Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Organizations Lie To Themselves (& What To Do About It)

January 1 - Resolutions 1  & 2
Photo by Scott Hamlin via Flickr

When you stand on the scale you get the truth about your weight.

For most of us that number isn't a pretty sight and we don't get the answer we want. So we tell ourselves:
  • "Weight doesn't count - you have to go by the BMI."
  • "Maybe I'm retaining water."
  • "It doesn't count if you weigh yourself at night."
  • "I was wearing shoes."
  • "That scale is old. I'm going to wait for my checkup."
Or my favorite one of all:
  • "It's what's inside that counts."
Why do we lie to ourselves, when the truth is right in front of us? And it matters?

Here's the paradox:
  • Logically it would be easy to simply live a lie (i.e. ignore the scale).
  • But humans persistently seek out truth so as to physically survive - not knowing puts us at risk.
  • At the same time we experience emotional discomfort from being confronted by the truth.
  • Therefore we will do virtually anything to lie to ourselves and to keep truth-tellers away from us.
Organizations are just like people except on a larger scale. And they keep themselves from knowing the truth much like individuals do:
  • They admit to dysfunctional behaviors but feign disbelief as to their organizational impact.
  • They bring designated truth-tellers into the organization so that they are "around," but marginalize or silence them, or fail to give them sufficient resources.
  • They hire consultants and commission reports and findings of fact but then leave them on the shelf to grow dust.
  • They give lip service to the importance of self-analysis, but get preoccupied with firefighting crises or create them in order to avoid the real work of organizational change.
  • They avoid measuring performance, reporting on performance, discussing results
Knowing that truth-telling is key to organizational survival, there are two ways of getting to it and using it:
  • Defensive - wait for dysfunction to lead to an outrageous incident that becomes a scandal, then implement reform in response
  • Proactive - implement preventive measures to keep dysfunction in check
Assuming nobody wants a crisis here are some things the organization can do that are similar to what an individual does who can't afford not to live in truth - e.g. a food addict:
  • Frequent monitoring by a third party - someone who isn't beholden to the individual
  • Measuring and metrics - the equivalent of getting on the scale - preferably transparent to all in the organization
  • Preparation to avoid a crisis - just like dieters weight and measure their food before they eat it, organizations have to have mechanisms in place to prevent dysfunctional behavior from taking root and becoming embedded
  • Checks and balances - as people in power tend to serve their own power, the organization must implement mechanisms by which powerful people can be challenged and a dialogue ensured. Electronic employee-to-employee communication is useful in this regard because it eliminates the constraints of waiting for desk-bound people to attend a meeting; it also cuts through the power dynamics of meetings and hierarchical groups.
  • Most importantly, institutionalizing truth telling as a group function rather than an individual one - the organization can't rely on "brave individuals" to tell the truth or cast them in those roles. Rather, there must be groups that are empowered to speak honestly to other groups that can become dysfunctional.
In the end most people, like most organizations, really do want to live in truth, because people in denial put themselves and their organizations at risk.

The key is to committing openly to the truth as a means of survival - making a plan for telling the truth - making that plan public - and then holding the organization and its employees accountable to it.

Good luck!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

My Latest SlideShare Upload: "Job of the Future: 'Human Glue'"

A reflection on enterprise collaboration software in context. Enjoy!Job Of The Future: Human Glue by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

Also see a whole megilla I started on this subject on GovLoop. A couple of downloadable files there.

Note: No endorsement is expressed or implied. Opinions my own. Welcome any feedback.

Friday, April 27, 2012

When Leaders Can't Distinguish Their Employees From Themselves

Greylag Geese Flying
Photo by Nathan Goddard via Flickr

This morning my mother reminded me of a story I would rather forget.

"Do you remember when you wore Bubbie's bathrobe to shul (synagogue) thinking it was a dress?"

Oh G-d Mom just bring up all the dirty laundry why don't you!

"And how mad she got?"

Yes, yes.

My Bubbie had such beautiful clothes. To my childlike eyes I couldn't tell the difference.

(Though kids are wearing pajamas to school nowadays, so...)

Since her clothes were all fancy, from a certain perspective you could take the mis-wearing of the robe as a compliment.

But Bubbie didn't see it that way. In her world, children were an extension of parents. Grandchildren an extension of grandparents.

Everyone reflected everyone else.

I know why my Bubbie thought that way. For the culture to survive, true members of the Hasidic sect we belonged to had to be marked. And each family had its own reputation to protect. Its image. Its brand.

Nevermind that I had nothing to do with Bubbie, most of the time. On alternate Passovers I was hers.

Especially at synagogue.

Some leaders treat their employees this way.

They act as if the organization exists only as an extension of themselves.

Every corner, crack and crevice must bear their mark.

Every employee must think, feel, act, believe as they do.

And they are flustered and angry when confronted with evidence that says otherwise.

If you don't believe me look at studies on diversity. People tend to hire, value and promote other people who look think, walk, talk and dress just like them.

It isn't something they do consciously. It just feels familiar. And right.

This is a special problem in family businesses. Because there, the lines are blurry from the start.

When you run a business, remember that your staff IS NOT YOU. And be glad for that.

Conversely, as an employee be mindful that your employer sees your actions as reflecting on them.

In the end it's instinctive for birds of a feather to flock together. The problem is when a pigeon can't see the value of an eagle.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What We Can't Talk About, Will Cost Us

Photo by David Robertson via Flickr 

Rage. Anger. Envy. Terror. Fear. Grief. Sadness. Depression. Stress.

Is it normal to:
  • Feel these things? Yes.
  • Encounter them in others? Of course.
  • Discuss them openly at a staff meeting? That would be no.
  • Devote an entire workplace training curriculum to managing them? Not normally.
  • Require that students pass an emotional fitness test before graduating? Unheard of! 
How pervasive is negative emotion in American society? How costly? Look around you:
Look at how pervasive negative emotions are. Look at how costly. So I ask:
  • Why do we not, as a society, take feelings seriously?
  • Why do we not incorporate feelings - the good, the bad, and the ugly - into everyday conversation?
  • Why do we not make it safe to talk about conflicts before they mushroom into catastrophes?
Most importantly: Why do we pathologize negative emotions by turning them into something deviant, undiscussable, taboo? Not every negative feeling is a sign of a disorder, but somehow we tend to act as if it were.

More questions, unanswered:
  • Why don't we invest more time and money in preventing conflicts from exploding? 
  • Do we somehow think it is better to wait until after the fact - after the outburst, after the shooting, after the military conflict - to shake our heads and say "Isn't that terrible?"
A healthy society is composed of people with healthy minds as well as healthy bodies. And that includes the ability to talk about what's bothering us.
  • On the macro level it means institutionalizing social systems that support healthy emotional functioning: support for parents, education for young people regarding emotional health and conflict management, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with problems before they become civil actions, and so on. And of course, ensuring that medical insurance covers behavioral health, with an emphasis on preventive health.
  • On the organizational level that means factoring conflict in to workplace training and human resources policies. The emotional well-being of staff is critical to their ability to be productive - heck, to show up to work in the first place!
  • On the personal level it means accepting yourself as human, and simply doing the best you can. Talking about your feelings, and trying to work with others when problems arise.
Emotions are vital to life. We ought to encourage them to bubble up and breathe, rather than stifling. They are what make us human - we just need to know how to manage them.

Good luck!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Communication - Not Branding

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck and looks like a duck, it's a duck.

Just like a tree has to be green and leafy and grow tall, even among a stale parking lot full of cars.

The branding profession is about image. That's fine, but that's as far as it goes. Those who claim to do more - such as changing the employee culture - are not brand ducks.

They are either practicing organizational development under another name (unlikely and probably uncertified), or practicing image-building and calling it "internal branding for employee evangelist brand ambassadors" (a.k.a., B.S.)

Over the years I have sometimes found that people got annoyed at my blunt and direct manner. In the end that's how I learned that I don't really do branding. Because brand ducks are adept not only at building your image, but at projecting an image of themselves.

Rather I was (am) a communicator. In a profession composed of image manipulators. "All marketers are liars," as Seth Godin's popular book proclaims.

In the end I am a communicator duck, if you want to call it that, because I believe honesty + integrity generally gets you the reputation you deserve. A good one.

The art of communication is to get to the truth, say the truth, and say it in a way that connects with the audience and provokes a reply. Starting a conversation.

If you communicate well you are building a brand anyway. But it is possible to build a brand without communicating. Without honesty. Without connecting.

I don't do that. So I have decided to get away from the term "branding." Although the end goal is really the same - an excellent image based on delivery of benefit - the mechanism is not.

Communication is on the side of substance. Of culture. It says, build a stable set of processes that establish values, norms, and traditions. Tell us who we are, and let us talk back.

And the result of that conversation is the reality of external image.

What kind of duck are you? Think carefully before you answer. If your profession is perceived in a negative way, or you don't fit into its culture, maybe you are really a hippopotamus.

Which is fine!

Good luck.

Monday, April 23, 2012

When Faith Turns Deadly: Bill Maher's "Religulous"

by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda: "You know, if I discover that I was Satan in person, I would do a good job, too."

Bill Maher: "As Satan?"

Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda: "Because I would be faithful to my calling." 

Just happened to run across "Religulous" on Netflix. Spent nearly 2 hours unable to peel self from screen. Alternately laughing and sort of crying inside. At how much people want to believe; at how willing we are to deceive each other in G-d's name; at how easily we deceive ourselves.

And then punish other people who refuse not to think.

The body of the movie consists of Maher interviewing assorted representatives of various religions and religious sects, including Christianity (mainstream, evangelical, Catholicism), Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism.

Every interview, with the exception of the interview of the Catholic astronomer and the maverick Catholic priest in Rome, is marked by the refusal of seemingly religious people to think objectively about what they are saying. They are blindly observant of whatever version of religion they observe.

So they talk faith to Maher, and when faith can't stand up to reason, they confront Maher either angrily or condescendingly.

A quote from Maher's monologue at the end of the movie sums up his message:
"Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it's wonderful when someone says, "I'm willing, Lord! I'll do whatever you want me to do!" Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.

"And anyone who tells you they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don't. How can I be so sure? Because I don't know, and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.

"The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big questions is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that's what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting s**t dead wrong."
The methodological flaw in the documentary of course is that there are many religious people who actually do insist on applying reason to faith. How they reconcile belief in G-d and belief differs and is a whole other documentary.

My guess is that Maher avoided thinking religious people because he psychologically is wedded to his own doubt and doesn't want to meet people who will make him open his own closed mind.

What's fascinating is that in an attempt to avoid challenging himself, Maher winds up with a brilliant experiment in the sociology of religion. What he shows, mostly, is that the more cult-like a religion or religious sect is, the more closed it is to thinking, and the more dangerous it is to humanity because of its insistence on turning the "other" into an enemy.

At the same time, unfortunately, by focusing on people who represent the worst stereotype of religion - that it's about being brainwashed, and brainwashing others, rather than true reflection - Maher distorted what it's really all about.

Academically at least my faith put a lot of value on asking challenging questions, on testing the answers, on grappling intellectually, then on choosing to do the right thing.

(The problem of course is that they thought they already had the answers when that wasn't necessarily true, and defended things that didn't make sense; in addition I had trouble with the way people actually acted as opposed to what was written in the books.)

Personally I believe you are supposed to actually think and think hard, test out what you believe, make a rational decision (at least one that seems rational to you), then choose the right thing. You are also supposed to know that your mind is frail and that your reasoning isn't as good as G-d's reasoning - so you have to have faith sometimes.

It's the fact that you find G-d in a difficult way, that makes your journey to spirituality meaningful. And nobody can have it for you or teach it to you.

Maher's film is important to watch on a lot of levels. If you care about free speech, if you care about religious freedom as well as the mis-interpretation of religion, if you care about social issues, it's worth watching. It's also worth learning about the way different religions view the world.

It would have been nice had he included Buddhism, which could have contributed a lot to the conversations, but probably he didn't because it is difficult to make fun of a group that insists on applying rational thought to every exercise, and that sees the purpose of the world as eliminating human suffering rather than focusing on G-d.

Have a good day, and keep thinking.

Good luck!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

No-Propaganda Government Communication: Is It Possible?

Thirty years ago it was almost unheard of to pay a public relations firm to communicate on behalf of the federal government: we spent just $2 million over the course of 12 years, from 1980-1992. By 2003 that figure had soared to $161 million (see graphic).

In addition to spending on public relations, the government spends money on advertising. It is estimated that federal ad spending in fiscal year 2002 was more than $400 million, peaked in 2004 and 2009 at $1.2 billion or more, and settled back down at about $750 million in 2011 (see graphic).

Government PR versus Advertising: Why The Distinction? What's The Difference?

The Congressional Research Service notes that the figures for ad spending can only be taken as estimates because the line between "public relations" and "advertising" is not clearly drawn by federal agencies. Therefore, they may classify the exact same services as either one or the other in the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS):
"Without agreement among agencies over what constitutes advertising, any
contracting data drawn from FPDS must be viewed with considerable caution." (Congressional Research Service Report 2012)

Why might the government classify the very same kind of expense as "advertising" rather than "public relations"?

The short answer, in my view, is that advertising is more defensible than PR as a use of taxpayer money. This is because advertising is explicitly intended to bring information to the attention of the public and therefore directly supports the mission of the agency.

After all, if the government offers a service or institutes a requirement and the public doesn't know about it, then does it even exist?

The technical language for this allowance is the "necessary expense doctrine." It says, basically, that you can spend government money on things that are:
  • "Necessary or incidental to the achievement of the underlying objectives of the
  • "Not prohibited by law, and
  • "Not otherwise provided for by statute or appropriation." (Congressional Research Service Report 2012)

On the other hand, the very definition of PR sounds like propaganda, which is illegal: "Public relations includes ongoing activities to ensure the overall company has a strong public image." (Free Management Library)

In theory, both advertising and PR are necessary expenses for any organization, especially today. We live in an incredibly crowded "marketspace" where audiences routinely--

1) shut out the message
2) jump to conclusions
3) readily accept false information as true

Therefore, getting accurate information out quickly through a variety of channels is essential.

The practical question, though, is whether it is possible for someone to communicate without inherently propagandizing for their own particular point of view? Consider the inevitable biases at work:

1) On the micro level, individuals seek to justify their own behavior.
2) On the intermediate level, divisions of organizations seek to justify their own behaviors and perpetuate their existence.
3) On the macro level, every organization will seek to perpetuate and justify itself. This may not be propaganda with a "Big P" in the sense of large-scale, grassroots lobbying; it may not even be intended or conscious. But it is propaganda with a "Little P," in the sense that it lacks the self-criticism that is the hallmark of objective communication.

I do think that communication can be offered in a non-propagandistic way. Here are some of the key dimensions of propaganda; after reviewing them I'll suggest a couple of ways we might be able to counterbalance it.

Q&A: 5 Dimensions of Propaganda

1. What is the common definition of propaganda?
"Information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to influence opinions and incite action." (Source: Wikipedia)

2. What is the legal prohibition against using taxpayer dollars for propaganda?
"The GAO has held that the 'publicity or propaganda' prohibition in appropriations laws forbids any public relations activity that:
  • "Involves 'self-aggrandizement' or 'puffery' of the agency, its personnel, or activities;
  • "Is 'purely partisan in nature,' that is, is 'designed to aid a political party or candidate'; or,
  • "Is 'covert propaganda,' that is, the communication does not reveal that
    government appropriations were expended to produce it." (
    Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Staff Report)

Additionally, "annual appropriations acts often carry a prohibition that forbids the use of appropriated funds 'for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not authorized by the Congress.' These restrictions have appeared in appropriations laws for over a half century." (Congressional Research Service report 2012)

See also: Plain Language Guidelines from the National Institutes of Health Ethics Program

3. What is the original text of the law?
"No part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation."(18 USC § 1913: Lobbying With Appropriated Moneys")

4. What is the basic difference between legitimate and illegitimate government communication?
"Agencies have a duty to inform and educate the public, but they should not attempt to persuade it or to engage in political or policy advocacy or elections." (Congressional Research Service report 2012)

5. How can the government technically comply with the law, but evade it at the same time?
"One can mislead another by communicating just facts but not all the facts....Furthermore, even the conveyance of pure facts can have persuasive effects on an audience, depending on how the facts are presented." (Congressional Research Service report 2005)

How Can We Counterbalance The Tendency to Propagandize?

First, let's accept that there is an inherent desire to make oneself look good. This is "small P" propaganda and it is nearly inevitable. (Note: As a corollary I would argue in defense of federal agencies that there is NOT an equally inevitable drive to violate the law with "Big P" propagandizing. This is in fact something that is generally recognized to be inappropriate, illegal and unacceptable, and a normally functioning culture would act to hold in check.)

Second, let's support three major mechanisms that already keep propaganda in check:
  • Internal audits
  • External reviews (e.g. by Congress)
  • Online transparency mechanisms such as

Third, I would recommend such measures as the following:
  1. Reduce barriers between the media and direct access to subject matter experts in the agency
  2. Establish clear definitions of advertising vs. public relations and ensure that agencies use the correct classification when initiating a procurement
  3. Change the culture of government communication to be less PR-y - e.g. from "public affairs" to "information officers
  4. Have government communicators report to someone within the agency who is not biased in favor of looking good - recasting information provision a reporting function, perhaps even part of the "Open Government" office
  5. Reduce the proportion of agency spending on "push" communications and increase the proportion of "pull" spending on such items as citizen engagement, social media, and open government.
  6. Institutionalize and normalize government communication as a reflexive, reflective exercise through annual performance reports that are an exercise in objective self-review rather than a "year of accomplishments" message
  7. Publish transparently on the web expenses related to communication and their results
  8. Require that communication expenses be tied to measurable performance goals
  9. Require that government communications include a "context" or "bias" section in which the inherent methodological flaws of the communication are discussed in the report itself
  10. Regular training sessions for employees regarding public affairs ethics, and encouragement for employees to discuss questions and concerns with an Ethics Officer.

It is possible to change the tone of government communication so that it is less self-congratulatory and possibly propagandistic, and more useful and usable to the public.

The key is to make sure that spending on government communication is visible; that its intended outcomes are measurable and tied directly to the mission; and that criticism of the mode of communication begin within the agency.

In this way the things we say become part of a dialogue between ourselves and ourselves, and ourselves and the public. Never is there a "final word," but rather everything we generate is viewed as a work in progress that can always be improved.

Finally, it may seem paradoxical but it is probably true: The more transparent the institution, the better its reputation in the first place - and the less it needs PR "experts" to massage its credibility for the sake of its stakeholders.

Just some food for thought on a Sunday; I woud appreciate hearing what others think.

And as always, although I work for the government, all the views expressed here are my own.

Good luck!

(Note: This post was updated 4/22 at 6:56 p.m.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

My Blog Has A New Name

by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.

I don't do branding anymore - over time it's become communications and process improvement, with organizational development thrown into the mix.

While I haven't lost interest in branding at all, it has become clearer and clearer to me that branding is only the outcome of a much more complicated, difficult and interesting process to sustain: successful organizational development.

I have realized over time that focusing on your external image is sort of beside the point, especially nowadays when the innards of organizations are more and more transparent.

What matters more - what matters most - is culture, because it gives birth to stable processes that in turn engender performance, learning, innovation, and growth.

It is culture that lives at the bedrock of the organization. When you have it working well, the right image emerges naturally, without strain and without the artificial look and feel that can actually be a turnoff to the stakeholder.
 Anyway, I've been writing about this stuff for awhile, along with commenting about social issues and the like.

So it's goodbye to "Think Brand First" and hello to a new name, "Thinking Out Loud," in recognition that what I write here pretty much reflects exactly that.

Please let me know what you think, and wish me good luck!

Friday, April 20, 2012

O, The Exquisite Agony That Is Workflow (In Government Or Anywhere)


So lately I've been thinking about the exquisite pain that is document generation, collaboration and final approval in the typical organization. 

(While I work for the government I now, I cut my teeth on this problem in the private sector, so it is not only a "Beltway bureaucracy" thing.) 

To continue the dental metaphor, one wonders why we put ourselves through the equivalent of root canal every single day. 

When you hear that a new policy has to be generated, or sent around for approval, do you not groan? Of course you do. You do!

Consider that, unless you have a very small organization or a very good collaboration system (or both), you are doing things the old-fashioned way. Which means the process looks something like this:
  1. Identify the collaborating parties.
  2. Schedule a kickoff meeting by email. 
  3. Negotiate the competing schedules by email and/or phone. 
  4. Book a room.
  5. Arrange for dial-in.
  6. Have the meeting.
  7. Experience telephone problems either dialing in or hearing the dial-in participants. "Could you speak up?" "How do you work this thing?"
  8. There are pre-meeting meetings to influence the scope of the project.
  9. Show up for meeting. Who has the room key? Go get it.
  10. Pre-meeting chatter while we wait for everyone to show up.
  11. Have meeting.
  12. Argue over scope.
  13. Realize that there are disagreeable people in the room.
  14. Come to some sort of agreement about scope, but not really. Some disagree.
  15. Leave the room with "assignments."
  16. Determine the real assignments by speaking to people who weren't there.
  17. Initial round-robin email to "confirm" what everyone is doing.
  18. Everyone ignores.
  19. Next meeting: Where's the first draft? It's nowhere.
  20. Panic mode as people put stuff together for the next meeting.
  21. At meeting, discuss what people put together.
  22. Decide that we will put difficult issues in the "parking lot" and "be productive."
  23. Discuss further.
  24. And we don't even have a first draft yet.
  25. Someone, or a few people, take it on themselves to deliver a draft.  
...and now we are ready to consider Version 1.

Of course if someone would just decide a document was needed, assign the writing of the document, then have the writer post it online, there would be fewer stages to the above.

But we don't. And on top of it we collaborate on everything by round-robin emails. Which means you see stuff like

Original text here
And commentary text in another color here

From what could be half a dozen, a dozen, two dozen people or more.

There are of course serious costs to all this inefficiency:
  • Document delivery is delayed, meaning projects are delayed
  • The time of knowledgeable staff members is wasted on administrivia
  • There are competing versions of documents since people may have edited the "wrong one" - so ultimately nobody knows which one is actually "right"
  • The collaborating group loses trust with every "edit" that is "lost" - even if it would be humanly impossible to find the edit
  • The team experiences greater and greater stress as deadlines loom, the process gets more and more confused and confusing, and competition for one's ideas to be heard and adopted grows greater.
So we lose time, money, accuracy, morale, trust, and the opportunity to learn. 

Why do we put up with all of this?

  • Most people would rather suffer the pain of the known (stable dysfunction in which we feel necessary and important) because it is more comfortable than the pain of the unknown (unstable function in which we may be un-necessary and un-important).
Further hypothesis:
  • Subconsciously we are afraid what would happen if processes were rationalized because then we would have to ask the difficult question: "Why are we writing this document in the first place?" Which means we challenge our own assumptions - the decisions of those in power - the reality of the organization. Which could lead to our being excised.
Consider that the law of organizational bureaucracy dictates a completely paradoxical mode of operation:
  • On the one hand we seek greater and greater efficiency.
  • On the other, if we reach peak efficiency then the people within the organization are no longer needed - the company runs itself.
  • Therefore people at every level of the organization who are invested in participating in its continued existence will collude (mostly subconsciously, because consciously they could not tolerate the contradiction) to keep it going - even if the way it operates makes no sense.
  • And, because the collusion is subconscious, they will continue to ask, "Why are things so messed up around here? Why can't we change?"
Without checks and balances on organizational function, therefore, dysfunction will inevitably reign (unless you have a benevolent and all-powerful leader, which is impossible).

And this is why, although people say that inefficiency stresses them out - they will resist giving it up. Even if it means they operate at the cost of common sense.

If you think about it, it is better to plan one's obsolescence than to perpetuate one's dysfunction. Eventually dysfunction is found out by external watchers, who will do something to curb it. 

Better to practice "creative self-destruction," find ways to best yourself, and continually reinvent the organization. Find ways to be relevant, and always stay a step ahead of the critics.

Think about it - it's not an easy choice - but it's ultimately more rewarding. And you have the side benefit of being able to look in the mirror with self-respect.

Good luck!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Scandal: "Dysfunctional Culture" or "Isolated Incident"?

stump patterns
Photo by Staindrop via Flickr

The news is always dominated by scandal and the news this morning is no different. Ugly reports of ugly behavior.

  • Army: In Afghanistan, photographs of soldiers smiling "thumbs up" alongside dead bodies and across the military there is a pattern of female service members raped or sexually assaulted then discharged for a "personality disorder."
  • Secret Service: In Colombia, a prostitution scandal and we learn the motto, "Wheels up, rings off"
  • GSA: In Las Vegas, a conference overseen by an official who wrote, "I know I'm bad, but why not enjoy it while we can?"
If these are just isolated incidents it's easier to deal with them: Punish the offender and you're done. Oh how tempting it is to "apologize" or put someone in jail and call it a day.

But when a scandal involves things like:
  • Pre-planning the misbehavior
  • Repeated incidents
  • Joking mottoes
  • Times and places where the misbehavior normalized
  • Explicit or implicit silencing of those who question what's going on
...then you are dealing with a dysfunctional culture. Because the behavior of the individual, while deviant from the perspective of an outside, is actually normal from the perspective of the culture. 

The reason why dysfunctional cultures don't usually hog the spotlight is that they may or may not interfere with an organization's ability to perform. In fact, the military does defend us, the Service does protect the president, the GSA does purchase things on the government's behalf. Every day.

Further, there may be pockets of dysfunction in some areas of the organization, and tribes of excellence in others - especially if it operates in a geographically or functionally distributed way.

In the end, culture really means the process by which you get things done. Dysfunction means that you are getting things done in an unhealthy way. It becomes a scandal when the level of unhealthiness becomes intolerable. People on the inside can take so much and swallow it; outsiders can ignore things up to a point. 

But when the balance tips and things go beyond the "tipping point," explosion - crisis - results. Just the same way that you can eat a lot of junk food, every day, for decades...and then one day you keel over with a heart attack, G-d forbid.

Most of the time, groups disregard process - it's results that count.

But over the long-term, even the most Machiavellian leader will tell you that abusing the system or the person is risky.

The default mode of ignoring process is to recycle people, and leaders too. If someone is gone they can't complain; if someone is gone you can pin all the blame on them.

But ultimately if the root of the dysfunctional culture is not identified and remedied, the dysfunction keeps cropping up. People have long memories; they talk; and the Internet collects a lot of what they're saying now. 

In the transparent society, dysfunctional culture is not only a reputation risk, either. If it is discovered that mission funds were diverted to support the dysfunction, rather than carry out the mission, then the existence of the organization itself is at risk.

Process is the bedrock of culture, and culture is the bedrock of communication. If you don't have processes in place that can be explained, justified and enforced, you don't have a stable culture and the things you say just aren't credible. 

While it is true that every organization is unique and there is no one process that works for all, a good and simple litmus test is probably your own embarrassment filter. If you wouldn't want it on the cover of The Washington Post, it probably shouldn't be a part of the organization.

Good luck!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Election 2012: "Boring" vs. "Daring"

Photo by Roland Tanglao via Flickr

In a gym full of Feds watching the TV monitors. It's evening news time.

-One screen has a commentator talking about Mitt Romney, the word "robotic" flashing behind him.

-Another has coverage of the GSA scandal. It is unflattering.

-A third flashes the words "Secret Service" and then something like "20 prostitutes!"

-Fourth there is the President with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. Images of oil barrels, of people at the gas pump.

-Fifth and finally there is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I feel sheer admiration.

(Disclaimer: not speaking for any organization or agency here. Not a political endorsement or non-endorsement. Etc.)

I am a fed standing among all these other feds, of different agencies. I feel shame at the government scandals. This isn't how I am, I remind myself, it isn't how most of my colleagues are. I wonder how we got here, that the people one should trust seem so out of control.

It occurs to me that we are paying the inevitable price for daring. Which is that sometimes it turns into hubris. The sense that you can do anything, even when it's against the rules.

I remember when President Obama took office. Oh how we Gov 2.0 types waved the Open Government memo around. The word "transparency" sounded so good. We repeated it like a mantra. So what if we were a little irreverent? The past was stodgy, immovable, unshakeable. And we were going to fix it.

Over time it seemed not so easy. There were all these complicated issues. It was tempting to sweep them aside and "just do it." It seemed a lot of agencies had to do just that, especially with social media. There simply was no precedent for Open Gov. Nobody could get a full handle on it before saying "go."

Those were heady times, when I look back at them. They were also scary. We were daring enough to break the rules in search of something greater. But we didn't know what the outcome of that experiment would be.

Now we are in election season, again. What do people want?

In 2008 it was hope and change. Do we still want that daring four years later, now that we've gotten a dose of what the attitude of "we can do anything" can bring?

I don't know.

Certainly some of the effects are refreshing, like a cool splash of water on a hot summer's day.

In other ways the impact is less favorable.

Americans desperately need to feel safe again, stable again, trust again. In a way it's great to have a leader who seems willing to take a stand and take chances.

But in another way it's sometimes good to know that the system is steady, reliable - yes, even stodgy and boring at times.

A little change is generally good. It keeps us on top of our game.

Too much disruption, though, send us reeling into chaos. And since that tears down the fabric of society, putting everyone at risk, it is something we ought to avoid if at all possible.

May G-d grant us wisdom, and good luck!

The 5 "Departments of Productivity" Most Organizations Miss

Healthy Me Bicycling
Photo of "Healthy Me Bicycling" by Donghyeon Lee via Korean Resource Center, Flickr

In a work organization, the only thing that matters is productivity.

Mathematically speaking the goal is to put forth X amount of work for the sake of returning X* return (the * being whatever multiple or exponent can realistically occur.)

Productivity has gone through historical stages. Roughly:
  • In the past, work was mainly physical and took place on the farm or in a factory: To produce things, you had to be physically strong and able to not-think for long periods of time.
  • With the advent of technology, the new product was knowledge and to deliver it you had to know technical subject matter sufficiently to generate insight out of data.
  • Now with advanced technology + the connective power of the Internet, it is not sufficient to master knowledge but to master new knowledge quickly and also to work well with other people to deliver a joint result.
Our organizations have not kept pace. 
They have not institutionalized the capabilities required for people to generate profit in an environment where the brainpower (the capacity to learn) + relationship skills are the key ingredients for productivity, as follows:

1 - Fitness: The organization ideally should actually provide healthy food, gym facilities, and sufficient time to work out. For most people doing a 1-hour workout this is about 1.5 hours per day. If your body is not functioning right neither will your brain.

2 - Emotional support: Life is stressful. Work is stressful. Balancing work and life is stressful. And working with other people is stressful. People are at work most of the day stretching into the night. There should be emotional support available on-site.

3 - Training: Most people do not have time to leave work and go to school. There should be comprehensive hard and soft skill training available at the click of a mouse, at lunchtime, without requiring any supervisory approval. If someone is actually willing to take the time to learn, there should not be any barrier in their way (of course assuming they are doing their job).

4 -Technology: Technology is advancing much faster than people's knowledge about it. Organizations to be maximally productive must offer immersion training to ensure that people are fluent. If it sits on the shelf it doesn't help anyone to be productive.

5 - Community: When you work with other people for 1/3 of your waking hours or more it helps if you are part of a living community not just someone who shows up and leaves. When there are conflicts there needs to be a space to hash them out. When strategies emerge people must reflect on what is and isn't sensible. After crises occur the community should gather and conduct an after-action review. This is a self-regulation mechanism more advanced than internal communication because it is generated by the employees themselves but "gardened" or "shepherded" by the organization, which facilitates productive discussion aimed always at corporate goals.

Similar to Vineet Nayar's thesis in Employees First, Customers Second, employee-centric management is not indulgent but rather a rational method of investing in bottom-line business results. We take care of the employee and then get out of the way, so that the employee can take care of the customer and earn profit for the organization - and thereby a living.

One has to ask whether we want a workforce of stressed-out, burned-out people or a happy, relaxed but very focused group of employees who are dedicated to achieving organizational goals?

I personally would choose the latter.

Good luck!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Gov 2.0: "Footloose" Edition

After high school hoodlums throw a brick through the window, narrowly missing his little cousins "Ren's" (Kevin Bacon's) uncle verbally attacks him for stirring up trouble in Bomont. It's a trivial cause at best (and "sacreligious" at worst), the right to a high school prom.

Ren finds out that his uncle is losing business and his mom has just gotten fired from her job over his cause. He doesn't seem to care. When his mother asks him why he persists, he answers as below.

As I watched Ren say this on screen, I realized why I watch this movie every time it airs and why I sometimes cry when I see it. Why I write blogs that nobody pays me for and that often, relatively few people read. Why I find it important to say something.

From Ren's monologue:
“When Dad first threatened to leave, I thought it was because of me. I thought it was something that I wasn't doing right. And I figured there was something I could do to make it like it was... and then he'd want to stay, you know.

“But when he left, just like that... I realized that everything I'd done hoping that he'd stay-everything I'd done, it didn't mean s**t. Didn't matter.
And I felt like, '’what difference does it make?’

“But now--now I'm thinking…I could really do something, you know. I could really do something for me this time, you know…otherwise I'm just gonna disappear.”
As a young person I often had the experience of feeling powerless to change the things that weren't working in my life. It seemed like no matter how hard I struggled to fix things, I couldn't.

As an adult I often felt that way too, and still do. What can a person do? We are all seemingly just "cogs in the wheel," trying to survive.

But something changed eventually, around the year 2001. I started to work in the field of internal communications; I read The Cluetrain Manifesto; the Internet picked up steam, and then social media. I learned that other people were feeling the same thing - impatience with the status quo. Wanting to break through the b.s. Trying to make things better.

And when I joined the government in 2003 I found a ready cause. There was so much that needed to change. There were so many people who wanted to make those changes. And a few who just stubbornly resisted any questioning of the rules, at any cost. Even if they didn't work.

And so I decided to try, regardless of where I was. If it was going to be government - an environment where I had never envisioned myself working - so be it. And so it began. 

Nearly 10 years later, looking back, I think it is worth it. Change is coming about. You can call it Gov 2.0 or anything you want, but the bottom line is still the same: We all want to make a difference. We have to. Or else we are afraid that we will just disappear, and our work lives will not have been worth it. 

Not mattering at all. It's a possibility we can't entertain. And so we celebrate every mark of progress. You may not see the impact all the time, or ever. But the momentum is there, and it is something worth celebrating. 

I am glad to be a part of Gov 2.0 and grateful to see others' efforts bearing fruit as well.

Just a thought as we head into another work week: Be inspired by trying - some days it's all you've got.

Good luck!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Jennifer Lawrence, Repair Feminism's Brand. Please. (Hilary Rosen)

"His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing."

- Democratic political strategist Hilary Rosen, referring to Ann Romney, wife of Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, via Fox News

By now everybody has seen Ms. Rosen say this on the news. Undoubtedly they've thrown shoes, when they heard this obnoxious statement. 

It brought me back to the anger I felt as a young mother, entrepreneur, and doctoral student as people observed me with the kids and asked, finally, "Do you work?" 

Yes, actually, I used to think, enraged at the kind of mindset that produced such condescension. Do you?

I was able to let it go pretty quickly though because the point she was trying to make was clear to me. It was her communication strategy that failed, though the essence of her statement may have some merit: The Romneys may not be able to understand what it's like to be poor.  What it's like to hold down two or even three jobs, and still not be able to eat.

Basically, Rosen was trying to play feminist to score points for the Democrats. But what she failed to understand was that the conventional brand of feminism, which she represents, is off-putting to the average person. In sociology we call it "othering," setting up YOUR side as virtuous (good, virtuous, poor and oppressed) while THEIR side (you invent the sides) is evil, scheming, rich and oppressing. Gender, class, race all intersect into a mishmash theory of the few against the many - "us."

I don't get the feeling that Rosen hangs out with impoverished women of color holding down two or three jobs who still can't feed their kids. I don't get that feeling about the president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O'Neill, who offered an academic defense of Rosen that was just as off-putting as the original statement. In her words:
"Do Mr. and Mrs. Romney have the kind of life experience and if not, the imagination, to really understand what most American families are going through right now?"
Gee, Ms. O'Neill, I don't know; do you have the life experience to judge them and look behind their closed doors?

Which is why even though feminism may be theoretically right, the people who formally represent the "brand" sometimes do it more harm than good. ("Those angry, man-hating feminists...")

The Republicans don't have it right either. Frankly the "gun-toting right-wing bear mom" approach, or whatever it's called today, is off-putting too. Just like the Democratic strategy, ironically, it fails as a brand because it relies on hatred and othering at a time when people want unity and peace.

To me, "Republican feminism" feels like a a bad mix of fantasy thinking that includes "Mad Men"-like nostalgia (except it's not ironic), uber-religion, hyper-high-heels-femininity, stodgy traditional religious adherence.

That doesn't mean feminism is dead though. Only that it needs other spokespeople.

If you ask me I would vote for Jennifer Lawrence. This young woman is the star not only of "The Hunger Games" (2012) but also of "Winter's Bone" (2010), where she played a very similar character. (Not coincidentally, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," featuring a similarly strong type of female lead (Rooney Mara), came out in 2011.)

What do the Jennifer Lawrence (and Rooney Mara) characters have in common? What makes them so appealing?
  • They are oppressed as women, but refuse to see themselves as victims.
  • When they are attacked, they fight back with everything they have.
  • They not only have, but excel at skills associated with femaleness (caring) and maleness (fighting).
  • They celebrate family and love (even if they're "damaged,") and refuse to shut off the "feminine" side of themselves.
  • Ultimately they see themselves as individuals, without being stereotyped into or rebelling against prescribed gender roles.
I'm a lifelong proponent of equality and it's a subject I studied in graduate school. Obviously there's lots of ways to think about it, and no single formula is going to work for all. But the spirit of 2012 is not about hating and anger and "othering" anymore, if it ever was; we as a nation are tired of war.

This blog post represents my personal opinion about feminism, a cause that matters a lot to me, not a polemic for or against a political party. In fact I find parties to be relatively meaningless.

What I want to see happen, what I wish for is a deeply rooted insistence on unity against divisiveness. I want truth-telling. I want to see people stand together against injustice and be compassionate for the foibles and mistakes that come out of being human.

I disagree with the president of NOW; anyone can imagine that they walk in someone else's shoes, if only they have the courage to stop hating. Hate is just the illusion of strength against the certain knowledge of one's weakness, and it is always a waste of time.

(Well it was worth a momentary dream, wasn't it?)

Have a good evening and good weekend everyone, and good luck!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

50% Of Your Salary To Write Emails: Are You Worth It?

Matt Hayden / Peachy Keen Color
Photo by Ally Aubry via Flickr

Private-sector survey research published in 2011 by Inc. Magazine found that employees of small to medium-size businesses spend about 50% of their time on email. (Here's the press release.)

(It's not actually fully 50% if you read the survey results carefully - because there is an element of phone messaging involved - but let's just take that as a ballpark figure for discussion.)

I would also take as a ballpark figure the findings of the research sponsor, which (unsurprisingly) has a "unified communications" product to sell that supposedly eliminates the inefficiency caused by relying so much on email. So they make big claims like:
"Efficiencies created by Unified Communications on a typical firm with 50 Knowledge Workers (sic) with salaries ranging from $40,000 to $110,000....(are) valued at approximately $950,000 annually."
Yet despite the inevitable bias and hype, their findings resonate with my own experience. Email is a costly waste of time when you have the option of working in a collaboration environment.

In particular I find this to be true of Google's collaboration tools - Docs and Sites. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but compared with the frustration of trying to do things in an Outlook environment the learning curve is well worth it.

(As always, this is personal opinion - not endorsed or sponsored.)

What the heck are people doing on email (and phone) all day? According to Fonality's survey:
  • 36% - trying to contact people, find information, or schedule a meeting.
  • 14% - "duplicating information" - forwarding emails, etc. - or managing unwanted communication (spam e-mails and phone calls)
Think about it:
Are you worth half your salary in email?

What will you do when your boss catches on that all the email is largely a waste of time?

Although it is a difficult thing to do when seemingly "everybody" uses email, my suggestion would be to get ahead of the curve and transition to collaboration-based work now. The result:
  • In the short-term, you will hate it because you have to evangelize a lot.
  • In the medium-term you will find yourself happier because you save yourself time and aggravation associated with mindlessly forwarding, detaching, and reattaching email - not to mention the inaccuracies associated with "who had the latest version of that?" 
  • In the longer-term, spending a larger proportion of your time on actual knowledge work is a much better way to demonstrate value to your organization than email-pushing.
Good luck!