How To Fire All The Bureaucrats

Today I had to take care of a small errand and was struck by the inefficiency with which government works:

  • Before walking in the door, I couldn't figure out which instructions applied to me. I could barely even find them on the website.
  • The appointment system was telephone-based, a frustrating waste of time.
  • Once in the appointment all the forms were paper-based and an ink signature was required.
I am familiar with the government tendency to resist change and avoid new technology until it's absolutely impossible to ignore it.

  • Nobody wants to take a risk and get into trouble.
  • Nobody wants to get automated out of a job.
  • Nobody wants to collaborate if that means losing their power.
These are natural human tendencies and I totally understand them. But they're not productive for our society. In the example above:

  • How much time is going to get wasted manually reviewing and transferring the paper data to a computer system? 
  • How many dead PDFs are we going to create and then try to integrate into a database system down the road? 
  • How many records will we generate now, only to be completely befuddled later as to what matters and what doesn't?

A failure to streamline government is only going to further strain extremely large socio-economic problems that are about to get much, much worse:
  1. Automation will end most demand for human labor – manual, administrative, even customer service.
  2. The end of jobs will trigger a corresponding rise in need for social services.
  3. True competition will become impossible in an economy controlled by the wealthy and powerful few.
  4. Interconnected, integrated, interoperable, easily accessed Big Data will eradicate the possibility of privacy. 
  5. Small terrorist cells with dangerous weapons will finally be taken seriously for the grave threat they pose.
The way to handle these problem is fairly straightforward but will require a big change in attitude to adjust to. We're not going to be able to live the same way anymore. For example, kids aren't going to graduate college with the expectation of a job. It's just not happening. So here's what we as a society have to do in order to adapt. These are very broad general approaches, I'll leave it to others to figure out the details.
  1. Get ahead of the curve and stop reacting defensively. The risk of not acting is bigger than the risk of the status quo.
  2. Stop quibbling over details and unite around a broadly shared vision of progress. Nobody wins with all the divisiveness.
  3. Use commercial, off-the-shelf technology to the maximum extent possible. There is no excuse to be dragging our feet on this.
  4. Protect civil rights, dissent and privacy; promote transparency; form fully independent external bodies to regulate the regulators.
  5. Incorporate strong security practices into everything we do. There are a lot of people who want to foment and take advantage of chaos, to steal our freedom and our lives along with it.
Government workers secretly fear that their jobs will become irrelevant in the new economy. That may be true in some cases. But it's probably more true that our role will evolve:
  1. To rebalance major power inequities and promote national competitiveness through a whole-of-society approach to the major issues that confront us.
  2. To protect people's rights and make sure that vulnerable populations are supported.
  3. To maintain social order and prevent chaos from breaking out.
As we go about our day-to-day lives it's really easy to stick our heads in the sand and let others worry about the problems. But at some point you look around and realize it's you that's got the football. And that your standing there at a press conference, with no excuse as to why you've let it deflate.

Photo by Me and the Sysop via Flickr. All opinions my own.

The Brand Under Which We Fight

This is the United States of America, the greatest country in the world, the country that stands for freedom.

  • You can be born in this country or immigrate here and you are still equally American.
  • Blonde, blue-eyed does receive no technical favor.
  • Your gender may be male, female, a combination or a voluntary migration from one to the other.
  • Your political views are tolerated even if the main agenda item on your platform is how to build a better taco.
  • You can pray standing up, sitting down or never.
  • You can wear unusual clothes and stand up and sing the National Anthem in a football stadium.
  • You are free to live wherever you want, among whoever you want.

This is the greatest country in the world - the greatest civil society ever known. The grandest vision of humanity living side-by-side in total difference, yet not forcing homogeneity.

Other countries hold different distinctions. Israel is the Holy Land, at least to me; other countries may be more socially conscious, more innovative, more educated. But we stand for something: We pursue freedom.

In this country, we debate ideas and we speak the truth, our truth. We promote free speech, a competition in the marketplace of words: We don't put people in jail, or execute them, because they've made an insensitive joke.

We stay out of other people's business, unless those other people are infringing on someone's rights as they are defined by the laws of the country.

And we acknowledge that the law is not black and white but subject to interpretation. An evolving interpretation, because the law is not set in stone, either.

We are a democracy.

It is true, we have committed terrible sins on the way to becoming the envy of other civil societies, and unfortunately we still do. We don't live in a museum or an ivory tower; every day is a moment in a struggle over right and wrong and how we define ourselves.

But this is the greatest country in the world, anyway, and it is the brand under which we fight radical Islamic terrorists.

We should name them.

If there were a gang of radical Jewish terrorists blowing up magazines for publishing cartoons of Moses on the mountain, we would most definitely say who they were, and how they were justifying their attacks religiously.

If Catholic extremists were to bomb an abortion clinic we would most certainly name them.

It would go without saying that these individuals were perverting the essence of the faith to establish a deviant version of the religion. But this would still not negate their use of a particular set of religious principles to do so.

In any war it is important to establish what the sides are.

If you are fighting in a war, you will not win unless you believe that your side is right.

Make no mistake about it, we are deeply entrenched in a war, a war between two completely opposing ideologies of the world. Two visions of civil society, not of societies based specifically on religion.

The radical Islamic terrorist vision - as expressed in cults like Isis, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood -  is that you eliminate all who refuse to bow down before the most extreme interpretation of the Koran. And while it may be true that most Muslims are not terrorists - any more than Jews or Catholics - many, many people within Islam support very, very extremist views. Or 800,00 of them would call in sick the day they held a rally in Chechnya to support the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

The American vision is that everyone gets a seat at the dinner table. That women are free. That all the colors of the rainbow and the cultures in the world and all the ideas and ideologies and all the religious squabbling - all of it can take place right here, and we shake hands and go home and come back another day to be a Nation again.

My doctor is a Hungarian immigrant and she complains that the male paramedics ought to show her more respect when they come with an ambulance to pick up the patient whose pulse has dropped. But they don't, because she is a woman. I say go sister and right on. I tell her she should be in the doctor's hall of fame, she is such a good doctor. (She is.) And she says, they won't put me there, I'm a woman and an immigrant, but let me tell you something, more women should be on that list.

I look at my doctor and think to myself, in the Old Country, we'd be sitting in the kitchen or the back of the synagogue barely able to read. And we come here and we can both get doctoral degrees and get professional jobs and participate in the rousing debates that are part of civil society.

This civil society, the greatest civil society in the world, the greatest experiment in diversity and inclusion, this belief in competing with each other but taking care, too. This mutual journey toward freedom.

This is what we are fighting for.

I can tell that the President deeply believes in empowering the disadvantaged, in leveling the playing field so that all willing people can compete, in making sure that rich people can't take advantage of the poor.

I agree with  him.

Also, I can tell that he believes in more than tolerance for other nations, other worldviews. He believes in a deep respect. He does not think the U.S. is somehow superior to other countries, other cultures, and other political systems, even those based on theocracy. He finds it morally repugnant to assert that you are better than anybody else.


The President believes the U.S. has a debt to pay for the way we've thrown our weight around and trampled on native cultures.

Check, check and check.

Here's the problem though: Too much of a good thing. For whatever reason - because there will always be things we don't know and don't understand - the President has taken respect for other cultures to an extreme.

It's sort of like being a self-hating Jew. You can tell who they are because they say things like, "You can be anti-Israel but not anti-Semitic. Let me explain that to you." Or, "The Torah is barbaric." Or, "Jews can be the biggest jerks." Such people make exaggerated statements because they, themselves have a fundamental problem with the fact that they possess a Jewish identity. There is something about the religion itself, and their connection to it, that is deeply embarrassing.

That is the kind of feeling I sense in the President. I think he is a moral person who wants what is best for America. But I also sense his deep embarrassment at our past and current moral failings - the same way Jews are legitimately ashamed when they believe that Israel, or a fellow Jew, has besmirched their reputation by behaving immorally.

It is a painful truth of life that we all get forced to confront the things that are most painful. For this President, who is deeply respectful of and connected to Islam, the dilemma is that he must face radical elements within the faith - who use the faith, who can point to chapter and verse to justify their beliefs and behaviors - who seek to "punish" the U.S. so badly that they would eliminate our Nation altogether.

And they'd take Israel down along with it, probably first if they had their 'druthers. Because Israel is a gigantic, gigantic thorn in their side, with its insistence that you can preserve a religious homeland while also providing citizenship and freedom for all.

The clock is ticking on us all. Radical Islamic terrorists are sitting around and thinking about one thing, just one thing, day and night. Their brand is very sharp and clear and focused and they find it relevant and they fight for it, loudly and softly, explicitly and implicitly, with weapons of war and weapons of words, every minute of every second of the day.

Here is what happens when you ignore, deny, delay and appease terrorists.

You find out, four decades after you were born, what the great-aunts and uncles you never met looked like, because they were carted off to concentration camp and only one survivor had the resourcefulness to send their pictures to the historical society to preserve their memories.

Here is one of them, my great-aunt (RIP) Vicky Mandel, who died in 1944 in Auschwitz.

Do you think I really like sitting around writing these kinds of articles? I want to go back to writing brand research, to sifting out the equity in Coca-Cola versus Red Bull.

Nobody likes a war. We want to think about relationships, career, how to make a better smoothie, debate over whether the iPhone 6 is too big.

But we don't have the luxury of ignoring what is happening "out there." The war is on, and it's coming closer and closer to us every day.

Now, more than ever, we need the President to come down on the side of America's brand. To make a decision that the kind of freedom we have is worth fighting for, tooth and nail. That we must get into the dirt and fight these people, even if some of the things they say are true and even if we as a Nation have not been perfect. It's true, we have been far from perfect.

This is the greatest country in the world, not because of the things we've done but because of the ideals we stand for as a civil society. It is a country that allows me to write open letters to the President without sending the secret police to my door to arrest me.

The United States, at all times, needs the President. We need him to believe that our cause is just and true.

Freedom is the brand under which we fight.

Mr. President, please lead us in this war, with passion. 

Only you, only you can do this.  [1/25/2015 update: Removed this sentence in recognition of G-d's omnipotence; He is the Most Holy on High. I apologize for this wording.]


All opinions my own.

A Personal Reflection This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2015 and I should be talking about his vision.

But instead I am thinking more about Malcolm X.

Both men were powerful civil rights leaders. But each espoused a different approach; whereas MLK believed in diplomacy, Malcolm X stood for directness.

(Including his open belief that Jews control the economy and are exploitive of African-Americans, for which he was called anti-Semitic, a charge he denied.)

From The Autobiography of Malcolm X:
  • "A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything."
  • "I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it."
Malcolm X was a Muslim and it is his pure sensibility I think we need today to confront the global war against radical Islamic terrorism.
  • He promoted tolerance as a general principle: "I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation - EVERY form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color."
  • But he would not be tolerant of people who disrespected him: "I believe in the brotherhood of man, all men, but I don't believe in brotherhood with anybody who doesn't want brotherhood with me. I believe in treating people right, but I'm not going to waste my time trying to treat somebody right who doesn't know how to return the treatment." — Speech, Dec. 12 1964, New York City.
  • Finally, he refused to apologize for advocating self-defense: "There is nothing in our book, the Koran, that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent. Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That's a good religion." — "Message to the Grass Roots," speech, Nov. 1963, Detroit (published in Malcolm X Speaks, ch. 1, 1965).
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. uniquely understood that all people were the same under the skin, and so he approached racial problems from the lens of finding that common point.

Malcolm X believed we would find peace and harmony only by confronting the truth. And if the truth hurt people's feelings, well then that was just inevitable.

And if Malcolm X were still alive, he would tell the President loud and clear: Radical Islamic terrorists bear no resemblance to Islam.

Today I watched American Sniper in the theater, and the audience was at first completely silent as the credits closed, then spontaneously broke out into applause before leaving. 

The film is about American hero Chris Kyle and his resolve to fight against terrorists overseas, and to take care of his fellow veterans after coming home. 

Underneath the surface the message is that we aren't doing enough to get the job done and we aren't supporting our active-duty military or our veterans nearly the way we should be. 

Sadly, many complain about the moral dilemmas associated with war - they resist the military necessity to defend our nation - even as they take advantage of the freedom others earn on their behalf.

American Sniper is a blockbuster hit, it's earned $119 million since its short release so far, and if you watch the movie you will find out why: It defines what it means to be a patriot.

Today we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s commitment to realizing the dream of civil rights no matter how endless the march.

But we should also be honoring the prophetic vision of the man who was similarly assassinated as he was speaking for his people.

"If you're not ready to die for it, put the word 'freedom' out of your vocabulary," said Malcolm X.

No matter how badly you want peace, it is simply not possible to achieve it with people who seek to kill you.


All opinions my own. Photo from the Korean War via Wikimedia. The title of this post has been updated.

"Labor Day," A Chick Flick On Steroids (Filed Under: Kate Winslet)

Last night I had the chance to pick the movie (Netflix) and I went to the "Romantic Movies" section and Andy went "Oh, no...."
It was either this or "Jayne Eyre" and I went with this because KATE WINSLET. I say to Andy, "That's Kate Winslet, she was in 'Titanic,'" prompting Andy to say "I hated Titanic" but then, kindly "you did sit through the Zombie show."
The movie started off kind of slow but then again as Andy said, "high budget" and I got the feeling it was going to be good.
I guarantee there is going to be a night when you're sitting around, feeling extremely female and feminine and romantic and womanly and you'll want to watch a truly quality movie on the caliber of "The Notebook" that makes you cry your bleeping head off.
Andy was making jokes throughout the first part, i.e. "Look I've fallen in love with a criminal" and I was laughing pretty hard, but by the second part Kate Winslet was doing the true Kate Winslet thing...suffering and longing for love, love, love...crying for her loss and the shitty way the world has treated her (and I don't want to spoil it by saying more).
There is a feminist argument to be made here about how film directors punish women for their sexuality and I'm not going to ruin it and go there because...KATE WINSLET. If you liked her in Titanic and you liked her in Revolutionary Road you are going to watch this movie and CRY YOUR EYES OUT.
It is funny from a guy's perspective. Andy sees me sitting there and sobbing..he goes "I'm sorry the movie got you upset." And I'm like, "I'm HAPPY that I got to see it, but I feel SO BAD for KATE WINSLET."
It's a holiday today, you must watch. There.

P.S. Notes for marketers:
  • Focus on the celebrity: I watched this movie because of the Kate Winslet brand. It was "her" not the plot or the trailer.
  • Hyper-focus on your audience: You cannot go too far in tailoring your content. Understand and approach your audience with very thorough knowledge of their interests, needs, etc.
  • Think about the role of consumption influencers: I would not have paid to see this movie in a theater, because Andy and I pick the movies together. Thus some content is better tailored for a Netflix-type viewing environment, where each person can choose content more tailored to their individual taste.

All opinions my own.

Real Branding Is For Worker Bees

The fantasy and fallacy of courses in brand is that consultants work like The Wizard of Oz.
You think we stand behind a curtain, flipping switches and pulling levers, cogitating and ruminating. Until, like a pregnant woman, our water breaks. And a fully-formed, living, breathing brand pops out into the world, ready to "rock and roll" and accumulate more and more equity on behalf of its creator.
The truth is, we consultants - client-side or consulting-side - are nothing more than teeny, free-floating space stations in an infinitesimal galaxy of stakeholder planets.
And there are many planets in your galaxy, even more than you know. Every time a resident of one of them utters a breath, your brand has been not just represented but re-created.
It's like a giant game of Operator. And the impact is magnified by every action these stakeholders take. Remember, it is the experience that defines the brand image in the customers' mind - talk is cheap, actions matter and people judge you by what you do, not just what you say.
Every supervisor, to staff. Every salesperson. Every chatty customer service rep. Every supplier, every distributor, every recruiter, every partner, every Wikipedia maven who edits your entry, every journalist and graphic designer and copywriter and public relations rep and subject matter and hired hand for the trade show.
All these people, all of them are the ecosystem of your brand. It is the least informed among them who will make the strongest impression.
So what then is the role of the brand specialist?
It is to bring together the various stakeholders and unite them around the cause. It is to shepherd the meaning of the brand among all its various interactions.
The chief brand specialist is always the leader, whether they like it or not and whether they know it or not. For your brand, that means you. For the nation, it means the President of the United States. For a company, the CEO. This is the person who stands under the spotlight at all times, whose every action is examined microscopically and from whom meaning is extrapolated to the larger group.
This person obviously cannot do it alone...being the star of the show they need a solid supporting cast. That is where you come in, if your job is explicitly defined as brand. You don't think up things and issue orders and snap your fingers to make the brand appear and dance a jig.
You serve the Chief Branding Officer.
And if you think that you can limit your role to anything in the realm of communications - branding, marketing, advertising, PR, sales, digital engagement, etc. - you are sorely wrong, wrong, wrong.
In this role you function much more like a senior business advisor, you must work together with the functional chief of staff or equivalent at the leader's roundtable. It is your job to look across the entire organization, to see where the business itself is working or where its effectiveness is blocked.
And you make sure that the functional issues are attended to, while also making sure the fundamental communications bases are covered, quietly supporting the leader in being consistent and relevant and credible. Working with the experts who actually know the work of the company, to make the message accurate. De-cluttering it visually and verbally to ensure it is simple and punchy and clear.
So your day-to-day life is not exalted, you aren't in a think-tank and you don't stand around brainstorming "concepts" most of the time.
The truth is you're just another worker bee, and if you're with the right brand you are swept up by its meaning, its potential to make a real difference in the world.
Holistic brand management is a process. You learn it by studying a little, and doing a lot. Your reward is having been a part of the journey.
All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.

The Spitball (a family memory)

A classic Andy Blumenthal story. He wrote about it in his blog but I have to tell you how it went down from where I sat.

We go into the pizza place last night for fries. A bunch of teenagers sits right next to us and they are normal kids - loud.

All of a sudden a spitball lands on Andy's ear. You should have seen his expression, it was like WTF, and I could see he was a little bit startled. He picks up the spitball and we just look at it. 

I'm thinking, uh-oh because if you know Andy you know that sending a spitball his way is not a good idea.

I go "don't worry, they're just kids," etc. typical mom trying to keep the peace.

Suddenly he picks up one of my French fries and his hand is kind of wobbling...before I know it he lets his hand fly and the fries have landed in the kids' camp.

One of the girls in the gang must have said something, I didn't hear it or see her expression, but the Mashgiach (kosher supervisor - who is a kid himself not much older than them) comes running over to scold THEM for throwing food! He tells them they better pick it up.

Meanwhile Andy is laughing so hard his shoulders are shaking, and me and Rebecca Blumenthal are too, and we are laughing for what seems like forever.

Finally Rebecca says, "Dad, you are the coolest Dad ever. I love you."

It was a great moment.


All opinions my own.

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