Monday, October 31, 2011

Race for Relevance is a Negotiating Position

There's been a lot of buzz in the association community lately about Race for Relevance (R4R), the book by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers. I saw Coerver present its ideas at one meeting of association executives I attended, lots of my colleagues saw him present at another, and a third I'm familiar with is beginning to talk about bringing him in to address its membership as well.

And as I listen to all the talk about R4R, I've yet to hear anyone who has reacted to it the same way I have.

It's a negotiating position.

Think about it. What is R4R saying? What are the five "radical" changes it proposes?

1. Overhaul the governance model and committee operations.
2. Empower the CEO and enhance staff expertise.
3. Rigorously define the member market.
4. Rationalize programs and services.
5. Build a robust technology framework.

These are "radical" ideas? Really? Not in my world they're not. But I suppose there must be association executives out there to whom they seem like utter madness. Not because they are crazy ideas, but because they are completely impossible to implement. The governance models they're saddled with won't be overhauled, and they won't ever be empowered, and without those two the other three ideas have absolutely no chance of ever occurring.

But R4R doesn't just stop there. It doesn't just suggest these five changes in the abstract. It offers those beleaguered execs some concrete suggestions for getting the changes done. And in making these suggestions, it goes out of its way, I think, to be provocative. For example, in order to effect the first change, to overhaul your governance model and committee operations, it says you should:

A. Reduce your board to five members.
B. Force all your committees and task forces to be chaired by a staff person.

I think R4R offers a good rationale for these prescriptions, but on their surface I'm sure they sound almost suicidal. Especially to that executive who thinks the five original ideas were radical. I've seen the looks on some of their faces when these suggestions get made. What? their looks seem to say. They want me to do what?

But reducing your board to five members and putting staff in charge of your committees are, in fact, logical conclusions that stem directly from the "radical" propositions first offered.

What kind of board should your association have? One with fifty-two representatives (one from each state, D.C., and Puerto Rico) all in-fighting with each other and trying to represent fifty-two individual constituencies? Or a small, committed group of governance professionals, chosen for the competencies they bring to the table and their ability to stay focused on strategy and the long-term?

Who should be chairing your committees? Overworked volunteers with little understanding of your association's mission and less time to work on committee projects, or competent staff people who have the focus, consistency and political skills necessary to shepherd projects from inception through your association's bureaucracy to completion?

These questions answer themselves. But there are still too many in our community who can't get them done, who can't ever get them done. They see the wisdom, they understand the need, but they don't have the political capital necessary to battle the forces of the status quo. They need help. They need a negotiating position.

Not a five-person board? Well, okay. Then how about seven? Or nine? You do agree that our board should be smaller and more competency-based, right?

And you don't want staff leading all committees? Fair enough. So how about just a few as an experiment? Or one? We do have that one committee that hasn't had a chair in three years. How about that one? And if that's a no-go, then how about staff serving as vice-chairs, actively supporting our volunteer chairs with the organizational and management aspects of their committees? That would allow our volunteers to focus more on their professional objectives. You do agree that our committees should be able to complete projects aligned with our overall strategy and mission, right?

R4R is making a splash in our community. If you agree with its ideas but think they're unworkable in your present situation, maybe you just need to stake it out as your negotiating position?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Why Innovation is Hard

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A little over a month ago I attended WSAE's National Summit on Innovation for Associations. As chair of WSAE's Innovation Task Force, I was instrumental in helping to frame WSAE's annual conference around the subject of innovation, and was even recognized as the chair of the conference itself. We had more than a hundred association and related industry professionals attend (a fantastic turnout for WSAE) and, true to the implied promise of the conference title, we drew attendees in from across the national scene.

The first day of the summit was facilitated by Jeff De Cagna, and its focus was on building new capacities for innovation within the association community. We weren't talking directly about making your own association more innovative (that would get more attention on day two). We were instead talking about how association professionals, the associations they worked for, and the industry partners they collaborated with could pool their ideas and organizational resources together to create new competencies and structures that would facilitate innovation in our community.

Jeff did a great job. He adeptly focused our attention on forming new peer networks for innovation. We identified a handful of common areas as ripe for innovation, self-selected ourselves into smaller working groups around those areas, and spent some time talking about what we could do to help each other move forward.

The group I was in focused on co-creation of programs and participatory decision-making--essentially having staff work hand-in-hand and continuously with members throughout the process of identifying, developing and delivering new programs and services. I was attracted to the topic because I think it's one of the areas my own association needs to improve upon. I see it as key to engaging with the next generation of members and to keeping pace with a quickly changing environment.

There were seven of us around the table and we had a great discussion. At the end of it, we made the following commitment:

Each of us will commit to a specific objective in our own organization that increases our use of co-creation or participatory decision-making in program development of strategy setting. We will then:
1. Share those objectives with one another;
2. Communicate regularly with one another to report progress, share ideas, and hold each other accountable; and
3. Develop a report on our experiences to share with the broader association community.

I can't speak for the other participants, but I left the discussion fired up and ready to tackle a new challenge. I even announced to my staff upon my return from the summit that I had participated in such a discussion, had made such a commitment, and would be working with a peer group in the weeks and months ahead to bring new ideas and practices into our association.

Then, a month went by. We had a board meeting to prepare for, a conference to plan, a newsletter to get out, a website to redesign, staffing issues to deal with. And nothing even remotely related to the commitment I had made happened.

Fortunately, one of the other members of my peer group followed up on a specific commitment she had made: polling everyone and setting up a conference call so that we could all communicate to each other the specific objectives we had set for bringing more co-creation or participatory decision-making to our associations. Last week, that call took place. Only two people from the original group were on it. Me and her.

We bemoaned the fact that so many others had dropped away, but we honestly couldn't blame them. We had almost fallen away ourselves, succumbing instead to the very real and very pressing demands of the day-to-day. But we wanted to keep the spirit we had both felt at the summit alive. Even if it is just the two of us, there was value in stepping away from the deadlines that seem to control us and spend a few moments talking about what comes next--not for the projects we're working on, but for the frame within which those projects take place.

And in that one hour I spent on the phone with her--one hour out of a month crammed with staff meetings, conference calls, and project planning activities--I came up with three good ideas for ways to bring more co-creation and participatory decision-making to my association. I've started bouncing them off members of my staff and the response has been positive. They can see the strategy behind the tactics, and they can see the value to them and the association to find ways to get them done.

This is what makes innovation so hard. It requires us to do something different. Something, initially, that has no support and no one has time for and which will never have any evidence that it will work. We have to step away from what we do at the day-to-day level, and we have to look and respond to the unrealized future we can't define but which we know is coming.

How are you going to do that? How are you going to get that done while keeping all the other balls you're juggling in the air? What if the answer was a one hour phone call every month with a peer who is juggling the same balls and who has the same desire to look beyond and change the way things are done? Would you be able to find time for that?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

This is volume two of Morris’ three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. His first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt left quite an impression on me, both for Morris’ analytical and biographical gifts, and because of the less flattering portrait it offered me of Roosevelt than what I had remembered of him from H. W. Brands’ TR: The Last Romantic. In this case, that less flattering portrait was a good thing, because I believe my own political philosophies have shifted in the intervening years, and although I still admire a great many things about Roosevelt—his bookishness (love the photo of him reading with a dog on his lap while on vacation in Colorado), his physicality, his clearness of purpose—I have come to view him as one of the first if not the first modern President, pushing the limits of presidential power to leave both his own and the perceived impression of his nation’s necessity on the world.

Theodore Rex offers me more of this portrait; much more, in fact, because it chronicles his two terms as President—from the assassination of William McKinley to the inauguration of William Howard Taft. But at the same time it offers me less. In ways, Roosevelt is a more sympathetic character in Theodore Rex than he was in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, although it’s not clear to me from where the sympathy rises.


One thing is certain, Roosevelt was an odd kind of Republican, at least if judged by today’s standards. He is neither a Reagan Republican, a Compassionate Conservative, nor a Tea Partier. He believes in big government, and that business must be regulated for its own health and controlled growth—the same way a gardener would prune a bush to encourage healthier growth in desired directions. He believed that…

…perpetual, mild reform was true conservatism, in that it protected existing institutions from atrophy, and relieved the buildup of radical pressure.

Relieving the buildup of radical pressure—that’s key to understanding Roosevelt’s philosophy. He wants to regulate business not because he is anti-business, and not because he wants to protect people from its abuses. He wants to regulate because without some continual check on the power of business, the radicals in the society will rise up in numbers too great to suppress, and catastrophic anarchy may result. That’s the ultimate goal. Keep the society on an even keel. Allow business to grow and to profit—human liberty is very closely tied to that in Roosevelt’s thinking—but keep it on a leash to avoid the destructive clash of Have and Have Not.

Race Relations

Similarly, his views on race put him at odds with many of today’s Republicans—and clearly the Democrats of his day. Importantly, he was the first president to entertain an African-American at the White House. To his way of thinking, this was significant, but should not have been controversial. His guest, after all—Booker T. Washington—was an exemplary example of his race.

The President felt entirely at ease. It seemed “so natural and proper” to have Washington wield his silver. Here, dark and dignified among the paler company, was living proof of what he had always preached: that Negroes could rise to the social heights, at least on an individual basis. Collective equality was clearly out of the question, given their “natural limitations” in the evolutionary scheme of things. But a black man who advanced faster than his fellows should be rewarded with every privilege that democracy could bestow. Booker T. Washington qualified honoris causa in the “aristocracy of worth.”

Roosevelt’s views, while still racist by today’s standard, were well-intentioned. And he is genuinely surprised by the reaction offered up in the Southern press.

An early thunderclap was sounded by the Memphis Scimitar:

“The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President, when he invited a nigger to dine with him at the White House. It would not be worth more than a passing notice if Theodore Roosevelt had sat down to dinner in his own home with a Pullman car porter, but Roosevelt the individual and Roosevelt the President are not to be viewed in the same light.

“It is only very recently that President Roosevelt boasted that his mother was a Southern woman, and that he is half Southern by reason of that fact. By inviting a nigger to his table he pays his mother small duty … No Southern woman with a proper self-respect would now accept an invitation to the White House, nor would President Roosevelt be welcomes today in Southern homes. He has not inflamed the anger if the Southern people; he has excited their disgust.”

The word nigger had not been seen in print for years. Its sudden reappearance had the force of an obscenity.

Obscene is right. It is something close to unbelievable to this modern reader that such a large segment of the American public could have reacted this way.

In Richmond, Virginia, a transparency of the President’s face was hissed off the Bijou screen. In Charleston, South Carolina, Senator Benjamin R. Tillman endorsed remedial genocide: “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”

Tillman is, of course, referring to lynching, a practice still prevalent in Roosevelt’s time, and something he probably would have acted against if given the freedom to pursue the dictates of his conscience. But this incident with Washington, so inflamed the Southern public, that Roosevelt lost a good deal of political influence with them. Although opportunities presented themselves during his remaining terms in office to strike out against racism and murder, he demurred every time, seeking the path of least resistance instead of the compulsions of his own heart.

War and Torture

While the sections describing the state of race relations seem so out of line with our modern political climate, there are other sections, again and again throughout the book, where I encountered situations that were eerily reminiscent of scandals and politics of today. And given such resemblances, the detailed differences between then and now become all the more striking. Early in Roosevelt’s first term, a scandal erupted over accusations of torture by the American Army in its occupation of the Philippines.

No sooner had the phrases ‘kill and burn’ and ‘howling wilderness’ [references to illegal orders allegedly given to soldiers] registered on the American conscience than a third, ‘water cure,’ came out of the Committee hearings. Witness after witness testified to widespread use by American soldiers of this traditional torture, developed by Spanish priests as a means of instilling reverence for the Holy Ghost:

“A man is thrown down on his back and three or four men sit on his arms and legs and hold him down and either a gun barrel or a rifle barrel or a carbine barrel or a stick as big as a belaying pin … is simply thrust into his jaws … and then water is poured onto his face, down his throat and nose … until the man gives some sign of giving in or becoming unconscious … His suffering must be that of a man who is drowning, but who cannot drown.”

Other reports spoke of natives being flogged, toasted, strung up by their thumbs, and tattooed “facially” for identification.

So much for the similarities. For the differences, here’s a cable sent at Roosevelt’s behest:

The President desires to know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts … for the very reason that the President intends to back up the Army in the heartiest fashion in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work. He also intends to see that the most vigorous care is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality, and that men who are guilty thereof are punished. Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.

And what Roosevelt has America doing in the Philippines also has eerie parallels with the political situation today. As he told a group of Civil War veterans on Memorial Day, 1902:

They [the American soldiers] were fighting to impose “orderly freedom” upon a fragmented nation, according to the rules of “just severity” sanctioned by Abraham Lincoln. On Mindanao as at Gettysburg, “military power is used to secure peace, in order that it may itself be supplanted by the civil power.”

Roosevelt reminded his audience that legislation to that effect was now before Congress. There was scattered applause. “We believe that we can rapidly teach the people of the Philippine Islands … how to make good use of their freedom.”

People can debate the motives of Presidents—whether it is Roosevelt and American occupation of the Philippines or Bush and American occupation of Iraq—maybe they do intend to work toward civilian authority and maybe they don’t, but you can’t argue that both approach the world with the same paternalistic provincialism, confident in their own self-assured way that the American way is best—not just for Americans, but for everyone.

The Monroe Doctrine and the Panama Canal

What is the Monroe Doctrine? Today, it’s one of those obscure pieces of history that everyone’s heard of but almost no one knows what it is. Wikipedia can help.

The Monroe Doctrine is a policy of the United States introduced on December 2, 1823. It stated that further efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the America would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention.

And as you can imagine, Roosevelt was a big believer in the Monroe Doctrine. He invoked it numerous times during his life to justify military interventions in the Western Hemisphere (and beyond). As Morris artfully describes when referring to his office in the White House, it was a doctrine that perfectly matched his view of America’s role in the world.

The room’s main decoration was a huge globe. Spun and stopped at a certain angle, the orb showed the Americas floating alone and green from pole to pole, surrounded by nothing but blue. Tiny skeins of foam (visible only to himself, as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy) wove protectively across both oceans, as far south as the bulge of Venezuela and as far west as the Philippines. Asia and Australia were pushed back by the curve if the Pacific. Africa and Arabia drowned in the Indian Ocean. Europe’s jagged edge clung to one horizon, like the moraine of a retreating glacier.

When Roosevelt spoke of the Western Hemisphere, this was how he saw it—not the left half of a map counterbalanced by kingdoms and empires, but one whole face of the earth, centered on the United States. And here, microscopically small in the power center of this center, was himself sitting down to work.

And if America was going to play this role, this enforcer and protector of national sovereignty in the Western Hemisphere, then something like the Panama Canal was absolutely necessary. When Germany threatened Venezuela with warships in 1903 over some dispute over owed taxes and displaced citizens, Roosevelt fumed over the idea that hostilities might erupt while the bulk of the American Navy was off the coast of California in the Pacific Ocean. The trip around the tip of South America would take far too long for all that American firepower to be either a deterrent or an effective force. Slicing the continents in two, and allowing ships to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic in days rather than months was essential to both the Monroe Doctrine and to Roosevelt’s vision of the world.

This is one of those insights that one only gains by reading real history. In our American vernacular, Roosevelt is too often said to have wanted the Panama Canal because he needed something equally world-changing to go with his tremendous ego and sense of American importance. In reality, it was much more about strategy than hubris.

But hubris was not entirely absent. The intention to build the canal, once arrived at, was supported with every expansionist and exceptionalist trick in the American playbook. When Colombia, whose government possessed the territory then known as Panama, balked at the offer America made for the land and the labor to build the canal, Roosevelt’s advisors counseled him to ignore its sovereignty.

Professor [John Basset] Moore’s memorandum argued that Panama was the only place in the Americas to build a canal “for the world.” The question of Colombian sovereignty was therefore a global rather than a regional one. All nations had a right to benefit from the opening of this great “gate of intercourse” between East and West. One nation could not delay, or demand an exorbitant fee for, that constructive advance.

In other words, because American wanted it, America should have it. I mean, who were these pesky Colombians? What gave them the right to stand in the way of global progress?

Very little, evidently. One carefully orchestrated revolution later, the fledgling republic of Panama was created and immediately recognized as an independent nation by the President of the United States. The Canal treaty followed soon after, on terms very similar to those first offered to Colombia.


But Roosevelt’s vision of America wasn’t just prescribed to the Western Hemisphere.

Our place as a nation is and must be with the nations that have left indelibly their impress on the centuries… Those that did not expand passed away and left not so much as a memory behind them. The Roman expanded, the Roman passed away, but the Roman had left the print of his law, of his language, of his masterful ability in administration, deep in the world’s history, deeply imprinted in the character of the races that came after him. I ask that this people [Americans] rise level to the greatness of its opportunities.

Here is Manifest Destiny writ large—not just the continent, but the world—couched, as always in the language of peace and prosperity.

We infinitely desire peace, and the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we are not afraid of war.

It’s the debate of the ages, isn’t it? Hawkish presidents of every century have advocated the same “peace through strength” course of action. I’m not sure I buy it, and if I were to rephrase the sentiment with my latest libertarian leanings, I would have to say that the surest way of obtaining peace was to show that we are not afraid of doing business.

But let’s put that debate aside. Roosevelt was eerily prescient about the arc of world affairs, especially with regard to the rise of Japan as a world power.

In a dozen years the English, Americans and Germans, who now dread one another as rivals in the trade of the Pacific, will have each to dread the Japanese more than they do any other nation … I believe that Japan will take its place as a great civilized power of a formidable type, and with motives and ways of thought which are not quite those of the powers of our own race. My own policy is perfectly simple, though I have not the slightest idea whether I can get my own country to follow it. I wish to see the United States treat the Japanese in a spirit of all possible courtesy, and with generosity and justice … If we show that we regard the Japanese as an inferior and alien race, and try to treat them as we have treated the Chinese; and if at the same time we fail to keep our navy at the highest point of efficiency and size—then we shall invite disaster.

In reaction to this view, Roosevelt did at least two things. He personally negotiated a settlement to the Japanese-Russian war then threatening to stalemate, and he demanded that Congress appropriate funds to build a greater number of superior battleships than any other nation on earth.

In both activities, Roosevelt tempered his indelible drive for American expansionism with the reality that America, while uniquely special, was truly one nation among many. There was a role for America to play on the world stage—a strong and important one—but ultimately, I think, it was one in which Roosevelt saw America exerting a temporizing effect on the aggressions of world politics. Much like his progressivism in the world of business, in which he saw the dangers of too much wealth accumulating in the hands of too few people, he also saw the dangers of too much power accumulating in the hands of too few nations. America would be the policeman of the world, but it would be the beat cop of the nineteenth century, not the paramilitary stormtrooper of the twenty-first.

Bits and Pieces

Some quick items worth noting that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. First, during the peace negotiations between Russia and Japan just mentioned, a young reporter observed the following:

For the first time it was borne in upon me that wars were not only not necessary, but even ridiculous; that they were wholly man-made … [I] questioned Socrates’ conclusion that to know the good is to practice it. Humanity is simply not built like that. Except for a few savage or half-savage tribes, we all know that war profits no one, that it’s only result in the world, in the words of Croesus, is that “In war the fathers bury their sons, whereas in peace the sons bury their fathers,”—the normal course. But we are no more normal than we are certain to practice to good if we know it. Those bits of wisdom from the Greek world are two and a half millennia old, but they only emphasize our persistent unwisdom.

Wouldn’t it be nice if more people would come to the same epiphany? And speaking of the press, here’s another interesting parallel between Roosevelt’s and our time that relates to his use of the media.

More than any other previous occupant of the White House, Roosevelt understood that the way to manipulate reporters was to let them imagine they were helping shape policy. A “consultation” here, a confidence shared there, and the scribe was transformed into a pen for hire.

Probably not just our time, I guess. That’s a strategy that’s been with us from the very beginning.

There’s a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes on my to-read shelf, and I stumbled across this passage that makes me want to advance it to the head of the line.

In his world there was neither absolute good not absolute evil—only shifting standards of positive and negative behavior, determined by the majority and subject to constant change. Morality was not defined by God; it was the code a given generation of men wanted to live by. Truth was “what I can’t help believing.” Yesterday’s absolutes must give way to “the felt necessities of the time.”

Could anyone ever say such of thing in our modern environment and even hope to be elected?

And finally, for all you trivia buffs, Roosevelt was one of the only presidents not to take the oath of office while swearing on a Bible. In the rush of events following the death of William McKinley, it appears, that detail was overlooked.


I wanted to get those items out of the way because I really wanted to finish with this. One of the most interesting parts of Roosevelt’s life is his family and his relationships with its various members. His relationship with his father and his two wives was a prominent backstory of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and I expect his relationship with his sons, especially Kermit and Quentin, will similarly infect Colonel Roosevelt, but the deepest familial undercurrent in Theodore Rex is his relationship with his oldest daughter, Alice.

Posing with Alice afterward for a photograph of notable stiffness, he stood leaning away from her slightly, his face devoid of expression. She held herself erect, almost as tall as Nick, in white satin trimmed with old lace, a frozen Niagara of white and silver brocade cascading from her waist and down the carpeted dais.

Did Roosevelt’s masked look, and his apparent scruple not to touch Alice with his shoulder, convey an awareness that the lace covering her shoulder and sweeping in a graceful crescent across her breasts had been worn, long ago, by another Alice? And did Edith Roosevelt, who also remembered that lace with pain, have it in mind when she kissed her stepdaughter good-bye and said, not entirely jokingly, “I want you to know that I’m glad to see you leave. You have never been anything else but trouble”?

The bride, heading off to Cuba on honeymoon, was missed at least by her Mexican yellow-head parrot. For days after her departure, the White House resounded with despairing calls of “Alice—Alice—Alice.”

How unsufferably sad. I’ll steal a line from a Norman Dubie poem—the crimes of the verb to be. Alice, guilty of nothing more than reminding her father of her mother’s untimely death, leads her entire life in a state of rebellious antagonism with her father. He loves her for who she is, but cannot love her for what she represents.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Chief Detail Officer

Here's a TED talk worth watching. It's from April 2010, but the point it makes is timeless, even if the Tiger Woods jokes aren't.

Rory Sutherland persuasively makes the case that organizations don't spend enough time working on the small stuff. That, in fact, there is a bias in most organizations that big problems have to be met with big solutions--solutions that have to be conceptualized by powerful people and executed with lots and lots of money.

Sutherland doesn't claim that approach won't work in some situations, but he comes out stridently for a different approach, embodied by something he calls the Chief Detail Officer, the CDO. This isn't the person responsible for coordinating all the details. It is the person responsible for finding small things that cost little that have tremendous impact and making sure they are done right and consistently.

If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, jump to just after the ten-minute mark and listen to him talk through the four quadrant diagram he's created to illustrate his point. Here's my approximation of it:
There's a question mark in the lower right quadrant, the one representing the things that have a big impact but which don't cost a lot money, because, as Sutherland says, we don't currently have a word for those kinds of things. And if we did, he says, maybe we'd spend a little more time looking for them.

It really resonates with me, because I've seen these nameless things in action. Here's a quick story.

I've been in association management for 18 years now. I started as a meeting planner. I've coordinated educational sessions for 60 and city-wide conventions for 6,000. I've stuffed more cardstock name badges into plastic badge holders than I care to mention. And I've worn them for years, usually flapping around uselessly on the end of a lanyard.

The first conference I went to with my current association, the staff showed me a trick they've been doing for years. I'd never seen anything like it before. They printed their name badges on both sides of the piece of cardstock. Why? So that whichever way the darn thing flopped against someone, their name would be clear for everyone to see.

And at that first meeting one of the Board members told me a story about how that little technique had helped them secure a business deal because it spared them the embarrassment of having forgotten someone's name.

Sutherland may not have a name for these ideas, these things that cost next to nothing but have an impact all out of proportion with their expense, but if a name is what it takes to focus more on them, we ought to come up with one pretty soon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Help the Customer Succeed

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One of the best parts of my job is getting out and visiting my members where they live and work. We are a trade association, so my members own or manage businesses, and most of their businesses are manufacturing companies. And like a lot of manufacturing companies, they operate very close to the margin, using a variety of human and mechanical systems to strip inefficiencies and wasteful practices out of the process of making the product and shipping it to the customer.

I'm always impressed by the complexity of these operations. Just-in-time, Lean, Kaizen--these are all part and parcel of what my members do. But what I find even more fascinating is the role that human beings play in these systems, and the motivational tactics my members employ to focus all of their attention on the goal at hand.

When you take the factory tour, you'll see signs and posters hung in various places; snappy slogans to remind people where to focus their attention. Some are authoritarian, like "Keep this area clear." Others seem more benevolent, recognizing the primacy of the human over the machine, like "Safety is our first priority." Others are empowering, conveying a sense of authority and accountability, like "See something wrong? Fix it."

But the best one I've seen?

"Help the customer succeed."

If you were to boil innovation down to four simple words, I think this is about as close as you can get to getting it right. And I think what I find so appealing about it is that it only works in an environment where everyone, from the plant manager to the sales person to the line worker, knows who the customer is and what it is they're trying to achieve. I'm sure that's not an accurate description of every manufacturing operation, but it probably describes a good many of the most successful ones. I've had personal experiences, walking as a guest through a manufacturing facility, and stopping a person in the middle of some assembly function to hear them describe exactly what they are doing on how it benefits the customer.

Now, think about the world of associations. How many association staffers really know who their customers are and what they need to succeed in their environments? How many could accurately respond if you stopped them in the middle of one of their daily tasks and asked them how what they're doing is benefiting their members?

Over lunch with a colleague the other day I opined that most association professionals, assuming they don't come from the industry or profession their association represents, probably only understand about 10% of their members' environment. They understand their own environment, that of association programs and services, but how those programs and services can be best positioned to solve the challenges their members face--that takes an unusual amount of insight and a willingness to learn what those challenges actually are.

"Help the customer succeed" is more than just a slogan. It is a way of thinking about your association, your role in it, and the things with which you fill your time. Like most directives, simply hanging up a sign is going to change very little. But if you accept the underlying concept--that you must first understand what the member is trying to achieve before you can help them get there--then a great many changes may start happening.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley

When I picked this one up I thought it was a sequel to Brave New World. It isn’t. It’s an essay by Huxley about how “the subtle terrors he prophesied for the 26th century are here now.” Now, being 1958.

It holds up pretty well. There are some things he talks about that are strange and out of place to a modern reader—predictions of future terrors that seem quaint and ill-informed—but many other things he seems to get exactly right. Here’s what he says, for example, about advertising:

The principles underlying this kind of propaganda are extremely simple. Find some common desire, some widespread unconscious fear or anxiety; think out some way to relate this wish or fear to the product you have to sell; then build a bridge of verbal or pictorial symbols over which your customer can pass from fact to compensatory dream, and from the dream to the illusion that your product, when purchased, will make the dream come true. “We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just the auto, we buy prestige.” And so with all the rest. In toothpaste, for example, we buy, not a mere cleaner and antiseptic, but release from the fear of being sexually repulsive. In vodka and whisky we are not buying a protoplasmic poison which, in small doses, may depress the nervous system in a psychologically valuable way; we are buying friendliness and good fellowship, the warmth of Dingley Dell and the brilliance of the Mermaid Tavern. With our laxatives we buy the health of a Greek god, the radiance of one of Diana’s nymphs. With the monthly best seller we acquire culture, the envy of our less literate neighbors and the respect of the sophisticated.

And here’s what he says about political candidates, and their need to appeal rather than explain:

In one way or another, as vigorous he-man or kindly father, the candidate must be glamorous. He must also be an entertainer who never bores his audience. Inured to television and radio, that audience is accustomed to be distracted and does not like to be asked to concentrate or make a prolonged intellectual effort. All speeches by the entertainer-candidate must therefore be short and snappy. The great issues of the day must be dealt with in five minutes at the most—and preferably (since the audience will be eager to pass on to something a little livelier than inflation or the H-bomb) in sixty seconds flat. The nature of oratory is such that there has always been a tendency among politicians and clergymen to over-simplify complex issues. From a pulpit or a platform even the most conscientious of speakers finds it very difficult to tell the whole truth. The methods now being used to merchandise the political candidate as though he were a deodorant positively guarantee the electorate against ever hearing the truth about anything.

Both spot on, if you ask me. And his social commentary is as penetrating as ever, piercing through the veils of myth that are often draped over our society and to its hardened core. For example, here’s how he responds to the view that humans are a social species:

If these views were correct, if human beings were in fact the members of a truly social species, and if their individual differences were trifling and could be completely ironed out by appropriate conditioning, then, obviously, there would be no need for liberty and the State would be justified in persecuting the heretics who demanded it. For the individual termite, service to the termitary is perfect freedom.

And there are other places where he simply explains things in ways I have never heard them explained before. Writs of habeas corpus, for example. I’ve heard them mentioned a lot, and know that presidents like Lincoln have suspended them in times of war, but I’ve never really known what they were. Well, Huxley explains them this way.

A person who is being kept in prison on ground of doubtful legality has the right, under the Common Law as clarified by the statute of 1679, to appeal to one of the higher courts if justice for a writ of habeas corpus. This writ is addressed by a judge of the high court to a sheriff or jailer, and commands him, within a specified period of time, to bring the person he is holding in custody to the court for an examination of his case—to bring, be it noted, not the person’s written complaint, nor his legal representatives, but his corpus, his body, the too too solid flesh which has been made to sleep on boards, to smell the fetid prison air, to eat the revolting prison food.

Now I can see why suspension of such a right is so vilified by libertarians. Even in times of war, an accused should have such a right, shouldn’t he?

But what I really want to touch on is Huxley’s apparent view of the human species and its ability, or lack of an ability, ultimately, to govern itself. He begins his chapter on Propaganda in a Democratic Society this way:

“The doctrines of Europe,” Jefferson wrote, “were that men in numerous associations cannot be restrained within the limits of order and justice, except by forces physical and moral wielded over them by authorities independent of their will. … We (the founders of the new American democracy) believe that man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice, and that he could be restrained from wrong, and protected in right, by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice and held to their duties by dependence on his own will.” To post-Freudian ears, this kind of language seems touchingly quaint and ingenuous. Human beings are a good deal less rational and innately just than the optimists of the eighteenth century supposed. On the other hand they are neither so morally blind nor so hopelessly unreasonable as the pessimists of the twentieth would have us believe. In spite of the Id and the Unconscious, in spite of endemic neurosis and the prevalence of low IQs, most men and women are probably decent enough and sensible enough to be trusted with the direction of their own destinies.

This is a remarkable chapter, one that trumpets both Huxley’s near-inerrant powers of prognostication, but which also highlights every human’s inability to contextualize the future in anything but the present. As shown above, he readily concedes most of the Jeffersonian view that people can effectively govern themselves (although perhaps not as efficiently as a dictator), but adds one important caveat. They must be given a “fair chance,” which he describes more or less as a prosperous, well-informed democracy. In such a society, people have the best capacity to govern themselves well, and if they succumb to the manipulation of a dictator, that dictator must corrupt at least one of those three conditions—prosperity, freedom of information, or democracy.

And Huxley knows that such corruptions have happened and will continue to happen.

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past. Among people who wore top hats, traveled in trains, and took a bath every morning such horrors were simply out of the question. After all, we were living in the twentieth century. A few years later these people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats were committing atrocities on a scale undreamed of by the benighted Africans and Asiatics. In the light of recent history it would be foolish to suppose that this sort of thing cannot happen again. It can, and no doubt, it will.

Of the three conditions necessary for people to have their “fair chance,” it is freedom of information that Huxley sees as the most threatened and most vulnerable, even in otherwise prosperous and democratic societies.

Mass communication, in a word, is neither good nor bad; it is simply a force and, like any other force, it can be used either well or ill. Used in one way, the press, the radio and the cinema are indispensable to the survival of democracy. Used in another way, they are among the most powerful weapons in the dictator’s armory. In the field of mass communications as in almost every other field of enterprise, technological progress had hurt the Little Man and helped the Big Man. As lately as fifty years ago, every democratic country could boast of a great number of small journals and local newspapers. Thousands of country editors expressed thousands of independent opinions. Somewhere or other almost everybody could get almost anything printed. Today the press is still legally free; but most of the little papers have disappeared. The cost of wood-pulp, of modern printing machinery and of syndicated news is too high for the Little Man. In the totalitarian East there is political censorship, and the media of mass communication are controlled by the State. In the democratic West there is economic censorship and the media of mass communication are controlled by members of the Power Elite. Censorship by rising costs and the concentration of communication power in the hands of a few big concerns is less objectionable than State ownership and government propaganda; but certainly it is not something of which a Jeffersonian democrat could possibly approve.

And here, I think, is where Huxley gets it wrong, where he succumbs to the natural limitations of his own mortal worldview. Huxley did not live to see and could not have imagined the rise of something we call the Internet and the communications power it has put back in the hands of the Little Man. The Power Elite still control a good deal of the messages that are broadcast, but the rise of Internet narrowcasting through blogs and Twitter feeds and YouTube videos have stemmed the fatalistic asymptotic slide towards fewer and fewer voices. The Big Man may still win out in the end, but interestingly, if he doesn’t, if we remain awash in the millions of viewpoints never more than a few mouseclicks away, then we may need to worry about Huxley’s other primary caution about propaganda in a democratic society. In the end, the battle will not be between information and misinformation. It will be between the relevant and the irrelevant. Never, he cautions, underestimate man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

In the past most people never got a chance of fully satisfying this appetite. They might long for distractions, but the distractions were not provided. Christmas came but once a year, feasts were “solemn and rare,” there were few readers and very little to read, and the nearest approach to a neighborhood movie theater was the parish church, where the performances, though frequent, were somewhat monotonous. For conditions even remotely comparable to those now prevailing we must return to imperial Rome, where the populace was kept in good humor by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment—from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema. In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature (the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumblepuppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation. The other world of religion is different from the other world of entertainment; but they resemble one another in being most decidedly “not of this world.” Both are distractions and, if lived in too continuously, both can become, in Marx’s phrase, “the opium of the people” and so a threat to freedom. Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.

The Internet, for all it has done to empower the communications and viewpoints of the Little Man, has brought with it a whole new world of distractions in which that Little Man may happily and willingly enslave himself.

There are times when Huxley almost seems to say that there isn’t anything malevolent or perhaps even conscious about these corruptions of the Jeffersonian vision for human self-governance. They may very well be the intrinsic and inevitable result of our own human nature. But he always returns to a description of how that nature—as self-emergent as it may be—will be manipulated by those who seek to do so. As he is wrapping up near the end of his short text, he refers directly to the oligarchs that are consciously turning the screws of our society.

Under the relentless thrust of accelerating over-population and increasing over-organization, and by means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms—elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts and all the rest—will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial—but democracy and freedom in a strictly Pickwickian sense. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.

And although I’m much more persuaded by the idea that decay is our natural and not our calculated fate, there are times when I think something like this has already happened—that the American nation has been corrupted by just the kind of conscious but non-violent totalitarianism Huxley describes in this paragraph. But the argument is undercut, I think, but his own use of the term “non-violent totalitarianism.” Can such a thing actually exist? Isn’t totalitarianism, by its very definition, violent? Doesn’t it have to be? How else could freedom be restrained? And if the term is self-contradictory, then I have to find another way of approaching the concept.

If I’m right, and totalitarianism is by definition violent, then perhaps Huxley is wrong about the non-violence. In this construction, our oligarchs and their solider-policeman servants do and will use violence whenever it is necessary to protect their carefully orchestrated status quo. This is the view of conspiracy theorists.

Or perhaps Huxley is wrong about the Pickwickian decay of democracy and freedom being non-violent? In this construction, the oligarchs have succeeded in enslaving us without resorting to torture and murder, but by our own numbing need for security at any price. It is only non-violent in the sense that we have agreed to submit rather than be bashed in the head. This is the view of cynics.

Or perhaps Huxley’s whole view is utter hogwash. No such takeover has happened—violent or otherwise—and we are as free as we have ever been. ‘Ever been’ are the key words there. If you believe we have always been free—at least, in the view of Americans, from the founding of our unique nation—then this construction results in the view of patriots. If you believe, however, that we have never actually been free, in 1776 or at any other time in human history, then this construction sets up the view of the anarchist, who believes the oligarchs have rigged the game from the very beginning.

Which view do you hold?

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Giant Hairball of Complexity

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If you're like me, you're fascinated by all the coverage Netflix is getting lately. Normally when there's a kerfuffle at one of the anointed tech companies, I have a hard time paying attention. Latest iPhone prototype "accidently" left in a bar somewhere? Publicity stunt. Facebook changing everything again? Good. Maybe now it will start making sense to me.

But with Netflix it's different. I use Netflix. I love Netflix. I suppose Netflix is to me what Apple is to so many iPad and iTunes users, except with Netflix I've never felt like I was surreptitiousness playing with the cool kids' toys while they weren't looking. My Netflix Queue is mine, and through it I can be whatever I want to be.

So when Netflix raised its prices 60% and then decided to split its DVD delivery service off from its video streaming service, you would've thought I would have had a strong negative reaction. Like so many others. But I have to be honest. My reaction in both cases was: What? Oh, okay. I can handle that. I mean, I was way more upset when they took away the ability to manage multiple queues. Remember that?

What fascinates me about the latest Netflix controversy is not the rebellion it has created among Netflix users, or the company's efforts to better communicate with and placate its customers. What fascinates me is what it might be saying about vision and leadership.

I've read a lot of opinion pieces on the situation. But here's the best one so far, written by Adam Richardson of frog design. In it, he credits Netflix for quite obviously looking at an endgame 5-10 years into the future. He quotes Netflix CEO Reed Hastings as saying:

"For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something — like AOL dial-up or Borders bookstores — do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us) because they are afraid to hurt their initial business. Eventually these companies realize their error of not focusing enough on the new thing, and then the company fights desperately and hopelessly to recover. Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly."

And to illustrate the point, Richardson includes a graphic he drew five years ago, a tongue-in-cheek "timeline" of pivot points for a frog design client in the TV business:

Richardson says:

Half-jokingly it made the point that there is a giant hairball of complexity, consolidation and confusion that the industry is going to have to go through, but if you can survive that, the obvious end state will be that any piece of media will be available whenever an individual wants, wherever they are, on any device they like.

Which leads me to my own thought-provoking questions about the organization I lead and the challenges I'm facing on a daily basis. How much of what I'm doing, I wonder, is focused on my own giant hairball of complexity, and how much is focused on the endgame that will inevitably present itself when all those kinks are worked out?

Pick your industry or profession. There are trends obvious for all to see. Generational change, social networking, for-profit competition--these are some of the changes that are impacting every association. There are others, and some are unique to individual environments, but whatever they are, right now they seem all tangled up into a giant hairball and, as a result, some of us are busy trying to pick that hairball apart and straighten out all the threads in a way that makes sense for our own organization.

Stop. Rather, keep your eyes on the far end of Richardson's chart--the endgame that is obvious to any intelligent person that looks at the situation. For Netflix, that endgame is "any video content in history available anytime, on any device," and that's what Reed Hastings is playing for. He needs to keep current subscribers happy, yes, but not at the expense of not being positioned for the subscribers of that future end state.

How is your organization any different?