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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.