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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!

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!

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!

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!

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!