Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thinking the Unthinkable

It may be the hardest thing in the world to make yourself do.
It may also be the one thing that saves your project, rescues your company, lifts your career, changes the trajectory of your community.
Try thinking the unthinkable.
What if?
What if the web were to completely undermine your industry's business model?
What if a massive natural disaster were to level your city?
What if a foreign competitor were suddenly to obsolete your product line?
What if your company were acquired and your job became redundant?
What's the most unthinkable thing you can force yourself to consider? Now go beyond that one thing to something more unthinkable.
Can't think of anything?
That's what books are for.
Pick up Seth Godin's "Linchpin." Take notes.
Read Dan Pink's "Drive." Do his exercises.
Get out of your comfort zone. Volunteer at a food bank, a homeless shelter, a hospice.
What we don't let ourselves think is the one thing that can cause a catastrophe. So make yourself think the unthinkable.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mindset, Game, & Match

If you look up the word "mindset" in the dictionary, here's what you get: "a fixed mental attitude or disposition that predetermines a person's responses to and interpretations of situations" and "habits of mind formed by previous experience."
I looked it up for two reasons.
First, because Jared Diamond's explanation for how societies collapse includes a healthy does of "mindset myopia." Societies vanish because their mindsets preclude them from seeing reality as it is.
Second, because I just got back from Detroit, where I saw mindset myopia first hand, up close and personal.
It's hard to imagine a high-ranking official of what they still call "The Big 3" in Detroit standing up in front of a crowd of intelligent, well-informed business people and telling them with a straight face that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, that the worst is behind us, and that the economy--and the auto industry--will all go back to the way things were before the Great Recession. It's hard to imagine such an executive making fun of sustainable energy, mocking it really, as a false direction to pursue. It's hard to image such an executive suggesting that the U.S. auto industry is poised for a great year, a big rebound, a return to the glory days.
But that's what I heard with my own ears.
Now I didn't do a survey of the people in the audience. But if any of them were buying what he was selling, well, I would consider that prima facie evidence of mindset myopia.
You can't make people see what they assiduously want to avoid. You can't make them see what their mindsets rule out as possible.
The story is told that when the first Black Ships approached Japan, the Japanese announced that dragons were off shore. Their mindsets allowed for the existence of dragons, but not of Black Ships.
Michigan has many great strengths, although at the moment its economy is in dire distress.
For 30 years, it's ridden the ups and downs of the auto industry, its suppliers hanging on for dear life, like a friend or lover who's got a drunk in the family. The old saying goes, the drunk clutches the bottle, and the friend clutches the drunk.
A little more than 30 years ago the US Department of Justice was seriously thinking about an anti-trust suit to break up GM, carve off Chevy, because GM had too much market share.
Globalization took care of that problem, with GM as an incompetent accomplice.
But you'd think that after the last 30 years, the Big 3 and the suppliers and the people of Michigan would have had enough of the roller-coaster ride.
That everyone would realize that it's time to take the state's considerable strengths, and the supplier base's great talent pool, and even the auto maker's remaining capabilities, and look at the world with fresh eyes.
To become entrepreneurs. To compete on talent, creativity, innovation, and imagination.
To use the opportunity afforded by near collapse to avert total collapse.
To face the brutal facts of life, as Jim Collins says, and to construct a new mindset.
Otherwise, it's game, set, match.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Munger to Friedman to Diamond!

When it rains it pours.
Yesterday I read Charlie Munger's parable about "Basicland"--called depressingly enough, "Basically, It's Over." Here's the gist of it: America has squandered its birthright, walked away from its core values of hard work, thrift, and pay-as-you go, and embraced casino capitalism. Now the game is over; we've crapped out.
Today it was Tom Friedman's turn: "The Fat Lady Has Sung." Friedman isn't quite sure who to blame. Maybe it's the Boomers for eating the nation's seed corn; or Obama for not presenting a coherently integrated set of policies to rebuild America; or the Republicans for not having anything they're for. But he's pretty sure, like Charlie, that the game is over, and we lost.
Which takes me back to Jared Diamond's book "Collapse." Today I got to the end, where Diamond asks, in effect, how could all these societies have gone so wrong? How did they end up as historical footnotes, each an Ozymandias of its own?
He offers 4 explanations:
1. The fail because they don't anticipate a problem before it arrives--they either don't recognize it or, even though they've seen it before, they've forgotten what it looks like.
2. They fail because they don't perceive the problem, even after it arrives--the leaders are too far from the field to see the evidence, or they suffer from "landscape amnesia"--they don't recognize the slow pace of change that leads to disaster.
3. They fail because they don't attempt to solve the problem--either because a group of people are unwilling to change, because the status quo still serves their needs; or because of the "tragedy of the commons" leads all people to continue with the status quo behavior, unwilling to be left out of their share of the (admittedly self-destructive) use of the resources; or the power elite simply continues to rule badly over the masses; or they continue to cling to values and behaviors that no longer work, but that have defined them for years; or because group think and denial keep them from embracing change.
4. They fail because, by the time they might try to do something, it's too little too late, or too expensive, or simply beyond their capacity to solve the problem.
Of Diamond's list, I find myself drawn to Point #3: why do people fail to act, even after they see the problem?
My own view is that we're all captives of the models in our heads; of how we've done things in the past; of the values and behaviors that "got us this far." In the face of criticism from the Munger's and Friedman's of the world, we tend to resort to group think and denial. "They can't be right, we've always gotten through in the past using this approach, nothing's really different this time."
But the hard truth is, America is still an experiment.
That's the way the Founding Fathers felt about; it's a Republic--if we can keep it.
I'm with Munger and Friedman on this one: it's up to us to see the problem, look the brutal facts of life in the eye, and change our behavior--and question values that we've either adopted in place of our original ones or that no longer work in an economy that's global--and get back to work.
The other option is to turn into a chapter in Diamond's book, joining the Mayans, the Easter Islanders, and a litany of societies that disappeared, clinging to their habits and behaviors, all the way to oblivion.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Diamond In The Rough

I was reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" when I came to this: "Perhaps a crux of success or failure as a society is to know which core values to hold on to, and which ones to discard and replace with new values, when times change."
Now Diamond's book deals with ecological disaster; but I was thinking about business. In fact, when I started Diamond's book, my mind was also on Jim Collins--on both "Good to Great," and "How the Mighty Fall."
And with good reason.
Ecological collapse--or the ability to avoid it--and the fall or rise of companies and whole industries have much in common.
The place where it comes most into focus is right at the heart of the matter: what Collins calls the need to "face the brutal facts of life." The most brutal fact of life of all, for a company or a culture, is that its core beliefs no longer fit the circumstances.
Think about the auto industry. Think about the newspaper industry. Or airlines. Take your pick.
Their problem in every case wasn't that they didn't see it coming. Clay Shirky argues convincingly that the newspaper industry saw the web coming for more than a decade. They just failed to look the brutal facts of life in the eye; they refused to think the unthinkable. They refused to question their own most deeply held beliefs about the way the world worked--or the way they wanted the world to work.
The great fear in America today is that we're guilty of this right now, right here, when it comes to a host of systemic problems, from a lack of a sustainable energy policy to an untenable national educational performance to a malfunctioning health care system. To a political system that is all about the game, with little regard to the actual outcomes.
If we can't, as a culture, look the brutal facts of life in the eye, if we're unwilling to discard and replace values that no longer work, our collapse will be more than ecological, and our companies' collapses will be incidental.
Then we'll all be in the rough.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Which Side Am I On?

I hate it when I disagree with myself.
After all, I'm an editor, a writer, a speaker, a mini-pundit. I'm supposed to know what I think.
And then along comes the finding of the Justice Department on the conduct of Jay Bybee and John Yoo whose legal opinions in the Bush years provided legal grounds for torturing prisoners held by the United States. The ethics lawyers in the Office of Professional Responsibility had found that the two men were guilty of "professional misconduct."
That finding was rejected by David Margolis, who issued the final report. He said the two men, while "flawed" did not represent professional misconduct, because, he said, they were working in a time after the attack of 9/11 when the entire context of the law was based on a sense of national urgency and fraught with the passions of the moment.
In effect, he said, while their work may have been done poorly, and may even have been wrong, you have to cut them some slake: it was a difficult time in America.
Now here's where I start to argue with myself.
I have a rule that addresses this very subject: Rule #32. Rule #32 says, "Content isn't king. Context is king."
I am a great believer in context. Context provides the meaning that elevates general information, random observation, facts--but only facts--to the level of significance. Context is how we make sense of the world.
So I agree with Mr. Margolis.
On the other hand, if I buy Mr. Margolis's argument, he's basically saying that it's ok to screw up on things like torture, basic matters of human rights, as long as the times are so urgent that you feel compelled to do it. The problem here, of course, is that the only time these kinds of legal opinions matter is when times are urgent, when civil liberties are on the line. So I disagree with Mr. Margolis: context matters, but in this case the context that matters is that urgent times demand--no require--absolutely scrupulous application of justice. Not convenient legal opinions that cater to the mood of the moment, but virtuous legal opinions that may, in fact, buck the mood of the moment in the larger interest of justice.
So which interpretation of context is the right one?
Does context permit faulty work in the name of urgency?
Or does context require an even higher standard of justice, precisely because so much is at stake?
Now that I think about it, I know what I think; what do you think? You be the judge.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Robert B. Parker, RIP

These days when people ask me what my job title is I tell them "Global Detective."
There's a long explanation that involves a South African artist and his Black Box. But the short explanation is I love detection, hard-boiled private eyes, Continental Ops, Sherlock Holmes, Lew Archer.
So today when I was at the San Diego airport waiting to catch a flight to San Francisco and "Rough Weather," a Spenser novel caught my eye, I let it seduce me. I cracked it open while I was waiting to board, read it on the plane, and finished it on the BART ride into town. It was perfect.
A lot's been written over the years about detective fiction, especially the kind that Parker wrote. The writing style. Short sentences. Snappy repartee. Catchy characters with style--and sometimes damaged goods. And plots that are complicated enough to be interesting but not so bizarre as to be improbable. It's detective fiction not science fiction.
People have written about the moral universe, the code that Spenser-like gumshoes live by. That's part of it too.
But what I think I like is that Parker's universe makes sense. The pieces fit together--or they do by the end of the story, when Spenser has put them back together after they got broken.
It's a world--let's call it "Boston"--where good doesn't always triumph over evil. Good even has to learn to co-exist with evil. Sometimes good catches evil, listens to its story and let's it go.
But it's a world where, with Spenser's help, you can decode how it's supposed to work.
And these days, that's a pretty good day's work.
That, a cold beer, a good dog, a beautiful Jewish psychologist, a black wingman who's got your back.
What more do you need when the rest of the world is filled with VUCA--volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.
By the end of a Spenser novel you've got MOWS: meaning, order, wit, and sense.
Robert Parker died a short while ago.
"Goodnight sweet prince." It was good while it lasted.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When You're Inside the Bottle, It's Hard to Read the Label

I love the New York Times, I really do.
But sometimes I wonder if the people who do the writing ever pause long enough to read what they write. Two examples from today's paper almost gave me journalistic whip lash.
Case in point #1: Adam Nagourney's front page piece on Senator Evan Bayh's decision not to run for re-election.
Now why did Senator Bayh decide to step down? Because the political climate in Washington, DC is poisonous, ruined by rampant, unthinking partisanship.
And what was Adam Nagourney's take on the decision? "Mr. Bayh's decision staggered Democrats." All he could think about what what the decision meant to, you guessed it, the hyper-partisan world of Democrats and Republicans.
Full disclosure: I'm sensitive to this because, after the Massachusetts Senate race sent Mr. Brown to Washington, I teased one of my Boston friends about the election: How could they have "gone Republican"? His answer: Only outsiders thought of that election as Democrats versus Republicans. People in Massachusetts thought of it as a way to register their growing anger with the whole scene in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans.
But rather than explore that angle, Nagourney simply echoed in his story the reason Bayh was bailing out in the first place. Too much partisanship, and here's how the partisanship problem gets worse. It's like a journalistic echo chamber.
But the one that really takes the cake is the reporting on Fashion Week in New York.
We start with a really thoughtful column by Guy Trebay on Coca Rocha, writing about the truly mentally ill part of the fashion world that forces young women and girls into sick eating behavior. Sick as in life-threatening eating disorders. But Coco Rocha is the exception; she actually has a body and she's a grown up who refuses to do what the industry demands.
The column ends with her very pointed quote about the very young women who are modeling now. Writes Trebay: "And the latest crop of models is not made up of 'adults or even sort-of adults,' she insisted. 'They are children. Point closed.'"
So the problem is the way the industry exploits too young, too thin, very vulnerable girls.
Like the one whose picture is right across from the Trebay column. A very young, very thin, very vulnerable looking model. Point closed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Got Hugs?

When was the last time you went into a retailer and the owner gave you a hug?
I got one on Saturday. Again.
I went into the very chic San Francisco clothier Wilkes Bashford to see what changes a new owner would make in a store that has a very exalted reputation--and prices to match.
Only this time, there was a huge store-wide sale on, and the new owner, Jack Mitchell was walking the floor, a traditional measuring tape draped around his neck.
I got an introduction. Then I got a hug. Then I got an autographed copy of one of Jack's books in his "hugging" series. This one is called "Hug Your Customer."
The idea is simple. If you want to make and keep a customer (Peter Drucker's definition of the purpose of every business) you need to build a personal relationship based on hugs, or very close touches. You need to know the customer's family, his dog's name, his golf handicap. You need to extend every possible courtesy: Make your office, your cell phone, your computer available if the customer needs some help. Make introductions, enable business relations--do what ever it takes to hug the customer in a physical touch that shows you know him and appreciate his business.
I came away impressed with Jack. And even more impressed when I walked back into the store a day or two later--and got another hug.
So here's the question: Do you hug your customers? Do you show them that they matter to you as more than just a transaction?
And when it comes time for you to shop, do you patronize stores where you get hugged? Do you reward a salesman who gives you the kind of attention that Jack does? Do you punish those who don't?
I'm not a big hugger--I told Jack as much when we first met.
But I am a fan of a retailer with a philosophy and a set of practices that back up that philosophy. (What Jack does with computers to build a back-office data base to make it easier to hug each customer is the practical, disciplined approach to doing business that makes each hug possible.)
It's worth picking up Jack's book.
And it's even better to pick up his idea: Put a little fun in your business--try hugging.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Parable on Why Change Is So Hard

I was in Germany at a conference hosted by Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen family of companies when I heard this story. To me it epitomizes why change is so hard, and why the only real way to make hard change happen is to drive up the cost of the status quo. Here's the story.
In Yunus' Bangladesh the groundwater is laced with poison--arsenic, if I remember correctly.
The poor people of Bangladesh have no choice and so they drink the poisoned groundwater. Little by little it takes its toll on their health.
To remedy this insidious problem Yunus has partnered with a French company that bottles water. The partnership is another one of Yunus' social businesses--a hybrid of a social cause remedied by a company that has a sustainable business model. The water isn't free, but it is inexpensive, and the income generated from selling the water goes back into the business to produce more healthy water for the people of Bangladesh.
Now here's the tricky part.
The poor people of Bangladesh would rather drink the poisoned water that's free than pay for the bottled water that's healthy.
The logic must go something like this: I'm thirsty now. This water is free. It may kill me, but it won't kill me today. And maybe it won't kill me after all. This other water isn't poisoned, but it costs money. Water should be free. Why should I have to buy it? I think I'll drink the free, poisoned water, take my chances, and keep my money for other things where there is no free option.
So here's the question: How do you make or convince or inspire or provide incentives so that people make the right choice, even though it's more expensive in the short term?
How do you do that with water in Bangladesh? Or with energy in the United States? Or health care in the United States, or education or any other serious problem where the economics may appear favorable to make bad decisions in the short term, but cannot be healthy or sustainable in the long run?
One answer has to be to drive up the cost of the status quo.
There has to be a way to make what appears to be "free" take on the actual cost--the long-term cost. There has to be a way to add in social costs, environmental costs, human costs to choices that are simply bad choices.
There has to be a way to dramatize the real negative outcomes these choices lead to. There has to be a way to educate people so they can see what the future looks like, if they continue to take the easy path in the present.
There has to be a way to showcase the options that exist if people will only see the alternatives as they really are.
But until we find those ways, change will be hard, and people in Bangladesh will continue to drink poisoned ground water. Because, after all, it's free.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bill Gates Is Wrong--As Usual

I wasn't there at TED--full disclosure, I'm a TED dropout.
So I didn't actually hear Bill Gates' talk on climate change and energy.
All I did was read the report of the speech as described on the web. Gates was quoted as saying, "We need energy miracles."
Bill Gates is flat out wrong. (Again. I have a tendency to see Mr. Gates as getting things wrong, starting with much about Microsoft and including his apparent theory of how to create social change. But that's not today's topic.)
The fact is, we don't need energy miracles and calling for miracles gives the wrong impression about how to go about solving our serious energy policy dilemma.
Yes we do need to make big changes in our national energy policy.
But what we need to do is far from miraculous. (Calling for miracles may play to a TED audience that wants to believe in miracles or hyperbole. But that's not today's topic either.)
Start with energy conservation. Jimmy Carter tried to get us headed in that direction more than 30 years ago. He was right then, and the policy is right today. Retrofit old buildings, offer tax credits for energy conserving investments, start installing simple switches and existing thermostats and watch the nation's energy use start to go down.
Then actually invest in mass transit, and not in highway construction. If you want to change our policy of importing oil from our adversaries, then do something about it: instead of sending more money to build more highways, send money to reinforce transit. Build light rail lines; require cities to introduce higher density zoning; where ever and when ever possible favor transit over the car.
Offer tax credits for wind and solar investments. And look for smart, small, innovative energy entrepreneurs who need support to bring their technologies to market.
Take my friend Eddie Sturman, for example. (Go to his web site, to find out more) Eddie's mastery of energy and technology earned him high honors from NASA for what he did to help America's space program. Now he has existing technology that will produce huge efficiencies for every type of engine that runs today, from engines that power autos to engines that produce heat and electricity.
But when Eddie applied for federal support to help commercialize his technology, he was stonewalled--the money went to the big automakers. It was more of a jobs expenditure than an alternative energy one.
So there you go, Bill: You want a miracle? I give you Eddie Sturman.
Other than that, the way to a smart, rational, future-focused energy policy is the same way we've known for at least 30 years. Simple, efficient steps that save energy and shift our reliance from non-renewable to renewable fuels. It's not a miracle. It's common sense.

Friday, February 12, 2010

It's Good to Be Bad Again

I was really happy a number of years ago when "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap got his. If you don't remember Chainsaw Al, he was one of the CEOs who was popular in the "it pays to be bad" era. Back in the day when Fortune magazine regularly lionized the 10 toughest bosses in America. Chainsaw Al was one of those who believed in ripping up a company, wiping out careers, and destroying communities, to make the stock market happy. It made him a lot of money, until one day it didn't and then everybody agreed that Chainsaw Al had been a pretty bad guy.
Now the New York Times brings us George Cloutier, author of "Profits Aren't Everything, They're the Only Thing." For some reason the Times wants us to know that Tablesaw George (he was in the small business section of the Times) thinks that "fear is the best motivator." He's proud of the fact that an employee who worked for him for 10 years wrote that "If I fell dead at my desk, George wouldn't notice for two days."
Now I don't know George. I've never met George.
But I wouldn't want to work for George. And I wouldn't advise anyone I know to work for George.
Why not?
Because George is wrong. He's wrong about what matters in business. He's wrong about how to treat people. He's wrong about what builds a successful organization and he's even wrong about what it takes to get the best results in business. He's wrong about just about everything that comes out of his mouth.
He is the perfect negative example of everything I wrote about in Rules of Thumb. The subtitle of his book ought to be, "How to Win at Business While Guaranteeing that You Lose Your Self--and Go Through at Least Three Wives."
Why is this guy featured in the New York Times?
Is it good to be bad again? Is cynicism the new idealism?
Your guess is as good as mine.
But I can tell you this.
Not only would I not work for a jerk, but when a jerk advises things like George does, I can promise you, it won't work.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Purpose Perplex

I was talking on the phone yesterday with my old friend and Fast Company co-conspirator Bill Taylor and the conversation got around to the quality of the public conversation, as conversations these days often do.
We both had the same reaction to much of what we see and hear: It's either way too serious for its own good or way too frivolous for our own good. The stuff that used to be in the middle--serious enough to be taken seriously, not so serious as to put you to sleep--somehow that comfortable middle ground that I always thought of as informed, friendly, lively, intelligent, humorous around-the-coffee-pot conversation has largely disappeared from the American discourse.
Magazines and commentators that try to raise the bar on the public conversation are painfully hard to read or watch. They sound like they are mired in an old-school British debating club. You know you should watch and listen. You know it's a mark of yourself as a serious person that you subscribe, read, watch, pay attention. But somehow, the whole "should" thing is a turn off.
It reminds me of the critique of the Harvard Business Review when I worked there. Ted Levitt famously remarked that HBR was "written by people who can't write for people who don't read." It wanted so desperately to be a "journal"--meaning carrying academic credentials--that it turned into a publication that decorated credenzas: people subscribed to show other people that they subscribed.
Try as you might, it's just too hard to plow through tedious arguments intoned with a solemnity more befitting a religious ceremony. You know you "should," but you just can't.
So you flip the channel and there's a stupid sit-com or a faux political debate with partisans yelling insults at the other side. You can watch a hopelessly inept reality TV show, or read a less-demanding news magazine that gives you little capsule summaries of the events of the week in review.
What we need is that missing middle. Purpose without pedantry. Fun without fatuousness. That missing something in the middle.
What Bill and I both want is something that sounds like your smart best friend sharing ideas with you. A conversation about things that matter. Not an essay. Not a blog. A useful, purposeful conversation that touches on people, ideas, developments, trends that are important to our times. A discussion that is fun and lively.
You know: something like Fast Company in the old days!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Live for yourself, because tomorrow never comes! It's always today!"

When I was a kid growing up in St. Louis, there was one channel on the radio my friends and I always listened to. Naturally it was one of the city's black stations, an R&B station that had the best tunes and the hippest DJs. My favorite would always sign off at the end of his show with his trademark saying, "Live for yourself, because tomorrow never comes, it's always today."
We can debate the "live for yourself" part, but I was thinking about the "it's always today" part yesterday, after having a long and thoughtful lunch-conversation with my old and dear friend Juanita Brown.
Almost exactly 15 years ago, Juanita invited about 24 people to her living room for a conversation about, well, conversation. The idea was that we were headed toward a knowledge economy, an economy of ideas and information. The question was, how would knowledge and information, conversation and dialog turn into a useful tool for companies and communities to effect meaningful, positive, powerful change?
It was a rainy day, so instead of meeting outside on the deck in a circle, Juanita and her partner, David, got out a bunch of fold-up tables for us to sit at. A graphic note-taker suggested putting "table-cloths" on them--butcher paper. Juanita put a flower on each table. The note-taker put crayons out for each table. It was all spontaneous.
Each table talked about the questions that were, literally, on the table, scribbled and made notes. After 20 minutes, one person stayed behind at each table, the three others fanned out to sit at other tables.
After a couple of hours, Juanita collected the "table-cloths" spread them out on the floor, and put another large piece of butcher paper in the middle: What were the common themes from the smaller pieces of paper? What were the ideas that had surfaced and how did they tie together?
There was no planning, no agenda, no prescribed outcome.
But in that moment of creativity, the World Cafe movement was born.
Then Juanita and David and their friends wrote a book on how to have your own World Cafe.
It got translated into about a dozen languages. The idea grew that you could have process innovation to generate social innovation. It spread all over the world.
January 30 was the 15th birthday of The World Cafe--an unplanned birth, you might say.
So here's the question: What's the innovation you could create today--if you stopped planning it?
15 years from now, you might be celebrating another birthday--of your idea.
So go for yourself! Tomorrow never comes, it's always today!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

To Change the Future, Change the Conversation

It's too soon to know how it will work out, but you've got to admire President Obama's williingness to change the conversation. His willingness to go talk face-to-face and on TV with the Republican caucus, with the Democratic caucus, with both caucuses at the same time--to put his ideas out there and let the people watch and judge for themselves--may or may not "work." That is, there's no way of predicting how it will turn out.
But it's safe to recognize that doing more of the same isn't working, won't work, and can't work.
The whole political process is constipated. Each side is locked in its own predictable role. The media covers every political conversation as a pre-scripted exchange. The victory by Brown in Massachusetts is heralded as a "Republican" win--but friends of mine in the Bay State say that's very narrow thinking. They say it had more to do with voter anger at big money, big bail outs, big interests getting taken care of by the politicians in Our Nation's Capitol, and not a partisan vote.
Still, the "narrative" as Jon Stewart remarked to Bill O on his show, has already been laid out. The parts have been assigned and the lines already written.
So why not do what the President is doing: demonstrate your willingness to change the game, to re-frame the narrative, to re-write the script, to change the conversation.
The pundits in our nation's newspapers have been signaling the need for America to find a new basis for solving problems. We can't have one recalcitrant, narcissistic senator putting a wide-spread hold on the nation's business! We can't have rules in the Senate that grind the public's business to a halt! We can't continue to neglect jobs creation, infrastructure investment, public education reform--not and hope to have a sustainable future!
The pundits who say those things aren't wrong--they're just giving us the same old same old.
They need to change the conversation--they need to insist on a regular spot on the front pages of their papers to elevate the urgency of the moment.
Or begin a YouTube series with pundits joining together to produce an "urgent video series."
Or do what President Obama is doing: challenge those who are supposed to be in power to a straightforward discussion of the issues--and put it on TV. How about a "pundits versus the powerbrokers" as a regular once-a-week TV program--replacing some of the tired, worn out shows that are stuck in the same old same old?
If we really want to change the future, we need to change the conversation.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight

In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. All of it. The problem is the same thing that's always the problem: the future is hiding in plain sight.
Everybody knew that an obscure Republican state legislator couldn't get elected from Massachusetts to the U.S. Senate--not to Ted Kennedy's old seat.
Everybody knew that Toyota is synonymous with quality--there's now way Toyota would need to make a massive recall.
Everybody knew that the Peyton Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play football--if not the greatest. No way the Colts don't win the Super Bowl.
(Add your own "everybody knows" here.)
But that's not the way it works. The Bay State voters were feeling rambunctious about the economy, Martha Coakley ran a bad campaign, and the future is hiding in plain sight.
Toyota rushes to overtake GM as the world's largest car company, and when a mistake gets into its assembly line process, its efficiency works against it instead of for it, and 8 million cars later, the future is hiding in plain sight.
And the Super Bowl? Who dat!
Maybe it's just human nature: we write the narrative we expect to see, and having written it, no longer expect to see it but begin to believe that it's the only possible narrative.
Or maybe we just don't want to think about the unthinkable. Focus on what you can imagine and all those other things won't happen, can't happen.
But every company needs one; every startup requires one; every political office should have one; every newspaper and blog ought to go get one right away: someone whose job it is to think the unthinkable, to ask the "what if?" question, to play the role of the in-house skeptic. Because that thing that's hiding in plain sight? There's a name for it: we call it "reality."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Got Art?

I opened up my copy of the New York Times yesterday, and there was the Arts section!
What was remarkable about that? Well, if the NYT were America's public schools, there wouldn't be an Arts section--it would have been eliminated long ago because of budget constraints. But there it was, a whole separate section, devoted just to the arts. Remarkable!
A cynic would say that it's still there because there's advertising to support it. But the Times has eliminated a whole variety of offerings, even those where there's arguably advertising support. So something else is going on here.
That something else is the essential quality of art to our lives.
Take a look around whatever room you're sitting in right now. What do you see? Any paintings, photographs, pieces of pottery, prints? How about a CD collection or DVDs? Now imagine your room with all those artistic expressions removed--and what are you left with? Pretty bland, pretty boring, pretty empty. If Jung was right, and the house is a symbol for ourselves, there's a reason why we bring art into our homes. It makes all the difference in the world. It turns a house into a home, it turns an existence into a life.
So put a little life into your life: get art!
And for a chance to be part of a "slow art day" go to:

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Rule #53: It's never the thing itself.

At the end of a meal at a Chinese restaurant, along with the check they present you with a fortune cookie. But it's not the cookie you're interested in--it's the little slip of paper inside. It's not the cookie, it's the fortune. But if they just presented you a slip of paper minus the cookie, that wouldn't work either. You need the cookie wrapped around the fortune so you can pretend that you're eating a cookie for dessert, when what you're really doing is reading a fortune for dessert.
In the world of script writing, they have a term for "the thing itself." They call it writing "on the nose." It's when you have your character announce to the audience exactly what he or she is feeling--the actual thing itself--rather than wrapping the feeling in a piece of behavior that enacts what's really going on inside. It's delivering the cookie, without the fortune.
This line of thinking comes up because this morning I was talking with the always-insightful Betsy Burroughs about the world of social entrepreneurship--and why even the term "social entrepreneurship" is so often a big turn-off. The problem is, it's all cookie, not fortune. It's so on the nose, it makes most people want to thumb their nose.
But what's at the heart of social entrepreneurship--the fortune in the middle--is the promise of a way of shaping the future. It's the opportunity for really smart, creative people to combine their entrepreneurial business skills, their technological smarts, their buiness model creativity with something that matters, something that's bigger than just making more money. It's money, but it's money plus meaning.
That's the excitement that's hidden inside the boring terminology of "social entrepreneurship."
It's a lesson I learned back in the early days of Fast Company magazine: the dirty little secret about Fast Company was, it wasn't a business magazine. Not really. Not in the old fashioned way. The business magazine part was the cookie, the delivery mechanism that made the real product legitimate. The real product? That was a new conversation about the future, about how individuals could make a difference by tapping into the best business has to offer.
The truth is, it's never the thing itself. It's always what's tucked inside.
So ask yourself: What is it that's tucked inside your business? What's the fortune around which you've wrapped your cookie?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Finding Your Voice

Here's a thought about a candidate for Rule #53: If you want to find your own voice, it helps if you start singing! Take my friend Todd Sattersten, for example. ( Brilliant guy. Incredible synthetic mind. Great capacity to read and understand and then re-contextualize all kinds of business ideas. But up until recently he's been working as a voice coach (it's a metaphor--he's been an editor and promoter of other people's writing) and not as a singer of his own material. Then this week, he releases a unique e-book, his own reflections on margins, prices, value, business models. It goes viral. He gets tons of feedback. Hears from people all over the web. A star is born!
What's the lesson? Sing your own song. (Yes, it's right and good and worthy to be generous, no question. And to pay your dues by standing in the wings til you're ready.) But most of us are ready before we know we're ready. So start singing--or writing, dancing, designing, creating. Get your own ideas, words, images, creations out on stage. See what the world thinks. Then do it again.
If you want to find your own voice, you have to start singing--sooner or later.
Way to go, Todd!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Apologies to One and All . . .

. . . for my prolonged absence from my own blog! Nothing worse than an absentee landlord.
Now, where were we?
Since last we spoke, I've been kind of busy. An amazing trip to Germany to spend a couple of days with Muhammad Yunus and a full complement of Grameen-related enterprises--60 companies in all--eager to learn more about the concept of social business. (And then, not long ago, I got a sneak peak at Dr. Yunus' next book that goes deeply into his idea for social businesses). From there to India for a 3 week exploration of Southern India--my first trip to that amazing country. In 3 weeks you get to see both a little and a lot. I got to see some fascinating social enterprises, such as FabIndia, a brilliant company that produces great Indian clothing and supports the poor and talented villagers who are working to produce the material for the clothing. But I came home knowing that 3 weeks only scratches the surface of a country like India. I made it to New York for FrED--the maiden voyage of a creative conference on executive development and leadership for an era characterized by VUCA (tip of the hat to Bob Johansen): Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. Later, I was back in NYC for a series of meetings with old and dear and brilliant friends like Seth Godin (congrats on the new book, Linchpin--another sparkling contribution to creative thinking and individual purpose) and Steve Rosenbaum (pushing the frontiers of the web and video). Plus a dinner with Roger Black, who is always thinking new thoughts about design. Then out to San Francisco for meetings on the next FrED, a chance to tour Lick-Wilmerding, one of America's most amazing schools led by the charismatic Al Adams, and stimulating conversations with some of the Bay Areas most intriguing thinkers on strategy, design, and social change.
But my real mission: working on a business plan for the long-awaited social entrepreneurship project that has gone by various code names: Blue Letter and The Turnaround Society.
Stay tuned for more blogs--comments on the news, updates on Rules of Thumb (the Japanese version is about to make its premiere thanks to Ichi), and the very much work in progress!

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