from a year ago and the lowest percentage ever in a Pew Research Center survey." - Pew Research Center for People & The Press, April 15, 2013
Today during the morning commute the radio station played interviews with Boston commuters.

"They are going on as usual," the announcer said, and then a lady started talking. She was there when the bombings happened. "I don't understand," she repeated over and over. "I don't understand."

My daughter called me on the phone. "I'm very upset about what happened in Boston," she said. "Who did it? I don't understand."

Surfing the Internet as if to find the answer in five seconds, I felt helpless. "I don't know," I said to her. "I just don't know."

What we worried about is happening. Terrorist attacks are hitting home. Not in the streets, necessarily. But in our heads -- what we feared after 9/11 is becoming real.

Some might say that gunfire in a school is not the same as an organized terrorist attack. But in the victims' mind -- that is, our minds, our collective mind -- it is. Because we can't count on any day being normal.

And our sense of security at home is shot.

This is the Boston Marathon.

They've bombed the Boston Marathon.

When the kids who normally ignore the news start getting bothered, and panicky under the skin, then something is infiltrating our consciousness.

Terrorism will not automatically make people run to the government for protection. While its true that:

...the approval rating of the federal government, i.e. those who would track and hold those guns has reached a new low. (Disclaimer: I work for the federal government; all opinions are my own.)

They aren't waiting for the feds.

According to Pew research released April 15, 2013, nearly three-quarters of the American people don't think favorably of the federal government. Among Republicans, that figure rises to more than 85%; among Democrats it approaches 60%.


Popular culture shows us this mistrust in action. Watch an episode of The Walking Dead. In the face of calamity, people are turning to their own resources--not waiting for law enforcement.

A nonfictional National Geographic TV series, Doomsday Preppersis completely dedicated to the disaster industry.

Similarly, in January of this year The New York Times ran an article called "The Doomsday Preppers Next Door," about people getting ready for all kinds of eventualities.
This is not to say that the federal government is irrelevant. People look to it for protective legislation. Gun control is a prime example. Just today somebody said to me, "How can anybody smoke with their kid in the car? The government should pass a law about that. They ought to fine people."

But citizen protection -- people are not so sure.

During times of natural or man-made calamity, people who are into preparedness run to the basement. For whatever they have stored or hidden. They don't want to go on Ready.gov -- they want to save their own skins.

Like everyone else I'm upset about what happened in Boston - very upset - worried. Praying that G-d sends strength to our law enforcement at every level - federal, state and local. Praying we will succeed at stopping any future attacks in time.

Right now people are waiting for the next shoe to drop. Let's hope we can stop it before it hits the floor.

* All opinions, as always are my own.


Monday, April 15, 2013


Money is dying and virtual cash is coming alive as people have figured out a way around traditional currency systems. Today the predominant system for this exchange is known as Bitcoin.

(See: "Meet The Bitcoin Millionaires.")

Bitcoin is disruptive. Nobody owns it. It is traded though. In fact last Thursday Nasdaq had to halt trading on Bitcoin (the "Mt. Gox exchange," out of Japan) because they couldn't handle the volume. The system is seeing about 20,000 new traders a day.

If "Bitcoinia" were a country it would be small but significant, would be the world's 165th largest, "beating out Malta but...just topped by Luxembourg," writes John Vandivier, who tried to calculate its popularity. He also estimates there are about 450,000 users worldwide.


Virtual money is essentially an advanced barter system with bits and bytes replacing the idea of money.  Even if you don't understand the details, the basic idea is that computer-chip cash, like off-the-grid barter systems, is real and it's growing. It's also governable, but not in the traditional way. 

Putting aside the questions of how the new system will work, think about this:

What is going to happen to you when money goes away? 

Here are 5 survival skills to develop, some of them involving actual ability to do things and others more abstract, cognitive and emotional:
  1. Advanced Technological Literacy: In the old system hackers were bad. In the new system hackers and those who know hackers' ways will rule. The reason why is pretty simple. They understand where the money is. 
  2. Likability: In a system where exchanges take place on a virtual level you will need to get along with people if only to figure out what's going on. More than ever, people are the gateway to value within the system and outside it. 
  3. Credibility: You will have to be trustworthy to participate in the exchange system, which will always be shadowy to an extent because of the ease and speed with which money is moved from place to place.
  4. Globally-minded: Bitcoin has no nationality. As the system of world governance evolves, to participate in the new system you will need to see the universe as interconnected and to welcome that reality rather than fight it. 
  5. Change Orientation: Obviously Bitcoin is just one development in a string of new developments we can't predict. It's not enough to be able to handle change, we'll have to become change-oriented. The future is about flexibility in the extreme. 
All change is scary and virtual money is no different. Even the people creating services to support Bitcoin get that it's a seismic shift: "The current Bitcoin trading environment is unique, to say the least, and likely unsettling to those who are newly watching the currency," says Jaron Lukasiewicz, CEO, Coinsetter

I'm taking a deep breath now. Then it's on to sharpen those skills and be ready for the economic environment of the future.


Sunday, April 14, 2013


Image via CUInsight.com, "Blah, Blah, Blah is What Gen Y'ers are Hearing"


Writing for CNET, Chris Matyszczyk talks about the new commercial for Facebook Home. He notes that it's partly a commentary on the typical phenomenon of employees listening to their boring CEO go on and on, writing:

"In a quite stunning acting debut, Facebook's CEO shows the virtues of Home and the difficulties of being a CEO. His employees aren't impressed." (Full story here.)

From an advertising perspective I don't think the commercial works - I'm too focused on the fact that Zuckerberg is making fun of himself. 

But from a branding perspective it might be a good one. The commercial tells me that Facebook represents irreverence - a brand value that I identify with. This might make me more likely to remain a customer.

If you take away the commercial aspect though, the ad brings a timeless internal communication problem to light.  Corporate writers wring their hands about boring leadership speeches all the time - and here is Mark Zuckberberg himself, the leader of one of the most important brands in the world - basically agreeing with them.

Why is executive communication often so boring? In my view it's because leaders avoid talking about the real issues - particularly the conflicts underlying those issues - for fear of upsetting the apple cart.

What can be done to fix it? Probably the recognition that people are tuning out. And that they're not just tuning out and letting you do what you want, but continuing the conversation around you. If that conversation goes in a different direction than the content of your talk, your influence and then your credibility is undermined.

Too much emphasis is placed on frontline speeches. The real work has to be done behind the scenes, one person at a time, supported both by consensus and by data to support the leaders' conclusions.

Leadership is not a one-person show anymore. It's about moving a crowd as one. The followers have to be on the same page, but they can't be on the same page if they're not listening.


* All opinions, as always, are my own. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Leadership is NOT spoon-feeding information to the workers in little dribbling bits of Gerber baby food. We won't have that anymore. We are not babies. We are old enough to vote, marry, drive cars and think for ourselves. Give us the tools and let us have conversations on company networks with leadership blessing and permission.

Leadership is NOT hypocritically saying one thing and then doing another, or being wishy-washy about what you mean. It IS modeling the vision in behavior - taking a hit for the cause - being unpopular if you have to.

Leadership is NOT taking credit for the work. It is using your power to renovate the organizational structures that hold people back. And then unleashing the workforce to do better it ON THEIR OWN.

Leadership is not a monologue but a conversation. It is recognizing that the value in the organization stems not only from the service provided or the knowledge produced, but from the SOCIAL FABRIC itself. The stronger that fabric the more durable the organization.

* Originally a comment posted at GovLoop.com. All opinions my own.
There was a lady who ran a graphics service department. Everybody wanted that service.

She would make them log the request in first.

"But it's urgent," they would say.

"Don't care."

"There is no time."

"Tough."

"The Commissioner said so."

"Have him call me."

Nobody could get past this lady. And she had a great enforcer.

Time has passed and I lead a communication service now.

At first it was tempting to fly spontaneously all the time. There is a certain excitement.

But at some point we all have to grow up. Customer service is a marathon not a sprint. To do a marathon you need process.

1. Create a job.
2. Log in the job.
3. Create a shared folder with limited permissions.
4. Use a template.
5. Get the background on the request - talk first.

All of this may seem very basic. But in an high-volume, rapid-response environment you can forget it.

Don't. Because everything nowadays is urgent. And if you set unrealistic expectations, in the end they are going to eat you for lunch.
Screen shot via Jezebel

"How do the best writers convey grief without alienating the reader or lapsing into melodrama?" - Emily Rapp

"A Clear View of Raw Emotion," (Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2013) by Emily Rapp is about the experience of losing her son to a terrible disease. 

Rapp's way of dealing with the grief was to write. But she had the writer's dilemma of not being able to distance herself from the subject she most needed to talk about. 

Sexism completely infuriates me. So maybe I can't really write about it. But I can share just a few stories, assorted, heard over the years:
  1. The one about the man who breaks up with the woman, then calls her to ask for relationship advice, but they weren't married, so it "didn't count."
  2. The one about growing up poor and having to join the military or take a minimum-wage job. Then, in the army, sexually harassed.
  3. The one about the husband who cheats because he feels neglected, even though the woman is working to pay the family bills.
  4. The one about going out for drinks with the crew from work because you have to in order to "fit in," then one of the men giving her a ride home, because "it's not safe." Then this person forces his way into the apartment and nearly rapes her, before G-d saves her as somebody knocks on the door.
  5. The one about someone being out with her boyfriend, then another man tries to buy her from  him. (Yes, literally.)
  6. The one about the young man from a good family who tormented his wife as soon as the wedding was over, until she had to leave him with only the clothes on her back.
  7. The one about going to play in the playground in elementary school, and being lured somewhere isolated, and then sexually assaulted. The girl had to leave school.
  8. The one about the girl who committed suicide rather than admit to the religious community that she was a lesbian.
  9. The one about attending work meetings only to have the men shout her opinions down, until she finally walked in dressed as a man and said "Now will you listen to what I have to say?"
  10. The one about the female boss who insisted she leave her son for three months and stay in a hotel for a work assignment, even though the work could have been done at home.
Is copying men the best response to sexism? Jezebel (April 5, 2013) quotes from a Vulture magazine interview of actress Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olson from Mad Men, in "A Different Kind of Feminist." 

Olson's character seems to think so. She is at the bottom of the advertising food chain but determined to reach the top. She doesn't want to talk, she wants to do, says Moss:

"She's the one who works really hard, and concentrates on her job, and wants to move up in the world of her business." 

But part of her career path is about emulating the dark side: 

"She, I think, is trying her hand at being Don. I think that's all she knows. That has been her image of leadership."

The hopeful part of the interview, and of the character, is where Moss speculates that Olson will turn about better than her sexist boss:

"Her journey is about discovering how to be her own style of leadership, her own style of management. And I think that she as herself, as Peggy, if she can find that, she will be a much better boss than Don. Because she has a positivity, she has a sensitivity; she’s a woman, and I think that that makes a difference."

Is Moss right? I don't know. Gender difference is an elusive thing. Generally people struggle to survive. Often we mistreat each other, regardless of what category we are or the other person falls into.

One thing I do know is that women's voices are not heard enough. The issues we face are not figured out yet. The home responsibilities, that really are valuable work and are a full-time job on their own, are not treated as such. The inequities are not talked about because it makes us look bad to talk about them. 

Until we can have a real dialogue about the persistent and subtle forms of sexism that exist even today, women aren't really free. It's just an illusion.




Wednesday, April 10, 2013

* Don't fall for drama. Stay even-keeled.

* Don't jump to conclusions especially about others' intentions toward you. Ask directly if possible but not in an attacking way.

* Communication is symbolic as well as literal. Understand when your words and deeds may be misunderstood because of their symbolic value.

* Look at people's true intentions.

* Read interactions not just actions. Study the dynamic.

* There is no such thing as an unimportant detail. If something strikes you as off, it is.

* Respect the desire to not be bombarded with useless information. Offer value and don't make your listener sift the wheat from the chaff.

* Somebody stopped to help you today. Say thank you.




Big Data can solve the world's problems, potentially.

--If we know how to feed and house and clothe the masses
--How to cure disease
--How to curb violence
--and so on, at low or no cost

Then we have the tools to bring the vision of global peace into reality.

But Big Data creates scary problems of its own.

--Who defines what the data is? This is the meaning of a thing - like "married couples" -- if same-sex marriage is legal then the data will be different than if only heterosexual couples are recognized.

--Who controls it? Is it the sheriff and his best friend who have access to the database? Are medical records shared with the police and the schools as part of your "Universal ID?"

--Will people be out of a job? When computers collect, process and spit out information sufficient to think for us, where will all the knowledge workers go? How will the resulting inequity of income and wealth affect the population as a whole? Will there be looting?

--Will political dissenters be targeted? Waves of ideology come and go. If I have in the database every vote you have cast, every donation you've made, and I am in power while you oppose me, what will I do to you and your family? Where are the controls?

--Will privacy be possible at all? If not have we lost our freedom altogether?

We don't like to think about scary things and so we either avoid the questions or focus on the technology.

But the governing social structure -- values, norms, controls -- is more important than the sheer geeky pleasure of building a powerful tool and well-designed user interface.

When you align the social and the technological you emerge with a model for progress that takes into account the human factor. Which is the ultimate purpose for building all this in the first place.

On the values side I think most people would agree that basic human rights, human dignity and human physical care should be protected. So there should not be a promotion of inequality so drastic that freedom and opportunity are gone.

As far as norms -- rules of behavior -- it seems we can agree that abuse of power cannot coexist with such a colossal production as a Big Data repository.

Which leads us to social controls. If we are each - individually and as part of social groups - a part of the system as empowered owners then Big Data can work.

In practical terms we will all need access to the data input center, access to the dashboard, recourse to oversee and hold data owners accountable.

Business, government, schools, hospitals, prisons, religious centers, etc. all will need to be a part of it.

As should be the individual as well.

The solution to a problematic system cannot come from within the system itself. We have to face that and get comfortable with the anxiety of trying new solutions till one sticks.

* All opinions my own.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Yesterday J.C. Penney fired its CEO and announced they're bringing the old CEO back.

According to experts interviewed for a report tonight (April 9, 2013) on National Public Radio the CEO made five critical mistakes:

  • Overlaid a past turnaround formula onto an incompatible present situation
  • Confused very different brands
  • Moved too quickly
  • Took away the coupons
  • Didn't use a data-based process (e.g. piloting changes, mining customer data).

Partially I agree:

  • It is true every situation is different and Apple is indeed not J.C. Penney.
  • Piloting is a good idea.
However there are other points that I take issue with:

  • There are times when radical change is needed - and J.C. Penney had become a crap store - physically even, it looked dingy.
  • Consumers move extremely fast.
  • The coupons were absolutely worthless because everybody knew you paid the same price no matter what. 
But those are just marketing points. The bigger picture has to do with the brand. And this is where the Board should have given the CEO more time:
  • The basis of the brand is its customer. J.C. Penney's customer was unknown - vague - mixed up with Sears.
  • Ellen DeGeneres was an important brand symbol but the Board did not allow enough time for the store to explore what she meant.
  • Brand value lags -- so what happens today is a reflection of the actions taken yesterday. It takes time for the brand to turn around.
Now they are bringing the old CEO back, so there will clearly be even more brand confusion and the gains achieved thus far will be wasted. 

A good takeaway from this debacle is that branding takes time. You can't rush it - it's not an ad campaign. While a retail turnaround can be done quickly in physical terms, mentally you have to support and reinforce what the transformation means.

This was a very big screwup, and it's a shame because I liked the way J.C. Penney was going. 









"The Scream" by Edvard Munch


"The firing Wednesday of Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice, for shoving players around, firing basketballs at them, and screaming that they were [expletives deleted] reflects universal condemnation....while that behavior had long been tolerated if not celebrated, his off-court actions clearly crossed the line of acceptability." - "The Basketball Bully," Slate, April 3, 2013

Study after study shows that fear and anxiety inhibit learning:
* Fear = externally imposed, e.g. by a bullying coach
* Anxiety = internal, e.g. a condition you feel regardless of what's going on outside
Yet:
* Despite our theoretical understanding that learning is itself anxiety-provoking and works best with a relaxed and receptive mind
* Despite the critical nature of continuous learning to the modern workplace
...we continue to think that fear-inspiring leaders are somehow better. (See "Love and Fear and the Modern Boss," Harvard Business Review.)
The problem is that we confuse awe-inspiring leaders with fear-inspiring ones.
* An awe-inspiring leader commands our respect because of their sheer brilliance, or operational competence, diplomatic skills, and so on (think Margaret Thatcher may she rest in peace) - whether we agree with them or not.
* A fear-inspiring leader just scares us, because they do not hesitate to legitimately use (and sometimes unfortunately abuse) their power.
Leadership types can coexist in the same person:
* A single person can be both awe-inspiring and fear-inspiring.
* The same leader can be fear-inspiring for legitimate reasons as well as for illegitimate ones. 
Some people would like to abolish authority as inherently corrupt and corrupting.
But in the real world someone has to take responsibility.
Rather than making everybody falsely equal, we can instead get comfortable and fluent with concepts associated with power.
Some of it is good and useful. Some of it is bad and should be tossed away.
Let's encourage people to be awesome, and awe-inspiring. And at the same time eliminate from leadership positions those who are the equivalent of the former Rutgers Coach who cursed his own players.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

My work/life balance campaign is going swimmingly well. I managed to put the computer away for an entire 24 hours this weekend. Did not touch it! Amazing!

In the process I learned that I am a little the characters in "The Matrix" who exist partly in an alter life and partly in the real one. And that I find life challenging without a computer attached. Here's why:
  • Control: You've seen the Bounty (TM) paper towel commercial: "Life's messy. Clean it up." Writing about things lets me put the puzzle pieces together in an orderly way, giving me the illusion of control. I like that.
  • Optimism: Real life can be disheartening. There always seems to be "something" challenging going on. And you look around you and see how things end: basically people end up alone, and disabled, and miserable. Writing puts you into another space where everything turns out alright. Which brings us to -
  • Justice: It is true that really great fiction, like great movies and TV, is honest. That means it does not always end well for the characters. However there is a sense of justice that prevails. Nobody wants to read a murder mystery where the killer isn't revealed. Or watch a show where the villain gets away with it. But in real life it does seem that bad people prevail a lot, while good people are mistreated and misunderstood.  
  • Validation: When you're experiencing life -- as opposed to capturing and writing about it -- you are essentially alone in your experience. Your thoughts, your perceptions, your way of taking in the world is never fully shareable. When experience is transformed into words, into common language it becomes possible for others to see what you are seeing, and often to validate it. 
  • Creative Joy: In the movie "The Pink Panther" there is a line about Yuri, "The Trainer Who Trains." The whole movie is slapstick but it makes me think about "The Writer Who Writes." It's sort of silly to say this, but also true, that a writer -- like an artist or a musician -- doesn't really feel themselves unless they are engaged in their craft. 
At the same time, as difficult as it was to take a very short sabbatical from electronics, I think the benefits outweighed the challenges. The computer is very easy - and that makes it an easy crutch. 

When you put down the crutches you force yourself to walk. Maybe you stumble a bit and you're not so good at it, but it's those human moments that are the most valuable. They're the ones you remember over a lifetime.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Not everything can be a longish blog so here are a few assorted ideas collected over the past few days and the experiences that prompted them:
1) Print mailers must have a coupon. Don't waste money sending "awareness" flyers. If you're good you can do both. Example: Sephora @ JC Penney sends a mailer telling me about 30 different kinds of lip gloss. No coupon. Disregard. Payless sends a mailer with a coupon for 20% off. Better, but Payless still seems low-class. Hold because perhaps they have a good throwaway shoe for work. Bed Bath & Beyond sends enormous purple coupons always with a coupon attached. Best, because it brands them as a cool place to go and I have a reason to go there.
2) Always question the process. This week we ended up in the emergency room due to a home repair screwup. During which we decided that if a little Drano is good, a lot must be better. (See "When The Solution Is Worse Than The Problem.") Sitting in the ER at 3 a.m. watching my husband hooked up to a very scary gizmo washing chemical fluid out of his eyeballs, I said to myself, next time I will ask more questions, such as: Is it really a good idea to stand over a toilet near overflowing with septic tank treatment solution, with a coat hanger, trying to find the clog? 
3) Use people's names. Last night I had a discussion with my daughter about email. Are you supposed to use the person's name when starting the email, as in: "Jane, what is on your plate today?" I said, "I just like to start the email without the name." She said, "I learned just the opposite in communication class." I remembered hearing that people find the sound of their own name the "sweetest sound in the world." It seems to me that using names is a good idea. If you forget people's names like I do, just ask.
4) Everybody is interesting somehow. In this same conversation (#3) I admitted to my daughter that I find it difficult to listen to other people talking. She asked me why. I said, "Because often what they have to say is boring." She said, "Everybody is interesting if you listen hard enough. Everybody has a story." I realized that she was right. The issue is that you have to get past the phony stuff and talk about things that are real. Of course the skill is in doing that in ways that are useful and appropriate for the situation, and also diplomatic.
5) Not everybody means well. I have a tough time wrapping my brain around this unavoidable fact, but it must be confronted: Some people are just plain bad. And to make matters worse they can be tricky in their badness. Just as it's biased to believe that people are naturally evil (as some people do think), it's also biased to think they are naturally good. You may not be able to tell good from bad in any given situation but at least recognize that you probably have a bias.
6) You can help other people do things you'll never master. One of my roommates many years ago was a marriage counselor in the process of getting a divorce. It may be hard to understand how she could not master the skill of marriage herself yet could help other people do so. But she could. Similarly I find that there are aspects of religion I rejected a long time ago. But I teach them to my daughters and they seems to find it helpful to at least know what Judaism actually says as opposed to what they hear from other people who did not have the benefit of a yeshiva education.
7) Listening to unpopular views makes you smarter. The other day on Quora I read a question about the status of the State of Israel in Jewish law. The tone of the question was somewhat anti-Semitic, e.g. aren't there Jewish people who think that Israel is an illegal state? But I took the time to read the answer because the commenter seemed to be providing a neutral, usable answer. Indeed I got a whole mini-dissertation on the parallels between rabbinic law and American law, and the basis for determining legality and illegality in both systems, and so on. In the process a lot of misperceptions and ideas that had bugged me for a while were addressed. I felt like I learned something not just about Israel but about jurisprudence. But I had to overcome an emotional block against the question itself in order to do so, because it was offensive to me.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


"Big Mouth" by Hiba Tim via FreeVector.com (Creative Commons)

One of the more annoying things communicators tend to say is:

"If Only I Had A Seat At The Table."

Loosely translated this means something like--
  • "I am so smart about communication things..." (because I've written about fifty thousand factsheets)
  • "I know so much about how people RELATE to one another..." (based on instinct, opinion and the latest survey results from the Partnership for Public Service published in Federal Times)
  • "If only the bosses would LISTEN to me..." (wah, wah)
I've heard communicators make this complaint in person, on the Internet, and in numerous books. And I honestly can't understand the dire need communicators have to tell businesspeople what to do.

Lawyers don't tell businesspeople what to do. They simply offer advice. Because lawyers know:

Specialists know their specialty.

Communicators know communication.

Businesspeople know the business.

Now before you jump down my throat and say I've betrayed the communication's blue wall of silence consider this:

Even if you have the know-how -- do you have the stomach to run a business?
  • Will your family tolerate you up at 3 a.m. checking on the state of the servers?
  • Are you capable of hiring people you don't like, and firing people that you do, just for the sake of productivity?
  • Could you handle your face on the cover of Fast Company with a headline like "What Went Wrong With Company X?"
If your honest answer is "yes, I do want to run the business" then you probably should be running one -- rather than serving as its communicator.

If however you understand that your place is to support those who do run the business, then you have to let them run it -- without second-guessing everything they do.

While it's true that businesspeople frequently don't understand the HOW of communication, they do respect its importance and specialization as a field.

It's important that communicators mutually respect that businesspeople know their subject matter.

And then stick to their knitting.
Saw these two in-store signs promoting Reebok. Different tag lines. No consistency of theme. What makes this brand a brand?

They would be better off appealing to the anti-Nike crowd, focusing on women perhaps, those of us who exercise for health -- with zero hope of ever looking like an athlete.

Remember Wendy from Snapple? She would be a good spokesperson and that would be a great co-brand.

The general principle though is -- mixed messages cancel each other out and neutralize brand equity.



Monday, April 1, 2013

Image via LumDimSum.com

 If you mean well, or if you are hateful.

If you're a liar. Or tell the truth.

If you have integrity -- or throw your team under the bus.

Can you be counted on when the chips are down? Or are you a self-promotional phony?

Is your wisdom real? Or did you make it up?

People, like dogs, can tell from your aura.

And they will treat you the same way in kind.