Monday, June 29, 2009

Scenes from the Core of the Big Apple

I'm just back in Santa Fe after a 5-day tour of New York City, with some impressions from the scene of the crime. I'm sure if you live in New York and stay inside the bubble, it's hard to see what is immediately transparent and obvious to someone who comes in from the outside: the game is over--at least this game is. Here are a few quick moments of truth; I'm not going to link them back to Rules of Thumb, but I'm sure if you have the book and you want to take a quick look through the index of rules at the back, you can make the connections.
The New York Times, aka Dead Man Walking. It used to be everywhere and it used to be the medium of conversation: "Hey did you see the great piece in the Times today?" was a standard greeting at work, over lunch, at parties. Not any more. The news is ubiquitous--no need to get the Times or even to read it. It wasn't even on display in my hotel lobby, much less offered as something they hotel would deliver to my door first thing in the morning at my request. The news is in the air, on your mobile device, on screens in the back of cabs (as Kevin Roberts observed a few years ago, we now live in Screen World) on on giant screens in Times Square (soon to be re-named I-Square?). When I got back to Santa Fe late Saturday night, I made the conscious decision not to buy the Sunday New York Times--and for me, that is a major decision. But $6 to read what is no longer the medium of exchange in the world of information, opinion, and insight? Why bother?
Which leads me to the second thing I learned in NYC: the economy doesn't just run on money. More important, it runs on momentum, on energy, on conversation. Nobody is talking about magazines and newspapers; the air is out of the balloon; the energy has moved on. Mid-town Manhattan is home to large and impressive looking buildings with the logos of once-important companies affixed to their roofs and front doors. But nothing is happening inside those once-dominant domains. The game has moved on. People who want to be in the conversation are making their own conversations. People who want to connect with their "tribe" (thank you, Seth Godin!) can do so on Triibes--without the permission or assistance of the old gate-keepers. As I told a friend at one of the once-great magazine companies, "If you want to see the future of magazining, get in a car and take a road trip! It's out there, in lofts in Boulder and Austin, in Portland and in DesMoines, but it sure isn't here in 42-story glass monuments in the heart of New York City."
The next great reality show isn't Desperate Housewives of New Jersey; it's Desperate CEOs of New York. Watching Jeff Immelt on Charlie Rose is a study in corporate shock. I didn't write down Immelt's actual quotes, but among the more ridiculous things he said were: what's ailing is the United States is our sudden inability to find the will to do things (what he wants to do is to build "clean coal" plants--an oxymoron to begin with); and the contention that within 10 years, GE will be "America's most admired corporation." A few short years ago, Fortune magazine put Countrywide on its list of most admired corporations--why would someone as smart as Immelt even mention this as an aspiration? (By the way, after Fortune gave Enron its "most innovative" company award for several years in a row and added Countrywide to its admired company list, why does anyone listen to anything Fortune says about anything?) The look on Immelt's face was one of false hope tinged with sadness and confusion: When did things get so messed up? Did I do this or is this happening to me? What's going to happen next? And so he was reduced to silly expressions of frustration that America is not living up to his expectations, and the promise that GE will regain our admiration--both dubious definitions of either the real problem or the real point of the exercise.
What's exciting is all the amazing new fresh admirable stuff that's struggling to be born. But it's happening in lofts and in coffee shops, not in corporate suites and demoralized company headquarters buildings. There is enormous energy behind social media and social missions, behind people helping each other and new forms of capitalism that bring more people into the game.
It's gonna be ok: we can say goodbye to old friends at the same time as we welcome a whole host of new ones. Can you say, "Hello, future!"

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