Archive for February, 2008


The Gap Between Talking and Acting

Mind the gapI’ve never been to TED, the $6,000 conference extravaganza that sells out every year. However, I’ve seen many different posts that either point to TED presentations or talk about how great TED is. So I was caught off guard by Umair Haque’s recent post at Bubblegeneration:

So, let me be a bit more blunt than I’d like to be. Do conferences like TED do more harm than good?

It’s not just the fact that TED is just a wee bit pretentious.

The problem is simple. The underlying assumption is that we can help solve the world’s big problems by putting a bunch of interesting people in a room and talking about stuff.

We can’t.

Intrigued I read on. It gets even more interesting a few sentences later:

Economic history, of course, has been a harsh judge of this approach. We know how it ends up: creating even more misery than went before. It’s helping societies build the right DNA that fuels growth.

And that’s exactly why, though TED is sexy, it’s also kind of intellectually bankrupt: it’s actively helping stop new DNA from happening.

Let me put it even more sharply. There have been gatherings like TED for hundreds of years. But the vast majority of the world continues to live in bone-crushing poverty, misery, and fear.

Think about that for a second.

Acknowledging the Gap

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m headed to two conferences, E-Tech and SXSW. I’m sure I’ll have a great time, see friends, and enjoy the presentations. I’m also realistic about what a conference can accomplish and the dependence upon the individual to act on what she learns. However, conferences like TED create the perception that something is happening by the very act of “putting a bunch of interesting people in a room and talking about stuff.”

Sometimes unknowingly, we get caught up in the discussion, forgetting that we’ve got to figure out a way to act. The discussion is so intriguing, however, that we tell ourselves that the talk will naturally progress to action because it’s so great. As Umair points out, such gatherings have happened for years and the world is still beset by the serious problems focused on at these events. Clearly, we need to do a better job of bridging the gap between talking and acting.

One Step at a Time

In simple terms, it’s the difference between talking about starting your own business and putting together a business plan. Then, it’s the difference between talking about the business plan and taking the plan to a bank to discuss financing. You can see how this plays out. Success isn’t even determined by whether you open the business but whether you keep acting on the ideas. Talk alone isn’t enough, but it is a starting point.

Umair added an update today, clarifying:

I am not “bashing” TED. Nor do I think it’s just wankery. I enjoy watching the talks. But I’m not sure it does more good than harm.

Let me put it another way. Conferences are one way to organize and manage stuff—a kind of DNA.

When the stakes are low – a conference for media deal-making or something—that’s fine.

But when you get lots of brilliant people in one room, surely there’s a way to organize it so more value is created than just lots of interesting talks. Surely there’s a way to amplify the productivity of conferences like TED – because right now, it ain’t too high…The problem is that the very people whose problems desperately need solving the most—are always excluded by the DNA of orthodox conferences.

I didn’t get the feeling that Umair’s intent was to bash TED, which some of the comments seem to believe. I think instead that he’s done a great job of analyzing the underlying value of events like TED. I’d love to see a comparison of historical TED talks compared to initiatives related to the subjects under discussion. Does TED contribute to the solution or distract from the problem? On an even bigger scale, when are we talking when we could be acting, hiding behind the belief that the talking is enough?


(Image courtesy of Marcio Cabral de Moura. Some rights reserved.)


Big Business Fingerpainting

Fingerpainting for MumIn his usual, insightful way, Cory Doctorow again makes the case for complaining. His recent column in Information Week offered up this gem of a thought:

At this point, there is a small legion of people—vocal and angry—looking around to figure out how to e-mail me to tell me I’m an idiot. I know this, because every time I post about this subject—or any other instance in which a company is behaving badly—I get a flood of messages telling me:

  1. That it’s not [Apple|Microsoft|Amazon]’s fault, it’s [AT&T|the RIAA|the MPAA|the publishers’] fault.
  2. If I hate those products so much, why don’t I just buy someone else’s products and shut up already? It’s a free market, after all.

I’m always astounded by this reaction. Companies aren’t charities. They’re businesses. It doesn’t matter why they’re offering an unacceptable product—all that matters is that the product is unacceptable. Companies aren’t five-year-olds bringing their fingerpaintings home from kindergarten. We don’t have to put on a brave smile and tell them, “that’s just lovely dear,” and display their wares proudly on the fridge.

The idea that businesses will automatically correct behavior or that one can get a product somewhere else assumes two things:

  1. Businesses believe their behavior needs correction.
  2. For every product, more than one company produces something comparable.

To the first point, not every business takes pride in self-awareness, and companies that choose not to, rarely see a need to change, particularly if it costs them more money. As to buying elsewhere, the purchase of an iPhone, for example, locks you in to a two year contract with AT&T. If one is displeased with AT&T, but happy with the iPhone, and unlocks it for another carrier, the next software update could create a $600 brick.

Critics would contend that one can learn about AT&T’s service prior to signing a contract. They might also add that an iPhone isn’t a necessity; other phones on other networks are available. This line of thinking leads me to this portion of Cory’s piece:

When corporate apologists say, “Well, it’s a free market, shut up and buy someone else’s product,” or “Well, it’s a free market, they’re a commercial company, they have to make a profit,” they’re not really talking about a free market at all.

They’re asking for the kind of market where companies get treated like charities (at best) or like promising toddlers. If you’re in business to turn a profit, you’d better make a product we want to buy. If your partners won’t let you do that, get better partners, or a better line of work. It’s not our responsibility to buy your halt, lame products because you can’t do a better job.

To me, a free market involves ideas going back and forth between customers and companies, a dialogue instead of a monologue. Critics of complaining about company services or products miss the point of a free market if they don’t see the need for dialogue. If a company’s goal is to produce what the market wants, how can they learn what the market wants if it refuses to listen? Both accolades and complaints help companies turn the looking glass inward. When was the last time you thought it unnecessary to complain about individual behavior that adversely affected you? Why should companies get a free pass?


(Image courtesy of Aidan Love. Some rights reserved.)


Self-Branding by Buying

“My Brand” exhibitionLast week, I touched on the idea of individual, global microbrands. Thinking about what defines an individual microbrand, I’ve wondered how the things we buy contribute to our microbrands. For example, what does my use of a Sony Ericcson cell phone say about me? Personally, I don’t think it says much of anything. However, what if I was flashing a Giorgio Armani Samsung?

The things we choose to buy and use invariably become a part of individual identities. Just try separating a Crackberry user from his device. Fair warning: there may be blood involved. As we go along, we add these smaller pieces to our identities, believing they contribute to the bigger picture of who we believe ourselves to be.

Somehow the Macbook Air says something important about you that no other laptop can convey. Somehow that Vuitton handbag makes a previously boring outfit a smashing success. Somehow, we end up believing that by adopting another brand as our own, we’re creating our own microbrand.

There’s nothing inherently evil about buying things you like. However, I do believe you’re on a slippery slope if you believe something external defines your individual microbrand. For me, the idea of a personal microbrand revolves around the notion that it comes from that uniquely you center of being. It isn’t dependent on buying a particular laptop or wearing designer kicks.

John Dryden in The Hind and the Panther included the very relevant line, “All, as they say, that glitters is not gold.” (link) The same principle applies in this situation, too. Using other brands to create your own does nothing more than build a shell. Under pressure, the shell will crack, undermining your efforts to establish your microbrand. If it doesn’t come from inside, how are you different from anyone else?

If she has the money, any individual can buy a Macbook Air. Does it really make sense to base one’s identity on a value that anyone else can purchase? When you decide to figure out what your individual, global microbrand is, keep in mind that it shouldn’t be a mirror image of the guy standing next to you.


(Image courtesy of dadawan. Some rights reserved.)


Broken Politics

I’m been quiet the last few weeks on the presidential election. Recent events in both parties, however, have made it worth revisiting the campaigns and the language associated with them. To clarify my position before diving in, I support none of the candidates (even the ones no longer in the race), and I believe both the Republican and Democratic parties are broken. With that out of the way…

The New York Times Contradiction

Less than a month ago, The New York Times (NYT) endorsed John McCain. Here’s bit of what it had to say:

…there is a choice to be made, and it is an easy one. Senator John McCain of Arizona is the only Republican who promises to end the George Bush style of governing from and on behalf of a small, angry fringe. With a record of working across the aisle to develop sound bipartisan legislation, he would offer a choice to a broader range of Americans than the rest of the Republican field.

We have shuddered at Mr. McCain’s occasional, tactical pander to the right because he has demonstrated that he has the character to stand on principle. He was an early advocate for battling global warming and risked his presidential bid to uphold fundamental American values in the immigration debate. A genuine war hero among Republicans who proclaim their zeal to be commander in chief, Mr. McCain argues passionately that a country’s treatment of prisoners in the worst of times says a great deal about its character. (link)

Clearly, the NYT expressed some reservations. After all, there’s no love lost between it and the Republican party. A close reading of the endorsement shows no sign that the NYT had any concerns about the moral fiber of McCain, which makes this week’s NYT story, less than a month after the endorsement, so interesting:

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

It had been just a decade since an official favor for a friend with regulatory problems had nearly ended Mr. McCain’s political career by ensnaring him in the Keating Five scandal. In the years that followed, he reinvented himself as the scourge of special interests, a crusader for stricter ethics and campaign finance rules, a man of honor chastened by a brush with shame.

But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.

Obvious contradiction, anyone? In this instance the issue isn’t about the candidate, but about the media. I’d love to have witnessed the discussions on the second story, mainly to see if anyone pointed out that less than a month ago, no mention was made of any character issues in the NYT’s endorsement.

I’m personally no fan of McCain. I admire his service, both in combat and as a senator, to this country, but I do not believe it qualifies as an automatic pass to the White House. However, the NYT’s ought to be ashamed of itself. If the lobbyist story is true, it needs to revoke its endorsement. And if the story is mostly innuendo, they owe McCain an apology. At minimum, I could have done without the sexual overtones. I’m more concerned about what politicians do out of bed for lobbyists versus in bed.

The Democratic Dilemma

The majority of my friends are Democratic, or at least lean that way. I’m more of a small ‘l’ libertarian. However, I’ve watched with some compassion as the Democrats ask themselves who is best suited to head their party. Whichever individual they choose, makes history, but whichever individual they choose has potential issues with a national electorate.

With Hillary, everyone knows the mud will fly, but she’s capable of managing it…I think. She also faces a divided nation. I can’t imagine how it feels to know that people, individuals you’ve never met, hate you. Even voters who might support her are convinced she’s too polarizing. Erin Kotecki Vest actually published a letter at Huffington Post asking Clinton to step aside. (link)

For Obama fans, I feel the most sympathy for you, because in spite of the excitement he generates, he hasn’t been truly tested. Yes, he’s a powerful speaker. Yes, he’s probably capable of great things. However, I believe the media isn’t doing him any favors by not asking the hard questions or closely examining his voting record. Such things will come up in a national campaign. I’m not convinced that he won’t do what every other candidate has done at some point: make a mistake. He’s human, and with his lack of experience and depending on the size of the mistake, it could seal his fate.

If he should win, I’m worried you’re in for serious disappointment based on what I’ve seen out the Democratic Congress for almost two years. I’ve been thinking about something Dave Winer posted last week:

The Dems should be aiming at running the table, taking solid majorities in both houses and a mandate-level plurality for President Obama, an LBJ-level landslide. We need a government, not more bullshit. The Republics need to move over for four to eight years so we can resume our position of leadership in the world, the new world, not the old one. The one where our workers have to compete for the business. We used to get all the business by default. That’s not the world we live in anymore folks. The Republics don’t get that. (link)

As I noted before, I think both major parties are broken. I don’t think the question is whether the Democrats want to effect change, but whether they can. Amongst my Democratic friends, there’s often the lament that the party as a group has a hard time getting it together. Individual Democrats may step out from the party and shine (Obama at the ’04 convention comes to mind), but as a group, they have trouble working with themselves.

I’ll grant you that the majorities in both houses of Congress are incredibly slim, but in theory, why aren’t the Democrats voting “no” to everything that comes from the Bush White House? Does having a greater majority actually fix the underlying problem highlighted by slimmer margins? The same problems exist in the Republican party, but they do a better job of sugarcoating it. I think Warren Beatty had the right of it: “We don’t need a third party. We need a second party.” (link)

Change Bigger than a Candidate

This year’s race has fascinated me. So many people, voices, words, etc. The one thing lacking, in spite of all the rhetoric, was change that’s bigger than a candidate. No matter who you’re rooting for, these individuals are ultimately the leaders for two parties not committed to change unless it’s to their benefit.

I know good men and women are serving in Congress, trying to be real representatives for their constituents. I also know that not so good men and women are serving in Congress, doing their best to profit from their positions of power. How do you put your faith in one person to swing the balance in favor of the good? Doesn’t long-term change demand something more, something that starts at the foundation and works its way to the top?

I don’t know the answers. And perhaps I’m not helping by posing the questions. I simply think we shouldn’t kid ourselves when we step into the voting booth that candidate selection alone is enough to effect the change we so desperately seek.



Taking a Stand

Design Can ChangeA few months ago, a friend introduced me to ideasonideas, the blog produced by smashLAB. Liking what I was reading, I took a closer look at this interactive agency and found Design Can Change. Here’s the challenge as outlined by smashLAB:

smashLAB started to consider the amount of waste designers are responsible for. The paper and pulp industry is the third largest polluter, and according to the AIGA, their members alone specify or purchase $9.1 billion in printing and paper annually. In seeking ways to help mitigate their impact, smashLAB found few resources directly related to graphic design. There had been discussion, essays, and conferences dedicated to sustainability, but not much in the way of a clearing house for sustainable graphic design information.

Targeted at encouraging sustainable practices within the design community, Design Can Change proves yet again that if an individual or an entity cares enough, words can be turned into action and community building.

Taking a Stand

Regardless of whether you believe in the sustainability message of Design Can Change, I believe smashLAB makes the case with this site that it doesn’t take a horde to get things started. We’re becoming comfortable with the idea that individuals can effect change that attracts other like-minded people on a large scale—without all the people being in the same place.

In the 60s, people of a certain mind gathered in San Francisco. Now, thanks to technology, we needn’t hitchhike to any one location to become a part of a community. When you believe in something—a movement, a philosophy, a goal—the tools exist to help spread information and ideas. smashLAB believed in the idea of sustainability so much so it dedicated agency resources to research the issue and produce the site. What are you willing to dedicate to support what you believe?

Challenging the Status Quo

Telling your peers that their status quo, their everyday rituals, don’t match your goals can do one of two things: 1) alienate the very audience you’re trying to reach; or 2) capture their attention. Design Can Change takes the risk of challenging accepted behavior. The result? I believe those who commit are really committed because breaking from status quo demands it. How brave are you feeling?



The War of the Brains

BrainWhat language does your company use to describe you? For example, I was a Senior Copywriter III (I think) at one of my jobs and a Sales Promotion Manager (I think) at another. The titles captured maybe 10% of my actual job function. When people left, HR filled the position or the post. What a bunch of boring, sterile words to describe the people who inhabit the working world.

Seth Godin’s post yesterday about Marketing HR reminded me of a survey series I saw in The Economist a couple years ago. Titled The Battle for Brainpower*, the first article starts with the very prescient words of Winston Churchill:

“…the empires of the future will be the empires of the mind.”

The New Superpowers

Google, Microsoft, Sun, etc., are the new superpowers of the world, and there’s an ongoing battle for position in the global marketplace. The key to winning this particular war will require that companies stop viewing people as “natural resources,” but instead, as Seth puts it, as “talent.” Companies like Google seem to get it:

The company has assembled a formidable hiring machine to help it find the people it needs. It has also experimented with clever new recruiting tools, such as billboards featuring complicated mathematical problems.

Appreciating and seeking talent isn’t the only necessity for long-term success. However, the company who chooses to undervalue talent, runs the risk of failing in the future.

Talent is too smart to stay long at a company that wants it to be a cog in a machine. Great companies want and need talent, but they have to work for it. (link)

The Individual

Personally, I believe there’s a difference between being respected by the company you work for and believing they “owe” you something. When I worked with the younger, newly graduated peeps in my past corporate jobs, I saw something amazing: many of them felt they were owed something. I’m not sure where they got that idea, but the attitude made it incredibly difficult to work with these bright and talented individuals. And the untalented ones were just unbearable.

In this sense, talent becomes dispensable when the attitude outweighs the ability. As of last summer, there’s over 6.5 billion people in the world. Do you really think there isn’t someone out that who is as good, if not better, than you? As the search for talent stays on a global scale, I believe the smart companies will look for people with individual, global microbrands.

Global Microbrands

Hugh MacLeod at turned me on to this thinking. I believe this is the original post on the topic. From a follow up post on the same subject, I found this:

It seems to me a lot of people of my generation are locked into this high-priced corporate, urban treadmill. Sure, they get paid a lot, but their overheads are also off the scale. The minute they stop tapdancing as fast as they can is the minute they are crushed under the wheels of commerce.

You know what? It’s not sustainable.

However, the Global Microbrand is sustainable. With it you are not beholden to one boss, one company, one customer, one local economy or even one industry. Your brand develops relationships in enough different places to where your permanent address becomes almost irrelavant. (link)

Talent is power, but only insofar as it’s not outweighed by aggravation. You may be a genius, but if no one can stand to be with or to listen to you, the world becomes a lonely place. I’m reminded of the playground when I think about balancing talent and corporate respect: nobody likes a bully, but the whiners are avoided, too.

What are you doing to build your global microbrand?


(Image courtesy of Gaetan Lee. Some rights reserved.)

(Because it’s an archived article, you have to be a paid subscriber to view it. If you’re interested, it’s in the October 7, 2006, edition)


Growing, Growing, Gone

Patagonia Valley

Never one to say or do the expected, Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia that company known for it’s love affair with the outdoors, takes an uncommon approach to business. I found a recent interview of Chouinard at where he was asked if growth is central to Patagonia’s philosophy. Growth’s an important issue for companies, but I found Chouinard’s take on it interesting:

Growth isn’t central at all, because I’m trying to run this company as if it’s going to be here a hundred years from now. And if you take where we are today and add 15% growth, like public companies need to have for their stock to stay up in value, I’d be a multi-trillion-dollar company in 40 years. Which is impossible, of course.

So all of these companies that are going for the big growth, if it continues for any length of time, will outlast their resources and outlast their customers and go belly-up. And that’s why these huge companies have massive layoffs all the time.

Since I’m trying to run this company like it’s going to be around a hundred years from now, we have to limit our growth and keep it to what we call “natural growth.” In other words, I don’t advertise on billboards in inner cities so that kids buy our black down jackets instead of The North Face’s. In fact, we hardly advertise at all.

Growth Isn’t Central

If 99% of the world’s CEOs stood before their shareholders and said the same thing, how many would have jobs the next day? Patagonia does have the benefit of remaining a private company and not beholden to making the stock market happy with seemingly perpetual growth. However, I do think Chouinard’s hit on something we aren’t willing to address—growth as we’ve defined it over the last decade is unsustainable because we ultimately are finite beings.

We each have so many minutes, hours, days, and weeks in a year. There’s only so many things that any one person can do, buy, or experience. Some people are more efficient than others, but that still leaves a set amount of time. Then there’s the question of how many of any one thing does a person require. How many pairs of shoes, coats, televisions, computers, cars, etc., can any one person use at one time?

Finite Resources

One of the questions that pops up in the tech world, but doesn’t seem to be solved yet, is how to power the innovation. It takes power to run the servers at Google. It take power to run the computers in the homes doing a Google search. It takes power to produce the stuff we buy online and to ship it. In the near future, I suspect the question won’t be whether a company can continue to grow but whether it will even have the power to operate.

Chouinard has been ahead of many other companies in addressing issues like environmental impact. In this instance, I think he’s ahead of other companies when discussing the value of growth in a company. I’m optimistic that we can find a solution to this particular issue, but the focus will have to shift from limitless growth to long-term survival, which will require a new vocabulary for CEOs, shareholders, and the stock market.


(Image courtesy of Bret Frk. Some rights reserved.)

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