Friday, December 31, 2010

12.31.2010

In the end, of course, it's about the people.
Thinking back to the places I've been over the last year, the conferences I've attended, speeches listened to and speeches given, conversations over coffee in restaurants and coffee shops from New Zealand to New York, from Beijing to Helsinki, all the miles logged and all the words exchanged.
In the end, it's about the people.
There are amazing people all over this funny little planet.
People working hard to change the world, to solve hard problems with caring answers.
People who are funny and charming, people who hold to their faith and people who embrace yours.
There are people who've written wonderful books, and people who tell you that you've written a wonderful book.
People who simply want to be friends. People who want to share. Who want to have a laugh and people who want to have a serious discussion about the shape of things and the shape of things to come.
To all the people I've met in 2010, to those I'll be meeting in 2011, to those who go back decades, and those who go back just hours--thanks to all of you.
Here's to you, here's to me, here's to us.
And here's to 2011.
Let's make something wonderful happen, working together, playing together, and sometimes just in the peace and quiet of being together.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

All Recoveries Are Local

Tip O'Neill's famous dictum was, "All politics are local."
Based on what I saw yesterday as I walked down Montgomery Street in San Francisco, the corollary is also true: All recoveries are local.
Here's what I saw that made the point.
About a block from my apartment is an old three or four story brick building. Several years ago the run-down building was bought for renovation. It looked like the whole neighborhood was going to turn into a blend of antique shops complemented by new, up-scale housing.
Except that shortly after the new developer bought the building and put up the scaffolding signaling that work would begin, the entire economy imploded. With real estate leading the collapse.
The scaffolding sat for month after month. For almost a year it sat looking like a skeleton outside a decayed body of the building.
Then one day the scaffolding disappeared, replaced by plywood boards. The universal symbol for a building project that's not just temporarily delayed, but on long-term, maybe even permanent work stoppage.
It sat there.
The sidewalk was narrowed where the building was because of the plywood panels.
In bad weather the boards warped and splintered and looked even worse.
Instead of a renewal project bringing new residential to the area it became an eye-sore.
Until yesterday.
I walked by the site. The plywood was gone. There was a man sweeping up the sidewalk. A door was open to an inner view of the building's interior courtyard. It had already been swept clean. Site preparation was underway. Work will begin soon in earnest.
It's not "the recovery."
But it is "a" recovery.
And at the local level, that's the best kind of recovery there is.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Today's Puzzler/Mystery

So, in the tradition of Click and Clack, who offer their puzzlers, here's today's puzzler courtesy of the Global Detective.
Or should we call it, "today's mystery"?
What does it mean if stores that sell high-quality travel maps have all gone out of business?
We spent this morning trying to track down a travel/map store that could offer two hiking maps, one for the Grand Canyon, the other for Nepal.
Even in San Francisco, the specialty travel map stores that used to carry exactly items like those have dried up and blown away.
Why?
Are people hiking less? I've seen a boom in adventure travel and fitness-related vacations.
Are people downloading detailed topo maps for their hikes from the web? I kinda doubt it.
Are people doing less homework before they take off on an adventure hike? Possible. Last time I hiked the Grand Canyon I was appalled at the sight of tourists descending into the canyon as if they were going on a day-picnic at a Disney property. So maybe all those new fitness buffs and adventure travel-istas are doing it without proper preparation.
Or?
It's not as important to come up with the answer as to respect what the puzzler has to teach about smart approaches to business--or journalism.
Everything is a clue. Even the extinction of a class of small, specialized businesses.
Storefronts are as fascinating as crime scenes, in terms of the stories they tell and the mysteries they hold.
Go out and buy yourself a fedora and a trench coat.
Get a small note pad or a stack of 3x5 cards.
Then start looking for clues.
As far as job descriptions go, you can't beat "Global Detective."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Book Store Parable

I just got home from a visit to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
After a short and entertaining visit to the book store, I walked out with two books.
Once I walked into the book store it was clear to me--obvious beyond any need to state it, actually--that I was going to buy a book. At least one. I didn't know which one. But I kind of knew I'd buy at least one.
Which made the following proposition clear: The task of a book store isn't to sell books. It's to get people to walk in the front door.
Selling books: easy.
Getting people to walk in the front door: hard.
Essay question: how does this parable apply to your business?

Monday, December 27, 2010

What About Those Banks, Any Way?

Picking up where I left off yesterday, thinking out loud about WikiLeaks.
Perhaps the most disturbing recent development is the decision by Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal to suspend WikiLeaks banking business.
The question is, what is the justification for doing this?
The most obvious answer is, it came in response to pressure from the U.S. government. Ever since the government figured out that it could put Al Capone in jail for tax evasion, rather than the other crimes he'd committed, money has become the favorite tool for putting the squeeze on people, nations, and movements the government doesn't approve of. If you can freeze accounts, dry up contributions, and disrupt the ability of your target to do business, the thinking goes, you've just put a big dent in their ability to do whatever it is the government disapproves of.
But why would MasterCard, say, agree to cooperate with the government's request?
One reason is that the leadership at the top think it's "patriotic" to help the government.
Another is that the leadership wants to curry favor with the government. Recognizing that there are always quid pro quos exchanged in the world of politics--even geo-politics--it might be smart to throw WikiLeaks under the bus and hope that, at some point in the future, there'll be a little government consideration for a banking problem down the road.
Another possibility that's been mentioned is that the banks are feeling threatened by WikiLeaks--the next set of documents due to appear reportedly have to do with banking scandals--and the government's interests in closing down WikiLeaks and the banking industry's interests happen to coincide.
Or it could be that there's actual evidence that WikiLeaks has done something illegal with its money, and the banks have complete legal justification for their decision.
The last explanation is the only one with any kind of validity--and so far, nobody's actually tried to make that case.
All the other explanations are either craven, cowardly, corrupt, or completely self-serving.
Is it "patriotic" to comply with a government request that has no legal background? What if the government decided it didn't like your blog? Your religious affiliation? Your political beliefs?
What if your banking rights were suspended?
Patriotic? Or pathetic?
This kind of conspiracy stuff has become a staple in the movies--all of a sudden, some one discovers their credit cards cut off, their bank accounts frozen, their creditors knocking on their door.
Usually the hero finds a way out, at least in the movies. Usually there's a buddy who comes to the rescue, who finds out why ordinary life has been disrupted in the interest of some shady version of national security.
This time, however, it's not the movies.
And so far, there's no buddy coming to the rescue, nobody pointing out that the "national security" threat is actually part of what makes America a democracy.
Maybe, just maybe, if we all ask Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal to justify their decisions, we can find out what's really going on--and maybe they'll even change their craven little minds.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

More on WikiLeaks

In retrospect, we all should have seen it coming.
We should have been able to predict the arc of the responses to WikiLeaks' massive dump of diplomatic cables.
There was outrage and invective. Julian Assange was declared a public enemy. Equal to Osama bin Laden. The leaks were putting American lives in danger. American interests had been compromised.
That part was predictable and, frankly, about as new, striking and remarkable as the leaks themselves. Because let's face it, there really wasn't much that was truly earth-shattering in the leaks. And there wasn't anything truly useful in the outrage.
But then things took a turn for the worse. For the seriously dangerous.
It was reported that students at an international relations program at one of America's most prestigious universities were warned against visiting the WikiLeaks site or reading the leaked cables--for fear that it would jeopardize their future employment with the U.S. State Department.
Visa, MasterCard, and PayPal cut off WikiLeaks' account--refusing them banking services for reasons never quite made clear.
There were reports that lawyers in the Justice Department were examining ways to retrofit U.S. laws designed to punish spying to fit the WikiLeaks case and attempt to apply statutes with no historical relevance to this situation.
All of which makes the WikiLeaks situation less about the leaks themselves--because the leaks, frankly, don't really add up to much.
And it's not even about Julian Assange--who seems to aspire to the role of martyr and to hunger for the opportunity to be a media star over-hyping the importance of the material he's dispensed.
What WikiLeaks is about is America's character in the balance.
It's a movie we've seen before.
In the 1950s, with a scary enemy outside our gates, the growing fear of American global vulnerability, and the terrible gnawing sensation that things at home weren't going right, the U.S. allowed itself to get caught up in a paranoid nightmare. If there were enemies outside our gates, surely there were agents within!
And sure enough, there were.
Not as many as the fear-mongers wanted to pretend were there. But enough to make the claims credible.
Fear gave way to more fear--legitimate news sources censored themselves, for fear that they'd be censored even more harshly if they didn't "comply" with the dominate mood. People who objected to the loss of freedom (in the name of protecting freedom, which is how we in the U.S. always justify these kinds of irrational acts) found themselves black-listed, out of work, on the outside looking in.
As others have noted in the run-up to the November elections, there is a deep strain of the paranoid style in American politics.
And in the American public psyche.
So far, WikiLeaks is a Rorschach test of how far America has traveled down the road to national paranoia. If we were being totally honest about the leaks themselves, we'd conclude that they are almost laughably uninformative:
The U.S. doesn't trust Putin.
There are back-deals going on in the Middle East, with Israel negotiating with nations that publicly wish it ill and privately hope it will stay strong militarily (didn't anybody else see the film "Charlie Wilson's War"?).
American ambassadors are known to say one thing in public and something different in private.
We don't really like or trust the leaders in Afghanistan.
It's all pretty thin gruel.
Except the response is treating it like we need to go back to the 1950s and rediscover our inner Red Scare.
Now it's not the Soviet Union--it's China. They're big and growing and dangerous and maybe they'll overtake us.
It's not nuclear weapons--it's global economics. And we're slipping behind as we lose our competitive capabilities.
Our economy is in the doldrums--unemployment refuses to budge, companies won't hire, the world is not a friendly place.
It must be somebody's fault.
There must be people who need to be punished. There must be traitors in our midst.
How do you treat paranoia?
By having the good sense and strength of purpose to go back to first principles.
We need more good, smart, tough reporting, not less.
We need more digging into the truth of America's strengths and failings, not less.
We need to focus on what needs fixing and how to fix it--and not to fall prey to mindless fear-mongering.
What we need is for the journalists and writers, commentators and opinion-makers who got scooped by WikiLeaks to redouble their efforts at finding out what's really going on in the world, and bring that news to the American public.
The best reaction to leaks, if they really make Americans uncomfortable, is more solid journalism. We need more digging, not more cover-ups.

Friday, December 3, 2010

More on Magazines: Once and Future Greatness

And while I'm on the subject of magazines . . .
Can anyone enlighten me as to the current version of the Harvard Business Review, my old publication?
Take a look at the December, 2010 issue for a moment and you'll see what has me scratching my head.
The cover, to begin with: years ago, Fast Company featured an award-winning cover designed by the brilliant Patrick Mitchell to promote Tom Peters' "Brand Called You" article. Now comes HBR with its "brand-called-you-lite" version of that cover. Only it's all over the place. Too many words (Social Media and the New Rules of Branding--Spotlight Page 61). Too little focus. No real impact.
Which could be said of the whole issue, and, for the most part, most issues of HBR in its new manifestation.
It's been a while since the powers that be handed the reins to Adi Ignatius and, frankly, it's still hard to tell what the "theory of the case" is for the new HBR.
Back in the old days, under the leadership of Ted Levitt, HBR had a purpose: stir up debate, challenge conventional wisdom, spark conversation, be provocative.
Ted always said that HBR was a magazine written by people who can't write for people who don't read. His mission was to make it both easier to read, and ultimately, necessary to read if you wanted to be part of the conversation about where business and management were going.
He respected the HBS credential, but didn't let it get in the way of kicking up controversy where ever and when ever he could.
He wanted to exploit the benefits of HBR being a hybrid: part academic, part journalistic. The academic credential gave HBR cover when Ted wanted to do something dramatic, like find a way to get Robert Redford in the magazine on his efforts to negotiate environmental truces out West, or feature Felice Schwartz's memorable essay on the real differences between men and women in the workplace. And the nod in the direction of journalism made sure that even the most academic treatment was readable and accessible--that professors were challenged to make an argument and present a strongly reasoned point of view, not just go through the motions.
If Ted found the way to have the best of both worlds by combining academic respectability with journalistic freshness, the new HBR manages to find the worst of both worlds, somehow.
Yes, the piece by Tom Hout and Pankaj Ghemawat falls squarely in the tradition of the good old days. But most of the rest of the issue not only isn't need to know--it isn't even nice to know.
The cover package on social media is at best a mish-mosh; the piece on Robert McNamara as a manager manages to recite a litany of historical facts without ever arriving at an important point; and the look and feel of this new HBR is as chopped up and unfocused as the editorial product the design is supposed to embody. Of course, it's hard to do great design when the theory of the editorial product is so thoroughly obscured.
Part of the problem may be frequency.
In the old days, HBR came out 6 times a year. That meant every issue was carefully developed and every piece was nurtured and valued. Now that HBR is a monthly proposition, the pressure is on the editors to generate excellent editorial content that respects the magazine's academic credential and also breaks new ground in bringing to the fore important themes in business and management. Tough to do, especially if you take seriously the academic part of the equation.
But something else is missing: a clear definition of HBR's role and responsibility today.
With so much to argue and work on in the world of business (like the points raised by Hout and Ghemawat) you'd think HBR would have its hands full.
What is the right strategy for dealing with the nation's--and the world's--economic crisis?
What should we make of Wall Street and the culture of money?
Do we need a whole new theory of the MBA?
What model of capitalism is emerging to take us into the future, and where can we find traces of it?
Are there limits to the promise of entrepreneurship? What is the value of a back-to-basics approach to business and competition?
Is CSR a thing of the past? And if so, what's the thing of the future?
Maybe it's too soon.
Maybe the new regime will get its arms around the hybrid nature of HBR that has always been part of the package.
At a time when the issues are critical, when change is relentless, and there's more room than ever for fruitful debate, a healthy and vibrant HBR could provide important relief from the business-celebrity combination that dominates so much of the rest of business journalism.
Here's hoping!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Stopping to Think About WikiLeaks--Really Think

Having just gotten back from a long and fascinating trip to New Zealand and China, and having traveled almost non-stop for the last 4 months to Germany, Austria (twice), Italy, Denmark, Finland, and Canada, I'm feeling pretty patriotic these days.
When you leave the U.S. for any length of time, and then come back home, you can see things with clearer eyes than when you stay inside Bubble America and only view things through the lens of domestic reporting. The Scandinavians have a name for too much time spent inside the bubble: home blindness.
Which is what has me scratching my head over the recent and on-going WikiLeaks controversy.
To some people, Julian Assange is a terrorist.
Members of the Congress have called for his arrest and trial as a person every bit as dangerous as dangerous as bin Laden. WikiLeaks, as an organization, has been compared to Al-Qaeda.
The argument has been made that the release of hundreds of thousands of pages of diplomatic cables "threatens American lives."
The atmosphere is breathless, filled with outrage. Republicans accuse President Obama of somehow failing to do something he should have to have prevented the leaks in the first place. After an inquiry from Senator Joe Lieberman, Amazon stops hosting WikiLeaks. Interpol has made Assange one of its top arrest targets, pulling out all stops to bring him to justice in Sweden for two alleged rapes.
All of this makes me want to stop--really stop--for just a minute and reflect.
What do we actually know at this point about Assange, about the reports leaked through WikiLeaks, about the government?
A few things, actually, most of which fly in the face of all the huffing and puffing that's going on.
Thanks to a deeply insightful profile on Assange in The New Yorker a few months ago, we know quite a bit about the founder of WikiLeaks. We know that he's lead a chaotic personal life from childhood. Always on the move, often on the run, he's practically a character out of The Terminator--a fictional character with a deeply anti-authority bent, verging on a desire to martyr himself for a cause that gives his life meaning. We know that he's technically brilliant, socially inept, impossible to get close to, and driven by his own belief that the powers that be (not just the United States) need to be exposed for the hypocrisy and double-dealing that is the ordinary business-as-usual way for rich and powerful nations and individuals to conduct themselves.
In this respect, he has more in common with the driven muckrakers and investigative reporters who have always felt it their mission to rip the veil of secrecy from the face of governments, corporate titans, and others in positions of power.
We know that he's accused of rape in Sweden. Two women, friends who know each other, both tell similar stories about Assange's encounters with them.
My friends in Stockholm, who know Assange, while not excusing the charges, have a reasonable explanation for a situation that ultimately can only be judged in court. Assange is an Australian and, as noted previously, a socially inept person. Sweden is a country where there is probably more sexual and gender equality than any place on earth. Men and women conduct themselves as equals in all matters. It is possible, my friends tell me, that Assange, as a newcomer to Sweden, had a harder than usual time decoding the rules of sexual situations--that he mistaken misjudged what was going on in his relations with these women. Or it may be that he actually did commit rape. That we don't know.
Back to what we do know.
We do know that his rape charge has been handled in a way that is completely different from other, similar charges that come to the attention of the police and prosecution in Sweden. For example, before any charge had even been confirmed by investigators, his name was released in conjunction with the accusation, a step that is never taken in the Swedish criminal justice system, according to my friends in Stockholm.
It would not be far-fetched to imagine that pressure has been brought to bear (through diplomatic cables?) by the U.S. government, to do whatever can be done to make Assange's life more difficult.
We also know, from the wise words of America's greatest investigative reporter, I.F. Stone, that governments lie. It's what they do. They lie routinely. They lie about what they do and what they don't do. They lie about their reasons for what they do and don't do. Then they lie about lying.
And we know that nothing makes a government more angry than having its lies revealed.
I know from personal experience. When I worked in the Carter Administration, I was outraged at the coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis. I was convinced that anti-American journalists were intentionally making things harder for the government to pursue our nation's interests in Iran by the way they belittled the administration's attempts to conduct foreign policy in the Middle East. When you're on the inside, everybody on the outside is out to get you. So we know that the response from highly partisan, politicized government officials will be outrage, anger, and hyperbole.
What else do we know?
We know that, according to today's New York Times, finding a charge to levy against Assange would be difficult at best. The Times quotes Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University who has written about the Espionage Act, as saying, "There is a haze of uncertainty over all of this. The government has never brought an Espionage Act prosecution that would look remotely like this one." In fact, the one attempt to prosecute recipients of leaked documents under the Espionage Act happened in 2005 and ended in utter embarrassment for the government, the Times reports.
What don't we know?
We don't know more than we do know.
We don't know exactly what crime Assange and WikiLeaks have committed.
We don't know exactly how American lives have been put in danger.
We don't know exactly what, in these leaked documents, is so remarkable. (This is not, it turns out, The Pentagon Papers.)
Other than enraging Mr. Putin, who apparently doesn't like being compared to Batman, we don't know what awful national interests have been compromised by the release of these cables.
One thing I don't know: why more of the serious journalistic community hasn't explained that uncovering important stories and tearing the veil of secrecy off of government is what journalists are supposed to do. And the government is supposed to howl.
This is what I.F. Stone did his whole life. It cost him an easy and comfortable life. It made him an outcast among certain parts of the American landscape. Until he got old enough to be made a hero for doing what the Constitution says is the right of every American: to ask uncomfortable questions, to challenge authority, to raise issues that need to be raised, and even to raise hell when things are going wrong and need to be fought over.
You would think the press would be outraged at any thing that smacks of a return to the days of government repression of the freedom of speech. You would think people would still remember the 1950s when responsible journalists were intimidated by the threat of government censorship. While WikiLeaks isn't The Pentagon Papers, you'd think journalists would remember the days of the Nixon White House, the enemies list, and attempts to prevent that leak from being read by the American people.
But the response of the press to this episode reminds me of the earlier response from much of the press to the Rolling Stone article that lead to General McChrystal's resignation after he and his team talked too much and too freely in Europe in the presence of a reporter: the press chastised the reporter for doing the story--he was at fault for having committed real journalism!
The current WikiLeaks debate reminds us of two things we do know or at least should know.
There are no secrets.
I first learned it after Chernobyl. The Russians denied anything had gone wrong at their nuclear power plant. The U.S. had satellite evidence. And that was before the advent of the Web.
There are no secrets. So what your mom told you as a kid is true today for all of us as adults--including ambassadors and government officials: don't do it if you aren't prepared to read about it in the morning paper.
And the second thing is, there's nothing new.
I'm with Defense Secretary Gates on the whole WikiLeaks uproar.
As reported in the New York Times, Gates, who has an untarnished career at the Defense Department working for both Bush and Obama, said, "Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who's been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time. And I dragged this up the other day when I was looking at some of these prospective releases. And this is a quote from John Adams: 'How can a government go on, publishing all their negotiations with foreign nations, I know not. To me, it appears as dangerous and pernicious as it is novel.'
"Now, I've heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy as described as a melt-down, as a game-changer, and so on. I think those descriptions are fairly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with United States because it's in their interests, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets. Many governments--some governments--deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation.
"So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us.We will continue to share sensitive information with one another.
"Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest."
In this instance, I think Defense Secretary Gates knows best.
I'd say that's something else we know. Or at least should.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Where Have All the Magazines Gone?

I was sitting a few minutes ago looking at the Esquire covers created by George Lois.
George has been feted as a genius for his magazine covers. They defined an era. Kind of like "Mad Men" but the real thing.
You flip through the covers and there are some great ones. And a lot of not quite great ones. And even more could have been great ones. And some that you wonder, what was he thinking?
Because magazines are hard. And covers are even harder. So George did amazing work, especially when you think about what everybody else was doing.
Which brings me to Tina Brown, Newsweek, and Sidney Harman.
I've never met Sidney Harman (this is standard for all pieces where someone is about to be hammered--I've never met him...but.)
Sidney Harman bought Newsweek for $1, all the debts the Washington Post had run up by not paying attention to what was going on, and the promise that he wouldn't fire anyone.
I know this because I was part of a team trying to buy Newsweek. Our promise was, we'd try to make Newsweek a great magazine again.
We lost, Sid won.
Then a lot of people left Newsweek while Sid tried to figure out what he wanted to do.
Fact was, he didn't know.
He wanted to be a player. He's 92. He has a bundle of money. Newsweek was relatively cheap and made him a player. Beyond that, I doubt Sid had an idea.
Then he had an idea.
Tina Brown.
Tina Brown was Sid's next big idea. She's a famous editor, a celebrity editor. Maybe he could get her to be Newsweek's new editor.
It's an idea.
It ignores a lot of facts.
Like the fact that Tina has left a bunch of wreckage in her path in the last few years. Remember Talk magazine? Remember the launch party at the Statue of Liberty? Lots of money, liberally thrown around, supporting a kind of a concept: America needs a magazine that's kind of like the high-toned, low-class, cheesy, sleezy mags of Europe. Didn't work.
Before that Tina worked at The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.
According to folks who know, Tina's version of The New Yorker lost $1 million a week.
If my math is correct, that's more money than Newsweek lost last year. $52 million a year is a lot of money to lose.
But she's a celebrity editor.
Which raises the question: what's happened to America's great magazines?
I look at the George Lois covers, and I don't see great covers. I see an editor who had ideas. I see an editor who had the courage to do smart, bold, challenging edit.
That's what we need in American magazines today.
Not more celebrity garbage. Not more flash and trash.
These are amazing times. The conventional wisdom is boring. The celebrity circuit is overcrowded.
Where's the editorial courage to ask tough questions, to pay for serious investigative reporting, to challenge the easy way and propose a new direction?
Sid Harman has given more than his fair share of cool interviews and hip speeches since buying Newsweek.
But I'd be greatly surprised if The Daily Beast-Newsweek combination spells more courageous journalism for America.
If I'm wrong, I'll be the first to say so.
If I'm right, it's just another loss for a country that actually needs some great journalism to ask the right questions and produce great covers.
In the end, it's not the art directors, or even the owners, who do the work that we gasp at in awe. It's the great editors.
Where are they when we need them?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Look Back in Anguish

I've been in New Zealand for the last week, having arrived here one day before the U.S. election.
It's the first time I can remember being happy to be out of the country on election day. It's not so much that the hateful Republicans were poised for huge gains at the expense of the hapless Democrats. Or that the Tea Party is such a sad commentary on the mood and temperature of the American public.
It's that the whole exercise of democracy in the land of the free and the home of the brave has become an exercise of money in the land of the rich and the home of the unemployed.
The last election cycle had so little to recommend it. Sure there were the candidates-as-jokes. A Senate candidate--a candidate for the U.S. Senate! the greatest deliberative body in the world, by its own admission--goes on TV to announce she's not a witch! It's like the old days in corrupt Rome when the emperors nominated their favorite animals to that Senate. And it wasn't just the unbelievable amounts of money being dumped into elections by candidates themselves--Carly and Meg--and by companies with bottomless money pits.
My desire to be out of the country when the votes were being counted had more to do with the spirit of America at the moment. Anger, lost confidence, lost hope, lost community, lost optimism. A seeming incapacity to generate smart solutions to pressing problems, and an even greater incapacity to execute solutions in ways likely to produce real results.
I keep thinking back to Jared Diamond's diagnosis of the four stages of failure that afflicted societies in the past that disappeared.

Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrived.
Failure to recognize a problem after it arrived.
Failure to act on solving a problem after recognizing it.
Total failure because it became too late to act.

It's quite possible that America is mired in stage 3: we've recognized our problems--social, political, environmental, economic, educational, you name it--but we seem incapable of acting to solve them.

And it's not as if the rest of the world hadn't noticed.
Here in New Zealand my wife and I went to dinner the other night with four Kiwis. It was an informal, fun, out-spoken evening, which is pretty much the character of this independent-minded nation.
Somehow or other, the conversation came around to the state of the world--maybe because New Zealanders uniformly refer to themselves as being "at the edge of the world." This is a land where the people have a keen sense of nature, of the environment, and of the ways in which humans directly impact the quality of life--and the future of life--on the planet. After all, before humans arrived in large numbers on New Zealand, there were no land mammals on the two islands! No land mammals! So all the rabbits, stouts, and possums that afflict the birds in New Zealand were introduced by humans. In some cases, humans kept bringing animals over, long after the negative impacts had already become apparent (see stage 3 above).
The question was posed to the group at the table: If you had to appoint one nation to be in charge of emergency measures to rescue Planet Earth from its gradual but seemingly certain decline, what country would you pick?
One Kiwi picked Ireland: if we're all going under, he reasoned, what better group to throw the wake for the Earth than the Irish?
Another said Denmark. The people are smart, considerate, the quality of life high, and the likelihood to come up with good solutions better than anyone else.
One picked China. Not so much for human rights--that she let slide. But on the grounds that the Chinese are recognizing their impact on the earth, moving aggressively to alternative energy sources, and clearly able to implement solutions and get things done. Witness the Olympics.
None of the Kiwis--not one--selected the U.S.
None of the Kiwis even mentioned the U.S.
The attitude was, the U.S. is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
That the U.S. is focused on consumption, hooked on wasteful habits, undisciplined in social and environmental practices, incapable of implementing strategic solutions that could actually benefit the earth as a whole.

For a fun evening of lively conversation, the attitude toward the U.S., coming on the heels of our own dis-spiriting election, left a slightly bitter after-taste.

It's not just what we're doing to ourselves.
It's that the whole world is watching while we do it--and do it to them, as well. We may not have the distance to be able to see ourselves as others see us.
But be clear: they do see us, and in ways that would help us, if we could only see ourselves through their eyes.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Justapose This!

Flying cross-country from Albuquerque to Atlanta, I had all the time in the world to read today's New York Times.
Try it some time. I recommend it.
Not just scanning headlines or checking sports scores.
Read it carefully. Clip it. Look for things that jump out at you.
They can range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Start with the ridiculous: Christine O'Donnell's first TV commercial is set to air in the hotly contested Senate race in Delaware.
And the first line of her first TV ad is . . . "I am not a witch."
That's right.
We've reached a new point--high point? low point? you be the judge--in American Senatorial politics. A major contender for a seat in "the world's greatest deliberative body," as the Senate likes to bill itself, is carrying her message to the voters. And that message is? "I am not a witch."
Richard Nixon famously said, "I am not a crook." He did not say, "I am not a wizard." In retrospect, a missed opportunity by Tricky Dicky.
And Ms. O'Donnell's closing message to the good people of Delaware?
"I'm you."
Well, that's not true, either. So the question is, can you trust a candidate who lies about "being you" to tell you the truth about "not being a witch"?
The voters will have to decide.
Meanwhile a truly important article on the front page, first column: The U.S. military command has ordered less dependence on fossil fuels--not for the whole country, just for the military.
This is a big story.
Here are a few quotes and para-phrases: "After a decade of waging wars in remote corners of the globe where fuel is not readily available, senior commanders have come to see overdependence on fossil fuel as a big liability, and renewable technologies--which have become more reliable and less expensive over the past few years--as providing a potential answer."
The data are compelling: according to one study, for every 24 fuel convoys that set out in Iraq and Afghanistan, one soldier or civilian engaged in moving the fuel was killed.
According to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, guarding fuel is keeping troops from doing what they're really sent to do, whether that is to fight the enemy or engage the population.
It's expensive in terms of money, lives, troop use, you name it.
But the reason this is huge news is that, while the civilian economy can try things, experiment, give change a shot, it's the Department of Defense that moves the needle.
Let's face it: that military-industrial complex that Ike warned us about? Well, it's here, now.
But it can work for us.
If the DOD jumps onto renewable energy as a military priority, you can bet that problems of cost, of scale and scope, of moving down the experience curve--all the things that bring industries to commercial success--will now be handled by the military. We'll have a lot of spin-off benefits to the civilian economy, as the military economy becomes the prime source of renewable energy solutions.
It is a de facto change in national energy policy--at long last.
What's the explanation?
Why this, why now?
Perhaps, just perhaps, it's the work of a white witch!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Change-Leadership Puzzle

How is a column like a train wreck?
I found myself asking that question after puzzling over Judith Warner's opening piece in this morning's New York Times Magazine.
In "The Way We Live Now," Ms. Warner finds herself wondering in print about the lessons to be learned from Michelle Rhee's tenure as school superintendent in Washington, DC. The defeat of Mayor Adrian Fenty at the polls has signaled the end of Ms. Rhee's contentious effort to deliver real change to the public schools of our Nation's Capitol, which, everyone agrees, are desperately in need of real change.
Except, according to Ms. Warner, you're not supposed to say that.
Americans are angry, upset, worried about the future, and dis-spirited about the present. They want leaders who can promise real change--you might call it the audacity of hope.
They just don't want leaders who indict them for the failures that they're so upset about. Or who make them feel bad. Or who seem to suggest that they should be leaders because they're smarter than they are. So apparently what Americans are hungry for are leaders who are as angry as they are--but not upset with them. They want leaders who can help them express their outrage--and feel like ordinary people as they do it.
Can you say "Tea Party"?
What Ms. Warner seems to be suggesting is that Americans don't like elitist leaders.
Fair enough.
But what her column doesn't come to terms with is what kind of leadership it takes to produce real, important change in a system that is failing.
That system could be a public school system, a city, a company, a country.
In fact, almost every where I go, I find two topics intertwined, like a DNA strand: Change and Leadership.
And in almost every case the same pattern emerges. We--the people involved, regardless of the entity or enterprise--know that what we're doing isn't working. Or if it is working, it can't and won't continue to work indefinitely.
Think of America's energy policy, think of urban sprawl, think of large, publicly traded companies that worry about their stock prices but don't make strategic decisions that can carry them into the future, think of the Washington, DC public school system, for that matter.
We know that what we're doing can't continue indefinitely--and yet we can't seem to bring about real, serious, systemic change.
Why not?
There are all kinds of theories. Some suggest that it goes back to the earliest humans and the evolution of the human brain--we don't have a brain that helps us imagine consequences out into the future. Lizard brains don't work that way. Some suggest it's all about MBA-trained financial calculations: what's the net present value of doing what you're doing versus taking the risk of change. Or human nature: Change is hard, the status quo is easy. The list goes on.
What most people ultimately suggest is that it takes some form of leadership to get the rest of us to agree that the status quo is unsustainable and change, hard and uncomfortable as it is, makes much more sense. (By the way, the same issue of the Times magazine has a long profile of Glen Beck that takes him back to his "moment of truth" as a drunk--the moment when his status quo was unsustainable and change was the only viable option, if he wanted to live, which suggests that the concept of "if" is an important, moment of truth proposition.)
So what kind of leader can make unwilling ordinary Americans recognize that we need to do the hard work of real change--and not just rant about it on TV or sell books calling for it in the abstract?
In companies, the model that gets praised the most is the tough-minded, non-egotistical, fact-facing leader who puts the good of the organization ahead of his/her own wealth and fame. (Jim Collins writes about this with clarity and insight in "Good to Great.")
Or it's the equally tough-minded leader who shows little concern for consensus building but holds the whole organization to high standards and adopts a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. (Successful coaches are often praised for this kind of laser-like focus; business leaders like Steve Jobs come to mind, as well.)
What about leaders in politics? Leaders of social change movements? Leaders who want to make serious and important change happen, who feel the urgency of the moment, but--God forbid!--recognize that they can't come off as elitists?
Ms. Warner is right: Nobody likes someone who keeps telling you how much smarter they are than you.
On the other hand, if we're going to solve most of these huge, complicated, swirling systems problems, we probably need some people who actually are smarter than the rest of us.
Say, Barack Obama, not George Bush.
So it is all about style, and not substance?
Is it about tone, not policy?
Or are we all going to have to take a deep breath and admit that we've gotten ourselves in a mess of our own making (see Glen Beck's moment of clarity!) and that now we do have to listen to leaders who have more experience, more insight, and more hands-on knowledge about how to fix things than we have?
After all, as Glen Beck knows, the first step in any 12-step program is to admit that we are powerless, and to turn our lives over to a Higher Power.
Couldn't Michelle Rhee be a higher power?
Next question: How is a blog posting like a train wreck?
Just wondering in print here.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Careful, You Sometimes Get What You Deserve

Earlier this week I went to a terrific gala put on by the Wild Earth Guardians, which, despite its name, is not a cross between Whole Foods and the Guardian Angels, but rather a dynamic and dedicated environmental outfit doing important work on behalf of the wild things (in which there is salvation, remember).
The guest speaker was Joel Sartore. If you haven't seen his work, pick up the current issue of National Geographic. His photos accompany a clear and powerful article on the reality of the oil spill in the Gulf. If you don't want to read the story (which is the clearest, best piece as I've read on this disaster), just look at Joel's pictures.
Then a couple of days later I got an email from Joel. He was commenting on the state of journalism today, saying that given the kind of reporting we were getting, we were likely to get the kind of government we didn't want.
Turns out he was reading my mind.
I've been thinking about the relationship between what you deserve and what you get, triggered by thoughts of union-management relations in the old days.
In business, the old saw was, companies get the unions they deserve.
The classic example was the old days in the auto industry, when Henry Ford hired spies to watch men on the assembly line. Laughing on the line was an offense that would get you fired. Trying to organize a union, well, who knows the punishment for that!
There were pitched battles, physical confrontations, between workers who wanted to organize and strike, and hired goons whose job was to beat them into submission.
Any wonder that, when there finally was a union in the auto industry, relations between management and labor were confrontational.
The companies got the unions they deserved.
Today, the media have decided that Americans don't read, won't read.
They've concluded that all we really want is a steady diet of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and celebrity rehab.
Advertisers have decided that print is dead. Journalism schools have concluded that old-school journalism is, well, old-school. Which is another way of saying, no longer relevant.
So don't be surprised, when the polls close on Election Day, if we've elected a crop of wing nuts and bozos to the highest offices of the land.
Of course, the truth is, there is still great journalism being done.
Less and less, but more than gets credited to the U.S. journalism account.
Wanna make a difference? Wanna take a stand? Wanna stand for something that can make a difference?
Go to your local news stand.
Buy $40 or $50 worth of serious journalism.
Pick up The New Republic, National Geographic, The Nation. If you haven't read Time or Newsweek in a while, give it a go, see what you learn! Pick up The New York Review of Books--it won't hurt you, I promise.
Sit down and actually read about what's going on in your country.
Look for articles that name names, that give credit where results are being forged, and reveal hypocrisy where it's being perpetrated.
When you find a magazine or publication you haven't read before, but you like, make a real stand: Subscribe!
Get serious about the future of America--before America's future turns into a joke.
Remember, we're likely to get the country we deserve. Based at least in part on the journalism we support.

Friday, September 24, 2010

You'all Know What a Bidness Plan Is, Right?

In my last post, I introduced Texas Governor Rick Perry into the discussion.
But have I ever told you the story about the time I met him and watched him in action?
Well, here goes.
I was in Texas to give a speech. The sponsor asked me, before it was my time to talk, if I'd like to meet the governor.
Sure, I said.
Having written speeches for the governors of Michigan, Massachusetts, and Oregon, I figured it would be fun, a real treat, to meet the Governor of Texas.
The sponsor told me that the occasion was a meeting Governor Perry was having with two visitors from Mexico: one of Mexico's leading newspaper publishers, a distinguished leader and accomplished businessman, and a member of the Mexican Senate. They were eager to talk with the governor about the state's laws and practices concerning open meetings and freedom of information. What could they learn to help Mexico have a more transparent public sector?
I could sit in on the meeting as an observer.
I was ushered into the room where the meeting was to take place; the newspaper publisher and senator were already there. We shook hands and waited.
In came Governor Perry.
He sat down and immediately plopped his cowboy boots on the coffee table that sat between us.
I think the idea was to show us the map of Texas that had been engraved on the boots.
Then he started to lecture the visitors from Mexico on a long-standing water dispute between Texas and Mexico.
I know you're keeping our water on your side of the border, he told them. We got satellite images that show it. And it's illegal. Strictly against the law, violates a treaty between us. You're gonna have to give us back our water.
He went on like that for about five minutes. It must have taken him that long to realize that he was talking about the wrong thing to the wrong people--or maybe hat's just what he does when he's introduced to people from Mexico.
Finally, he shifted gears to the topic of transparency in government, open meetings and freedom of information.
It's a two-edged sword, the governor said. I know you're thinking it's a good thing, but let me tell you, it has another side to it.
Interesting, right? The governor says there's a negative to public access to information. What could that be?
Now say you come to the government and you're asking for money for a project you want to do. And you show the government your business plan. (Only, of course, he didn't say "government" he said "go'mint" and he didn't say "business plan" he said "bidness plan." But I digress.) Now, you'll know what a bidness plan is, right? That's the document you need to write up when you're starting a bidness that explains how you're gonna do it. So say you want money from the go'mint and so you have to show them your bidness plan. Now, if there's freedom of information, your competitors can go into the go'mint files and read your bidness plan! So all this transparency stuff, it's a two-edged sword!
And he sat back, very pleased with himself for having educated his Mexican visitors on the real nature of open meetings laws and freedom of information acts, and even what a bidness plan is.
After he left, however, it was clear that his guests were a little under-impressed.
I'm certainly glad the governor explained to me what a business plan is, said the senator from Mexico. That's not something we covered when I attended Stanford Business School.
Ah, arrogance!
Ah, insensitivity!
Ah, general stupidity!
No wonder the chairperson of the Texas Board of Education, appointed by Governor Rick Perry, is a creationist who believes that our history books betray an Islamic bias!
I'll bet she doesn't know what a bidness plan is, either!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is This a Great Country, Or What?

Back in the US, back in the US, back in the US of A!
After more than a month on the road, I'm back home, in the greatest country in the world! And you know what, this country is so great, it will never disappoint you.
Don't believe me?
All you have to do is read the morning New York Times, and it will fill you up for the whole day. America: The Only Vitamin Your Body Needs!
Take the piece in today's paper about the Texas Board of Education. You remember them. They're the whack jobs who thought Thomas Jefferson was too far left to be in American history books.
Well, they're at it again.
Apparently, according to Chairperson Gail Lowe, our history books have a concealed pro-Islamic bias!
You remember Gail Lowe, don't you?
She's the creationist, appointed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, he of the over-sized cowboy boots and under-sized intellect, to be the head of the school board.
Gail is famous for saying, among other things, "Our country was founded on religious principles . . . and our students will know that. . . . I think the [Founding Fathers] fully intended that our government would not separate church and state."
Yep, you read that quote right. And this woman is the head of the Texas Board of Education.
Or take Gail Collins' column of the Senate's latest incomprehensible inability to do the right thing. Faced with an opportunity to get rid of the inane "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, the Senate folded its tent, with the always righteous Republicans claiming that procedural issues unfairly used by the Democrats made it impossible for them to vote for the defense authorization bill that the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal was attached to.
Highest honors goes to John McCain, who is rapidly moving from maverick to mutton-head. McCain said, according to Collins, that he'd never seen such an awful trick as the ones the Democrats tried to pull, "for as long as I have been privileged to be a member of this body."
Except, as Collins points out, McCain himself had used the exact same technique for legislation he favored, as had his obstructionist Republican pals.
Question: Does John McCain just say stuff now, and assume that nobody will fact-check the stuff that comes out of his mouth?
Then there's small up-date news item on the latest allegation concerning Bishop Eddie L. Long, a pastor at a Baptist mega-church outside Atlanta.
Bishop Eddie is a God-fearing religious leader, and an out-spoken critic of homosexuality!
And today a third young man said that he'd been molested by said God-fearing, homo-hating bishop. The new accuser says that, as a teen-ager, he exchanged trips and gifts from the bishop for sex with the bishop.
You can't make this stuff up.
Which is what I love about America.
We have creationists running boards of education, but wonder why our children don't do well in school.
We have hypocrites in the Senate, but wonder why voters don't trust their elected leaders.
And we have child-abusers in the pulpit who preach against the sin of homosexuality, but wonder why organized religion no longer has moral authority.
The good thing is, it's all in your morning paper, delivered to your door step every day.
My advice: invest in good, old-fashioned journalism.
It just may save America yet.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's Left of the Right?

Let's make a list of all the people today's Republican Party has tried its best to alienate.
Gays and lesbians.
Hispanics.
Muslims.
Blacks. (What about Black Muslims? Probably a two-fer.)
Women. (Except for Mama Grizzlies, who are presumably traveling, pack-like to support Ms. Palin.)
Environmentalists. (A long time ago.)
People who are unemployed and wish they had a job, unemployment benefits until they can find a job, or both.
Anyone who feels any affinity for any of these groups.
Others I may have left out--feel free to add to the list.
Now, I don't care what your political persuasion, this is not a good state of affairs. A Republican Party that keeps practicing addition by subtraction only serves to polarize the national political debate, make every issue a black/white wedge issue, dampen down the capacity of elected officials who might want to get something, and drive more and more average Americans out of the political process.
If it is a conscious strategy, it is cynical beyond words.
If it is a death-wish, those of us who believe that politics and government are essential to our capacity to create and deliver a positive future can only hope that the process moves rapidly to its logical conclusion, and that at some point a more reasonable, moderate, and thoughtful Republican Party can be re-born.
Because it wasn't always like this.
Once upon a time, a long long time ago, there was a Republican Party that was populated by interesting, smart, capable people. You might now agree with them, but they were impressive. I remember listening to "Capitol Cloakroom" on the radio (I know that dates me, but there it is) and hearing Everett Dirksen's gravelly voice argue for his side of the aisle. Bill Scranton, Edward Brooke, Mark Hatfield, and more were staunch Republicans who had workable political philosophies they were committed to as Republicans.
Today, I doubt Mark Hatfield would be admitted to the Republican caucus.
The old joke about the Democrats was, when they formed a firing squad they lined up in a circle.
Today's Republican Party has formed a circle, and then given guns to an angry mob standing outside the circle, with orders to shoot to kill.
The truth is, we need two parties in this country--maybe more. Interestingly, we also need the parties to be able to work in a more bi-partisan fashion.
That can't happen as long as one of the two parties is committed to killing the political process en route to committing suicide.
What's even worse is, the Republicans may be rewarded for their strategy at the polls this November--which would only convince them to double-down on cynicism. What's beyond cynicism?
Nihilism, I guess.
As the nihilists say in The Big Lebowski, "We believe in nothing, Lebowski, nothing."
After November, that may be where the Republicans head.
It's an ugly thought, and a dangerous game.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Apple Customer Service?

By now it's become a default position to love Apple products and hate Apple customer service--or, more broadly, Apple's attitude toward its customers.
Most Apple users and watchers have suspected that Steve Jobs has always loved his products and their design more than he loves the people who actually buy them. In fact, the old mantra was, Apple's customers aren't worthy of the company's products.
So why bother to register one more tired complaint?
Because it still rankles.
Here's a short version.
I'm in Santa Fe.
I'm flying to San Francisco on Tuesday, leaving for Europe on Wednesday.
After waiting for the votes to be counted, I've decided to take an iPad with me.
Should I drive to Albuquerque and buy one there? Or wait until I'm in San Francisco, and simply walk to the Apple store and buy on there?
Prudence suggests a phone call.
I call the Apple store in San Francisco.
Yes, they have plenty iPads in stock.
Yes, they have one configured the way I want it.
No, they can't predict whether they'll have one on Tuesday.
No, I can't buy one over the phone and pick it up on Tuesday.
No, I can't buy one over the web and pick it up on Tuesday.
No. No. No.
Oh, and have a nice day.

Toxic Leadership

Once again, I've got to hand it to Joe Nocera.
I've been scratching my head for more than a week, puzzling over the dismissal by the HP board of CEO Mark Hurd. The way the story of his firing broke made no sense. Hurd had presided over a remarkable reversal of HP's performance. He came in on the heels of Carly Fiorina, who'd run HP as if it were a corporate platform for her own celebrification, and in short order had made the place spin like a top.
And then, all of a sudden, he was fired.
A woman alleged sexual harassment. The board investigated, and found no sexual harassment. But it discovered something on the order of $20,000 worth of phony payments to the woman. And Hurd was fired. Fired and awarded a going away present of roughly $72 million.
How did any of this make any sense?
In today's New York Times, Joe Nocera explains.
Hurd was a toxic leader. He made HP spin like a top. And he did it by destroying the lives of the work force, slashing the company's investment in R&D, poisoning the company's culture, and earning the hatred of the company's top executives.
It was all about Mark Hurd.
To get at the story behind the story, Joe turned to Tony Bianco, who I knew 30 years ago when he cut his reporting teeth at Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon, and who recently wrote an book investigating the HP spying scandal that wracked the board a few years back. Tony is an investigative reporter in the best tradition of muckraking, and what he found about that spying scandal made him conclude, he told Joe, that Hurd lacked "the moral character" to be HP's CEO.
Then Joe interviewed Chuck House, who I knew back in the days of HBR and Fast Company. Chuck practically broke into a chorus of "ding dong the witch is dead" when talking about the evil influence that Hurd had had on HP. He made the numbers; he destroyed the company's capacity to do great work going forward.
All of which raises a couple of questions.
Why did the HP board need a trumped up $20,000 payoff problem to fire a man that they deeply distrusted and who had lost the confidence and support of the people who did the work to make the company go? Why couldn't the board summon the "moral character" (to borrow Tony's term) to fire Hurd for toxic leadership, and do it on the up and up?
Maybe, just maybe, boards of directors have become so distanced from their real responsibilities and from the actual world of work that they can't do their jobs responsibly. They need some smokescreen that gives them permission to do what they're actually there to do--provide real oversight and governance for the company, and to evaluate management's overall performance and hold it accountable.
And second, why did it take more than a week for a good, solid journalist to sniff out the real story?
Among my friends in business journalism, the Hurd firing was the biggest head scratcher, not just of the week, but of a good long time.
You'd have thought that enterprising reporters would have wanted to be the one to suss out the real story and bring it to light.
Joe Nocera did it. He gets the credit.
And it's the kind of reporting we need a lot more of. More digging, more putting the sources together, more asking the right question.
Hats off to Joe; now let's have more of it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Problem With Conventional Wisdom Is . . . It's Conventional

For the last several months I've had a ring-side seat at one of America's most fascinating media circuses--the sale of Newsweek magazine.
My ticket to the show was provided by Fred Drasner, the man to whom Bill Taylor and I first brought Fast Company magazine as a concept and who, with his then-partner Mort Zuckerman, made the decision to back our magazine.
A few months ago, after a decade-long hiatus, Fred called me out of the blue. He was going to bid on Newsweek, he told me. Would I agree to work with him on developing an editorial strategy, and, if things worked out, to serving as the editor under his ownership.
What evolved over the next few months was a free updated education into the current economics--and thinking--about news, journalism, and publishing in America.
Of course, I told Fred I would join his team, out of a mix of loyalty and curiosity.
But naturally, I started out as a skeptic.
We all know, after all, what conventional wisdom tells us about magazines, in general, and weekly newsmagazines, in particular: they're irrelevant.
News is a commodity. I wrote that myself in Rules of Thumb.
It happens on the web 24/7.
What we need are people who can provide context. Tell us what the news means--don't just produce more of it. Especially more of it that's later, slower, and less interesting that what we get in short, concise blasts that show up on our cell-phones, laptops, iPads, and other devices in real time.
Then I went to New York with Fred and Paul Ingrassia, my editorial team mate, to meet with the current Newsweek team.
And I began to re-think conventional wisdom.
Before we met with the Newsweek people, we had dinner with a refugee from the publication. Our own editorial "DeepThroat."
He made a compelling case that conventional wisdom is dead wrong.
What the world needs, he said, is a respite from the constant blasts that come at us on the Web. We need to be reminded that "the week" is not a useless increment of time. It's vital one, an important rhythm to events and human life. The news that passes as news, streaming across our electronic screens, usually isn't really news, anyway. It's data, information. It doesn't inform us; it numbs us.
What if a news-weekly actually concentrated on the two things its name says it is: all about news; and weekly.
While we were sitting in New York, preparing for our Newsweek meetings, a funny thing happened: Rolling Stone broke a story. A journalist (as it happens, a former Newsweek stringer) had spent a week (that pesky time period, again) in Europe with General McChrystal and his top team members. The result was a story that blew the lid off the Afghanistan command, cost the General his job--and reminded us all what real journalism does: It reports.
The New York media cried foul! Didn't this guy know he was burning his bridges with the General and his staff? Losing access? Probably sacrificing his seat at the correspondent's dinner in DC?
I made a mental note: We need more journalism, more reporting. We need more content, less context.
Then we had our meetings with Newsweek. The magazine had placed a hefty bet on context, not content. The prize of place went to the magazine's columnists and pundits, the public faces of Newsweek who appeared, along with the editor-in-chief, on TV talk shows and radio. They were smart, they were well-informed, they fit the bill for what magazines in America are moving toward--very bright talkers who can tell you convincingly what they think about what they've been writing about. It's created a world of journalism where "news" consists of journalists interviewing journalists.
When I got back home, I picked up the most recent biography of Henry Luce, "The Publisher" by Alan Brinkley. It's not only a great biography and a historical review of the American Century. It's a primer on publishing and the forces that created our ideas of what magazines can and should be. It's a book, ultimately, about America and Americans, and Luce's ability to tell us our own stories, report on our own national dreams and aspirations.
Then I turned to "American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone" by D.D. Guttenplan. Another must-read for anyone who's grappling with politics, journalism, and present-day America, as well as the journey of one of our most doggedly determined journalists, a national treasure who valued reporting and truth-telling above all else.
And I came away convinced that we need Newsweek, and Time, and The Nation, and all the other struggling news-weeklies out there. But we need them to do what they started out to do, not what they've bent themselves into.
Convinced that we don't want hard-core reporting, they've morphed into "theme-based" magazines. They try to guess the direction of the "national narrative," and then "make sense" out of it for us.
Never mind that most of the time their guesses of narrative arc are wrong! How could they be right? Even the best analyst who tries to connect the dots rarely nails it.
The real question is, at this point in American journalism, is that what we need our reporters doing?
Michael Wolff has long argued that American journalism took a wrong turn with Watergate. All of a sudden, the hard-working, hard-drinking shoe-leather-using reporters of the old school became media celebrities themselves.
Journalists got too smart for their own good, too Ivy League for their readers.
Compound that with the Web, that makes news nothing more than a constant crawl across the bottom of whatever side screen you're blind eyes are staring at, add Twitter and every other social media feed to the mix, and make everyone a blogger and a pundit, and you've got the Tower of Babel replacing serious reporting, tough-minded fact-gathering, and relentless questioning of authority.
We need fewer celebrities, and more muckrakers.
We need less streaming and screaming, and more investigative reporting.
At the end, my original skepticism was replaced by a lengthy memo that Paul and I wrote, laying out an editorial strategy for Newsweek, a plan to take the magazine back to its roots and forward to renewed relevance.
Then Sidney Harman outbid Fred Drasner for the magazine, and the memo became, well, a memo.
But here's what I learned from several months of thinking about something that I was sure I already knew the answer to, before Fred called: The problem with conventional thinking--about journalism, magazines, you name it--is that its conventional.
Which means it's probably wrong.
And certainly boring.
Let's hope that whatever Mr. Harman does with Newsweek, whatever TimeWarner does with Time, and whatever else happens to the magazine and journalism world writ large, we end up seeing more experimentation, more back to the roots thinking, and less conventional wisdom.
In their own opposite ways, it's what Henry Luce and I.F. Stone both stood for.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

America At War

"Restrepo," a documentary about American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan had a special showing in Santa Fe last night.
The film offers an unflinching look at what is going on in the lives--and deaths--of American soldiers in a war that most Americans at home appear to know little--and care less--about.
It's not an anti-war film--although any film that depicts what war really looks like seems to me to be by definition an anti-war film.
And while the film is riveting to watch, at the end of it I'm not sure what question it answered--or even what question it asked.
Unconnected to the movie, but not unrelated, was a report in the local paper yesterday, picked up from the McClatchy Newspapers. Written by Nancy A. Youssef, the piece reports on a 300-page Army report that studied rising rates of drug abuse and criminal activity among soldiers leading to record-high levels of suicide among troops.
Here's the money quote from the article and the report:
"As we continue to wage war on several fronts, data would suggest we are becoming more dependent on pharmaceuticals to sustain the force. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that the force is becoming increasingly dependent on both legal and illegal drugs."
About one-third of soldiers are on some kind of prescription drug; 14% are on pain medication; crimes committed by soldiers are up--50,223 offenses committed in 2009 compared to 28,388 five years previously.
And suicide rates are up to 20.2 per 100,000 population, above the civilian rate for the U.S.
In my local paper, that report appeared next to a piece that recorded the number of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan as having reached "at least" 1,122 military personnel since 2001.
Now back to the movie for a minute.
One of the more arresting images in the film isn't a battle scene.
It's a meeting between the major in charge of the U.S. outpost and the local tribesmen. He's explaining that he's the new guy in charge. He wants them to know that what happened under the previous commanding officer is old news; the slate has been wiped clean. He's a fresh start.
His promise to the tribal leaders is to help build the local economy. Jobs and economic development. Build a road that will open up their region for trade and new business. A chance for them to get rich!
They sit there and look at him and the looks on their faces seem to say, "What in the world are you talking about?"
It's not just a different language.
It's a different universe. Maybe a different century. More than a different culture. A completely different frame of reference, a different time frame, a different world.
After the film, the major in the movie and one of the film-makes answered questions.
The film-maker made the point that Americans have little connection with this war.
There is no draft.
Taxes haven't gone up to pay for it. We're just putting it on our national credit card.
Even the leak of documents through Wikileaks hasn't stirred up much in the way of comment.
We have a national disconnect between the wars we fight and the world we live in back in America.
Soldiers come home, young boys, young girls really, having been damaged and broken by their experience. They may be on drugs; they may simply have awful nightmares and bad dreams. They may be injured physically; they may be injured spiritually.
Our political leaders talk about taking care of our veterans; it's hard to know what really taking care of them would look like.
Jobs? Economic development? A chance for trade and business? A chance to get rich?
And what about the undertaking of war in the first place?
There's no national dialog about it, no conversation as to why we're there, what the price is we're willing to pay, or who has to pay that price.
The disconnect is almost total, except for the young people we send over to do the fighting and the killing and the dying.
Today, America is at war.
And if you don't go to the movies to see a documentary, you'd hardly know it here at home.
And that's a real tragedy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Case of the Missing Middle

(Let's see. Where was I before I took a little time off?)
For a variety of reasons, I just finished reading the wonderfully well-written biography of Henry Luce, "The Publisher" by historian Alan Brinkley. (And recommend it without any reservations!)
It's a great book with useful and important lessons about publishing, journalism, magazining--and America then and now.
And it's this last category that has me thinking.
One of the sources of Luce's success with Time and Life (in particular) was the rise of the middle class. Over a period of about four decades, the United States took shape as the middle class was created--and then, in turn, created America.
The middle class defined what it meant to be an American. What the aspirations of the average American were, what the values and habits were, the consuming patterns, the work styles, and even the shortcomings and failings.
Under Luce, Time produced newsreels, featuring what has since become an iconic (and much parodied) voice booming, "America goes to work!" or "America goes to war!" or "America thinks this or that!"
And back then, there was that kind of America--a kind of general consensus about what the country was, how it worked, what it stood for, where it was headed (with, of course, huge gaping holes in areas like racial equality, gender equality--things like that).
Luce and Time/Life could ride that wave, even help define and shape it.
Americans wanted to know what Americans thought; wanted to know what Americans looked like; wanted to know what it meant to be American. And Luce and his magazines could tell them.
In 2010, that's a tougher assignment.
There are more Americas.
And more narcissism. More interest in "me" than in "us."
But most significantly, we're witnessing the wholesale destruction of the middle class.
Over the last decade or so, the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer--and the middle class has been ripped to shreds.
Globalization has cost America a wealth of middle class jobs.
The economic melt-down of the last 2 years has cost more. And has taken away the equity that many middle-class families had struggled to build up over years.
The middle-class, the glue that used to keep the country together, is losing its hold.
I saw this same problem at the city level back in the 1970s in Portland, Oregon.
Portland then was at a tipping point: it had lots of older, poorer residents, and lots of younger, single residents. What it was fighting for were middle-income families with children--the people in the middle.
It's the people in the middle who hold the whole thing together. In Portland's case, if the middle went missing, moved to the suburbs, the city would lose its demographic center. And so we developed "the population strategy"--a series of government policies and initiatives designed to get the people in the middle to vote with their feet, to stay in the city, to turn their backs on the suburbs.
Today, America faces the same challenge--only on a national level.
We need to have policies and initiatives that rebuild and resurrect the middle class.
In the 1970s, government programs had to have environmental impact statements filed before they could move forward.
Today we need "middle class impact statements" for federal, state, and local government programs--analyses of the impact on the people in the middle of spending programs, tax programs, education programs--the gamut of policies and initiatives.
Because, very simply, if the middle goes missing, those who are left at either end of the socio-economic spectrum will be unable to keep things from imploding.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

What You See Is Where You Sit

Is there a better sporting event than the World Cup?
Like the slogan says, "One game changes everything."
Yesterday I found myself holding my breath for 90 minutes while the U.S. team struggled to a 1-1 tie against England--thanks to a stunning error by the British keeper.
When the game was over I turned into a bitter U.S. fan: why hadn't the American team done a better job of controlling the ball? What was wrong with the defense to allow a goal in the 4th minute? Where were the sustained build-ups that world class teams showcase?
Then I went on the web to read the coverage of the match by the British press.
Of course, the soft goal scored by the U.S. got a lot of attention. But the Brits gave enormous credit to the tenacity of the U.S. defense, to the improved soccer know-how of the team, to the role played by Landon Donavon, the speed of the U.S. team overall.
They'd watched a completely different game, a game in which their team, favored to win, had been thwarted by a rugged U.S. effort.
I had a similar moment when, after reading U.S. press coverage of the B.P. oil spill, and President Obama's apparently too-soft response, I read the weekend editorial in The Financial Times.
Their point: Obama should lay off BP. What good did harsh attacks against the company and its leadership do?
BP's stock price was plummeting--which was bad for U.S. shareholders, as well as those in Britain.
Why not put aside the emotional response and tackle the problem with clear, cold pragmatism?
What you see is where you sit.
It applies to companies, customers, suppliers, vendors, entrepreneurs--and soccer fans (sorry, football, for the World Cup) and leaders coping with vast environmental disasters.
Try changing where you sit if you want to see the same set of circumstances with fresh eyes.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Lesson Learned at Reunion

Last week I went back to college--but just for reunion. But to paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot just by going to college.

One of my class's speakers was Bud Alpert. Bud's a doctor out in the Bay Area; what he talked about was his experience going into Iraq one week after the fall of Baghdad (and the famous fall of the Saddam statue) to help organize and teach Iraqi docs how to upgrade and modernize their care.

He passed on a couple of remarkable lessons.

The first was that Catch-22 is alive and well.

Here's what that means.

According to Bud's experience, the only way the U.S. policy makers could possibly devise a sensible policy for U.S. involvement in Iraq, is to meet with real people and find out what they think, what they want, how they feel. (To do that, Bud says, go to 4H's: hospitals, houses (coffee houses, houses of worship), homes, and hair salons.) U.S. policy forbids U.S. policy makers from going out and meeting with real people. They are thereby forbidden by policy from doing the one thing they need to do to make sound policy.

Sounds like a Lewis Black routine!

But when I thought about it, it explained more than our ill-advised adventure in Iraq. It explained the debacle on Wall Street: as long as the traders didn't have to think about the actual real life consequences of their financial adventures, they could continue selling garbage--because no real people's lives were being destroyed.

It explains how so many corporations explain away their environmental and social disasters--they never saw the people whose lives were being ruined, they never visited the waterways, the forests, the fields that were being destroyed.

It explains how political leaders blithely vote for measures that harm real people but reward interchangeable lobbyists: they see the lobbyists, they never see the real people.

We live in a society, an economy, where things are getting more and more attenuated. Where connections are distant or non-existent; where creating a financial time bomb has no more meaning that playing a video game; where you never have to see the real consequences of your self-serving choices.

Leaders think their time is too valuable to waste rubbing shoulders with real people; corporate jets and limos, appointment books and private elevators are reality buffers.

Bud was talking about Iraq and policy on the ground there.

But he could have been talking about corporate policy, university policy, any policy that emanates from an organization that has gotten so big, its head is in the sky and its feet no longer touch the ground.

Want to know what's really going on? What makes sense for your company, your organization, your career: go visit a hospital, a coffee house or house of worship, the home of an average person, or a hair salon.

Your feet will be back on the solid earth in no time flat.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Worthwhile Things Are Always Hard

On a long and taxing cross-country plane ride I watched what looked like an old, from-the-vault documentary about the early days of NASA.

There was footage of men in white polyester shirts and skinny black ties staring into huge and bulky computer screens tracking primitive rockets as they lifted off from launch pads.

There were early efforts at configuring rockets. There were flight trajectories, rockets spiraling into low orbits, all of the familiar footage of a program struggling to be born.

I remember watching some of those launches live. I'm old enough to have sat in a class room in school, staring at a small black and white portable TV, hoping that this time, this time the rocket would get off the pad, that it wouldn't spiral out of control, that it wouldn't have to be destroyed before it veered dangerously off course.

But the video on the plane had a different feel to it.

It gave the feel that our exploration of space, while difficult and challenging, was virtually inevitable. That one way or another, we would find our way into space, to the moon, and beyond.

It made me wonder what the video of this period of American and world history will look like.

Will we see America struggling to deal with the challenges of energy, global climate change, education, health care, social change, financial meltdown--and doing it with a sense that our time will yield solutions that feel just as inevitable in retrospect as the space program does looking back today?

Will we remember the spirit of contention and lack of civility that is so widely commented on today?

Or will we erase that part of the experience and focus on the determination, grit and problem-solving resolve of the American character?

What story will we tell ourselves in the future--after we've written the facts of the story today?

I don't know how we'll look back on this period. Whether we'll think our best selves rose to the occasion and came up with creative solutions. Whether we'll pat ourselves on the back for doing the hard work that positive change always demands.

I don't know.

But I do know, and that vintage film reminded me, worthwhile things are always hard.

That's true for us as individuals, and for us as a society.

If it's worth doing, it's going to take hard work. In part, I think, it's the hard work that makes it worth doing--and the fact that it's worth doing that makes us shoulder the hard work.

We Have Met Our Customers and They Are Thieves

I know it's hard to be in retail.

Especially in big cities.

In big box stores.

But really. Are all customers thieves? Or potential thieves?

I went into a pharmacy in San Francisco the other day looking for a simple tube of toothpaste.

Never mind the fact that a pharmacy is no longer a pharmacy. Now it's a grocery store. With more food items than health items.

I finally found the aisle with toothpaste.

And after a while I even found the toothpaste.

But it was locked behind a plastic box. To make sure I couldn't get any.

So I went looking again. This time for someone to help me.

I found a young woman stocking shelves. But she didn't have a key to the locked plastic box.

She called a young man who did. We walked back to the locked away toothpaste and he opened the box for me.

"People still this stuff?" I asked.

He made a gesture with his arm as if to sweep the whole container into his coat.

"They steal the whole box of it?" I asked.

He grinned.

"Do I look like a thief?" I asked.

He shook his head.

"Funny," I said. "Because your locked up toothpaste makes me feel like you think I'm a thief."

I took the toothpaste to pay for it.

There was a sign on the side of it warning anyone who tried to buy it on the street that it had probably been stolen.

I won't be shopping at that pharmacy again.

Apparently it's only there for thieves.

And I hate rubbing shoulders with thieves.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Staple Yourself to a Problem

I was down in Houston at a fascinating event put on by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The program was all about business and social responsibility and community engagement. Hard to think of a more compelling subject in this time of oil spills that prompt "don't blame me" responses, Wall Street melt-downs where nobody is guilty of anything, and a jobless recovery that has cities and states across the country feeling enormous pain, particularly when it comes to dealing with pressing social problems.

It was a good program, a good day, and lots of good people.

But in the aftermath I got to thinking about why it's so hard to get real traction on the social problems of our time. I'd recently been in San Francisco at another program on social enterprise. The litany of problems that seem "too big to solve" was endless. Childhood obesity. Teenage pregnancy. Poverty. Homelessness. Rampant drug and alcohol abuse. High school drop out rates.

We have programs designed to address all of these problems. There isn't a problem that doesn't have a non-profit or even for-profit enterprise that's trying to take it on.

So why don't we seem to get real traction? Why can't we come up with solutions that work for problems that matter?

Then I remembered a terrific Harvard Business School article that I worked on with one of the delightful faculty members back then, Professor Ben Shapiro. Ben had the cool idea of suggesting that if a business leader wanted to know how his or her company really operated, the trick would be to "staple yourself to an order."

In other words, metaphorically (or actually, if you could), walk your way through the entire company tracking the progress of an order. From the moment the order enters the system to the moment it is fulfilled, try looking at your company and its operation from the perspective of the order!

Brilliant idea! Staple yourself to an order!

What would it be like, I wondered, if we stapled ourselves to a social problem?

How would our solutions look from the perspective of the problem? What if you stapled yourself to "childhood obesity?" What would you see?

Some TV ads promoting better eating habits. Some pioneering school lunch programs that not only give kids healthy, wholesome food, but also actually try to teach kids better nutritional habits. Some schools that have kicked soda and candy machines off campus. A new initiative by the First Lady to put more attention on the problem. Non-profits in cities around the country trying to raise funds and raise awareness about the problem.

Now if you were "Childhood Obesity" and that was the opposition, what would your reaction be?

I think you'd fall over laughing. I think you'd think the opposition is a sad, uncoordinated, poorly organized, badly thought-through, un-serious rival. If you stapled yourself to Childhood Obesity and ran through the gamut of organizations, agencies, public and private entities that are ostensibly trying to put you out of business, I think you'd have a field day!

Which is precisely why we aren't getting any traction on fighting against childhood obesity. Or a host of other problems.

What would it take to get serious?

Try stapling yourself to the problem you're most passionate about.

Do the economics favor a cure? Or favor a continuation of the problem? Are we, as a society, still content to pay the price that problem exacts? If so, don't expect much to change.

Are the organizations that want to end the problem working together? Or are they fragmented? Is there a serious systems analysis of the problem? Or does each part of the non-profit world see the problem through its own worm-hole? If we want to get serious about a systemic problem, we'll need to devise systemic solutions. Otherwise, the problem wins again.

It's a great exercise--if slightly discouraging. Pick your own problem, the one you care most deeply about.

If you want to see what it will take to win--instead of putting up with tolerable failure--try stapling yourself to your problem.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's the end of the world as we know it . . .

. . . and I feel fine.

As the old song goes.

Last week, Jon Stewart again played pin the tail on the news of the world, highlighting a week of catastrophe, disaster, human error, and just plain folly that was enough to make you laugh or cry or both.

The stock market goes on a roller-coaster ride--and even worse than the ride, nobody can explain why it happened. Greece was so far in debt it faced national bankruptcy--and the EU intervened and awarded it more debt. The out-of-control oil spill off the Gulf Coast stayed out of control. Goldman Sachs and Wall Street also stayed out of control.

It made for great Comedy Central fodder.

But when you stop laughing, what do you do?

If you're running a business, starting a business, trying to make sense of your business (or your life--not that there's much difference these days), what do you do?

A few thoughts:

If you keep score by tracking the stock market you will drive yourself insane. It's the default metric for our economy, and it's a really really bad one.

Try measuring customer satisfaction instead. Or customer retention. Or customer loyalty.

Long ago Peter Drucker famously said, the purpose of a business is to make and keep a customer.

He famously did not say, the purpose of a business is to maximize shareholder value and drive up your stock price.

Another metric that matters: Try measuring employee satisfaction. Employee retention. Employee loyalty.

Do an audit of your corporate culture. Have you let toxic times make your corporate culture a toxic waste dump?

Another key task of leaders who get it: How are you making sense out of these turbulent times--times that defy anyone making sense of them, times that require you to make sense of them? Your job--as leader in a company or leader of your own life--is to make sense out of all the noise that fills the airwaves. And after you've begun to assemble your own story, to tell it to those around you. Test drive it. Get feedback. Adapt it to new information and fresh facts.

Take a hard look at the economics you've adopted in your work and your life. Does your spending pattern reflect a past that no longer exists? Are you paying for the vestigial remains of a way of life that has gone by the boards? With so much inexplicable change, why carry excess baggage? Why not use the chaos of the moment as a chance to lighten your load, challenge your spending habits, reexamine business as usual?

Then flip that coin on its head: where are the opportunities that you see that others may be too sea-sick to see? I've said it before: innovation is applied logic. What is the logic that's unfolding in front of you that represents a chance to grow, innovate, explore new territory, exploit a time of change?

It may be the end of the world as we know it . . . so the question is, what comes next?

Why not seize the moment to help create the new! Try it--and see if it makes you feel fine!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Art and Commerce

I was thinking about art and commerce today. And why one makes the world go around, and why the other makes our hearts go faster.

"The Gift," by Lewis Hyde is a brilliant exploration of art and commerce. He talks about the power of the gift culture and how giving something away always leads to increase; selling the same thing and pocketing the proceeds ends the growth in meaning of that work.

"Red," the brilliant Broadway play that chronicles Mark Rothko's artistic mission makes the same argument, in its own way. In the play Rothko seethes with anger at American culture that is all about "fine." How was your day? Fine. How do you like that painting? Fine. It isn't fine, Rothko fumes. I don't want it to be fine. I don't want you to like my picture. I WANT TO STOP YOUR HEART, he says.

These days we tell ourselves that business men and women can be artists. Sorta.

We create design language to apply to entrepreneurial start ups. Apple's products are perfect little works of art. There's a way to have the best of both worlds: BOBW. BOBW lives in the application of art to commerce.

Except it actually doesn't. It's a nice story. It just isn't true.

Commerce doesn't want to stop your heart. It doesn't bleed to death over its pain. It doesn't leave us amazed and enraptured by its performance.

Lewis Hyde's book is brilliant. "Red" is brilliant. Rothko was doomed, and brilliant.

I can't think of a single business person who could compare. They don't belong in the same category.

But I'd like to think that, for instance, the way to save journalism, the way to rescue American civil discourse, the way to fix the cognitive disconnect in the way our society functions is by calling out the passion of a Rothko, the synthetic thinking of a Lewis Hyde.

What if reading a newspaper or a magazine made you stop in wonder the way seeing "Red" does?

What if journalists and editors didn't want to be the same as each other. What if just one of them wanted to STOP YOUR HEART?

I'd read that magazine or newspaper. Or watch that TV program. Or hang on to that web site.

So maybe art and commerce aren't ever going to find some happy medium.

But here's hoping the desperate love that suffuses art can somehow find its way into more of our commerce. And more of our daily lives.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It's official!

Powerpoint is dangerous to our national security!

That wasn't quite the headline in the New York Times yesterday.

But it could have been.

The front page story detailed what a bad joke Powerpoint presentations have become in the Pentagon. Long, complicated Powerpoint slide briefings end up obscuring military strategy, rather than identifying best possible strategic choices.

The Time is only, oh, 15 years late on this story.

That's how long ago we banned Powerpoint from all Fast Company conferences, when Bill Taylor and I ran the magazine.

It was a time of great live events.

One of our rules of thumb (pardon the self-reference) was absolutely no Powerpoint presentations.

Not because they were bad for national security.

But because they were bad for lively discourse!

The habit we've all observed: a speaker produces his/her Powerpoint deck; sends them ahead to the conference organizer; the conference organizer puts the deck in the conference materials for distribution to the audience; the speaker then puts up his/her slides on the screen and reads them out loud to the audience, which already has the slides in their binders!

Off-the-shelf presentations delivered to an audience that's already read them!

Boring!

But now the Pentagon has found out that Powerpoint is a national security problem.

The same finding showed up in one of the many books on the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in the Bush years. Back then the Pentagon was already complaining that the Powerpoint briefings obscured any thinking that might be going on, preparing for the invasion.

In that case, of course, it turns out there wasn't any thinking going on.

And Powerpoint was the camouflage that enabled it to slide by the military brass.

But with the Times article yesterday, it's time to put Powerpoint on the shelf.

It's a non-communication device. A weapon of mass obfuscation.

We should unilaterally disarm!

Lay down your Powerpoint! Step away from the slide deck! Keep your hands in sight!

Now try communicating, not hiding behind Powerpoint!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Losing Track of Yourself

What happens when a company, an organization, maybe even a country loses track of itself?

What happens when it was started for one reason, with one set of values and one purpose in mind--and then finds itself veering wildly off course?

Yesterday's headlines were filled with two such examples.

The first wasn't Goldman Sachs (it was, to be fair, the second).

The first was, oddly enough, Craigslist.

I remember sitting on stage with Craig Newmark, almost 5 years ago, and interviewing him about the original intent of the phenomenon he started. I'm sure it was a question he'd been asked many times. Still, I found his answer compelling.

Craigslist was intended to give everybody the same chance, he said. If you needed a job, needed an apartment, wanted to get people interested in something you were doing or offering, Craigslist was designed to democratize opportunity. No more special advantages for people with inside information. Craigslist was for every one.

That was then. This is now.

Now, according to a well-researched piece in the NY Times, Craigslist has become one of the main vehicles for prostitution. And this isn't a cute web-based version of "Pretty Woman." According to the newspaper article, one of New York's major crime families has been offering the services of underage girls. This is not pretty woman--it's not even pretty girl. It's plain flat-out ugly.

Now, nobody suggests that Craigslist is breaking the law.

But what the site is allowing to happen is wrong. And it has absolutely nothing with the original intent that Craig Newmark expressed as the fundamental purpose of the list that bears his name.

Something here is wrong. In more ways than one.

And then there is the Goldman Sachs example.

A storied firm which has often been held up as what a service firm ought to be, a client-focused operation which historically has had only the highest sense of purpose, Goldman is now the poster child for self-enrichment, self-advancement, and self-interest.

In a narrow 3-2 vote, the SEC is bringing charges against Goldman.

But much as is the case with Craiglist, it may be the case that, legally, Goldman is operating on the edge of the law.

But on the edge of the law isn't where Goldman started. It isn't how it earned its reputation. And it isn't what the original intent of the company was.

Something has gotten lost.

Some sense of purpose and mission, values and original intent has come unmoored.

It is part of a Great Disconnect that afflicts much of American business.

We have important companies that have lost track of themselves.

We have cool new startups that have veered from their original purpose.

My friend Jim Collins recently called to mind a quote from John W. Gardner, who, among other things, founded Common Cause.

The quote says: "Freedom and responsibility. Liberty and Duty. That's the deal."

Too many of our business "leaders" want freedom and no responsibility. Freedom to make as much money as possible. Freedom to do business in a way that confers the greatest rewards for them, the greatest power for their firm, the greatest growth for their operation, the greatest reach for their egos.

And they want liberty--liberty to do as they please. Liberty to take liberties.

But responsibility and duty?

They seem like ancient words from another time, another place.

That's the Great Disconnect.

We need to put what Gardner called "the deal" back together.

We need a New Old Deal.

Without it, everything we are, everything we could be is at risk.

That's what happens when you lose track of yourself.

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