Friday, December 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.
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.
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.

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