Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A comment on "5 Trends In Government Technology We'll See In 2017"

(Here's the original post:

This is an important post but I am not sure I agree with its premise or all of its points.

For one thing, per #3, it appears the assumption is that Hillary Clinton will win. Why does the post assume this? To strategize means to play out both scenarios. Trump vs. Clinton will bring us two dramatically different approaches to government technology. Under Trump, expect his team to take out their calculators and basically slash and burn everything that isn't immediately and obviously justifiable from a *business* (not a government) point of view. Under Clinton, expect an incremental approach to change and a willingness to continue spending even on technology initiatives whose worth is not yet immediately clear.

Regarding #5, I think the private sector is well ahead of the public sector in understanding what outcome-based engagement is. This relates to point #1, data. My sense (although I cannot prove it) is that state and local governments are ahead of the federal government in terms of using data to drive decision-making about outreach. In contrast, I am hard-pressed to think of examples in the federal government where outreach strategies were developed based on integrated, mission-critical desired outcomes, assessed for performance based on data, and modified according to the results of that data. Even when they want to obtain this data -- and they do, because data is a way to justify leadership decisionmaking -- there is red tape surrounding surveying the public for feedback. Whoever wins the election, I really hope that the feedback process opens up and becomes easy so that we can immediately pulse people as to whether our initiatives make sense and are working.

As far as cybersecurity and FEDRAMP (#4), it seems to me a no-brainer that the government should continue to establish and market secure cloud spaces within which federal agencies can do their business without a lot of hassle. It should be extremely easy for agencies to determine what type of service they need; look up what type of platform will support the service (e.g. a cloud-based environment with the right level of security); and order it through an interagency agreement, with a customer service representative walking them through the entire process and available to answer questions and troubleshoot. This is not so much a matter of growth in utilization of FEDRAMP but an internal customer service issue from government to government. Again, regardless of who wins the election it will be up to the feds themselves to create clarity among the service offerings available and educate the incoming political appointees about what is on offer. This requires not only an understanding of technology, but also an understanding of contracting, government funding mechanisms, mission and infrastructure within and across agencies, and the mechanics of establishing points of contact within agencies effectively. Too often, there is a lot of good stuff going on but the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.

One last point I think Steve could have included here is the growth of internal collaboration, workflow management and social networking within agencies, which I would expect to explode by 2018 if not 2017. As the government becomes more familiar with the way millennials work (millennials being the future of government even if they hate how it works right now), there will be a recognition that constant contact and collaboration, including honest discussion, is simply required for productivity and it is not going to go away. Steve's 2009 brainchild, GovLoop, was revolutionary in that it created a space for government employees to have those conversations with one another, albeit in a public space.

As the government grows more and more savvy about this, such conversations will be encouraged and they will be linked with document collaboration, review and approval in a way that's very easy to manage, very secure, and very easy to track in terms of who approved (or altered, or commented on), which text. At the same time, the government will need to establish a set of standard operating procedures in conformance with the law that enable free flowing conversation while also ensuring preservation of documents and discussions for later examination by the public (e.g. FOIA).

If vendors could come up with a way to increase productivity and reduce duplication of effort through a combination of internal social networking, document management, and potentially even the integration of external customer service (such that I can answer your inquiry on Twitter in a manner trackable to an internal discussion, with a ticket number, referencing a public law or guidance document), I think it would literally transform the way government does business forever.

Of course all opinions are always my own. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Finding Strength in Surrendering Control

So they sent me to a training class in advanced communications, specifically managing conflict through difficult conversations.

As it happens this trainer was better than most, and I found myself listening closely. You've heard of the book Critical Conversations and although the class was not specifically centered on that book, it was all about getting into and out of difficult discussions without ruining your relationships.

Sitting there I marveled at the trainer's composure. She was calm, respectful but firm, and had a line for seemingly every persistent problem. For example, many of us (me included) find it difficult to say "No," and so here is the alternative phrase: "Here's what I can do."

When you're giving someone negative feedback about their performance, you're supposed to state your intention: "I want you to be successful, and in that spirit there is something I feel I need to make you aware of." (Then state the facts.)

In yeshiva I learned that you should never just take in information without challenging it. So I picked the rules apart, looking for situations where it did not apply. "How are we to do this in a federal government environment?" I asked. "What do you do when the other person has a hidden agenda?" "How are you to handle gender politics?"

The teacher tried as hard as she could to handle these difficult questions, and my fellow students gamely offered their insights as well. But eventually I think we all realized that in some situations, no matter how skilled you are, the level of problems is not only beyond your control, but crushing.

It occurred to me as well that even in a perfect world, I bring a lot of baggage to the table. I was on my own from a young age, I was trained that people should handle things by themselves as much as possible, and the idea of trusting other people to come through for the team remains somewhat foreign.

I guess the bottom line is, I grasped in that day of training how truly little we control. Sure, we can make the effort to choose the right career, to increase our skills, and to manage our emotional limitations. But at the end of the day, most of what matters is completely out of our hands. It's been said a million times before and I still have trouble internalizing this, but at a certain point you just have to surrender that need for control.

Maybe you don't have to believe in G-d per se, but I think it makes a lot of sense to simply let go once you've done everything you can. You have called out to the Universe. It's up to the Universe to return the message.


All opinions my own.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Thank you to my top 10 international audiences

Hi everyone,
  1. United States
  2. Ukraine
  3. Russia
  4. France
  5. Germany
  6. China
  7. United Kingdom
  8. Bulgaria
  9. Canada
  10. Poland
I appreciate that you take the time to read my blog.

Best wishes,



Image credit: The original uploader was Augiasstallputzer at [[::| Wikimedia Commons]] - Own work, based on shoreline data from GSHHS ("crude" level), a public-domain source, Public Domain,

Communicating to a Cynical Workforce

We don't need to debate this, do we? People are mostly checked-out at work; they don't take the time to read your carefully crafted Intranet messages very carefully, if they read them at all; they can barely be bothered to take the all-employee survey with its detailed questions and response choices.
And if you tell me that employees work for their managers, not the company, and so they mostly want to hear from the boss who's giving them a performance evaluation at the end of the year - point taken. But are employees really engaged with the information they receive from their managers? Maybe the information is timely and relevant to their jobs, but does it have that higher ring of truth and meaning?
Consider the fact that at any given moment a substantial percentage of employees are angry. They don't like the way they're being treated, or they don't feel valued on the job, or someone at work is harassing them, maybe even the boss. Perhaps they are underpaid or their job title is inappropriate for the amount of work that they do. They are very likely "keeping their eyes open" for another, better job; or maybe they're actively looking.
If they've been in the organization for any length of time, they've seen senior leaders come and go and with these executives the grand initiatives that were supposed to fix everything.
It is hard to imagine what kind of internal communication could break through the clutter, the spoil and the noise and truly get people to open up and work together.
Some might say that the answer is "radical honesty," or "openness" or some version of transparency combined with emotional intelligence. I call bullshit on that answer because it leaves the broken system largely intact.
The way to communicate effectively with cynical employees is, first, for the people who run the organization (the company, the nonprofit, the agency) to secure, in writing, an ironclad commitment to justice -- starting now.
Justice means that the people who have previously survived through unethical means are eliminated from the system. This includes the bullies, the cheats, the liars, the incompetent and those who simply refuse to do their fair share. All of them are bound to new rules of behavior, and those rules are written to benefit customers and employees alike, without doing anything to hurt the surrounding community or environment.
The proclamation of justice should be posted in a public place, and the organizational changes should then commence immediately, carried out by a governance board comprised of employee representatives of all types and levels.
Depending on the type of organization one is dealing with, the specifics of this will differ.
After the detritus of the organization has been removed, decisions must be made concerning fair and appropriate compensation. Again, how this is done will necessarily vary, and I am not an economist, an accountant or a budgeting officer. But most people can understand that the greater the risk, the greater the reward and conversely that nobody's labor should be exploited, either.
So now we are left with a pool of reasonable people, ready and willing and able to work, comfortable with the compensation scheme.
At this point decisions must be made about business strategy, and how it is going to change to conform to the new, i.e. just and fair and open, environment. How will the organization make money or otherwise return value to its stakeholders?
Again, this is where representatives of the employee community come in, to think through the key issues and return with sensible decisions. Somebody has to be in charge of reviewing them and making the final call; most people understand that a certain amount of authority in the organization is inevitable and necessary.
Throughout this entire process, and the unfolding drama of events that is the day-to-day life of the organization, communication has to be freely flowing. It has to be, in order for the organization to work. If it's not, and people are hiding things or holding information to themselves to gain an advantage, the company itself stands to ruin. 
Here's the bottom line: Internal communication is not the equivalent of icing on the cake. Rather it is the main course of the dinner. It has to be connected to the fundamental decisions that are made every single day about how the organization will function. It has to be connected to a set of values to which all adhere, or are shown the door. It has to be inextricably linked to a sense of justice, the belief that all are accountable for the things they do and that accountability is not just the basis for membership in the organization but fundamental to its profit model.
If you're still somehow thinking that you can ignore this kind of reality, the result will be a continuation of the same-old, same-old status quo. Checked-out, complaining, complacent employees who are happy to take a paycheck, but not so happy to show up at work and do their jobs. Talented individuals who care and who have a lot of qualifications to contribute to your enterprise, but who for survival reasons have decided not to buy in to anything you say, because they know you aren't really invested in them.
All opinions my own. Photo by Martijn van Exel via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Friday, August 26, 2016

30 Notes About Critical Conversations

I took a training class on how to handle difficult conversations. Sharing the points most important to me.
  1. Goal - become a thinking partner in a collaborative relationship
  2. Need to learn to listen – not just steamroll, try to save time. If you are directive all the time people don't feel valued.
  3. Learn how to say no – but nobody likes to say no. So say “here’s what I can do”
  4. Learn not to appear frustrated – coming from private sector you expect things to get done faster
  5. Be specific, be clear
  6. Things to remember - to help someone feel valued, they need to feel heard
  7. What makes a conversation critical - action needs to be taken, subject is important, there is a threat or risk if action not taken
  8. Include milestones in the conversation - don't let it be vague
  9. Essential to ask - are we aiming towards the same goal
  10. How do you deal with hidden agendas? (In the form of withholding knowledge, because knowledge is power.) Depends on the situation, the position of the person you're dealing with. Question your assumptions.
  11. What assumption do you have about others' hidden agenda?
  12. What makes a critical conversation successful? Engagement, information is conveyed, you wind up on the same page – you agree on the goal, the problem, the issue – meeting of the minds
  13. Use questions to draw them people out – like: “What would help you feel comfortable in this situation in order to move forward?”
  14. The key is to ask without making people feel defensive.
  15. DO NOT SAY: “I don’t understand what your problem is”
  16. Three types of critical conversation - giving negative feedback, difficult message, collaborating
  17. CARE = collaborate, ask questions and listen, respond with ownership and action, empathize
  18. When you can’t change the decision, you can converse about what the impact is and how we can handle it
  19. When people resist your input, think about the angle you can take – what works with them – what are they listening to.
  20. The key is do they trust what you're telling them.
  21. Also, some people just don't care.
  22. Metrics often helpful.
  23. Understand your span or sphere of control.
  24. Listen to what they’re not telling you
  25. The BEST communication process: build rapport, exchange information, seek agreement, take action
  26. We all have triggers – when you’re triggered, you can be aware and make a decision about how to react – you have to learn to manage yourself properly
  27. Don't ask "are there any questions," (nobody will ask) ask "what questions are there?"
  28. To build rapport, be authentic; keep commitments; acknowledge if past track record isn't good.
  29. Exchange information - know your purpose; ask; listen; check for facts and feelings; clarify what you  hear
  30. State your intention and expectations, e.g. "I am your advocate – I want you to be successful"

Overcoming the Barriers to Government Transparency

There are at least five types of information that federal employees, not just communicators, generally want to share with the public:
  • Mission: They'd like the public to be aware of what the agency does and why it's important. They want the public to know about the significance of the broader issue as well, such as clean water, STEM education, maternal health, and so on.
  • Resources: They want people to know what the agency offers to the public in terms of goods and services, such as how to apply for federal student aid or how to navigate the immigration process.
  • Dedication: They want to share personal stories about how individuals at the agency are doing their best to help the public. An example might be a U.S. Postal Service employee who went through three sacks of mail to find one lost Social security check.
  • Responsiveness: They want the agency to answer stakeholder questions forthrightly. Typically this comes up when the agency is the subject of a derogatory news headline, a negative report, Congressional scrutiny, etc. and there is little or no information available beyond the negative coverage.
  • Accountability: They want the agency to admit its misdeeds or mistakes and make them right. This differs from responsiveness in that the desire is for proactive transparency about matters which are either nonpublic (they can be handled internally) or not-yet-public (they haven't become a crisis yet).
If only we could do all of the above on a regular basis, the federal government would have an amazing relationship with the public. Trust would be high, dialogue would be robust, and legal compliance would be far easier to facilitate.
Unfortunately however the natural desire to be honest and transparent runs into a series of obstacles when intention bumps up against the real world. Here are the typical objections and some recommendations for handling them:
  • Financial: Agencies typically don't rush to take action that will negatively impact their appropriations. And of course, transparency is an action that involves telling the good stuff along with the bad. So the communicator typically encounters a variation of the following: "Why would we voluntarily make ourselves look bad?" The way to handle this issue, in my experience, is to bring in external communication consultants to do educational sessions for senior executives well before an issue comes up. When all understand that transparency is ultimately a long-term investment in credibility, they are more likely to accept short-term sacrifices when it comes to risking the admission of a mistake or a program that is not functioning optimally.
  • Legal: The role of agency counsel in determining the content of communications is significant. This is for obvious reasons; the words federal agencies utter matter very much, and the wrong words create a risk of litigation. The problem however is that good communication typically involves simplifying the message (which lawyers may say renders it technically inaccurate) as well as empathizing with the angry stakeholder (which lawyers may say constitutes an admission of fault). It is important that federal communicators and agency counsel have a close working relationship so as to find a sensible approach that doesn't involve inordinate delays and debates over every issue that comes up.
  • Political: Agencies operate through a mixture of political appointees, and civil servants. Obviously this is going to create conflict as the appointee is there to make changes at the behest of the President and to communicate in such a way that the President's policies look good. The civil servant on the other hand is focused primarily on performing their duties in a traditional manner, meaning that they focus on avoiding risk, ensuring accountability and the maintenance of political neutrality. When it comes to sharing information with the public, you can’t be a cheerleader and a nonpartisan information broker at the same time. The way to handle this is for the civil servants to educate political appointees about the operational environment and its requirements so that all understand the rules of the road. Conversely, civil servants need to accept the authority of political appointees and partner with them to make desired changes, as opposed to "waiting it out" till that particular Administration's time is over.
  • Psychological: These are the beliefs, feelings, or impressions of fact held in the minds of decision makers. Frequently, for example, decision makers have fixed ideas about which information is important to share, the writing style in which it should be delivered, the media that are appropriate, and even the type and level of approval needed to do so. They may also bring past experience to bear on the current situation and assess that a communication priority is more (or less) pressing than it seems. They may also assess that “over-communicating” can only put them or their programs at risk professionally. Typically psychological issues are best handled by pairing an executive with a communicator who is highly skilled, confident, who does not threaten the leader, and who can gently provide guidance without seeming to undermine.
  • Cultural: As a massive bureaucracy charged with providing for the public welfare, the federal government is inherently a risk-averse, rules-driven, technically-oriented, mechanistic organism. “Stirring the pot” by intentionally sharing bad news is perceived as destructive to the foundations upon which the trust and credibility of government are based. The way to handle this issue is for communicators to develop time-tested, metrics-based standards for messaging. When you can demonstrate that greater transparency is linked with greater stability and trust over time, individual instances of information-sharing cease to be an issue.
In addition to working within the system, members of the public -- both individually and as part of formal organizations -- can do much to elicit transparency from the government. I have found that the government is very interested in what the public has to say, and they particularly want to hear from educated stakeholders -- those who stay informed and engaged on key issues.
In the end, government is a partnership, not a one-way street. If you want more information, it's important to continually ask for it.
All opinions my own. Photo credit: U.S. Army via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Monday, August 22, 2016

The 5 Characteristics of a War Dog

Jonah Hill gives a masterful performance in War Dogsas the yeshiva-educated sociopath Efraim Diveroli.
The movie is based on a true story about two Jewish high school screwups who discover a gray area into which they can leap and make millions. They become successful small-time arms dealers, commit large-scale fraud, get arrested by the FBI, get convicted and serve time.
Putting ethics aside for the moment, Diveroli is successful because he:
1) Recognizes and exploits opportunity, at first legally and then in the "gray area," and finally outside the law
2) Masters the subject matter and all aspects of the business
3) Works hard and focuses completely on the task at hand
4) Manipulates others brilliantly into doing what he wants
5) Has others do the dirty work while taking the profit for himself
The meta-message of War Dogs is that we all face a painful choice: be evil and rich like Diveroli, or decent and lower-middle-class at best, like his partner David Packouz.
This is the problem of corruption. Contrary to what many people might think, it is not primarily an issue of individual choice. For how is the ordinary person supposed to compete if "everybody else" can only succeed by cheating? 
There's nothing wrong with urging people to be innovative; to study up and work hard. There is something wrong when following the rules will not allow you to achieve a sustainable standard of living. There is something wrong when the only way to get your way is to trick other people by appealing to their emotional needs. There is something wrong when other people are putting themselves out day and night to work for an organization, and they aren't seeing the fruit of the labor that is rightfully theirs.
There is something wrong when opportunity is very tightly controlled by a select few elites at the top of the pile, through a system that is nearly completely inscrutable to even the most dogged investigator.
War Dogs is a tragic story but the biggest tragedy is the fact that our society still not-so-subtly worships the greed and corruption that fuels an Efraim Diveroli - while hypocritically paying lip service to the decent humble hardworking people who populate most companies, the people like David Packouz.
All opinions my own. Image is the War Dogs movie poster.

Friday, August 19, 2016

On The Merits Of An Empty Mind

I spend nearly all my time in my head. And while I'm there, I work very hard to keep the environment free. No useless clutter, I don't want it - I will not let it in.

Here's why: We are bombarded with information all the time. Not to mention marketing. (At times, there is no distinction.)

To some people, chugging all that up might seem like a benefit. In school they certainly tell you to memorize and memorize and memorize some more.

But when you fill your head up with crap, quite honestly you wind up constipated.

Many, many, many people are unable to communicate well, for exactly this reason. At any given moment, they are navigating tons of junk, a sea of data stored up in the attic of their minds, and they aren't sure which piece of it to pull for which audience on which occasion.

It's like they have lots of tools stored up in their garage.

Now it's true that tools can help you build a lot of different things. But if you get that hoarder mentality in your head - like you just won't let go of a single piece of anything you might need in the future - very soon your brain gets stuffed. It's uninhabitable.

And it leaves you no room to think in the moment, to be yourself, to be authentic and spontaneous and creative.

Far better, I think, is to accumulate the information you need at this specific time for this specific thing, and then dump it very soon afterward.

Leave your mind free to think big thoughts - to do creative things.

So if my two cents mean anything, I would say not to worry so much whether or not you know things. Robots are built for memorizing - not human beings. When you are human instead, and you keep a clear mind, you can research a thing from many different angles. In the end you get to make something that is totally new.

But here's the best part: You put it out into the world, and then you open up the trapdoor underneath the floorboards. All the junk you've accumulated drops out - instead of blocking your mind in the future.

This dynamic act, this process of churning, is what makes the space for new observations to come in, new connections to form in your mind, new areas of interest for you to pursue going forward.

I'll be honest: It's uncomfortable for me to step back and really observe this. It hits too close to home to lay the process out for scrutiny.

But my mind was unguarded and clear this afternoon, and the topic popped in to my brain as interesting. I've always known that I think very differently from other people, but until this moment I never actually sat down and tried to document how.

Something interesting to observe.



All opinions my own. Image via Wikipedia.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Disconnected Millennials Cannot Work

With dry sarcasm the Urban Dictionary tell us that "millennials believe themselves to be overachievers who just aren't understood by their loser bosses....the only generation in the universe to understand the concept of work life balance and to actually want to find a fulfilling career."
Of course it's wrong to oversimplify one's observations about any group, but from my own experience I do think it's fair to say that Millennials (definitions of age vary, but they're roughly 20-35 years old today) are high achievers who believe they can do more than what the workplace asks of them. They are not afraid to create bobblehead images of their bosses if they think their bosses are stupid. They will openly question idiotic time-consuming bureaucratic nonsense. Their relationships mean as much to them as their jobs do. And they think Gen Xers are way too intense: that life should not be taken too seriously generally.
Millennials also use social media in a very ordinary way, that is to say it is not an exception to their daily life but rather a constant accompaniment. According to YPulse chart below (data current as of September 8, 2015), which shows data about Millennials' use of social media, 76% use Facebook at least once a day.  
Of course all age groups use social media. But for Millennials the use of technology is what sets their generation apart. This technology is fundamentally about connecting to other people as well as access to information. Consider that as long ago as 2014, according to Nielsen, 32% of adults 18-24 years old to connect while in the bathroom and 51% of those age 25-34 take time out from work to do social networking at work.
If you want to work effectively with Millennials, you've got to respect their expertise, their positivity and their efficient and balanced approach to work. You've also got to embrace their innate adoption of social networking tools both on the job and off.
Of course, "Social networking" means more than just giving Millennials a place to put files where others can see them. It's far beyond reluctantly "letting them" use their iPhone on the side. It is about establishing social communities that are vibrant -- just as compelling, open and all-encompassing as Facebook will ever be.
If you haven't implemented one of these tools in your workplace yet -- no matter how tiny you think your business is or how minimally you think employees need it -- now is a good time to consider it, if you want to recruit and retain top talent.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

RIP John McLaughlin

It was almost 1980 and my parents bought a huge, yuge, YUGE, enormous standing box of a television set that they plunked down in the living room.

I remember very vividly how I watched "Video Killed The Radio Star" -- the first music video ever shown on MTV.

I used to watch the preachers Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker with my mother.

Oh how we loved them - and Tammy Faye in particular, with the dripping mascara - because she was just so real when she cried.

It was great - she cried literally every week!

You probably never heard of The New Way Gourmet but we used to watch them too. It was a TV show that featured two California hippies, completely mellow and probably completely high, patchkeying around the kitchen.

Loved it.

I remember we used to eat in front of the TV and nobody cared. We made macaroni 'n' cheese the old-fashioned way, with Mueller's elbow noodles and butter and milk and a ton of Miller's kosher American cheese from the stack. We must have put twenty pieces of cheese in every pot of noodles we made.

I remember those times as good times. For better or for worse, TV was my connection to the world. There was no Internet or social media, and what I saw on that screen was a kind of schooling.

We were a politically interested family. Not politically active - because as a Holocaust-surviving family we feared what the authorities might do to people who demonstrated about anything in public. But certainly politically interested, in the sense that we talked about politics all the time, we devoured the news about current events and we watched Sunday morning talk shows in particular most religiously.

It was in that context that I watched The McLaughlin Group avidly. With the death of John McLaughlin, may he rest in peace, I am jolted back into the Sundays of my childhood, watching that amazing show. I remember Eleanor Clift sparring with Patrick Buchanan, and marveling at their incredible ability to think on their feet while marshaling a ton of knowledge. The diversity of views. The deliberately staccato manner in which McLaughlin, interrogated his panel. The good humor with which they went back and forth. And the agreement to disagree at the end, collegially.

What a different world we live in today. I read yesterday that two journalists I deeply respect, Sean Hannity of Fox News and Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal, got into a war of words, and the words got pretty nasty.

I don't remember the prime-time journalists of yesteryear descending to such a level. They took sides, sure - but they weren't so ideologically biased that their minds seemed literally closed.

You see this trend - like a hardening of the mind - not just among conservatives, and not just among liberals, but even among those who are considered the "regular," "mainstream" media, a.k.a. the "MSM."

I don't think it's just me that has noticed it. Not at all - for as the AP reported in April 2016, only 6% of Americans have "a lot of confidence in the media." (The source is a study by "the Media Insight Project," funded jointly by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute.)

When you combine Americans' overwhelming distrust of the media with their record-low mistrust of the government (Pew Research Center), and the increasingly "politically correct" tilt of our colleges and universities, the result is that ordinary citizens have no reliable information sources to turn to anymore. This makes them ripe targets for radicalization and disinformation -- by anyone with an Internet connection and a keyboard -- whether that person is part of the formal institutions of knowledge dissemination or not.

So I feel very upset at the passing of John McLaughlin. Now there are no more Sundays in front of the talk shows, the programs I could trust to teach me how to think, and how to be a citizen.

In the absence of facts we can believe without question --

With the loss of experts whose rationality we trust --

We now live in a world where your facts, not just your guess, is as good as mine.


All opinions my own. Screenshot of The McLaughlin Group via YouTube.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Different Kind of Data

It was a weekend afternoon, bright daylight and we are walking in the park together. It isn't after midnight. I'm not by myself.

There are groups of teenage guys hanging out, because it's a weekend afternoon and that's what teenage guys do, they hang out and toss a football around.

I have my headphones on as usual and as usual am deeply immersed in whatever it is that I am reading on my phone. I have the music on as well.

It occurs to me on this sunny day that I feel very much at peace. What a luxury it is to have a few moments to relax and smell the roses.

And we have walked for awhile. It's been about two hours now and we're in a wooded area. Secluded from view.

I become aware, suddenly, that I am in trouble.

It hits me very quickly and before I can even articulate what it is I reach out for my husband's hand.

"I feel it too," he says, almost whispering.

I had a very strong feeling that somebody was considering very carefully how they would knock him to the ground and attack me.

My mind went back to news reports I'd read of similar situations.

But it wasn't like we could just run, and it felt a sudden move could set off an attack in and of itself.

I was afraid to look around too explicitly but I had to look at where the danger might be coming from, and this proved at once impossible and terrifying.

The lyrics from Billy Idol's song "White Wedding" started playing in my head. "There is nothing sure in this world, there is nothing pure in this world..."

My hands were shaking as I realized just how vulnerable I was - we were.

Quietly, subtly, I took out my phone and dialed 9-1-1 and left it hanging there, ready for me to press "Send."

My entire body was covered in fear.

We had long past the maybe nothing is happening stage of this two hour walk. In a popular wooded recreational area. From which any other female seemed strangely absent today.

Afterward some people reacted instinctively, with a "Thank G-d you're alright." Others were more skeptical: "You're a little too old for that, aren't you?" And "In broad daylight?"

As far as I could tell, reactions depended on what people qualified as "data."

But here's the problem - and it's a dangerous one - that most people unfortunately fall for: The average person tends to discount their gut feelings as unreliable.

My advice is not to do that. Your body will often warn you when a friend is not a friend; when a date is not safe; when a family friend is nothing but; when a colleague at work represents danger.

In every sphere of life, criminals prey on our dis-inclination to trust our basic instincts as valid data.

Of course this doesn't mean that we can save ourselves from danger "naturally" - of course not, not at all. There is a Jewish prayer we say when G-d saves us, and I went home and Googled it on my iPhone and said it with great intensity.

But He gives us an inner compass nevertheless. It is data, and we should listen to it -- combined with other things we know from experience and research.

There is objective truth to be found. We should use all available tools to find it.


All opinions my own. Photo by Pat Pilon via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Three Ways Discredited Brands Remain Durable

"The value of a ultimately determined by consumers' perception." - Investopedia
Coco Chanel (1883-1971) was a Jew-hating Nazi collaborator. Yet in May 2016 Forbes ranked her namesake company, Chanel, #80 among the world's most valuable brands, with a net worth of $7.2 billion.

The company is privately owned, by the Jewish grandsons of Chanel's original business partner. But the name is her name, and the logo is her signature crossed "C." By purchasing her signature clothing or perfume, the consumer is clearly channeling her image.

Why would anyone want to be associated with a Nazi?

The answer has to do with Chanel's brand immunity. Not only do customers continue to purchase her products in droves, but even posthumously the designer is popularly viewed as a "personal branding legend."

Understanding what keeps a brand resistant to criticism is important today, as companies operate in the minefield of the digital age. For between the Internet and social media, consumers quickly mobilize to express outrage about anything that offends them. Even Starbucks, recognized as one of the world's most ethical brands, came under heavy fire for its (obviously) well-meaning "Race Together" diversity initiative.

High-profile CEOs find themselves under the microscope as well - recall how Reddit users orchestrated the exit of former CEO Ellen Pao in 2015 for firing a popular discussion moderator.

Maybe some kinds of offenses just don't have a negative impact on brands. Many have wondered why anti-Semitism is somehow socially acceptable (even as it is both deadly and widespread).

Perhaps this argument is true. But in the case of Chanel, even the stigma of being branded a "Nazi" hasn't gotten in the brand's way. Consider "Godwin's Law," which specifies that the longer an online disagreement continues, the more likely it is that someone will be insulted as either "a Nazi" or "Hitler," a phenomenon which I have personally experienced.

There must be some other factors that are propping up the Chanel brand, and other brands which would normally be subjected to declining brand equity due to their offensive nature.

Here are three plausible possibilities, all of which clearly apply to Chanel:
  • They are totally unique. As marketing strategy firm points out, brands that have "no competition" in the customers' mind are hard to dislodge. They offer the examples of LeBron James (for his talent) and Apple (for its design). In the realm of fashion, Chanel is clearly one-of-a-kind. Another example of this type of brand is Coca-Cola. 
  • They are unnecessary to the average person's life. also points out that LeBron James and Apple are luxury items, meaning that "you can ignore them, and it won't make a difference in your life." Their "cache" that insulates them from the ordinary bumps and bruises of other brands. Chanel, obviously, is a luxury purchase. 
  • They ignore the critics. Kim Kardashian is famous for her skill at laughing off criticism by incorporating it into her television show, laughing at herself and even turning the tables. Similarly, Chanel does not waste time discussing a reputational matter that only has the potential to drag it down. 

At the end of the day, relying on a clever "immunity strategy" is obviously not the first line of attack when it comes to defending your brand's reputation. But the methods described above have clearly been helpful to Chanel and other brands confronted with negative publicity, well-deserved or not.


All opinions my own. Photo of Coco Chanel via Wikipedia. Logo via Wikipedia.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016