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5 Social Tools In The War On Groupthink

The #1 problem we face today is not physical, i.e. that we cannot live together on this planet. It is social-psychological, i.e. that we cannot get groupthink, "mob justice," the "herd mentality," out of our heads.

Groupthink has always been with us. The modern-day version is branding. It started out as a decision-making technique: The simpler you think, the easier it is for me to sell you my version of soap flakes...breakfast cereal...motorcycle.

But branding has become way too successful. We see people living a glorious life on TV, we want the things they have, but our minds are dumbed-down by preoccupation with consumption. We fail to see the real world and to challenge and change the status quo for the better. (As Marx pretty much predicted.)

Last night on HGTV they had this show called Amazing Water Homes. One home was like an aquarium with walls. Another was a house built on top of a waterfall, the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Yet another was a house sitting on a tiny rock island in the middle of nowhere.

Every house nice. Every house innovative. But here's what I was trying to figure out:

If innovation were a product like Coca-Cola, and we wanted to duplicate the "secret recipe," how could we do that from scratch? 

Why can't everyone have an innovative house?

The opposite of groupthink is innovation. So let's challenge the obstacles that get in the way of the latter:

  • Failure to promote the necessary psychological qualities: Perhaps independence from the group rather than a kind of merging with one's peers; perhaps critical thinking; maybe an enjoyment of play and the view that serious things can and should be fun.
  • Stupid educational practices: How about eliminate standardized tests and force kids to actually write once again; how about catering to different learning styles; how about bringing our children to the workplace, where they can combine skills learning and exposure to real-world problems?
  • Pitiful gender norms: The HGTV show featured innovators who just "happened" to be males and an extended interview with the "long-suffering girlfriend" of one of them. Although it is true that we control our own choices, when women are lionized only for being self-sacrificing, deferential, etc. we encourage them to minimize their own ideas and ambitions unnecessarily. I recently saw this movie, "The Other Woman," where the "career woman" was portrayed as cold, uncaring and out of touch while the "relationship woman" was portrayed as sympathetic, human and worth caring about. Similarly, we must overturn shameful racial and ethnic stereotypes: The stereotype of the "brilliant and kooky Caucasian genius" is very, very overdone in Hollywood and was prominent in the HGTV show, as it seems to be everywhere.
  • Non-existent or non-communicated public incentives:  We can do a lot more to encourage innovation at the governmental level. Financial grants, computers, deregulation, partnerships, contests...the sky is the limit, but where is the effort? If it is there, the communication is sorely lacking.
  • Vast economic divisions: It was noteworthy that one of the innovators had a large, open plot of land in Wisconsin and time and space to be creative, thus he could build a gigantic fish tank without having to juggle two part-time minimum-wage jobs that might suck the creativity out of him. Can we not figure out a way to take the massive resources that we already have, the technologies already at our disposal, and simply disperse them more effectively?
We could do all of these things, if we wanted to. But we haven't really wanted to, so far. Because we haven't framed the problem correctly, and therefore don't see it as urgent, if we see it at all. Here it is:

Life is going to get worse for most people unless we start applying new solutions to old problems.

We haven't accepted the idea that change is necessary. 

Trying to maintain the status quo may be psychologically comfortable, but as resources grow scarce it will be impossible for many to maintain.

We haven't accepted that change means doing things differently.

The definition of change is that it means adapting to something unfamiliar.

We can't stop fighting amongst ourselves for limited spoils.

We continue to think that survival is about "getting and protecting." In reality it is about "creating, sharing and multiplying."

Let's take back that space in our heads, get off the groupthink train, start seeing our problems as urgent, and solve them creatively and together. Then we can all share in the rewards.

* All opinions my own.

5 Leadership Lessons from "Hell on Wheels"


For the unfamiliar: "Hell on Wheels" is a fictional TV series about the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad in the USA in the mid-1800s. The main character, shown above, is Cullen Bohannon, the crew foreman, whose wife and son were murdered in the Civil War. Initially preoccupied with revenge, over time he becomes determined to play a leading role in the railroad. More at Wikipedia.

The AMC channel has discovered a formula for success that appeals to Gen Xers like me: 
  • Take a small band of people;
  • Set them against deadly hostile enemies;
  • Show how they try to make normalcy in an extreme;
  • Then have one character (usually male) lose the woman he loves, after which;
  • Said leader emerges as a true leader who fights off his evil counterpart. 
Let me say that I do not like Westerns, action movies, or horror flicks as a rule but "Hell on Wheels," like "The Walking Dead" is none of those things. It is actually a leadership tale. After watching a season on Netflix, here are some things I've learned about what people need from a leader:
  1. Leaders have to embody a very grand, wildly exciting, profitable-for-everyone goal. The railroad was and is the dream of connecting people with far-off lands, of making the wild inhabitable, of limitless wealth and trade. But at the same time, it was a crazy and dangerous concept many had to pay with their lives for. So - they build a bridge over the water and Bohannon tests the train car that rides over it. He flies this way and that inside the car and almost falls out. The scene is awesome and explains in about three minutes why the workers are in that godforsaken place at all.
  2. Leaders have to make good on a reward. At the most minimal level you have to pay people what you promise them, whether it's money, recognition or other forms of developmental opportunity. In the show, there is another character, "Elam" (the singer Common) a freed slave who works for the evil Durant but only because he envisions a home of his own, "just a piece of land by the river" to make beautiful and to defend. Elam is willing to do the dirty work although it pains him, but when he believes the sacrifice is no longer worth it, he quits and has to be recruited back.
  3. Leaders must inspire admiration and fear. We talk a lot about the idea that leaders should be visionary and engaging and that is true. But the fear factor cannot be ignored either. If the leader lacks any ability to impose negative consequences, people will not follow him or her. In the show, the railroad is initially run by Durant. Nobody likes or respects him; he's an evil, greedy fraudster and a killer. Obviously this is an extreme. But a little fear is essential and leaders who are excessively "nice" are doing the workforce a disservice.
  4. Leaders require enforcers. The leader communicates the vision, the mission, the values and also the consequences for failure. That's important, but the leader is emotionally invested and therefore compromised. The enforcer is the one who has no investment other than to serve the leader single-mindedly. The combination of leader plus enforcer has exponentially greater impact on the individual who is expected to do the work. In the show there are times when the leader tries to act as enforcer (e.g. Bohannon tries to be judge and jury), but when that happens he is restrained by another character who reprimands him for overstepping his bounds.
  5. Leaders who don't hold people accountable are not respected. There is a scene where Bohannon tells a worker to stop talking so much and get back to work. The worker talks back. It almost gets physical. But Bohannon stands his ground and the workers goes back to work with a shrug of his shoulders. Similarly, a member of the settlement tries to kill two brothers he believes are responsible for the death of his friend, and Bohannon, acting as a sheriff, frees the brothers, restrains the man and throws him out of the town. People may test the rules, but they need to have them there.
While it's true that a show is just a show, often you can learn a lot from the way art exaggerates life and makes us focus on key issues or themes we tend to overlook. I actually learned a lot just from the exercise of writing this post, and would be curious what others might want to add, either from HOW or elsewhere.

* All opinions my own.

The Elegance Of The Code

Though I could never construct them from scratch, and have always had trouble getting "into the weeds," I've always been fascinated by elegant logic systems:

  • Talmud, Hasidism and the Kabbalah; comparative religion
  • Astrology, macrobiotics, and all that New-Agey stuff
  • HTML, Drupal, Sharepoint, Google Apps
  • Symbolic interactionism, Marxism, and all the other -isms, plus feminist theory for good measure
  • Marketing and branding

But these are most useful as brain puzzles. In my own life I prefer to manipulate ingredients somebody else has already made from scratch, i.e. blocks of code. I am a Lifehacker, and appreciate the genius of Sandra Lee, the queen of "semi-homemade" cooking.

My grandmother was an innovator. During the Depression she would make an entire meal for six from the ShopRite "can-can" sale. My aunts and uncles reminisce that for a few pennies they had gourmet peas and mushrooms in brown sugar sauce. Never knew the difference.

People who can develop abstract, but closed systems of brilliance win awards. I appreciate what these can do, but find the logic more incomplete than useful because it is self-centered: That is, it does not ultimately translate into reality.

My daughter plays this video game, Minecraft. Her entire school is obsessed with it. In Minecraft you collect materials and build things with it. If you are really good you get to build an entire "house," or anything -- up to and including entire worlds.

I love the house my daughter has built. It's a mansion. But Minecraft has no connection to the world of the living.

We get too caught up in the systems. We fail to think critically --

  • What is the social context within which these systems get made? How does this affect the content itself?
  • What is the rationale? Why do we need it?
  • Instead of continually creating new systems, how can we cross-pollinate between one and another?

In the world of IT, the reason we have so much difficulty integrating platforms and applications is this very tendency to obsess over code and forget the bigger picture. It isn't a musical symphony - we aren't curing a deadly disease - rather we are usually building similar tools that overlap and duplicate each other, and that can be seriously streamlined.

Some people were born to think in 0s and 1s. But those people aren't usually leaders. To move the people themselves, you've got to relate abstract "dreaming" to "doing." And engage ordinary people in a purposeful battle in the real world.

* All opinions my own.

Fear G-d, Not People

Monday morning and I realize my attitude toward work has changed. It is still an important part of my life. But for the first time ever, a sense of balance is settling in.

After you spend enough time visiting an ailing person in the nursing home, you finally wake up. Because you see all the once-powerful people now too weak to eat their food.

A job is only one part of your life's mission, and that mission is directed by the One above.

I have avoided thinking about G-d; the subject made me feel uncomfortably powerless. Yet the side effect of that too often was a victim's mindset: I feared people.

When I turn my faith toward the right source, the fear of people drops away, and I feel like a victor, actually. While I remain happily Jewish, for the change in attitude I credit the inspiring television sermons of Pastor Joel Osteen.

When I simply acknowledge, praise and thank G-d for all the good things in my life, the power of faith powers me.

There is a musical rendition of the Jewish prayer we are supposed to say on waking: "Thank the King for restoring my soul." I love it.

Or, you can think of it another way. As Osteen puts it: "If you’ll keep your trust in God, He promises that no weapon formed against you will prosper."

Have a great day everyone, and whatever your beliefs, stay strong!

* All opinions my own.

The 5 Darker Sides of Innovation Worship

"One of the myths of the Enlightenment is that what we mean by progress is intimately bound to the presumed disinterestedness and political neutrality of Science. Science is said to be liberatory to the extent that is hermetically sealed from the chaos of political struggles and the conflicts of everyday social relations. Hitler’s scientists were to be unencumbered by the uses to which their discoveries and inventions were put." - Stanley Aronowitz, "Setting the Record Straight: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Critics"
Innovation is a wonderful thing. But like every business mantra that becomes a buzzword and then jargon, it gets used without serious thinking as to the costs and consequences, especially on the average person who may not be able to "ride the wave" and "master the system." Such as:

1. Applying "MBA Metrics" to "Hacker Culture":  In "The Secret to Unleashing Genius" Forbes tries to rank companies according to their "innovation premium" (or innovation equity). Their definition of this: Start with "what the market thinks the company is worth," subtract "actual money coming in," and wind up with an intangible clump of value. Not surprisingly this is exactly the same fuzzy logic people use to define brand equity (the value of a brand). Difficulty understanding innovation -- what it is, how it works, why it's valuable -- has led to a debate at Google, where the famous "20% time" to experiment has been restricted and essentially added to the normal workday, according to some of its engineers. (Google officially disagrees, but you can read the debate here.)

2. The New Caste System: The same article talks about Amazon as a prototypical innovative company that has "radically decentralized the work of coming up with new products or services so that the majority of employees feel like it is expected of them." That is all fine and good except the flipside is an anti-union approach that Amazon justifies as interfering with its ability to run the business. Not incidentally for a company that prides itself on innovation, the "innovators" are content while the "non-innovators" complain of unfair treatment. True society becomes less and less possible in a world characterized by the "Digital Divide," where the have-nots lose access not just to technology but fundamental participation in society (through money itself).

3. Who Put A Robot In My Chair?  In 1994 Stanley Aronowitz's The Jobless Future pointed to the devastating impact that technology would have on the average person, i.e. to destroy jobs:  "All of the contradictory tendencies involved in the restructuring of global capital and computer-mediated work seem to lead to the same conclusion for workers of all collars that is, unemployment, underemployment, decreasingly skilled work, and relatively lower wages. (Book review, The Jobless Future, Michael Stack) In Amazon's world, the low-level worker is actually being phased out: "Last year, the company spent $775 million to buy a manufacturer of robots that it plans to eventually deploy in its warehouses." What is going to happen to all the people who lose their jobs because of technology? Where will they live, how will they eat, and who will feed, clothe, and educate them?

4. Shortchanging Education To Serve The System: A subsequent work by Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory (2001) pointed to the shifting role of the university. Instead of promoting critical thinking by exposing students to a wide array of coursework outside a particular field, the college experience is a "training" environment where students learn to memorize and spit back rather than to think. In today's world, students can teach themselves to code, but this is limiting in so many ways. Engaging critically with what is generally known as "The Canon" -- the classical works of history, philosophy literature, social sciences, and so on -- spurs innovation at a larger level. It helps you think in terms of the bigger picture. Is the project worth doing, if you look at the mission critically? Is it serving shareholder value or stakeholder value, and is that the right way to go? Is the organization itself helping or hurting society? Sure it's fine and good if you can get a job freelancing "right now," but do we really want our children to settle for being well-paid drones in a system?

5. Orwellian-speak: In thinking about the role of unions, a key factor for Amazon has to be cost savings. Yet responding to union concerns in Germany, they say the opposite: “This really isn’t about higher wages...It isn’t a cost question for us. It’s about what our relationship is with our people.” One of the fundamental issues associated with automating people out of a job, is what people will do once their job has been eliminated. There is no pretty way to talk about this issue, but people can handle a mature debate. What they cannot handle is being fed poison and then told it's chocolate syrup.

* As always, all opinions are my own. (On the quote, I support the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace, freedom and security as the Jewish homeland and the right of the Palestinian people to nationhood with the same human rights and dignities.)

Whose Acceptance Do You Need?

Photo by Gerard Stolk

The other day I chanced on a classic clip from Woody Allen's movie, "Hannah And Her Sisters."

In it his character, who is Jewish but experiencing a religious crisis, tries to join Catholicism and then Hare Krishna in turn. Ultimately none of it works out too well. He can't find respite in his own faith nor anybody else's.

Woody tries to explain to his flabbergasted parents but it's no use. It's death that's got him worried.

"Who thinks about such nonsense? When I'm dead I'll be dead," his father says.

"But never to exist again?"

"I'm not gonna worry now about what's gonna be when I'm unconscious."

Allen's earnestness and anxiety, their casual dismissiveness - it was so relatable I just had to laugh. It's bad enough when you're going through a tough time. But it's a thousand times worse when the people closest to you don't get it.

Self-acceptance begins with somebody else accepting you. That somebody else may be G-d, or a group or even just one person. It may even be words in a book, that validate what you feel. Paradoxically, nobody finds selfhood without community.

People confuse "acceptance" with "approval," but it's not. 

* Acceptance means you are welcomed unconditionally.
* Approval means you are judged to be "right" or "wrong."

Being accepted frees you to make whatever changes you need to based on self-love, not self-hate.

Don't be fooled. Often people who hate themselves are successful in the eyes of the world. They are so determined to make up for their perceived loathsomeness that they will do almost anything for a trophy.

But that kind of achievement doesn't have a long shelf life. It generates toxic stress for that person and everyone around them. It does not generate energy for new leaders to emerge and carry the torch forward. It becomes a ticking time bomb with a pretty plastic face.

If we want to promote lasting innovation, the first thing we ought to do is accept people as-is. It's a total mindset change. There is no "right way" to look, learn or live but rather many ways, and each of them can teach us something.

Some people will succeed in any kind of system, no matter how oppressive and conformist. Maybe it matches their capabilities - hooray! Or it doesn't but they can adapt well enough to master it.

The problem with conformity, though, is that it tends to produce a lot of ticking time bombs. And while they may seem unobtrusive for awhile, ultimately they do tend to blow up in your face.

“I am not a number; I am a free man.” - Patrick McGoohan

* All opinions my own.