Sunday, February 26, 2012

Delicious Inefficiency

Initial review of survey data indicates high satisfaction with Army life 110315
Image by U.S. Army via Flickr

Around 12:55 p.m. I would turn the old-fashioned doorknob and sneak in.

There they were, Grandma and Grandpa. Two little people under a huge white downy cover. Normally talkative and debating, now quiet and intent. Snuggled together under the covers with the "rabbit ears" (old-fashioned TV antenna) extended as far out as possible.

The extended family sat on the bed, all over the bed, hanging onto our beloved grandparents. The cool April air blew fresh and clean into the wide-open windows of that little mountain house. Safe and cozy and there was no such thing as time.

My mother filed in quietly. Followed by sister. It was Passover and we weren't supposed to watch TV. We did anyway. Carried out the whole elaborate ritual so that Dad, who was more observant, could pretend not to notice.

The game of watching the soap opera was agonizingly inefficient. Yet it was beautiful. One of the best memories I have.

Watching the soap wasn't quick, either. Soaps move very, very s-l-o-w. The twists and turns burn over decades, yet the eternal characters (Bo, Hope, Stefano, Marlena, John, and Sami) stay, and stay basically the same.

Yet we are drawn to watch and follow them; Days is the #4 soap opera in the U.S. Maybe we aren't watching them as much as we used to, but when we do watch - are we wasting time?

There is this blog called the Busy Budgeting Mama. One post showed how she made a cardboard castle for her daughters for $4. I scanned it and thought, that's pretty nice for so little money!

Then I thought, that is so inefficient to spend so much time on a cardboard castle.

But the kids are beautiful. And they look happy. It didn't seem like a waste of time.

Did you see the movie The Way? I haven't yet, but I want to. It's about a dad whose son decides to go on the "Camino de Santiago" pilgrimage, and dies on the trip. The father doesn't understand the son or his pilgrimage, or why it's important at all. Until the son dies and, in the process of journeying to obtain the son's remains, dad decides to go himself.

We should spend more time the right kind of inefficiency. That's the whole premise of the runaway smash bestweller The 4-Hour Workweek. Automate what's not important so you can spend more time on what is - relationships and experiences that are un-duplicatable. That lend meaning to life.

Pursuing meaning is inherently inefficient. Learning. Relationships. Traveling. Volunteering. We should do more of all of those things.

But things that we spend time on and don't add any meaning are a waste of time. It makes sense to automate those.

Some people are afraid. Maybe they are used to inefficiency. Maybe they think it works. Maybe they want to change but worry about losing their status or even their job. What if we automated everything, the robots took over, and the rest of us were out of a job?

Worrying about that stuff is misguided. We should worry more about meaning - how to organize our society so that people can spend more time pursuing it.

What about the money? Won't we all be broke?

No. The real value that people bring to the table, at work or at home, comes from getting other people engaged. From adding meaning to THEIR lives so that they are stirred up themselves.

Because the deepest fear people have is that their entire life is meaningless.

I am willing to bet that we have the technology today to feed, clothe, house and take medical care of everyone if we would only get together and decide to make it happen. So that much of our time could be spent in school, in the lab, etc. - finding other ways to give back. 

Here is a great equation from the book Emotional Equations (first learned about from reading a guest post on Tim Ferriss' blog):

Despair = Suffering - Meaning

A good professional and personal goal is to add meaning to the local environment. Part of that is calling out what doesn't make sense. If you have the guts to identify and eliminate unnecessary inefficiencies, and to rally people toward a more sensible solution instead, then people will want you around even more.

Relationships and experiences in the service of meaning - those are what is important in life. Because they're spiritual. God puts us here to learn, and the meaning is in the discovery. Everything else is subject to automation, and ought to be.

Find a place for yourself where you can promote meaning and eliminate waste. All of your ecosystems will thank you for it.

Good luck!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Why We Channel President Reagan

Image of President Reagan via Wikipedia

When the drill went off and bits went flying I panicked.

Madonna singing "Borderline" through my iPhone earplugs didn't distract me. Clearly I was going to die on this day.

The dentist's assistant stood over me solicitously. She saw me gagging on the bite plate. How embarrassing.

The sound of the drill scared me. Bits got stuck in my throat. Water flew in and around. The little hose didn't suck it all up. Maybe it's a simple cavity filling to you but to me it felt like the end.

I steeled myself. "Cut it out." "Be a big girl." Didn't work. The dentist had to pause about 50 times to calm me down and get me to cooperate. I felt like a baby. But it was horrible.

I looked up at the ceiling as if to find an answer. Saw only a circular grate with holes poked in it. Oh good we are safe from fire today. I could visualize my tombstone.

Finally the first tooth was done and the dentist paused for a minute. I could not help but grouse politely. Dr. S. laughed and said:

"Thank me, because I am saving your teeth today."

I have gone to this dentist for a number of years and for whatever reason, he just really cares about only that one thing: saving teeth.

Dr. S. tells me over and over to floss. Not lecturing, but kindly. I really believe he wants to see those teeth healthy and strong. Somewhere in his head is a sparkly vision, and he will encourage you in any way possible to achieve it.

In that sense my dentist is a lot like President Reagan (may he rest in peace). Give me a minute and I will explain the analogy.

President Reagan had a passion for America. Not America as it was. But the vision of what it could be once again.

Similarly, my dentist has a vision of healthy teeth, well-cared for, brushed and flossed every day. All over the office there are images of dental wellness. It's not crazy or anything, but it is a system of belief that he holds to no matter how many diseased teeth and gums he sees.

President Reagan saw America in some bad times. But as far as I can recall, he was not about dividing the country in order to rebuild it. Rather, President Reagan held up a torch that represented the best of what we were. And when he saw the vision, we saw it with him.

Just the same way, my dentist doesn't say negative things about how I brush or floss. He just shows me the light, so to speak.

The Reagan brand was unshakably positive. It was a brand you could buy into no matter who you were. Just identifying with that vision made you feel like more than you were.

Similarly my dentist just reminds me to floss. And when I do I have that vision that he conveys to me, of a sparkling healthy mouth that will never decay, not ever. I feel good about myself when I listen.

This positive feeling is the flavor that is missing in politics today, and in the current election. Everyone seems to hate everyone else.

Of course there is always something to criticize. But if you ask me all the candidates deserve at least some respect. Even if you don't agree with who they are or what they've done, at least they have done something, which is more than many of us can say.

The candidate who can portray a positive future vision of America, and who can back that vision up with a platform that people understand - that will be the candidate who wins the passion of the people. But the candidate who wastes time pointing fingers and putting down the efforts of the other side only turns people off in the end.

I work for the government (all opinions my own of course) and know how hard it is to get anything done in Washington. Just writing about it is exhausting. But if you are a candidate, you have to get beyond the angry nasty stuff, and the hatred, and go a level higher. Unite people rather than divide them. Show them the future and then take them there.

Otherwise they are like me, sitting in the dentist's chair, wondering when the drilling will end and blaming the dentist for trying to save their teeth.

Have a good weekend everyone, and good luck!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Internal Branding: Promise Less

Mine!
Photo by OakleyOriginals via Flickr

In "Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead" an Australian who has discovered the health benefits of juicing crisscrosses the U.S. to evangelize.

He stops at a diner and talks to two fellow middle-aged men and a teen. They are eating as they talk.

One of the other men says that health food is irrelevant to him. Adding more years to his already lousy life - and losing out on good food - is just not that appetizing.

Was he unhappy because of his personal life or his job? Who knows if one can even separate them.

Once a few years ago I met my aunt for lunch. She is a psychologist and had treated some people suffering from post-traumatic work stress disorder. she told me: People vastly underestimate how a bad work environment affects one's personal life and ability to function.

Based on what I see, hear and read, workplace cultures are a lot like families and farms: They need active and ongoing intervention to fix and maintain.

Internal branding is thus much more difficult than external branding:

1. People tend to think of it superficially - literally as logos or taglines or email signatures. So it is a challenge to get them to see that these things are just the tip of the iceberg.

2. People tend to act badly toward one another at work. That is just a fact. And too often these bullies are not only feared, but also promoted.

3. People tend not to take workplace culture seriously until there is a crisis.

When Adam, at Eve's prompting, ate from the Tree of Knowledge, God punished both of them. Adam's foretold suffering involved work specifically:

"By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread." (See Genesis 3:17-19)

Gradually God is lifting this sentence and humanity is becoming enlightened: Work success need not mean killing ourselves or each other. Just the opposite.

In the meantime though it seems foolish to set employee expectations very high.

Branding equals making a promise and then keeping it, even when it's hard.

So say what you mean, and then stick to it.

Good luck!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

How Marketers Create Craving In 3 Easy Steps

Starbucks
Photo by Alberto Garcia via Flickr

"The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. 
"First, there is a cue....  
"Then there is the routine... 
"Finally, there is a reward... 
"Over time, this loop...becomes more and more automatic....until a sense of craving emerges." 

 - C. Duhigg, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets" (The New York Times)

A good marketer knows how to make people want something badly enough to pay for it. A great marketer knows how to sell it to them over and over again. And an extraordinary marketer gets them to prefer one specific kind of thing, the branded thing, over an equivalent item for which they could have paid half as much.

Most of us will never be extraordinary at marketing - only a select few will rise to attain the status of a Steve Jobs or a Howard Schultz. But it is possible to rise above just being "good." You can learn to make customers crave things if you learn to understand the science of habit. (And in the process you could lose a few pounds along the way.)

For Duhigg it was the 3:30 cookie. He had a habit of getting up from his chair every day at that time to eat and socialize. The cue was the time of day; the routine (the non-thinking part) was to eat the cookie and gossip; and there were multiple rewards: social interaction, information, and undoubtedly a great sugar rush.

The bad habit cost him nearly 10 pounds.

He tried to change his ways but could not. Until he used the science of habit formation and re-formation, as used by master marketers at Procter & Gamble to turn the odor neutralizer Febreze into a megahit. Basically, he kept Steps 1 and 3 and reworked the "mindless" part, the habitual Step 2:
"To shift the routine — to socialize, rather than eat a cookie — I needed to piggyback on an existing habit. So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted."
Think about how "getting a cup of coffee on the way to work" is a social habit deeply encouraged by marketers. How did they get us out of the "olden days" when people made coffee at home because "The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup."

How did they "encourage" (brainwash?) the nation into paying $2 or more a day for a cup of coffee they could easily make just as easily and well for themselves?

Easy! They not only followed, but improved the original habit cycle - by using an entrenched habit (drinking coffee) and making the routine easier as well as adding a social element, as follows:
  
Old Way
  • Cue: Wake up
  • Routine: Brew coffee, drink it, clean up
  • Reward: Alertness, sense of preparation for the day
New Way

  • Cue: Wake up
  • Routine: Wait on line for a fresh, hot cup of coffee that someone has made just for you
  • Reward: Alertness, social status, belonging, sense of preparation, and NO messy clean-up
Can you say slam-dunk?

Of course it is not so simple to create or change habits, but when it comes to marketing, remembering the "cue-routine-reward" loop can be incredibly helpful in shortcutting the puzzling process of determining what people want and how to break through the clutter.

 As follows:
  • Step 1: Find an entrenched cue-routine-reward cycle to break into - rather than introducing a product seemingly "out of nowhere." (For example, nighttime TV viewing; organizing meetings; exercising)
  • Step 2: Narrow down how you want to alter the routine - add (like adding Febreze to the cleaning routine); change (like having people use cleaning wipes instead of spray cleaners); or eliminate (like having to empty the dustpan after sweeping the floor)?
  • Step 3: Articulate a short-term reward for doing things the new way - something the user will get every single time. For example, they will save so much time by using cleaning wipes instead of spray that they will feel a rush of joy at how quick it went. (Don't just make this up in your head - watch people, observe.)

As it turns out, scientific research has shown that habit-formation is affected by our brain cells. An article published in the Wall Street Journal ("How Habits Hold Us,") Feb. 18 discussed the research of Joe Z. Tsien and colleagues at Georgia Health Sciences University. They learned that mice deficient in "an NMDA receptor on their dopamine neurons" didn't really care, in an experiment, about the reward they would get for overeating - they just stopped when they were full.

One can argue about whether it's socially helpful or unhelpful to lure people into changing their habits. I can see both sides of that argument. Either way, it is good to know how to train the brain, if only for yourself.

It is true. No matter how many times you have failed before, a lifetime of seemingly unbreakable bad habits indeed can be broken. All it takes is an understanding of what triggers you, a recognition that the resulting behavior is bad, an appreciation of the reward that you get, and a substitution of a more positive habit for the bad one.

Here's hoping that you use your power to "create craving" responsibly and well.

Good luck!
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Marketing Is More Important Than Innovation: Febreze

Image source: SavingWithVetta.com 

Marketing is synonymous with leading the business:
  • Marketers exist to create customers (American Marketing Association). 
  • Businesses exist to create customers (Peter Drucker). 
  • Therefore the role of a marketer is to establish, lead, and manage businesses so that customers can be won and kept.
Marketing is more important than innovation. Drucker was bold but misguided when he made them equal: "Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs." (quoted in Forbes)

Febreze is a great example.

Writing in The New York Times, Charles Duhigg, author of the forthcoming The Power of Habit, explains that Proctor & Gamble's innovative odor-killer wouldn't move off the shelves, because the marketers had it wrong.
"A week passed. Then two. A month. Two months. Sales started small and got smaller. Febreze was a dud."
The marketers had assumed that people would welcome a product designed to neutralize bad smells. What they didn't realize was that even "neat freaks" didn't care when those bad odors were their very own.

Duhigg recalls a visit by the "panicked marketing team" to the home of a consumer who had agreed to participate in P&G's marketing research:
"The house was clean and organized....But when P.& G.’s scientists walked into her living room,where her nine cats spent most of their time, the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged....a researcher asked the woman, “What do you do about the cat smell?” “It’s usually not a problem,” she said. “Do you smell it now?” “No,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”
The "breakthrough" moment came through when the marketing team found a woman who was a regular Febreze customer.  She loved the product and it had nothing to do with eradicating odor:
“I don’t really use it for specific smells,”the woman said. “I use it for normal cleaning — a couple of sprays when I’m done in a room.”
What turned Febreze from an innovative failure to a market-smashing success, in fact, had little or nothing to do with innovation. What it had to do with, primarily, was one simple marketing insight: People are willing to pay to reward themselves for doing unpleasant chores.

In the end the marketing was what moved the merchandise. According to the article, within two months of the "Febreze revamp" based on this insight, the results were astounding:
  • Sales doubled.
  • $230 million in sales one year later
  • $1 billion in sales of "dozens" of spinoffs including air fresheners, candles, and laundry detergents
  • "Today it’s one of the top-selling products inthe world."
When you really stop and think about the impact of marketing, it's sort of amazing that we sit anywhere below the very top of the corporate food chain - no?

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!
 ___

This is an expanded version of an answer I originally posted this to Quora in response to the question, "What's The Role of Marketing?"

Monday, February 13, 2012

The 5 Conditions of A Woman's Freedom (In Memory of Soraya M.)

Cover of "The Stoning of Soraya M. [Blu-r...
Cover of The Stoning of Soraya M. [Blu-ray], now also available on Netflix.

Odd. I haven't written a directly feminist post in a while but yesterday I did. Just 12 hours later we sat down to watch The Stoning of Soraya M.

None of us could sleep afterward.

If you haven't seen the movie it centers on the death of a beautiful, kind, dutiful young woman in Iran. Soraya died for absolutely no rational reason whatsoever except that she was caught in a horrendously unfair and corrupt web of inequality - religious, political, cultural, psychological and economic.

In the movie Soraya's aunt Zahra tries to save her. Just like in my post I wrote about my aunts as mentors and role models.

Feminism is only the belief that women are entitled to the same rights as men. It's not (or should never be) the belief that women have to follow the dictates of feminists.

Soraya was stoned to death because she had no personal choice:
  • Economic: Soraya could not make enough money to live alone so she was chained to the husband who beat and humiliated her. When she does earn a little money she has to hide it with her aunt so that her husband won't take it away.
  • Religious: Her religion said that women must obey men - father, husband, religious leaders (who are male). Religion was enforced by the state.
  • Political: She had no rights as a citizen. When she was accused of the crime of adultery (note that her husband had unlimited rights to this) she had no right to represent herself at the trial. She was also considered guilty until proven innocent, whereas if she had accused her husband he would have been considered innocent until proven guilty.
  • Cultural: The unfair system was enforced mostly by other women who bought into the system and who said that Soraya's problems were marital and that her husband's philandering was justified by her "neglect" of him. (In fact she did whatever he said, and he beat her silly.) There was no place she could run, no social safety net, no system of support.
  • Psychological: Soraya was conditioned to believe that she could not break the rules even when the rules were unfair - on so many levels. Her aunt Zahra was not "broken" like her.
I wish I could say that this movie were isolated or that this particular culture or scenario is. However the problem of women's deeply-rooted inequality spans history and culture - see The Woman With The Dragon Tattoo, Elizabeth, Kickass, Winter's Bone. While Soraya's story and the situation of women in some countries is horrifically extreme and bad, I can't turn away from the inequality that I see in any situation.

Until all women are free and have the personal choices we are entitled to - none of us are. It is a matter of life and death. Please speak up for those who have no voice.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck.

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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Personal Branding: A Feminist Issue

PF Chang Marathon 2010 - Women Leaders
Image by Dru Bloomfield via Flickr
"Until women are as ambitious as men, they're not going to achieve as much." - Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook
By age of seven I had about seven Barbie dolls. They were all beautiful, although some got tangled hair if you didn't brush it right.

One day I gave the prettiest Barbie a haircut. She looked better.

Theoretically I was allowed to be just as ambitious as any boy. Had a real education, library, freedom. Read from the littlest age about smart girls like "Nancy Drew." Eventually found Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and bell hooks.

But all around me, the messages lurked. Girls are not as ambitious as boys. Should focus on their looks. Should be smart, but not talk too much. Should be manipulative rather than speak directly. Should find a "caring" job, part-time. Should love babysitting and cooking. Are there to listen, to serve, and to silently do as they are told.

My mother and my aunts responded differently to these messages. Mom found a "caring" job but focused her time at home on the kids. One aunt went predominantly with a mothering role to be realistic. Another chose career because the traditional way wasn't right for her (and wasn't right, period).

 As an adult I find that role models for ambitious women are scarce. You would think that we would be way past that. But no.
  • Religious leaders are still predominantly male, and prayerbooks still refer to God as a "He."
  • Political leaders are still mostly men. Unless they fit the mold of a venerable statesman, a bit older and revered (Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Hillary Clinton), political women are easily targeted. Especially if they are young, beautiful, and opinionated.
  • Movie representations of leaders are still mostly male. Women are now able to take charge, but they only seem to succeed if they are just as "macho" as a man (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kickass, Colombiana) - they can physically fight, shoot and kill.
Often the debate over women's rights takes place among women and becomes transformed into a kind of "mommy war" between the "stay-at-home" or "helicopter" moms and the ones who work outside the home. (Never mind the elitist nature of the debate, since most women can't afford this.)

A good example is the scathingly critical blog post career blogger Penelope Trunk wrote a about Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, who stated that women are held back by their lack of ambition.

I am a devoted fan of Trunk's work, but unfortunately what is positive about it is also a negative. That is, Penelope Trunk offers a very cold and objective few of the facts (helpful) without much appreciation for the social context in which they occur or the psychological impact of her advice (not helpful). Thus she has at various times encouraged women not to report sexual harassment and also defended domestic violence.

Trunk wrote:
"She (Sandberg) encourages women to have ambition...but very, very few women would choose to do this after they have kids….the New York Times profile of Sandberg shows her surrounded by men who are only marginally involved in raising their kids.
"Obama, for instance, is shown kissing her on the cheek. At that moment, presumably, Michelle Obama was with his kids....she has confessed to screaming at him that she didn’t sign up to be a single mother."
It is important to untangle the flaws in Trunk's logic because her blog relies on the kind of false assumptions that keep women from being ambitious in the career sense.
  1. Myth: Ambition is masculine. Fact: Ambition is neither unfeminine or feminine.
  2. Myth: Parenthood is a mother's job. Fact: Parenthood is a shared responsibility.
  3. Myth: Having help with childcare means that a mother isn't up to the task of mothering. Fact: Childcare is a huge responsibility and obtaining help is a sign of maturity.
  4. Myth: Working outside the home is a way of shirking the duties of a mother. Fact: Working outside the home is a necessity for most, can benefit a mother's health, and demonstrates fiscal responsibility.
  5. Myth: Women are equal to men and should make decisions without regard to social status. Fact: Women are still very unequal and have to take an array of factors into account that are unique to gender status.
For my part, I think about equality more than I want to. But at the same time, I can't turn away from the headlines. Numerous issues are unresolved: contraception, abortion, sexual assault, domestic violence, eating disorders, female genital mutilation, rape as a war crime, human trafficking, child marriage, and more.

When it comes to personal branding, which is really a way of formulating and reformulating your identity, it is critical to have an image in your mind of what success would look like. If you (female or male) are constantly negating that image of success, or even your right to have that image of success, how will you ever achieve anything?

Personal branding results from activity. But to successfully change your life, you first have to change your mind.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's Amazing We Get Anything Done At All

Orchestra
Photo by Sean McEntee via Flickr

Been reading Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It by James Q. Wilson.

Aside from realizing that Gov 2.0 isn't all that new - they called it "Reinventing Government" back in the Clinton era - I am starting to realize that federal agencies present a unique kind of sociological challenge: Paradox!

As Wilson points out:
  1. Federal agencies are inherently paradoxical institutions- they must be responsive to the Administration (temporary) while also stable beyond it, acting as a permanent civil service outside of politics
  2. Agency missions can be paradoxical- e.g. regulate and serve the same population
  3. Managers must ensure that workers work, but obstacles prevent them from issuing reward or punishment
  4. Employees are technically accountable to managers,but in reality answer to others - the American people, Congress, etc. - their stakeholders go beyond, may have a different view, and change frequently
...and Wilson doesn't say this outright but putting 2 + 2 together -

      5. Employees are motivated by purpose (my work is meaningful), status (I am recognized for my contribution), and solidarity (I am part of an important agency), but there is a bias that says they will "shirk"or "subvert" at every opportunity.

Making the federal agency/management task even more complicated is the fact that agencies vary in terms of what they visibly produce. Ranking them from most to least preferable, from my point of view:
  • Optimal: Outputs + outcomes - Employees' activities are observable (e.g. how many phone calls taken) and impact is observable (customer satisfaction with agency responsiveness). We can measure efficiency.
  • Somewhat OK: Outcomes only - Employee operates largely unsupervised, but meaningful results can be measured (e.g. number of would-be terrorists stopped). We can measure results.
  • Less optimal: Outputs only - Adherence to process can be measured. Positive in that you know what people are doing; negative in that the effort could be purposeless relative to actual progress.
  • Least desirable: Neither outputs or outcomes: You can't see what they do and you can't tell what difference it makes.
So how the heck do we get anything done in the first place? How do we measure it?

Wilson says that basically, we are self-motivated and peer-motivated. We want to do our duty, and we want our peers to respect us.

That's all well and good, but is there anything else we can do to untangle some of these knots?

What can be done to help simplify, focus, and sharpen our efforts?

____
 All opinions, as always, are my own.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Auschwitz Hands" and the Importance of Reframing

Frame the sky
Photo by Maarten van Maanen via Flickr

My father's mother walked around like a ghost most of the time. Her hands shook terribly. She passed that on to my father, and he to my sister and me.

May she rest in peace.

I hope Bubbie knows that I think of her now. Not with embarrassment the way I used to. Instead with respect, compassion, sorrow.

She went dutifully through life and performed the role assigned to her. Even though inside she had been left nearly dead.

My hands shake when I try to hold things steady. I tell myself nobody can see it or I find ways to avoid being observed. Like I prefer heavy cameras to pocket-size versions. I don't hold papers out to someone for any length of time.

As a kid I saw my dad's hands shaking and it scared me. But as I think about it now it is a mark of a survivor and of doing one's duty no matter what.

She went through the camp and miraculously got out alive. He grew up in the psychological aftermath - kind of a survivor too. And when my grandmother was so elderly and sick that she could not bring a spoon to her lips, he drove to her alone.

Experiences have no meaning in and of themselves. And how we react is a choice. It is what we do in our heads that makes our lives make sense. As a story with highs, lows, victory, challenge, beginning, middle, end.

My hands aren't shaking right now. And it's not like I'm going to flaunt it. But the next time it happens I will think of it this way: I am a survivor, the child and the grandchild of fighters, and I bear the mark of those who know how to take the hit and carry on.

Survival and responsibility are family traits. Part of who I am today. The battle scars reflect strengths I take into life and business.

What are your marks of strength? In what battles did you earn them? Be proud of who you are and what you've overcome.

Have a good and meaningful day everyone - and good luck!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

7 Ways To Keep Naysayers From Ruining Your Brand

Hate Your Guys - Ethan
Image credit: Solid Bond via Flickr

In today's sermon (Feb. 5, "Knowing What To Ignore") Joel Osteen talked about critical question, one that every person confronts sometime:  

How do you handle the naysayers in your life?

"Naysayers" are not constructive critics. They are people who try to tear you down, bit by bit, under the guise of offering "feedback." But somehow, no matter what you do, they just don't like you!

These people always seem to have something to say. Naysayers don't like your:
  1. Identity - nothing you do is ever right
  2. Beliefs - values, philosophy, conscience, spirituality, religion
  3. Relationships - your choice of friends, or a mate; you're not a good enough parent
  4. Profession - you should have been this, or that
  5. Manner, style, even looks - too formal or not formal enough, introvert or extrovert, so on
Even ordinary criticism is hard to take. Osteen recalled a time when he would give a sermon, and it seemed that most people had truly gotten something out of it. But if even one person would come up to him and say something like, "Joel, that really didn't work for me," he would "drive home all depressed."
Over time Osteen learned that disapproval from some was inevitable. And that the more you progress in life, the more you will find that there are people who oppose you. It's not just that you will always have critics. It's that you will always have people who just don't like you no matter what you do.

The more you accomplish, the higher you go, the worse this problem will get.

Jewish people believe this too. Life is basically a series of tests, and it's designed to be hard. The more we take on, the more we achieve, the bigger the obstacles.

Opposition exists because we exist.

What do you do with that personally? How do you handle it when you're running a company?

A useful model that Osteen referred to briefly is the incident in the Bible when the Jewish prophet Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of the city of Jerusalem. He faced intense opposition. Nothing stuck. So the enemy accused Nehemiah of wanting to build the wall so that he could be king.

In a corporate or brand situation you can imagine the parallels. You build up a company with a unique philosophy - Google and Zappos.com come immediately to mind - and there is tons of interest in your terrific corporate culture. People intuitively "get" how your culture helps your brand. But lurking in the background is a secret desire to rip you apart, to bring you down to the level of the rest of us.

Nehemiah wasn't a corporate leader. His task was much more important - had to build that wall to fortify Jerusalem's defenses. A city without a wall was defenseless.

In the sermon Osteen emphasized that Nehemiah kept going, despite his detractors. But if you look at this simple summary of the events closely, he did that and a whole lot more:
  1. Kept going: As Osteen said, no matter what happened on the outside, the work had to continue: "So we all returned to the wall and each of us continued our work."
  2. Prayed, continuously: Understood that he needed direction from a higher power
  3. Obtained written support from a legitimate authority: It's not enough to count on God or your intuition; people look for tangible evidence that your efforts are legitimate. "And I said to the king, ‘If the king is willing, please give letters to me." 
  4. Faced the problem by responding: Nehemiah sent a message directly, in writing, replying to the lie. Didn't dwell on it, but took care of it. "I sent this reply to Sanballat, ‘What you are saying is not true. You are making it all up.’"
  5. Confronted "the enemy inside": Building a security wall takes time and effort, and the poorer members of the community suffered. Worse, the wealthy were profiting from them: "Then I accused the chief men and the officials. I told them, ‘These people are your own relatives. But you are making unfair profits from them....They were silent, because they had no excuse."
  6. Reassured the team: "I said, ‘Do not be afraid of our enemies. Remember that the *Lord is great and powerful. Fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters. Fight for your wives and your homes.’"
  7. Let authority change hands: When his part of the work was done, put somebody trustworthy in charge - proving that he was not a power-monger.
In his sermon, Osteen talked a lot about choosing your battles. If somebody hates you or the brand you represent, that's a fact and there's not a thing you can do about it. There's no way to win them over and no point in even trying.

At the same time, it's clear from Nehemiah's experience that you can't ignore the detractors either. They are actively trying to bring you down. They use communication, particularly, to harm you. And it's not hard to imagine how your external enemies and your internal ones can work together, in a way, to perpetuate a negative state of affairs.

It seems to me that the most important thing a brand leader of any kind can do is to trust their vision. You have to know in your heart that what you're doing is important - whether you can get support for it or not. The second most important is to assemble and take care of your team. And the third is to confront and remove any obstacles in your path.

If you focus on the task, rather than getting sidetracked by the people who want to make it an issue about you personally, you stand a much greater chance of success than if you start to question who you are - and whether your vision is legitimate.

There is only one you, and you were put here for a purpose. So do everything you can to achieve your goals, and don't let the naysayers distract you.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Scenes from Gov 1.5

Take my hand

Photo by Redjar via Flickr


If you want to know why I volunteer with the Federal Communicators Network, an independent interagency group dedicated to facilitating free training for federal communicators, it's because of emails like this one. I received it in response to an invitation to join our February event:

"I am located in (far from D.C.)...would love the opportunity to participate in more of your events that are available online or via teleconference...however we have a limited training budget so I wanted to make sure there were no costs involved before I sign up."

Our entire mission is to help federal employees (often government employees, or "govies") get the training they need to serve the taxpayer better, in an environment where training budgets are slim to none.

So I say yes it's free, hope you can join us, and receive this response:

"I...have experience in crisis communications following the devastating tornadoes that impacted the state of (far from D.C.). My organization was closed down for a week...employees and their families had been severely impacted...

The person went on:

"Social media was one of the biggest means of communication throughout the impacted area, but my organization did not have Facebook at the time....We do now, and we plan to use it for this very purpose as a result of lessons learned the hard way!"


This is shorthand for "we made mistakes that were unnecessary, and with training we could do better." So I was happy. The topic was relevant, the day was consistent with our other events, it didn't conflict with Toastmasters, the speaker was ready, what could go wrong?

Of course...there was just the minor fact that we had scheduled the event on a Federal holiday. Oh no. Presidents' Day. Yikes.

(See what they mean about crisis management? Own those mistakes, be accountable, turn it into a brand positive...OK, forget it.)

Not only that, but for the first time I had unleashed a tech innovation that involved integrating EventBrite with MailChimp to send a personalized invitation to all of our members. In about five minutes.

Well the speedy aspect of the email worked great but my govie friends very diplomatically held my feet to the fire: "You do realize Feb. 20 is a Federal holiday, right?"

Goodness gracious. It - is - always - something!

I thought of a few quips, like "FCN never sleeps." Obviously that was not an option.

And I didn't want to make a Komen-like PR mistake and delay too long in handling this. Or bother the rest of the Board.

Within the space of an hour the speaker had been reached, event rescheduled, and all was right with the world again.

And at the end of the email was this note from my remote correspondent:

"Glad you changed the date from the Holiday! :)"

From my perspective there is only one obstacle to Gov 2.0 and it isn't money or technology. Rather it is organizational culture.

  • Experienced govies: At the one extreme we have a seasoned generation of government employees with strong institutional knowledge but lacking a behavioral model for how to perform in the new system. They lack training, they lack policy, and they lack rewards for thinking outside the box. Not only that, but they are used to the game of "gotcha!" and lack the confidence to make mistakes. Any screwup is a terrifying prospect rather than a part of learning and growth.
  • New recruits: On the other extreme we have a new generation impatient to catch up to private-sector best practices and who may have technical knowledge but also lack policy and rewards for innovation. They also lack the entrenched support systems and institutional knowledge that seasoned govies have. They don't know what the rules are, the rules are changing, and it is all very confusing.
  • The forgotten middle: A bit lost in the shuffle are folks like me, who have been around for sometime between five years and a decade, who have both the institutional knowledge and the technical skills, and who can see the gap between where we have been and where we need to go. We Gen Xers (broadly speaking) do well autonomously and are skilled at "getting things done," but lack the incredible organizing skills that seasoned govies (Boomers) and new recruits (Gen Y) both have, simply because their default setting is to think in teams.


Right now we have a sort of patchwork situation that I think of as "Gov 1.5." In some parts of government there is much progress, in others there is less so. And a lot of that has to do with the collision between groups each competing to be relevant.

What I learned from yesterday's brief episode was that each one is. What we need to do now is initiate a series of conversations and interpersonal connections between them. Incorporate subject matter expertise, experience, collegiality and diplomacy on the one hand; technology and transparency and crowdsourcing on the other; and the knowledgeable and results-oriented mentality somewhere in between.

If we just work together, the results can be more than we we ever imagined...and well beyond the limited thinking even Gov 2.0 offers us.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

___

All opinions, as always, are my own. Originally posted to my blog at www.dannielleblumenthal.com.


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Friday, February 3, 2012

Weekend Soup for the Super Lazy


While I do recognize that this is a blog about branding it is also true that we thinkers must eat.

Keep in mind that my family normally begs me NOT to cook anything, and yet this still tastes great. (Try to put out of your mind the fact that it sort of looks disgusting in the picture.) If you have this soup you will feel like Popeye!

You would pay $5 for a measly fraction of this recipe at a place like Whole Foods. Yet if you just take the time to dump some veggies in a pot you will have so many servings for about the cost of a salad and drink at Chop't.

In return for absolutely zero effort, the 5x-benefit you will reap includes:
  1. Healthy - it's just vegetables
  2. Diet-friendly - no added fat or carbs other than complex carbs from vegetables
  3. Earth-friendly - no meat or animal products
  4. Cheap - the whole thing cost at most $10 and it made three Tupperwares worth
  5. Versatile - have it chunky or smooth  
Here's how you make it:
  1. Look in your freezer for frozen vegetables. I picked one 16 oz. bag each of spinach, cauliflower, and broccoli. This week I did my grocery shopping online so I didn't even have to go to the store to get them.
  2. Look around for fresh vegetables. I found some cut up red pepper, mushrooms, and also some red onions, which I chopped into huge pieces as I have no idea how to dice them.
  3. Dump into big pot. Add water to cover, or stock if you have it sitting around.
  4. Add a few broth cubes. (I also added a can of spicy tomatoes but don't think you have to.)
  5. Bring to a boil, then let it simmer for an hour, then turn it off. Eat as is, or blend first for a creamier texture.
That's it. Super-easy and super-rewarding.

Enjoy, have a great weekend, and good luck!

5 Management Secrets I Learned From My Mother

Image: My mom shows me an article she found on personal branding. 
She still has absolutely no clue what I do. 
But she likes that I like it. 
Photo credit: My dad.


I've never seen my mom manage people at work. Only once did I visit her there. But to me she has always been a manager - she managed me and my sister directly.

The older I get and the more I observe, the more I go back to what she taught me about how to get people to perform at their best.

Briefly, my mom always did these 5 basic things and still does till this day:
  • Publicly, defended me: Whenever anyone questioned my behavior, she immediately got on their case first, took my side, and then privately asked me for the facts. 
  • Privately, told me the truth: Never pulled punches or said something she didn't mean just to make me feel good.   
  • Everywhere, labeled me a star - and was happy for me: My mom encouraged me to take violin, piano, gymnastics, theater, everything. She helped me give a major national speech when I was ten years old (against cults, before the National Council of Young Israel - and I'm still fighting groupthink!). I did dance performances and musical recitals before I could spell. She grabbed opportunities for me to shine, and my success was hers. 
  • Made sure to always be there: Mom was always there for me first, even though she worked crazy shifts full-time - picked me up, took me everywhere, was the person at the other end of the telephone when I called.
  • Told me that I had a good heart: No matter what mistakes I made, she always told me flat-out that she believed in me without question.
        I truly believe that anyone can be a great manager. All it takes is understanding the true nature of the job - what it is and isn't:
        • It's not about continually exerting your authority - although a certain basic respect does have to exist or the working relationship can't. Trying to always show you're the boss is very "Mr. Rooney" (from the movie Ferris Bueller) - and as I recall his pants leg got chewed off by the end of that movie. 
        • It is about engaging people to do the very best job that they can do, and being the facilitator (community manager, offline gardener, shepherd, take your pick) who lets them shine.
        Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

        Thursday, February 2, 2012

        Zuckerberg's IPO Letter, the "Shadow Core Group" & Other Strategies for Legitimizing Gov 2.0

        Been thinking about concrete ways to bridge the gap between the ideals of Gov 2.0 and the actual reality of government organizations. Have found two approaches that seem to work and wonder if others have additional ideas.

        Idea #1 - Organize Around An Alternative Vision and Widen The Group To Include Members of The Status Quo

        To me this is basically the GovLoop strategy. Per Art Kleiner (Read a little more here or buy the book):
        1. Organizations act the way they do based on the disproportionate influence of a "core group" of influencers.
        2. To change the organization, get together and form a "shadow core group" with a different vision - imagine the story clearly (see "If We Can Put A Man On The Moon") and embody it behaviorally (e.g. collaboration vs. information-hoarding)
        3. The shadow group gradually includes members of the "legitimate" core group in its conversations until the new ideology replaces the old.
        Idea #2: Be A Living Ambassador Through Your Own Networking and Relationships

        Mark Zuckerberg's IPO missive (read the whole letter here) lays out his vision of transforming society one relationship at a time. Excerpts:
        • "Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society."
        • "People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others."
        • "As people share more, they have access to more opinions from the people they trust about the products and services they use. This makes it easier to discover the best products and improve the quality and efficiency of their lives."
        Looking forward to hearing what others have to say as I'm very interested in proven ways to move from theory to reality.

        ___

        Originally posted as a comment to GovLoop.

        Wednesday, February 1, 2012

        It's Tough To Write A Good Social Media Policy. Here's Why.

        I Am Majid Social Media Campaign
        Image via Wikipedia
        In the community where I grew up, at the time when I grew up, there was no Internet.

        If you were bored on the weekend you went outside to ride bikes. You listened to bad music (I mean late '70s...we are talking really bad. Serious.) You went to the mall and basically did nothing. You watched TV on those big old floor models with lots of wood.

        In my case, you took out fifty books from the library at a time. (Refer to the '70s and lack of any appealing popular culture whatsoever...a situation that fortunately was alleviated with the onset of MTV, Madonna, and John Hughes movies.)

        If you wanted to talk about things you picked up the phone and called your friends. Or passed notes in class, or went to youth group events, or sleepovers. But the concept of a "text message" or a "wall posting" would have seemed completely from outer space.

        Even those phones we used - oh my. I remember the first cordless models. They were huge and they had those weird plastic antennas. And we used them and thought we were cool. Major sigh.

        Somehow we went from the '80s to the '90s - where did all that time go, it was a blur - and fast forward into the realm of social media. Do you remember those printers with the plastic things sticking out on the side and you had to fit the paper to them? What was that, dot-matrix? And the fact that everything was on mainframe, and then those "function" keys? It's amazing we got anything done.

        I'm trying to remember the first time I even heard the words "social media." I'm sure it was not before 2004 or 2005 at the earliest. For me, just the fact that we had e-mail and the Internet was revolutionary. That I didn't have to use a physical card catalogue for every piece of research I did? What?

        Point being that I think pretty fast. And even for someone like me, social media was f-r-e-a-k-i-n-g scary. Like - what is a blog? I can write something and everyone can see it? And what the heck is a Twitter? Soon enough it all came rushing at me, Facebook and LinkedIn and YouTube and on and on and on.

        I tried to learn these tools without actually getting an account for them. It's true. I was really scared. I could not imagine the incredible risk I would be taking by going out there and actually...well I didn't know what I would be doing. But the concept of me writing and other people reading without any mediator was frightening as could be.

        Especially Facebook. There was something about the philosophy of that company, the lack of belief in privacy almost, that really unnerved me. I found it all hard to fathom and I dropped in and out several times before it stuck and became "no big deal."

        By using social media, I learned how to use it. By watching others use it, I learned. By discussing and debating as we used it, I developed a frame of reference for making judgments.

        Social media is not like any other communication tool we have ever had in history. The rules are totally different. The expectations of the audience are completely unique. There really is no precedent for it. And there is no way to understand the experience or to make judgments about it until you are actually there, and swimming.

        I'll give you just one example, because by social media standards I have gone on too long:
        • In the real world when you write a letter to the editor and you sign the name of your company, there is some implied connection between yourself as the writer and the organization for which you work. Including the name is therefore socially understood to be inappropriate (generally) if you're writing in a personal capacity.
        • In the social media world when you write, it is suspicious if you try to "hide" where you work. Because the suspicion is that you are "astroturfing" - doing something propagandistic on behalf of your company. In the blogosphere the only real rule is transparency, as far as you can take it legitimately. So you need a disclaimer. But if you write something that violates your company policy, you can forget thinking that the disclaimer will fully protect you. So it is truly, truly complicated.
        There is other stuff too but I think you get the gist of it. Social media is not something you can apprehend from a distance. It's like learning to do surgery: You've got to stick your hand in the kishkes (Yiddish for innards) and "get it" by doing. When you actually see that beating heart only inches from our face, it's a heck of a lot different than reading about it in a textbook.

        Which explains why social media policy is really very hard to write well. Even for those who "get it," social media is frightening. It upsets the apple cart:
        • How do you "regulate" a conversation that's about you, that takes place right in front of you, that you do not control, that you may not understand, and that you really don't like? 
        • How do you decide what is and isn't OK, really, when in fact the very thing that scares and upsets you the most is the thing that will give you the most credibility with your audience? 
        • Finally, how do you navigate the gray areas that you inevitably run into? Headfirst and risk an ugly confrontation that may have been unnecessary? Or ignore it and fail to prevent an ugly disaster?
        I wish I could say that I have all the answers - I don't - although I've read a lot and I continue to try to learn. And I wish it were as simple as the words "trust your judgment" - unfortunately people aren't always good at knowing what to do, and sometimes they don't even know what it is that they don't know.

        What I do know is that whatever we're afraid of is real, and scary. But not half as scary as if we let fear overtake us, and prevent those important, productive, problem-solving conversations that we need from taking place.

        Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!

        ____

        As always, all opinions are my own. Originally posted to my blog, www.dannielleblumenthal.com.
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        Branding vs. The Temptation To Conform

        Nike+ chip on Vibram FiveFingers Bikila
        Image by soopahgrover via Flickr
        When you work in D.C. it seems like everyone naturally dresses in tan, navy and black.

        In New York they all wear black.

        In Miami it's surprising when people wear anything.

        Even within metropolitan areas there are codes.

        The kids at University of Maryland dress different than at George Washington University. But within each setting you can tell who fits in.

        Similarly the people walking on Georgetown have a totally different look than at Adams-Morgan.

        All I have to do is look down at the shoes and I know where each chicken goes home to roost.

        Professionally, your brand is all you have. And if you look like everybody else, you are killing your ability to make your mark.

        What distinguishes the brand-smart from the brand-stupid is that the former take conformity into account before deciding to "think different."

        In a sense, the nonconformist must be an expert on fitting in - a student of grammar - before s/he decides to misspell words purposely.

        To the untutored it looks like a teenage boy in pink Nikes is an oddball. To the fashion insider it is clear such an outfit is ultimately cool.

        Whether you fit in or not is up to you. But at the very least, know how to play the game.

        Have a good evening everyone, and good luck!





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