Friday, January 31, 2014

"Blue Jasmine" As A Meditation On Good Vs. Evil

When it comes to "Blue Jasmine," most people focus on either one of two actors: Cate Blanchett or Andrew Dice Clay.

Blanchett (whose character, to me, was about Allen's ex-wife Mia Farrow) has most of the airtime. 

She is hard to watch. Shaky, talking to herself. Self-absorbed. Beautiful. Shallow. Cold. Pained. Condescending. Unaware. Narcissistic. Mean. Selfish. Blithely amoral.

Her husband buys her diamond bracelets, and cheats on her.

Andrew Dice Clay was her brother-in-law. Until he wasn't, because Cate Blanchett's husband (Alex Baldwin) soaked him out of two hundred grand. 

He never pretends to be what he's not. He only wants his own business and his wife.

Baldwin, a Wall Street crook, gets the money because Clay is pressured by his insecure wife, Blanchett's adopted sister. She feels "genetically" inferior -- but maybe she too can buy self-esteem by investing with a Park Avenue money man who eats lunch every day at Le Cirque.

As a lying, cheating crook, Baldwin is completely unashamed of what he does. In his book greed is your problem, if it makes you willing to invest in his shifty schemes.

Blanchett loses her son altogether in the movie. He was so proud of Dad once. And now "I can't show my face at Harvard after what he's done to all those people."

There are other characters in "Blue Jasmine." Not one of them is simple, or finds unbroken happiness. 

But they can achieve transcendence. In the movie that is tied with finding moral clarity. 

Not the kind that comes from a book. The kind that comes from being honest. 

Moral clarity is what gives meaning to life. No matter what you are going through, it makes you shine from the inside.

Meanwhile, people who are bad are forever confused, like Blanchett. Talking to themselves and everyone else about how great they are and how much they deserve, and how they're the ones who got screwed. 

Sucking the life from the planet.

* All opinions my own. Photo by me.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Are You Training Your Team To Be Incompetent?

We build statues to the knight in shining armor. Everybody wants to be one. 

Implying that the rest of us are there to be rescued.

I met a woman in class today. We exchanged pleasantries. She used to be a manager, she said. And volunteered this:

"One thing I learned is always to ask people what THEIR process is -- before changing anything. They love that."

Gee, I need to do that more, I thought.

All my life I have hated micromanagers.  But when I became a manager myself, I inadvertently fell into the trap:
  • No matter how well-meaning you are --
  • No matter how accurate your conclusions --
  • Even if the staff are asking you to do it -- can't adopt the posture of a savior.  People have to find the way for themselves.

The issue goes back to ownership. The old "teach a person to fish." 
  • In the short term you can dominate the team and sure you will drive results.
  • But long term you may be cutting yourself off at the knees. Because you cannot do all the work alone -- cannot anticipate the issues or resolve them as well as a distributed force of "trained killers."
When your value comes from being a "hero," the staff necessarily adopts a helpless pose. What else should they do?

So there they sit, like long-ago Chinese princesses with their feet bound so tightly they cannot walk. 

And they do try to work where they can. But all they know how to do is react -- sewing pretty things by hand, but not building sewing machines.

So what if you are not the rescuer, the turnaround king, the genius?
Where is your value then?

I think it goes back to 5 things, executed consistently (e.g., operationalize the brand):
  • Strategy - have a plan for getting things where they need to go
  • Communication - tell everyone the plan, update it, work through issues
  • Staff Development - take time to make sure people are doing what they're good at, and growing
  • Technology - fight for the equipment to work as fast as possible 
  • Relationships - network as much as possible to find ways you can achieve mutual goals while sharing the burden
In real life success is gained through the team. Heroes are a lucrative fantasy for Hollywood.

* All opinions my own. (Photo by me.)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What Rebels See In The Football Game

Photo by iam_photography via Flickr

Being a change agent is not a convenient way to live. It's risky, because there is no recipe. You think about it a lot - it becomes a kind of life goal, even though you know the situation is only temporary.

So why bother? Because I don't feel alive unless I've taken a side. I always think about victory. What would it be like to carry that football, outrun the other team, and hit the pigskin to the other side?

I think I would be bored if everything were calm at work. I have this inner need - to make order out of the chaos.

Clearly it's psychological. It's me. Which is why it's silly that pop management culture tends to lionize change agents as somehow better than everyone else.

It is true that doing change well takes a lot of skill. You face resistance no matter what. You often feel like you've had the s**t kicked out of you, frankly.

Because at the end of the day there's this double bind: 

Make things better - but don't make people upset in the process.

Oh sure!

I have seen some creative solutions to that. 
  • One is to simply implement the change on the ground and not tell people that it's happening until it's nearly over. It's a pretty neat trick, if you can get away with it.
  • Others put the policy through and count on the fact that most people don't take much time to read anything when it's their turn to do a review. This goes over a little nastier - but people tend to get over most things that don't directly affect their lives.
  • Another way is to have a leader proselytize for change through intensive communication. This can work well, but you've got to use an army of people to carry it out, and you must have support from the opposing camp. Because the opposition is always steep.
Often thinking about how to move things forward, I check my Blackberry first thing in the morning. 

But who knows, maybe I am just a statistic.

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Saturday, January 25, 2014

If You Aren't Innovating, You're Dead

 photo Innovation-OnlyDeal_zpsd15c9db0.gif

Here's a little GIF I made. Feel free to use it whenever people start with you about innovation being useless, nonessential, a waste of time, doesn't belong in government, etc.
The fact of the matter is - innovation is absolutely mission-critical.
However much the agency is spending - it absolutely can spend less and do more.
In fact it is entirely possible for the agency to become a revenue center as opposed to a cost center and eliminate the burden on the taxpayer, if not mostly, entirely.
We can reconceive of government not only as a customer-centric enterprise but as one that wholly benefits the taxpayer rather than taking money from them and returning questionable value in return.
To do that we have to work smarter, not harder. Collaboratively, not in stovepipes. Trustfully, not with hate and jealousy and turf wars. And above all inclusively, allowing the world to breathe air into stale and musty areas of the mission that we mistake for essential operations.
If we don't embrace innovation we will all figuratively die if and when the public decides they no longer can afford the overhead - no matter how important or essential we think we are.
And if you don't believe me, turn on the news any day of the week. They aren't saying that agencies are lean and efficient. Rather, we are constantly accused of wasteful spending.
For the GIF:
  • Embed code - click here.
  • Direct link - here
  • Image - here.
* All opinions my own.

The Brand-Centric Business In 5 Steps

Many people make the mistake of thinking that branding is separate from business operations. 

Here is a new slide I put together (download at SlideShare) showing how branding is key to managing day-to-day operations, no matter what environment you find yourself in.

The reason branding is so important is that it guides all of your decisions in a very focused way. Your brand is a promise, and a very specific one. You only do things in a way that honors the brand.

Today on LinkedIn, brand expert Laura Ries expressed the sentiment this way:

I've been a brand consultant and I've worked for government agencies in a public affairs capacity as well as in management.

The reality is that if you do not have a very strong brand ethic to work against, disagreements and turf battles on the inside easily divert time and attention from the unifying focus that any organization must have: the customer.

What is your organization supposed to do? Just do it. That is your brand.

Anything else must be ruthlessly chopped away, no matter how painful that may be.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Promoting Open Data Relies On Step 4

Just uploaded this slide today. It's a one-pager I put together to explain what our Office does at the National Archives.

Basically, we look for faster, better, cheaper ways to promote public access to historical records.

The most efficient way to do that, obviously is to put those records on the Internet.

But one of the most frequently overlooked issues concerns the importance of private sector partners who will display that data where the public actually congregates.

This is step 4 of the wheel.

It is no small feat to get our data organized, consistent and uploaded. As much of it as possible.

But after that, you've got to get those raw feeds out where people can see them.

The web is good.

Social media is better.

Wikipedia is better - we're doing a lot of work there.

But it would be best if every piece of information we had in our catalog, were available wherever the public consumes information.

And even beyond that - imagine if the public could crowdsource what they see in front of them, and add more information than is available to the government.

Talk to each other, and refine the data together.

Eventually, with all of it connected at the meta-level.

Pretty wild, right? 

That's the vision of Open Data - and the government cannot do it alone.

* All opinions my own.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Sycophancy, The Breakfast Of Fools and Killers

Photo of Hitler (may his name and memory be erased forever and ever), left, 
with his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, right, via Historical Times

During the Holocaust Joseph Goebbels served as Hitler's Minister of Propaganda. Hitler who famously said

"By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise."

Goebbels loved Hitler, unconditionally, and served him with a fanatical loyalty that has been described as "the emotional essence of totalitarianism." 

The world they inhabited was a thicket of lies.

Their association did not end well for Goebbels. He and his wife killed themselves and he arranged for the murder of all their children on May 1, 1945.

Goebbels was an extreme example of a sycophant. 

But this quality is also very common. As they say, "flattery will get you everywhere" and so many people try it as a means to achieve self-esteem, popularity and success (screenshot below via Google).

Remember Sally Fields' famous Oscar-winning speech? Who can ever forget it - she said:

"You like me, you really like me."

The funny thing is, when you act like a sycophant, people always know you're doing it. And they generally always know why, too.

Needless to say, this doesn't make you look good. Thus a definite career-limiting move. So actually the strategy doesn't work all that well.
Screenshot via Urban Dictionary

Boot lickers are a constant feature of the movies. Remember Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games?

Screenshot of Elizabeth Banks, left, as Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games 
(with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, right) via The Hot Hits

Effie wasn't totally bad.

She, like the rest of us, was just trying to survive in a system that seemed far more powerful than she was - or could ever be.

But at the end of the day you have to ask yourself whether the sacrifice of your most personal soul is worth it. 

Maybe it's better to have a little less flattery in the world. And a little more objectivity. A life you can look back on and say, "At least I lived my real, personal truth."

* All opinions my own.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Boil It Down & Blow It Up

Red balloons are simple, clear and there is nothing else like them. They stand out in every room. There is even a hit song about them called "99 Red Balloons."

Similarly, the most valuable brands are totally different yet belong everywhere -- always while being completely unique.

On an individual level, celebrities are in-your-face memorable:
  • The Kardashians
  • Elvis
  • Liberace
When you think of engaging retail or place-brands -- that is, brands that are more than just a single individual -- they effectively express a larger-than-life personality that is distinct and hard to duplicate:
  • Starbucks
  • Apple
  • Disney
Most people are pretty tame. They paint inside the lines and use the ordinary amount of colors.

But if you want to be an extraordinary marketer, you've got to walk, talk, eat, sleep and dream in glowing neon.

More than that, you've got to show the most fiery part of your soul right there on the surface. Don't bury it under a lot of irrelevant talk. Unlike the rest of life, people are looking only for the main and most relevant idea.

* All opinions my own.

The Workaround

The following is a fictionalized composite meant to illustrate the difficulty of obtaining needed software in a bureaucratic system.

Part I. What's The Problem?

"Tell me what's happening. Why can't we get a proper system in place?"

"They told us to take it to the Committee."

"What Committee?"

"The one that makes decisions about these things."

"Why do you need a committee? Isn't this a basic off the shelf product?"

"Well we have another system that we use. They installed it last year."

"What system is that?"

"Oh, it's called Marbles. It works for anything."


"Yes, Marbles."

"Marbles isn't meant for that kind of function. It's a completely different animal."

"I know, we told them."


"Well they said to write up our requirements."

"Did you do that?"

"Yes, here." 

A piece of paper is produced. With bullets.

"Those are requirements for the kind of system you used to use."

"Yes, it worked fine."

Part II. The Manager's Dilemma

Right. The old system worked fine. Just like the new one. 

Except we had no hard data on--
  • How many requests? Week to week? Year over year?
  • What types of requests? 
  • How fast were they fulfilled? Were they on time? Did we prioritize?
  • How happy were the customers? Or would they claim that we missed a requirement, one added in the hallway during a conversation about weekend golfing and scope?
  • How about the employees? How was morale? What was the division of labor?

On to the Committee. Which went about as well as one would imagine.

Part III. The Post-Game Discussion

"You went to the Committee? Why?"

"What was our choice?"

"Oh, man." 

He guffawed a loud guffaw.

"And what did you say?"

"I outlined the business requirements just like they told me to."

"Let me guess...they told you that Gus is in charge of this one."

"That's right."

"And that you should wait until he and the team come up with the Big Solution."

"How did you know?"

"Welcome to the Organization. I'll see what I can do."


* Note: All opinions my own. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

5 Ways To Rebrand & Their Implications

(Madonna photo via Wikipedia.)

The most successful rebrands are continuous - the Kardashians. Madonna - because you keep the audience with you the whole time.

A second is the amnesia strategy - wherein you pretend "not to know" that brand you once were. Ronald Reagan the President not Reagan the actor, same with Schwarzenegger. Works of you can pull equity from the prior brand, e.g. polished or tough image.

A third rebrand strategy is the facelift - JC Penney - works if you stick with it and make it convincing. Difficult to execute though because it implies "aging brand" and a recognition that you dropped the ball for awhile.

A fourth is the apology - Domino's Pizza - where you simply vow to improve the existing brand. I like this approach though some disagree.

Yet a fifth is the drop-out-of-sight approach - Molly Ringwald 80's movie princess - you go away and come back as an icon for another era, e.g. a mom on ABC Family. Again related - mass entertainment - but a different niche.

* All opinions my own. 

Mommy and Daddy Are Fighting (The Hidden Cost Of A Turf War)

Did you know that in 2012, the average CEO was paid 354 times as much as the average worker? 

Potentially that is an inspiring fact. Anyone can "make it."

Well, sort of.

Most aspiring CEOs will likely hit a brick wall. 

Because the gap between themselves and the people at the top is so vast.

We all know this in an academic sense.

But how often do we stop to think about it?

Imagine that we had only 100 people in the United States and $100 in total.

* One person would have about $35.
* Sixty would have less than $2 - ALTOGETHER.

Well, you say, perhaps these people at the top are very wise owls who keep the rest of us from destroying Planet Earth.

Image via

But then again, it is also entirely possible that they

I guess it bothers me that some people have everything while others sleep in their cars. (Check out Tyler Perry's Good Deeds, now out on Netflix.)

But what bothers me more is when the people who have everything waste their time with petty turf wars, instead of steering the ship.

* All opinions my own.

Friday, January 17, 2014

What Is Underneath The Talking Points, If Anything?

So I was surprised that my sister came to my mother-in-law's funeral.

I have missed all the family functions in New York. I just don't go there. Too much information as they say - once I leave a place I move on. 

But as much as I lean on my cognitive side to deal with life, that's how feeling my sister is. It would be unthinkable not to show up, and be there for me and for my husband.

It was just before she left that I thanked her one last time. We were standing outside my parents' car. My dad drove four and a half hours to get there by morning, and they were facing another similar drive back.

"Hey, thank you," I said. 

She replied softly, "I know."

She looked at me very closely. We were standing not a foot apart. I realized that I never really looked at my sister and knew little about her at all. Only vague and distant memories from childhood. Things like chasing her around the living room with a vaccuum cleaner and pretending it was a monster that would suck her up.

"You know me underneath all the brand bullshit," I said. "It's only you, and a few other people."

"I know."

"And you love me anyway."

"Yes, I do."

"And I love you just the same."

She got in the car and I found that I was crying again. Crying, really sobbing.

I guess I didn't know the real purpose of going to a funeral. You think about what the hell it is you're doing with your life.

And then the next day I was privileged to moderate an event in town, for work and for an organization whose mission I feel strongly about - promoting excellence in government communication.

It felt so odd to me to go from being a mourner to being a joyful host. I wondered how that could be anything other than false.

When it was time to start I began to read off the talking points. Gah! I hate TPs, they are so labored and boring.

That was why my voice shook. It was not at all me. The lie was making me nervous.

So I put the papers down and just spoke from the heart. About how much it meant to me to be there. I connected.

And thought about some advice a friend gave me months ago, about how to make decisions.

"Focus on what is real and clear and true."

Later I surprised a friend who worked in my previous agency and we chatted for awhile.

I noticed when she tuned out, and then back in to my words.

It was when I stayed with the talking points that I lost her attention, and vice versa.

And when we got to what was real and clear and true that the conversation became meaningful.

What I want to say is, of course you have to do corporate communication appropriately. 

But at the same time, there is little tolerance for B.S. anymore.

People just don't have the time, and it rarely adds anything to the conversation. 

In fact it tends to make the conversation worse, because now you have a layer of a kind of lying.

So don't be the expert, or the preacher, or the "best of all things" when you get out there and talk.

Just be yourself, and trust what is real within you.

Believe that the rest will follow.

Happy Friday everyone and I hope you have a good and peaceful weekend.

* All opinions my own.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why Community Is Built In Congregation

Today for the first time I understood why people find consolation in synagogue. 

I went to the funeral of my beloved mother-in-law, Gerda Blumenthal. 

Never in my life have I felt one with the community. But today we set all differences aside to honor her.

Every person said the same thing: She always asked how I was doing.

The rabbi said that she always asked about his sons, even when she was in the hospice.

Even though he was visiting her and she was in agonizing, unyielding pain.

We looked at the casket before us and we cried, together.

My husband, a quiet man, spoke about her life and what it meant to him.

I do not think anybody was prepared for those remarks.

There is no way that a transcript can do them justice.

He spoke with so much feeling that the rest of us cried along with him. 

I cried with people I don't even know.

We went to the cemetery and for the first time I saw a casket being lowered into a grave. 

We took turns shoveling dirt over the casket.

I saw my mother crying. Or really I heard her. She cried, these plaintive heaving cries. And we were all with her. It was just that kind of day.

There is this song on the radio, "Counting Stars." I'm in that phase where I can't get it out of my head.


If you watch the video it shows a prayer service where the people are semi-hypnotized by the preacher.

He gives them the feeling of unbelievable strength.

They clap and sing and urge each other on.

A woman can do backflips, inspired not just by faith or sermon but the combined energy of the people in the room.

We can do great and terrible things in groups and so much of the news is focused on that.

But the truth is that great things are accomplished in groups as well. It's worth figuring out how to do them well.

We spend so much time hiding from each other and ourselves.

But living is really only done when we fuse. With an idea, that becomes a mission, that we accomplish through community.

Thank you to the community that turned out to honor Gerda Blumenthal today. May her beautiful soul rest in peace.

* All opinions my own.

Why Social Media Is More Powerful Than Branding


Brands create a pretend one.

Social media creates a real one, customizable to suit your level of interaction.

Life is lived among other people. When we experience pain, rage and love, the high of a lesson learned or milestone achieved, it is higher in community.

Brands do well when they create community. But not in a way that is at all obvious. And not to constantly push product.

The best thing a brand can do is create a platform around an idea, step back and let the interaction happen by itself.

People will expect the brand to sell them things, at some point - shopping and rating goods is a primary way we interact after all.

But it should always, first and foremost be about bringing people together. That and not the Marketing Department's version of an image is what makes the brand one-of-a-kind and (not unimportantly) uncopyable.

* All opinions my own. Photo of a community bulletin board in Starbucks by me.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Beats By Dre: What's The Strategy? (Identity or Ingredient)

"Beats by Dre" is a headphone brand. Wear the headphones and it says something about who you are: cool, you live for the music, you have discerning taste.

Wait, I forgot. You "become" Dr. Dre, just by buying them. The quintessential identity brand.

Photo of Dr. Dre performing via Wikipedia

Yes, except that Beats may actually be selling "bass-delivery systems" - an ingredient, according to Jesse Dorris. As he puts it, writing for Slate:

"He’s conquered the headphones market, but Dr. Dre isn’t selling great sound. He’s not even selling celebrity. He’s selling the concept of 'bass.'"

--and this ingredient has a very particular cultural symbolism--

"Bass has signified both sex and rebellion at least since Duke Ellington got the ladies on the floor in 1920s."

This isn't an abstract argument. The discipline of brand is essentially reverse-engineering others' success and failure so that others may repeat it and earn money.

And in a crowded market where I can buy a working pair of headphones for $1, Dre built a headphone business in which revenue shot skyward from $200 million to $1 billion within two years.

Is Beats By Dre really an ingredient brand, though? One might more easily be able to believe that people shell out $200-300 a pair because he's a celebrity.

Check out's "Celebrity Sneaker Stalker," below. Obviously the appeal of buying such expensive shoes is largely the feeling of being just like the celebrities wearing them. It is not the "superior" ingredients that go into making them - though they may actually be better.

Indeed, other companies, most notably Bose, have developed equity around sound delivery branding.

But Dorris anticipates this objection. As he notes, an expert review of headphones for the popular productivity site misses the point: These headphones make an asset out of something that a subject matter expert dismisses as unworthy.

"Beats’ raison d’etre is to simply blow the lids off the listener."

At the end of the day, it's not clear that companies have to choose between offering identity or ingredient branding. Ideally, they give the customer both. The key point is to know which thing you are emphasizing, when, and in what proportion.

For example, Splenda does not rely on a celebrity and it is not particularly healthy. So - although it could position itself primarily as an ingredient brand - it leans toward positioning itself as an identity brand. 

Splenda is actually geared to women - in particular women engaged in home and family, who relate to the concept of needing a moment for silence and relaxation. 

To save money or make money, consider what your brand strategy is and why, before heading down the path of implementation. 

* All opinions my own.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

30 Ways To Get People Talking

Photo by Martin via Flickr
  1. Advice, especially "insider"
  2. Animals
  3. Babies 
  4. Before and after - e.g. a dramatic makeover of one's life or looks
  5. "Caught on tape"- video, audio - funny, unusual, extreme, tragic
  6. Celebrity-related, including business leaders, politicians, religious figures
  7. Connect disparate people around an issue or interest
  8. Controversy
  9. Craziness, how insane or disturbed people think
  10. Eternal love and/or doomed romance
  11. Etiquette 
  12. Extreme, unusual or unpopular culture or point of view
  13. Friendship
  14. Fun facts, statistics, etc.
  15. Gender-specific or debating issues related to gender 
  16. Grief
  17. Heroism
  18. Honesty, preferably unusually raw
  19. Imagination
  20. Inspiration, e.g. a quotable quote
  21. Moral dilemma
  22. Physical or emotional struggle
  23. Rebellion against dictatorship, breaking free from ordinary existence
  24. Safe topic for the watercooler
  25. Scandal
  26. Secrets - reveal something previously hidden
  27. Surprise -  tell us something we wouldn't have believed was true, or show us a photo of something unusual
  28. Timesaver
  29. Tragedy
  30. Travel-related - show us another part of the world
What would you add to the list?

* All opinions my own.

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