Archive for Technology

The Real Reason to Tweet: “Followship”

 

 

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.

~Arthur Schopenhauer

 

When I first set up my Twitter account, I did it as a lark. After all, 140 characters* seemed a ridiculously arbitrary limit on self-expression, bound to promote meaningless chatter. Do I really need to know that someone is hanging at Starbucks, right this minute – or ever?

At first, I did find 140 amazingly SHORT. In contrast to Facebook, where I could expound to my heart’s content, it is. But after a bit, I saw that honing my messages to a simple sentence or two was a challenge I enjoyed. Could I find something meaningful to say in that small space – and do it without chopping my prose into inelegant short hand?

As I started to take my Twitter presence more earnestly, I also found that most people don’t tweet their whereabouts. They’re doing something else entirely: they’re sharing – ideas, events, feelings, links, happenings, aphorisms, and more. All in a constant pulsing stream, like the beat of your heart or the sparks of thought firing in your head.

And something else: each day I’d see new followers, and I was mystified how they were finding me. This was such a contrast to Facebook, where (at least in the beginning) I knew most everyone I befriended. But Twitter is the opposite - it’s about making contact with people you don’t know through shared interest or sentiment. And this is one aspect of Twitter that’s truly revolutionary.

You see, people have been organized - socially, politically, economically – along geographical lines for as long as history. With faster and increasingly affordable travel options, geography has become much less important than it was, say, when this country was founded. Even so, geography still determines us at a fundamental level: we have nations with physical borders and flags and passports and governance. And on a smaller scale, we have neighbors who become friends, and so do people with whom we work and people we bump into at the health club. Our lives are still largely defined by proximity. But now we’re on the cusp of something that has the glimmer of an entirely new organizing principle: social structures based not on land mass but on areas of interest

And Twitter is a transport into this emerging new world.

So, where does the Schopenhauer quotation fit in? Well, most of what I hear about Twitter focuses on what to tweet, how often, and how this will drive increased followers. In other words, there’s a huge concentration on the follower side of
Twitter. “Follow me!” “Thanks for the follow!” “How many followers do you have?” And “what’s your Klout score?” It’s no wonder many people haven’t chosen to join in – it can appear to be just one big popularity contest, as vapid as high school.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love getting new followers, and I do take that number and its move in the upward direction as an indicator of the value of my contribution to the Twitter community. But the real value of Twitter for me is on the other side of the exchange: whom I follow.

And the reason has everything to do with Mr. Schopenhauer’s quotation: the smaller my field of vision, the smaller my experience of the world. I’ve spent my life seeking to open my mind, expand my thinking, experience different perceptions on life as a way to become a more evolved human being. Consulting work has afforded me much opportunity in this: I’ve worked with homeless shelters and conservation groups, with private schools for the privileged and refugee organizations for those with nothing, with AIDs clinics and dental clinics, with those who use fire and those who regulate smoke, with ballet dancers and database engineers, with PhD scientists and PhD nuns. All to show me corners of the world just beyond my view.

But Twitter has enabled me to expand my view even farther afield. With Twitter I can follow anyone I can open my mind to find. It’s become a grand game: who can I follow that will make known to me the unknown, and on what subjects am I curious? Art, architecture? Middle Eastern politics, the EU, Africa? The environment, world food supply, books, technology, writers, water, global governance, or, perhaps, shoes? Every interest, idea, passion, and curiosity can be explored by a click of the follow button.

And isn’t it odd that this part of Twitter gets so little play? I mean, there isn’t even a name for those you follow. I’ve heard “followeds”, which is ugly in the extreme. And “those I follow”, which is too long to be cool. I’m also shocked by how many big thinkers and self-professed thought leaders out there follow very few. This seems to be an unspoken indicator of cool. But I think it shows a remarkably uncurious mind.

In fact, who follows whom is one of the most interesting parts of Twitter. I get to see, for instance, who a favorite writer like Susan Orlean follows, or who Edward Norton pays attention to, or Arianna Huffington or Biz Stone or Ambassador Rice. And this helps me find new people to follow - it’s better than bread crumbs to find my way to an expanded mind, new thoughts, happenings and even the mundane like a good recipe.

So, not only do I look at who and how many someone follows – and use this as criteria for my own “followship” (my turn of phrase) of that individual, I also consider the person’s tweets. For instance, there are many people who don’t tweet at all. Now, while I respect this observer stance, it doesn’t prove very attractive for me as a potential follower – why follow someone who doesn’t tweet? And then there are those who only tweet recycled (other people’s) tweets, which can be interesting, but doesn’t reveal as much about the tweeter. Or those who only tweet the mini-sales pitch, and isn’t it remarkable, that no matter how short, this is still annoying?

And then there are people of considerable means and influence, and I won’t name names, who haven’t gotten beyond tweeting their whereabouts. I think, “C’mon buddy, of all people, you should have more to add to the cosmic conversation!”

If I follow so broadly, you may be wondering, how can I possibly gain anything from it? It’s like sorting a needle in a haystack. Well, that’s what Twitter lists are for – I can sub-divide my followship into subcategories, such as “thoughtleaders,” “international,” and “environment.” There’s cross-over of course, but in this way, I can quickly view areas of interest on my twitter feed and catch up on the conversation. And then too, I trust in something I refer to as the “Twitterverse” – I don’t need to see everything because I assume what I need to see I will. It may be a bit zen for some of you, but it works for me. The last thing I want is to be obsessed about missing something important on Twitter.

In a blog post about why he’s on Twitter, author James Gleick (someone else I follow) describes it as “…my tiny chosen slice of the global consciousness.” And he’s right – who we follow makes up our chosen slice, or as Schopenhauer says, who we follow makes up “the limits of the world.” So why not follow as broadly and boldly as you dare? Why not use Twitter to expand those limits? Why not tap into the global hum on Twitter, the pulse of minds sharing, and blow the doors right off your consciousness? Followship is the real power of Twitter – and the real reason to be on it. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

 

*Actually, there is a reason for 140. According to Twitter main man Biz Stone: “the message limit of 140 characters was based on the limit of 160 characters imposed by SMS. We just needed some room to include your name in front of the message.” I learned this, of course, by following him.

What’s In a Home Page?

Today we launched the new home page of Rebecca Reynolds Consulting (RRC). I wanted to announce it and the blog seemed like a fitting place to do so. And that got me to thinking, what’s in a home page, after all?

It’s one page standing at the front of the line of our website, all newly gussied up to make an impression. Fascinating that.

Behind the RRC homepage – our little digital imprint by which we greet the world - lie who knows how many hours of concepts, drafts, revisions, decisions, code, links and more, waiting in the wings. It takes a Herculean effort indeed, by a team of experts, to bring this single page to view.*

But not so long ago – in the not-so-old days (pre-2000), there were brochures. The trusty tri-fold that gave your tagline and menu of services. This was companioned, of course, by “business papers,” which included a business card and letter set - maybe a presentation folder and an envelope in which to deliver it all. If you were really savvy, you added swag to the mix: pens, hats, and t-shirts emblazoned with your logo.

Way before that, in the real “old days,” was the calling card…evidently, also referred to as the visiting card.

  • “To the unrefined or unbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.         - Our Deportment

Obviously, we have long traded in representations of ourselves that “place the stranger, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.” But today, this idea has exploded.

We are no longer limited by the number of copies and designs we can print, and the “bit of paper” has morphed into a bit (short for binary digit) of information. The proliferation of digital “profiles” (of which the website home page is the dinosaur) includes the giants of social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube, the newbies like Google Plus, and the lesser knowns such as AboutMe, Vimeo, Flickr, StumbleUpon, and on and on. Add to these, any shopping, banking, or membership sites and any one person may have scores (perhaps hundreds for the virally virtual) of online presences.

At RRC, we recently did the exercise of assembling ALL our online presences created over the past few years. The number was staggering. And admittedly, seeing them all staring out at me from the PowerPoint my able team member put together made me feel just a bit schizophrenic. What prompted this little exercise was an offhand remark my marketing consultant made to me: “Be sure that all your online presences are in alignment and reinforce one another.”

In the moment, I thought that sounded like solid, fairly obvious advice, but given how many platforms there are for announcing oneself to the world, this is, in reality, far from a trivial matter. In fact, managing one’s online “image” has become a full time job, and the notion that “it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence” is an understatement of gargantuan proportion.

Even so, achieving image alignment across online platforms is a fairly benign effort. In a seminar on the First Amendment I took earlier this year, we discussed the more sinister side: the case of a woman whose reputation was forever sullied by a single, ill-chosen image posted on MySpace. In 2006, this was such a lone incident, it became big news, but now, this is so ubiquitous there are firms that specialize exclusively in image makeovers – online. These specialists work to scrub out the deeply worn tracks of search engines in the hopes of creating pathways to new, more preferable bits of character recognition.

And there is an even more seamy underbelly to this whole thing: our searches and purchases are being snapped up by bots that create aggregated online profiles, unbeknownst to us. A friend recently reported that one day she’d been shopping online for a friend and the next, she found an uncanny digital trail not only of the sites she’d visited with her name connected, but also the links she’d clicked on while there. This is a credit report on steroids, except you don’t get free access to yours once a year. Take a peek at Spokeo for an indication of what your aggregated profile could include.

So, what to make of all this?

There are as many takes on this as there are people: some could care less and chalk it up to the progress of humanity; others are sounding the alarm bells about Big Brother; some take great care to hide from the online search monster; others flash a bright light directly into its eyes to ensure its attention. For those on the receiving end of the information and who profit by it, there is great glee. For those regulating or competing with (or attempting to) the Giant of Search (if you have any question about what this refers to, you are in a category all your own), there’s a lot of, for the most part, fruitless complaining and litigation.

I have yet to come to my own definitive position on all this. Although, I am more keenly aware than ever that behind the RRC home page lies more than mere ideas and hypertext. In the ether, I am creating a record that is, not only complete and exacting, but in all likelihood, permanent. And unlike the calling cards of old, that served as a polite prelude to a real person complete with “manners, conversation, and face,” this record, for most, will be all that is ever known of me. We are a long way from that elegant bit of paper, placed on a silver tray.

But if this thought is sobering, there is another that provides a measure of comfort. The digital ether is very much, if not exactly, like the Karmic or Akashic Records of spiritual tradition or the idea of the Universal Mind - basically, the repository of every mental, emotional and physical act, no matter how insignificant, and not just of this life, but for all eternity. Isn’t it amazing how we persist in creating in very real terms what many have taken as the metaphors of mystics and esoteric thought?

And, who knows? Digital karma just might turn out to be a very good thing.

 

*RRC’s Herculean website team: Design by the talented Matt Keever (keeverdesign@comcast.net) and transformation of art into bits by the amazing webmaster Bill Witt .

 

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What’s Hospitality Got to Do with It?

Collaboration’s time has come. And it’s time to get everyone, not just talking about it,
but really good at doing it. Collaboration isn’t a set of tech tools or an ideal. It’s a verb – something we do. And we can do it well or really poorly. What makes the difference? The answer might surprise you: hospitality.

What’s hospitality got to do with it, you may wonder. Everything.

The simple concept of hospitality is the foundation of collaboration. By “collaboration” I mean convening – whether in government, business, or community, in person, on the phone or online – a group of people, diverse in background and perspective, toward a common purpose. The supposition is that the people being convened are in some way unknown to each other: either actual strangers meeting for the first time or at least people who have among them unknown, foreign or differing perspectives. It is to this meeting of strangers that hospitality speaks.

Abraham Offering Hospitality

The concept of hospitality comes to us from ancient times when people depended on each other in a way we don’t as much today, at least not in the developed world. There were far fewer of us then and there were great distances between our encampments. Travel was arduous, dirty and dangerous, making hospitality not merely a matter of kindness, but also of survival.

Strangers arriving at your door was not an uncommon event, and hospitality dictated how you treated them. Welcome with a bath, food, and drink, a place to sleep – this kind of hospitality seems extreme and is unthinkable for most of us today. And yet, its vestiges still hold as our protocol for overnight company and in hotels the world over.

Although the concept of hospitality has equivalents in all ancient languages, the English word comes from the Latin hospes. Interestingly, hospes refers both to the host and to the guest, as does the Greek counterpart xenos. This ambiguity of the term still exists in modern derivatives of Latin, for example, the Italian word ospite. I remember when I first lived in Italy 20 years ago this confused me plenty: was I invited to the party or to host the party? The root of my confusion was, of course, my mother tongue, which divides the concept: host (from hospes) and guest (from the German gast, meaning stranger). I remember vaguely wondering why the Italians suffered under this confusion, thinking that they must somehow be bereft of vocabulary.

Today, hospitality has come to signify more of a nicety than a necessity. And yet, there is a renewed need for it. The technology of travel means that we can get anywhere pretty much any time, and the technology of information means we can do so virtually in seconds. The borders of our encampments, both geographical and ideological, constantly bump up against each other now, bringing new resonance to the notion of hospitality. We are being called to apply hospitality to the entryways, not just of our homes, but of our hearts and minds. Collaboration begins here.

Collaboration is hospitality on steroids. If you’re the convener, it’s as if a caravan of travelers has descended on your doorstep, and what’s more, you invited them. And there’s something you need from them, so making sure they feel welcome, they’re clear about the purpose of the visit, and how they’re going to get their needs met are all essential to a genial, productive relationship. The adept collaboration convener plans for these logistics well before any of the participant guests arrive (see more on this here).

In the same way ancient hospitality ritualized the treatment of strangers in the
home, collaboration calls for ritual that welcomes strange opinions and foreign modes of self-expression in the conversation. The ritual itself signals the participant that “strangers” are indeed welcome. And like all ritual, it is the attitude behind it that endows its meaning. Anyone can go through the motions of hospitality, but it is the feeling of the open heart that makes us know we are welcome. Collaboration is ultimately defined by this.

But there’s another important dimension of hospitality at work today that takes us further into territory useful for collaboration. The Latin hospes is formed
from hostis, which meant “to have power,” and the Online Etymology Dictionary gives the literal translation of “host” as “lord of strangers.” Where the ancients took for granted the roles of guest and host as sacrosanct in the ritual of hospitality, today we push against such conventional relationships.

Jacques Derrida, originator of deconstruction, put this hospitality power dynamic into sharp relief for us. What Derrida saw was that hospitality is a paradox: what makes hospitality possible is ultimately what makes it impossible. If being hospitable requires that someone has the power to host, which means, in some measure, the ability to control the guest, then, says Derrida, this control is, in fact, inhospitable. On the other hand, if hospitality means the host is obligated to welcome without rules or boundaries whoever arrives (say, a complainer, or worse, a thief or harm doer), then the host is stripped of the very power and control that makes hospitality possible.

Derrida’s reasoning is, I think, instructive for collaboration as well. If I convene a
collaborative process and act as host by creating the rules and protocols by which the “guests” will participate, haven’t I taken control, thereby constricting the participants and undermining the very goal of collaboration itself? The goal being an interaction of equals toward a shared creation. And if, on the other hand, the convener does not act as host, does not develop and maintain process rules and governance, thereby causing chaos or a survival-of-the-fittest contest of wills among the participants, won’t many feel disenfranchised and leave? And again, the goal of collaboration is unrealized.

Derrida’s hospitality paradox – and the peril of collaboration - lies in the apparent power struggle between the host and guest (convener and participant, in collaboration). It’s as if these roles sit opposite each other on a set of scales, with things weighted all on one side or the other. But the key to their balance is, for me, found in the, well, ambidextrousness of the ancients’ language.

The fact that the same word (hospes, xenos) represents both roles may not signify a dearth of vocabulary as I once thought, but rather a deep understanding of the very nature of hospitality itself. The ambiguity instructs me that guest and host are but two sides of the same coin, interchangeable among us. No one is always host and no one is always guest, no one always in control and no one always compliant.

Hospitality is the proscribed ritual for bringing strangers together well. The roles of host and guest are part of this ritual, but they are simply a means to the ultimate end of what hospitality intends. The key again comes from the ancients’ language. Hospes is the root of, not only hospitality, but also hospital and hospice. What these have in common, more than tending to the ill or a protocol for doing so, is the way that’s done. This is the essence of hospes: Caring for people.

It is the caring then that enlivens the ritual created for bringing people together
well and that acts as the fulcrum for the role of host on one side and that of
guest on the other, tempering the extremes of each. Caring is both the underlying method and the intended outcome of hospitality.

The same is true for collaboration. Caring for each other in the process of collaboration, and caring for the higher purpose to which we all are invited as the ultimate outcome of it is the foundation of collaboration done well. As conveners, if we will remember this and let it guide our role as host, our participant guests will do what humans do in a hospitable environment: enjoy and learn from each other. Great things come from this and it is within our grasp.

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Teamwork, Collaboration and Accountabilty: We’re Talking Governance

Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s recent blog post, Cisco and a Cautionary Tale about Teams, deftly correlates several key factors challenging organizational leadership today. Kanter says: “With buzz about self-organizing social networks increasingly dominating the world, and organizations of all sizes in all fields seeking more collaboration, it is worth pausing to revisit exactly what teamwork means.” Exactly. Leadership must consider the kind of “teamwork” that is desired in their organizations and then build the structure and process to foster it.

First though, let’s consider what Kanter means by “teamwork.” She is talking about how groups of people are organized to make decision-making and work efficient and effective. And different organizations desire and require different types of teamwork: some more collaborative, some less, some more integrative, some more specialized. And what kind of teamwork is needed in different organizations, and even in different parts of the same organization, is what is being called into question.

The traditional models of organizational structure (top down, command and control, silos of activity) that operated as the gold standard are being challenged on a variety of fronts, and that means it’s time for innovation. But for this to happen, leadership needs first to increase their capability in discussing organizational structure, and see doing so as answering a set of strategic questions. What decisions are made and where, with what input, in what timeframe, with what impacts on the particular “product” and with what tolerance by the specific organizational culture are all fundamentals of the governance conversation. Indeed, governance lies at the heart of much institutional angst right now.

The types of governance that have worked in the past, in areas well-known and understood (like financial management, HR, etc.), are being called into question in the newer arenas of technology and knowledge management. And this development coincides with the democratization of information (24/7 access to just about anything) that technology is pushing, as well as the demand for greater transparency and involvement in decision-making, that is itself a product of access. Because of these forces, governance in all our institutions is in a state of upheaval, with leadership being pushed to transform it. But if leadership is not fluent in the language of governance and the questions that need to be asked, with a solid understanding of the forces at work that are applying the pressure, leadership will find itself repeatedly designing and redesigning its governance to little effect.

And we see this in the preponderance of reorganizations. But governance redesign is much, much more than a reorg. Governance redesign means asking and answering basic questions about the type of decision-making the organization desires – overall and in specific areas within it. For example, as Kanter points out, a technology company by definition needs to be more agile in its decision-making than, say, an academic institution, in order to remain competitive and relevant in the rapidly evolving marketplace. At the same time, innovation is often the product of collaboration and so both agility and a collaborative environment may be desired. But since agile decision-making is generally at odds with the pace of more collaborative decision-making involving varied groups of people, this inherent tension will need to be reconciled in the governance structure that is created. Finding this balance will require innovative thinking about and design of governance, so leadership needs to get much more agile itself in governance stewardship acumen.

Kanter also brings up the notion of accountability. One of the reasons for command and control is that both authority and accountability are clear - in fact, one client of mine went so far as to say that only an individual can be accountable, never a group. To the contrary, I have worked with highly successful nonprofit boards where both collaboration and shared authority are givens. As Kanter says, leadership still exists in collaborative governance structures, but only if it is well designed and communicated. Where the governance model includes broader input and increased transparency, the charter, in which clear lines of authority and responsibility are described – even if in entirely new ways, gains renewed prominence. Unfortunately, many charters sit on dusty shelves because they are verbose, unclear, and considered just a formality.

And this is perhaps the state of governance overall: dusty, verbose, unclear and considered a formality. When in fact, clear governance, whatever the particular model, is the very fiber of teamwork, the foundation of organizational culture, the catapult to greatness or to a stunning lack thereof.

Innovation in Government: Oxymoron No More?

Innovation. We sure do hear this word bandied about a lot lately. It’s the veritable catch phrase of the moment. We hear it relentlessly in the technology world, where everything from a change on Facebook to a new app to the iPad 2 qualifies as one. (I count roughly 20 new tweets on innovation every five minutes.) But other industries are touting innovation too: car companies innovate on safety and GPS, laundry detergent innovates in stain removal formulas, and of course pharmaceuticals innovate on antidepressants, so we can bear up under all this innovation. And now that the full effects of the economy are being felt in federal budgets (with the afterglow of ARRA worn off), innovation is extolled all around the halls of government.

In fact, there is a new report out dealing with just this: Leading Innovation in Government, published by the Partnership for Public Service in tandem with Hay Group. The report looks at government leaders who create “climates of innovation” and describes an innovation framework based on their observations. The premise is that “for meaningful innovation to occur, leaders [emphasis mine] must create an environment that allows [employees] to collaborate and stretch…” This framework is comprised of nine leadership attributes that make for these innovation climates, specifically in the context of government. The nine attributes are depicted in the diagram below.

Innovation Framework, © Partnership for Public Service and Hay Group 2011

The nine are split into three sets of three that make up a triune of what it takes a leader to foster innovation: Self (the leader – the center line of the circle), Team (those working for the leader – on the left), and Other (those the leader and team need to excel and innovate – on the right). This is a simple and compelling framework with which to think about innovation incubation, and it underscores some essential qualities government (or really, any) leaders should have today. For example, the ideas of vision and service (Patriotic Steward) are both fundamental to great leadership, as I have discussed before. Also, in any industry, it is vital to understand the parameters (legal, financial, psychological, etc.) of what can be done, and to have the finesse to negotiate these boundaries as needed (Navigator). Building a robust team and rewarding the practice of exploration and experimentation (which will yield some mistakes) is also critical to good leadership (Team Builder/Mentor). And collaboration cannot be emphasized enough as a direct route to innovation (Collaborator).

The report also rightly points out that innovation in government is a trickier business than it is in either the private or nonprofit sectors. And there’s the rub. After all, we look to government for stability, predictability, for management over the long haul, not flashy, “new and improved” products or services. In fact, the founders created the three branches to ensure this stability through careful consideration of innovations. As a result, the kind of futuring (research and development) required to achieve real innovation is not a priority in most government agencies, and the very notion of “marketing,” needed to bring innovations to implementation, is derided as “too commercial” for government. So, is the old joke about innovation in government being an oxymoron actually truth because that is exactly how we want it?

To consider this part of the innovation question, I would add an outer circle to the report’s framework. If the inner circle represents the individual leader and the qualities they display in creating an innovative climate, the outer circle would represent the larger context in which they are working. And that larger context is government itself. It is made up of the beliefs and values we hold about our government that form its culture – a culture that in many ways currently stymies innovation.

The outer circle represents how we think about or understand our government (a stable, powerful, leading form of democracy for the world), what we expect from it (stability, security, freedom), and what we punish and reward inside it (probably not a lot of experimentation, overall). Given this, it’s mighty challenging to build a culture of innovation inside the very institution from which we demand this kind of predictability, certainty, stability. And I’m pretty sure we can’t (and shouldn’t) expect individual leaders, acting as islands inside the sea of government, to foster this kind of fundamental change in our culture and values. (Although I do believe they should be held accountable for the nine leadership attributes, nonetheless.)

And yet, in this climate of severe economic woe (an external force that too applies pressure), government is being forced to find new ways to deliver that are more effective, that eliminate inefficiency and redundancy, that cut massively into the budgets of last year and the year before.  “But,” the report asks, “how can you make cuts without impacting the product or services you deliver to the American people? You can’t,” the report answers, “unless you also find innovative ways of doing business.” So, innovation is needed, required in fact, and government is being dragged into the pace of the change-making business just like everyone else.

Are circumstances changing so fundamentally as to cause us to re-think the role we seek from government? Do we, the American people, really want and need innovation in government, and if so, are we prepared for what this will mean?

I believe for innovation in government to be possible, the people whose government serves them must call for it. Must want it. And for this to happen, we must also be willing to accept what goes hand in glove with it. If we desire a culture of innovation in government, then we must expect there to be mistakes – and ones that will cost us money. (And this may be a fair exchange for money wasted doing the same old things.) We will need to learn to accept some investment as the price for innovation. In other words, we should expect some of what we see in the private sector to take the place of our typical slow-moving, “better safe than sorry” government.

And if we really want innovative government, then let’s be sure to demand and hold government accountable for innovations on the macro scale, simply because I don’t think we want a government that innovates everywhere just for the sake of being innovative (is a new app for payroll what we really are looking for?). We want real innovation, game changing innovation from our government, the kind that provides compelling and simple solutions to complex problems (like those described in the report).

It looks to me like it’s time to have this larger debate. Rather than expecting government to be innovative, when we don’t generally encourage, teach or reward it is kind of like expecting corporations to curb their capitalist tendencies for the sake of community well-being. And isn’t it interesting that there does seem to be some preference these days for government to look more like the private sector and the private sector to emulate government? With this melding of traditional boundaries, it makes it especially challenging for leaders to find just the right balance.  So perhaps our ideas about the differences between public and private are changing, and I think that’s good, but what is important is to have the conversation.

As the report says, “Innovation in government does not happen overnight, but it is possible through hard work, dedication and creativity.” To this I would also include a re-evaluation of what we think we want from our government, and at what price that will come. Until then, we can persist in holding up individual innovators as models, but for the most part, innovative government is likely to continue to be an oxymoron.

Strategic Planning: A State of Mind

“Leading isn’t doing. Leading is thinking.”

The pace of change in our world is much more rapid than it was a decade ago, and with the influence of technology that makes access to information constant and infinite, combined with the human thirst for knowledge and the new, this pace is not likely to slow in the next ten. In response to this, I am hearing more and more about the need for true leaders, for those who can think strategically and critically, who can develop innovative and creative solutions, and who can maneuver with alacrity. And I agree.

And yet the capacity for strategic thinking seems to be rapidly dying, if not dead already. Thinking beyond the moment is apparently too difficult, too boring, or too old-fashioned. Somehow, being reactive is in vogue. I think about this a lot. The great teachers all preach being in the moment, that there really is nothing else but the present, the here and now. And oddly enough technology seems to line us up well with this credo. The cell phone rings; it is picked up. The email comes in; it is opened. The tweet is posted; it is read. The text appears; it is answered. We are in the moment, responding to each cling and clang of whatever electronic device we are hooked to. And it is as if this constant exercise of responding has spilled over into all areas of work. We race from meeting to meeting, making lists of things to do, arguing over this tactic or that, and struggling hard to check some of them off so we can feel like we are getting something done. But is this what the teachers meant? I think not.

And for leadership, this reactive drive is disastrous. The very meaning of leader, in my mind, is synonymous with vision. Afterall, who wants to be led by someone who is wandering around, or worse still, running in place? Leaders have followers because they are headed somewhere exciting, compelling, somewhere we are not now. And the big leaders ought to be taking us into the future. Into the future, brightly. They ought to be shaping the future with big ideas, big connections, big innovations. What we are getting instead is mostly management.

There’s nothing wrong with management, except when it stands in for leadership. Simply put, managers maintain, leaders innovate. I dare say, we need innovation now.

So what’s the answer? Strategic planning, believe it or not.

Strategic planning was all the rage a while back, but evidently, at some point, people wearied of vision and mission statements. After all, they didn’t seem to work, right? You spent a day writing up a cool vision or mission (and no one really knew the difference), it would get posted in the break room, and things would swiftly go back to normal. Strategic planning became a lackluster, go-through-the-motions exercise, so leadership stopped even trying.

But all strategic planning was ever meant to be was a practice, a discipline, a rigor to remember to think beyond today. Strategic planning was the time out for reflection from the daily distractions, when everyone was allowed to dream, to reach for the impossible, and to develop the steps together to get there. It was a time to flex the muscle of thinking big (being visionary), out of the box (innovating), and getting full buy-in (collaboration). The reason this fell out of fashion had something to do with it not working, but underneath that was the real cause: people not really knowing how to do it. After all, an organization’s ability to recognize the harbingers of change and stay abreast of the change curve is a highly evolved skill - one that often means the difference between average performance and brilliance.

It’s time to reclaim strategic planning as a vital leadership capability. And it is past time to make strategic planning much more than a day or two off-site to write a tag line. It is time to remember what strategic planning was always about in the first place: leaders leading. What else is there on the leadership front than convening a group of diverse thinkers to look out into the world and make sense of it? Make sense of what’s on the horizon. Look squarely in the face of what looks threatening, and reframe it into an outrageous opportunity. More than just a day or two’s dabble, this is the work of leadership every single day.

Instead of the common complaints about strategic planning - that people spend way too much time doing it (I really doubt this); it doesn’t result in anything; and not nearly enough time is spent on getting the real work done, I would cast it more like:

  • people spend not nearly enough time being strategic,
  • the time that is spent is wasted for lack of good process on how to do it,
  • and lots gets done (busy-ness), but has very little real impact.

So how does this get solved? First, being strategic is not an exercise; it’s a state of mind. It is just dandy to take time away once a year, or once a quarter, to rev the engines by going somewhere new, having an engaging speaker to prime the pump, and using a facilitator to open up the process. But this is just the icing on the cake. Real strategic planning takes place every day, in every meeting, in each conversation. To think strategic planning is ever done, or that anyone is spending too much time on it is ridiculous, especially now when the pace of change dictates that a long-range plan must be, by necessity, both six months (to keep up with change) and 100 years (to keep an eye on the effect we are having) out.

Second, if you don’t know how to be strategic, learn. There is not a human being on the planet who will not be served by learning the difference between strategic and tactical, since this difference applies in every context no matter how high up or on the ground the person is. To prove it, I heard about a Libyan man who had made the decision 25 years ago to continue studying English after Gaddafi banned foreign language instruction in schools. He told Jason Beaubien, NPR reporter, who was aided by this man on a recent trip to Tobruk, that he kept studying English on his own in preparation for this day – the day when he would have the opportunity to tell his story to the world. This simple man made a very strategic decision based on his long view of the future. And it paid off.

So, there is absolutely zero excuse for any person in a leadership position to say “Well, I’m just not strategic.” (By the way, this is a direct quote from the opening remarks of the leader of a client I was hired to assist with strategic planning some years ago.)  The response to this should be: “You’re demoted until you can learn.” We need our people, but especially our leaders, to be able to flip between the strategic and tactical all day long. We need this precisely because the tendency to the tactical has reached epidemic proportions in this age of instant technology.  And the tactical just becomes busy-ness without the bigger view to inform it.

Finally, busy is a poor stand-in for results. We need all the activity of our workers to have an impact. To make this so, leaders must do their job. Their job is to convene and get to the decisions that then empower their people to do the work. I have never met a human being who cannot be motivated by a clear task, fully within their capability, connected to a desired outcome. If your people are not motivated or producing, one of these things is the problem. And the root of that problem is usually leaders not doing their job. Leading isn’t doing. Leading is thinking. Deep strategic thinking that sets the direction and then checks to see if we’re getting there.

So let’s stop responding to every bleat of our tech gear, every blip of information across our screen, and let’s get back to strategic planning. Better yet, to being strategic, to thinking strategically. If we start looking out regularly to the horizon’s edge and beyond, if we gather and look, we might be surprised at just how amazing what we come up with can be.

Net Neutrality: Who Should We Be Most Afraid Of?

The idea of open, accessible, unmoderated forums for discourse and exchange inspires me. Afterall, that is what I do for a living: I design processes that enable many people to engage in collaborative decision-making. That technology could push this process open even further, to many more people, to a borderless conversation, a churning think tank for innovation is a possibility I dream of. For this reason, I have been an increasing proponent of the growing internet trend toward social media.

I remember my first impressions of social media sometime around 2005, which were based on some vague awareness of Friendster or MySpace as being something for kids, akin to an electronic yearbook. Seeing absolutely zero utility to me and my world, I successfully ignored whatever “social media” might refer to. Some time later, I developed a more-than neutral impression based on the press and an episode of Law and Order that thinly disguised the Meghan Meier suicide case in its storyline. My neutral impression then became tainted by the sinister. I still, however, dismissed social media as largely irrelevant. (It’s plain to see, I have not been in the early-adopter crowd.)  I finally found my own personal application: communicating with my niece and nephew, then in their mid-teens, and set up a Facebook account.

Of course, before Facebook, I used Google and soon after discovered Wikipedia, both of which quickly became indispensible to both my work and personal use. YouTube came later, and I say with some chagrin, I have yet to post a video of my own. However, that’s not far off.

In the past year, I have watched, with the rest of the world, as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have skyrocketed in prominence. Not only are they growing exponentially in users, but (and perhaps more importantly) they are also now celebrities themselves of film (“Social Network”), revolutions (Egypt), and new industry (social media technology and marketing). I have felt increasing enthusiasm over what these portals portend as possible…access, information, sharing, borderless society, innovation on a grand scale. And I have excitedly expanded who I follow on Twitter to open my world of ideas and awareness, which has meant more YouTube, more Googling, more Wikipedia visits, more trafficking in the social media world.

And in this journey into the new world, I have become vaguely aware of the growing concern about it. But it wasn’t until I attended a seminar on the First Amendment that I thrust myself into inquiry of exactly what is up. Well, a lot is.

For starters, there is a fundamental change in how ideas and communication flow. Fifty years ago (1961: the year I was born), Americans were happily ensconced in the TV era. This new mass medium had trumped radio and was being debated by then FCC chair, Newton Minow, as “a vast wasteland.” As a result, TV was mandated to provide programming aimed at the public good. I was raised in the age of  the ubiquitous cop show and rising sitcom, free from explicit violence, sex and bad language. Commercials for liquor and cigarettes disappeared in the mid-60s,  Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street gained in popularity, and the Fairness Doctrine was enforced. TV was nice, news was smart, and channels were few. And that’s the difference: there were few speakers, speaking through a handful of regulated distributors, to a mass audience.

With the onset (or onslaught, depending on how you view it) of cable, TV changed: many, many speakers, many barely regulated distributors (remember, FCC jurisdiction stops at airwaves), to a mass audience. And we began to see explicit sex, graphic violence, and hear profane language, all the more shocking since it was coming at us out of the previously known “bland box.” And then with the arrival of the internet, the number of speakers proliferated infinitely. We are now they: bloggers, tweeters, posters, commenters, and on and on. We have gained an open forum, so open sometimes it feels too open, like when I happen across some porn site or rabidly violent one, or a blog that is scathing in ways that make me uncomfortable and sad. We have lost our intermediaries – the media no longer can be counted on like dear old Walter Cronkite to bring us news we can trust, now we must sort it out for ourselves; we have lost our protectors – the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine and now it seems like a true anachronism with its goal of ensuring a diversity of viewpoints in the midst of what often feels like a free-for-all. But most important of all, we have also seen a massive decrease in media distributors, or rather, in the number of them.

Think about it. Google owns YouTube, Facebook has supplanted MySpace and Friendster with 500 million users, Murdoch owns TV and newspaper, and Comcast owns cable and AT&T. A few distributors for what has become the most massive communications infrastructure the world has ever known. The question is, are these owners of telecomm channels (or “pipes,” as they are called) more like utilities or more like content providers? And who even cares? Well, you and I should.

Enter net neutrality. The idea is that the FCC should assert its authority to keep the pipes open and accessible - to ensure a diversity of viewpoints can be expressed. In other words, should Comcast be able to decide to whom they give access to cable programming or bandwidth? Should Google be able to screen or limit searches? Should Murdoch be able to cover only the stories he cares for, or what’s more, lie about those he does not? The idea behind net neutrality is that purveyors of access, such as Comcast broadband or Sprint or Google, should have to offer that access fairly. They should not be able to exercise their preference. Sounds reasonable. They are, after all, providing access to huge numbers of people through their monopolies. But the problem is that the FCC only has jurisdiction over public resources, that is airwaves (and also, interestingly enough, phone lines, because they are considered “common carriers”). So, while they can tell telephone and network TV companies to be even-handed, they don’t have the authority to dictate to the owners of cable lines, broadband or otherwise. Nor do they have jurisdiction over Google and its search engine. Makes for some interesting concerns now, doesn’t it?

And even if we decide (and by “we” I mean Congress) that we do want the FCC to regulate net neutrality for us – to stand between us and the big media pipe owners – what will that mean for freedom of speech? Will the government stray further into regulation of cable, the internet, and Google? And will that regulation be for our good or to our detriment? Was TV in the 60s, 70s, and 80s really representative of the diversity of viewpoints in this country? Hardly. But I sure feel right now that the big pipe owners need to be held to account by somebody so that they don’t get the idea that they are arbiters of what we know or don’t. However, then I got to thinking, what the heck is the difference anymore between government and big business? Is the line that bright? Can one watchdog the other? And the real rub is, who I want to watchdog whom is dictated by whomever I am most afraid of in any given context or in any given moment. Now that’s something to think about.