Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Who's Kidding Who?

I was driving home this morning from picking up the morning paper at the coffee shop. At the corner to my street I stopped and waited while a young man jogged by. He was in his running outfit, T-shirt, shorts, favorite sneakers, dripping wet with sweat from the effort he was making and the pace he was setting. And he was pushing a high-tech stroller, with a young baby tucked inside.

I looked at the jogger. He was working hard, getting in his work out.

I looked at the face of the baby. He was getting jostled, bumped, knocked from side to side as his daddy took him for a jog--in the stroller.

Who are we kidding?

I'm sure that dad thought he was multi-tasking: He gets his work out in, the baby gets a nice ride in the stroller.

Doesn't match reality, unfortunately.

Dad gets his work out in; baby gets banged around while dad jogs.

It's the same with the myth of multi-tasking that goes on in most organizations, and in most of our work lives.

The temptation of technology is to try to do too much: talk on the phone, surf the web, answer email, sort through papers on the desk--all at the same time.

Can't be done--at least not well. Something's gotta give.

It applies to entrepreneurs and startups as well.

I remember years ago when Tina Brown was launching Talk magazine.

The idea was a magazine as a platform: Talk would have great journalism, the best articles would migrate into books, and the books would turn into adaptations for movies, and her investors, Harvey Weinstein chief among them, would have a multi-media platform with a virtuous circle: celebrity journalism, celebrity books, celebrity movies, and then the magazine covers the movies, and the merry-go-round spins again.

I also remember thinking: It's hard enough to launch a successful magazine! How can Tina possibly also launch books and movies?

The answer was, she couldn't. I don't think anyone could, not on that scale.

You can go for a jog. Or you can take the baby for a stroll.

You can't do both at the same time and do either one very well.

When it comes to all this multi-tasking, the question is, "Who's kidding who?"

I suspect we're all kidding ourselves.

All kidding aside, it won't work.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's a "Salient" Industry Today?

The business section of the NYT carried a report yesterday: Volvo was about to become a Chinese-owned company! Big shock or not a big shock? On a scale of 1-10, I'd say it barely rated a shrug.

After all, Jaguar is now part of the Indian Tata empire.

And the sale of IBM's computer business to China happened so long ago, nobody even remembers.

Not long ago autos and computers were considered "salient" industries. Salient because they represented so much more than just cars and computers. Cars were the touchstone of a nation's productive economy. If you had a thriving auto industry you also had rubber, steel, aluminum, glass. You had all of the components that made up a car--engines, batteries, even upholstered seats. A healthy auto industry was part and parcel of a healthy industrial economy. Which is why every nation that wanted to be globally competitive treated its "national champion" auto brand (or brands) as a salient industry.

When Japanese imports threatened Renault and Peugeot national champion brands in France, the French government stepped in. All of a sudden Japanese imports were stacked up on the docks at French ports. The explanation? More inspections were needed. All of a sudden the streets in front of dealership selling Japanese imports were being dug up, repaved, dug up and repaved again. The explanation? The streets needed repaving! It was only coincidence that they happened to be the streets where Japanese car dealerships were located.

Computers held the same elite status as the industry of the future. Computers were weapons in another form. It was imperative that the US dominate the race to the future; the US had to have the fastest super-computer, had to safeguard critical computer technology, had to guard against exporting computer technology that could fall into the wrong hands.

Computers and cars were salient industries because they were about more than computers and cars. They were about national security--national economic security (a term that seems to have disappeared from the national conversation lately--perhaps due for a serious comeback).

But today nobody cares who owns Volvo or Jaguar (or Hummer which was briefly set to be sold to the Chinese as well). Nobody cares if Lenovo makes IBM laptops.

So what is a salient industry today?

You could make a case for global finance--especially in light of the weapons of mass financial destruction unleashed on the world by Wall Street warriors. In this scenario the titans of Wall Street were playing the role of Brig. Gen Jack Ripper in "Dr. Strangelove." Financial bombs away!

But if finance is a salient industry, all the more reason for new and tight oversight of how it works, how it operates, what the rules are, what the regulations are.

You could also make a case for education--if we live in a knowledge economy, what is more salient than the educational performance of the people who live and work in this country? Here again we seem to be stuck in a bad movie--"Blackboard Jungle", perhaps.

Again if education is a salient industry, we need to muster a new national effort to fix the public schools, rethink "no child left behind," and take a systems approach to our failing national public education platform.

Money and schools. What else belongs on the list of salient industries? Renewable energy? I'd vote yes.

Other nominations? Let me know what you'd propose!

Monday, March 29, 2010

False Hustle Is Bad Customer Service

Years ago I interviewed the legendary Red Auerbach, the godfather of the Boston Celtics, about what made his team so remarkable.

One of the key things that stuck with me was the notion of "false hustle": Auerbach said the Celtics players didn't try to fool him by faking like they were hustling. They gave every game, every play their all, knowing that Red could tell the difference between the real thing and false hustle.

Today, thanks in part to the web and techno-marketing, thanks in part to lead generation software, thanks in part to the phony vocabulary of "customer delight", most of us get treated every day to false hustle from company after company. False hustle comes in the mail in the form of oh-so-concerned customer solicitation letters from our bank, our mobile phone carrier, our health insurance company. Thanks to data mining, they can fake it with the best of them; they can even send you a card on your birthday, while jacking up the rate on your credit card.

When I walk into my dry cleaner here in Santa Fe, Barbara calls me by my first name. She jokes with me about my car, and when I can put the top down. And she counts my shirts and promises to have them back by 5 the next day. When I get my morning paper and first cup of joe at the locally owned magazine stand/coffee shop, I get a personal greeting from the guy behind the counter. He gives me his best Jersey accent, and tells me a joke.

That's not false hustle. That's not even a hustle. That's a genuine customer interaction. That's how more and more of us need to pick our stores, our shops, our vendors.

It's not just about the convenience of the web, which all too often masks false hustle.

It's about giving it your best, every play of every game.

Don't reward false hustle, don't give it your business. Red Auerbach never would; why should you.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

We're Number 2!

The headline in last week's LA Times Business Section simply said: "China Takes Clean Energy Lead--U.S. falls to No. 2 in funding for such alternative sources as wind and solar."

Just another mid-week, easy to miss headline--unless you believe, as I do, that energy policy is one of the deciding clues for the future: who wins, who loses, who prospers, who falters. Energy is one of a few economic, political, and security cross-cuts: it touches every aspect of our lives, from producing goods, to transporting them, from economic and security independence to things as simple as the quality of every day life. So every update on renewable energy investments is a signal event.

What this article said was that a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that last year the United States invested $18.6 billion in "clean energy"; China invested $34.6 billion. Five years ago, the report said, China invested only $2.5 billion on clean energy.

Why is the U.S. faltering? Last year's economic meltdown certainly played a role in reduced U.S. efforts. But the Pew report pinpointed a more systemic problem: the United States has no national mandate that promotes investment in renewable energy nor is there a surcharge or tax on greenhouse emissions that would drive up the cost of our current unsustainable energy policy.

So without a carrot to promote new investment or a stick to punish old programs, we languish. We're stuck in an increasingly unsustainable past, without the will or drive or incentives to push ahead into the increasingly high-stakes future.

What are the stakes?

The same Pew report warns that the U.S. is "comparatively weak" when it comes to participating in the fast-approaching clean energy future. At risk: economic growth, jobs, technological leadership. Not to mention more control over our own future, our own security, our standing in the world.

Here's my take: Innovation is applied logic.

The logic here says we need to lead the world in developing and commercializing alternative, renewable, sustainable, clean energy.

To make that happen will require the cooperation of business, government, science, higher education, venture capital.

And that will require new thinking, new practices, new partnerships.

Maybe as we build a sustainable energy future, we'll build the organizational infrastructure to create a sustainable future.

That's what the applied logic says should happen.

Now we need to be organizational innovators to make it happen.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Temporary (Political) Insanity

One of our country's two major political parties has lost its mind.

To prove how angry it is at the other party, it is stopping all committee meetings promptly at 2 pm. This is the political equivalent of a two-year old holding its breath to show mom and dad how upset he is.

To prove that the other party passed a law it doesn't like, it is using all kinds of angry rhetoric and inciting its supporters to throw bricks at the windows of people in the other party, cut a gas line to a home, and make other ugly threats.

This is what we'd expect from a school-yard bully who was finally stared down on the playground, not the behavior of a major political party.

This party is trying to win votes by demonstrating that it has the emotional maturity of a small child. It wants the American people to vote for it, so it can stop holding its breath, so it can calm down and stop threatening to repeal legislation, so it can get back to doing the people's business. An odd bit of political logic there.

We've seen a major political part lose its mind before.

The Democrats did it around 1968, after the convention in Chicago went off the rails. The Democrats then created an elaborate reform effort that splintered the old guard and the new guard, and in 1972, to demonstrate the wisdom of this strategy, George McGovern carried, oh I think it was, 1 state.

The Democrats did it before that, unless I'm mistaken, when the Dixiecrats walked out of the party. This time it was over race, not the War in Vietnam. But the results were the same.

When a political party decides that it needs to act out in public, the public often decides it needs to opt out of that party.

That's the cure for temporary political insanity: losing elections.

Monday, March 22, 2010


No, not Steve.

I'm talking about the desperate need for jobs for young Americans.

Sitting in LA with my daughter, who's a second year student at architecture graduate school, the stories I heard about her friends and fellow students are only a tiny--and even privileged--microcosm of the jobs crisis that's afflicting a whole generation of young, talented and deeply frustrated Americans.

Young students who've completed a rigorous program of education in architecture and design, only to discover there are no jobs in their field.

They're deeply in debt, having borrowed to get their education, and now no one needs them for what they've gone to school.

When they send out job applications to work at retail, or on a loading dock, or anyplace to earn money to pay back their student loans, they get rejected . . . because they're overqualified.

I heard stories of young graduates taking off for foreign jobs and leaving behind families; stories of young graduates who can't pay their rent; stories of young graduates who are desperate for any kind of work--a dust bowl for white collar graduates with master's degrees.

Now that health care reform is about to become the law of the land, the next step is work--and not just any work, but work that puts this young and talented generation into jobs that will help them design, build, innovate, and grow an American economy that is also desperate: desperate for rejuvenation and revitalization. What these kids have to offer in the way of infrastructure redevelopment, green design, and innovative urban planning is exactly what America needs to put to work, if we're going to be competitive in the future.

Jobs? Yes, we can!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Separate And Unequal

Roughly 52 years ago, the Supreme Court (this was back when we had a Supreme Court, understand) ruled that separate is fundamentally unequal.

The subject at the time was education, public education, and the problem was that there were several million young black children, predominantly in the South at that time, who were going to segregated schools. Not because they wanted to; because they had to.

They were getting a vastly inferior education, if they got any education at all. They suffered from this treatment, their families suffered, and, if anyone stopped to think about it, the whole country suffered, as well. Suffered from a loss of moral authority, by virtue of turning its back on its own best values and highest principles, and suffered from a loss of economic opportunity, by squandering the human capital represented by millions and millions of young Americans.

It's 52 years later, and we have a segregated health care system. Segregated not by race, at least not officially; but segregated by wealth.

In America today, if you have a job and it happens to have benefits attached to it, you have health insurance. If you don't have a job, but you have money, you can buy health insurance--usually. Unless the private companies that get to decide who does and doesn't get health insurance rule you out of the system.

If you are poor or on the cusp of poverty, or if you're unemployed, or if your job is one of the millions that no longer offers health insurance as a benefit, well, then you're separate--and unequal.

Then if you get sick, you end up in the emergency room of your local public hospital. That's the most expensive and wasteful care there is. Back in 2001, one study said that it costs Americans about $35 billion to pay for the health care of those of us who are uninsured; another study said that the costs of health care that wasn't provided--and resulted in health problems--totaled between $65-130 billion. And that's just the monetary cost. As with education in America in the 1950s, there are social costs, there are moral costs, there are individual, family, and community costs. Most of the time, it's not about the money--it's about the social capital that we squander.

We have two health care systems, at least. One for the wealthy and the employed (never mind the fact that the attaching of health care benefits to jobs is an accident of history, an FDR concoction designed to allow some kind of improvement to workers' pay packages at a time when wages were frozen), and one for the poor and the unemployed.

They are separate and inherently unequal.

Put aside the insanity of allowing private, for-profit health insurance companies, which pay their CEOs outrageous salaries, in the tens of millions of dollars. (Which I wrote about when I asked what would it be like if Aetna owned the Grand Canyon?)

Think instead of a system in the richest nation on earth that has two side-by-side health care systems, separate and unequal, and pretends that a system like that is just fine. No need to change. It's working quite well, thank you, at least it is for the employed and the wealthy, kind of like the schools in the South in the 1950s.

What would you call a system like that?

Back in 1958, the Supreme Court called it unconstitutional. Citizens were being denied equal protection. Citizens were being denied equal opportunity. Citizens were being denied their inalienable rights.

Tell me: how is the health care debate any different?

How is separate and unequal good enough for 30 million Americans without health insurance?

How is it good for the rest of us, who do have it?

How is it good for the country?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Contentment vs. Complacency

I get contentment. Especially in today's world: "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." My friend Chip Conley nailed it at his TED talk this year when he talked about happiness deriving from being content with what you have, rather than always seeking more of what you don't have, can't have, don't really want, don't really need.

What I don't get is complacency.

I was just in Detroit giving a talk on leadership and change. The speaker before me assured the audience that, when it comes to the Michigan economy, there's a "light at the end of the tunnel."

Today the New York Times reports that Detroit is set to close 45 of its 172 public schools at the end of this year--and that Detroit has closed more than 100 schools since 2004, and still has seats for more than 50,000 students than are actually in the system. Here's the money quote from the Times: "I think you can say Detroit has hit bottom," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington.

Yesterday in the Times, David Leonhardt wrote a brilliant column. His topic: Wagner's Law--a principle that says that as a nation gets richer, it taxes itself more to pay for the good things it wants its citizens to enjoy. Only the U.S. seems to have repealed Wagner's Law. We've grown richer, cut taxes--and still demanded more good things! Which is the real source of our massive deficit. Here's the money quote: "By any reasonable projection, we're on an utterly unsustainable path," Peter Orszag, the White House budget director, told me last week."

These are urgent matters. Urgent matters require serious responses.

We may all wish for contentment in our lives.

None of us can afford complacency.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Waving or Drowning?

I'm sure you know the old conundrum: A man is standing on the beach. He hears a shout and looks out into the ocean. He sees an old friend far from shore and she's got a hand up over her head as she bobs in the ocean. The question is, is she waving hello? or calling for help? Waving? Or drowning?

Right now, America isn't waving hello.

Right now, America is calling for help. On all kinds of fronts. Health care is only one problem that weighs down millions of individual Americans, and--lest we forget it--also plagues the competitiveness of American companies. Starbucks, for one, spends more on health care than on coffee beans. Before it went bankrupt, GM used to joke (back when GM could joke, before it became a joke) that it only sold cars to be able to fund its health care costs.

America is calling for help on the energy front--we can't continue with a feel-good energy policy that under-prices the real cost of our fossil fuels and, at the same time, drives the red line of global warming closer and closer to the disaster mark.

Education, urban policy, transportation, jobs--you name it, America isn't waving hello. America is clearly calling for help.

It's time for urgent and positive responses to all of these calls.

Don't tell me what you're against; tell me what you're for.

Don't tell me who to blame; tell me what you're working on.

Don't tell me what's wrong with "them"; tell me what's going to work.

Tell me the kind of change you're championing and the commitment you're ready to make to make it happen.

That's America out there, bobbing in the ocean--and there's a good chance that unless we all start to work together she's going under for the third time.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Three Best Answers, Ever

These days everybody's looking for answers.

What's the right way to . . .?

How can I . . .?

What do I need to do to . . .?

When you get asked questions all the time (or even some of the time) it's awfully tempting to think you're supposed to know the answers! After all, people wouldn't be asking you these questions if they didn't think you knew the answers. And if you stop giving the answers, then they'll stop asking the questions, and then you no longer qualify as a full-fledged guru.

Lately I've found three answers that make the most sense to me. I try to remember to use them as often as I can, when I'm out giving a talk or just chatting with friends over dinner.

When the question comes your way ("What do you think we should do about . . .?" "Do you have a solution for . . .?), here are the three best answers, ever:

1. I don't really know.

2. What do you think?

3. I'm still thinking about that--I'll get back to you once I've done some more work on it.

Why are they the three best answers, ever? Because they're honest, humble, and hospitable. They invite discussion, they create dialog, and they open up discussion.

Try it next time: I don't really know; what do you think?; I'll get back to you on that.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What Does It Mean to "Win"?

I was sitting at WeMedia in Miami last week, listening to an eloquent presentation by TCK TCK TCK.

TCK TCK TCK had just won a Game Changer award and its representative was explaining what the organization had done. Set up in advance of the Global Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, TCK TCK TCK created a giant tent under which all of the organizations in favor of a "fair, ambitious, and binding" agreement could gather.

TCK TCK TCK got more than 16 million people to put their names on a petition calling for a "fair, ambitious, and binding" agreement.

It got hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets to demonstrate. It did important work to change the conversation about climate change.

And in the end, it failed. There was no agreement worth talking about, much less one that was "fair, ambitious, and binding."

But did it fail? Or did it win--without winning everything.

We're living in times where political issues are rarely over, even when it looks like something's been decided.

Every issue, every problem, every cutting edge concern is in play, all the time. Yogi Berra had it wrong; it's never over, not even when you think it's over.

So I'd say TCK TCK TCK has a lot to teach us about getting into the game, about organizing and articulating for our causes, about building coalitions that cross conventional boundaries, about establishing goals, about measuring impact--and about keeping after it. They didn't fail. They're still out there arguing their case for what they believe in.

We need to think differently about winning--it's the only way we'll stick with the causes we believe in, and recognize that it's not even about winning. It's about caring enough to get into the game--and then staying in the game all the way.

Friday, March 12, 2010

How Many Times?

I'm starting a new blog category: The How Many Times? category of catastrophe.
As in the old Bob Dylan lyric, "How many times can a man turn his head, and pretend that he just doesn't see?"

Apparently the answer is: All the time.

Take today's NYT story on the decision by the Kansas City, Missouri school board to close 28 of its 61 schools, all at the same time.

According to the reporter, Susan Saulny, ". . . a closer look at the school board's history reveals a chaotic, almost nonfunctioning body that put off making tough choices and even routine improvements for generations. (my italics added) Experts said that in the board's years of inaction is a cautionary tale for school districts everywhere."

School districts? A cautionary tale for school districts!

How about for companies and countries?

How about the cautionary tale of GM that put off making necessary decisions for decades, until the nation's largest manufacturing giant woke up one day and found itself in Chapter 11?

How about the cautionary tale of Wall Street firms that put off making necessary decisions about the fundamental un-sustainability of their over-leveraged financial operations, until one day they woke up, well, dead.

How about the cautionary tale of the United States of America that continues to put off making necessary decisions about energy policy, our addiction to foreign oil, our un-sustainable transportation policies, our subsidies to the highway lobby--almost a guarantee that we'll wake up one morning wishing we'd had leaders with more courage and wisdom, who were willing to price oil at its actual replacement price (or closer to it) and invest ahead of time in mass transit and other alternative energy sources.

Choose the issue that keeps you up at night. Education reform and the sorry state of public schools in the US? The high school drop out rate? Obesity? Decaying infrastructure? A lack of jobs for kids coming out of colleges and universities?

There is much that needs doing today.

And in almost every case, the single greatest obstacle to getting after the work that needs doing is an institutional, systemic unwillingness to deal with the hard facts of life and make tough decisions that need to be made. The longer the situation festers, the worse it gets. Just ask the students and parents who depend on the Kansas City public schools.

How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind--and not just in Kansas City, Missouri.

Go Tom Go!

There is only one Tom Peters!
Actually, one is enough! As long as it is the original Tom! Accept no substitutes!
(Why all the exclamation points? Because that's how Tom talks! It's how he writes! It's how he lives! Show up full of energy! Give it your all! All the time!)
Just got my hands on Tom's new book: The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence.
I can't wait to dig in, to savor all that Tom Peters raw unadulterated smart-as-a-whip, I-wish-I'd-thought-of-that energy and insight.
For as long as I've known Tom (full disclosure: Tom was one of the first-round investors in Fast Company; in fact, it was his phone call to me, out of the blue, one Friday evening after a dis-spirited week of trying to get the magazine going, that lifted my weary spirit. The call went something like this: "Webber! It's Tom Peters! I've just read your business plan for Fast Company! We've got to do this! We absolutely have got to do this! The world needs this! I'm in!" Talk about getting a lift.) he has combined an insatiable appetite for information, insight, and innovation with a willingness to talk with everybody and anybody who's doing anything cool.
And then think about it with that amazing brain of his, and re-frame it in a way that brings it smack dab down to earth in a way that's useful and fundamentally human.
There is only one Tom Peters!
Here's to the one and only!
Keep on truckin' Tom!
We need you!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oh, Canada!

I was lucky enough to sit at dinner tonight with a group of Canadians, including a very talented woman who works in the Canadian health care system.
A few interesting questions and comments:
"Why do Americans think we don't have MRIs in Canada? We've got all the technology you have!"
"Why do Americans think we don't get to choose our own doctors in Canada? Who tells you this stuff?"
"Why do Americans think it's ok to be the richest country in the world and leave 30 or 40 million of your own people without health care or health insurance?"
The questions weren't antagonistic. Or hostile.
They were asked in the spirit of genuine concern. Concern for the mis-perceptions that continue to cloud the US understanding of how health care actually works in Canada, and concern for a system in the US that the Canadians genuinely think is, well, unthinkable.
Here's what we came to agree on.
Canada's system treats everyone equally. Rich and poor alike. This is, perhaps, fair, but only guarantees that wealthy Canadians game the system.
America's system has incredible highs--if you're wealthy--and incredible lows--if you're poor.
Both systems would benefit from meeting somewhere in the middle: letting wealthy people pay more for faster access to health care, or better quality health care, if they want it, while guaranteeing at least a standard of health care for all, even the poorest citizens.
Kind of like Germany, it turns out, where, once you reach a certain level of wealth, you have to move into a private system, and your higher costs go to subsidize the care of the poorest citizens. The wealthy get what they want, and they have to pay for it. The poor get what they need, and while it isn't as good or fast or accessible as what they wealthy get, it is provided to them as a public good.
Oh, Canada!
There's a lot to be learned on both sides when we sit down to talk as friends!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Aetna Welcomes You To The Grand Canyon!

Last summer as my wife and I hiked from rim to rim in the Grand Canyon, I found myself thinking about the powerful experience of walking through mile after mile of natural history. It turns out, I should have been thinking about health insurance. Here's why.
In the early days the Grand Canyon was pretty much private property. If you wanted to go down into it you had to buy a ticket from a tour operator who controlled access to it. If you couldn't afford a ticket you couldn't go down. Kind of like a toll bridge. Or, come to think of it, health insurance.
Then along came Teddy Roosevelt and the whole notion of national parks and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today if you want to see the Grand Canyon you can even stay in an incredible structure on the north rim that was originally built as part of Franklin Roosevelt's program to put people back to work at the time of the Great Depression. The CCC, the WPA, and other projects created by FDR resulted in work for the unemployed--and also the creation of some spectacular structures and works of art.
I thought about that legacy as I drove home from the Grand Canyon--on a freeway that was built as part of the National Defense Highway Act, a measure created under President Eisenhower.
What if, instead of having a federal highway administration, we'd just let private companies build the roads? They could lay them out as they wanted, and then we'd pay for the privilege of driving on them? Of course, they might not all match up. And some might be more expensive than others. But, hey, that's capitalism!
There'd been a bunch of tourists from Germany, France, Japan, even the Middle East at the Grand Canyon. I was betting they'd flown there.
What if we had competing private sector airports, each with its own privately held control towers? I wonder how safe that would be? At least it would open things up to competition! And if there were accidents, well, isn't that how the free market works?
Apparently we want national parks, and we want one highway system that is uniform, and we'd just as soon have a coordinated system for air safety.
But not for health. Or health care.
That's why we've got large insurance companies, like, say, Aetna, whose CEO, Ronald A. Williams, made $24.3 million in compensation last year. And $23 million the year before. For selling insurance.
Or Cigna's H. Edward Hanway, who made $12.2 million last year, and $25.8 million the year before that. For selling insurance.
Can you imagine what Mr. Williams could have made if, say, he ran the Grand Canyon? Or administered the free market in freeways?
He could have pulled down some really big bucks!
So remind me again: Why is there no public option for health insurance? And why is this industry, which is so fundamental to each American's health and well-being, allowed to operate with this kind of impunity?
I guess it's time for another hike in the Grand Canyon, and a chance to think some of these things over.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What If The Pilgrims Had Landed in California?

I know. It sounds like a frivolous question. Like trying to imagine the Salem Witch Trials as a giant LA surfing party. Or the first Thanksgiving as a celebration at the Ferry Building one Saturday morning in San Francisco, with 20 varieties of lettuces and artisanal cheeses.
But there's a serious side to my question. Because I have the deep and disturbing feeling that many of the attitudes one group of Americans have toward their fellow Americans is some kind of a nasty carry over of those dark, cold, depressing New England winters, a cultural vestigial remain of a period of hard scrabble times and close brushes with societal extinction.
How else to explain the data on American attitudes on poverty and the poor as reported by William Julius Williams in "More Than Just Race"?
What Wilson says is deeply disturbing; it's fundamentally a "blame the victim" national mindset: ". . . the popular view is that people are poor or on welfare because of their own personal shortcomings."
Wilson cites three different surveys conducted in 1969, 1980, and 1990. Analysts looking at the first two surveys found that most Americans believe that ". . . in general economic inequality is fair." That's right. Economic inequality is fair.
In all three surveys, Wilson reports, ". . . more than nine out of ten American adults felt that lack of effort was either very or somewhat important in terms of causing poverty."
In 2007 the Pew Research Center did another survey. That one revealed that "fully two-thirds of all Americans believe that personal factors, rather than racial discrimination, explain sy many African Americans have difficulty getting ahead in life. . ."
The kicker comes when Wilson compares these results to a 2007 survey of the EU. Only 20% of EU respondents agreed that poverty is a result of "laziness and lack of will power." 37% attributed poverty to "injustice in society."
No wonder Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning said, "Tough shit" when confronted with the impact his filibuster had on poor people. After all, it's their own fault!
No wonder there's even a debate about whether it's alright for America to be a nation where 40 million people don't have health insurance. If they'd go out and work their way out of poverty, they'd have the same lousy health insurance the rest of us have! It's their own fault!
Of course, if there were a terrible earthquake, or a natural disaster--something outside the control of each of us as individuals--and 40 million of our fellow citizens were suddenly homeless, needing medical attention, shelter, food, clothes, and a fair shot at a job, I'd like to think Americans would grab their cell phones and text millions of dollars of emergency aid to those in need. I'd like to think we wouldn't shrug and say, "Tough shit." Or blame those who got hit worst for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or deserving it.
At times like that, I like to think that if the Pilgrims had only landed in California, we might all be a little more generous of spirit, a little less morally judgmental, a little less likely to blame the victim, a little more likely to see that we're all in this together.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Two Adam Smiths

Most people who even know who Adam Smith was tend to associate him with The Wealth of Nations. In it Smith described the evolution of capitalism and the power of the invisible hand of the market to take self-interest in business and convert it into something that served the common interest.
Few people associate Smith with his other great book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In this book Smith asserts that no matter how self-interested even the hardest person is, there is something within all of us, something in human nature, that feels sorrow at the sorrow of others and sympathy for those who are suffering or in pain.
What Smith was trying to figure out was how capitalism worked (of course the word "capitalism" hadn't been invented yet, but even though the word didn't exist, that's the problem Smith set his mind to.)
It clearly wasn't as simple as today's free-marketeers would like to believe. Smith wrestled with the power of the invisible hand and with the deep-seated psychological force of sympathetic human nature encountering a moral dilemma.
Which is exactly where we are in the US in the debate over health care.
Think of it at first as a four box matrix--the kind they teach at the Harvard Business School.
Let's use Smith's two books to frame the matrix.
On one axis we've got the invisible hand of the free market at one end, government control at the other.
On the second axis we've got human compassion, empathy, moral right at one end, pure self-interest, cold-hearted Scrooge-ism.
The Obama administration is trying to convince us all that the administration has a solution that's win-win! It works in economic terms, cuts back on the rising costs of health care, preserves the insurance industry's right to make money, helps with the federal deficit--all terrific economic outcomes!--and offers health care coverage to the tens of millions of Americans who can't get it or can't afford it. It's economic and moral!
The Republicans tend to see the world more in terms of the Wealth of Nations, and less in terms of the Theory of Moral Sentiments. They want the government out of health care--it should be about the free market. Beyond that, their view of moral sentiments was best expressed by Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning who, when informed that his filibuster would cut off COBRA benefits for millions of poor and unemployed Americans said, "Tough shit."
So in a four box matrix formed by the two Adam Smiths, we know where the Obama administration would put itself and where the Republicans would wind up.
Now let's make it more interesting.
What if the economic promises of the Obama adminstration were shown to be flat out wrong.
What if the Obama plan won't curb rising medical costs, won't benefit the federal budget deficit, and actually will represent a government intrusion into the operation of the free market in a significant way?
What if it comes down to a fundamental choice between a strict interpretation of The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments on the matter of health care?
Here's what Smith wrote: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."
When it comes to health care for our fellow Americans, what could be clearly a matter of moral sentiment?
Ultimately it turns on an argument that is less about the kind of economics we want to practice, and more about the kind of country we want to be.
In a balancing of the Two Adam Smiths, when it comes to a matter as fundamentally human as health care, the moral sentiment has to be the book that offers the right instruction, for the right reason.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

On Icebergs and Ducks

It sounds like a bad riddle: What do icebergs and ducks have in common?
But it's a serious question--or, maybe more accurately, a serious answer to a serious question.
The question is: How does change happen? And I find myself asking it at a time when more and more people are holding out less and less hope for the prospect of meaningful change coming from the political leaders in Washington, DC. We can argue about who's fault it is; or whether it's worse than it used to be; or if it's simply the case that Washington, DC is "broken." There's lots to be said about the influence of money on politics, and the role of the media in promoting a sound-bite culture with the attention span of a tweet. Lots of ways to get worked up and bummed out.
So let me instead offer the notion of the iceberg and the duck.
And let me use it to suggest that we're looking for change in all the wrong places.
So: what do icebergs and ducks have in common?
Ever since the sinking of the Titanic, we've all been taught that you only see the tip of the iceberg above the surface of the water; 80% or more of the iceberg is below the surface, so if you want to see the true shape of the thing, you've got to look beneath the surface.
And ducks? Well, coaches and cheerleaders have long used the swimming duck as a source of encouragement for scrappy athletes: be calm on the surface and paddle like hell with your feet under water!
Here's what I'm concluding about change in America.
It's all going on under the surface--and there's a lot of it happening.
If you put down the daily newspapers, stop surfing the web, step away from cable TV news, give talk radio a rest, and just go out into your own community--and I mean any community in any city in any country any where in the world--you will be thrilled, delighted, amazed, and profoundly moved at the kinds of changes going on all around us.
Below the surface, like icebergs and ducks, out of sight of the traditional media and traditional politics, there is a movement gaining force.
It is micro-change. It is entrepreneurial and vibrant. The projects are often small. Think of them as Petri-dish size experiments.
They involve small groups of like-minded individuals who want to make a difference, have some impact.
I'm not talking about angry shouters. I'm talking about do-something-abouters.
This is how change happens. Far from the corridors of power.
It happens when the people who decide they want to contribute start paddling like hell below the surface.
When I find myself troubled about political gridlock, narcissism, and posturing, I change where I'm looking.
Instead of paying attention to what's above the surface, what gets all the coverage, I look under the surface, at all the great work that's being ignored by the media but embraced by real people making real change happen.
It's not grass roots change.
It's under the water change. And if we keep it up, it's going to make all the difference in the world.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Age of Innovation

When this period we're in right now passes and whatever comes next arrives, we'll look back fondly on this current time and call it, quite rightly The Age of Innovation. Beset as we are by serious and pressing problems, we run the risk of failing to appreciate one of the most incredible periods of creative output in world history. Take a look around you and make your own list of the remarkable stream of innovation that is going on all around us.
It's been almost a decade since "innovation" became a business buzz word. Frankly I thought it was just the flavor of the month; I suspected we'd see companies trumpet their "innovative spirit" and then move on to something else when the marketing message got old.
Instead, innovation has become a sustained business element. It's not a fad, it's a requirement, a new component in every company's way of doing business. It's become an accepted part of "what we do here," in company's around the world in every industry.
Here's a partial list--feel free to add to it or make your own!
1. Global competition. The heat is on. If you want to compete, you've simply got to innovate. There are too many new entrants, too many rivals popping up all over the world. Years ago Ted Levitt wrote that "you can de-commoditize anything." Global competition has become the powerful prod to drive constant de-commoditization--which is all about innovation.
2. The web. The web does, in fact, change everything. It's part of the global economy, but it's also part of economic transparency. No more secrets--everyone can know what everyone else is doing. When that happens, when we shift to a knowledge economy, then innovation is the only way to stay ahead of the game. Innovate or die. Even for slow companies, that's an easy choice.
3. Technology. Computing power makes it faster, cheaper, and easier to test out new ideas. The mantra of "fail faster to succeed sooner" is all about the speed with which new ideas can be tried and tried again, before being brought to market. Modeling, sampling, revising--all are staples of the innovation economy.
4. Science. Think of all the innovations that are a direct product of science--from new construction techniques to food, health care, clothing, medicine, furniture, you name it. Materials science, chemistry, biology, earth sciences are only some of the categories where new discoveries are driving new innovations. Science is undergoing its own innovative revolution; new fields are being created at the intersections of what used to be compartmentalized categories. Out of those new fields we're seeing brilliant new insights leading to amazing new innovations.
5. Business model innovation. The mandate to compete is driving companies to go beyond product and service innovation to meta-innovation--competing on new business models. If you want to challenge your rivals, you don't simply out-produce them, you out-think them with a business model that undercuts their whole way of doing business. Innovation has gone meta.
6. Education. The spread of learning makes innovation a global phenomenon; at the same time, young, bright, technologically-savvy students are able to test their ideas and creativity without waiting for traditional jobs in traditional companies to give them permission to innovate. Education not only makes people smarter; it makes them eager to use what they've learned to do new things.
7. Design thinking. We've got new tools and new disciplines that are teaching us how to apply all those right-brain notions. Design gives shape to instinct; technology makes it possible to model design; the need for differentiation in the market provides big rewards for outstanding design. It's a system that works, producing design-driven innovation, differentiated products and services, and competitive rewards.
8. Natural imperatives. We're waking up to the idea that if we don't make major changes in how we produce, what we produce, and how we consume what we produce, we may not have the luxury to keep doing all this stuff. Sustainability is a powerful driver for innovation; the need for companies to do a better job of greening their operations is more than a temporary marketing ploy. Economics are changing, requirements are changing, and process and product innovations are resulting.
9. Social innovation. A lot of our social habits, structures, and behaviors are reaching the end of their shelf lives; people all over the world who've been overlooked are demanding new practices that take their needs into account. As we try to balance the needs and rights of a global population, social innovation is becoming the most rapidly evolving field for new ideas, business models, practices, and developments.

Take a look around you.
What are the shapes, forms, and practices that tell you we're living through the Age of Innovation?
What are you doing to be part of it?
One thing's sure: You don't want to miss it--you don't want to fail to appreciate it or fail to participate. Years from now we'll look back and think, for innovators and for innovation, this was the golden age.

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