Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In A Search For Authenticity, Locally Hosted Meals & Management by Accident

It was an hour and a half to drive home tonight in the rain. Nonstop sheets of gray pelted the windshield and I flipped around the radio trying (mostly in vain) to find a song worth listening to.

The delay became somewhat worth it when I caught a really interesting news segment on WTOP News. I am always interested in trends, and they were talking about the trend toward locally hosted meals, such as with Cookening, Home Hosted Meals, and so on.

In this business model, the impersonal, cookie-cutter restaurant is replaced with an encounter with a true local person who is simply hosting a dinner party, wine and cheese tasting, etc. at their home. I could see the appeal, especially when you align this kind of business with airbnb, where you get a place to sleep from a  local person - rather than a cold and sterile hotel.

People nowadays want to do business with people. Not plastic. Not customer service "robots."

Which relates to a second topic. People want to bring their humanity to work. Not completely of course. But just enough that they are relating to one another in a real way. This is a shift from earlier times, when the mode of interaction was colder and more formal.

The demand for increased authenticity makes it more difficult to interact successfully at work. As opposed to times past, when role division and distance was more explicit, today the employee may be more technically proficient than the manager and they may also be friends outside of the professional environment.

Let's complicate matters with the unconscious. We all carry emotions left over from our relationships of the past - successful and not. There are issues not fully resolved, dynamics still to be played out. It is inevitable that we will bring these emotions into the workplace, just like we will seek to make "friends" among people who really just want to get paid for pretending to be a friend and to offer "genuine" hospitality.

There is so much literature out there on leadership and management, marketing and how to run a business, and relationships. It would be nice, in a way, to buy a recipe book and plug it into the wall so that we could be successful.

But that would eliminate the meaning of the journey, wouldn't it?

We have to find our way an inch at a time.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Trading In The Impossible

(Non-Jewish) Dachau concentration camp prisoners celebrate their liberation. Photo by U.S. Army soldier, held by NARA, accessed from Wikimedia
"Those who know, don't tell and those who tell, don't know." - Michael Lewis
Today I was eating some leftover matzah for dinner. Left over from Passover when we celebrate the miracle of Jewish escape from centuries of slavery.

Out of nowhere I started humming an old tune. My daughter said, "What is that? I never heard you sing that before."

I realized it was a Chasidic niggun, or melody. My Zayde, who escaped from a Holocaust labor camp, used to sing them. My father too. A niggun is what you sing when you don't know the words but want to convey the emotion.

That is Chasidic philosophy - we reach G-d through song and dance and prayer, simple things.

All of us (I believe) have that simple and direct connection. Whatever religion. No religion. It's not a man on a throne. It's Dharma. The Way. The creative force behind the universe. 

My grandfather's story is completely impossible if you look at it in normal scientific terms. So are the stories of many if not most people who survived.

April 28, 2014 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. Taken as a whole, the impossibility of survival against Hitler's machine becomes almost inconceivable unless you think about one particular thing.

And that is: When people hate your guts and are even out to kill you, it's not their hatred you have to worry about. It is the protection of The One Above that all of us need.

That protection is something we pray for and contribute to through good deeds and especially charity. It is also something we can bring to Earth, to the physical realm through prayer and faith.

Giving to others breaks your ego and in the process draws down blessings from Above. 

And when you give to or focus on others whose problems are worse, it puts your life into perspective. So many suffer from incurable, end-stage cancer. Undrinkable water. Forced labor. Mass rape. Being kidnapped to serve as a child soldier. 

There is something else. A lesson I've learned from a lot of personal survival accounts:

Don't be so wedded to the current reality. Instead, visualize the "impossible." Imagine yourself healthy, safe, successful, loved, whole.

Now, operate as though it were real.

* All opinions my own. Photo URL:

Monday, April 28, 2014

Bumps & Bruises

As a kid I knew my share of punks and bullies. Kindergarten, fourth grade, fifth grade, tenth. George, a girl with a boy's name, attacked me in a parking lot - I was only eight or nine. True, I got her pretty good. But she left me beaten up on the pavement, and I cried in shame as my parents carried me home.

Life is about bumps and bruises. My mother had no mercy about that. "Turn off the waterworks," she would admonish me when I started to cry. "It's enough."

It was better in the olden days, at least in some respects. We played outside - a lot. Chalk on the sidewalk, jacks, skipping rope. Plastic pool in the yard. Barbecue at Grandma's.

At camp I ran as fast as I could around the track, sprinting till I lost my breath and fell. Skinned my knees so many times. Picked at the scabs - why? Trying to make it go away was useless.

A child of the consulting life, moving every year till I was ten, I learned to live the solitary life. New friends in new places meant a whole new set of bullies. I took my mother's advice to heart and toughened up.

But then a funny thing happened...somewhere along the path to adulthood I began to make friends that stuck with me. Got married, started a family, went to grad school and began to enter the workplace, forming new friendships there.

What I learned over time, particularly working for the federal government, is that we don't toss our working relationships away all that easily. My mental model was the private sector, where you're employed "at will" and they can fire you for as little as an ill-conceived Tweet. 

But in the civil service, people can literally work together for life. And in the course of that working together, they know joy and sorrow and pain. They argue and misunderstand one another. They celebrate great achievements and mourn the awards they should have been given. Say things out of turn, write the angry emails you're supposed to hold - and then send them anyway.

And yet somehow they stick together, they muddle through. Eventually, once time has passed, they find a way to laugh about it all. 

There is something really beautiful about that. 

Here's to the beautiful thunderstorms, to the way they gather up in ominous swirls of clouds, wind and pouring rain, then leave the air cleaner tomorrow.

* All opinions my own. Photo isn't me.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Feedback?

Over the past few years I've gotten a lot of feedback about my leadership and management style. Some of it's been good -- visionary, quick to learn, creative, insightful, direct.

Other parts have been bad (really, the flipside of the good) -- too quick to change things, do things my own way, tactless at times, need to think through more carefully "how will we get there."

All of it is good. And I hold myself responsible for doing better.

But does there come a point when feedback itself impedes progress?

Yesterday I was watching an old episode of The Brady Bunch. This is the one where the kids get measles, and they're all in bed, kvetching. There's Mr. & Mrs. Brady & Alice the housekeeper, putting the trays together in the kitchen, each one specifically tailored to what the kids wanted to eat.

They trudge up and down the stairs with the trays. It's funny to watch them going up the stairs, then down the stairs, huffing and puffing.

My daughter says, "I wish I had an Alice at home."

Mr. Brady walks into the boys' room and hands the oldest son Greg his tray.

Greg says, "I wanted bologna."

Mr. Brady says, basically, "But we made this just for you, it's the food you want, just the way you want it."

Greg repeats, basically, "I wanted bologna."

Mrs. Brady says, "Now now, dear, if he wants bologna, he gets bologna."

And Mr. Brady takes the tray back down the stairs.

I tried to explain to my daughter that in the Bradys' world, it was possible to change out Greg's food, to let them choose their own separate doctors, to flex out Mr. Brady's schedule so he could help Marsha with her math problems. (Sexist script!)

In the real world it's not realistic to fix every problem. The feedback may be accurate, but we have to prioritize.

Or it may not be accurate, or helpful at all, but the manifestation of some other problem that is coming out as a negative comment about work.

The amount of feedback that our employees and customers provide will only increase moving forward. What's needed is a systematic, rational approach to listening to it and responding.

Otherwise we're setting up false expectations, and serving our stakeholders worse in the process.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Normalizing The Irrational Website

Over the course of my career I've been a consultant, a client and an academic. Worked in the private sector and the public sector. Done internal and external communication, branding, web, social media, mobile, and open data. But one thing has remained constant:


The funny thing is that people always ask for fundamental change. They say "we have to get away from the past."

But the reality in most cases is that individuals and groups are usually fundamentally wedded to the dysfunctional culture that they know.

I remember when we moved to New Jersey back in the '80s. Boxes sat in my living room for years because my parents couldn't agree on where they should go. I could have brought in an expert to simply unpack the boxes and put them away in a logical place.

But the hidden logic behind the irrational boxes was as follows: we disagree and these boxes are a symbol of our refusal to budge.

Until you get the logic of the dysfunction, you can't make a change. You see this on reality TV shows all the time, where an expert and a desperate client duke it out until the client admits and faces their problems and consequently changes their ways. (The show "Tabitha Takes Over" on Bravo, where hair salons get a makeover, really captures this dynamic.)

I remember as a brand consultant one engagement in particular where we did a whole assessment for a customer, then a report-out showing where they were falling short in employee engagement. They flat-out, angrily disagreed with our findings. They wanted an outside opinion, but couldn't handle it.

None of the above is new information. But when most people are confronted with this type of situation, e.g. an irrational organizational arrangement, brand, or web presence, they too easily jump to the conclusion that it should be "normalized" as per the way a total outsider would want to see it.

This is not the case. Rather one has to respect the healthy tension that exists between two things:

1) The organic situation - this is the situation that has evolved on the ground, the reality that has evolved as a result of culture, history, relationships, internal and external politics, technology and budget limitations, leadership and employee capacity, and so on. From a website perspective, it is also the reality of the relationship between the organization and its customers, the way the site is set up iteratively to offer the fastest connection between stakeholder and information.

2) The structured ideal - this is the wholly rational approach, the one that a computer might design, one that totally ignores the subjective reality of the situation, one that delivers an ideal that is interoperable in a massive communal setting. For a brand, the structured ideal puts the organization in a context of other brands. For a website, it sets the data free so that it can be aggregated into other settings where similar information is offered.

Writing in the early 1900s, at the dawn of the Industrial Age, the sociologist Georg Simmel called this tension "the tragedy of modern culture." He leaned toward the organic, arguing that individuality could not survive in the context of the big cultural machine, which sucked up personality and spit it out in a watered-down pop culture format that all could appreciate.

Elsewhere, using Simmel's theory as a reference, I have argued that brands have to evolve by putting organic in dialogue with structured (or "subjective" in dialogue with "objective") in order to remain authentic while also relevant to the public at the same time.

For every organization, finding the balance between organic and structured data will be different. Therefore it is a grave mistake to apply the principles of information architecture like a blunt stick. Rather the key for all parties to have an awareness that there is a tension between organic and structured data, that it has to be negotiated, and that the boxes can't stay in the living room forever.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Can Negative Emotions Propel You To The Top?

Many people make the mistake of thinking that psychologically healthy people are the best equipped for success. In fact the literature on leadership and management suggests a different story - that executives rise to the top precisely because they have significant personality extremes and/or disorders. (Read "Is Your Boss A Psychopath," "Is Narcissism A Leadership Trait" to get the idea.)

At the same time, the very extreme traits that help someone to get ahead can also hurt the organization. Accordingly, the table below (which I developed, incorporating the articles above and my own knowledge) shows some of the potentially helpful and unhelpful characteristics associated with a tendency toward personality extremes.

Helpful Manifestation
Unhelpful Manifestation
Think everyone’s out to get them
See risk before others do
Perceive bad intentions where none exist, potentially eliminating talented staff and missing out on opportunities for collaboration
No feeling for other people
Business acumen and know how to work people and the system to get what you want
Prey on people to get what they want, especially subordinates, fracturing and demoralizing the team
Think they’re superior, that the whole world revolves around them, almost as if nobody else exists
Vision and confidence inspire the team
Tend to surround themselves with “yes-people” who they perceive as inferior, stifling healthy disagreement and competition
Never satisfied with what they have
Acquisitive energy gives them ambition and motivation to do more and more
Don’t know when enough is enough; potential to overextend the team and create burnout
Can’t stop thinking about the same thing
Intense focus on perfection can yield great products and services
Can alienate members of the team by insisting that their way is the only way
Tendency to feel ashamed of oneself
Strong work ethic (as a way of proving that one is indeed “good enough”)
Inability to balance work with other aspects of life; workaholism

At the end of the day, not all people are born to be moderate or balanced. So be it. We can use those extremes for good. But we also need to be careful not to allow extreme tendencies to harm the organization.

* All opinions my own.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

10 Signs Your Change Initiative Stands A Chance

Change initiatives are notoriously prone to failure. As an employee you want to learn how to be a weathervane. Which way is the wind blowing? How do we make the most of good weather, and set the damage from a thunderstorm right?

You also want to know what a good mix of positive indicators looks like. Here are 10 pretty reliable ones that a change initiative is going well. (You can infer from their opposite when it's not.) Note that they tend to occur in combination and reinforce each other - just like ketchup and mustard look strangely good sitting side by side.

1. Leadership has stated the vision in broad terms.Middle management can translate that vision into action items. Staff can say it in an elevator ride.

2. People are excited to talk about it.

3. Cultural readiness is apparent as people seem impatient to just start implementing already.

4. Opportunity presents itself in the form of distinct "easy wins" toward the bigger picture.

5. Team members have a way to align their natural talents with goals in such a way that they are self-motivated as well as largely self-directed. 

6. People can join the team and understand what it's working toward fairly easily.

7. The scope of the change initiative can be modified without losing focus, because all have a fixed gaze on the ultimate destination. 

8. The organization is willing to accept some level of sacrifice in the name of achieving the overarching goal.

9. Commitment over time becomes an ingrained part of the process - people expect it to take years, not months.

10. Resources are committed to get the job done well - it's not a setup for failure.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Celebrating Genius As A Form Of Diversity

A lot of companies talk about innovation, but few are prepared for dealing with actual creative people. They hire for uniqueness and then complain that unique people drive them not to celebrate, but drown their sorrows in drink. (At 7-Eleven you can go either way.)

I am that type of person. Not book-smart, necessarily, but "out there," outside the box, radical. I'll do anything to solve the problem. My mind is on the Rubik's Cube 24/7 - creative, workaholic, dramatic, demanding and obsessed with perfection. Spacey, because I'm thinking. Awkward, because introverted. Dramatic. And so on.

I understand that it's a lot for people to handle. But there is also no workplace where we really dialogue about what creativity means and how it manifests itself among a "normal" team. More than that how to encourage creativity at all levels and stages of one's career.

Really all of us are geniuses at something, I have found - it's just a matter of discovering which thing. Certainly we are different, there's no two ways about it. Particularly because we need innovators so badly nowadays, it is important to take the time to learn people's unique methods and preferences at work, rather than thinking about "norming" teams. I don't want boring norming. I want a creative storm!

A long time ago I visited the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and remembered how I once wanted to be a designer. That particular gift was not mine, but I still think with awe about the craft. Giorgio Armani, Betsey Johnson, Donna is a RUSH. When you see it, you feel it. Just like beautiful jewelry, architecture, haute cuisine, and on and on.

The students at FIT all looked kind of freaky, and I felt right at home. It reminded me of living in Greenwich Village in the late '80s. You could never be "out there" enough - everyone was out-"freaking" everyone.

It shouldn't be a contest of course. But we would be so much better off, and so much richer as a country and a world, if we could just appreciate each other for the vibrant beings we truly each are.

*All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Trend: Vintage Feminist

Snapped pics of these items in a shoe store on Las Olas Blvd. in Ft. Lauderdale, and got the sense that they exemplify a trend. (Not sure of the name, but we're seeing this type of stuff in a bunch of places.)

There's also a lot of gladiator going on right here in terms of women's shoes, but haven't got a great photo just yet. Also dandelions, and massive necklaces.

* All opinions my own. No endorsement or non-endorsement expressed or implied. Photos by me.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Blame Hitler

In "Hush" a young girl's friend is effectively murdered, and the ghost knocks at her window in her dreams until she pursues justice.

Today I started reading "Unchosen," by Hella Winston. Normally disdainful of books, I walked in the street fixated to the Kindle. And suddenly started to cry uncontrollably.  

(Like the writer Nora Ephron said, you have to put the pain on paper or it lives in your head forever.)

My entire nuclear family on my father's side, which I have never understood in proper sociological or historical context, could have been lifted, in a certain sense, from Chapter 1.

It talks about Yossi, a young Hasidic man who shaves his sidelocks and beard in a gesture of freedom.

Yossi's parents strictly forbade any contact with the outside world and he had barely any education. 

His grandparents were raised in New York City and had not known such stricture until the post-Holocaust immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe. They adopted it. 

Yossi is one of so many people who cannot live within the restrictions of their communities, and yet they cannot reject it and still be a loved part of the group.

It's not exactly my historical story, but close. My own father's parents both survived the camps - physically intact if not necessarily emotionally. He is a playful guy who loves American culture. And he married my mother because he loves her, in an act of rebellion against arranged marriages and the values represented by his Hasidic dad. 

Like Yossi's grandfather, my Zayde went from wearing American style suits to Eastern European garb. In a community where the rabbis blamed assimilation and Zionism for the concentration camps.

My father was always ambivalent about his act of independence. It was a slap in the face to his father. By being who he was, he had broken the rules - which left him forever marked and shamed, no matter whether anyone said it aloud or not. 

For her part, my beautiful, loving, sincere mother was always treated as inferior. I could not stomach this, and how my dad seemed to hypocritically shift between enforcing Old World rules and pursuing New World freedom.

Nobody chose to live this tragedy. It was all inflicted on us by the actions of one evil man, may he burn forever in Hell, and those who went along with him.

My aunt, on my mother's side, lives up in Monsey and is super-strictly religious. She became that way so her kids could marry. And she thinks she knows why I'm not religious. 

"Blame Hitler," she once said. "He really fucked your family up."

It's true. Hitler directly killed six million. And then he systematically destroyed many of those who survived. Because the families that remained looked for a way to explain the unexplainable and they tried to carry out an insane kind of logic on their kids.

Of course keeping out the outside world doesn't work. Just like we don't know why the Holocaust happened. Just like my mother and my father and their now-deceased parents before them (may they rest in peace), were all victimized.

Some people find it odd that I - rejecting most religious ritual personally - feel so passionately about defending the right of people to be religious. And to discover themselves in religious community.

But structured faith is essential to life, like water, for many. Even for those who are not traditionally religious, like me. 

May G-d have mercy on all our souls, and grant all the Yossies and Chanas a joyful escape from the purgatory of the streets they wander, sometimes literally. May we find solace in a place where everyone is cherished for simply being who they are.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Numb, Addicted & Helpless

In Ft. Lauderdale on spring break the kids are getting drunk like crazy. Crazy.

And we are older, and asking why they need to drink so much, holler and gather in a place just to lose themselves in sleeping around.

They seem numb.

I read this book on the plane, "Hush." It's  a true story and the author will not name herself. She lives in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, was raised ignorant and insular. And helplessly watched a brutal crime that tormented her to action.

This woman also talks about numbness, the inability to do anything at the time of the crime or after. And how one day, suddenly from within, she felt excruciating rage that propelled her into doing something.

The actor Rob Lowe once drank and drank, the life of the party, until he wasn't. He talks about his alcoholism - which he characterizes as overpowering - in a couple of books. I read a bit from "Love Life."

In it he shared a story from his rehab. It was about a fellow addict who had a seemingly impenetrable exterior, even in tough and intrusive group therapy.

The guy had numbed himself with alcohol for so many years. As a child some neighborhood kids stomped his infant brother to death. And he, sitting there at age four, could do nothing about it.

The leader had the group wrap this famous man in a blanket, and together they took him back in time. Before the bad thing happened. Before the powerlessness, shame and guilt that turned his exterior emotions to stone and led him to the bottle. 

They held him until they saw him take that crucial first step of letting it go. Only when he was no longer that child could he begin taking back his power as a grown adult.

I was so moved by the story in that book, and by "Hush." I am awed by people who have been knocked down so hard in life and they relentlessly get back up instead of hiding in a bottle, in bed, in the refrigerator or at the mall. 

This is the spirit of the other new book I want to buy, "Own It," by Tabatha Coffee. But I don't think I am there yet.

This story kind of tells why. We were walking on the beach and someone threw a frisbee right in my direction. I saw it coming and froze. Just like in my dreams, where I can see the bad guys chasing me but I cannot move, nor fight, nor stay alive. The end seems predetermined.

Therefore, afraid of the frisbee, I crouched in the sand until it landed. And heard all the players laughing.

I was so embarrassed, but tried to wave it off. "No worries, I am spatially disabled," I said. 

Afterward I wondered what it was in me that left me so immobilized. So helpless and so in fear.

In the end it does not seem all that complicated. Obviously it has something to do with my past, an incredibly sheltered upbringing and sexist social structure where father = G-d. Sure it had good aspects, but overall it left me terrified. Any free thinking meant you were an "apikorais," heretic, evil, cursed, destined to wander alone for all time.

What is frightening to me is that I cannot stop myself from thinking more and more freely with time. And that the more I do so, the happier and more at peace I feel.  Also more productive at work.

I love being culturally Jewish, I love G-d, but I can't tolerate the idea that you must follow a certain set if rules in order to find salvation. It's just bullshit.

At work and at home, helplessness is not holy. Empowerment is.

Here's wishing peace to all people in this world, whom I believe that G-d loves equally. And to those of the Christian faith, happy Easter.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.