Opinions about branding by Dr. Dannielle Blumenthal

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013


The concept for this year is holistic authenticity. You should portray yourself as the total person that you are, rather than chopping out a part of yourself and presenting it as your professional profile.

Yes, you should do this even if you aren't looking for a job.

1. Profile picture: Should be up-close, preferably outdoors and you are smiling. Arms folded in front is good. Black and white is interesting. No angles. No blurriness. No weird colors or Photoshopping.

2. Headline: Unusual, unique, personal, honest, high-level and in a sentence. It is not what you do! It is your evolving personal brand. So drill down to the essence - and think about how you contribute the most value at work. (Your opinion, not theirs.)

3. Achievements: List 5 things in bullets. These are outcomes, not activities and they should emphasize areas where you enhanced productivity of saved money. Don't offer fake-sounding figures like "saved $1m." Don't take credit for things you didn't do.

4. Recommendations: Reach out and ask for them. Don't be shy. Reciprocate.

5. Bio: This is the first thing people see after your profile picture and headline. Take the time to write it well. I like the idea of leading with who you are as a person, your priorities not just the typical "visionary thought leader" stuff.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Photo by me.

Yesterday, commenting on the omelet blog, Karen Louise Boothe wrote on LinkedIn, "Some of your most profound observations come when you're waiting on a food order." 

Today it happened again -- before, during and after.

We were headed to the breakfast area early, even in Las Vegas time, because we had to be up for an activity.

On the way there, on the left, we see a couple. She is dressed in last night's clothes, last night's hair, and rumpled. He is all over her. It is literally 6 a.m. 

Know that I haven't even had my morning coffee yet, which I buy from the Starbucks for $4.05 (!) because the hotel version is so bad. And these two are waking me up.

I turn to my older daughter and make a face. She makes a face back, as if to say, I guess we're in Vegas now.

My husband and younger daughter are walking up ahead. Ever the bearer of drama and good gossip I inform them of what we have seen.

They turn around briefly, and my husband shakes his head as if to say "Oy vey."

Onward. We walk into the breakfast cafe and are seated by a waitress wearing a union pin. 

I notice the pin because none of the other wait staff have worn one. Also, this waitress has an air of quiet self-confidence, versus some other employees - who are either disengaged, overly deferential or angry. 

(One food server, frustrated that people kept leaving the spoons inside the food trays instead of on the spoon rests, kept slamming the lids shut, over and over again.)

It is so early. And who should walk in but the couple we had seen in the hallway. 

I had my back to them. I was eating the scrambled eggs with some shredded cheese and smoked salmon on top. This may sound good but it was absolutely gross. (Being hungry and impatient, I did not wait for the custom-made spinach, olive, mushroom, jalapeƱo, salsa and onion omelet that would have appeared by 6:15.)

My husband said, "Look."

There they were by the homemade granola.

"Quick," I said to my husband. "Let's get a picture."

"Mind your own business," he said, shaking his head. "You are crazy."

"Oh my G-d," I said, "this is a great blog. Take the shot!" Now I'm like a SWAT team leader in an action movie.

I start to take a photo in reverse iPhone mode, like I will pretend to be taking a selfie but get them instead. 

"Stop," he said. "Really."

I leaned forward conspiratorially. "I wonder if this is like that show 'What Would You Do' and they're testing us to see how we react."

"That's funny," my husband said. "And then the guy walks out..."

Meanwhile the kids are watching all this.

Then my husband says, "Wait a minute. She's a prostitute."

It hits me that he is right. "Ohhhh," I say. "Oh." 

I turn around. There she is at the omelet station. With another guy. They are embracing.

"There are two guys?" I say. I feel so stupid. Or, not stupid but clueless. Like a five-year-old, ignorant about what adults really do.

I can't figure out what the story is here. The first guy comes back, again with the PDA (public display of affection). He seems drunk or high or something, or like some social filter is off. 

Meanwhile, many of us in the room are eating some damn good French toast. It is piled high on our plates. (Bleary-eyed as we are, we are shoveling it in.)

There goes the waitress with the union pin again. She seems so crisp and dignified. I look at all the wait staff around the area and again wonder at how dejected they seem.

I think about the contrast between her and the other woman, who seems very clearly to be a sex worker.

I think about the fact that the (likely) sex worker is a young African-American woman and that her companions are Caucasian men. I reflect on the systematic exploitation of the former by the latter and frankly, start to feel enraged. A woman is not a thing. A person is not a trophy, like an innocent deer shot and hung on a wall.

"This is wrong," I say out loud. "It is just wrong."

"It is wrong," echoes my older daughter.

I decide that I want to take a picture of the Union waitress. And write about the contrast between her and the sex worker. Both women, both in bad positions in the system, one protected by a support network much bigger than herself.

But I hesitated to ask for a photo. First of all I didn't want to further annoy my family by turning breakfast into a social media opportunity. Second I didn't want to annoy the waitress or more subtly to exploit her or or pit her against the sex worker in some way.

I decided to write about it either way. Because it showed me how contradictory my own values are. On the one hand I believe in protecting the weak - this requires state regulation, frankly. On the other, relatively unfettered freedom - which means, keep the state out of our lives.

It's like when we went to the Grand Canyon last week and I saw it had no guardrail. The tour guide simply said, "Don't die."

Mayor Bloomberg would put a guardrail on the Canyon.

Or when we went to the food fair with its deep-fried Oreos and Red a Bull vodkas. I saw people piling their plates up at the food court with the three major food groups of Chinese food: sweet crispy chicken nuggets, fried rice and lo mein.

Honest to G-d, my first thought was, "What would Michelle Obama say?"

In the end I did take a picture of the waitress with the union pin. My husband forgot his jacket, and I saw her, and decided to trust my gut and ask.

She smiled enthusiastically. "Go right ahead, our union contract is up soon."

Remember the movie "Office Space," when Jennifer Aniston's character worked at a Chili's type restaurant and was forced to wear "flair" pins and smile?

Unions give the people back a power they can't seize from the System individually. They make working conditions better and provide a source of camaraderie and support.

This is true for everyone. They say prostitution is illegal but in some places this just means "we look the other way."

Sex worker or food server, all employees should have the option to join an organization that looks after their interests.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Kris Jenner. Photo via Wikipedia.

I do watch the Kardashian show on TV and inevitably get hassled for admitting it.

Most of us can understand the appeal of the kids pretty easily, right? Typical trashy Hollywood celebuzz reality stuff is entertaining.

But less often analyzed is the brand appeal of mom Kris Jenner. She is often reduced to the role of "mastermind" and not in a good way. This is the stereotype of the controlling mother who has no life of her own and thus somehow manipulates everybody else, living vicariously (and profiting financially) by pulling their figurative strings.

I think women like Kris as a brand in and of herself. Not all women. But women of a certain age, who have been there and done that and learned a few lessons along the way. Specifically, it's about confidence:

1. Kris puts her children first. She is always there with them and for them. She is not perfect but she cares and she tries. She focuses always on protecting their interests.

2. Kris lives life to the fullest, traveling, enjoying great cuisine, getting out there. Whatever she does, she does in a big way.

3. Kris has great, bold, dramatic style. She has huge black and white floor tiles, a grand staircase, black toilet paper to match the bathroom. She dresses to kill. 

4. Kris refuses to get, feel or act old. She smiles, laughs, and lives intensely. She sometimes acts age-inappropriate. But we understand her. She's like a 20 year old trapped in a 59 year old body.

5. Kris is a passionate subject who pursues romance - not an object who is acted on. She challenges the stereotype that women are inherently victims and gives lie to the false Madonna-whore sterotype that has been foisted on women since forever. She is empowered.

6. Kris faces reality. When she is incontinent she deals with it, however unpleasant. When Kim is getting fat she tells her so. When her son in law (sort of) Scott treats her daughter Kourtney badly she says so. When her marriage is failing she admits it and separates.

7. Kris stays friends with her ex. She and Bruce did not get along as husband and wife. But she wants him as part of her family. She does not act silly and ice him out. 

8. Kris has no qualms about financial savvy. Many women do. She opens a business, hires an assistant, retains professional help of every kind. Again, she is not a victim. 

9. Kris is independent. She loves and is connected to family and friends but also knows how and when to do her own thing. She follows the inner drummer.

10. Kris knows how to fail and move on. She tells the kids "own it" rather than walk in shame - and means every word.

Kris Jenner has a brand empire. It translates into lots of things she hasn't even exploited yet: 

* self-help books and shows (like Oprah), architecture (we love her home - partner with a builder)

* Housewares (think Martha Stewart)

* Travel (create a club for fun-loving Boomers!) 

* A lifestyle clothing brand for older women (like Chico's but with pizzazz)

A born moneymaker, just for being herself, working hard and joyfully but making it seem effortless. To me, that spells brand success.

* All opinions my own.


Saturday, December 28, 2013


Focus does not mean monotony. Today I had a chance to visit the Coca-Cola store on the Las Vegas strip. I was dazzled. I felt awe at this quintessential American heritage brand, and thought about what keeps it fresh and inspiring to so many even a century after it's founding.


Not only that I wondered how they kept their brand essence focused, with so many diverse products and looks and manifestations of the same thing. See these magnets, above.


If so had to boil it down to one thing I would say they Coca-Cola worships at the altar of the best of America. It is unapologetic refreshment, enjoyment of life, memories of a shared heritage. Look at this jewelry made out of bottle pieces, above.


They had fun scented tee-shirts. The shirts matched the various soda lines. It wasn't about drinking anything, just a smile.


Of course they had old-fashioned signs. They made me think of small towns in the Midwest in the mid-50s, when everything was simpler. I thought of my grandparents (may they rest in peace) in the Catskill Mountains and happy times visiting them.


They had metal vending machines with the famous Mexican Coca-Cola.


Anything you could imagine for the home, was there. Pick one item or all of them - it was too much and never enough.


They even had a soda fountain where you could sample a ton of flavors.


And of course, clothes and more clothes in mostly their signature red.


Finally, ads that featured what looked like movie stars.

I don't drink Coca-Cola much, but I do love the brand and if I could, I would buy all this stuff. It is totally American and totally awesome.

* All opinions my own. Photos by me.

Me and Andy, my love. Photo by a helpful stranger.

1. Your target audience is 40+ or foreigners, not only college kids sowing wild oats. Many of us are married or coupled and a lot of folks are with longtime friends or dating. A lot of us bring the kids. We're here because we want to live a little before we are too old to enjoy anything. Your message of "what happens here stays here" is way too narrow and misleading.

2. Let me repeat, we may have our kids along.  How about a rating system for activities like at the movies? Mark the adult stuff with an X or NC-17 and there is plenty to do at the G and PG levels. (The R-rated stuff is somewhere in the middle and we know what it is.) You underestimate people.

3. How come you don't tell us that Vegas is like "Disneyland For Adults," with a huge variety of fun activities where everything is larger than life, incredibly imaginative and in glorious living color.

The "Eiffel Tower." Photo by me.

A copy of New York's famous buildings and signs, the Eiffel Tower, the Excalibur and Tournament of Champions. the Luxor and the pyramid like in Egypt, David Copperfield's famous magic show, Maroon 5, it just goes on and on and on.

4. Vegas is the best of America. Show off the patriotic aspects of this experience! Seeing the street dancers, Elvis impersonators, Transformers and Spongebob Squarepants and Barney all standing on the street?

Street dancers give awesome free performance promoting great dancing and racial unity. Photo by me.

The legendary and museum-like brands like Christian Louboutin shoes, and Gucci. The massive showplace theme restaurants and Wolfgang Puck's eatery. And the comedy at Laugh Factory and Cirque du Soleil. The greatest talent in the greatest place to show it off - a massive open gathering place and a stage. 

5. I get that you make your money off the seamier side of life. But I wish that you didn't. Maybe there is some other way to generate the billions of dollars on revenue you get from feeding gambling addiction and so on. Do you know I saw a woman yesterday selling "Girls Girls Girls" on the street?

A woman and man sell girls. Photo by me.

Actually two or three of them, and they looked like immigrants who either didn't know or had too any other problems to care. You wouldn't put your daughters or wives out there on the street like that. Well we who have to watch it don't like it either. At the end of the day we all have to answer to our Maker.

* All opinions my own. Photos in body of blog by me.

Friday, December 27, 2013

If Elvis can do it, so can you. Photo by me.

1. Reframe: Use your mind to understand your situation differently and in a positive way, as an opportunity to learn and grow. For example a bad job appraisal or termination - take it as feedback to advance you to the next job opportunity.

2. Reinvent: Take a familiar situation or experience and turn it into a new one. For example a job that has become routine - learn a new skill and transform your responsibilities.

3. Repurpose: Take a familiar tool and use it for something completely different. Start a different kind of blog. Turn a magazine into wallpaper. Turn an apple into a self-contained pie shell (seen on Lifehacker.)

4. Reimagine: Be extraordinarily creative, forget the past and don't accept limits, dream and do what you never dreamt possible.

5. Regenerate: Take time out to do things just for you, for fun, with no "productive" end.


Photo by me.

1. Loan iPads and other tablets so that visitors can contact friends and family, take photos, and so on without worrying about taking a personal device. 

2. At in-house Starbucks and other popular in-house coffee destinations, add more cashiers during breakfast rush hour when the line builds up or add more stations.

3. Target the female traveler with a range of services beyond the spa, such as free makeovers, jewelry and personal wardrobe consultations - then sell related products afterward. Tier the products to customers in every category from mass to haute. 

4. Buffet the food as much as possible. People dislike table service because it is uncomfortable to interact with wait staff - making conversation, knowing how much to tip, etc.

5. Add a spa lounge experience to every fitness area. It is not hard to have a few magazines, juice and coffee and a comfortable quiet place to sit. This should be free, as a gateway to sell spa services.

6. Hotel shuttles and tour buses should have plugs, wifi and large seats as standard offerings. Tour guides should mostly not talk as this is annoying.

7. Use side-of-the-building billboards to draw visitors staying at other hotels. Have a simple phone number and URL where viewers can go for more information, directions and discounts.

8. If you are selling entertainment, offer free food. The money is in perks and amenities - a better show, a premium menu or wine list, rare and hard to find merchandise.

9. Use the hotel concierge more. Whatever the desk promotes with a discount is what people will see. Work with partners to offer branded guided package tours originating from the hotel. This reduces the burden on the traveler by enabling one-stop shopping for all fun events. The guest relies on the hotel brand and has confidence in that.

10. Expand the range of in-hotel branded  partners. Guests are reassured by the sight of logos - Starbucks, Yelp!, TripAdvisor, "America's Got Talent" for entertainment acts, and so on.

* All opinions my own.

Photo by me.

I laugh along with the ad campaign "What happens in Vegas Stays In Vegas,"  but this stuff is really not cool.

1. Caste System: Poor people serving rich people on an overwhelming scale where most are living on low-paying retail jobs and a few are obscenely rich. The sign at Panda Express offers "great benefits," there is not even a mention of wages.

2. Social Darwinism: People sleeping on the street with various cardboard cutout signs, some humorous some not, like "shitty advice for money" and "even ugly people need to eat."

3. Sex Trafficking: Men handing out cards to other men offering "girls" for sale, billboards offering "girls to your room in 20 minutes" like a Domino's pizza, newsstand racks with Lucite Tic Tac Toe designs offering women for sale.

4. Colonialism: Native Americans reduced to scanning lunch tickets on a Grand Canyon bus tour and singing/dancing on a mock reservation. Seeing the poverty they live in as the bus drives by.

5. Kidnapping and Organized Crime: Signs at the airport warning "If someone offers you a ride they shouldn't be giving you one," and tour guides emphasizing the exact location of the pickup van and the color of the shirt the guy will be wearing.

- All opinions my own.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Not everybody likes or can relate to Judd Apatow’s TV shows and movies. But I find them honest, compelling and true. And so I think I can speak about that central brand quality that makes them so successful.

Apatow is able to take a very personal and painful experience and turn it into something we can share and celebrate together. He celebrates what I call “joyful awkwardness” – that is, living in the moment when you not only don’t know where you’re going, but also realize you’re making a total ass of yourself not getting there.

The emotional experience Apatow depicts on screen is not exclusive to men, although most of his primary characters are male for obvious reasons. Lena Dunham is a version of Apatow, a writer who can’t get her act together but who lets us see completely behind the curtain.

In Girls, the storyline and the writing is so engaging, it is almost as if we are there. We are Hannah, alone and afraid as an OCD episode leaves a Q-tip stuck in our ears and we have nobody to take us to the emergency room. We are Hannah as an ex-boyfriend insanely breaks into our apartment and we have to call 911, then apologize as the police take him away. We are Hannah as our best friend invites us for a weekend in the country, then disappears, leaving us on the train tracks alone, because she can’t handle seeing the father who abandoned her.

You can’t be an Apatow fan and not connect with these gifted, awkward, lost and damaged characters in a very fundamental way. And so the reason you will pay $22 for a season of Girls from HBO, or spend $32 to see Anchorman 2 right away rather than waiting, is that you know what kind of experience you are paying for, every time – one in which you can forget (or more accurately, merge) your own awkwardness with that of the main character, sympathize and empathize, and feel reassured that you’re not the only one, that in fact there is a whole community of people just like you.

Apatow’s audience is very specific. These are White people in their late ‘30s or early ‘40s, with a sophisticated late ‘20s. They have money sufficient to have neurotic problems rather than the problems of finding the basics to get by.  They are somehow connected with secular New York City Jews. They have three or four lifelong friends, a crew that supersedes their natural families.

They are beleaguered. In every show I’ve seen, whether it’s Anchorman 2, Girls, This is 40 , or Knocked Up, their natural joy in life is challenged severely, and  they need to get back to the simple joy of living, but somehow cannot because circumstances keep preventing it.

They’ve lost their real, natural selves, but will not stop until they get it back.  And usually this means acting childish as an act of rebellion. That is why Apatow’s trademark stars – Dunham, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, and Seth Rogen – work so well.

There is all this talk about brand success ad how to engineer it. But I tend to think that you cannot predict such things in advance. Your brand is ironically that thing inside you that escapes all branding. It’s spontaneous and real. It’s the thing people see when they encounter you. And the more you own and harness it, the more valuable your encounter with the world will be, both personally and professionally.

* All opinions my own.





Wednesday, December 25, 2013


1. "Anchorman 2" features easily recognizable 70s and early 80s pop icons and fashion. It reflects how Gen Xers grew up watching a few powerful networks on TV. We know the casts of top shows almost like we know our own families, and it thus creates friends out of strangers easily. Marketers succeed when they channel this pop culture nostalgia. 

2. The movie depicts changing gender norms regarding gender and marriage. Gen Xers grew up with both mom and dad at work, maybe even at two jobs. Our parents divorced if they were not happy and they had boyfriends and girlfriends just as teenagers do. Marketers succeed when they depict characters struggling with gender norms. They also do well by channeling Xers nostalgia for an imagined earlier time that was better defined and less confusing.

3. The movie shows how society changed very quickly in a short period of time, and similarly how individuals reinvented their own identities in a quest for meaning. The shackles of the past were released. For children, though, watching all this instability yielded a sense of anxiety about "who we really are." Marketers do well when they develop products, services and experiences that create identity  and community out of whole cloth - and can be discarded quickly as well. 

4. In "Anchorman 2," the main character struggles with workaholism as a means of attaining self-respect. His self-esteem depends on validation by those he idolizes. Marketers succeed when they make employees at all levels feel uniquely valuable on the job - high emotional engagement and morale - work as a life's calling.

5. In the movie, the character admires the concept of connecting with his son but has trouble doing so personally. Gen Xers, having grown up unsupervised and lacking this connection, are the guiltiest generation of helicopter parents on the planet. Marketers who push those buttons with emotionally effective child-centric products, services and experiences have an advantage. So do those who can deliver an intellectual advantage as parents seek to equip their kids to be "survivors."

* All opinions my own.
  1. “High tech antiques” – high functionality embedded in vintage, familiar, heritage look and feel.
  2. Bitcoin and other alternative currencies embedded in mobile phones (rather than credit card or bank account).
  3. Increasingly sophisticated methods of barter for professional services.
  4. Parallel stock markets to gamble on virtually everything.
  5. The end of paper checks.
  6. Hiring for emotional intelligence scientists, and the rejection of "touchy feely."
  7. Cheaper and cheaper mass-market juicers.
  8. Augmented reality doctors, plus Skyping, texting, and email - anything but an actual visit.
  9. Co-branded childcare, medical care, and telecommuting centers for parents.
  10. Combination luxury tour and cheaper essential surgery - in developing nations.
  11. Bartering caregiving for rent – especially for the elderly.
  12. Alternative medicine legitimized and increasingly regulated, as the government responds to popular demands for lower-cost and more natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals and traditional medicine.
  13. Brainpower industry to mushroom for the elderly - a refusal to accept the so-called "normal" aging process.
  14. Touchscreen computers to quickly replace touchpads (think "Catching Fire" and the archery practice scene with Jennifer Lawrence).
  15. A slow but steady move toward direct brain procedures, and away from pills and therapy to treat post-traumatic stress and related disorders.
  16. Measurement of brain waves for product testing, and a movement away from unreliable focus groups.
  17. Rapid-turnaround marketing interventions based on predictive consumer behavioral analysis.
  18. Growth of the "Big Data Analytics" industry in which customized insight is delivered to your virtual doorstep, even before you ask for it.
  19. Light-activated battery packs embedded in business gear to constantly charge iPhone and laptop.
  20. Retail stores to buy their own clothing back and resell it at a discount – eating into the thrift store market by eliminating the stigma of buying secondhand goods.
  21. Rise of camouflage, “Duck Dynasty” and other military gear in the workplace and the continued demise of the formal suit.
  22. Down with the '80s and '90s fashion, and the ‘70s are back in a big way - think "Anchorman 2" and "American Hustle."
  23. Vending machines to sell more and more luxury impulse products, like makeup.
  24. Lunch trucks to sell haute cuisine, not just basics.
  25. The rise of "hacker patriotism" - turning and grooming future Edward Snowdens in the clandestine service (across nations).
  26. Clandestine anonymous internet browsing cafes with disappearing chat.
  27. Personal GPS tied to 911 – protecting not just home but self.
  28. Rise of female security industry, e.g. single-gender hotel floors, door and window-stoppers, and home protection services geared especially to the needs of single women with children.
  29. "Multifunctional fitness" classes, combining for example personal defense training and sport, or dance lessons and history, or parent-child fitness training.
  30. The mainstreaming of low-cost, just-in-time coaching and assisting - from virtual assistants for parents, to mentors for new recruits, to traditional coaches for midlevel managers.
* All opinions my own.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


"Don't report sexual harassment (in most cases)" is, from where I sit, one of Penelope Trunk's most controversial posts about success at work. Her basic position is not, as it appears, to be a victim but rather to find the most expedient way to save oneself - because the odds are stacked in favor of the abuser. She writes:

"Sexual harassment in American work life is pervasive — as much as 80 percent in some sectors. But most women don’t stand a chance of winning a lawsuit. So having a plan to deal with the problem is a good idea for all women."

In fact, men and women alike can be victims of sexual harassment at work. Sadistic people populate organizations just as they do the schools, the clergy, the home, and every other environment with a power differential. According to the child abuse advocacy organization Darkness to Light, "About one in seven girls and one in 25 boys is sexually abused before they turn 18." (And we frequently hear that "sexual assaults are badly underreported and poorly counted.")

The extent of sexual assault in all sectors of society, its institutional sweeping under the rug, and the shame that victims feel about it is a problem. Post-traumatic stress keeps victims from ever feeling physically or emotionally safe - forget innovating, they're just trying to get by. The organization's legal and reputational issues and fears keep it wedded to a model where closing ranks becomes the easy solution, rather than working through problems transparently and moving on. Not to mention that abusive executives get away with hurting their employees over and over again, individually and by extension.

It's time to pull the curtain back from sexual abuse at work, support current or former victims in a very vocal way, and get the perpetrators out of the system.

Making it safe is not just the right thing to do, it's essential if we are to move forward and be fully productive.

* All opinions my own.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Image source: Wikimedia

If you oppress people they will rise up at some point and reclaim their freedom. Many popular shows today are centrally focused on that theme: "Catching Fire," "The Walking Dead," and even one show actually titled "Revolution."

Physical oppression is horrible to watch - I had nightmares from "12 Years A Slave." But the ultimate freedom is freedom of the mind, and that is invisible. You can only see the effects when it's not there.

Crayola crayons don't work as well as oil pastels. But as a kid I loved the 64-crayon boxes anyway. A colleague in government told me she did too. And then she relayed what happened to her in kindergarten.

"The teacher only wanted us to bring the 8 crayon box. She could tell that I was using other colors. I really got in trouble for that."

I would like to say that I can't even imagine what kind of human being would tell a 5 year old to restrict their creativity in such a petty way. But unfortunately I can.

In "Catching Fire" they try to control what people think, by alternately scaring the hell out of them and then distracting them with propaganda.

In the government we have for decades tried the exact same thing. It isn't out of "badness" but because we need order. In a huge bureaucracy you have to obey.

We are in a crisis of innovation. We have to be crazy creative to get ourselves out of the mess we're in. But we've taught everyone to restrict their thinking.

Religious people are in this crisis. They (we, because I am in a sense religious) shelter ourselves from outside influences. It gives us unshakable values that we treasure, values that keep us intact through incredibly challenging and degrading times.

It also closes us off from necessary growth and improvement.

Think about the fact that we need soldiers. A free thinking soldier with moral doubts means we are dead. But then again, a soldier who easily dehumanizes others is a very grave danger to society as well.

But all these debates are old now. We have to get back to being little kids taking charge of very grownup things. Forget the 64 color box of crayons, we need 128 or even 254. We need virtual crayons.

To do this we have to invest in people. Not just those who are new to the system. We actually owe a debt to those who "grew up" here in government, so to speak. Who gave up a lot - who have given their lives, who sacrificed their own need to constructively dissent - in order to serve the institution, to be part of the team, and yes, to put food on the table.

We will get our creative back when we train our existing employees on the job, for the skills they need now, not just on the technical side but with respect to culture, communication and emotional intelligence.  It is time to empower everyone as a personal "innovation hub."

It's not the job of leadership or management anymore to think us out of the dilemmas we face. We need a "people's uprising," of rebels who want to practice "creative self destruction" so as to enable our mutual survival. The system serves the people not the other way around, and the only way to get there is ourselves.

How about we throw out those 8-crayon boxes, and give all the kids a multitude of crayons instead?

* All opinions my own.



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Frequently in literature we see that animals are used to symbolize human personalities. And it occurred to me that in government, there are some types of people whose presence gets in the way of progress.

Of course these are one-dimensional extremes, meant to illustrate a point.

1. The snake

Wants to keep power, works better in the shadows, thus sets about quietly choking transparency advocates to organizational death.

snake and acorns

  2. The rooster

Seeks all the credit for themselves. Toot their own horn, and suppress others' ideas and accomplishments.

rooster cock
Photo by mewwhirl via Flickr

3. The goat

Just complains about everything, sapping the energy of everybody in the room.

goat
Photo by kkirugi via Flickr

4. The chimpanzee

Continually head-scratching, confused, can't figure out what's going on even after nearly five years of movement toward the new. Where they could add momentum, they continually slow it because they just are without a clue.

Chimpanzee
Photo by David Lewis via Flickr

5. The alligator

Always ready to swallow you whole; their primary motivation is self-protection, and they do not want you looking too closely at what they're doing at any given moment. Abuses the legitimate right to grieve, and is always ready to escalate rather than resolve. (It goes without saying: Of course employees should grieve legitimately, the balance of power is not in their favor.)

Alligator Farm @ St Augustine, FL
Photo by Steve Beger via Flickr

If we are honestly want to improve the way federal government operates, the first thing we should do is find a way to constructively address the problem of employees who impede progress.


* All opinions my own.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


"Creative destruction," a term coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter, is a shorthand way of describing the innovation process in economic terms. 

Today we get movies via Apple and Amazon on our computers. We don't need Redbox, Blockbuster, or movie theaters at all. (Saturday Night Live did a really funny "eulogy" for Blockbuster featuring Lady Gaga.)

Innovation routinely costs people their jobs - that's the tough side. Yet as unfortunate as that is, progress will continue to happen. It just does - it's like a rule of nature.

So no matter where you work, it makes sense to destroy your job, yourself, first - so that you can move on to the next realm of opportunity before someone pulls the rug out from under you.

Yes, even if you are a Fed.

This advice may seem counterintuitive. Federal jobs are known for their relative stability and security, and many feds begin and end their lives in the government.

And yet - we constantly seem to hear talk of cutting the federal workforce, reducing benefits, freezing pay, and so on.

You may say that a wave of retirements is coming. That opens up opportunity within agencies, certainly.

In addition, there is a lack of reliable predictive data regarding how many times people change careers. Maybe the worries about job and career stability are overblown, especially in the public sector.

I would say that it can never hurt to be prepared. Especially when job dislocation is so frequent and stressful in the private sector.

Not to mention that agencies are moving inexorably toward consolidation, reorganization, and a model where government resources are extended through public-private partnerships. 

* The U.S. National Archives (where I work; shameless plug) is one of many partners in the Digital Public Library of America, contributing content to create a massive searchable database of historical archives.

* The British Library just dumped a million images into Flickr with Microsoft's help. The public is going to help crowdsource identifying what they are. And they're looking for partners.

* Google Books and the Internet Archive are doing mass digitization of books.

* USAID literally sets no limits on who can apply to work with them on ending world poverty. 

The hard truth is, we in the government can't do it alone, and we don't have the money to do whatever we want anymore - if we ever did.

So employees have to adapt. The best way I can think of to do this, is read career columnists (off the top of my head, Penelope Trunk and Ilya Pozin on LinkedIn) and take some form of technical training if you can. (If you do web work, many people have recommended Lynda.com to me, although I've never tried it.)

Good luck.

* All opinions my own. No endorsement expressed or implied.







Google has patented an agent that will post on social media for you. If you can't think of a clever Tweet, you need worry no more - this little robot has got your back.

What if we had an agent that could navigate Big Data? It would:

* Know my data usage habits online.
* Anticipate what kind of data I would be interested in.
* Go out and find that information automatically, from multiple sources or (or engage in conversation, to elicit those needs from me).
* Deliver it to me in consumable form.

As far as I know we do not have a national strategy for big data. So I looked at Australia's for some insight.

Their focus is on analytics - it didn't say anything about "bots." And that's fine.

We need to start with analytics - driving "actionable intelligence."

But that is only a baby step.

Where the rubber hits the road: Empowering ordinary people with meaningful information - information that enables them to get things done.

Right now, the U.S. has a clearly articulated action plan for open government and a phenomenal framework for digital government as well.

But we need to begin with the end in mind.

It's not just about collecting information mindlessly. Nor delivering material to decision makers.

It is about John or Jane Doe with no particular knowledge of coding.

If we can turn abstract 0s and 1s into tools that make everyday living more productive - healthier, wealthier, wiser, and more participatory in shaping the conditions of our existence - then we in government have done our job.

* All opinions my own.






Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Culture, culture, culture - it's all about culture.

1. You never know who you're talking to. Quiet and unassuming people are routinely very powerful people. (It's bad form to be showy and self promotional.) So be extra careful to show everybody the same amount of respect.

2. You never know who is married to who, or in a relationship with who, or who has an archenemy where. Across four different agencies in ten years, I have learned to watch my step. Feds work in agencies for many years, find their partners there, get divorced there, and form bitter rivalries. Again, be careful what you say about who. 

3. Everybody is confused by the amount of red tape. On a snow day like yesterday, we're all reading fifteen different guidances to make sure we know what to do. Never feel dumb about this. If you thought you knew the answers, we would be laughing at you.

4. Problems are usually worked out quietly, not in town halls. It's important to have events and send out corporate communications for the sake of making clear what priorities are. But real progress happens in small meetings where the microphones are off.

5. Every agency has its own culture, traditions and history and you need to know what you don't know. At one agency, you show up ten minutes late to a meeting and that's starting time. At another, attendance means coming five minutes early. Typically there are issues around field versus headquarters, or component versus headquarters, or division versus division. If you don't understand the sensitivities you can easily sound foolish.

* All opinions my own.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Days of contemplation!

In a discussion at the Harvard Business Review's Working Knowledge newsletter, Professor Emeritus Dr. James Heskett asks, but cannot answer, "What are the limits of transparency?"

Some of the comments from his readers show how confused people get over this thorny topic. For example, take these two:

* "Share only data, not information."

* "Transparency protocols... a distinct process matrix to ensure that the appropriate amount of information is delivered."

It's not that people can't think clearly. They can. But when they must operate in a double-bind environment, they tend to respond with irrational, foggy or circular thinking. 

And business today is a paradox. For the function is essentially about survival - you seek to profit. Yet customers demand ethical behavior and social responsibility, not to mention allegiance to the law. And even further, they want to "know" who you are - your brand - they want authenticity.

So you have to open up and "be real." But just like in personal relationships, this can be a risk. Two of them are primary in the private sector: loss of competitive advantage and loss of reputation. Heskett explains these and offers two responses from commenters:

1. Loss of competitive advantage: Generals do not share their battlefield plans - coaches don't share their playbooks - and business leaders don't want to share with the world how they plan to win. To this, Gerald Nanninga counters:

"Great strategy should be so entwined into your unique business model that competitors wouldn't be able to readily implement it even if they knew what it was."

2. Loss of reputation: Businesses worry they will lose their halos or even descend into scandal if people share too much. To which Khadija Khan argues:

"There is really no need for whistle blowers if the responsible organizations including government organizations disclose information to general public without reservations and let them make use of the one relevant to them." 

The federal government is not a business per se, but some of the conversations around transparency mimic those in the private sector. For example:

1. Power: As above, no individual or group wants to lose it.

2. Reputation: Also as above, nobody wants to look bad.

At the same time, federal employees hold positions of public trust and are therefore subject to ethical guidelines that require transparency even when such transparency shows we screwed up.  Principle #11 of 14 from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics clearly states that federal employees: "shall disclose waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption to appropriate authorities." 

Of course this mandate does not help whistleblowers all the time. Wherever they sit, private sector or government, they routinely face retaliation. So much so that the President's Second Open Government Plan (Dec. 6, 2013) has a special section about increasing their protections.

The rationalization around attacking whistleblowers is really a misreading of the ethics imperative against sharing "nonpublic information," meaning: "information that the employee gains by reason of Federal employment and that he or she knows or reasonably should know has not been made available to the general public."

From the Ethics perspective, this kind of "wrongful transparency" basically comes down to two concerns:

1. National Security: Obviously, the number-one principle of government ethics is loyalty to the Constitution. Thus the National Insider Threat Policy defines an "insider threat" as "the threat that an insider will use her/his authorized access...to do harm to the security of the United States." 

2. Personal Gain: Public servants may not line their pockets using information they obtained because of their jobs. Of the 14 core ethical principles listed by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (U.S. OGE), four of which explicitly refer to money and two referring to "private gain."

But there is a subtler concern here as well. It is harder to express but it is no less important than the other two. And this is where the confusion comes in. One can think of it as:

3. Interference With Operations: When I worked at U.S. Customs and Border Protection we had a code of conduct that covered a lot of ground. The overarching message: "Don't do things to bring shame on the government."

From a social media point of view, describing honestly what goes on inside a federal agency actually enhances trust - we know that the public perceives efforts to "spin" or close down the message as detracting from credibility. Even the presence of a public affairs officer in an interview ("a minder")  is seen as a form of inappropriate censorship.

Yet agencies don't usually see it this way. For example the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives initially treated the potential publication of whistleblower agent John Dodson's book on Fast & Furious as a "morale" and "relationships" issue (ultimately the book went to publication; Dodson will not be compensated for writing it.)

Times are changing, though.

As both "politicals" and "civils" see the importance of transparency to the public (and frankly as they see it cannot be avoided), they are quicker to embrace forthrightness - even at the level of the President.

There is one area that should be off limits, though: deliberation.

Think about the time you spend meditatively, when nobody is around. The conversations you have with your spouse, your children, a trusted friend or colleague.

This is your thought process. It is the non-fully-formed idea, not yet blossomed into action.

Should those thoughts be subjects to the world's scrutiny before they are ready? Should every conversation that takes place be "Tweetable" to the world?

The reasonable person would say "no."

There are limits on transparency. Maybe the Kardashians do it, but for the rest of us it is not productive or normal to have every waking moment documented on tape.

We ought to let our public officials, individually and in private meetings, have some breathing room, so that they can work thorny issues out before bringing them before the public eye.

Join me at tomorrow's "Digital Disruption Panel" - yes it's still on, despite the weather - where we'll talk about these issues and more. 

* All opinions my own.