Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why Jones Soda Is My Soda

Tastes great - and it says it's "my brand." They'll post a photo on their label if I send it in. The URL is

Love it!

10 Gen X Attitudes About Leadership, As Seen On TV

I notice there's a certain type of show I like: "Olympus Has Fallen," "Red Dawn," "Die Hard," "Homeland," "24," and "The Walking Dead." I'm a Generation Xer.

Each of these shows has a totally different plot. But they all seem to say the same things about leadership from a Gen X perspective. Here's how the leaders in these stories think, and what they seem to believe:

1) Freedom is the goal - this is the highest goal - we don't dictate to others and we don't let others dictate to us.

2) Bureaucracy hurts - the rules are getting in the way, they slow the response time so much that the response is ineffective.

3) Nobody understands - I get the danger, but others do not - and I will have to live with that.

4) Extreme self-sacrifice - the risks are so great and the odds are so against us, that I will likely die or be severely harmed to save everybody else. I am the only one who can fix it.

5) Likelihood of punishment or at most no credit - the best that can happen is that nobody knows you did anything at all. 

6) Anti-authoritarianism - the adults in the room are so messed-up, the best you can do is get them out of the way.

7) Results orientation - it is about getting the job done, not the process and not the team. "Whatever works."

8) Family is made, not born - it's not about blood ties but about who we choose for our circle, and we have a fierce and lifelong allegiance to them.

9) Protect the children - they are the innocent ones, it is our job to make the world safe for them and their future. They should never have to suffer.

10) Expose the truth - the real enemy is not a person but the lies a person tells and the evil they do in secret. Expose them for what they are, and the rest will fall into place. 

Is Spin Inevitable?

While it is impossible to eliminate spin, we can take steps to minimize its likelihood.
The reason spin is inevitable is that people (being what they are) will always try to game the system. Personal preferences, power games, cultural styles and even technology literacy all get in the way of the end goal - pure transparency.
In addition, there is no getting away from the human bias on how pure data is presented. So the data itself is always suspect:
  1. Someone has to put the data into a format so that people can use it. That container is going to influence the way the data is perceived.
  2. "History is written by the winners." That's because there is no such thing as objective history, only the perspective of one party or another. 
  3. Any phenomenon can be observed completely differently depending on whether you are looking through a historical, sociological, biological, religious, Western/Eastern, economic etc. lens.
  4. Relying on science is not an escape. Academics have a field day taking apart the methodology used to provide data. The fact that methodology is so easily manipulated is why I don't trust quantitative studies AT ALL unless they are cross-correlated with qualitative work.
So is truth possible? Because if it is NOT possible then spin is inevitable as part of any attempt to communicate. Which is why I say:
If data is inevitably presented in a biased way, narrative will always be worse. 
Narrative itself entraps us in spin. 
How then can we talk about anything? Perhaps conversation itself is a waste of time, because it's all biased.
No - we can instead put biases in conversation with each other.
Methodologically, this involves a balanced approach to data - quantitative and qualitative.
Communication-wise, this involves interaction - or social media.
The concept of "big data" is that we draw from the well of ALL available numbers, all available data, all available studies - and look for overarching trends.
But you can't get to "big data" unless you have data sets to begin with.
Data sets can be drawn from narrative (e.g. content analysis of what organizations say about their programs in their annual reports), from survey results (customer feedback on performance), to qualitative data (interviews, focus groups where questions are standardized), ethnography (journal notes), and even data collected without human intervention - such as computerized collection of information like call wait times.
What I am arguing is:
We need more data, not less.
The taxpayer owns the data.
We should make it available raw.

*As always all opinions are my own.

Friday, March 29, 2013

What Do We Do With All That Anger?

Once when I was eight my dad came home and mom was angry. I mean really angry. Steamed.

He said, "Where is the grape juice?"

To which she replied, "You want the grape juice? HERE's the grape juice!"

And with that she brought a huge bottle of Kedem brand kosher grape juice down onto the glass-topped table. Shattering the glass. Shards flew all over the dining room.

As an adult someone once told me that their boss used to throw things at them - on alternate days. Literally, one day it was books thrown at the head and another day it was a gift card to Starbucks.

It ended when they said, "Next time I won't duck. I will call 9-1-1."

Most of us associate workplace anger with negative things:
  • Outburst 
  • Termination
  • Reassignment
  • Lawsuit
  • Depression
  • Heart attack or other physical ailment
  • Workplace shooter
However there are some more positive methods of handling it:
  • Conversation
  • Communication
  • Apology
  • Training 
  • Mediation
  • Employee assistance program
If only we would stop avoiding the reality of anger at work. Why not recognize:
  • Relationships and feelings are not a distraction - they are integral to productivity.
  • Conflict is a normal and sometimes even positive part of work because it points out problems as well as employee engagement, even in a negative way.
  • Conflict management is a form of cost avoidance.
Maybe it is true that what we need to know we learned in kindergarten. Sometimes all it takes is "circle time," to talk about the problem and what's happening in the group. To do this we have to take feelings seriously though, and be willing to solve the problem. 

When the organization is ready to do that - to save the cost of the inevitable problems down the road - that's not just smart thinking but a way to avoid the costs of absenteeism, turnover, low morale and even (G-d forbid) violence and litigation.

The Solution Is Big Data

"Spin" means intentionally misleading the audience so as to persuade them (propaganda). This is NOT OK for government to do - unless you're in the military doing psychological operations overseas as part of war.
In all my years in the federal government, I have never - not once - had someone tell me to lie or mislead. EVER. If that were to happen I would report it and you should too. I have read about such occurrences though. Normally they leak into social media, and then into regular media if there's overwhelming credibility to the story. That said:
--My experiences is that agencies are responsive rather than proactive. They wait for the question. They are not hanging around waiting to air what they perceive as dirty laundry. It is often frustrating to me personally as a communicator that we don't get more in line with the private sector, where there is a pretty good understanding that when you share bad news very early on, it loses impact. (Best example is David Letterman who rebounded right away from his PR crisis by simply acknowledging his personal mistakes.)
--It is standard practice to answer the question you were asked. Not more, not less. We are working in a legal environment where words have tremendous impact. Washington is not a TV talk show. Words are chosen carefully not spontaneously and they are done in conformity with numerous legal requirements - including Plain Language.
--I have heard SMEs (subject matter experts) say to writers, "Put your spin on this." However, what they usually mean is - "Here are the facts. I know I can't write. Make them sound better." It is a way of acknowledging their limitations. Sometimes it's a way of acknowledging that the data sounds bad. But keep in mind that government words are cleared through various officials so it would be very hard to simply "spin something" without a huge team of people on board. Normally those people are pointing out how the content could be more accurate, more clear.
All of that said--
The problem with narrative is narrative itself. Every agency and every company has to describe in a narrative fashion what they are doing. And as nobody and no organization is perfect there will always be delicate subjects. Nobody is going to run around saying, "Look how we screwed up today! Woo-hoo!" That would be ridiculous and a waste of time - just as phony feelgood stories are. Not all of it is high value.
This is why the emphasis on narrative is misplaced.
The best way out of the "messaging" trap is BIG DATA.
Simply make high-value data sets available in an accessible manner. Let the relevant facts speak for themselves. Officials can offer their comments, but the data is the most important thing.
* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Ten Commandments" For Change Agents

Below are 10 distilled pieces of advice I've received over the past year or so. I'm sharing these with you in case they might be helpful. What they all boil down to is - do the basics well first, earn trust, and then do more. Let it be their way to begin with, so that eventually you can contribute to real, lasting, positive forward movement.
1. Do what is asked, meeting formal and informal requirements, staying flexible.
FIRST do what you have been asked to do, NOT what you think needs to be done.
2. When asking for action, give concise and complete background information.
NOT a dissertation's worth of paper - you are more passionate than most people, get over yourself - and NOT simply forwarding the most recent email - no they do not want to read the entire trail. 
3. Begin any communication with a "headline" - what is the purpose?
Your boss has about fifty million people breathing down his or her neck. If you interrupt them - you have three seconds to convince them not to shoo you away and get back to email. Avoid open-ended conversations! Avoid! Executives do not have those with regular people - do not annoy!
4. Everyone is overworked - minimize engagement to when action is required.
The rules differ from place to place. Find out how your boss defines "heads up" and only provide that. Definitely communicate if something is going wrong - crises multiply when you try to shove them under the rug.
5. Weekly update - work activities, progress, outcomes, notes. Calendar updates.
The update is verbal - you read it off your list during a meeting. A one-page handout is fine as a leave-behind. Day-to-day, try to get ten minutes on the phone in the morning to get on the same page. Avoid back-and-forth emails at all costs.
6. Quality = consistent, efficient, timely, standardized, meets requirements.
Give them the main meal first. That is NOT creativity, innovation, brainstorming, out-of-the-box. That is fun. That is for retreats - not regular day-to-day work.
7. Stay with the team. Maintain relationships, they're as important as the task.
Do not go off on your own. Even if you are right. Think in terms of moving incrementally toward a goal that all of you can see. The more you separate from the group and are an "outlier," the more of a distraction you become - and even counterproductive. Because instead of working together to make things better, the focus is on whether YOU as the self-designated change agent are correct, accurate, visionary, right, wrong or indifferent. Take the focus off of you.
8. Prioritize. Do the most important things first.
There is too much work. Do a quality job on the most important stuff. Don't try to do a crappy job of everything. Even though you may technically do more things, from the boss's perspective you are sloppy and can't be trusted with even the simplest of them.
9. Maintain work/life balance. Balance crunch time with down time. Avoid burnout.
Change agents work hard. Too hard. They tend to think that others can see it. They can't - they don't - they would rather you pace yourself and kept your good humor and relaxed attitude. When you get nervous and spun up, you make everybody else feel that way too. No good! Especially when everyone is under pressure anyway.
10. Keep the vision in mind, but build from the bottom up. Walk before you run.
Big-picture thinkers tend to want to start with the strategic plan and then implement. In government it's the opposite - you actually have to start with a bit at a time, and then fill in the pieces of the puzzle. Keep a list of the things you will do when the opportunity presents itself - your wish list - your dreams. But do not confuse them with a work plan.
Got any advice to add to this list? Let's hear it!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

You Are Entitled To Your Journey

When I was a little girl I took an I.Q. test. They pushed me from kindergarten into first grade.
Later on they pushed me from 5th grade into 6th, to manage an out-of-control rabbi (e.g. rather than fire the rabbi, who wound up getting fired anyway for smacking a student to the floor in front of the entire class).
I was always two years ahead of my peers. Intellectually, that was fine. Socially it caused problems. You can't grill people into adulthood like a steak. No. People need slow-simmering, like a good winter stew.
It got in my head that life was all about rushing. Degree - another degree - family - kids - job - sequentially and simultaneously.
I imparted this ethic to my kids: "Hurry up, get it done, don't waste time." Etc.
Time has passed and I've started to wonder.
Sometimes it feels like rushing has become the point of life. Instead of the means to an end, where we get to stop rushing all the time.
My mom called me yesterday before Passover.
"Your sister is upset." 
"Someone they know, a cantor, young. Just dropped dead out of the blue."
It's always hard to look inside so I think about comments I make to my marketing students. In comments to them on discussion posts.
What I'm always saying: "Slow down. Have you even read your work?"
Their generic response: "I have a full-time job. I'm doing the best I can. I need to pass."
For school to teach you anything, though, you have to stop enough to learn. The degree is not worth the paper it is printed on anymore - everybody has one. You're better off with the skill of thinking critically. Of being a reflective person.
The Kindle has not helped matters at all. Books used to be in print, on paper. When you read one, you really stopped to read. You had to think. 
Now you just flip through them.
Social events took place in person and they weren't Facebook opportunities. You sat at the Sabbath table and you argued. You went to the barbecue and kicked back with friends. You attended the game and rooted for your kids. Stuck your head through the twisted iron fence. You watched their expression as they tried to score a point or two.
Now the event's end is determined by that moment you got a good photo and posted it online.
The other day I saw these two girls on the Metro. One of them was taking a picture of her own face. She smooched at the screen until she was satisfied and then snapped it. 
Were they spending time together or alone? Each in their own world, waiting for an eventual "Like" on a status.
What I want to say to whoever reads this, is that you are entitled to your personal journey, as am I. As is everyone. Stop rushing from one experience to the next, one accomplishment to another, grasping at the high of this endpoint and that. Let your life be messy, and slow, and unfinished every once in a while.
Before you die, let yourself really live.

Monday, March 25, 2013

10 Success Tips From My Manager Pat

(Well, it could have been Pat or any of them.)

Experienced managers generally will tell you stuff like this:

1. Learn the business. If you don't understand the subject matter nobody will take you seriously.

2. Do things our way first, then we'll trust you enough to change things.

3. Only tell us things when we need to know. We are already bombarded with useless information.

4. We notice typos. They matter.

5. Let it be the other person's idea.

6. Don't be like a bull in a china shop. It's threatening.

7. Standardization beats innovation every time.

8. Did you save us money? That gets you extra points.

9. There is a very fine line between creative and crazy.

10. Heart, humor and genuine team spirit all matter more than brains.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

7 Lessons From A Tree

Image via

You can't blossom without roots.

Even in chaos there is always a path.

Know how to listen without talking back.

Seeing the big picture helps you deal with the little things.

Branching out makes you stronger inside.

If you want company you have to reach out.

The more you stand together the more beautiful the scenery.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

23 Marketing Hypotheses, In 7 Categories, For 3 Products (Life As A Marketing Case Study)

Photo by Renee S. Suen via Flickr; permission to share with attribution

"The purpose of business is to create a customer." - Peter Drucker

Preface - Journaling To Learn

When I taught consumer behavior at GW University in Washington, I made the students go to the mall. There they stood with notebook and paper, tracking people as they walked through the stores. Observing their buying behavior. It was great!

Most market research we get in the news is massive in scale. Quantitative surveys, useful to a point but in my view biased toward the sponsor. It is therefore helpful to balance research sources - survey, interview, focus group, and observation.

One underutilized tool is the personal case study. This is where you observe yourself in the process of buying, then take the time to write what you see and extrapolate the lessons learned. These are probably better stated as "hypotheses" because they're just one experience from one person's perspective.

In that spirit here is an unfinished personal case study from the experience of redecorating. The experience is followed by a hypothesis, put in italics. These are organized in the next section for quick reference.

The 23 Hypotheses

1. Branding
  • In the absence of information people go to the brands they know first. 
  • Customers prefer to buy from vendors who have sold them good merchandise previously.
2. Customer Service
  • Customer service representatives who take the time to talk to the customer win business. 
  • Customers notice and get nervous when you are inconsistent or don't keep your word. 
  • Customers notice when your company doesn't seem to operate in unison. 
3. Gender
  • Women connect the dots. So for us shopping has a domino effect. It makes us see related needs. 
  • Men have no patience for shopping. 
  • Men are more swayed by quality than women. 
  • Men are more sensitive to price than women. Men are also more spatially oriented. They want to know the specs. 
  • Men are more practical shoppers. 
4. Mass Media
  • People want the things they see on TV. 
  • Repeat advertising works. People remember catchy mass-media ads. 
5. Internet
  • Better Business Bureau accreditation sounds good. Angie's List has credibility. 
  • Customers use retail outlets to find what they want and then go online to get a better deal. 
  • Online shopping is about trust. 
  • Even a single complaint can ruin your online business. 
  • Google paid search is a good investment. 
6. Price
  • Lacking other indicators, people assume that a higher price means the quality is better especially as compared with other merchandise. 
  • Bundling products together for a single price makes the customer think they are getting a better deal. 
  • Making the customer pay for an estimate saves money and elicits a commitment. 
  • It's not enough to provide the customer information transparently. They are mentally benchmarking your cost against a theoretical baseline. If it's too high, they will walk away. 
7. Sales
  • Know why your customers call you and be ready to answer their doubts before they are even articulated. 
  • If you sound confident your customer will have confidence in you.

The Case 

1. Buying a Sofa

It started with the couch.

Me: "It's not comfortable."

My husband: "What's wrong with it?"

Me: "Look how we have to sit on this thing."

One unflattering pose later we were on our way to the store.

In the car, me: "I want the couch that Chandler had on Friends."

People want the things they see on TV.

My husband: "And where are we going to get that?"

Repeat advertising works.

Me: "The Cinema Store. I've seen their ads over and over again." 

Go to the store. Try out chair. Nice. 

My husband: "We are paying retail prices though."

Me: "Go over there."

I take out my iPhone and take a picture of the tag on the couch. Search the Web. Find it cheaper.

Customers use retail outlets to find what they want and then go online to get a better deal.

Me: "Let's go now. Let's go. We can get it cheaper online."

While my husband drives I talk to him about the different vendors I am finding on the iPhone. 

"I think we should check on the home computer first," he says. "I want to see if there are any complaints."

Online shopping is about trust.

Indeed one of the vendors is part of a complaint war on the Internet. 

Me: "I think it's fine."

My husband: "No. I don't want any problems. This isn't Amazon."

Even a single complaint can ruin your online business.

Finally we settle on a vendor.

2. Dining Room

I realize then that the dining room set is old.

Women connect the dots. So for us shopping has a domino effect. It makes us see related needs.

My husband goes on the computer. 

Men have no patience for shopping.

"Don't we have to look at a new set first?" I say.

"You were at the store the other day, what set did you like? We got this other piece from them, right?"

Customers prefer to buy from vendors who have sold them good merchandise previously. 

"Well is it quality?" He says.

Men are more swayed by quality than women.

"It was more expensive than the other sets," I say. 

Lacking other indicators, people assume that a higher price means the quality is better especially as compared with other merchandise.

"It looks good. Let's just get it. The price is reasonable. Let's measure everything first."

Men are more sensitive to price than women. Men are also more spatially oriented. They want to know the specs.

We take out the measuring tape, do the measurements, put the stuff in the cart. The different pieces make it look expensive even though it's not, terribly.

"Wait, there's a package deal," I say.

We put the package in the cart and now there's one price. We start the checkout process.

Bundling products together for a single price makes the customer think they are getting a better deal.

3. Flooring

At this point we realize the floor is no good. It's been awhile since we carpeted. There is dust.

We try to buy new floor online but realize you have to see it first. I head over to the Home Depot. I remembered their tagline, "More Saving, More Doing, That's The Power of the Home Depot."

In the absence of information people go to the brands they know first. 

They remember catchy mass-media ads.

"Hello? Is anybody here?" I say in the flooring department.

"They all went home, I will stay and help you," somebody says. I have a half hour conversation during which I am convinced to buy a certain kind of flooring.

A second customer service representative talks to me about timeframes and walks with me to the display. 

Customer service representatives who take the time to talk to the customer win business.

I go home and tell my husband about that flooring.

"Oh no," he says. "If we ever want to sell this place people will only want genuine hardwood."

Again, men are more practical shoppers.

Home Depot sends someone to measure. I pay for the privilege.

Making the customer pay for an estimate saves money and elicits a commitment.

I am ready to buy the flooring from Home Depot. But they don't contact me right away with a time window as promised. I call them twice. The call is dropped the first time. The second time I am told that "the manager has gone to lunch."

Customers notice and get nervous when you are inconsistent or don't keep your word.

I use the web-based interface to contact Home Depot customer service and get a call back the same day. However, this call crosses with the call from the third-party estimate provider.

Customers notice when your company doesn't seem to operate in unison. 

The estimate provider spends a lot of time on the phone with me. He breaks down the charges point by point. I get a written estimate by email. The estimate seems very high. I tell my husband. He says, "No way. That's a ripoff."

It's not enough to provide the customer information transparently. They are mentally benchmarking your cost against a theoretical baseline. If it's too high, they will walk away.

"What are we going to do?" my husband says to me. "We need to coordinate the floor and the furniture."

Out of desperation, while I'm on the train I do a Google search on my iPhone. I key in our town and the words "hardwood flooring." Three paid search results come up.

Google paid search is a good investment.

I choose the one with the name connoting the lowest cost and the highest trust factor. The ad says "family owned."

Someone picks up the phone right away and shows up the same day to measure. With samples.

When you get the call you must be prepared.

The first words out of this person's mouth: "How did you find us?"

"Google paid search," I say. "I guess that works."

The salesperson says: "We're accredited on the Better Business Bureau. We have hundreds of good ratings on Angie's List."

Know why your customers call you and be ready to answer their doubts before they are even articulated.

If you sound confident your customer will have confidence in you.

Better Business Bureau accreditation sounds good.

Angie's List has credibility.

To Be Continued

We're not even close to done yet. But looking over what's happened so far, we're immersed in marketing takeaways.

Let's see how things close out - a possible Part 2 of this case study, perhaps for another day.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Break Yourself To Make The Brand

We fundamentally misunderstand branding.

It is not an ad exercise alone - at least, not anymore.

Branding is the creation of a facade which you must then deliver on in reality.

Reality means you do the work. You "operationalize."

Executives tend to think they are immune from the process. "Hey, don't bother us -- we're visionaries!"

But we aren't immune. We are not.

To make the brand we must break ourselves. Sufficient to be in a team, the team, our team. It is not about "me" -- again, not anymore.

The painful thing about life is that you aren't ever done with the breaking. You make one grade only to face another. What worked before does not work now.

To make matters worse -- at least for many of us who prefer the realm of intellectually challenging ideas-- often reaching our goals means breaking our mental mindsets. Really these are invisible chains, and we may not even see that we are in them.

Emotion work is intangible. Much harder to do. More painful to experience. But you can't grow, change and deliver without it.

Branding get slammed as fun for the superficial. But I say it's just shorthand for a goal. Customer satisfaction is the external marker but the real customer is you and your life's journey.

If you can dream it, be it and believe it my dad says. But then again, words are just mist and vapor.

To paraphrase Iyanla: "You can't get there without doing the work."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

All I Need To Know I Did Not Learn In Fifth Grade

Photo by Aislinn Ritchie via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Actual words written in marker on a large white Post-it sheet. Left up on a wall at an elementary school.

Astonishingly similar to every group retreat I've ever been on except that in the adult version we don't talk about #2.

Especially considering the waste involved, what happens between fifth grade and adulthood (or does not happen) that prevents us from overcoming these obstacles to group work?

1. "Problems"
Having to redo work
One person does all the work
Paired with someone you don't like
One person takes over
Having to compromise
Different answers
One person does no work

2. "Problems I Cause"
Goofing off
Taking advantage of others
Getting frustrated
Not getting it
Talking too much
Getting angry
Taking out anger on others
Not concentrating
Needing to feel in charge/I can be bossy
Pushed over (around?)
Not communicating
Don't know what to do

3. "Working Together"
Divide tasks
Check on others - help?
Talk out the workload so it is shared
Talk to a teacher
Explain your ideas
Be self-aware

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Crying for Steubenville

It was actually a normal party scene that Saturday night, August 11, 2012:
"For the lucky ones on the Steubenville High School football team, it would be the start of another season of possible glory as stars in this football-crazy county. Some in the crowd, which would grow to close to 50 people, arrived with beer. Those who did not were met by cases of it and a makeshift bar of vodka, rum and whiskey, all for the taking, no identification needed.....'Huge party!!! Banger!!!!' Trent Mays, a sophomore quarterback on Steubenville’s team, posted on Twitter, referring to one of the bashes that evening." - The New York Times, December 26, 2012
On Sunday, March 17, 2013, two football players, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, were found guilty and sentenced to juvenile jail for raping one of the girls who attended that party while she was unconscious. They dragged her around from house to house as if she were a "toy".
"Mays was accused of assaulting her in a car on the way from one party to another, after she had already vomited and been stumbling and slurring her words. Mays and Richmond were then both accused of assaulting her again at a house party in a basement." - The Guardian
It was an ordinary party and the rape was ordinary too. The kids took photos and circulated them as part of the party's story:
"Twitter posts, videos and photographs circulated by some who attended the nightlong set of parties suggested that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over several hours while others watched. She may have even been urinated on. 
"In one photograph posted on Instagram by a Steubenville High football player, the girl, who was from across the Ohio River in Weirton, W.Va., is shown looking unresponsive as two boys carry her by her wrists and ankles. Twitter users wrote the words 'rape' and 'drunk girl' in their posts." - The New York Times, December 26, 2012 
The incident was so normal that some people in Steubenville actually weren't sure what the big deal was. A blogger and Anonymous forced the world to join that conversation.

Last night (March 18, 2013) on CNN I watched Piers Morgan interview Richmond's father. He was outraged. For his son. He was sorry for the girl. But he also hoped she would eventually clear up some "misunderstandings."

Piers thanked the father and turned to the lawyer for that young man.  "I want to take this to a higher level," the lawyer started by saying.

Piers did not want to go to that level. He probed the lawyer with very specific questions. "Would you have advised your client to apologize?" As Richmond did. He said, not to the victim but to her family after the verdict: "I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you."

Indeed it was an emotional courtroom, noted the lawyer. "There was not a dry eye." (Original.)

The lawyer said that people were crying for the rapist. Piers said, "I am crying for the girl."

Not everyone is crying for her. The girl is receiving death threats - from other girls in town. Similar to another rape case in an insular community of Williamsburg, New York, the Weberman case - where the victim was intimidated by the group but would not back down.

People can't understand why the coverage of the Steubenville trial has been so sympathetic to the attackers. But I think they are missing the point. We are not sympathetic for these boys.

We are crying for our sons who seem to lack any sense of how to treat a girl.

We are crying for our daughters who have been trained to think like prostitutes.

We are crying for our schools which have become callous and brutal playpens.

We are crying for the breakdown of our families and their values.

We are crying for our loss of innocence.

We are crying for what has happened to Steubenville. Because Steubenville isn't an alien planet.

Steubenville is the rest of us.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Sociology of SOPs

So I spend a lot of time on standard operating procedures (SOPs) and it occurs to me that they say a lot about workplace culture.

There is a branch of sociology that deals with things like this. It is called "ethnomethodology" or the study of everyday life.

Consider the concept of SOPs in the first place. They are rules. They are more likely to be followed in a rule-driven work environment, naturally. Conversely a work culture that prizes innovation and creativity will be rule-averse.

In an innovative environment the people who occupy the highest status will likely demonstrate that status by flouting the rules. As if to say: "What are you going to do about it, fire me?"

In a creative culture the people who must follow the rules are of a lower class. They are not the designated innovators. For them, rules apply.

Think of an ad agency. How esteemed are the accountants as versus the genius who writes a catchy slogan?

This is why we see Hollywood portrayals of powerful, out-of-control types dumping receipts on their helpers as if to say, "You're the shlepper (Yiddish for lowly helper) -- fix it."

There are other workplace cultures where rules are celebrated. They are everything! People wave around field manuals, routing sheets, approval sheets with pride.

I remember one time getting handwritten edits from the CEO, and we had to follow those edits exactly then mark the item "approved" on the routing slip. What a rush!

The other noteworthy thing about SOPs is that no procedure covers everything. You have to know the difference between formal and informal culture so that work can get done. This can take a lot of time and practice and it's helpful if you can get someone to explain.

Generally SOPs are a key but undervalued and understudied element of corporate culture. Observing these details gives a window into the bigger picture.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Have Your Data Talk To My Data

About thirty years ago on a short winter Sunday the sun went down and my room got dark. I flicked the light switch but no light went on.

“Ma,” I called out. “What’s with the lights?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “Talk to your father.”

My father wasn’t home but when he did arrive the lights were still out.

“Daddy, what’s with the lights?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I paid the power company.” (You are thinking at this point that I grew up in a hardscrabble part of town in a shack perhaps, that we were poor, and that my dad was trying to salvage his dignity. No.)

What a mystery, I thought to myself. Hmm.

My kids cannot figure out my parents’ relationship at all. Each one is absolutely independent and yet they are also a team.

If my parents were a government agency, we would say that they lacked a “dashboard” and “metadata.”

I can imagine the meeting of the senior leadership team of Passaic, New Jersey. “Commissioner Stroli,” someone might ask. “There is a new tool that can house all your power utility related information, including the current status of your bill payments.”

“That would be out-standing,” my father would say. “Because I know I definitely put that check in the mail. Those darn power companies!”

Deputy Commissioner Stroli might chime in at this point. “Commissioner, with all due respect. You have tried these dashboards over and over again with no success. Continuous investment in failed tracking tools is a problem for us.” Then she would go take dinner out of the microwave.

“Well then what do you propose?” my father would say, gesturing toward the leadership team assembled. “Certainly we all want to improve the quality of our power in the Stroli home. Efficiency and effectiveness, that’s our motto!”

“Stop the proceedings!” This is where the Senior Advisor for Communication (guess who?) might chime in. “We must sit down and work out the issues.” A look of frustration crosses her face and she wearily takes a slug from her coffee mug.

“Issues? We don’t have issues,” the Commissioner might say. “That’s not even a data-driven word. Focus on the evidence and not your personal opinions.

There in a nutshell is government and Big Data.

We use a lot of new and fancy words to avoid dealing with the age-old problems of any social institution:

* We do not want to talk to each other.
* We cannot fix unfixable problems.
* We do not like to share power.
* It is easier to kick the can down the road.

A man wrote this letter to his first and favorite boss and posted it on the Internet.

The job was doing manual labor caring for plants and things like that.

When it was time to collect salary the boss wrote the young man a note: “Go to the shoebox on the counter and take what we owe you.”

That right there is the essence of it. When the owner tells me where the cash box is, it strips away his power. I could steal it. He can’t be the Wizard of Oz anymore.

When on the job all my documents become a case, and the cases are entered into the system, and the system has shared tags so that everyone doing the same kind of work can find it – that’s big data.

When people can access my case without asking me – that’s my loss of control right there.

We can call big meetings, pay big money, and wait for big evidence. But time is up and the money has run out.

Want to know why taxpayers are mad? Correction – not just mad, furious. They are sick of us treating their money as ours. They want us to act like responsible grownups. Not irresponsible stewards of the cash box, holding them hostage to power struggles, and then making piles of excuses for it. Sinking yet more money into the pit that we created.

For the sake of our broken and bankrupt country, let’s get our data together already.

Transparency doesn’t start in a complicated, expensive, impossible-to-understand system. It lives in a simple shoebox. If we can’t trust each other to take just what we’ve earned for watering the plants, then we ought not be working together on the farm.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Civils and Politicals

We already had a YouTube channel. That was launched quietly with no fanfare, in 2007 I believe.

A group of us interagency folks got together. We started the Federal Social Media Subcouncil, a lot of us civil servants in a room. That was about year later.

Around that time I spent a long time doing research. It was hard to figure out what the rules were. I was worried about how we kept records, mirroring. If we did a Tweet we had to have copies on our site, right? How would that work?

Terms of service...Section 508...freedom of speech...ethics rules. Codes of conduct.

We met with the lawyers. Gray they said. A lot of it was still gray.

One day we had a meeting with the lawyer in charge. He did not know what social media was. We talked about analogies like op-eds in The Washington Post, or talking to friends at cocktail parties. How would traditional principles work with a new media world?

Eventually after lots of research and too many meetings I came up with a chart. Things to consider as we moved ahead. That chart became a binder with many pages.

Civil servants live by rules. Engagement. Incrementalism. Consensus. We do everything in task forces.

Sometimes we do "workarounds" because the mountain will not move.

Sometimes we don't move.

The temporary head of Public Affairs was a civil servant. He didn't know what blogs were, what Twitter was, or that Facebook did anything other than give recipes to his wife via her friends.

But he was able to make a decision.

"Just do it. Now get out of my office."


So I was doing social media. His wife was on Facebook. All was good. I added it to our little roster, along with Twitter.

Ask me how I started the Twitter account.

The previous boss was a political. He was not into the bureaucracy. He liked to get things done, easily and quickly and was fairly on top of the trends.

I wasn't supposed to speak to this person as the informal rules of civil service are: Shut up when in the vicinity of someone more than one rung above you. (Normally senior leaders will always talk to you because that is leadership. But senior executive managers will not.)

One day I saw the boss in the hallway. I was literally walking down the hallway, and the boss was walking towards me from the other direction.

Just do it, I thought to myself. Courage.

"Sir - good morning.  I hear Twitter is popular nowadays."

"Great, get it going."

"Yes sir, thank you sir."

Yahoo! Aha! Excited!

Because the problem was we were tangled up in knots. There were no answers back then. You just had to hold your breath and pray.

And so, with completely limited knowledge and with the cover of this political's approval, I started the Twitter account, now with tens of thousands of followers who use it to get news and information, stay close and interact with the agency that demands compliance from them.

The civil servants, with a few exceptions, did not know what Twitter was at that time. They called it "Twittering" or they made jokes about saying "Twitter is for telling people you're going to brush your teeth now, hahaha."

My supervisor knew what it was. She was brilliant. She told me to keep going.

Every day I checked social media too, for negative or positive blog mentions.

But they did not take that seriously. "Why would you bother checking the blogs?" they said. "Those are just a bunch of crazies."

Politicals, back then, knew social media, knew how to check a blog and knew the power of Twitter.

One day - it was a sunny, beautiful day I remember - I went to another one of our buildings to answer questions about social media.

Some civil servants wanted to know if they could join online communities of practice. That's what they called them. Not "social media" which had a dangerous ring. "Best practice."

Our office didn't have an official policy yet, and I was a civil servant, so I didn't really know what to say. I had research. I had a task force. I had in my head the results of meetings with subject matter experts, lawyers and IT inside and outside the Agency. I could at least take questions.

Someone showed me to the back. The office was confusing. I couldn't tell one cube from the other. Everything was beige.

They had a little circular table near the window, tucked by a plastic plant. It felt friendly and warm and collegial.

I sat down on the chair and saw a piece of paper on the desk. Stray paper I guessed. It had memorandum stuff at the top. It was upside down.

"Have you seen this?" one of the attendees asked me. She flipped it over.

"What?" I said.

I looked at the paper and felt my face turning red. It was a memo from my own office, a memo about social media, a memo from the political.


The memo had my own words in there...weren't those my words? I couldn't think.

"Excuse me, please - I have to make a call."

I stepped outside and called my boss, and she told me. "Yes, that's our memo and the political took our words. I don't know what to tell you."

The walk back to HQ only took a few blocks, but those few blocks felt like forever. I realized how much could change with the politicals involved. How they could melt ice, shatter bricks, turn concrete into harmless sludge, then mud then muddy water you can power away with a garden hose.

Today I do not know how I feel, completely. I know that civil servants get stuck and politicals move very fast. Is is a creative tension that produces progress? Or are we Mars and Venus, just talking past each other in the hall?

*As always, all opinions my own.

Don't Show Weakness

"Never cry."
"Give it to them before they give it to you."
"Don't trust anyone."
"Be on your guard."
"What are you, a fool?"
"Grow up."

This kind of thinking kills companies and kills people too. 

It's true: Some people are greedy and cold and grasping for power. Others have too many problems. They cope by acting them out on others. Some cultures are messed up. Stagnant. Fearful. Besieged. Cutthroat.

What is the best response for the individual? Must we choose between Clint Eastwood type leathery toughness and its opposite, despair and blubbering?

Not really. In any situation, bombastic bullying at the one extreme and excessively giving in on the other are both maladaptive. Aggression just adds fuel to the fire, making others angry at you. Martyrdom leaves you angry at yourself. 

Psychologists tell us that assertiveness is a middle path. Seeing reality for what it is, we take in the environment and respond appropriately--

1. Self-Defense: Enforcing reasonable boundaries.
2. Diplomacy: Keeping our commitments and thus relationships alive. 
3. Authenticity: Being real - being true to ourselves.

Super-toughness may sound good. Accommodation might seem safe. But in the end both of these extremes create more problems than they solve, and cost the individual a lot more than they give back.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Social Media In Government - Legitimate and Illegitimate

Social media is legitimate when it helps people access government services  and to reinforce social marketing messages from government.

But if you can't bake the cake in the first place (write informative content) then don't bother putting on frosting with sprinkles (social media). Maybe someone will take a bite, but they will soon realize that the calories aren't worth it.

I don't think poor writing is the problem. The government is full of outstanding writers actually. 

The problem is also not lack of social media skill because again, the government has lots of techies as well as clever Tweet writers and Facebook page-makers.

Rather, the problem is fear. Legitimate fear and illegitimate.

* The legitimate fear from a managerial point of view is that we lack sufficient management controls. We've got a car - who is allowed to drive it? How fast? What is considered appropriate versus inappropriate use, and by whom? 

* The legitimate fear from a leadership point of view is that we lack a strategy. Where are we driving that car? Are we tweeting just to be heard? 

The illegitimate fear, from where I sit, is that people will actually use social media the way it was intended to be used: to speak truth to power.

It's fine and good to have fun and friendly outreach and for Facebook to be an arm of that. (Actually it may not be fine and good - one could question where education becomes puffery.)

It becomes uncomfortable to have the outside world talking back, not just in a spammy way but in a substantive way that takes issue with government policies and activities - a way that challenges the dominant feelgood narrative.

It becomes uncomfortable to have employees or ex-employees talking back, not just with tweets but with an entire alternate blog site. (Examples of unofficial blogs - CG Report, Chuck Hill's CG BlogTaking Sense Away)

The truth of the matter is that really brilliant leaders WANT to have true social media engagement because that is REAL participatory government - it gives them credibility - it builds up public trust which therefore increases compliance.

There is nothing a social media person hates more than propaganda. Nothing we respect more than honesty.

But very few people (government leaders) have the guts to handle it. Even if they do, their bosses don't or there is a colleague nervous and nervy. This is actually true in the private sector too. People think, "Oh no, we're not perfect, things are going to get out of control, let's just shut it down."

It's a shame, because in my experience government is much more complicated than people think. People in government work much harder than people think. There is a lot more drama and the issues are worth engaging in. It's easy to make fun of the TSA - do you want to be the person who lets a bomber on the plane? I wouldn't. 

The real work of a government communicator is not to be internal paparazzi. It is to simply pull the curtains back and let the public engage. To the extent that social media tools can facilitate that I say fantastic. But the more we try and aggrandize ourselves and live in fantasyland the more we we will continue to be the butt of jokes - from Hollywood movies - to Saturday Night Live - to those Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: emails that say "Must Read" etc.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Emails Are Meant To Be Forwarded

Emails Are Meant To Be Forwarded

Enjoy -


"Brand Simple" and Good Intentions

"Brand Simple" by Landor brand thought leader Allen Adamson is an excellent book. It explains one of the key functions of branding, which is to simplify the decision-making process.

People have trouble making decisions. They don't want to be wrong. Wrong feels like trouble - you're a fool, you're out money, you're inferior, it's irrevocable.

Branding is there to reassure you. More than that it takes the place of thinking.

The Staples easy button symbolizes branding used in this way. "That was easy." (If only the store were not confusing!)

There is a saying, "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM."

There is "analysis paralysis."

I overheard someone say in an elevator that there are way too many brands in this country. It's hard to buy even a bottle of milk. "One percent, two's a cow!"

But used well a brand connects the skim milk drinker who is allergic to lactose to precisely the right product.

People who succeed at work use branding in this way as well. They make it simple to choose them over somebody else.

Their actions broadcast who they are:

--Want an expert in ---? Choose me.

--Want a good team member? Choose me.

--Want a professional with good judgment? Me again.

But the most important thing they do is broadcast good intentions.

I don't want to work with crooks, liars or creeps - who does?

More important than anything else I look for trustworthiness. If someone consistently demonstrates that, they are a brand I prefer to invite to the table.