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Why The Floss Is More Important Than The Toothbrush

"Mrs. Blumenthal, it's been awhile since we've seen you," the dentist said. 
I shifted uncomfortably in the comfortable leather seat.
"Uh, you've never seen me."
Come again?
"You've seen Mr. Blumenthal," I said. "You've seen my kids. You've never seen me."
The dentist consulted his chart.
"You're right, Mrs. Blumenthal. We've never seen you."
I cringed. Here it comes.
"Why not? When was the last time you had a cleaning?"
Here comes the confession. Boom!
"I - I think it was - maybe a year ago?"
("You haven't been to the dentist in a year and a half!" my husband said later that evening. "And now it's going to cost us two thousand dollars!")
"Well why haven't you been?" asked the dentist.
He sounded genuinely puzzled.
"Ah - ah - more water, please." I rinsed and spat, embarrassed and buying time.
"I was thinking that if I stayed away from the dentist, then I wouldn't have a cavity."
Had I been able to, I'd have hung my face in shame. 
"Let me guess, you don't floss either," the dentist said.
Silence in the small exam room. Complete silence.
"Get me the anesthesia," the dentist said. "She's gonna need a double."
* * * 
I've known for years that I need to floss. But frankly it's inconvenient, a little time-consuming, and there's always the bad taste of blood at the end of it.
I don't like the reminder of decay, of death. Of the fact that the graveyard is inevitable.
So instead I brushed my teeth, faithfully.
The toothpaste smells good. The scrubbing-things-clean feels reassuring. And it's the very last thing I do before leaving home in the morning, so it makes me feel accomplished and complete.
* * * 
All of this points to the #1 fallacy of our collective thinking. A fallacy that costs us not just money, but misery and even lives.
We get all excited about launching things, a.k.a. "new beginnings." We love to architect, design, tinker. What could be sexier than a year of not shaving, not eating, working round the clock in the garage?
We get our knickers in a twist about the finish line, too. We plan the kickoff, the launch party, the ribbon-cutting, the ceremony: We love to "close the deal."
But we frankly ignore the middle. That unexciting middle. That arid stretch of desert, of plain old work, that nobody really celebrates. That is fraught with lack of motivation, failure, and missteps. That requires building and rebuilding and seemingly invisible maintenance once it's done.
We walk away from infrastructure, and so we build things that cannot stand.
* * *
My daughter is now choosing her college major. There is so much there to choose from; it seems quite overwhelming, in fact; the world before her so open, so full of stuff, so seemingly free.
As we all know a parent cannot tell a teenager anything. But if I could tell her something I would tell her this: No matter what you study, make it your business to gain the technical skills necessary to help a business build its infrastructure.
I read a lot of books in school and wrote critical analyses out the wazoo. And don't get me wrong: all of it has come in handy.
But money is scarce, nowadays. And the skills that are needed have to do with infrastructure. Making things and making them work, behind the scenes, so that the show can go on.
* * * 
Why most businesses fail? It's easy: They neglect their brands, they don't know how to build a brand, because branding is essentially infrastructure.
It is not the logo you've so carefully picked out, the color palette that so vividly depicts your corporate identity, not the "messaging" you repeat like a robot again and again.
Your brand is built in all those day-to-day, mostly hidden and hard-to-encapsulate ways that can broadly be described as "infrastructure." How you talk to your staff, how you answer the phone, how you track your projects and how you preserve your institutional knowledge. How you manage risk and how you prepare your enterprise for the future.
Maybe you thought this was boring, interchangeable, outsource-a-ble and the real work has to do with creativity, or "implementation."
If you've failed to understand the value chain, then you're right.
* * *
I'm building a brand right now. It is infrastructure. The brand itself is infrastructure, and the work I do is infrastructure too.
We're working in a very B2B space, which has been loosely defined as "advanced manufacturing." What you need to know, if you're not involved directly, is that it's the science of "making smart things in smarter ways."
Advanced manufacturing isn't a basic invention like the lightbulb. It's not a product you'll buy at the hardware store. It is an enormous, encompassing series of processes that enable you to take an invention you've already prototyped, and scale up its production rapidly and efficiently, so that your company can sell it worldwide.
In the United States, we have neglected our manufacturing infrastructure, woefully so. Unless you're in that sector and recognize that there is a crisis, and that it's hot, you don't really know about this; it's a nearly invisible deterioration. The subject brings up assorted headaches; it's had about as much glamour to the ordinary person as flossing.
But the important thing to know is that manufacturing's got teeth, quite literally. It's the primary building block of our economy. It enables us to take the things we invent and make them usable and sell-able, not just to a few people but to millions of them, billions of them, here at home and around the world. And not only that, but there are things you create when you develop infrastructure that themselves can become the primary inventions of the future.
Other countries know this and they plough money into manufacturing R&D. And over time, their investment has left us at a disadvantage.
* * * 
On my way out of the dentist's office I admitted that I hated flossing. "Is there anything else I can use?" I said, my eyes imploring the hygienist to give me some alternative that wouldn't be as unpleasant.
"It's called a dental irrigator," she said. "They invented it about a thousand years ago." And she shoved one in my hand.
Wouldn't you know it? The thing was invented right here in the U.S., more than 50 years ago, by a hydraulic engineer and a dentist.
A little bit of American infrastructure, made perfectly for my mouth.
I use it every day now - and it's great.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. There is a mention of my professional position in this post, and my understanding of the work that I do is consistent with the outreach I conduct on behalf of the federal government as part of my position. However, my communication here is personal in nature, does not represent a commentary on the management, policies, or budget of my agency or the federal government, and does not represent any attempt to conduct outreach on the government's behalf. Photo credit: 2-Dog-Farm via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

5 Reasons You Can't Find The Right Words

Very few people are actually bad at communication. I freely admit to being one of them. 
It's not to knock myself, but to be honest: I live so deeply in my head, I am such an introvert, that it actually feels like a painful and difficult waste of time to stop exploring the world of ideas and converse in the real world with other human beings.
For most other people, I've found, this is not an issue. Rather, it is that they are mentally constipated -- that is, they know what they have to say, and they feel the urgency to say it, but the words get stuck in their heads.
When it's not a result of some disability, difficulty communicating is normally caused by some external factor. In my observation, if you find yourself "stuck," it's because you've been unnaturally silenced:
  1. Intimately - by an abusive parent, trusted authority figure or romantic partner
  2. Professionally - at school or at work, on the grounds that you're somehow incompetent
  3. Structurally - by your class; either the social system in which you operate has deemed you dis-privileged (economically a failure, inferior, unworthy, criminal, mentally unstable) or super-privileged (wealthy, celebrity, politically powerful). In the former case, you're considered unworthy of an audience. In the latter, you're so worthy of an audience that communication from you is a risk that requires management
  4. Ideologically - you are part of a belief system in which words must be regulated, for example religion
  5. Officially - your job is to represent an organization, and therefore your remarks must be reviewed prior to your speaking
Of course, not all regulation of speech is bad, wrong or unnecessary. At the most basic level it keeps the social order intact; imagine if we all just said what we thought! (Baseball bat, anyone?)
And in our jobs, of course, we work in a team. We have to coordinate the things we say on behalf of the organization, if only because there are sensitivities that we might not be aware of, or policies that ensure an accurate and consistent message to the public. I myself am subject to these; we all need "rules of the road."
But what I'm talking about goes beyond the rational ordering of business and social life. It's irrational, a dysfunction, and represents the tendency of social systems to oppress their individual members, regardless of the intentions of the people inside the system.
We are very blessed in the United States that communication is protected. Our Declaration of Independence says we have an "inalienable" right to three things: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" -- and the First Amendment specifically protects free speech.
When you stop people from being themselves, you turn them neurotic -- depressed, symptomatic, and unable to simply relax and "be." It's the same thing that happens when you count calories, poke your head into people's bedrooms, take attendance at prayer services.
You see, communication is more than just an output of pictures and words. It's the flow of a person's natural human energy. It's representative of their unique existence. And when it's stuck, it's like their whole life is on hold.
So how to get oneself out of this? One suggestion: RUN --
  • Away from people who try to silence you.
  • Toward those who treasure the words you have to say. 
I am very fortunate. Though at times there were those who silenced me (well, they tried) it was my mother who ferociously encouraged me -- to write, sing, play the piano or any instrument, perform in theater, pursue art and fashion studies, and express my creativity in any way imaginable.
Sadly, in her own youth she was silenced fairly regularly. Not out of any intentional cruelty, but simply as a result of living in less enlightened times, where the intimate, the professional, and the structural mixed.
As an adult my mother made things right in her own way. 
Handed me pen, paper and a ride to any lesson I wanted.
And even today, every single day, in some way, shape or form, she encourages and empowers me to speak. 
All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by David Precious via Flickr. 

From an interchange on federal agency branding - blah, blah, blah

(From a round-robin discussion with colleagues - extracting some of my comments that may be useful.)

There is most definitely a sub-category of branding as a discipline that has to do with “what federal agencies can do” and even more specifically “how Congressional input affects federal agency branding.” 

That said, my perspective is a little more academic…I tend to think in more conceptual terms and also look at gov branding from the perspective of government as a business. (When it is of course much more complicated than that.) But at the end of the day, we’re all dealing with the same group of people we call “the public,” and if it doesn’t work for them, it just doesn’t work.

One way the differing frameworks play out is when you define what exactly is a brand. 

From an academic, conceptual point of view, that is if we’re looking at the “science” of it and not the policy, the brand is the symbol that lives in the customer’s mind when they think of you. If you have one, that is. 

Meaning: It’s not necessarily what YOU say, what the law says, what the seal says, and what the name is. It is only perception.

(And the truth is, none of us live in a perfect brand world…only a work in progress.)

In any case, some thoughts about why there’s always a fracture when it comes to agreeing on the unit of the brand. 

(For example, with the Amtrak crash last night, CNN is talking a lot about the “DOT” and some about the “NTSB” and not at all about “the government”…so which brand is the public expecting to see?)

1. Legislation creates new organizational units and dissolves others.

2. People use branding to stake a claim to turf.

3. It’s hard to get people to do the same thing consistently – they like to vary the communication to keep it interesting to themselves. (The audience prefers consistency, which can seem “boring” and “stifling.”)

4. Disagreement over communication methods, policies, etc. or ignorance about them leads to people going rogue.

5. Research is time-consuming, expensive, involves paperwork, etc. 

6. Lack of education about brand architecture – Nabisco vs. Oreos vs. Nutter Butters etc. 

7. Tendency to ask the communicators last.

8. Lack of attention to forward planning – tendency to be reactive.  

FYI (as always) not speaking for my agency or any agency here.

New Video: "Open Opps Task Creator Dannielle Blumenthal" (Go GSA - It's A Great Program.)

Why Leadership Cannot Be Deferred, Distributed or Delegated

"Moses," said G-d, a few thousand years ago.
"I need you to abandon your solitary existence and peaceful life, confront Pharoah, and liberate your brothers and sisters, the broken and enslaved Jews. Get them out of Egypt. Now."
"Are you kidding, G-d?" Moses reportedly said.
"What's the problem?"
"I've got a speech impairment," said Moses. "You know that. Who's going to listen to me?"
"Hey Moses, don't be a wiseguy," retorted G-d. "If I think you can handle it, you can handle it."
* * * 
We frequently hear that senior executives tend to be grandiose, narcissistic, and even sociopathic.
They are obsessed with themselves, we hear. They want to see themselves in the spotlight. And if they don't land above the fold of the print edition with a positive quote, then the hell with the mission and the people they serve.
A skit on Saturday Night Live a few months back captured the sentiment perfectly. It showed a former New York City mayor so obsessed with being visibly in charge of a crisis, that he invents one and urges us to "stay calm."
It plays into our natural jealousy of leaders that we depict them as egomaniacs. But the truth is, a leader who shies away from the stage is not a leader. Every mission needs a person to serve as its ambassador, champion and chief evangelist.
When it is your time to lead, you must take the microphone.
* * *
A quarter of a century ago I took the train to Crown Heights, Brooklyn to seek the blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may he rest in peace.
If you're not familiar: The Rebbe was the spiritual leader of a subgroup of Hasidim also known as "Chabad," that believes very deeply in outreach.
"Chabadniks" seek to influence fellow Jews to perform the mitzvot, the 613 commandments given to us in the Bible, and in this way to redeem the world from evil and make it ready for Messiah.
To do this they go to the remotest parts of the world and set up shop. They find Jews traveling or doing business and offer them a kosher Sabbath meal, plus a low-pressure chance to attend a class or maybe even synagogue.
Chabad became a reality for me, and for many Jews, in one and only one way: the visage of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zichrono lebracha (z"l), may his memory be a blessing. Every home, every store, every building was covered with his visage.
Jews don't believe in idol worship and the Lubavitchers worship only the one G-d. But the Rebbe offered himself as a physical channel through which we could reach through to the intangible reality that gives us life and limb.
On that day, that beautiful day, I recall that there was an incredibly long line to actually get to the Rebbe. I was sad, I was morose, I was depressed, I had no feeling about my mission in life. I was adrift.
This elderly gentleman, whom I had never seen in my life, took my eyes in his eyes and in that moment took my soul to the its outer limits. And he handed me a dollar, as was the custom, and said only three words: "Besever Panim Yafot,"  which means in English, "approach every moment with a smile on your face."
I have never forgotten those words or that moment before the Rebbe. And as I approach my own path in life, it frequently occurs to me that his leadership is something I could only get from his presence, not from reading words in a book.
Photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, (z"l) via Wikipedia. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole.

(Your Job Is To) Follow The Conversation

In the age of the empowered citizen, the age of trying to "control the conversation" is over. Well over.
It's taken us a long time to actually get that memo, and some of us are still processing the digital ink it's printed on. What it means.
Instead, there's still a lot of focus on "brand-building". Where a message is transmitted, sent, broadcast, conveyed, built, assembled, put together, created, integrated. Produced and reproduced consistently and in a "friendly, approachable" way across multiple channels.
Except now, we try to do it on Instagram and Snapchat.
Such activity is not completely fruitless. But it's not the best you can do, either -- not by a long shot.
Real branding means becoming a part of the ecosystem in such a way that your presence adds a perceived value. 
  • Take food. While it's true that a calorie is a calorie, ten minutes into Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown and you realize that a sandwich is very much a cultural production. So trying to sell it involves a hell of a lot more than simply toasting bread and loading it up with mayonnaise and meat.
  • Or real estate. How big a home ought to be, what features it must have, what distinguishes luxury from vintage from the lowdown and rundown involves a whole host of social decisions. Just watch House Hunters International.
Branding means being an inveterate and terrible observer of other people's lives. It is curiosity about bikers discussing espresso variations at Starbucks. It is Birkenstocks fascination, "Stuff White People Like," yoga pants to the knee, dads on Sunday wheeling baby strollers, messenger bags of a specific size, tie-dye kits at the craft store, vapes, the Ice Bucket challenge, Comic-Con, "Yes We Can," Between Two Ferns, velociraptor memes, Teespring, the Internet of Things, Uber.
It is, further, following the conversation about those things. It is observing a Mother's Day brunch at a sidewalk cafe, listening to people talk politics at Panera, seeing the questions that trend on Quora and the hashtags trending on Twitter. It is looking at the daily RSS feed and glancing at the articles that appear on the right side of Facebook with the little arrows. 
Finally, it is tracing how the discussion of a thing, a cultural phenomenon, evolves from face-to-face, to Facebook, to Quora, to the Washington Post, a book, a late-night discussion of same, and then it's boring...until someone resurrects it and the whole topic seems to begin anew.
If you think about it, branding is a lot like anthropology...watching the stock market...a kind of surfing.
Most of the job involves learning, then riding, the waves.
All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Ewan McIntosh via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Colliding With The Third Rail

It is the classic dilemma of a corporate mouthpiece: the client doesn't want to talk.
  • Crisis? "Let's wait for the lawyers."
  • Bad news? "It'll blow over."
  • Gossip? "Just ignore that."
The underlying assumption is always the same, too: "If you give them any attention, you're only legitimizing their argument."
Recently I learned this term, "the third rail." As in super-sensitive, controversial topics too dangerous for a politician to discuss.
Whether you're in politics or not, it is unfailingly "third rail" for a communicator to argue with the client's discomfort at arguing their case in the court of public opinion.
One of the all-time best theorists of organizational dysfunction, Chris Argyris, called the failure to question assumptions a problem of "double-loop learning." That is to say, unhealthy organizations not only take certain incorrect things for granted, but they resist -- almost to the death, and sometimes fatally -- any attempt to critically examine those beliefs.
In an unhealthy organization, communication about things that matter is impossible, because:
  • Problems are denied until they become an unpleasant crisis. The prevalent belief: "out of sight, out of mind."
  • Crises are ignored until they become catastrophes: "Talking about problems only makes them real."
  • Great communicators, who recognize what's going on and try to moderate the effect by opening the spigot of speech, are viewed as a threat and eliminated.
A very long time ago I printed a thousand pages of research on a very real crisis that was about to explode, and did explode, and it was awful.
But this was before it happened. And the person to whom I showed it looked at the pile of paper and turned to me and said: "Be careful."
The person who said this was not my "enemy." Just the opposite - they were obviously concerned for my professional welfare.
Because I'd hit that third rail, full-on, dead center. If I pressed forward any further, I'd undoubtedly cross the red-hot, nuclear "red line."
In the end I let it go. I had reached the limits of my effectiveness and my pay grade; persistence would only have served to get me fired.
In the many years since I've come close to that "third rail" many a time. And I think I've figured out the secret to putting your hand on that molten iron, without coming away irretrievably burned.
You realize this: Bad situations build up over time. They're complex; they're multi-stakeholder; they normally involve a really smelly stew of greed, sometimes sex, and the lust for power. Only the fool would dare to step in without knowing if they're pulling on the red wire that sets off the bomb, or the green one that defuses it.
Most errors in judgment involve ignorance like this, plus a healthy measure of ego - wanting to be the best, to solve the intractable problem that seemingly nobody else could get their arms around.
A better course of action, if you're a communicator? Look around you, keep your instinctive and emotional antennae high, speak calmly and logically about what you see, talk about risk, but most importantly, draw in "the wisdom of the team."
By working together, leveraging the power of multiple intelligences, knowledge bases and institutional memories -- plus the innate desire we all have to make a difference -- the chances of succeeding are much greater than they are when you go it alone.
Even if you can't make a dent in this round, you're more likely to live to fight another day.
All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my employer (a federal agency) or the government as a whole. Photo credit: Arby Reed via Flickr Creative Commons.