Wednesday, April 28, 2010

It's official!

Powerpoint is dangerous to our national security!

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

But it could have been.

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

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

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

It was a time of great live events.

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

Not because they were bad for national security.

But because they were bad for lively discourse!

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

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

Boring!

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should unilaterally disarm!

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

Now try communicating, not hiding behind Powerpoint!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Losing Track of Yourself

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

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

Yesterday's headlines were filled with two such examples.

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

The first was, oddly enough, Craigslist.

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

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

That was then. This is now.

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

Now, nobody suggests that Craigslist is breaking the law.

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

Something here is wrong. In more ways than one.

And then there is the Goldman Sachs example.

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

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

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

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

Something has gotten lost.

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

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

We have important companies that have lost track of themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

But responsibility and duty?

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

That's the Great Disconnect.

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

We need a New Old Deal.

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

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

New York State of Mind Part 2

If I ran a large American company I'd be worried.

Not about foreign competition. Or government regulation. Or limitations on my salary or bonuses.

I'd be worried about the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and career paths of young, talented Americans.

Because from what I saw in New York, large American companies are simply not on their occupational radar screens. If "the team with the best talent wins"--which is not only a Rule of Thumb but also a shared precept of both Tom Peters and Jim Collins--then large, old, bureaucratic companies are likely to run into a string of competitive losses.

What makes me say that?

Anecdote #1: Lunch with a good friend, a remarkably talented young woman of 24 who is about to leave her job at a traditional company after only 9 months. She's found a better offer--at a start-up that squares with her values, is working in an area that she cares about, has more energy and passion for the work, and is going to give her more responsibility, better team-mates, and a more rewarding learning environment. Notice what it's not about: It's not about the money.

Also notice what it's about that she didn't like about her traditional job. Here's what she told me: "Essentially I was doing all the work and passing it off to my boss. I didn't get the credit for the work. I didn't get recognition for the work. I didn't grow by doing the work. All I did was make my boss look good. The idea was, if I stayed at it long enough, one day I'd have someone working for me who'd do my work."

If you look closely at her description of the big-turn off, it contains a number of interesting attitudes toward what work is supposed to be--and what traditional companies don't get.

Traditional companies see careers, still, as ladders. You put in your time on one rung, and then after an appropriate amount of time, you get to move up a rung. Each step on the ladder takes you closer to the top. As you go up the ladder you get more money, a bigger title, and more people under you. They do the work; you do the supervision.

My young friend doesn't want that version of a work-life. She wants a collaborative environment. A place where people bring their skills together and share what they know and what they do well. She wants a boss who is in the game, not on a higher rung on the ladder.

Or, alternatively, she wants the traditional game to change so the hypocrisy is at least honest hypocrisy. "Want me to do all your work?" she asks. "Fine. Then pay me your salary."

Of course that's not going to happen. So she's gone. At her entrepreneurial start-up she'll find something a lot closer to what she's looking for.

Anecdote #2: The Kairos Summit, a meeting of roughly 650 college students from around the world, all of whom want to be entrepreneurs. The highlight of the Summit was a day of meetings at the New York Stock Exchange where the trading floor was flooded with booths and displays of the ingenious projects these students were bringing to the market--from their dorm rooms.

What was fascinating wasn't just the variety and creativity of these young people's ideas. It was that nobody commented on the striking incongruity of a Summit that celebrated entrepreneurship taking over the temple of Big Business for a day.

I didn't hear any of these bright and motivated proto-entrepreneurs talk about how much they're looking forward to going to work for a big company. Nobody said this was great practice for the job they really want, joining the ranks of General Electric, General Mills, General Motors, General Dynamics, or any other General.

They want to start something. They want to bring something fresh to the market.

They want to challenge the status quo.

That's great news for America. It's great news for the economy.

Maybe, if big companies get the message it'll be great news for them, too.

If they look inside and see that what they've been offering their workers isn't what their workers want, maybe, just maybe, they'll discover some new well-springs of entrepreneurship.

Maybe they'll see that "security" isn't what it used to be.

That size isn't such a great advantage.

That status doesn't appeal as much any more.

That the old ladder has been replaced by a new circle.

Meanwhile, the energy, vitality, creativity, and spirit of this fast-charging generation is exciting.

They've got a lot to learn about business.

And a lot to teach to business.

Friday, April 23, 2010

New York State of Mind

Sorry for the blogging hiatus!

Last week I spent almost a week in New York. It was the first time I'd been back for a more extended stay since I was there more than 6 months ago. At that time I visited with friends, stopped by the near-empty office building that was supposed to house a major media company, and walked the streets of Manhattan looking for signs of life. They were few and far between. The mood then was bleak. Wall Street layoffs were in full force. The New York Times was shedding reporters--not just back office employees, but hard news people. Remember the old neutron bomb--the one that was developed to kill people and leave buildings intact? That was the general situation in mid-town Manhattan back then.

Things have changed. There may not be a national recovery. There may be record unemployment, disastrous state and local budget deficits, staggering mortgage defaults on homes, and desperate personal bankruptcies. But in the heart of New York City things are looking up.

That's the good news.

And the bad news.

Because the down side of the up side is that already too many of the people I met with and talked to have forgotten the near-death experience of 2008-2009.

Imagine a grotesquely obese person suffering a nearly fatal heart attack.

Almost against his will he's dragged to the hospital where massive intervention--some of it unprecedented and highly experimental--saves his life. Barely. This time. And just for now.

When he comes to in the ICU he starts to make all kinds of promises.

To lose weight. To eat right. To exercise. To stop the risky behavior that nearly cost him his life.

He's forced to stay in the ICU for weeks, and weeks turn into months. That's how severe his case in.

Finally the vital signs begin to revive.

The hospital releases him. He leaves full of heart-felt thanks and still promising to mend his errant ways.

But I'm sure you can see where this parable is going.

Having been spared this time, our patient quickly loses track of the promises he made.

As he starts to feel healthier he laughs about the things that landed him in the hospital.

True, some things change. He isn't quite as profligate or spendthrift; at the same time, he's a lot less generous than he used to be.

But as his health improves his old habits start to reemerge. Why change? Obviously he leads a charmed life. No need to modify old habits of mind or behavior.

That's the down side of the up side.

The bottom fell out of the financial barrel, not because of a few bad apples. The whole barrel was rotten. This was a system failure, not an isolated instance of criminal behavior, Wall Street gone rogue, or pockets of fraud.

So a New York State of Mind says there's nothing better than recovery. It sure beats near-death.

But a recovery with any serious reconsideration of what really caused the crisis is only a temporary reprieve.

The disconnects between our economic philosophy and our economic behavior are so deep, it'll take a lot more than an Obama bill to reign in Wall Street to keep us out of the ICU.

It's time for a national commitment to remedy these deep disconnects and make the system right again.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Power of the "Off" Button

March 27th was Global Earth Hour. In case you missed it, let me remind you: all over the world, people turned off their lights for one hour. It was a simple act that connected people all over the world in a silent reminder of the wonder of nature and the fragility of the planet. Something like 1 billion people participated. Simple, powerful, and silent.

For me it's a reminder of the power of the "off" button in a society that is increasingly dominated by the "always-on" mindset. Not only "always on" but also "always on at peak volume."

Part of the lack of civility in America today is the sense that we're always shouting at each other. The notion, I suppose, is that in an attention economy, if you want to be heard, if you want people to pay attention to you, you have to scream at the top of your lungs. Of course, it's a principle that leads to its own escalation: the more you scream to be heard, the more the next person tries to scream even louder, and so on. It's a nuclear arm race of incivility, noise, ever-heightened claims, and ever-worsening stunts just to get noticed.

But as Global Earth Hour reminds us, every piece of electronic equipment we own--including our homes--comes with an off button.

Tired of being screamed at by some idiotic TV talk-show host fomenting political mindlessness. Hit the off button. Tell your friends to do the same. Practice "offing" the noise.

If you don't like being shouted at, don't shout back--try Gandhian passive resistance. Just hit the off button. It's the equivalent of a sit-down strike against those who scream, shout, and rail at us.

There are some media platforms and communication devices that don't include an off button.

Things like, oh, books. Newspapers. Magazines. Dinner parties.

In the spirit of Global Earth Hour, let's try hitting the off button on those devices that raise the volume of argument without raising the level of discourse.

It's time to take back the conversation! Just hit "off" and see how quickly we can all get back on--to reasonable discussion and debate about things that really matter.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What's a Role Model?

The guy who runs the Masters golf tournament thinks Tiger Woods let us all down. He turned out not to be a role model.

Let's pause right there.

Raise your hand if you ever thought Tiger Woods was a role model. Or Brad Pitt. Or any Hollywood star or starlet. Or any professional athlete. Or any super-rich CEO from the world of big business. It was, after all, Charles Barkley, pro basketballer and notorious gambler at the high-stakes tables in Las Vegas, who famously pronounced that he wasn't a role model and didn't want to be considered one.

Which raises the question: what is a role model?

For me, a role model is someone who acts as a teacher; someone who sets an example through their behavior and values; someone who espouses a philosophy of life that merits following. In my experience it's been someone who didn't call attention to themselves; someone who wasn't out to make a name or a fortune.

And most important, it was someone I actually knew.

My grandfather, the most ethical, up-right man I ever knew. A grandfather can be a role model. A grandfather isn't some distant figure, cooked up by the media, promoted by a flack, subject to tabloid scrutiny. A grandfather is a real person in your life, someone you can look up to and learn from.

Aunts and uncles, moms and dads--they can be role models. My mom used to come to all my games when I was a kid, cheering for me to do my best. I remember one morning when I was little playing basketball in the school gym against another team of 8 or 9 year olds. I was pinned in the corner with the ball; my mom was sitting right in front of me, close enough that we could talk.

"Take a shot," she said.

"It'd have to be a hook shot," I argued back.

"So?" she said.

I took the hook shot and somehow the ball banked cleanly off the backboard in for a bucket.

I looked over at her after the ball went in.

She just shrugged her shoulders. You can't score if you don't shoot, right?

A mom can be a role model.

In the last 40 years or so we've suffered from a plethora of disconnects--we've had a societal disconnect, in fact

When it comes to role models, we've once again confused celebrity with role models. How can you have a role model you don't even know?

We've confused leaders with celebrities. Would you follow someone you'd never even seen or heard or met in the flesh? Even political campaigns give you the chance to interact with the candidates--something few of us have ever done with Tiger Woods, Brad Pitt or any other celebrity.

We may have celebrities who actually do good work. (I was struck recently in reading an architecture magazine how the people who were featured were now identified not only by their work, but also by their social cause! "So-and-so is a famous actor and also devotes time to Save the Children." It's expected that our celebrities have a favorite cause--but that still doesn't make them role models.)

But let's reserve the title "role model" for people who actually deserve it; people we actually know and respect; people who love us and want to nurture and grow us.

Those people aren't celebrities, people. They're your friends and family, your colleagues and collaborators.

Maybe we can have a more reality-based society if we kick the celebrity habit and try to get back to things that matter, things that make sense.

Maybe it's time for the great re-connect.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How Is Innovation Like a Glass of Water?

I just spent an inspiring weekend with my friend Eddie Sturman and his wife Carol at their home in Colorado. Eddie, in my book, is today's version of Tesla: a brilliant inventor whose contributions are substantial--but could be even more significant if big companies that have a vested interest in the status quo of our nation's energy policy would simply take his digital technology seriously. (Check out Sturman Industries on the web for a little snapshot of Eddie and Carol's company.)

Eddie is a master story teller as well as a brilliant inventor/innovator.

My favorite Eddie Sturman story of the weekend goes like this:

Eddie had a meeting with the Chairman/CEO of one of America's corporate giants, a company with which Sturman Industries had done business in the past--and had some disagreements over patents.

Now it was time to see if they would work together as partners.

Eddie put a glass of water in front of the executive. It was filled about half-way up.

"What do you see?" Eddie asked.

The executive was eager to answer.

"I'm an optimist!" he declared. "I see a glass that's half-filled. Not half-empty, but half-filled!"

"Here's what I see," Eddie said. "I see a vehicle."

The executive was genuinely puzzled.

"A vehicle? You mean like a car or a truck? With tires?"

"No," Eddie said. "A vehicle that you can use lots of different ways. Right now, it's a vehicle for satisfying my thirst, if I drink the water. Or it could be a vehicle for delivering medicine, if someone is sick. I don't see something in terms of half empty or half full. I see it as a vehicle that can do a lot of different things, depending on how we want to use it."

Okay, a couple of points here.

First, that's how an incredibly creative innovator thinks. Eddie sees things the way Eddie see them, which is why his "wall of patents" at Sturman Industries has more than 100 plaques commemorating his unique vision.

Second, that's how we need to see the power of innovation in this country. It's not about faux optimism vs. unfortunate pessimism. It's about embracing creativity that changes how we see problems, how we seize opportunities, how we reject simple answers that don't take us anywhere new.

Innovation is the game changer America needs for the future. It will cause disruption: that's the nature of innovation. That's the nature of capitalism.

But without it, we end up with large and listless companies. We end up with a status quo that gradually runs out of energy, runs out of enthusiasm, runs out of jobs, and runs out of options.

What we need is to look with fresh eyes. We need to reframe the old debates that turn into dead-end "either-or" choices.

When you look at a glass of water that's filled to the mid-point, what do you see?

Eddie sees a vehicle.

I'm going to try to learn to see the way Eddie does. It's the wave of the future--and the spirit of innovation--that America and the world need.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Get busy living or get busy dying"

It's a quote from "The Shawshank Redemption." But it could be the kind of advice every American who's hurting from the economy should take to heart.

I was sitting in an office in Santa Fe the other day. Across from me was a man roughly my age. His jeans were pressed, his Italian loafers polished, his shirt nice tailored. He was a man accustomed to having life "just so." And he was in the real estate business.

It's not a good time to be in the real estate business, not even in Santa Fe. And his face was the tip-off that, despite his clothes, things were not going well for him. There was an air of despair surrounding him as he sat there. Unmistakable and deep. A feeling that the world had somehow betrayed him.

I know another person with a different take on things.

She's a friend of my daughter's, a recent graduate from architecture school who got her degree at a time when there aren't any jobs for architects. She got out of school with a heavy burden of student loans.

She found a job in retail. And in a few months she's distinguished herself as a remarkably valuable new employee. She uses her design sense to offer suggestions about how the retail store could do a better job of displaying merchandise. She keeps the store fresh-looking, changing the displays frequently. She taps into her own experience to come up with ideas for better customer service. The fact that she doesn't really want a career in retail, the fact that she's hoping that someday, someday soon, the economy will open up for architects again and she can get a job doing what she trained to do, what she loves to do--that doesn't enter into the equation at all.

Last month's job figures showed something like the largest gain in new jobs in three years.

And the U.S. has the largest number of long-term unemployed people ever. 6.5 million Americans have been without a job for at least 6 months.

So it's getting better.

And it's not getting better.

Even when it gets better, it's not going to go back to the way it was.

That means we have to make a choice. One option is to sit in a puddle of your own despair like the man in Santa Fe. He was in real estate. He'd ridden real estate to the top. He was now at the bottom. But he couldn't imagine trying anything else than what he'd done--mostly with great success--for all those years. He's busy dying.

Another option is my young friend, the architect turned retailer. She's busy living. It wasn't what she imagined for herself when she was in school, staying up all night to complete high-pressure design assignments. But it's what she's got--right now! Maybe not forever--but right now!

And right now, she's busy living. She's making new friends, impressing her co-workers, using her skills and her positive attitude to make a positive contribution. Nights and weekends, she works on her own architectural projects, looks for a job in her chosen field. And then, when it's time to go back to work, she shows up ready to make that job work.

That's the choice from "The Shawshank Redemption": get busy living or get busy dying.

Take your pick.

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