Saturday, March 26, 2016

Branding is for Bubblebrains

Have you heard about this new term of art in branding?
It sounds like some sort of adult toy. I had to look this up.
Turns out that "brandcuffs" are a restrictive style guide, so strict they don't allow any wiggle room when it comes to conveying the brand.
The point of course is to make sure that the communicators you pay to convey said brand don't f- it up.
The implication is that your communicators are stupid.
I have long been sort of annoyed-slash-frustrated at the tendency of companies to think about their most important function - communication - as a lowest-common-denominator thing.
It's almost as if they literally think that typing is the same thing as writing. That knowing how Twitter works is the same thing as knowing what to tweet. 
Or, worse, that talking to the customer - by email, on the telephone or on instant chat - is the same thing as getting them engaged. 
It's not.
(We all know this, right?)
The business genius Peter Drucker was 100% on target when he said that "a business exists to create a customer."
But as all of us already know, but maybe don't think about so much (because new ads are sexier than loyalty campaigns) - it's a hell of a lot cheaper, smarter and more efficient to invest in the customers you have than to constantly ignore them in favor of strangers.
And of course, the way you keep your customers delighted, and coming back for more, more, more - is consistent, personalized, structured (and yes, sometimes boring and irritating) customer service. Particularly for those who buy the most things for the highest price tag.
Think about it:
  • The entirety of your business is your brand. Not the widgets you think you sell.
  • The entirety of your brand is lodged, living and breathing, in the relationships you have with each and every customer. Dispersed among them. Not in your brochures, or your "brandcuff."
  • The relationships you have with each and every customer are unique, they develop over time, and they are real. Relationships cannot be programmed or scripted.
I am confident that we are looking at a robotized future, where most of the work is done by automated creatures we have dreamed up in a lab.
But the thinking work cannot be delegated.
Do you know what makes terrorist propaganda over social media channels so successful, while efforts to counter them have miserably failed?
It is that counter-terrorists refuse to un-handcuff their communicators.
For in a system run by terrorists, the only qualification is fanatical loyalty to a simple shared cause that all understand. 
There is no other litmus test for a Tweet.
New recruits buy into the messages broadcast over social media. Soon, they establish relationships with actual people. They join a shadowy world where they can shed their previous bland identities and immerse themselves in purpose.
How do you fight that? That's the ultimate one-on-one brand-building campaign, and the person standing on the other side of that wall is braying insults with both hands tied behind their back.
Facts are stubborn things and the simple fact about branding is that the relationships upon which it depends must be built by intelligent people who are just as fanatically dedicated to their cause as their competitors.
The people you hire to take your brand to the top - whether in service of national security or simply trying to elbow the corner Starbucks out of business - absolutely must be empowered to win over each customer, one at a time.
Ideally you will have some sort of database supplementing their efforts as well (I am familiar with, but there are undoubtedly many other great products), so that interactions with customers begin to be tracked and over time, you have a picture of each individual that is part of your unique business orbit.
Also ideally, you want to combine the customer relationship management system with a data mining system that tells you which of your customers is spending on what and how much - so you can isolate the highest value interactions and focus most of your time on those. 
(Business isn't social work.)
When that customer comes in, any person who is part of your team can tap ito the program and then address them in the most unique, friendly and personalized terms - instead of numbly repeating the same nonsense words, over and over again, like a robot.
Which only serves to infuriate the customer, not to endear your brand to them.
Here's another example: Have you heard of the Jack Welch MBA Program?
They advertised on LinkedIn and I inquired once.
That was probably three months ago, and I have never followed up.
Do you know that the person assigned to my original inquiry is still reaching out to me?
And these aren't your standard-issue cookie-cutter emails, either.
They're actually interesting, personalized letters that seem like they are specifically tailored to me, asking when I can talk, get assessed for my career goals, and develop an action plan that will move me, in my specific, particular snowflake career, forward.
I may never get an MBA in this lifetime.
But you can bet your bottom dollar I'll always think of the Jack Welch program if and when I do decide to pursue one.
Now you may be thinking - such personal attention is unrealistic. After all, brands can get very big - massively so. How can they actually converse as human beings with each individual customer?
I am here to tell you that they absolutely can, and technology makes it more possible than ever, and that they have to.
The only thing getting in the way is attitude.
If you as a business owner have the attitude that communication is your least important function as versus "real things" like new product development and enhancement, you're screwed.
There is always room for another hamburger.
If you favor "hard skills" because they're seemingly difficult to learn and require a lifetime of commitment by so-called "smart people," you're biased.
Emotional intelligence is really, really, really hard to come by these days.
The heart and soul of your brand always comes down to the person who interacts with the customer. Even if you operate an e-commerce business, hopefully you aren't planning to replace humanity with a machine.
You say you value your customer service staff? Think about how little you are probably paying this person, how rarely or perfunctorily you are training them, how excessive the restriction you're placing on their interactions with the customer.
Do you make them say, before anything else: "I'm Jennifer, ID#5344, this conversation is recorded to ensure the highest possible level of customer service?" 
That, my friend, is a "brandcuff!"
Do you really think a person suffocating under the weight of your condescending mistrust is going to provide a return on investment?
Or maybe you think the only person who can build your brand is you - and possibly your highly paid, empowered and pampered senior management team.
Hm. I don't think that you have time to deal with every customer.
Maybe it's time to rethink.
All opinions my own. Photo by Javcon117 via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

Notes on Today's Speech By Dr. Tal Becker

Dr. Tal Becker, a prominent thinker and adviser to Israel, gave today's speech in synagogue (B'nai Israel, Rockville, MD). 

Overall my takeaway was: good that we are talking about a positive message and identity for Israel rather than a victim-y one. Bad that there was no mention of G-d in this message.

But many good points:

1. Israel's need for a "sovereign state of mind": There is a difference between having a state, and thinking like one. Elements of a sovereign state of mind:

a. Overcoming the synagogue mentality:  When it comes to synagogue, each individual member tends to want the shul to "conform to their specific requirements." Israel needs to get away from that tribal mindset. Talked about growing up in Australia and going to the shul specifically established by the Auschwitz survivors, and then there was a breakaway shul from that.

b. Commonality: Israel often feels like "what's left over" after each "tribe" has tried to pull the country totally in its own direction. Need to create a national environment where we are all one even if I vehemently disagree with you.

c. Metric for success: Things are getting better. Not that things are perfect.

2. Getting out of crisis mode: The mood at AIPAC was one of worry. Anxiety is the Jewish mode of approaching Israel. The shtetl Jew transported to Israel. But fear is not an inspiring, engaging, productive message for the next generation. 

3. What are we striving for? Articulate it to engage: To be "safe, normal and exceptional."

a. Safe means an end to being victimized by antisemites. Not there yet, but progress. 

b. Normal means relationships and trade with other countries, which is the case with 161 out of 194 (my best recollection of what he said).

c.  Exceptional means that the Land, its inhabitants, its culture and its achievements are wondrous, amazing, something you have to see and experience for yourself.

4. The difference between messianic thinking (everything will be perfect tomorrow) and state-oriented thinking (let's roll up our sleeves and make things better now). An awesome opportunity we have as the State exists.

5. American Jews are a minority that feels and acts like a comfortable majority. Israelis are a majority that feel and act like a minority.


All opinions my own.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Grateful To Be Alive

I was so moved by something this missionary said on TV.

CNN interviewed him about what it was like to survive the terrorist attacks that took place in Brussels this week.

I can imagine that if I were G-d-forbid wrapped in head-to-toe bandages for any reason - especially after a monstrous, horrific terrorist attack - I would be very, very angry and depressed.

Squirming with claustrophobia, too. Eating myself alive.

But all I heard from the missionary was: "I am just so grateful to G-d." 

And he meant it. I could tell.

It is amazing how some people have so much faith.

Even when logic says that they should feel hopeless.

I feel very small next to a spiritual giant like this. 

All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

How to Get Organized

Sometimes it helps to have these common-sense reminders handy:
1. Wake up an hour early. Stick to a schedule while you're at it. You'll sleep better too.
2. Get your priorities in order - one day, when you're relaxed. You should know the top 5 by heart.
3. Make a list of to-dos every morning.
4. Plan ahead - actually put things on the calendar.
5. Don't confuse busywork with important work - eliminate wasted time from your life.
6. Do one thing at a time & concentrate.
7. Make time for helpful people. Let them talk. Listen. Then help them back.
8. Avoid toxic people. This takes a different kind of resolve and a measure of self-esteem.
9. Make healthy food in bulk and carry it with you. Save time and money and think straight.
10. Exercise before you go to work. It gets you focused and makes you feel good all day.
All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

5 Telltale Signs of a Challenged Corporate Culture

Think of corporate culture as the human spine. If it's well-formed and agile, it supports the body well over time; if it's bent out of shape inside, the body winds up in enormous and constant pain.
Unfortunately, when an organization is misaligned, the pain is felt not only companywide but also by its individual employees. So no matter what your role in your own organization, here are 5 things to look for to assess its level of health. If something is out of whack, it pays to prepare yourself in advance for managing the symptoms that will inevitably come up:
  • Decision-making:  A framework of principles, informed by a constant stream of data, is a healthy way to plot a course of action. It is not healthy to delay decisions interminably or to use arbitrary, gut-based, person-based, situational "I just feel like it" reasoning.
  • Empowerment: Define the job accurately, hire people who can do the job and who play well with others, and then let them do their job. If you're second-guessing them every minute, you may as well fire them and save the money. 
  • Prioritization: Yes you have a lot of things to do and a lot of emails within which to discuss those things. No all of those things are not equally important. Dump most of it and there will be absolutely zero impact to your productivity. An organization that refuses or fails to prioritize and instead categorizes busywork as productivity is an organization that is trying to engage in empire-building rather than the delivery of value to the customer.
  • Attitude: We are excited to be here. We have a great team. We are here to improve, we can improve and we will improve without fail. This is the way work should be approached every single second of every day. A culture of negativity, gossip, complaining, and rumination about why things will never get better is a culture that drags otherwise positive people down into a pit. That pit will swallow innovation whole.
  • Meetings: They should be relatively short and oriented at engaging people in a discussion. Attendees need to know the agenda in advance and do their homework beforehand. If some people are sitting around picking their noses and playing with their iPhones under the desk while other people are droning on and on and on seemingly without end - then something is wrong.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should not try to fix any or all of these problems on your own. As a sociologist with nearly twenty years of studying organizations both formally and informally, I can tell you that this is a recipe for workplace suicide.
What you can do, though, is model a healthier way; call out the contradictions between the company's espoused ideals and the ones it is practicing. Over time, as you quietly demonstrate consistent productivity, others will follow your example.
All opinions my own. Photo credit: U.S. Army via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

RIP, Andy Grove

Best known as the CEO of Intel, Andy Grove was a Holocaust survivor who went through hell:

"By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis' "Final Solution," the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint. . . [where] many young people were killed; countless others were interned."

Unsurprisingly his motto was "only the paranoid survive," he wrote a book by the same name and his management style reflected this ethos. 

As a survivor of brutal anti-Semitism as well as the fiercely competitive high-tech market, Grove knew that innovation could not survive a corporate culture of playing pattycake, brownnosing, or other dysfunctional games. 

Rather, success is the result of leveraging productive conflict between people with different ideas.

Today we have lost a great leader. 

It would be a shame if the lessons he learned through such difficult trials died with him.
All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.  Links:

Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Better Not To Think

Awhile back Allen Adamson wrote a book called Brand Simple which really lays out neatly why brands are so appealing: They prevent us from having to do the difficult work of thinking. 
In a world where our brains are constantly being pummeled with stimuli, helping us to think a little less reduces our stress level.
The job of a good brand, says Adamson, is to create a mental shortcut. We don't want to think - we reach for our "favorite," automatically. (It's the favorite they've taught you to want.)
Yesterday we went to Ikea. This store is a prime example of mental overstimulation. Every single thing in Ikea looked good. Every single thing was affordably priced. All the individual things. All the combinations. All the variations. The mirrors, the storage bins, the fake plants, the Audrey Hepburn posters, all of it, all of it, all of it, all of it.
I grabbed two of those yellow bags and followed the crowds, gulping up the excitement.
Not less than fifteen minutes later I was slumped over in a chair. One of us wanted the $7.99 folding chairs, one of us wanted the $14.99 chairs, and all of us were calling each other names in exhaustion and irritation. 
We are totally overstimulated. We need a break. (Another good book on the subject: Simple by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn.)
There is not room here to start complaining about every single example of how overcomplicating is ruining our lives. But I could throw in the tax code, children's education, the necessity to have 5,000 certifications to apply for just about any job, and more.
Suffice it to say that our brains are craving some simplicity. Remember when you were younger and you just sat there and watched TV all day on Sunday? 
What has happened to that?
 A disturbing side effect of branding, which is totally to be expected, is that we have now come to demand not only the brands we want, but also the simplicity of thinking they offer in such a seemingly easy way.
If we can't have it, grasp it, or deal with it in five seconds - we are over and out.
Unfortunately, the world we actually live in has grown so much more hyper specialized and complex that this kind of approach is maladaptive. We need to think a lot more deeply and critically, just about fewer and more relevant things.
Take for example the 2016 election in the United States. I understand that we have lots of opinions, very strong, on all sides. It is important not just to have a view of course, but to extend respect to those who wildly, wildly, wildly hate what you have to say and hope you never say it again. 
That's the very definition of free speech in a democracy, right? The ability to say your piece and be done with it.
But in this election season, we are seeing the impact of no-thinking thinking everywhere. Without making reference to one candidate or the other, I have lost count of the number of completely senseless headlines, the clickbait titles, the escalated rhetoric and obvious agenda-laden op-eds, all of it designed to market a very simple and global point of view to the average voter.
On top of this we have the normal and abnormal campaign stops and protests, designed to make a statement for YouTube.
It's all very frightening to me because marketing T-shirts is one thing. Marketing life-altering policies to hundreds of millions of people at a time is quite another.
What if we decided that for just a few months, this election deserves our full attention?
What if we actually took some time and immersed ourselves in the issues we care about, serious issues, and tracked how they've been handled over time? How we think they should be handled tomorrow?
What if all of us got off the sidelines or our simple soapboxes and really engaged with one another in pursuit of a really simple thing - that thing being The Truth. 
There is a Truth that is tangibly and scientifically valid. I don't know why they wished that away in graduate school.
All of us have to live together on this planet but some of us have more influence on the conditions of such coexistence than others. 
It's time to stop playing baby games and throwing shade and labels and start to really talk to each other as adults. 
I keep waiting for the adults in the room to jump in.

Why I Support Trump (Response To A Leftist Friend)

Let's agree that class, sex/gender, race/culture/ethnicity make the world unfair. 

Let's also agree that the privileged classes routinely exploit the weaker ones. What is the best way to stop this from happening? 

It is tempting to follow the people who cater to victimization thinking. 

But the problem always is that they don't respect you - you're just fodder for their own ambition - because their version of a "solution" is another class system that THEY control. 

In this system, all information must be controlled and filtered to reflect their narrative. Because the truth - that people easily become oppressors and that no two snowflakes are alike - is dangerous to them.

I study dysfunctional organizations and bottom line, every organization is dysfunctional. What makes them change is expoure to the light.

I think we have arrived at a time in history when ideology is not useful anymore, if it ever was. We can only look at problems one at a time, using common sense, without any bias. That is a very hard thing to do.

The common thread in our thinking has got to be the truth. Someone said to me, "How can you criticize your own people? It feeds into stereotypes." And my answer is I don't care. I have to not care. If we lose our moorings in the truth all is lost.

We could talk about how this plays out in the Torah. The Torah tells it like it is. Our forefathers and foremothers get called out on their sins. We don't hide them. But we believe they are giants anyway.

In this election we are facing an unbelievable challenge. On the one hand you have the party that claims to be for the people. But they are spinning around in their knickers, fighting for power, and frankly unable to articulate any message on defense or management that sounds coherent to people. 

Additionally the Democrats in their rhetoric of respect have veered toward extremism. They sow hatred and division all the time. This is not the moderate party of the 1990s.

The Republicans meanwhile are stunningly ineffective at engaging their constituents due to a regressive social agenda and a framework for thinking that lacks any meaning whatsoever.

So I am a Libertarian. I believe in freedom. Reduce government waste, fraud and abuse. Stay out of people's private lives. Do only what is necessary to keep order and safety and then stop.

Don't discriminate, period.

Trump is obviously flawed. We all know that. But he gets that something is seriously wrong in terms of the WAY this country is being run. The METHODS of governing are not responsive to what the PEOPLE want. The agenda is NOT clear when it should ALWAYS be clear that we take care of our own. I agree with that wholeheartedly. 

There is a lot to do to reform this country and strip the veneer of respectability from criminal elites. But first we have to commit to: truth, impartiality, competence, and an agenda that puts our safety and wellbeing first.

All opinions my own.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

what the world looks like at 6 a.m. to a bum

You get off the train and there are people already on the street who have never gotten off of it.

You see bright lights ahead of you, a path. You are going to work.

The people who live on the street...the ones you call "bums" when nobody else is around. The ones who scare you with their filth and smell and desperation...the homeless ones...

You don't know what they see. 

You care, but then again not really. 

You're on your way to work, and it's 6 a.m. 

You're busy.

All opinions my own. Photos by me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Bring Back The American Dream

This country was built on three dreams, all of them related to freedom:
* I can worship G-d as I please, or not worship at all
* I can become rich beyond my wildest dreams
* I can be myself regardless of what other people think
Unfortunately our history is full of the bad things we did to struggle for those dreams. Also unfortunately our history is full of people who want to take these freedoms away and install some form of dictatorship in its place (using nice words of course).
The task we have before us in 2016 is to stop thinking and talking about all the unfortunate things and move forward.
We need to be positive. We need to unite around these freedoms once again and formulate a plan for getting there. Stop complaining and start working to solve the problems.
But - let's use the analogy of the human body here. You have to realize that America is bleeding. Most people are actually poor. They do not have adequate shelter, food, healthcare, or education. They do not have good job prospects. And our country is bleeding as well. Foreign countries are attacking us every single day, attacking our ability to compete economically, attacking our computer systems, attacking our military, attacking our reputation as a world leader.
What should America do in the face of all this bleeding? How can we begin to think about freedom again when we are laying down on the ground getting weaker by the minute?
In the hospital when someone comes into the emergency room and they're bleeding like crazy the doctors and nurses do triage. They stop the bleeding!
This is where we need to begin. When you have a nation of people bleeding in the ER, you don't take more people from foreign countries in for triage.
When you have a nation of people who are drowning in debt and living on food stamps, you don't approach the world from a "one world" point of view. You approach the world from a "take care of our people" point of view.
When you have a government that is so complicated and bureaucratic that the people's money is unaccounted for, you inspect the government brick by brick, eliminate the waste ruthlessly and put it instead towards food, shelter, medical care, education, and so on.
When you have a powerful military complex, including government, contractors, etc. spending infinite sums without accountability to the people, it is time to open the books, focus on what matters and rein the rest in.
When you have a business community that is wealthy beyond belief but not spending their money over here, and not paying their fair share of taxes, it is time to send the feds in and break up whatever games are being played.
But unfortunately the government has not been effective enough at this.
Nor has the government done enough to create a climate where ordinary people can make money as entrepreneurs. Every single thing a business does is regulated to the hilt. The amount of paperwork is absolutely dizzying.
It is time to take a gigantic axe and chop out all the rules we do not need anymore. While we are at it let's rewrite the remaining ones in plain English.
Finally when you have a citizenry that is becoming less and less able to read, write, and do basic math, it's a little bit of a head scratcher to figure out how they are going to compete in a world of scientists and engineers who are doing far, far more than that.
We really have our work cut out for us this year. It's going to take a massive national mobilization effort to bring this country back to where it should be on the world stage.
What people are angry about is that the elite class, including Washington, doesn't seem to recognize or care about THEIR REAL PROBLEMS. All the intellectuals do is talk, and talk, and talk and put their fingers up their noses and talk some more.
Real people need real help so maybe we should elevate the tone of the national political debate and start acting like the grownups our children need us to be.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Comparing The Effectiveness Of 3 Metro Ads

The D.C. Metro is running this ad campaign designed to boost recruitment. The tagline is: "Admiration. It's part of the job."

I completely hate these ads.

In this example from the series, we see a "Metro employee" displaying a crayon drawing of himself that a little girl has apparently done and given to him.

I think it's fairly safe to say that this ad strains credulity. There are no little girls drawing pictures of Metro employees.

If you want to hold up a mirror to what these hardworking people actually do, show them calling out repetitive train station names without missing a beat; apologizing for delays courteously; dealing with rude customers and overpacked trains; and handling safety situations and other crises.

The reality of the job is not only more interesting and engaging than the silly fantasy portrayed in the ad, but also has the advantage of being true.

This second ad from Metro deals with sexual harassment on the train and in contrast to the first it is highly effective. 

The letters themselves show a woman literally pushing back against gropers who take advantage of limited physical space to cop a free feel.

And we get the phone and text number right away too.

The only problem of course is that when a situation occurs, you want to document and report it right away, but under thr ground there may not be cellphone coverage.

For the ad to really work, the customer has to be able to act on it.

But overall this is good work.

The third ad, which hangs right next to the other two, is the most memorable and of course this is because it draws on a pre-established powerful brand for the target market.

The ad simply shows us the "CNN" logo on a white backdrop.

It's almost as if the maker is saying, "What more need be said?"

The CNN brand, like every great brand of course, was not built over the short-term but rather represents a significant long-term investment, history and story.

And it shows.

Of course there is one little glitch: What exactly is happening on Sunday at 9 pm, if CNN built its reputation on 24/7/365 availability?

But nevertheless, what we see is that simple, bold and bankable is best. One imagines the conversation provoked by the ad maker:

"What is the authoritative news station around here?" 

"Well of course, CNN."

Three advertisements. 

Three messages.

Three undoubtedly well-researched concepts.

Only one of them truly works. 

Because only one of them is a brand.

All opinions my own. Photos by me.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Some Parting Thoughts About The NNMI

In the midst of what can best be described as a difficult campaign season, there is a shining light of a government program that few people know about, much less understand. But I was privileged enough to be a part of it, serving as its chief communicator, from November of 2014 until March 2016. (I now work for another federal agency.) 
As a communicator within the program, it was not my place to write a posting such as this for public consumption. But now that I have moved on, I do have some suggestions that I would like to share, and to hear others' opinions on. 
But first, a little background. The program is the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, or NNMI for short. Its purpose is, essentially, to restore American manufacturing to its "We Can Do It" days of glory and leadership. It is inspired by similar programs in other countries, most notably Germany's Fraunhofer institutes.  
The NNMI works by establishing public-private partnerships aimed at conducting research in specific technology focus areas important to commercializing new inventions. How many millions, billions, even trillions of dollars have been lost to other countries that adapt our innovations to their machines, and sell the resulting products back to us?
Intentionally, the NNMI is geographically distributed. Each technology research institute is located in regional "hubs" that bring together industry, academia, and the government. As a result, the government is spurring economic development far outside the insular world of the Beltway.
Even if you know nothing about manufacturing, there are numerous indicators of the NNMI's momentous significance, both for the manufacturing sector and for the future of government as a whole.
  • First, it ensures that we are able to make what we need domestically, instead of relying on overseas manufacturing facilities. (Imagine what might happen if other countries controlled all the stuff we needed to buy...not just TVs and clothes and cars, but how about bullets?)
  • Second, it creates a space where young people can partake of critical workforce development programs aimed at training them for the important, in-demand and well-compensated jobs of the future. (Consider that the job prospects for new graduates are not great unless they are somehow involved in a scientific or technological field of study.) All the institutes are involved in workforce development, and manufacturing is one of those fields where you do not have to be a rocket scientist to be gainfully employed using the technology.
  • Third, it creates a model for national innovation that is fundamentally dependent on broad and deep collaboration - or perhaps more accurately, a nonstop conversation about how to make things, all types of things, smarter, faster and better.
  • Fourth, it models an impartial, reasoned way to create a new kind of government program - in which the President himself commissions industry and academic experts to find solutions, with no pre-determined decision about what recommendations should emerge.
  • Fifth, it embodies the idea of a whole-of-government, functional approach to a national problem, rather than one driven by a particular agency and its historic mission.
This isn't the place to talk about why American manufacturing has declined, or about all the specifics of the program. What I do want to emphasize is, first, the groundbreaking nature of the work that is being done: For all the things that the President achieved during his time in office, the NNMI will surely be its undervalued gem.
All well and good. But as any engineer will tell you, there is always room to make an excellent product or service even more excellent. To that end, here are some very broad suggestions:
  • Information Security: Since the explicit purpose of the NNMI is to give the U.S. an economic and national security advantage, there should be a study commissioned of potential information leaks and remediation methods, and a set of baseline protective actions agreed upon. One of these should be an immediate end to any foreign visits or tours at an Institute facility.
  • Focus: Any activity not essential to research or financial sustainability should be either eliminated or outsourced to other parties. The program has always placed a strong emphasis on reducing this burden, but if there are functions that can be merged (for example, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership at NIST already has contacts with small/medium size manufacturers in every state) then there should be an openness to doing that.
  • Outside Studies: No organization can objectively review its own activities. There should be greater involvement by third parties - paid for by the government - in reviewing institute operations and making recommendations for their ongoing improvement. This is keeping in mind that they have a very short window of time, in a very competitive arena, to become profitable - that is, 5-7 years to make money or fold.
  • Community: There needs to be a technology platform, almost like a Facebook, that brings together all parties involved in an Institute both locally and at the national level, with appropriately secure levels of permission. There could be an open space for the public to access; a level open across institutes; a level open to prospective members; a level open to members; and so on. The point is, conversations today happen online and more specifically on social media, in real time, on mobile devices. This part cannot wait.
  • Communication: This is an extremely important national program, because it is vital to our economic future as well as to our national security. There needs to be far more noise happening on social media, outreach to students, and a clear and consistent national message about what its priorities and accomplishments are, and why they matter. 
  • Consolidation of authority: It is important and an accomplishment that the program has thus far involved so many stakeholders so successfully. But with so many hands in the pot, there are too many hands in the pot. The President should appoint a Chief Manufacturing Officer of the United States, and that person should be the head of the NNMI.
All in all it was a tremendous privilege to be a part of the NNMI. It left a lasting impression on me as a citizen - and not only because I learned about the transformative capacity of government. The people involved in this program are dedicated public servants, as well as incredibly educated, experienced, impressive experts.
I hope that in a small way these sentiments help. Let's hope they spark continuous improvement, that they become part of the larger stream of conversation.
All opinions my own.
Photo by NASA via Flickr (Creative Commons). Caption, provided by NASA: "Test Firing of 3-D Printed Part (NASA, Space Launch System, 07/24/13) Marshall engineers installed the injector in a subscale RS-25 engine model, and the engine was hot-fired exposing the part to temperatures of nearly 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit while burning liquid oxygen and gaseous hydrogen. A series of tests was completed in Test Stand 115 in the East Test Area at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala."


Image credit: NASA/MSFC

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Hope Is Not A Strategy

In a recent post I talked about trying to lose weight. Well, it sucks.
Because unfortunately, it turns out you cannot just imagine your way to slimness. If you actually do throw out your scale, eat two avocados at a time, end your night with a pack of Moon Cheese and refuse to do any exercise, you will become an ever-expanding slob.
Just like the experts tell you, losing weight involves a check-in with reality. It is indeed about more vegetables and less calories; getting up and moving around regularly; and yes, you do have to weigh yourself at least once a week.
I could have been more successful months ago, but first I had to get over all the stuff I wanted to believe instead.
The same thing is true about branding. So many times - really, so many times I can't even begin to count them - it's been obvious what needs to happen on the client side, what things they need to do differently. 
And so you tell them.
But the resistance they kick up, the excuses they make, are unbelievable.
The process of arguing about things we can see in front of our eyes is so stressful, so contentious, and so utterly unsatisfying.
When the client doesn't let you do your job and you are reduced to listening to their tortured rationalizations, it's like trying to exorcise a huge, stubborn, multi-clawed demon from inside the belly of a little girl.
In terms of friendships - we've all had one who chose to go down a destructive path. There is that conversation where you say, I'm worried about you, and they tell you, you're overthinking things, I'm fiiiine, worry about your own life instead.
Or we've had family members with serious issues. Dangerous, life-threatening habits that threaten to literally take them off this planet.
But G-d forbid if you say anything.
Or, oddly, it can be just the opposite, they ask for your advice just as a token gesture, and they still go on to do what they want.
Hiring a consultant is so often perceived as the magical be-all and end-all. Whatever name they go by - also coach, also crisis communications support, you name it and there is a professional out there - all are fancy ways of saying, "You've got the brains to help us think things through."
But the client has the brains. Most of the conclusions these people offer are reducible to basic logic.
What we are really asking for help with, I think, is the titanic challenge of moving our mental models - individually and as an organizational culture - into a space where more adaptive, logical behavior becomes possible.
We are asking for help with learning. 
With opening our minds up, just as we were open-minded as children. 
Because as adults, our sense of what can and cannot work gets more and more rigid the more years we have under our belts.
Now I know what you're thinking: You've heard all this before, not once but many, many times.
But thoughts are not enough, are they? If they fail to make an impact. If we still haven't learned from our own primary mistake, which is the refusal to live in reality, or at least to learn what that reality is and adapt ourselves accordingly.
In the future things will change apace with the pervasiveness of metrics that are always-on, always-worn, always informing. Like the FitBit tells you about your steps and heart rate, "pulse" surveys advise about what employees are thinking, Google Alerts tells you what the web is saying about any subject you identify, cars and home appliances monitor themselves for worn parts, and homes signal alerts silently when an intruder comes near.
The measurement possibilities are endless.
And we'll buy them, because we have such a hard time talking straight to ourselves, and no money to burn on shelf-ware consulting.
The truth is, the only thing that makes people change is fear - because as a species we will always take stasis over risking disaster.
Accordingly, when we see the risks created by our own behavior, that's a powerful motivator to do better by a factor of many.
So it's nice to talk about consensus-driving, collaboration practices, knowledge-sharing: All of that is well and good.
But knowing that your plane is going to crash?
That is a powerful reason to strap on your parachute - and jump.
All opinions my own. Photo by the U.S. Army via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Here to Learn

One time I had to do a presentation about branding.
I sat down with my little slide deck and someone yelled out, 
"I'm very familiar with all this from my own experience at X company."
Keep in mind this is just the beginning of the we are literally only on Slide 1.
I mistook the enthusiasm for joy at my undoubtedly brilliant forthcoming oration.
Really the person was about to hijack the entire talk, with a parallel narrative about their experience, their framework, their lessons learned and so on.
I wasn't in a position to say, "hey there, sit down and shut up" because the person was fairly senior in connection with me. And it wasn't like I was there to do a TED talk.
So I sat back and let the senior person do the talking. And fumed, a little bit, but you have to know your place.
...and then about ten years later, I found myself sitting in the senior person's shoes. 
Someone else was doing the presentation, someone younger and less experienced than me, and the subject was also branding. 
Also at about Slide 1, during the introductory remarks, I heard something that I, the "knowledgeable" I, disagreed with.
And I held my tongue at the moment, bit my knuckles till the end, until of course my pent-up ego erupted.
With a "question" that was really a mountain of feedback designed to say, nothing much more valuable than...
You and I think differently about the same thing.
Reflecting on these experience I understand the lesson, though it's difficult as hell to learn.
Better to shut up and be the student most of the time. 
Even if you think you know it already.
The experience of being quiet - of quieting yourself - is what makes you wise.
Dedicated to my wise husband Andy Blumenthal.
All opinions my own. Photo by Tulane Public Relations via Wikimedia (Creative Commons).

Friday, March 11, 2016

some reflections on a friday

Not every post has to be full of weighty thoughts. 

Isn't it a relief sometimes, when we give ourselves permission not to think them?

Today is a beautiful almost-spring day here in Washington, D.C.

The flowers are in bloom all over the place.

People are standing around outside.

Bicyclists are running everbody over, as usual.

The hot bar has baked tilapia, and spinach, and avocado salad by the pound.

On a day like today - "TGI Friday" - looking forward to the Sabbath, I appreciate all that is right with the world.

All opinions my own. Photo by me. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What Bad Leaders Have In Common

They seriously think the show cannot go on without them.
For example, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer is known for her "tight-fisted," "controlling" management style.

Apple's Steve Jobs was known to be a tyrant.

It's a turnoff.
Most people know instinctively that large, top-heavy organizational hierarchies are both costly and wasteful - but it is hard to imagine what could realistically replace them.

In 2011, the renowned management theorist Gary Hamel prompted some serious reflection on the subject with his landmark article in the Harvard Business Review: "First, Let's Fire All The Managers."

By this he was referring to three distinct systemic problems, aside from the fact that top-heavy organizations are more expensive than they're worth. All of these have to do with irrational decision-making:
  • The people with the most power are the most removed from the action.
  • There is a built-in bias to exercise authority just because you can.
  • It is a system that "systematically disempowers" those at the bottom of the triangle.
Hamel's language resonates with outrage: he talks about "eagerness to exercise authority," "bias," "the cost of tyranny," "kill...a new idea."

A distinguishing characteristic of good leaders is that they step up reluctantly. A great holy man, Moses, even initially said to G-d: "Look, I'm not good enough" to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.
If you watch President Obama closely, he focuses mostly on hiring talent that aligns with his worldview and can execute. He understands fundamentally that the show is an ideology that goes on without him, and that people are the instruments through which ideas become manifest.

Our favorite brands have always rejected bad, tyrannical leadership, espousing a more objective ethos:
  • Google, through its emphasis on "distributed leadership"
  • Starbucks, through its focus on ethics that are graspable by anyone
  • Amazon, by focusing relentlessly on metrics rather than personalities
Countless others, some well-known and others lesser-known, are delegating leadership down and out toward the center, focusing on simple and meaningful metrics, grooming new blood.
Zappos has accomplished a great feat by making an associated management framework - holacracy - go mainstream - even if right now it is confusing, and even if some employees have decided the unfamiliar arrangement is too much for them.

Some CEOs, like Reddit's Ellen Pao, are modeling accountability by admitting they "screwed up," and then stepping down to let others lead.
Even the federal government - a massive bureaucracy - is shifting away from authority-worship, with a growing hum around conversations that focus onmentoring and other ways to bring newer voices forward.
It's time to end the cult of one, once and for all, don't you think?
An adopt a leadership model with an intelligent network - comprised of many small, ingenious, and interlocking teams.

More complicated, yes, but closer to the crowdsourced, social world we now live in.

More likely to yield rationally positive results.
All opinions my own. Photo by Rishi Bandopadhay via Flickr Creative Commons.