Friday, August 31, 2012

Mr. Romney's Rambler

Speeches, especially political speeches, are about emotion.

They're about story-telling, creating an emotional climate, establishing a tempo--and a temperature. A chemistry between the speaker and the listener.

At the Republican convention, we've seen this art in practice. Speeches with wit and humor, designed to make the room feel friendly and warm. Speeches with pathos and drama, designed to make the room feel intimate and wet.

And then there was Mitt Romney's speech.

It was . . . dull. Billed as "the speech of his life," a "defining moment" for his campaign, a chance for Mitt to show us who he really is, to talk about his Mormonism, to open up as a human being, Mitt muffed it.

Of course, he looked the part. He always does. So did Al Gore, who Mitt resembles in more than a few ways (like trying to live up to his father's example; being wooden and stiff; having an artless speaking style and the delivery of a cigar-store Indian--but I digress.)

But if a speech is about tempo and temperature, Romney's tempo was halting, faltering, and uneven. And the temperature in the room--and in the connection with the audience--was cold.

You know you've got a problem at a political convention when, as a speaker, you set up the time-honored ploy of a call-and-response, and the audience doesn't know what response you want!

Last night, the Republicans, unable or unwilling to chant "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!" for fear of having a host of baseball gloves descend from the ceiling, were reduced to the generic "USA! USA! USA!"

That's how off-key and off-the-mark Romney's ramble actually was.

Does it matter?

Usually not. Great convention speeches can give way to mediocre (or worse) campaigns, and forgettable convention speeches can be forgotten in the wake of an election victory.

But it was interesting to note that Romney's defining moment was completely undefining--nothing new, nothing personal, nothing fresh, nothing memorable. And the speech of his life ultimately reflects much of the rest of his life--a solid, stolid business guy who really really wants to be President, but isn't sure what to say or how to say it in a way that will actually connect with real people.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Future Is An Oxymoron

Let's start with a few math formulas.

Change + Leadership = Innovation
Change - Leadership = Fear

And finally, the Rule of Thumb: Change happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change.

Today the cost of the status quo is rising dramatically.

In the absence of leadership, the overwhelming response of the American public is fear. Fear of change, fear of loss, fear of the future.

Fear inevitably brings out the dark side of the American story.

Where America at its best is a nation of generosity, fear brings out a sense of entitlement.

Where America historically has operated as a nation of pragmatists, fear brings out self-deception.

Where America has cared deeply about community and protected the interests of those less well off, fear brings out narcissism.

Because of the deep and dark powers of fear, economic and social issues ultimately become issues of character. Character projected onto the canvas of daily events and regular decisions.

The same is true of technology.

Technology is never about technology. Technology is always about us.

Which is why technology tends to create an either/or dichotomy as a reaction.

Technology will kill us. Or technology will save us.
The answer is more technology. The answer is less technology.
The technology gives us the ability to stay connected to each other. Technology robs us of our privacy.
Technology gives us a huge amplifier. Technology gives us a badly needed simplifier.
Technology is all about going global. Technology is ultimately deeply personal.
Technology will lead us to dystopia. Technology will lead us to you-topia.

But what if the future isn't a dichotomy?
What if the future is an oxymoron?

Maybe we should stop looking at technology as a creator of trade-offs, and see it as a creator of a new space entirely. Instead of examining the choices along a spectrum, maybe we need to get off that vector entirely--rather than going wider, we go deeper.

Maybe we should ask different things of technology than what we've focused on so far.
Rather than speed, ubiquity, or availability, maybe we should ask for introspection, self-awareness, and meaning.

Maybe what we need is MeaningfulTech or IntroSpecTech.

It's not so far from what we're getting--not more, but deeper.

We already have smartphones and apps that make each of us the center of our own universe. That's the essence of i-world.

But what's missing are the apps and the technology to help us make meaning out of that world.
In a world where it's all about "me," how can I discover who "I" am?
How could the design of a device--the social design, the technological design--promote better answers to matters of introspection?
What if the best connection between my smartphone and me isn't to the outside world--but to the inside on?
What if Google Maps had charts to the inner recesses of what it means to be a human?
What if we had a technology compass to connect us to all the possibilities in the outside world, but starting with our own selves and our inner worlds?

What if you went onto your smartphone with an app that allowed you, not to meet up with your friends, your tribe, your co-workers, but with your self?
An app that says, "Find your self here." Facebook for One.

Then you'd have started to create a future that's an oxymoron.
Technology: The Essence of Making Meaning.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Three Steps to Relevance

It seems to be a disease of our time.

Companies, organizations, all kinds of institutions know themselves to be profoundly important--even essential--to everyday life. But the problem is, they're just not relevant to us, the people who are living that everyday life.

Think of all the big companies and old, respected non-profits that are enormously powerful. But you don't actually know what they do. Or how they do it. Or why they matter.

The 100-year old giant telecom company that is global--but when you're asked what they make, sell, do, provide . . . you don't actually know.
The non-profit that has been around for ever, doing . . . well, doing good. But exactly how isn't clear any more.

If you work in one of these organizations, you know what it's like to be invisible, inaudible, and irrelevant. If you run one of these organizations, or sit on the board, it's even worse. It's bad for morale, bad for finances and fund-raising, bad for business.

Left untreated it could be fatal; the good news is, there are three steps you can take to relevance--you can fix it.

Step 1: Make yourself visible.

When I was learning how to drive a car, my dad told me, "Don't watch the brake lights of the car in front of you; watch the brake lights of the car in front of him."

The problem for many irrelevant companies is that they don't have a direct line of sight to an end-customer; they sell their product or service to an intermediate company, and that company sells it to the end user. So the irrelevant company is hidden from sight, shielded from the end-user's sight by the intermediate company.

If that's you, do what BASF did a few years ago: Start a campaign that explains to end users how important you are to them. "We don't make X," BASF's campaign said. "But we make the Y that goes into making X."

All of a sudden BASF was stepping into the end user's line of sight!
So that's what you guys do! You don't make the actual life-saving product I depend on, but you do make the chemicals that go into that product! I get it!

If you want customers to see you, you have to step out of line and make yourself visible.

Step Two: Make yourself audible.

Do you actually know the differences between micro-processors?
For that matter, do you know what a micro-processor is? Or what it does--other than process things at a micro scale?

Neither do I.

That said, I do know Intel. And I like Intel, although I don't know why exactly. I just know that I like what Intel stands for. Although if you pressed me hard, I couldn't exactly say what Intel does stand for, come to think of it.

I just know that when it comes to my computer, I'm glad I've got Intel inside.

And why am I glad?

I'm glad because Intel made a big deal out of the fact that, even though I can't open up my laptop and look inside, it's really really important that Intel is inside there.

They told me that over and over again. They made it fun for me to know that. They showed me guys hopping around in bunny suits.

And now I know that Intel is a good organization, and that as a consumer of technology, when it comes to what's inside, I prefer Intel.

Intel got a voice and talked directly to me. And it worked.

Step Three: Make yourself matter.

When it comes right down to it, you may not have a way to stand out or speak up about what it is you make or do.

But you do have something you care about.

Face it, every company, every organization, every institution has to have its own unique values. Facebook says it embraces The Hacker Way. Google says, do no evil. Even Hugh Hefner went to great lengths in the early days of Playboy magazine to articulate the Playboy Philosophy.

If you can't make us interested in what you make or do, tell us what you care about. What you stand for.

If you can't make it business, make it personal. That's about as relevant as it gets.
Person to person.

Three steps to relevance, with one thing in common, the one thing Steve Jobs understood when he started Apple back in the beginning.

One of Jobs' first calls was to Regis McKenna, Silicon Valley's marketing master.
Because, as McKenna wrote a few years later in HBR, "Marketing is everything."

Three steps to relevance, but they all start with one giant leap: into marketing.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Essential But Not Relevant

I spent yesterday at a meeting of a large company that plays an essential role in the world of telecom.

The company is more than 100 years old; it has always been at the forefront of providing and maintaining the best service in its segment of the industry. It is a company that is absolutely essential to the mobile world that we all depend on and take for granted. If you are in the world of apps, you need this company; it you are in the world of social media, you need this company; if you love your smartphone, you need this company.

But if I told you the company's name and asked you what it actually does, you wouldn't be able to tell me. And if I asked you how you felt about this company, you wouldn't have any emotional attachment at all.

This company is essential--like a utility--but not relevant--nobody actually cares about them as a customer.

It's a fascinating category, this EBNR (Essential But Not Relevant).

Think about the many old and respected non-profits and social service agencies that dot the American landscape. Essential in the services they offer; but not relevant in a world that is rapidly changing, a world where more and more of us give money or time or support to organizations that seem faster, leaner, more efficient, closer to the problem, less bureaucratic or out-dated.

Think of the organizations that date back 50 years or more that were created to speak to an emerging demographic segment, a specific problem set, or an emerging way of life. The world has changed; a person who is 65 today has a different attitude toward retirement than someone in the previous generation; a person who wants to learn to become a public speaker or hone their leadership skills doesn't think about learning the skills and developing the confidence the same way that someone did 50 years ago.

Old and dependable companies can be essential but not relevant--which leaves them wide open to two problems: Either they can be undercut by a lower-cost competitor (from say, China) or they can be made obsolete by a new, innovator entry (from, say, Silicon Valley). Either way, simply being essential isn't a protected position. In fact, it's often a precursor to extinction: right before you die, you remind yourself that, hey! we're providing an essential product or service! the world must need us!

And of course, sometimes we consumers are wrong: we classify a company, product or service as essential but not relevant, and disengage from it, only to discover too late that it was, actually, very relevant. Think "government" here: no sooner do we voters start treating our various governmental entities as not relevant, than they do something to remind us how very relevant they are--like cutting spending on public education, for instance.

But from the point of view of the leader in a company, the sweet spot is clear: essential and relevant. You can't live without us, and you love us!
When you find that combination, then you have to embrace continuous innovation and ongoing adaptation to make sure that you keep pace--or stay slightly ahead of--the changes in the world that can push you backward into the Essential But Not Relevant category.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Social Media/Social Innovation: Interview With Myself

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a 2-day gathering co-hosted by my visionary entrepreneurial friend, Lisa Gansky. Most recently Lisa has been exploring a set of ideas that she published in her book, "The Mesh," describing the different ways that sharing is better than owning. The gathering, co-sponsored by the EU, among others, was designed to apply Lisa's ideas to cities, and to look at the intersection of social media and social innovation.

(Small digression: One of Peter Drucker's many prescient observations was his comment that, when it comes to innovation, there is more opportunity when it comes to social innovation than any other field. As we watch traditional institutions and conventional categories of work, life, belief, and politics suffer a succession of system failures, it seems clear that innovation applied to our social operating systems can offer new, better, smarter, cheaper, and more efficient ways of living together. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.)

At the end of the gathering I came away convinced that social media and social innovation represent the frontier of change.

To try to clarify my own thinking, I sat down and interviewed myself.

Here's an edited and shortened transcript of that interview.

Q: How does social media create social change?

A: Remember back in the 1990s when the slogan you heard everywhere was "the web changes everything"? And it did. Well, social media is the next wave of web-ification that once again changes everything. It doesn't change only social innovation, but applied to social innovation, it is a powerful tool for clarity, speed, efficiency, personalization--and a different way of organizing how we do things, individually and together.

Q: Say more about this, please.

A: It turns everything it touches upside down and inside out. It takes old established businesses, industries, business models, transaction relationships, operating principles, economic relationships and destabilizes them. Cuts the ground out from underneath them. Makes them look ridiculous. It democratizes everything it touches. Social media helped advance Arab Spring and it is at work with Anonymous in unmasking a variety of social outrages. For good or for ill.

It takes the old, long-standing power relationships and flips them. Companies, even non-profits with old and established ways of relating to their customers suddenly find their authority undermined by a social technology that puts the individual person at the center of their own universe. Markets are preserved; in fact, markets are enhanced as an equal-opportunity location where we can take an offering of our own or find a host of different offerings on display--without having to go through expensive third-party market-makers and rent-takers.

But there's more. It's harder and harder to hold on to secrets. Positions of privilege and unassailable authority are hard to hold on to, simply by asserting the old mantras of wealth, prestige, and inside information. Social media is fundamentally a powerful force for social change.

Q: So where do you see examples of social change happening via social media?

A: Turn it around. Pretty much everywhere you see social media you will see social change. Lisa documents this connection with example after example in "The Mesh." And it's on the front page of newspapers, in magazines, on the web whenever there's a story about innovation or new social practices. A piece in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday described how The Gap and other retailers are tweaking to the new practice among young people to swap their clothes rather than buy new outfits--and how social media helps create the swap marketplaces. Kickstarter has gotten a lot of attention for dramatically altering the way we can finance all kinds of artistic projects; Facebook is about to go public at the same time that it almost becomes passe.

One of the metaphors that Lisa introduced at the gathering was in the form of a question: "How is a city like a platform?"

In other words, how does social media, applied to the way we live in cities, transform virtually every aspect of urban life? How does it change transportation? Elder care? Day care? How does it change the use of office space and office buildings? Education? Getting mundane tasks done? If you map city life differently, do you change the way city life is lead--where people go to pursue all kinds of different interests, from playing basketball to painting to skateboarding to eating at food trucks?

Ultimately, I'm convinced that social media changes our cities from nouns to verbs.

We don't have a "department of transportation," we have a "moving around app."
We don't have a "department of commerce," we have a "buying and selling app."
We focus on how to make more innovative things happen--on the doing, the enabling, the connecting, the improving, the entrepreneuring, the incubating.
Cities should have a whole different social architecture, reflected in new categories that City Hall accepts, starting, I'd suggest, with a new "measuring app."
Start measuring the city in innovative ways; analyze the real cost of the status quo when it comes to a host of accepted urban practices, from parking meters to cab fares, from office rents to hotel rooms.
Social media looks very attractive when you start to see how it leads to innovation and lower costs!

Q: Are there things that don't change?

A: Absolutely! Like most "this changes everything" technologies, social media builds off of a set of old and established institutional frameworks and practices. Markets, for one. This doesn't do away with markets; it simply goes even further than the web in dis-intermediating them. But markets, like diamonds, are forever. Information, for another. The value of information is one of the oldest precepts of capitalism. Friction is another. Friction adds costs; social media takes out some of the friction. And some of the costs. Personalization. Trust. These don't disappear; some get amplified, some get re-invented, some get moved in terms of who holds the reins.

Q: Are there problems associated with this intersection of social media and social change?

A: How couldn't there be? Think of social media/social change as a powerful new tool, a new source of energy, a new competitive capability. A force that destabilizes the status quo. Where ever we see the ground shifting underneath the status quo, we see the potential for enormous social good and untold social destruction. The same force that can offer new solutions to people looking for more control and less cost in their health care, for example, also opens them up to scam artists, fraudsters, and worse. When we first witnessed Arab Spring, the reports were full of hope and expectation, and focused on the use of social media to spread the message and mobilize the people; now the stories are about how reality isn't living up to the early promise of change, and the backlash may be ugly. Social media doesn't guarantee outcomes or happy endings; it's a tool, and like all tools, how we use it says more about us than it says about the tool.

When it comes to social media, the technology and adoption of it is moving much faster than our capacity to generate social mores or legal instruments to buffer or restrain some of these anti-social social media instincts.

So the answer is, yes, there is cause for concern and for open discussion about the abuses that already have taken place, the inevitable mistakes and mis-steps that will add questions to some of these innovations, and the need for heightened awareness, new practices, innovative protections, and even new individual behaviors.
This is real life; so there will always be ways to take a powerful new tool and twist it in a way that applies it for things that are ugly, offensive, dangerous, even criminal.

But social media and social innovation are rushing ahead, and the opportunities to amplify positive change in a wide array of applications through this combination of technological software and human software are enormously exciting.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Real Culture War: Respect vs. Cynicism

In their insightful book on iconic UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned,” co-authors Swen Nater and Ronald Gallimore make one point abundantly clear: John Wooden was a teacher first, a coach second. Yes, he coached his players to win at the game of basketball, starting each season with a lesson on the correct way to tie their sneakers, and ending with 10 NCAA championships. But more importantly, he taught his players respect. He taught them to respect themselves as athletes, each other as teammates, and most of all, the history and tradition of the game of basketball.

Which brings us to the recent horror-show of coaches in American sports.

Let’s start with John Calipari, head coach of this year’s NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats, and, incidentally, the only coach in NCAA history to have two Final Four appearances vacated. As far as character is concerned, one Associated Press columnist started his coverage of Calipari and the title game by writing, “The words ‘trust’ and ‘John Calipari’ rarely turn up in the same sentence for a very good reason.” When you’re about to play for the national championship, this isn’t the kind of coverage you usually see—unless your record of conduct is so egregious, even the sports press can’t hold its collective nose any longer.

Or take Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino, whose Razorbacks are expected to start next season with a Top 10 ranking. Recently Petrino went for a ride on his motorcycle, wrecked it, and then lied about the accident, saying he was alone on the bike. In fact, he had a female passenger, a young former Arkansas volleyball player, with whom he was carrying on an extra-marital affair. A high school coach from Louisville who’s known Petrino for years described him this way: “As a coach, he’s a genius, he’s one of the elite minds. Personally, well, he’s a good coach.”

And then there’s Gregg Williams. If you want, you can go on the Web and hear what real live coaching sounds like. There’s a tape of Williams, as the defensive co-ordinator of the New Orleans Saints, telling his players before a playoff game with the San Francisco 49ers, “Do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore’s head.” Or “Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect (Quarterback Alex Smith’s) head. Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head.”

But this isn’t just about coaches. Or sports.

This is about America’s real culture war. It’s about the difference between a culture of respect and a culture of win-at-all-costs. And it applies as much to journalism, politics, and business as it does to sports.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate a coach who lies or cheats, as long as he wins—and doesn’t get caught.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate a news channel with journalists who distort the news as long as they get good ratings—and don’t say anything so outrageous that it loses sponsors.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate political candidates who flip and flop and make unfounded charges against their opponents, as long as they win elections—and don’t get unmasked as unrepentant hypocrites.

A culture of win-at-all-costs will tolerate companies that take advantage of their customers, lie about their products, and create a toxic environment for their employees as long as earnings and stock prices go up—and they don’t get exposed by a former employee in a tell-all column.

A coach who lies and cheats has no respect for the game that gives him his living, for the institution that employs him, or for players and fans; he simply believes that if he wins, all else will be forgiven. The same is true of a journalist who prefers a hot story to a true one. It’s true for politicians or business executives who do whatever they think it will take to win. They have no respect for their profession, their colleagues, or the public.

The opposite of respect, it turns out, isn’t disrespect.

The opposite of respect is cynicism.

The notion is that you can fool some of the people some of the time, and those you can’t fool, you can seduce by winning.

The 2012 NCAA basketball tournament is history; the NCAA football season hasn’t started; the NFL hasn’t resumed practicing yet. And to be fair, Petrino got fired from Arkansas--score one for respect. Williams has been suspended by the NFL--score another for respect. And Calipari is losing a big chunk of his semi-pro, one-and-done, rent-a-basketball team to the NBA. So maybe karma and respect go hand in hand.

But the news is on every night. Candidates for offices at every level across America are exchanging ludicrous charges. Companies in every industry are doing everything they can to lure customers and drive up stock prices. The culture war between respect and cynicism goes on every day.

So here’s the challenge.

Ask yourself which you value more.

Are you a win-at-all-costs kind of person? The kind who bets on cynicism as the bottom line of the human condition?

Or do you believe in respect? Are you willing to put your name down as someone who wants to build a culture of respect in America, in every field and every endeavor?

Maybe, just maybe, respect starts with something as simple as how we tie our shoes. At least that’s the way Coach Wooden taught it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rule #49: Border Guards

In 1968 I went to Germany to connect with my brother, Mark.

He was finishing up a Fulbright scholarship in German and when his academic program was over we took his newly purchased VW bug and drove to Prague. The Czechs were celebrating an outbreak of freedom from the Soviet Union (this was back when there was both a Czechoslovakia and a Soviet Union). Prague was filled with happy, carefree young people, students at bars and cafes, drinking beer and luxuriating in what was called Prague Spring.

We celebrated with them for a time, but finally we had to get back to West Germany (there was also a West and East Germany back then). To do that meant we would pass through an East German military checkpoint.

We pulled up to the checkpoint and a huge East German border guard armed with a scary looking sub-machine gun took our passports, looked at them dismissively, and ordered us to get out of the line of cars that had been allowed transit, and to park over in an area off to one side.

Three hours later we were still parked there. Waiting. Watching other cars pass through the checkpoint. Wondering what had happened to our passports. And looking at the big East German soldiers and their lethal-looking weapons.

Finally, my brother had had enough.

He waved one of the guards over and said in perfect German, "One of your buddies took our passports and he's probably all the way over in West Berlin by now."

The look on the border guard's face betrayed his emotions. He'd been insulted--in at least three ways.

First, who ever heard of an American who spoke perfect German--with the appropriate Bavarian accent?

Second, it was an insult to think an East German soldier would steal anything--especially from an American!

And third, no self-respecting East German soldier would ever even think of running off to West Germany!

The border guard goose-stepped back to the booth, found our passports where they'd been carelessly left lying around, and waved us through the checkpoint.

We made it--but only because my brother was brave enough to confront the border guard.

I've been telling that story lately to all kinds of groups of business people, in all kinds of companies and organizations, and all age groups and nationalities.

And I always get the same reaction: people nod. They know that each of us has his or her own border guards that keep us from growing, experimenting, innovating, listening, learning.

One man held up his hand when I told the story in his group and said, "My border guard is, I always have to be right." Another said, "I always have to be in control."

Sometimes a company's border guard isn't a person--it's a tradition. "That's not the way we do things around here." Or an unwillingness to experiment. "It won't work anyway, so why even try." Or a feeling of helplessness. "The boss will never go for that."

And, to be fair, sometimes a smart border guard is exactly what a company needs.

One of Steve Jobs' greatest strengths was his ability to say "no." When he came back to Apple, he cut off projects that made no sense, ended unfocused activities that weren't core to Apple's business. His border-guard-like focus kept Apple focused and prevented the company from wandering into areas that weren't what Apple was all about.

But for most of us, most leaders and organizations, that's not the case.

Most of the time, we get offered an opportunity to try something new, and some little voice in our heads tells us, "That's not really you!" Even if it could be. Our own border guard keeps us from innovating, from experimenting, from expanding into new, unexplored territory.

And companies and organizations that want to innovate, but keep finding themselves frustrated in their efforts--for them, the problem could well be the border guards, inside the company and out, that confine them to a small territory that is already too-well known.

"Our customers would never go for that."
"We probably couldn't sell it any way."
"Marketing would like it, but I can tell you right now, manufacturing will kill it."

There are more border guards than there are good ideas. Which is why so many successful organizations end up suffering from their own success. The border guards take over and erect a wall that keeps the organization from getting to the fresh thinking and new ideas that are on the other side of the border.

What are your border guards? Are they helpful in giving you focus? Or harmful in keeping you confined?

What are your company's border guards? Can you name them?

And what would happen if you confronted them? Maybe, just maybe, they'd produce your passport to the other side, and you'd discover a whole new, fertile area for your exploration.

It's worth a try!

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb