Saturday, May 31, 2014

Reputation 4.0

In the future your resume will be irrelevant.

Everything you've ever studied, and the feedback you received, will be on the grid and connected to your fingerprint, a microchip, iris recognition or something like that.

Your work experience will be added, tracked by your social security number.

Peer reviews will be added to your jobs in much the same way as it occurs now on LinkedIn, except you'll be getting 360 degree ratings, with words, not just the short kind and not mostly positive.

There will be a 5-star system. You will have to be honest and fair and kind and effective, or nobody will want to work with you.

People with more positive and meaningful search results, updated at consistent intervals, focused on specific topics, will have the advantage.

That's why you should update your social media streams frequently, as well. Get involved with industry activities. Volunteer or teach. Anything involving interaction.

Your personal life will be part of this matrix, so you can't be nice at work and nutty or worse with your family.

Reputation is built over many years, and if you develop a system you can automate it to some extent. But it will always take much thought and effort.

It isn't something you can buy, or escape.

* All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.

The Future of Apps Is Snapfix (10 Rules To Live By)

There was this great commercial on TV the other night for an app I had never heard of. It's called "SnapFix,"and it's so brilliant I can't even believe they really did this.

You take a picture of the problem you're having at home, and Angie's List finds someone automatically who can fix it for you. 

That's incredible! It saves so much time! 

In the old days, if you were lucky, you'd have a single "handyman" who could fix "everything." And you were at their mercy, because you didn't know what they were doing and probably weren't home all day to watch, either.

Angie's List revolutionized the whole process of hiring help with its reviews. Suddenly there is a verified database of people who are joining together to provide feedback on contractors, so you know what to expect in advance.

But then Angie's List went a step further. I don't know what their revenue model is, but someone must have realized that the real goldmine is to make it stupidly, incredibly easy to hire help for your home. You don't have to Google the type of service, just take a photo and Angie's List will do the rest. They are the intermediary, adding value to both sides.

Whether it's successful in the end or not, here are 10 lessons we can derive from this incredible idea:
  1. User Comes First: App is focused on helping the user do something - one thing - one focus.
  2. Ease of Use: App is incredibly, stupidly easy to use.
  3. Interactivity: There is an interactive element, such as taking a photo.
  4. Intelligence: There is a "smart" element, such as the app figuring out what kind of service provider is needed based on taking a photo.
  5. Service Revenue: App drives revenue to a service provider.
  6. Synergy: App and brand together accomplish more than one by itself - 1 + 1 = 3.
  7. Uniqueness: App has a distinct brand name.
  8. Endorsement: App is launched through supportive integration with a well-known brand.
  9. Cross-Media: App is promoted through social media and traditional media, such as TV.
  10. Innovation - Industry Creation: App creates a new category of service - there isn't even a name for an industry called "take a photo and find a service provider."

* All opinions my own. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Problem With Government Social

Life, and death. 

Wanting to know more. To understand.

To share - make a connection.

These are the elemental fibers of social media. They are real, not a fantasy.

Government-generated content too often feels like an affront against what it's supposed to be.

It's like there is a party, and we broke into the party, going "hey, we're cool too."

I don't mind corporate social media as much, because they're explicitly selling.

But much government content, no matter how professional, often has a propagandistic feel, especially in the context of so much scandal.

Unless it's pure educational fact. Not self-serving. Beneficial to the people it reaches.

There are reasons why so much of government social media, and communication for that matter, looks the way it does. It's safe. It's marketing. But it's junk food - not healthy in the long term.

Every agency has its scandals and controversies. Good, informational use of social media could diffuse these. 

The government should not pretend to personify itself - to be a "friend."

It should provide content that answers questions and solves citizens' problems - the problems they collectively hire each agency to solve.

It's a philosophical difference, you see? One rooted in the original intent of social media. Which was to serve as the community well, the town hall, the gathering place. 

Meaningful, comprehensive information is not dry and boring. It's not a reputation risk to share. It's what people want from the government. Open data is really this.

Good social media - great social media - is not an option. It is our job.

* All opinions my own. Photo via Wikimedia. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Visionaries Don't Miss Milestones

In Geoffrey James' new book "Business Without The Bullsh*t" he talks about 12 kinds of bosses - 11 of them are bad.

One is "The Visionary," perhaps gifted but who can't seem to shift from the future to the right-now. 

This isn't helpful to the team. The boss has got to be "how-focused," as in how to get from here to there.

The world is full of people with bright ideas. Few are able to implement. Few are:

* Critical 
* Linear 
* Logical
* Strategic 
* Insightful
* Holistic
* Courageous
* Committed 

...all at once.

Hat tip to a real visionary, who encouraged me to focus more on the "how," and stop overthinking the big picture.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

With Just A Little Bit Of Effort (Marshall's As A Lesson In Life)

Screenshot of the Marshall's homepage by me

So we're in the shopping center and we go to every other store except Marshalls. Target doesn't have it. Kohl's is an embarrassing place to shop. H&M, tried that. Forever 21, no luck.

What's the worst that can happen? I think. I want to get a pair of sunglasses first, but can't.

Marshall's is the kind of place my mother would take me to shop. She'd say, "they have great value, stop being such a baby."

And I hate to admit it, but she's right.

They have really gorgeous clothes. They're good brands. They are tasteful. We like it.

Here's the problem though: They make themselves look like a junk store.

That logo is awful.

The layout seems to lack a strategy. For example there are home decor accessories just next to the shoes. And clearance is all over the place not centered together in the back.

It's driving me bananas, and yet the clothes are so good!

We wound up leaving the store with nothing in our hands. I wanted to wash them.

And as I left I thought, if only they would try just a little bit harder.

They already have the stuff all purchased. The retail folks are already in place.

But it's like someone gave up and said, screw it, I'm going to make as much money as I can off this thing and walk away with whatever.

That is a ridiculous way to operate, if it's true. But come to think of it, don't we all do something like this?

We invest a lot of time and effort in stuff, but not all of ourselves. Something like 50 or 55%, when we could go to 65% and see an incredible difference.

Turn up the music just a little bit and it makes you work out so much faster. 

Turn up the a/c and you sleep a whole lot better at night.

Why not invest just a little bit more in whatever it is you choose to do with your life? The rewards are waiting there for the taking.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Essence of Social Media Is Ruthless

A tree hugs below the ground for survival - it focuses, literally, on its roots. Then it can reach up.

If you want to know why corporate does social media badly, one word:


The lack of this essential quality.

Social media is about a ruthless, relentless, unforgiving, hyperfocused, super-specialized filter that you apply to every piece of content.

It is branding on speed. It's faster, digs deeper, and pulls in the whole of your personality.

It has no mercy on those who "just love" their own words.

Unless you are ruthless when it comes to your content focus and your vehicles for delivery, you will fail. No matter how much content you put out. 

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

What If You Make A Mistake And Look Stupid?

Recently I was on the road and felt suddenly dizzy.

At first I thought it was nothing. My daughter was with me. I looked at her and kept driving.

The second time it hit I pulled off the road and asked my daughter to go and get me a Snickers. I hadn't eaten the entire day.

She got me a Snickers and a Coca-Cola. I ate the candy bar, feeling absolutely disgusting, and drank some of the Coke. These are normally treat foods, but in that moment they felt like bad medicine.

I got back on the road and the dizziness started again. So I pulled over into a McDonald's parking lot. I thought maybe I hadn't eaten enough.

"Quick, get me a fish sandwich and some fries," I begged her. I was reminded of the famous "McDonald's emergency" of my youth, when my mom sneaked me out to get exactly the same thing. (This is a family joke, how the craving for McDonald's in a Jewish family rises to the level of 911.)

Well that didn't work either.

Fifteen minutes later I was in the backseat. I was a little short of breath. My left arm hurt a little bit. Oh no, the left side! I thought to myself. That's the heart attack side!

I thought about my grandmother who had a heart attack in her early forties. My uncle who had the same.

I am dying, I thought. It's a heart attack or a stroke.

I wanted to call 911, but I was scared. What if it wasn't necessary? Then I'd look really stupid, for calling by mistake.

"Call 911," I said to my daughter.

I made that decision in the end because that fear of looking stupid was overridden by my mental image of dying.

I imagined the funeral, and there I would be looking down from the sky, at my family who had lost me because I was afraid of calling 911 and looking stupid.

So the paramedics came and...thankfully nothing was wrong. Except that I'd been stressed out lately, and for the first time in my life, I had what is called a "panic attack."

The paramedic told me to take up meditation and study Buddhism.

So it was a mistake. I can live with that. It's better than a heart attack.

It made me think about something, in general: How about the positive risks we could take, but avoid?

How much of our lives do we spend trying to avoid looking stupid?

How many ideas literally gone down the drain, because others might laugh?

How many friendships, marriages, business relationships never get off the ground because someone is afraid of rejection?

How many training opportunities go unused because of that thought, it's too late for me to learn.

What a shame, what a freaking shame. Especially when you consider all the people who do make fools of themselves, and nobody cares.

What is that joke I heard the other day,

"In your 20s you care what people think about you. In your 40s you stop caring what other people think about you. In your 60s you realize that nobody ever cared about what you did at all."

It's a great freedom to make mistakes and be stupid. That's what learning is. You just regress and become a kid again. You're flying blind and hoping the world will catch you.

It's OK. It's all OK.

At the end of the day those times we stuck our necks out and took the risks, are the times that we remember as the most meaningful.

Would I go back and call 911 again? Absolutely. Too many people are embarrassed to call, brush it off, and lose their lives, and their families and friends lose them.

Life is too short...take the risk of looking stupid, stay alive, and live it to the fullest.

* All opinions my own.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

5 Reasons You Should Never Stop Trying

1. Because living a "checked-out" life is more miserable than one where you're trying to succeed.

2. Because even if one relationship, job, or cause is doomed to failure, you can find something else with a chance of success.

3. Because chances are you could be more successful if you tried a slightly different approach.

4. Because you have quiet cheerleaders all around you who believe in you and want you to succeed.

5. Because when good people give up, bad people gain power by default. And everybody suffers in the end.

Remember Jack?

* All opinions my own. Photo (by me) is of the cover of Entertainment Weekly, 4-11-2014 edition.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The One Survival Skill You Need In Today's Workplace

"Jump" by David Yu via Flickr; Creative Commons Share license with attribution

There are a host of excellent articles out there about how to become a senior executive. One especially good one is "The Secret: How To Become A Fortune 500 CEO," by Steve Tappin.

Here is his 30:30:30:10 rule regarding how to spend your day. The basic idea is, if you want to rise up the career ladder, you have to think like a CEO first:
  • 30% = get your basic work done
  • 30% = networking
  • 30% = strategizing for the future
  • 10% = just relax
And he has a bunch of other tips.

What they all have in common is one skill: the ability to learn "working smarter" not harder.

Most people think they go to work to demonstrate their mastery of a subject.

But to be successful at work today, you have to in effect perform successfully at your task while simultaneously learning how to improve on it.

So it is patently untrue that you should spend all of your time slaving away.

Rather your goal should be to learn how to master your job so that it can be done very quickly, leaving the rest of your time open to gain additional skills and then contribute more than what you were hired to do.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is It Really True That "It Pays To Praise?"

Photo via Flickr by John McStravick

In my last post I criticized the boundary-crossing relationships between boss and employee that trendy management literature headlines seem to promote, using as an example an interview with Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey that appeared in BBC News about Whole Foods.

Whole Foods' decentralized, team-driven, front-line focused culture is aligned with management literature that trashes managers themselves as essentially "overhead." See Gary Hamel's classic, "First, Let's Fire All the Managers!" Vineet Nayar makes a similar argument, that bosses are basically useless and should get out of the way.

Which sounds very good, if you're not a boss. And delivers ROI, and employee satisfaction, says the evidence

But what about the exploitiveness of it? To call store workers "team members" but put them on probation till they are voted in by their peers means they are on trial in every respect. All the time. To have people make minimum wage, or vastly less than senior executives, use their ideas and then fail to compensate them accordingly.

Sure, a flat hierarchy "works" for both boss and employee in the sense that it reduces conflict before it even begins. But is that because of high cultural cohesion or because the worker has few options other than to leave or sue when there's a problem?

What is "agreement" where one side has all the power?

Good management allows for power on both sides. In this setting, hierarchy is acknowledged but in a way that also acknowledges the rights of those lower down on the career ladder. Disagreement can be articulated by the worker and there are institutional mechanisms for honoring that and working through it.

Under this structure, which I would characterize as mature leadership, there is no false promise of equality. Rather there are distinct roles: peer, supervisor, manager, executive, CEO. Each has its freedoms and its responsibilities.

It instills a sense of process and fairness. In that sense it is healthier for the worker.

Under a mature leadership structure, being a manager and being a subordinate are two separate roles. Rather than commingling the two and abdicating the managerial role, the boss takes their job seriously and offer real feedback, positive and negative. 

It is the act of receiving that feedback that promotes employee engagement, notes Marcus Buckingham in Discover Your Strengths. Whereas being ignored causes employees to check out.

In "Show Your Employees Some Love: Why It Pays To Praise," which I cited in the last post, global business consultant Justin Bariso talks about the importance of offering feedback that is positive and not only negative.

I used Bariso's headline as an example of the incorrect impression new managers might get from reading popular literature - that they should somehow let their employees walk all over them. But as he noted in a comment on my blog, whatever the headline sounded like, the substance of his piece did not convey this idea.

Rather, he is arguing that managers should remember to balanced negative feedback with good. It has been his experience in Germany that employees get a lot of criticism, but not praise when they do things right.

In addition, offering praise where warranted means that criticism will be taken seriously when it is necessary.

He does of course make an important point. Managers, especially old-fashioned managers, tend to focus on what's not working, because if it's working, what's to talk about? I myself have experienced this as a subordinate, and as a manager have definitely fallen into that trap.

It does pay to praise. Not in a blanket way, not in a false way, but in a very targeted and customized and timely way: Baraiso's point is apt. His approach stands in counterpoint to the attitude that "we have work to do, and it's a waste of time to be sitting all day (with our employees) talking about nothing."

At the end of the day, great managers retain great employees and address the problem of poor performance. Lousy managers don't bother to do their job and make the rest of us look bad. If we fail to notice, fail to give feedback, and fail to give praise where it's due, talented employees can and will find another boss who does appreciate them.

Yes, it does pay to praise.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On The Crap Advice Novice Managers Get

"He's a manager now, he does manager things." Photo by Phil Dokas via Flickr.

It is easy to blame it all on Mark Zuckerberg, who turns 30 today. Mashable had fun with his irreverent approach to work attire, the hoodie which symbolizes "corporate is a waste of time."

As a cultural influence Zuckerberg promotes an "open and connected" world, i.e. no distinction between your personal and professional identities or past and present identities. You are always one and discoverable. On this there is intense debate, particularly since he personally lives such a private life.

As a boss, too, he seems rather traditional - getting positive reviews for listening thoughtfully, focusing on the work and making a decision. See for example "Working With Zuck" and the multiple answers on Quora.

But Zuckerberg does represent social flattening, even subversion of traditional hierarchies, and the hoodie is his way of showing it. Other executives build this concept into their business model. For example Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey is a fan of the idea of extreme social bonding with employees.

"I know this sounds weird, but there's something about sleeping in the same house and then fixing breakfast or dinner together that is very much a bonding experience." - BBC, 7 April 2014

Consider what a high and exploitive bar that is. Beyond technical proficiency or emotional intelligence. You've got to jump through the hoops of high school, college, and standardized tests, only to have to shape yourself into some kind of perfect Play-Doh, able to make it through Weekend at Bernie's.

"This level of personal interaction, says Mr. Mackey, prevents staff compartmentalising (sic) their work life and personal life, and means workers can relate on a deeper level." BBC, 7 April 2014

So in the name of egalitarianism, you are stripped of your private self, forced into emotional bonding (bondage), and then hired only on probation. After a time, peers conduct a secret vote as to whether to keep you.  (Luckier Amazon recruits get $5,000 to go away.)

This is immoral, scarily sophisticated service economy thinking, "be likable or die." Other messages: Be productive or die, on our kind of team. You are lucky to be here, and the profits accrue to Whole Foods. When we toss you out, that part of you that bonded with us stays here as well.

Steering this kind of ship (generally, and correcting it back to a more ethical place, which seems imperative) is actually harder than running the ordinary, top-down, command-and-control type of vehicle. In fact I'd argue that it brings up problems most managers would never have thought of.

Yet management headlines with their current "soft" focus make the whole thing look easy. They vastly underestimate the task. Worse yet, they mislead people into thinking that it's somehow "wrong" to actually be a boss. For example:

Don't misunderstand me - culture is all, or nearly all. As Peter Drucker said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." (Here's a useful article on that.) But you've got to know what you are doing. And take responsibility for doing it right, and consider the consequences of what you do.

Certainly Whole Foods is succeeding. As BBC notes, it has held Fortune's "Best Companies To Work For" status for nearly two decades, versus as Gallup found, in the U.S. employee disengagement stands at a huge proportion, 70%. In a tough economy, Whole Foods had its best sales year ever in 2013.

And they build their culture carefully. It's deliberately "egalitarian" (even though it's not - there is still a 19 times pay differential between the average employee and executive staff). Those who don't fit in, get voted out by their peers, not by management. A precise number of teams manage each store relatively independently, and innovation starts at the edge not the core.

So casual on its face. But the result of nonstop effort. Similar to writing - a Great American Novel is never really a fluke. Lena Dunham, the creative force behind Girls, told Vogue that she writes all the time. All the time! Think about that. She is consumed by this thing - it isn't something she can toss off naturally in five minutes, even if it seems very natural.

Great managers work hard to become excellent at being excellent. They learn to provide staff with goals, objectives, priorities and expectations. To motivate them. To monitor their performance. And to distribute rewards and negative consequences fairly. There is no getting away from these tasks, no matter how "egalitarian" you are.

You can't drive a car just by watching movies about cars. Similarly managers should educate themselves on management, and not take it casually or for granted. Even a little bit makes a difference that everybody can feel and appreciate.

* All opinions my own.

It's OK Not To Know

The experience of hospital. You have no power here. You pray a lot.

Someone said to me recently, I respect you more when you say "I don't know." Been turning that one over in my mind.

Me, the mom and the manager. Advice-giver on the side.

After my husband's surgery, after the recovery room, after six hours of holding back crying, after actually crying, and fifty thousand calls, texts and emails to and from the family, we went back to the room. My aunt called. I was on the computer. It was late at night.

"How are you?" she said.

"You want to talk to him?" 

"No. How are you."

"I'm on the computer. I'm freaking out."

There it was. I didn't know it all or have it together.

It felt really good to admit it. For the first time. To begin to just always be real. To stop the whole nonsense of "think brand first," which made no sense in the first place and even if it has a place, has gone way too far.

* All opinions my own. Photo out the hospital window by me. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Toxic Culture As A Form Of Autoimmune Disease

Onion cells - via Wikipedia

In autoimmune disease the body fights off its own healthy cells. The same is true of a toxic organizational culture. During a flareup, healthy activities of any kind - such as offering thoughtful feedback - may be treated as a threat by the system. 

In autoimmune disease there are many healthy periods and the illness is not centered in one particular organ. You don't know when the next flare up will come, or what body part will be affected. 

The same is true of the toxic culture. There are many happy and healthy times, and many parts and people that work extremely well under the circumstances. Many may even believe that "nothing is wrong" -- that is, until the next seemingly inexplicable "attack." 

With autoimmune, attacks are often brought on by stress. The same is true of a toxic culture. Things are fine until something goes wrong, and the dis-ease beneath the surface comes rumbling forward. The response is therefore out of proportion and people are jarred out of their sense of security.

In autoimmune, problems look generic until you find out there is way more under the surface. You think "a headache is just a headache" and superficially blame an ordinary known trigger. 

Similarly in a toxic culture, you may draw simple associations between employee complaints and their cause. 

Lack of recognition, confusing processes, bad bosses are all ordinary triggers for employee dissatisfaction and common complaints. But when the problem is systemic, all of these triggers are not the real point and addressing them individually won't solve the problem. 

Worse yet, if you don't know the problem is systemic you may attack triggers that are actually healthy. For example a boss who implements corrective measures will necessarily trigger huge complaints and the unhealthy parts of the system will try to eject them. Yet those complaints are a sign that something positive is happening. Understood correctly, the negative feedback is actually a plus.

It follows that just like with autoimmune, in a toxic culture the numbers don't tell the story alone; what you see is not what you get, and the seeming problem is really a manifestation of something else. You need anecdotal feedback to get a sense of context around activity.

Finally with autoimmune, the condition never really resolved, and you need a team of specialists to maximize quality of life and length of lifespan. Similarly in a toxic culture, you have to accept that longstanding problems and pain points will never really heal. 

The goal in addressing a toxic culture is not perfection. It is to make explicit among the workforce at all levels that things have gone wrong at the systemic level and so we shouldn't be fooled when symptoms flare up.

Ideally the message is, we have to work together to reduce our collective stress and live well and healthily in a working, productive community. This will sometimes mean change actions that feel bad. Ultimately though the closer we get to objective measures of cultural health, the more easily flareups should resolve.

And we can stop living by quantitative measures of satisfaction alone, turning instead to focus groups, interviews, ethnographies, and other sources of qualitative data.

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why Government & Innovation Don't Mix

Art by Barbara Kruger at the Hirshorn Museum in DC. Photo by me.

Of course they can mix. 

But it's not natural. On a routine basis, the term "government innovation" is an oxymoron. Government is defined by rigid and measurable definitions and processes while innovation means defying everything that existed before.

The Partnership for Public Service's  "Federal Coach" Tom Fox was on the news last night talking about 2013 survey results on the topic. He said Feds overwhelmingly try to be innovative but are successively less likely to feel encouraged for the endeavor, or rewarded. 

Agencies know they have to innovate. They also know the bureaucracy makes it almost impossible - culturally and practically. That is why they are creating separate institutional structures dedicated to the function.

We should try to get actual innovation happening. Of course. But to make the transition to a style of government where innovation is routine, we must also ask ourselves what kind of structure is optimal for promoting innovation. And whether the works in progress are helping, hurting or doing nothing very meaningful to make a difference.

On this topic, for me, there is no neutrality. I work in one such office now. But insofar as I can, I hope to share lessons learned as I learn them. (Speaking as myself, not for anyone else, as always.)

The other bias is my cognitive style. I have a predisposition to architecting "the perfect system" when incremental steps forward might be just as good. 

Despite my acknowledged non-objectivity I still believe that innovation requires above all things a focus. Personally the "garage" approach makes sense to me: Go away, make a thing, do a pilot, iterate and mass produce. 

I also think it is important to distinguish apples and oranges. Innovation is not synonymous with operations or mission support functions. It broader than tech. It is not about making employees feel good. But it feeds all of these things. And government has a tendency to fudge boundaries and "just make it work," so things get mixed up.

Yet long-term paid brainstorming in government is not practical. You have to be successful on multiple fronts. Mission, economic stewardship, employee development to be specific. And process matters above all. You have to make it happen in a way that is rational, repeatable, and useful.

Also, government culture isn't warm to constant experimentation, When you change a lot, the ship rocks.

Here is what I do know. We can decompose the innovation process into parts and manage those distinctly - from initiation to completion, feedback and moving a finished product to the showroom floor (the public).

We can pay more people to innovate, to teach the tools and techniques of innovation. 

We can wholesale reduce, automate or eliminate everything that gets in the way - administrivia. 

We can think of government enterprise as a rational, scientific, meritocratic enterprise above all - today's Starship Federation. 

Through a focus on innovation, we can get away from everything that distracts us from our #1 job. Serving the people.

And because we are the government, and are so process-driven, may actually come up with models that are useful to those most comfortable in the garage.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, May 9, 2014

You Always Have More Support Than You Think

Is it me or has 2014 been a really tough year? In my world alone there's been pests, sickness, physical suffering and unfortunately a death in the family.

When you're going through it you don't think about the pattern. Instead you only see that moment. And you tend to think it's just you. Alone.

What I want to say is that you have more support than you realize. When my husband's mom died I was overwhelmed by the expressions of love from people who rarely had anything to do with us.

Over and over again, no matter what the situation, I have read, observed and experienced that people genuinely reached out to say "I care." Not because they're saints, but because we are all human beings and in some way that makes us connected.

If you are suffering and alone in some way, know that the world is here to support you. You don't need to do anything special, either - the sentiment is already there.

Special thanks this Mother's Day to my own mom, who is always on the other end of the line when I call her, ready to offer a sympathetic ear.

* All opinions my own. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Innovation Above Litigation

For better or for worse, American culture is defined by extremists. We are fascinated by criminals and geniuses.

Sometimes they are one and the same.

Look at Steve Jobs. Brilliant innovator. And as numerous reports have suggested, and as we've heard over and over again, he believed "the rules just didn't apply to him," (biographer Walter Isaacson, in the New York Times.)

In plotting to prevent Apple employees from working elsewhere, Jobs was a blatant white-collar criminal. And his power, and influence, stretched much further in the industry. As the New York Times reports, in effect Apple and others established a management culture within which employees - on threat of firing or banishment from the industry - learned that obedience to the company doctrine was blind, regardless of the law.
"In 2007, he [Steve Jobs] threatened Palm Inc. with patent litigation unless Palm agreed not to recruit Apple employees....That same year, Mr. Jobs wrote Eric E. Schmidt, the chief executive of Google at the time, 'I would be extremely pleased if Google would stop doing this,' referring to its efforts to recruit an Apple engineer.

"Mr. Schmidt forwarded the email, adding...: 'I believe we have a policy of no recruiting from Apple and this is a direct inbound request. Can you get this stopped and let me know why this is happening? I will need to send a response back to Apple quickly so please let me know as soon as you can.'

"When Mr. Jobs learned that the Google recruiter who contacted the Apple employee would be 'fired within the hour,' he responded with a smiley face."
- New York Times, May 2, 2014
Edward Snowden is an innovator as well, but he has decimated U.S. national security through his actions. Why did he turn? 

According to the Vanity Fair story that came out this month, Snowden had once been proud to work for the CIA. According to VF it was Snowden who said:
“They’re like WikiLeaks…. They’re reporting classified s**t. Who the f**k are the anonymous sources telling them this?....HELLO? HOW COVERT IS IT NOW? … THAT S**T IS CLASSIFIED FOR A REASON.” 
But then he worked for the CIA in Geneva, and saw agents get someone drunk then use that information to turn him into an informant. (And other incidents.) This seemed immoral and turned him off.

He also got in trouble with his boss's boss - for being good at his job.
“Snowden resigned from the C.I.A. The circumstances remain in dispute….Snowden gave his version to the Times in an online interview: while angling for a promotion, he had gotten into a ‘petty e-mail spat’ with a senior manager over flaws Snowden had discovered in the C.I.A.’s human-resources software.

“His immediate boss told him to back down, but then allowed him to test the system. Snowden said he altered some of the code in an attempt to highlight the software flaws; his boss signed off on it, but the senior manager became ‘furious’ and took his revenge in the unflattering personnel comment. The incident convinced him, Snowden says, that trying to work through the system would lead only to reprisals.”
- Vanity Fair, May 2014
In life it is not always clear what is right and what is wrong.  Some of Tyler Perry's movies innovatively ask the same question over and over: What is morality really? How do you know? When is it right to break the rules? How do you recover when you've made a terrible mistake?

Perry has transformed his own pain through art. I think he is trying to understand how people can act so incredibly bad: His own father who beat him so badly he tried to kill himself and he was molested by a friend's mother and several men.

In Perry's Good Deeds breaking the rules is the right thing to do - walk away from everything and start fresh. In Confessions of a Marriage Counselor it's wrong and life-destroying.

The question is what do we as a culture do with people who break the rules. How do we use their gifts, while preventing their excesses from destroying themselves and others?

We haven't answered that question yet.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

How Modular Thinking Can Dramatically Increase Our Actionable Innovation Rate

Look at all the problems we've got to solve. The old ways aren't working, right? We need new approaches, new ideas, new technologies, new solutions. Break the mold, think outside the box, go where no wo/man has gone before, land a spaceship on the moon.

Oh and while you're at it, get some coffee at Starbucks so we can have another brainstorming session in the afternoon.

If you look at innovation this way, it can seem exhausting. And it's easy to see how people would do that. Think about the world of fashion design, where the "best" designers are often conflated with those who show us something we've never seen.

The truth is that innovation isn't about coming up with new ideas all the time. And if you're thinking that it does, you should stop wasting your time on innovation. Because you will never get anything meaningful done.

So maybe you are thinking that I advocate spending more time on operations and less time on coming up with new ideas. Not necessarily. 

Of course innovation does take time to implement. But given sufficient resources with which to do both, it's not really a choice of one versus the other; they're different disciplines. Again, let's go back to fashion design as an example. The designer first sketches the idea. Other professionals support the initial sketch with fabric, model fittings, the runway show, and eventually the version you see in stores.

This is the important process through which the original idea becomes usable. Yes, you have to follow it. No, it does not take away from the importance of generating new ideas continually.

And if you have limited resources you might actually have to stop innovating for awhile in order to see a really good Big Idea through.

But I'm focused on something else entirely. And that is:

How do we establish a methodology through which large numbers of actionable innovative ideas can be generated in the first place?

The answer is modular thinking, in which we decompose the aspects of a thing in order to re-compose it in new ways. 
  • Modular programming - develop blocks of code that can create multiple application functionalities. 
  • Modular cooking - use blocks of pre-made food that power an original recipe. 
  • Modular design - use blocks of design elements and put them together in different ways to create original looks for a room.

In the realm of cooking, otherwise untalented chefs learn to become talented and original by first studying established frameworks. Example, by nationality: Chinese, Italian, Indian, Jewish, Mexican. Or you can look at what celebrity chefs do: Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay, Julia Child. You can even watch your elders cooking as a child and learn from them.

You decompose what these chefs do, add an element of your own or shuffle things around a bit, and you are now original.

The modular approach has three layers.

The base layer is your meta-framework for innovation. 
  • For example, you may be a situational innovator. This is what you see on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with Guy Fieri, where locals who are in the right place at the right time are featured. They didn't have a master plan, but everything just "came together" the right way.
  • You may be a technical innovator with a cause, such as Edward Snowden. If you read "Snowden Speaks: A Vanity Fair Special Report", it is clear that he had incredible technical skills that enabled him to shift his approach on the fly despite the best efforts of the government to stop him.
  • You may be data-and-evidence-driven, and use methods such as competitions and cash challenges to determine which "crazy ideas" are worth pursuing. "Esther Dyson's Healthy Investments," in the Wall Street Journal.

The second layer consists of the building blocks that make sense within the base layer. For example, for a situational innovator, these will consist of whatever ingredients are around for a recipe. A technical innovator will, for example, use modular blocks of code or known technology pieces for a different purpose. A data-and-evidence type will reduce their field of vision to experiments that have a tangible result.

The third, or top layer is where the inspiration is. This is the indescribable, inescapable, hard to duplicate spark that requires individual genius. By supporting this layer with pre-successful methods, it has a far greater chance of success and we are able to support many more experiments with problem-solving.

* All opinions my own.