Sunday, September 29, 2013

Productivity Smoothie, No Sugar

Normally I would not post a literal recipe. Making an exception.

1 can V8
1 can chicken soup ready to drink
2-3 handfuls greens (spinach, kale)

Blend. Heat in mug. Drink.

Other People's Games

"Who do you like better, Dossy?"

That was my Zayde, may he rest in peace and he asked the same question every time I visited.

"I don't like anyone better, Zayde, I love you and Grandma and Grandpa the same."

And he would argue with me.

"Come on, you must like one better than the other."

"Really. I love you and them the same."

A few months later we'd be in the Catskills and I would sit on the comfy sofa in the living room watching my Grandpa give it to my dad, a Hasid.

"I never understood those Hasidim. Maybe you can explain it to me."

It's thirty years later and the toxic conversations around possible government shutdown are the same.

Because Dysfunctional Donnas and Negative Neds simply cannot rest until they draw you into it:
  • "It's all their fault, don't you agree?"
  • "This country has gone completely crazy, don't you think?"
  • "It will never be any better. Sad, isn't it?
It took me a long time to learn: It's their drama, stay out of it. You want to help, but you'll only end up sucked in to their whirling vortex of misery.

A friend once said, "Don't throw that pity party and expect me to attend."

The worst thing you can do is step in other people's quicksand. They're only too happy to invite you, and strangely you end up drowning while they are very much alive.

Yes times are tough and we should face reality.

But no, we don't have to play other people's (sick, and sickening) games.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Document Everything & Do Nothing

A long-time colleague had this idea for saving paper: increase the margins on printouts. Management would regularly ignore this and her other ideas. So she would save them in an Outlook folder.

Three years would pass, or four, or five. And Management would come to her one day with a "brainstorm." What do you know? It was invariably the same concept. And she would produce it, and Management got the credit of course, and everybody knew where the brains were in the shop.

Sometimes Management would contact her with a "gotcha." A complaint, accusation, mixup or miscommunication. And again, voila out of her Outlook would come a response. Nip it in the bud she would say. Always be ready for war.

She and I worked together on a Tweet one time. Yes, it was a Tweet. A single Tweet and we had to submit it for approval. 

Hours we waited and still no word. No approval, no response and of course the window of good social media time had passed.

How had she "submitted" the Tweet? In writing, of course, like the good Govie she was and had been trained to be over twenty or thirty years' time.

But no answer was forthcoming. None ever did. Because the person she wrote to was a Govie too. 

It was the early days of social media still. And while my colleague took action and kept meticulous notes, her counterpart had discovered another truth about documentation:

Often you are better doing nothing at all. 

I watched all of this. Surprised. Angry. Disappointed. 

Time has passed and I understand both of them a little better. 

In the military, you have to take action or you will get killed: There is a clearly identified enemy targeting you, and it's either shoot or die. Maybe 50-50, but you have no other choice.

In government, the war is not so clearly defined. 
  • For some of us the enemy is inefficiency, lack of productivity, laziness, complacency, and of course waste, fraud and abuse. To me these are useful targets, because we can all agree and shoot them and walk away better for the trying.
  • For others though the struggle is murkier. They feel undervalued, marginalized, bullied, harassed. They can't think about the bigger picture because every day is a struggle to keep the job.
  • For some it's the day-to-day between the civil servants and the political appointees. The first group is focused on maintaining and enforcing the system. The other is focused on shaking it up and making it work better. So there's either frantic action or mutual pushback - gridlock.
  • And of course there are the self-promoters. They are incompetent and they know it, but they're going to get ahead nevertheless, using every dirty trick in the book. And in the process lots of good people sit there and watch as a potentially great organization goes down the drain.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, people who work for the government are usually there to do a great job. It would be nice if we could all agree on what we want from them. So that they can get out from Outlook, stop working in CYA mode, and start doing the jobs we pay them to do.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Unbearable Helplessness Of Managing

Photo by Robert McGoldrick via Flickr

I wanted to write about super-strategic leadership today. So proud of my little diagram, wherein I organize all work around one of four things, and eliminate the rest:
  • Purpose, or strategy
  • Process, or all things efficiency and organization
  • People, or the employee or engagement or human capital
  • Communication -- the center of it all, the part that makes everything else work - and yes it lacks a "P" word.

Can't do it.

We've been going to the nursing home once a week. My husband goes more often, because we're visiting his mother. But even the once a week is difficult.

When we go there I notice these...things. All of them have to do with helplessness. I see the old people, what they go through. It's almost as if I am them, wearing their slippers with the little rubber-grooved soles and it shoots my smug little attitude right down.

They play 80's music in the dining room. On an old-fashioned little black boom box. Mom absolutely hates that music. The nursing staff likes it though. It stays on.

I've gotten in trouble a few times in the nursing home. Because I move people's wheelchairs here and there when the nurses don't come -- the old people yell for help. 

The nurses try to be nice. One said, "I know you're trying to help. But it's a liability."

Someone threw up at the table in the dining room. We sat there, watching her heaving and gobs of brown liquid dripping down her chin. Nobody noticed for a while.

Her name was Beatrice. She was gone the next time we visited.

An overweight lady asked me for apple juice. I kept bringing it and bringing it, cups and cups. What did I know. They were so small. And again, it seemed like nobody was listening.

A nurse said to me, "She's on a special diet."

Today is Friday, and the government may shut down next week. I've been trying to ignore it. Say motivational things to my team.

But now I'm feeling kind of helpless, sitting here. No control over all the shenanigans going on. No magical diagram that's going to save us. No insight or argument that makes a difference in the world.

In the nursing home the people are dying. Some of them loudly, some of them watching a Presidential address on TV.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

That Moment When You Realize Social Media Has Totally Changed, Again, And Everything Else Along With It

Photo by PhotoAtelier via Flickr

So yesterday my sister asked me what it is I do. Because my job changed. Now I run a business. Supporting a Chief Innovation Officer in building an engine we can sustain.

Offices of Innovation are new. In government they're almost unheard of.

So I got the new work plan more or less done, finally. And her question plus the work plan reminded me -- time to update the LinkedIn profile again. That is my resume - that's it. My entire career is held, suspended, cared for in the trust of an anonymous social media provider.

Everything has totally changed, again.

We have Jive at work. We use it to collaborate as well as to communicate and express our opinions.

Remember those conversations way back when (not so long ago) about what would happen if employees started speaking their minds? And we couldn't stop them?

We had so many conversations...and here it is. The sky hasn't fallen in, at least not quite yet. People grumble and gripe, but they also say they like things. And they tell us stuff we need to know.


I remember when just having a blog was a big deal.

Now, blogs themselves are old. Nobody has time to blog. They use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr. There are so many tools that conversation has lost its meaning. There are fractured conversations among micro-groups. We talk to our tribes. We talk past each other.

A million views of GIFs showing cats flushed down toilets. A million views of the kid who got excited about a trip to Disneyland, and another million of the little sister who didn't.

You think you're smart? Put it out there and find lots of other people ready with a retort.

You want to jump on a story quickly? You are too late! Already the Internet is abuzz.

Are you sensitive, or easily offended? Then you better not spend any time online. Because so much of it is negative, sarcastic, outright nasty.

Here I sit in my little world, which would normally be bucolic. But instead it's moving very, very fast. There is so much to learn (and I once thought I knew it all).

Social media has changed but you're missing the big picture if you focus only on that.

Our entire society is changing, the way we think and the way we organize labor and think about success.

The fascination for me is how to put it all together and drive results that are exponential.

While at the same time taking care of our people. Making sure they get to offer their best.

I'm strapping on the seatbelt. It's going to be an interesting ride.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

When To Remember & When To Forget

Photo by myrr ahn via Flickr

The other day I saw a video online that caught my attention. It showed an eagle flying over the land, as if from the perspective of the eagle. The motion was so real I felt a little seasick.

And a little disturbed. I have had this dream. And I did not want to see it while awake.

Dream-state to waking-state is really a transition from one “total reality” to another. The word “total” means that you’re fully immersed in a situation, physically, psychologically, socially, economically and so on.

For many people, a kind of amnesia kicks in during such a transition:

· From Child to Partner: You bring your fiancĂ©e or significant other home to your parents and have to give them the “I’m not a kid anymore” speech when they act like, yep, you’re their kid.

· From Parent to Chauffeur: You take your kid to the mall to meet friends and they give you the “don’t embarrass me by acting like you know me” look as soon as their friends arrive.

· From Vacation to Real Life: You go on vacation and can’t even believe you have another life somewhere else; conversely, when you get back home it’s like the vacation never even happened, or happened to somebody else.

· From Weekend to Workweek: You get to work on Monday, people ask about your weekend, and you actually have trouble remembering that you had a weekend.

· From Colleague To Stranger: You attend a farewell party for a colleague, and within a couple of days it’s as if they never worked there.

(I also believe that we go through amnesia when we pass from one world to the other – either coming in or leaving).

Other times we try to induce forgetting. We call this “starting again,” for example, choosing a college far away, or leaving town after a painful event in one’s life.

A few weeks ago this happened to me when I changed jobs. I think it’s natural: Rather than try to cobble together the past and the present, which can actually harm your ability to survive (you need to adapt to the new reality quickly), you “forget” so as to fit in right away and succeed.

But then I realized that I should never forget the past. Only stop talking about it:

· Talking about the past = bad: Your current colleagues weren’t there, can’t relate and won’t get the point. They will also get the impression that you’re insulting them.

· Remembering the past = good: Life experience helps you avoid repeating old mistakes. Number one: “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Number two: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

In fact, holding on to your memories – in particular, knowing what’s worked and what hasn’t in a particular workplace – is a critical source of competitive advantage. Because nobody can get inside your head to find out what you’ve seen, learned and are using to your advantage.

Wake up and observe instead of zoning out.

In particular:

· Similar challenges from one place to the next: The particulars of a place may be different, but the issues are always the same – strategic thinking and alignment, identifying and prioritizing stakeholder groups, executive communication, metrics, technology, project management, budgeting, bureaucracy, morale, and so on.

· Similar successes: What actions have worked in previous places? How did they actually implement a new and better process for getting work done? How did senior executives decide to finally implement an employee feedback tool? What technology tools made it possible to go from idea to practice?

· Similar rewards for you: What roles have you gravitated toward that has resulted in positive recognition? What have people said about you, that maybe you didn’t realize about yourself? What skills do you take for granted that others find hard to carry out? What has gotten you into trouble in the past, but you were stubborn about it and it ultimately worked to your advantage?

Note that I’m not advocating mindlessly repeating your own bad patterns or roles in the group. Doing so (also known as “acting out” is destructive) even if it wins you a temporary reward. Rather, you want to find the gold in your own personality – where you’ve made the workplace shine brighter – and the ways that former cultures have burnished what shines brightly in you.

Secondarily you can draw on all the other good sources of information: What you learned, what you read, what others told you, feedback from your loved ones and colleagues.

Don’t let yourself get cultural amnesia – keep all those lessons you’ve accumulated in your head. The ones you’ll never find in any blog.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Completely New Way To Maximize Your Personal Brand

Image of Arthur Ashe quote via BrainyQuote

Today I was inspired by an audio lecture, "Defining One's Role In Life," by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. 

Essentially Tatz offers a simple methodology for managing the classic dilemma, "What am I supposed to do with my life?


"What is my personal brand?"

Ask any college student or midlifer in transition. What should be a wonderful journey of exploration can quickly start to feel like a miserable muddle. On the one side options and ambitions, on the other pressures and constraints.

A lot is riding on how you define yourself.

  • Success brings connection to your life's work, a sense of meaning and general fulfillment.
  • Failure costs time, money, disruption, frustration, not to mention fractured relationships.

So here's the thing that's new.

Most self-help advice opines that you can constantly and eternally change I'm the hope of "finding yourself."

Yet continually starting from scratch is exhausting and unnecessary.

Using Tatz's method, you divide your quest into two phases:

  1. Self-discovery
  2. Maximizing your potential

In practice this means completing a simple but extraordinarily agonizing exercise:

Part I. Draw It

Normally we know our natural gifts by the time we reach adulthood. But knowing yourself is hard. You might need the help of a friend who really knows you.

  1. Ink a circle
  2. Inside the circle write down your skills
  3. Outside the circle wrote down your weaknesses
  4. Keep going even when you feel like you are wasting your time or humiliated
  5. Stop when you feel the a-ha -- a strong sense of "personal recognition."

Part II. Stick To It

Tatz compares your natural skills and abilities to a toolbox. He explains that you need to know what tools you were born with. That way you can accomplish a very specific role in this world. Therefore:

Don't do anything outside the circle. Maximize everything inside it -- find ways to use those skills.

When you truly know your abilities it is impossible to be jealous of others, he says, and I think this is true. You also have no motivation to chase the wrong path.

(The alternative is starting from scratch over and over, which many people do as part of "personal reinvention.")

All of this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which tells you to be something you are not in order to succeed.

But being yourself is better. While people can theoretically adapt to changing circumstances, at the end of the day we also are who we are.

A person thrives -- at work and at home -- when they are simply allowed to be themselves.
* All opinions my own.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

5 Characteristics Of The Mature Leader

So now I'm watching Season 2 of Homeland on Amazon Instant Video (well worth the investment). Briefly, the show demonstrates how one genius-like, incredibly dedicated CIA agent (Carrie) supported by her mentor (Saul) and an establishment leader (Estes) team up to stop a devastating terrorist attack on the United States.

By Episode 5 I realized that the most interesting character from a leadership perspective is not Carrie, the one who saves the day, everyone's favorite. ("Hey, she breaks the rules!" "Hey, she's brilliant.")

It's Saul.

People tend to focus on Carrie the way they focused on Jack Bauer in the similar TV series 24. Where the bureaucracy failed, the heroine or hero steps in. Instead of dialing 911, so to speak, they smash the glass and save the victim's life.

In the real world we cannot depend on Superman or Superwoman, but need mature leaders instead. Here are 5 things they do as represented by the character Saul. All of them have to do with a lack of ego and a total focus on results through people.

1) They mentor talent rather than promoting themselves

The immature leader counts on himself or herself. The mature leader looks to others. The actor who plays Saul, Mandy Patinkin, did an interview in which he explained that Saul's entire motivation is to help Carrie succeed, because she is the future. He has accurately discerned that her talent is to stop the attack while having compassion for people.

2) They manage difficult people effectively

In Episode 3 Saul is detained, provoked, and his diplomatic suitcase broken into by a Lebanese official. Rather than take it personally, Saul talks to the official about the consequences if he breaks the bag. I thought that was smart, but Saul is even smarter than that -- he had already concealed and retained a copy of the item that the official stole.

Similarly, he gets Estes to do what he wants by saying, in effect, "You'll look good if you agree and what will they say if you don't?"

And when Carrie deludes herself he looks her straight in the eye and says, "You are the smartest and the dumbest f***ing person I've ever known!"

3) They put themselves at personal risk

Mature leaders do not practice CYA (cover your a**). They get out into the field. Saul goes into Beirut, he doesn't stay in Washington DC. He gets a lead and pursues it, even though he knows the lead may be a terrorist and even though he knows he will be followed and possibly detained. The danger is particularly great because Saul is not only CIA, but a Jew as was called out by the official in Beirut.

4) They know when to stop

Carrie runs into the burning fire. Invariably in the show that works. But it doesn't work all the time. Saul knows when to stop the operation, get back into the car, walk away. At one point he and Carrie argue because she met a contact without him. She questions whether he trusts her and he says, it's about knowing that I don't have to trust you, because I could verify the information and report it up the chain.

5) They are fully committed

Saul understands the level of commitment the CIA requires. He loves his wife, but he understands when she leaves because he has no time for her. He values Carrie, but knows that when she's too ill to work she has to leave. The confrontation between Saul and Carrie that takes place in Season 2 is in fact about the fact that Saul has chosen CIA as a life, while Carrie doesn't want to end up "alone like him." Unfortunately, leadership can mean making that sacrifice and there is never a moment when Saul is not "all-in."

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Braveheart," A Leadership Guide

Remember this fighting scene from Braveheart? (via Oscarblogger)

Just Another Medieval War? NOT!

Just mention the word "Braveheart" and you'll probably hear "I love that movie!" Nearly 20 years after its original release in 1995, it remains an incredibly popular film with about $210 million worldwide gross, numerous awards including 5 Oscars, and a user popularity ranking of #83 out of 250 at

"Braveheart" endures because the plot and the acting have meaning far beyond the actual time, place and conflict. On the surface it's "just another" medieval war, but the broader appeal has to do with the movie's messages about leadership, motivation, resilience, treachery, integrity and of course love. It's the leadership lessons that hold particular interest for me.

Quick Recap

Mel Gibson plays Sir William Wallace, who leads a guerrilla war against England's invasion in 1280. Early in the movie the conflict gets brutal and personal after English soldiers try to rape his wife and then execute her for fighting back. 

The tragedy turns him into an incredibly fierce and determined warrior, and although he died before full freedom could be secured, one victory he co-led was the Battle of Stirling Ridge in 1297.

As bad as the Scots had it, the fact that they followed him into battle -- facing an almost-certain death -- demonstrates that Wallace was not just a fighter but also a leader. Normally it would have been a slaughterhouse considering that (by one account):
  • Cavalry: 1,000-3,000 English soldiers, 300 Scots
  • Infantry: 15,000-50,000 English soldiers, 10,000 Scots
Yet Scotland does win and at least temporarily, has regained its independence. Though the English subdue them for a time, and Wallace is bestially executed in 1305, the country breaks free for good in 1314.

The movie taught me 5 important things about leadership.

1) Be Loyal To Your People

Despite what we learn from the textbooks, it's instinctive for leaders in the real world to focus on managing up rather than around. Wallace sees himself as one with the people and rejects a "peace" deal from the English king that would have left him disempowered and them demoralized and leaderless.
Princess Isabelle: He declares it to me, I swear it. He proposes that you withdraw your attack. In return he grants you title, estates, and this chest of gold which I am to pay to you personally.
Wallace: A lordship and titles. Gold. That I should become Judas?
Princess Isabelle: Peace is made in such ways.
Wallace: Slaves are made in such ways. (IMDB)
2) Trust Behavior, Not Words

The true leader knows very well the difference between what people say and what they actually mean to do. So the conversation above continues, with Wallace telling the emissary of the king, Princess Isabella, that he isn't taken in by flattering talk but will go by actual behavior - i.e. the execution of previous Scottish nobles under the very same guise of "peace."
"The last time Longshanks spoke of peace I was a boy. And many Scottish nobles, who would not be slaves, were lured by him under a flag of truce to a barn, where he had them hanged. I was very young, but I remember Longshanks' notion of peace."
3) Sell The "Compelling Obvious"

Just before the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace could have made a lot of excuses for not communicating. For example:

  • "Now is not the time to talk but rather to sharpen our knives and swords,"
  • "Let's go over the battle strategy," or my favorite,
  • "They already know what the mission is."
But instead he rallies his soldiers with these famous words:
“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
There are actually two parts to this imperative.

  • One, a leader has a fundamental duty to tell people over and over again -- verbally, in writing, in body language, across every and any channel available -- what the mission is and why it is important. 
  • Two, the mission has to actually be compelling. It's hard to get any more relevant than this one: "Risk dying for freedom or live as slaves."
4) Wear The Warpaint

Wallace had a lot of things to cry about. But if he was going to win a war, or at least inspire people to ultimately win a war, he had to dress and act in ways that are symbolic of power and aggression. So instead of walking around with Kleenex he painted his face blue and white, got into gear, and rallied the troops.

Awhile back in 2008 the LA Times ran an article on then-candidate Barack Obama. It talked about his efforts to position himself as "ordinary" person despite his elite status. I remember thinking it was not such a good idea for himself to pursue a personal branding strategy of diminishment. Accessibility is fine, but the leader of the free world has to portray incredible power.

Credibility comes from substance but it also comes from image. When Wallace puts on the battle paint in "Braveheart" he sets a positive cycle in motion: demonstrating strength, causing others to see him as strong.

5) Embrace and Inspire The Naysayers

Often leaders shrink back from engaging with opponents when they should be doing precisely the opposite -- getting right in critics' faces, taking them down and then bringing them back again with inclusive, inspiring rhetoric.

This is exactly what Wallace does in the movie, responding directly to a soldier who gets scared and speaks up in front of the others -- he wants to go home. 
Young Soldier: Home! The English are too many!
William Wallace: ...Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM! - (
I always enjoy a great movie like "Braveheart," especially when it teaches me the kind of stuff you can't get from a book and will absolutely need in the real world.

* All opinions are my own.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Crowdsourcing For Results: Why & How

Over the years I've learned that "normal" management is slow and full of bureaucratic drag. Crowdsourcing works much better, for four reasons:

  • Urgency: It has to get done. It works better if the pressure is real rather than invented.
  • Meaning: The people doing the work are emotionally invested in the result.
  • Empowerment: Members can take the lead on getting results because there is no time for mystifying, depressing and even demeaning bureaucratic red tape.
  • Temporary Nature of the Work: Knowing the project is time-limited means you can push yourself through the adrenaline rush to get it done, and then relax when it's over.
Trevor Owens, of the Library of Congress, recently wrote a paper on four essential elements of crowdsourcing for cultural heritage institutions and presented it to us at the National Archives. Some parts of the below reflect my own translation of his framework, but the concepts are essentially from Owens' paper:

  • Participant Motivation: Some leaders yell "fire, fire" continually and think that creates a sense of urgency for their employees. Instead, it just burns out their adrenal glands. Owens points out that motivation comes from a sense of purpose that goes beyond money. Think about why the project matters on a higher level and communicate that.
  • The Desire to Be Consulted: People don't want to live as drones; they are living accumulations of experience and knowledge and they want to participate in life as thinking human beings whose opinions matter. Crowdsourcing projects give them an opportunity to do just that.
  • Human Computation: You want to isolate the things that people can do as versus machines - e.g. their cognitive ability to process and make meaning out of information. An example would be tagging data; a machine does not possess the ability that people have to look at words in a nuanced and contextual way.
  • Tools as Scaffolding: If you want people to accomplish an important knowledge goal together quickly, it is critical that they have a usable technology base to hold them up. Many applications are confusing, slow, and generally cumbersome to the user when they could be elegant and speed the process along. The simpler the better.

Of course, crowdsourcing has many applications beyond management in a knowledge organization. Essentially it is a means of rebuilding capacity in a time when resources are scarce. However, by integrating this method into existing institutional settings we can become more fluid in its use and hopefully go far beyond -- alleviating social and economic problems that often seem so big as to be unfixable.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rebranding Open Data: The "Verified" Feed

The Good Housekeeping seal of approval (no endorsement expressed or implied)

The dream is open data. The nightmare is that open data has little or no credibility. Consider this:
  • The stated goal of government is to release as much data as possible to the public: "Government should be transparent...participatory...collaborative." - President Barack Obama, "Transparency and Open Government," Executive MemorandumJanuary 21, 2009
  • The data is supposed to be maximally accessable and usable for the citizenry. - "Government information shall be ensure that data are released to the public in ways that make the data easy to find, accessible, and usable."- President Barack Obama, "Making Open and Machine Readable, the New Default for Government Information," Executive OrderMay 9, 2013
Yet the polls tell us that people overwhelmingly do not trust their government. "Our Jan. 2013 survey found only 26% saying they can trust government always or most of the time, while 73% say they can trust the government only some of the time or never." - Pew Research Center, July 23, 2013 (quote and screenshot)

In essence, government and its data has a credibility problem - a.k.a. a PR (public relations) crisis.

Any expert will tell you that in a PR crisis, trust is regained by doing a few fairly obvious things:
  • Admitting the problem;
  • Taking concrete steps to resolve it;
  • Bringing in a third-party expert to audit and review your actions.
In the case of government and open data, there are a few practicalities that get in the way of following classical PR advice:
  • We still have to get all releasable data sets released - e.g. it's early in the process;
  • Even if we had all available data, it's not yet available in one place such as;
  • It is impractical to send in outside auditors to every agency to call attention to data inconsistencies and errors.
Yet there is one thing we can do right now to both increase the efficiency of open data collection and increase the credibility of this data with the public. That is the concept of the "verified" feed, marked with some seal akin to the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

The basic idea is to release the dataset in the best shape one can, and then mark it as "Official Government Release" in such a way that it can always be traced to its official source as authentic (both externally and within the dataset code). Then, rather than spend government agency time and money building elaborate applications to display the data, make the feed available to the public in different venues - both on and on any website where interested stakeholders congregate. 

Ideally, at least on, the feed would be opened up in such a way that external reviewers could comment on it, similar to Wikipedia.


  • Situating "verified" government data in one place,
  • Creating an open space for comments, corrections and edits, and
  • Linking back to it from places where interested parties congregate, so that they see it and are motivated to respond,
...the government data feed is de facto repositioned as "just another source of data to be critiqued."

If we were to do this, it is likely that public engagement and trust in the data would be increased, while unnecessary expenses on useless displays of open data would be reduced significantly.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

You've Got To Have Skin In The Game

Photo by Ed Schipul via Flickr

Let's be honest, Rosh HaShanah service is pretty boring most of the time (Penelope Trunk made me laugh with her High Holidays social media tips). Yet shofar blowing always rocks.

The sound of the horn is literally supposed to be a wake-up call, and it is. "You screwed up," it says, "wake up before it's too late." And then we believe that G-d "closes the book" on Yom Kippur: "Who shall live and who shall die," the prayer says.

Serious stuff - but it isn't sad. The mistakes are painful to admit. But the screwing up matters. There is some master plan, we're all a part of it, and it's about being engaged and not giving up.

Where there is meaning, there is struggle but there is also peace.

This weekend, battling a horrendous cold that left me feeling goopy and brainless, I watched the entire Season 2 of HBO's show Girls"the most discussed show on TV." I had heard it wasn't so good this season, but the reverse was actually true: Lena Dunham is a genius, completely true to art. Her characters are so real it's actually painful to watch them.

At one point the main character Hannah is falling apart with anxiety over making a book deadline. But the worst part is, nobody cares enough to save her. She says:

"You know when you're young and you drop a glass and your dad says like 'Get out of the way' so you can be safe while he cleans it up? Well, now nobody really cares if I clean it up myself. Nobody really cares if I get cut with glass. If I break something, no one says 'Let me take care of that.' You know?"

So when the season ends with Hannah's ex-boyfriend Adam literally running through the streets to rescue her, it is completely sublime. Because having other people you love and care about gives meaning to one's life.

And work does, too. No it's not as important as family. But it has to be a battle for something that matters. If you're just going in to the office every day like a robot, serving up widgets and getting dollars in return, what meaning is there in that?

I don't want to ever end up like the people Malvina Reynolds wrote about in 1962. Do you?

"Little Boxes"

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

You have to fight for what's in your life. It's easy to take your family for granted too. I like what Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has said -- that when people come to him complaining about their marriage, generally all that matters is do you love your partner or not. It's that simple. Yet instead of struggling for a better relationship, it's too comfortable for people to go through the motions. They disengage, then say it isn't working. 

Religion is the same. According to one poll, more than half of Jewish people don't believe in G-d, but 16% go to services once per month (or more). I just don't like synagogue; I've learned to pray in my living room with devotion rather than to go and send out those negative vibes.

Why are people content to live their lives robotically, rather than engage with what's troubling them? Some would say they're stuck inside a clash of views that simply can't be reconciled. I don't think that's true. If you care, there is some passion that can be engaged and redirected some other and better way.

In fact, learning to live inside a stalemate is exactly the cancer inside so many relationships, businesses, religious institutions and political parties. When you withdraw into dysfunctional stasis, what are you left with? Exhibit A: Washington, DC.

It's hard to jeopardize what you have by getting into a conflict with others. Nobody wants to make a mistake and lose what they have. But a certain amount of risk and stress is healthy. It keeps the blood moving. We're alive!

Acting like a zombie may be the only thing that gets you through a bad day, a meaningless routine, or a relationship that's somehow gone moribund. But the only thing that matters in this life is to care or die trying. Whatever else you're doing to survive, take the time every single day to find your passion and fight for it.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Look For The Things That Make No Sense

Photo by Rickard Fallqvist via Flickr

Usually I write my blog posts pretty quickly. But today I've written and scrapped at least two. And I know why that is -- my focus has clearly changed, and it's hard to know what fits.

A friend of mine reminded me. That is to say, she reads my posts and it took her about five seconds to tell me what my "blog-brand" now is:

"How to survive this crazy @##$% government system."

Alright. I'll take that. What do you call a combination of leadership, management, project management, knowledge management, communication, marketing, branding, PR, social media, technology, organizational development, psychology, pop culture together with abstracted stories about my memories, friends, peers, bosses and general life?

All I really want to know is how to do things better. And I'd rather spend this writing time learning than sharing 101 stuff you can get from Branding for Dummies.

So here's a leadership/management lesson I learned by observing a team of experts in action:

"Look for the things that make no sense."

When I first met this group I confess I was a bit naive. I thought that going up the career ladder meant taking on progressively more responsibility for projects and programs with a defined scope. What I did not understand was that the higher you go, the more you will be creating, defining, and yes fighting for these.

There was more to learn. It became clear to me that seasoned executives have a trained eye. They are not only looking at the reality of a program or project, but always at how it appears to others and how others are trying to undermine or usurp its success.

It took me a little while but I learned the signs and signals. It was surprising to me that underminers would leave tracks out in the open like that, but they always did. And the symptoms would manifest as institutional realities or actions that were otherwise inexplicable. Such as:
  • Institutional divisions, roles or responsibilities that work differently on paper than in reality;
  • Ridiculously insufficient review times for documents on short turnaround before "silence constitutes assent";
  • Lack of resources directed at critical institutional needs;
  • Lack of meaningful discussion at meetings;
  • Key people being left out of meetings, emails, and so on.
And of course:
  • Numbers that didn't jive.
  • Contradictory statements or thin explanations.
  • Institutional or individual silence.
In the past, when I was confronted with inexplicable organizational realities, I tended to "notice then overlook" them. That is, I would realize that something was "off," but then try to "normalize" the environment mentally so that I would not portray any sense of discomfort.

These executives taught me to do just the opposite. They always looked for the things that made no sense, and made it a practice to drill down into them until they got the real story.

In government or anywhere, it's an incredibly important habit to develop. When you see something that strikes you as odd, notice it. Rather than walking away, walk into it, understand that it could be a problem for you one day, and talk to someone else about how to handle it upfront.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Dangerous Paradox of the Muddled Mission

Rubik's Cube via Wikimedia

What is it that you do, exactly? What's your mission, priority, reason for being?
  • "World-class goods and services."
  • "To become the premier provider of ___."
  • "We are #1, of course."
Who do you serve? Oh, "we give them what they want," you say:
  • "It's all about customer service for us." 
  • "To provide customer-focused goods and services." 
  • "Serving the customer in all that we do."
World-class, premier, second-to-none, throw it in the vision or the mission or the values and make up the mythical customer. At the end of the day there is only one question, and its corollary:

Who cares? And why does it matter to them enough to pay for it?

You need answers to the following:

  • Who, in a very specific way, cares about the work you are doing enough to fund it? Why?
  • If there are different audiences, which one contributes the most money or the most influence over that money?
  • If the audiences' interests compete with one another, how can you reconcile them?

So although all of the following are nice-to-haves, they are always only an indicator rather than a metric of success. I am always surprised when organizations tout "accomplishments" like:

  • Number of New Initiatives: This is mystifying...what happened to the old initiatives and what did the customers do with them? And even more frighteningly why would we tout the amount of money spent on these unless this was tied to a result?
  • Engagement measures: It's another one of those buzzwords...if I click on an online news item to read about the healing properties of spinach for 10 seconds, so what?
  • Operational measures: If you've been doing the wrong thing inefficiently for many years, you will probably get more efficient over time. Why ought there be kudos for that?
If you are running an organization, your #1 task is to find out the top 5-10 groups of people who care about the work that you do, find out why, and then serve them. 

Of course, this task is not as simple as it sounds because human beings tend not to agree on things, especially when they are situated in a large and complex organization with many different stakeholders. Who likely have a financial interest in things. 

These people will most likely vehemently clash over the mission, the strategy, the relative importance of the stakeholders, the way the organization is set up, the way forward, and on and on. And that disagreement will grow in volume the more engaged they are and become.

Consider the dangerous paradox of the muddled mission:
  • The higher the quantity and diversity of your stakeholders, the more muddled your mission is likely to become as their interests diverge.
  • The more muddled the mission becomes, the less possible it is to tell when progress has been made.
  • The less people can tell when progress has been made, the less engaged they are.
  • The less engaged people are in the mission, the more irrelevant it seems.
  • Eventually stakeholders abandon the mission, it is de-funded and left to dissolve.
In my experience, situations like this can be gotten through, albeit somewhat painfully, if you take the perspective of brand and untangle the knot as if it were a Rubik's cube.
  • Question #1: Who cares?
  • Question #2: Why do they care enough to support the organization today?
  • Question #3: Why did they care in the beginning?
  • Question #4: Who is providing the funding?
  • Question #5: What is the connection between the most passionate stakeholders and the ones holding the purse strings?
Getting back to basics, cleaning up and clearing out the chaos, and restoring the organization is not an impossible task. Normally the organization is in a complicated "knot" wound too tightly to simply pull apart. But a magical thing happens when you identify its most passionate supporters and then connect the inside and the outside: They solve its unique Rubik's cube-like puzzle together.

Cookie-cutter solutions to strategy rarely work: They really are like driving by looking in the rearview mirror or peering sideways at the car sitting next to you at the stoplight. However by connecting inside with outside, you can form a very clear picture of what the customer wants so much they are willing to fund it, and why. The strategy then becomes to use your limited resources to provide exactly that. 

Give the people what they want, give it to them simply and directly, make the significance of your giving clear, help them to access and use the product. That's what it means to carry out your mission. 

Don't let your mission get muddled.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

When Strategy Is Missing From The Technology Equation

Image via Wikimedia

Tech is supposed to make life easier but too often our strategy amounts to "Ready, Fire, Aim!"

The capacity to think and act strategically is not difficult. But many organizations lack it, because they allow things like:

1) organizational politics
2) conflict aversion
3) anecdotal evidence
4) a false sense of urgency
5) actual disaster

to drive long-term decision-making generally. 

You may not be able to see the result of poor strategy immediately when it comes to technology but eventually it will show up, with symptoms like this:

1) When you ask about the cost of a program the response is an aversion to providing a cost breakdown, but rather defensive or condescending talk and jargon.
2) Users dislike the technology and continually get told things like "you just need better training."
3) Technologies are acquired individually rather than in coordination with one another and the default is to add rather than integrate as many functionalities as possible into as few platforms as possible.
4) Public-facing technologies like social media are used but policies governing their use are nonexistent or ignored.
5) Generally the importance of policy is minimized and metrics are relegated to simple quantitative measures like views or clicks.

At the end of the day, strategy like a map: It is supposed to take us from Point A to Point B with as few stops as possible. If we're driving from New York to Chicago without one, we are bound to end up buying lots of gas and ending up in California.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Managers & Employees Should Not Be "Friends"

Photo by Dominic Campbell via Flickr

Work situations are often stressful. According to a study mentioned in the Huffington Post, the genders tend to handle stress differently:

  • Men - "fight or flight": It's a physical thing, according to research by Australian scientists Dr Joohyung Lee and Professor Vincent Harley. Only men have the SRY gene, which they link to various biological processes associated with aggression.
  • Women - "tend and befriend": The scientists argue that two factors "prevent aggressive responses" in women - the presence of estrogen and "the (stress-triggered) activation of internal opiates, which the body uses to control pain."

In other words, according to this theory, biology drives behavior. Stress is painful and depending on your body chemicals, you will respond differently in order to seek relief:

"While men favor punching or running away, women are more likely to try to diffuse a situation and seek out social support."

If we apply the theory to actual people, e.g. managers, and divide them by gender the following hypothesis results. Confronted with staff who continually cause them stress, men and women will tend to respond differently:

  • Men will view the situation as a form of war, will admit the conflict, and, if they think they can win, will compete openly with the individual toward an end where only one is left standing. If they think they can't win, they will withdraw.
  • Women will also view the situation as a form of war, but will try to win by competing covertly and denying the conflict. This means they may not allow themselves to recognize or admit the competition that exists. They also will likely try to reduce the stress of the interaction by winning the stress-inducing person over by trying to understand what drives them.

If this theory holds merit, it bears thinking about in today's workplace, where the paradigm of "friending as management" is becoming more commonplace and the traditional "chain of command" approach to management is going out of fashion. This is particularly true as more and more women join the leadership ranks.

Even as we try to encourage a more cooperative and engaging style of work -- simply because it works better -- we should be careful to avoid those "blurred lines" and observe the boundaries between people at different levels of power and responsibility in the organization.

While the working relationship should be collegial, when one person has more power than the other, the concept of "friendship" is inappropriate and unfair, and should not be imported into the work environment. 

* All opinions are my own.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Dark Side of "31 Flavors" Leadership

Screenshot via Replicator Inc., an interesting blog "about the companies and products that combine the connectivity of the internet with the physicality of products" - customized manufacturing, mass customization," etc.

When I was a kid I loved to go to Baskin-Robbins with my mom and try the new flavors. Invariably I always wanted peanut butter and chocolate or chocolate chip cookie dough, but it was all about the idea. Infinite choices, infinite freedom, infinite flavors, exploration -- give me that spoon!

Unfortunately with the constant inflow of newer-better-faster technologies, leaders tend to take the "out" of trying new flavors rather than solving old problems. One almost wants to say, "The task is to pass the SAT, not to find 15 apps that will help you study for it."

In the grownup world, attention-deficit-disorder-style management carried to the extreme lacks sensitivity to people. And yet, whoever you ask on the totem pole can recognize the following telltale signs and symptoms:
  • Flavor-of-the-moment initiatives and no follow-through 
  • Continuous change with no change management plan 
  • New policies and procedures that are ill-conceived and ill-communicated 
  • Decisions that seem arbitrary rather than reasoned 
  • The sense that things are "out of control" although one cannot pin the source down 
  • A chain of command, particularly middle managers, who seem as mystified as staff 
  • The sense that very few people hold most of the important information 
  • An emphasis on innovation, but a lack of dissent 
  • Failure to attend to the details of implementation 
  • Delays in decision-making over relatively simple matters
  • The sense that communicating basic common sense may be "offensive" 
Unfortunately, just like with losing weight or learning a new trade, there is no magic pill that will save you from the hard work of actually moving forward.

Hard work, performed consistently, in a way that is valuable for and to the people -- all of this is intuitive to true brand masters. Nike, Coca-Cola, Trader Joe's, Starbucks, Amazon, McDonald's and so on are all different companies, but share a credo of simplicity and stability. While it's true that they continually reinvent themselves to serve the market, they also remain remarkably recognizable and consistent, and they know and serve the customer first.

In the end, that's really the difference, isn't it: The leader is the one who sees the future and moves the organization toward it. The pretender is the one who sees only themselves, and rather than swimming to the shore, they flail -- dragging everyone else down with them in the process.

* All opinions my own.