Saturday, November 30, 2013

Chief Conversationalist: Why Federal Agencies Still Shy Away From Real Engagement

Moat & bank
It is better to be the river than the moat. Photo by Colin via Flickr.

Recently I read that people trust federal employees, but they don't trust the federal government as a whole. According to survey after survey, trust in this institution is at an "all time low."

From a common sense point of view, it's not really hard to know why. The public regularly depends on our huge infrastructure to function. But of course it doesn't always do that, or people disagree about...well just about everything.

But then agencies make a neutral-to-bad situation worse - by being notoriously closemouthed about responding to criticism.

(There are some exceptions, like the Transportation Safety Administration, probably because they have an unpleasant but necessary job involving so many customers every single day. This story about their partnership with a hotel chain to reduce tension at checkpoints is a must-read.)

It's not that they don't know what people are saying. They do, at least to some extent. But that fact alone does not solve everything:
  • Budget cuts have led to homemade news clips, which are dominated by traditional media, selectively chosen and don't tell you whether most coverage is positive or negative, or why.
  • Social media news clips are unsophisticated or there is a perception that social media is "not real" or populated by extremists, e.g. "crazy people."
  • Providing negative feedback can get you in trouble - I have actually had someone caution me, "Be careful that people don't think you are disloyal for sharing this stuff." (And I've also seen myself quoted on a public message board with the insinuation that I'm a government propagandist.)
  • Some tend to shrug off valid criticism as "just more or the same" or "ignorance."
All of this is really just denial that listening is important, and that what our stakeholders think of us matters, and that we cannot control it. The denial comes from defensiveness - fear.

Agencies tend to equate listening to criticism, acknowledging it, and talking about it as equivalent to admitting they have done something wrong. It seems like a strange phenomenon, especially when you consider that government leaders and ordinary employees are extraordinarily dedicated to and passionate about helping the public.

But unfortunately, the fear is based in reality, as feds are regularly bashed in public and confronted by a lot of red tape as well. Former Harvard University president Larry Summers has commented about the daunting nature of public service as a career (of course, this as a political's perspective):

"The fact that it takes so long to be confirmed by the Senate, the fact that you have to go through the financial equivalent of a colonoscopy to enter government . . . The fact that there are so many rules and restrictions and bits of hostility towards those who are in government."

Conversely, the public does not understand the nature of federal government communication.
  • For one thing, Agency officials and their representatives are very careful about what they say. They cannot talk "off the cuff." Words have weight, the weight of history and official record. And there are many consultations about the way that speech is made.
  • There is also coordination across agencies, and between civil servants and political appointees, to coordinate and keep Agency speech consistent.
All of this is why Open Government is so critically important to digital engagement, and communication. 
  • Simply releasing high-value data in a usable format bolsters trust and credibility in and of itself. 
  • On this front, my experience has been that (contrary to popular stereotypes) the "politicals" want agencies to move forward, get the data out there, share as much as possible, now.
  • It's not just words, but absolute credo among every person I've seen speak, or spoken with directly.
I'm not saying bad things never happen - scandals. Of course they do. But the reality I see is much more banal.

You know what people say to me, when they hear what I do?
  • "Tell your agency to make records management a more logical process." 
  • "Tell me how I can find these images you have in the catalog, that only have a description of a location, but no actual JPEG attached."
  • "I visited NARA one time, I was looking for information on my grandfather."
There it is...and what happened? Some is good, some is bad, and nobody is going to die. Engagement, feedback, interaction, and dialogue have to be a normal thing. Criticism doesn't bite. We have to get used to hearing it and dealing with it in a way that's productive.

Within the Agency, there is also a key distinction to be made between related activities, and a critical realization to be made.

  • Digital engagement is not communication in and of itself. It is the act of facilitating communication across online channels, broadening access to all interested parties.
  • You can judge the quality of digital engagement by the number of conversations, the substantive quality of those conversations, and how well they filter into the agency and back out to the public.
  • Failure to listen, engage and "conversate" creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Silence or awkward, stuttering responses create assumptions - incompetence or a great big conspiracy to control the world.
Any fear-based strategy doesn't work. 

With respect to engagement and communication, it only leads to this kind of thinking as a trigger-fire response: "Don't add fuel to the fire."

The downstream consequence is "outreach" and "digital engagement" that shies away from substantive issues and toward non-controversial education. Sophisticated technology - flashy social media tools, the latest and greatest mobile apps, multimedia presentations - become a substitute for the real conversation the public wants. A waste of time if it doesn't move the needle.

So actually, the best thing a government engagement specialist can do is to be a channel for what people are saying - both on the outside and on the inside.

This "chief conversationalist" (digital engagement lead or director) listens, connects, validates that the sentiments are real - thus bringing inflamed emotions down, and facilitating a rational dialogue. This person does not have to be a subject matter expert - in fact it is better if they are not - because the goal is to hear what other people are saying without personal bias as to whether it is relevant.

Great engagement yields improvement in the way agencies work, better-served citizens, and more efficient and effective government as a whole.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Top 10 Principles for Federal Digital Engagement, FY2014

Like Swiss cheese, real transparency is open and engaging (well, to most people). Photo via Flickr.

I'm the Director of Digital Engagement for a Federal Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration.

We're talking about how we evolve our social media plan into something bigger, broader, and more like what we have implemented on the ground. And then to give that thing more of a name.

Personally I tend to like the informal approach. Whatever you are doing, it's an animal that's moving in time. It's already got an energy. But every now and then it's good to give things a name, a structure, to articulate the method.

Let's start with what I absolutely abhor:

1. We do not, cannot, and should never be doing propaganda, because we're not Coca-Cola and we're not allowed to do it. It is not about pushing a story that makes us look good.

2. We should not be wasting taxpayer money on pointless babble. Even if we aren't killing a tree, it is a misappropriation of taxpayer dollars.

So what is digital engagement then? What are the factors that make an approach "great"? Here are my top 10:

1. It clearly promotes the mission. At NARA, providing access to the holdings of the Agency is a primary part of our job. Not only do we do so through the Web and social media, we also actively seek out opportunities to have the public add to our holdings and partner with us, through such tools as the Citizen Archivist Dashboard and having an in-house expert help us contribute to Wikipedia (transparently, of course).

2. It saves the Agency money. We favor lower-cost, higher-impact tools that get our holdings before the public (and employees) in places they tend to congregate. We start at the pilot level, keep what works and discard what doesn't. We welcome opportunities to work with partners who can share and display content, as well as opportunities to talk with people who may be writing stories that have a historical aspect to them.

3. It provides a window into Agency operations.  The public has a right to know what we're doing. Great engagement facilitates the flow of information about the agency from within, to without. This can take the form of sharing open data sets, providing narrative that contextualizes Agency decisions, or both.

4. It gets people looking, sharing and talking, online and off. We start meaningful conversations, and join them as the real human beings that we are - not as phony abstractions. And we make information available in the Town Square - in places where people are congregating - so that they talk about it on their own time. Nothing is ever forced.

5. Its goals are method-agnostic. We are not enamored with this tool or that. We don't care if engagement happens using this social media tool or that. We're happy to cross-pollinate with TV, newspapers, radio, or any medium.

6. It bridges the internal and the external. We promote conversations within the Agency itself, and between the Agency and the outside world. We believe that the more conversation takes place, the smarter we become and the more effective at doing our jobs.

7. It broadens the roster of speakers to include everyone. Our approach is decentralized. We don't designate one or two people and restrict the tools to them. We make clear when we're speaking as part of the Agency, and when we're sharing our own opinions. The goal is to get information out there, to make sure that those who would benefit from it have it.

8. It is feedback-hungry. Of course not everything can be shared. But we don't shy away from discussion, debate, complexity and even controversy. Rather, we constructively support a wide-ranging conversation that respects appropriate bounds of confidentiality.

9. It is predicated on supporting creativity and innovation by all. Nobody knows what the next big tool will be, or how it will impact our efforts. We support our employees in trying new things, we congratulate noble failures instead of bashing them, and we partner openly to get the best result possible.

10. It evolves from close collaboration with Agency counsel.  Digital engagement requires careful and close examination of communication methodology, especially in the early stand-up phase. We engage counsel early and collaboratively so that we are working in a framework that complies with law, regulation and guidance.

What else should a federal digital engagement strategy include? What are your thoughts on this? Looking forward to reading your comments.

* All opinions my own, at least until we publish some form of this as official :-)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Focus: It Is Always A Problem Of Leadership

Sherlock Holmes has focus.

“What are we trying to achieve here?”

It’s such a simple question. But for a messed-up organization, the answer is impossible. They’re divided against each other on the inside, fighting to look good on the outside, and afraid to stand behind a priority that isn’t the flavor of the day.

So you listen to their words, and try to make sense of stuff like this:
  • Idealism versus profit: “We want to change the world, and hopefully earn a living at the same time.”
  • Pie-in-the-sky revenue models: “Our concept is unlike any other. We’ve got to spread the word. Our brand will do the talking for us, and eventually we’ll sell this thing for billions.” 
  • All-over-the-place goals: “It’s all about investing in the next big thing, but we can’t forget efficiency and customer service.”
If you can’t understand what a government agency, business, hospital, school, religious organization, etc., is doing, it is always a leadership problem.

Most leaders would say they agree with you - but that it's other leaders' fault. (It may be helpful to know that there is a preponderance of narcissistic personality disorder among executives.) 

Though criticism is rare, and gets rarer the higher you go, they tend to react to negative feedback angrily, defensively and with “proof” that the accuser is wrong:

“It’s not my fault. I set clear priorities in my speech the other week. I wrote a blog post about this too. Plus we have a written strategy. And I tell people what I want. I even promote those who share and can implement the agenda.”

But the leader’s job is not only to talk, dictate, act. That’s activity, not result.

The leader's job is to focus, and to focus on the right thing rather than the popular one. All people like unlimited options – there’s always another trend – and leaders do not want to be wrong. So they try to do everything, or at least all the things they need to do to “not get into trouble.”

But they are in trouble. Because the customer (public) does not value a discombobulated brand. Who are you? They want to know. Very simply – what do you offer?

Employees are the same. They want to know who they’re working for, but too often they don't really know. Not only are the articulated priorities confusing, there is normally a yawning gap between rhetoric and reality.

Leaders should understand this about the people they employ: 
  • They get hired without knowing the full picture, and it takes years of familiarity to really figure that out. Often they leave the organization in disappointment, before they have a chance to find out at least what the partial picture is.
  • They rise up the ranks watching leaders go in and out. Priorities come, priorities go. What mattered yesterday or last year, suddenly doesn’t count. This has a dulling effect on the senses, especially for people who are deeply committed to and invested in a single organization or very focused field of work. 
  • They see technology changing pretty rapidly, so that skills valued only 2-3 years ago are becoming automated and obsolete. After awhile, they may stop trying to adapt - it seems impossible.
Leaders can turn the ship around. These kinds of actions make a concrete difference:
  • Use executive communication better - talk about the problems that the organization faces, the adaptive choices, and why we’re going this way instead of that. (Preferably, engage employees in formulating the strategy.) Along the way, accept criticism, even welcome it  - and be willing to change course in terms of strategy, as long as the end goal is achieved.
  • Portray a narrative that offers continuity from one leader to the next – how does each represent a chapter in history? Employees and external stakeholders want to understand how the organization’s activities are really “one.” It is helpful to acknowledge the temporary nature of leadership, and how one’s activities really are about a stewardship model rather than a monarchy. 
  • Once a strategic direction is chosen, stick with it over the long haul. Engage employees in making it work, and working through the problems that get in the way. Eliminate from the organization or sideline those who undermine its direction, or its executive team. (This includes other executives.) “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
  • In a changing environment, eliminate unnecessary work and praising successful efforts to adapt - often. In a constantly shifting environment, priorities must often be changed on the fly. It’s important to remove work as often as one adds it, to avoid overloading people with a confusing pile of assignments they can’t prioritize.
  • Promote “boundary-less” collaboration - and make an example of infighters. Limited resources do not permit an organization to puff up unnecessary stovepipes. Energy must be pooled for a common cause. People who can't get along with each other are toxic to organizational culture.
  • Training, training, training - rinse and repeat. You can have a great workforce, but without the necessary skills their value decreases. Training is not expensive - make it happen on work time. Make it happen through on the job training. This includes not only technical skills but also critical thinking, project management, customer service, and more. Training is the prerequisite for adapting to the future.
Tried-and-true tactics are still useful. Be a dictator when you have to be (sorry, but it's true). Deploy the right people to the right mission. Focus on achievable, low-hanging fruit first. Engage the staff in spreading the word for you - make them your voluntary brand ambassadors.
There are so many things a leader can do. But they’re only means to a goal, which is to accurately identify the priority that is most important, shift most resources to that, and eliminate everything that does not contribute.

This activity is in its essence the distillation of the brand. It is what you promise to do extraordinarily well, better than your competition, enough to fund you more than a generic with no reputation.

Great brands have focus. They deliver both a superior product or service, and a great emotional experience.

It follows, then, that leadership is really about brand-building.

This is true externally – selling TVs, providing government services, giving patients chemotherapy, teaching high schoolers history.

It is also, and more fundamentally, a must-have internally. 

Leadership at its core is recruiting and retaining employees to achieve focused, tangible results that the customer will appreciate.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Collaboration, Or Have You Been Played?

Hook, Line, Sinker (How I fell for a phishing scam) 

"I am not your Governor." That great line from The Walking Dead rang in my ears as I watched the latest episode, where the bad guy pretends to be reformed and then shows his true colors. 

As a leader, this character takes it right out of the nastiest playbook around. His method of "teaming up" consists of murdering his enemies, then flattering and then intimidating a set of minions into doing what he wants. 

A true Machiavellian.

In contrast, on this fictional survival show that has a very realistic vibe, good guy leader "Rick" doesn't like doing mean things. He will kill if he has to, but Rick established his leadership position by empowering people and working as a team. 

Here's another example, because this plot line is a staple.

Remember Melrose Place? That quintessential '90s show gave us Heather Locklear in rare form as the scheming ad agency exec "Amanda" - a lying, scheming, manipulative but well-dressed ad exec who always got her way.

Meanwhile, arch-rival "Alison," who represented goodness, could only stand around and watch.

In the movies and in real life, there are people who pretend to collaborate with you, but their idea of teaming up is sociopathic. 

Their mindset is: "I win-you lose."

You can tell when you're around these types, because you feel really bad afterward. It's almost as if you've been poisoned.

And the worst part of it is, you can't get away from helping them, right?

After all, we're in a service economy.

Your job ultimately depends on how well you provide information, move the project forward, and generally add value to achieve a desired result.

So how do you deal with the schemers of this world? How do you prevent them from using you, and walking away with all the credit?

Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Practice "preventive networking." Build relationships with people in advance, so that they know who really has the expertise.

2. Trust your instincts. While it's noble to believe that people are really good at heart, remember that not everyone is as enlightened as you. Don't be afraid to discuss your concerns with a trusted colleague if someone appears to be milking you for information. (Personally I have found that most people want to collaborate in a genuine way, as long as their part is acknowledged. But the bad apples are very bad, and silently poisonous.)

3. Check your self-esteem. Some people have issues around the concept of being self-promotional, and they think that taking credit for good work means that they are "bad." Not at all. It's a simple factual statement - here's what I do, here's how it helps, how can I help you?

4. Know when to let it go. There are many times when the success of a project depends on dispersion of credit, or assignment to someone other than the person who had the original idea. This is just the way of the world. If you focus on results and support the team, people will actually appreciate you more because the truth tends to become apparent despite attempts to distort or mischaracterize it.

5. Keep a record. It is really as simple as sending yourself an email, saving documents you've worked on, notes you've scribbled, presentations you've made. If you were part of a team, being in on the meetings counts a lot! Write down what you did, what you said, how it mattered. The truth is that you are judged on the quality of the projects you've executed, so these notes can help you with your resume down the road. 

At the end of the day collaboration is important. But it only works well when everybody comes to the table in good faith. 

Otherwise, sure, you can get a project done. In the short-term. 

In the long-term, people just don't want to get baited again. And that bad, rusty taste lingers in the mouth, of when you bit the bait and go taken, hook line and sinker.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Open Government, Branding & The Fishbowl


In today's "open," social media-dominated times, private sector branding and government branding are completely different animals.

  • Private sector branding is about making money through the construction of an image that adds a premium to the real value of the product. Given the raging demand for authenticity, the strategy is to establish an illusion of transparency while maintaining strict control over what appears on the outside.
  • Public sector, i.e. government branding is about actually getting the public involved in what the government is doing, for a lot of reasons. Compliance reduces enforcement expenditure. Partnerships reduce costs, increase efficiency and allow subject matter experts to focus on what they do best. (This is not to mention that the government is not supposed to be an entity distinct from the people but rather one and the same, accountable to them.) The communication imperative therefore is to drive actual transparency, not the illusion of same. The actual water, the real fish and no fishbowl, although from a certain perspective it looks the same.

I'm going to talk about this and more in "Digital Disruption In Government," an upcoming panel discussion in DC on open government, its challenges and its future. Here is the roster of speakers, moderator and at the background of the event organizer.

Here is a bit of a drilldown into my portion of the talk (you can see all the key takeaways here). Note that in one of those weird-isms that is modern social media life, I'll be talking about personal opinions, but will also mention things that we're doing at the National Archives, and the philosophy of open government and social media through which I operate.
  • Life in the trenches of government over the past decade - riding the wave of branding, social media, and now open government
  • The uniquely decentralized and collaborative approach that the National Archives is taking to open government and social media, which we call "unconventional engagement," and its impact on day-to-day outreach activities
  • How cultural differences have a huge impact on the day-to-day perception and implementation of open government within the agency
  • The neglected critical factor in open government adoption - middle management
  • Jockeying for power and how it helps and hurts the open government cause
  • The difference between good and bad failure, and the conversations around them
  • The "neglected stepchild" of corporate communications, internal communication, and how it absolutely drives open government
If you have the time and won't flake out at the last minute, join us on December 10. Registration is complementary, but there are only a few seats left.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Couples Therapy

Fighting Kangaroos

Old Gov and New Gov finally went to see a therapist. It was that, or part ways after so many years.

The two of them started out happy, but New Gov had recently received her "15 Years of Service" pin.

Though she had only a dozen or so years left until retirement, New Gov's midlife crisis was getting worse and worse.

Old Gov would not have gone to therapy at all. But he could not ignore the numbers. And this year's Best Places To Work rankings were the pits.

At first he had tried to blame their problems on money - specifically, the lack of it. The pay freeze. Shutdown. Sequestration. Furlough. Continuing resolution. 

Call it what you want, it all spells "less food on the table."

But there was also the morale factor to consider. After so many years, Old Gov didn't care what people said anymore. But New Gov wanted to be listened to, and appreciated. She had so many years ahead of her.

Frankly, Old Gov was scared that New Gov would jump ship to the private sector.

So there they were, at the therapist's office, on a bright sunny day at noon.

"Come in," the doctor said. "It's cold out there."

Old Gov took a seat. "Tell me about it. That bright sun sure can fool you."

The doctor pulled up a chair. "So what brings you here today?"

New Gov had been looking at the diplomas on the wall. Now she sat down abruptly. The words came bursting out of her mouth like bullets from a machine gun.

"He will never, ever change," she said. "I have to do the same work, the same way, on broken equipment, day in and day out."

Old Gov did not expect to be attacked right off the bat like this.

"And you never stop changing," he said. "This is the government, not Silicon Valley. You've got to settle down."

She grimaced. "Why is it that I can do my grocery shopping on my iPhone and have it delivered, but I can't update a customer record without going through three separate screens on an old-fashioned desktop?"

"Ha! That one is just funny!"

"What do you mean? Are you making fun of me?" Her face flushed. "This was clearly a mistake."

The doctor held up a hand. "Hold on, hold on."

Old Gov turned to face her, conciliatory. "I know we have to catch up. But you have to have some patience."

When she spoke next, New Gov was calm but resolute. "I've had nothing but patience. But you are afraid to try anything."

The doctor looked at both of them. "What can I do to help you here?"

New Gov folded her arms. "I don't know. I want to retire from the Agency, but frankly I have had enough. More work, worse equipment, less security, and I'm constantly getting dumped on by people and their stereotypes about Feds."

"I think Old Gov hears you," said the doctor. "That's why we're here. Why don't we begin?"

Old Gov and New Gov looked at each other. 

"I do like my work," she said. "I like that feeling of really helping people, and not just chasing the quick buck. I also like my friends."

"You do have a lot of good ideas," he offered. "And your suggestions may actually save us some money. Maybe I've been too afraid to change. Me and my big fat ego, only getting in the way."

The doctor looked at the clock. Time had almost run out, but the patients' work was nearly done.

"All you had to do was show up here," he said. "I didn't really do anything today, other than give you some office space."

New Gov stood up first, cautiously smiling. "Thank you, doctor."

"Yes, thank you," echoed Old Gov.

They walked back to the office together.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I'm With Stupid


The following conversation never occurred, but it could have.

There we were at the conference table. Yet another meeting. Close to sundown, as the days are growing short.

"I have to tell you something," I said.


"I don't think I'm as smart as I need to be. And it bothers me."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I mean, I can't keep up. Harvard, MIT, interns who know five languages and produce videos on their iPhones. Coders for America."

She looked at me as if to say, I can't believe you're saying this. And then she started laughing.

But I felt like Norma Rae. I had to speak out.

"What the hell is all this new technology, anyway? Every minute a new thing to learn."

A surge of blood flew up my face. My fists clenched instinctively. I would stand up against the constant invasion of new, new, new!

"Snapchatter, Github, APIs. What the hell is an API?"

Up, up, up and away.

"First they said Drupal 6, then it was Drupal 7, and now it's Drupal 8 - beta."

"Totally, totally," she said reassuringly, eyeing the door. A full scale rant.

"And to make matters worse, my teenager codes mobile apps in her sleep."

She stood up, ending the meeting. "Don't worry about it, my dear."

"Why? Why shouldn't I worry about it, tell me?"

She looked through the shutters and into the waning light.

"We're all in the same boat. You'll feel better tomorrow."

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Beautiful Ugly


My mother is absolutely beautiful. But if you asked her, she would tell you she is ugly.

I love my mother more because she is who she is. People who lie, whose faces are a mask of plastic surgery, are repulsive no matter how beautiful they are.

Falsehood makes us run. On television, Mad Men is a mad hit, but "the sexism, in particular, is almost suffocating, and not in the least fun to watch," Gregory Rodriguez writes in the L.A. Times.

It's the hidden side of the characters -- the dark and painful and yes, ugly -- that is most compelling.

Miley Cyrus is a tasteless train wreck, showy and exhibitionistic. Is that why people listen to her music? Or is it that we hear in her voice our own broken hearts? "Wrecking Ball" makes me tear up every time. It got a record 19.3 million views within 24 hours of its appearance on the Vevo video music channel.

A lifetime of drug-fueled partying is ugly, too, when you look at it up close. Charlie Sheen has never pretended to be anything other than this immature frat boy. And in "Two And A Half Men," he made a hit out of looking at the audience and making fun of himself.

Jerry Seinfeld made it big with the same formula in Seinfeld. He was the guy who couldn't commit to a girl, the comedian-baby who ran around the city and semi-succeeded at making a family out of Elaine, Kramer and George. He hasn't had a hit since, because the real Seinfeld grew up and got married and had a few kids.

The list goes on and on. Popular motivational speakers Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey and Iyanla Vanzant have all talked publicly about their personal struggles with having been abused. Their personal ugliness turns into something beautiful when they give it as a gift to others, to help them through the kind of unbearable personal pain that few can ever think of sharing.

Along the same lines, we see popular art made out of popping a great big hole in fake images of perfection. Take the art of Dina Goldstein, which shows "What Disney Princesses' Happily-Ever-Afters Really Looked Like." Or the mashed-up photographs-with-captions by Anne Taintor, which show what those 1950s "domestic goddesses" were really thinking.

When modern image-makers stumble and fall, it's usually for one of three reasons.

* They lack sufficient self-awareness and/or cultural awareness to calibrate to their surroundings.
* They miss the mark consistently, and either over- or under-share.
* They present themselves one way, then change course and act like they are somebody else.

The best "personal brands" celebrate who they really are: Adele and Melissa McCarthy and Cory Booker. They don't pretend to be something they're not. They don't even answer all your questions. They have the kind of confidence you can't buy in a salon.

People want to be around other relatable human beings. The things you're worried about are 99% irrelevant to them.

The number one rule, if you want to follow one, is this: Don't be a phony, arrogant jerk.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Innovation Is Supposed To Feel Bad, Not Good

Skiing Day 2

When you work for an innovative person, it is actually like living underneath skis.

There they are, flying high, doing all sorts of exciting stunts. And you are looking up from underneath.

You know they're going to land, right? And when that happens, boy will it make a big mess.

If you are snow, you can only look forward to losing your clean, white, smooth surface. That calm you worked so hard to achieve...ruined.

Some days the innovator walks on the snow instead of skis. And it's actually worse.

But the practicalities of navigating a slope cannot be avoided. You can't fly all the time.

So they're slogging around, and your beautiful snow is even more dredged up. Destroyed.

But what if you, yourself are the innovator? Is it any better then?

Not really.

Because all the while you are soaring here is what you have to think about:

* This feels

* Is there going to be enough snow to catch me when I land? Did someone take care of that?

* If this one works out, what is going to be my next big trick?

For all of these reasons, being an innovator feels bad, not good.

The truth is, we have to innovate all the time. If we fail, our competitors will come up and take our places. We may not feel that happening right away, but it does nevertheless.

So people should know that innovation is not only necessary, but painful.

Pain is easier when you know what to expect.

For example, those new-fangled workplaces -- they won't necessarily feel good.

Those open-air cube farms we built - people hate those!

But they may perform better at home, telecommuting part or all of the time and losing the permanent desk altogether.

Things are always changing. Some people get that. So they wake up, they learn, they adapt.

Change is life.

Other people stamp their feet and struggle.

I am not of the belief that we should spend all of our time apologizing for the pain of innovation. Or any of it, really. It's a fact.

I do think we should work harder at telling people what they should expect along the way from Point A, to Point B, to infinity and beyond.

They need to know that the future is uncertain - that expectations are higher than ever - that resources are short and the full gamut of their skills will be called on in ways they could never have anticipated.

Innovation feels bad, because the future is not secure.

But then again, isn't that the fun of it as well?

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Quantum Physics & Guardian Angels

Stuffed Animal Sleepover 2012 (32)
Photo by Allen County Public Library via Flickr

This week the U.K. Daily Mail published an article about Professor Robert Lanza's theory that death is an illusion created in our own minds. Lanza's theory, "biocentrism," uses quantum physics to make his case.

I'm no quantum physicist, but I have always believed there's a "before" and an "after."

It takes different things to convince people of what I see as an obvious fact.

In Many Lives, Many Masters, psychiatrist and initial skeptic Brian Weiss talks about his experience with a patient whose regression into past lives provided the scientific evidence he needed to believe.

The patient was cured and Weiss was motivated to write down what he saw in a book, observing, "If faith is not enough, perhaps science will help." 

I have personally observed on many occasions that new friends seem like people I already know very well. There is no way that I could know this, and they tell me the same thing.

A woman told me about the loss of her son. The pain was so palpable. It tore her face in two.

I said to her, "I know this is going to sound strange. But I can feel an energy around you. It is almost like he is with you." 

It was difficult to say that for a lot of reasons, but I didn't expect her reply. 

"It's not just him," she said. "I have my grandfather, my father, and half my family around me."

And then her sadness broke, and her face broke into a soft grin.

The next time you are sitting in your cubicle, and the stress is overwhelming you, consider this.

Reality may not be exactly what it seems.

You may not be as alone as you think.

And somehow, somewhere, someone is watching out for you.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

It Is Better To Be Interesting Than Likable

Peggy Olson is interesting. Are you ready for Mad Men, Season 6?

We were put on this planet to evolve. Not just from physical infancy to maturity. But also in our heads and hearts. We are supposed to nurture our talents. Grow out of ignorance, hatred, selfishness. Become who we are really supposed to be.

None of this can happen if we are living for a Facebook "like."

You see this in kids all the time, especially girls. They are so busy with the hair and makeup. Where are they? 

You see this in leaders too. They have something really good to say. But they are consumed with what people say about them. If they aren't popular, they get scared and become all mealymouthed.

I often think this about President Obama. I remember the 2008 campaign. And there are flashes of that candidate now on TV. But most of the time he seems "handled." And when a leader tries to be likable rather than do things that command respect, they wind up with low approval ratings - signifying neither.

This is the contrast between Don Draper and Peggy Olson on Mad Men. Don is a hypocrite whose entire life focuses on making other people like him, like his ideas, and like the products he sells. He's a phony whose wife tells him flat-out, "I don't love you." And in his most personal moments, he shows us the deep despair that can only come from someone who has fully sold out to the "like" machine.

Peggy is different. She doesn't care what people think. She doesn't care if they like her or not. She only cares about one thing - and that is doing great advertising. There's a scene where she faces off with Roger, another partner in the firm, who tries to give her a measly fee for a huge and impossible weekend assignment.

Rather than being "grateful" and seeking approval, Peggy stares him straight down. Demands to be paid every dollar she is worth. And jokes that he's lucky she did not take his watch as well.

Peggy is the most interesting character on the show. Next to her, Don Draper does not stand a chance.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Most Important Marketing Lesson We Can Learn From Obamacare: Just Make It Work

Needle In A Haystack

At every staff meeting the executives agonize about how to say things.

"Should we 'message' it this way or that way?"

"We don't want to sound too negative, but we also want to be credible."

"What's the big idea? They will want to know the vision."

But most of the time, unless you're giving an annual address - through which I might add the vast majority of people sleep, having listened to meaningless promises before - the people just want to know one thing.

Why doesn't the goshdarn thing work?

In politics ideology quickly falls away when a party demonstrates its effectiveness at getting things done. People run to politicians who can execute!

This was the lesson of Obamacare. The mission to provide healthcare for all is noble. But the actual website is a fail, the law is incomprehensible, and the business implementation is a nightmare as insurance companies and citizens alike scramble madly to figure out what to do with this thing.

It is great to have great ideas - just like it's super to build a brand concept that really resonates with people.

But at the end of the day if the cloth on the shirt rips, or the zipper doesn't pull right, the brand goes into the toilet.

That is one reason I have always loved Ralph Lauren clothing.

As opposed to any other brand I have tried, Ralph Lauren is both beautiful and stylish and durable and well-made. It always works well.

When you are talking to employees about your bold new initiatives, I can tell you that they are sleeping.

If you want to wake them up, talk to them about things like this:

"When's the next raise coming?"

"How are you fixing that glitch in the new computer system?"

"There isn't enough parking here."

The business genius Peter Drucker said, "Business exists to serve the customer" and in the real world what that means is not just a delightful attitude on the phone.

It means figuring out what it is that you are doing that is driving your customers nuts - and then fixing that.

Not rocket science, very simple, very basic and common sense.

Take care of the technicalities, and the big ideas will take care of themselves.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering The People We Tend To Forget

In every war movie there is a death scene. A character has their head blown off, a second is traumatized to see it and wants to stay with them. A third person inevitably grabs the second and says, "Let's go! Don't look at them! We've got to leave!"

There is something about death, like depression, that sucks you in and grabs hold of you. Like a zombie on 'The Walking Dead,' it bites you and turns you into one of them. Last night, the leader gives his son a massive gun and tells him: Kill, run, or die.

When Sodom is destroyed in the Bible Lot's wife is told the same thing. G-d will save you but you have to run straightforwardly - do not turn around. She doesn't listen, turns back to look, and is immediately struck dead, "a pillar of salt."

The tendency to run from people in trouble is not only selfish. It is a primitive act of survival. We do not want to be one of them.
  • We do not want to know about the Philippines typhoon - because if we think about it, the waves could wash over our homes. 
  • We do not want to look at the homeless guy with a "Feed Me" sign standing at the intersection, because we might find our paychecks similarly taken away. 
  • We see images of veterans with metal arms or legs, distorted faces, and we cringe inside. They stood between us and an enemy, and if not for them that bullet would most assuredly have hit us and left us disabled or paralyzed.
There is a larger social impulse that recognizes our primitive fears and selfish tendencies, and corrects for them in a very minor way with days of remembrance.
  • Today, November 11, is Veteran's Day, when we come together to thank the people who give their lives and sacrifice their safety every day so that we can be safe.
  • On Friday, November 9, we also commemorated Kristallnacht, the night 75 years ago when Nazis went on a horrific attacking spree against the Jews in Germany, killing, burning, destroying, and generally terrorizing the people on a night that is remembered as the start of the Holocaust.
  • On Friday, November 22, we remember the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a leader who inspired an entire generation of people, their children and their children's children to believe it was actually possible to do what is right and not just what is convenient, expedient or safe.
It is understandable that people want to run from other people's misfortune. It makes us afraid of our own coming day of reckoning. And dwelling on death and destruction is not only dangerous - it can actually be toxic to ourselves and those we love by spreading misery further and further.

But all of that is also an excuse. We owe veterans and others who have sacrificed for us a true debt that involves real action. Thanking them, even superficially, is a good start. Supporting them financially and emotionally is better.

A society is judged by how it cares for those who have nothing in them to give back.  But it is judged even more harshly by how it cares for those who gave everything so that we could survive ourselves.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

People Become What We Label Them

As an 80s kid I watched all the popular John Hughes movies. 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off,' 'Pretty In Pink,' 'The Breakfast Club,' 'Sixteen Candles,' and so on.

Every one of those movies had a hero who was also a troublemaker.

  • 'Ferris Bueller' - Matthew Broderick, who played Ferris, skipped school, stole his friend's father's car, and broke not a few other rules of convention for a day of fun. Yet he continually received positive feedback from the crowd. It seemed no matter what he did, or because he did what he did, Ferris was a star.
  • 'The Breakfast Club' - Judd Nelson, who played Bender the juvenile delinquent, also broke the law and the rules. His actions frequently made sense, including self-defense against the sadistic principal. Yet because he was in the category of "bad," there was no good that he could do, and every action pushed him further down the rabbit hole.

Here is one scene between Bender and Vernon (the principal) that captures this dynamic.
Vernon: You're not fooling anyone, Bender. The next screw that falls out will be you.
Bender: Eat my shorts.
Vernon: What was that?
Bender: Eat... My... Shorts.
Vernon: You just bought yourself another Saturday.
Bender: Ooh, I'm crushed.
Vernon: You just bought one more.
Bender: Well I'm free the Saturday after that. Beyond that, I'm going to have to check my calendar.
Vernon: Good, cause it's going to be filled. We'll keep going. You want another one? Just say the word say it. Instead of going to prison you'll come here. Are you through?
Bender: No.
Vernon: I'm doing society a favor.
Bender: So?
Vernon: That's another one right now! I've got you for the rest of your natural born life if you don't watch your step. You want another one?
Bender: Yes.
Vernon: You got it! You got another one right there! That's another one pal!
Claire: Cut it out!
Vernon: You through?
Bender: Not - even - close, bud.
Even as I read the dialogue I remember the pain of watching it. Bender was not a "bad guy," but he had been labeled, and that was his end. He was poor, and he was abused, and he had been targeted by the System. We knew how this was going to end up.

Hughes cast Ringwald as Andie, a kind of troublemaker-on-the-fence, in another film, 'Pretty In Pink." Her character was a poor teenager, literally from the wrong side of the tracks, who aspired to go to college and have the kind of storybook life it seemed the rich kids did.

Andie is unlike Ferris and Bender in a number of ways, and thus her community does not know exactly what to do with her.

  • She is a gender troublemaker, that is she is ambitious for a career and is not content to be someone's girlfriend. 
  • Her friends revile the values of the rich kids, and yet she aspires to leave poverty behind and in that sense become one of them. 
  • She violates the unspoken rule of a rich community. Which is that the people who have money get to send their kids to the good public schools, while the less fortunate do not have that privilege.

In fact the central conflict of the movie is that Andie does not label herself as others label her. Therefore her actions and attitude are inexplicable to them; her relationship with a young man is suspect and proves nearly impossible to sustain. Another bit of dialogue:
Andie: You're ashamed to be seen with me.
Blane: No, I am not!
Andie: You're ashamed to go out with me. You're terrified that you're goddamn rich friends won't approve.
[Andie hits Blane]
Andie: Just say it!
[Andie hits him again]
Andie: Just tell me the truth!
Blane: You don't understand that it has nothing at all do with you.
[Andie runs away]
Blane: [wipes a tear] Andie!
Andie is playing out a part that only she can see in her future. And until she stops being seen as a "troublemaker" and starts being seen in that new role, e.g. a career and financial success, she will not be identified as part of the group she seeks to join.

Labeling theory has a grand tradition in sociology but you do not have to be an academic to see that it is true. People become what we tell them they are. They live up or down to expectations.

What this means is:

  • If you treat other people like they are premium human beings, they will act that way.
  • And the reverse, if you see in them only evil, they will be only too happy to live down to those expectations. It is much, much easier to give up than to try.

Whether you believe in G-d or not, the point is this:  "You are a child of the most high G-d." You have the power to label yourself any way you want. And then live your life accordingly.

The power to own your own identity is the spiritual side of personal branding.

Don't let other people tell you who you are. Decide who you want to be. Take steps to make it real. Then you, in your words and deeds, will be the one to tell them who you are. Your brand.

And then they will treat you accordingly.

* All opinions my own.