Sunday Jan 31, 2010

The Wonders of Propaganda

How could I not read an article in USA Today with a headline like this? Psychologists: Propaganda works better than you think.

It's true, of course. I find propaganda is a remarkably effective tool, and it's far more sophisticated in democracies than it is in totalitarian societies (see Chomsky here and here and a million other places, and also see David Barstow's reports on the media and the Pentagon -- video, article, article -- for a well-known and recent example). But what I found most interesting in the USA Today piece was the assertion that accurate information may not counteract propaganda very well and actually could help transmit it. If that's true, would it make sense to be more assertive in communications to drive the agenda and then to ignore critics (or at least the vicious and extreme ones)? I suppose this strategy wouldn't necessarily work in all cases, and there are certainly some very effective techniques to deposition attackers. But just tossing out good information in a attempt to thwart the bad stuff may not be a good use of time. Having the good information well documented so you can rapidly point to it for those interested is required, of course, but it's the never-ending iterative arguing that I think I'm done with. I've been trying this for about a year now, and I find it more effective than my earlier pattern of responding to everything in an attempt to change minds. I gave up. Plus, it's not as exhausting.

Propaganda fascinates me. I keep track here: http://blogs.sun.com/jimgris/tags/propaganda

Wednesday Jan 13, 2010

The Necessity of Making Mistakes

Nice article on the brain biology behind how scientists actually create science. Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. Recognizing anomalies, making mistakes, being challenged, and engaging in conversation are all critically important elements that make science work. Context and perspective matter greatly as well. Seems all very human to me. I`m not so much interested in the brain chemistry that influences behavior in science (you can see this in partisan politics as well), but what fascinates me more is the notion that with this awareness you can dig yourself out of the natural traps that catch most people, and that can lead to new opportunities that only a few generally see.

From the article:

Modern science is populated by expert insiders, schooled in narrow disciplines. Researchers have all studied the same thick textbooks, which make the world of fact seem settled. This led Kuhn, the philosopher of science, to argue that the only scientists capable of acknowledging the anomalies — and thus shifting paradigms and starting revolutions — are “either very young or very new to the field.” In other words, they are classic outsiders, naive and untenured. They aren’t inhibited from noticing the failures that point toward new possibilities.

The "acknowledging the anomalies" bit from Thomas Kuhn is key. It may enable you to jump paradigms or start revolutions, which is very cool, but in the process it also gets you a lot of knives buried deeply in your back. So acknowledge carefully. More than a few people have ended up dead challenging paradigms throughout the ages. Granted, the deaths are at the extreme, but why go through all that if it`s not necessary. Start small. Pick off what you can. Even though most people usually can't change the paradigms in which they live, they can change the small things in their world by recognizing and resolving anomalies that crop up every day. Then, hopefully, over time the small changes add up to big changes. And when you are focusing on this process, you are more apt to spot big paradigm shifts coming along and you can jump when the opportunity is right. So, don`t be afraid to poke around and change your position and screw up from time to time. Failure is important. It helps you succeed.

Thursday Oct 01, 2009

Extreme Communications

There is good reason why extremism thrives in American political discourse. It works. It really is that simple. Actually, it`s a remarkably effective rhetorical technique and has been so since the founding of the republic. Go back and read the early political debates -- or just take a good U.S. history class -- and you quickly learn that pretty much nothing has changed in hundreds of years of politicians bashing each other in public arenas. Never mind the political party. That`s always been irrelevant when it comes to this behavior. American politicians intentionally take serious issues -- freedom, war, health, money -- right to the edge. Why? To scare people. And, since they have real power over our lives, it works. We get scared. And then we don`t question too deeply. And if we do question, we really don`t do very much about it, right? Instead, over time we become passive and compliant.

The reason I think this way -- it`s just a gut observation, that`s all -- is that if you take away someone`s power to control your life then their propaganda sounds much less threatening. Oftentimes, they just sound silly. Their lack of credibility becomes obvious, and they are much more easily ignored. You can see distinctions in communications strategies when you look at other fields outside of the political/media complex. Many companies, for instance, have found that attacking competitors in public is counterproductive. Customers see right through it, and the practice becomes a demonstration of poor marketing. Also, when you build community, especially across language and cultural barriers, extremist language can easily and rapidly undermine your reputation. Now, the term community has many practical definitions, but in general it implies a distribution of power and leadership, not a centralization. In communities, people tend to be valued for what they do, not what they say. You can see this in many scientific and technical communities. I see it in all of the communities in which I participate. But I don`t see this concept expressed at all in politics. Do you?

This all came to mind tonight after I scanned this article -- The pros and cons of hissy fits. It`s a fun read.

Wednesday Aug 26, 2009

Emanuel as a Project Manager

Interesting article in the NYT about Rahm Emanuel and his management style -- Emanuel Wields Power Freely, and Faces the Risks. I`m not interested in any of the political propaganda and myth making in the article (although I do find that stuff entertaining at times), but instead I`m much more drawn to how Emanuel manages a president. That`s a difficult task in general and especially these days, but that`s what Chiefs of Staff do for the most part. And there are some simple project management lessons here that are obvious because the position is so high profile and this Chief of Staff plays that card to the max. The constant emailing and phone calling to extend presence. The requiring of and then responding to weekly written reports from staff members to keep people focused. The carrying around of note cards and to-do lists to not forget anything. The maintenance of a personal database of contacts running into the thousands of names to demonstrate influence. The mandating of deliverables so achievements can be measured and quantified. And the assertion of power as pervasively as possible in an effort to leverage and create even more power (or in Rahm`s case, intimidation). All of that is basic stuff to a good project manager. The difference is only scale.

So, I wonder how Emanuel would deal with some of the projects I am working on?

Tuesday Jul 14, 2009

A Community Builder who Never Quits

Grace Lee Boggs puts things in perspective quite nicely in this interview with Bill Moyers. It's all about building community and empowering people to take control of their own own lives, instead of looking to some leader somewhere to provide for them. Real change -- change for the good, anyway -- starts down at the grassroots and forces movement above. Not the other way around. And when economic and governmental structures break down, that's no reason to give up and complain and get distracted, it's simply a reason to rebuild and focus on self sufficiency and distributing power so it can be used to actually help people. That`s how some people feel in Detroit. They are acting. They are building. They aren't giving up and leaving others behind. And at least one of those community builders is 93. Ninety three. Feeling down? Call Grace. She knows no other way.

Thursday Jun 25, 2009

Earning Confidence

A Workers’ Paradise Found Off Japan’s Coast: “Mr. Fujimoto said he would resign immediately if a serious rival appeared in an election. `That would be a sign the village has lost confidence in me,` he said.” -- New York Times

Interesting. I really must visit this place.

Tuesday Jun 23, 2009

Extraction

Communicating is all about building relationships, and that`s always a two way street (or if you are in the community business, a multi-way street). Every wonder what a rapid fire relationship with Rahm is like. Check out Ring, ring, it's Rahm:
NBC’s Chuck Todd calls the Emanuel relationship “no-nonsense.”

“He’s always trying to extract as much information as he’s trying to give,” Todd says.

But the conversations with Emanuel “can be as little as 30 seconds,” Paul Begala, the CNN commentator and longtime Emanuel friend says. “He calls, drops a few F-bombs, makes his point and hangs up.”
The shock value of his delivery is interesting (he can do that because he`s powerful), but even more important is the bit about the information extraction. Information has to flow both ways to demonstrate the value of the relationship.

Wednesday Apr 01, 2009

Looking for Leaders in all the Wrong Places

Really good article about leadership from David Rothkopf in the Washington Post the other day -- Where Are the Leaders? My favorite quote is this one right here: "Everywhere you look, it seems that the men and women in positions of power are receding. The closer you look, the smaller they get. Once there were titans running the financial and business worlds, lions of the legislature, great statesmen astride the global stage, individuals who weren't just victims of history but who bent it to their wills. Or maybe it's just that people in the rearview mirror appear larger than they really were."

Yes, I do think the rearview mirror distorts our view, but I also think the current crop of leads out there is poor at best. And I disagree with the presupposition in the article (and in most of these articles) that leadership is only for leaders. That`s what keeps us always looking up to the special people for answers. Leadership is not just for leaders. Leadership is for all of us. And just because our so-called leaders turned out to be obviously so small, that doesn`t let all of us off the hook for our own laziness to take responsibility for our own lives. I mean after all, we believed those guys, right?  That part is our problem, not theirs. Don`t look up for leadership. Look in the mirror. Weave that notion into the article as you read it. I think it works.

Thursday Mar 05, 2009

The Chief of Staff

I have always been interested in the role of Chief of Staff. Presidents have these guys around, and so does the military. And now a lot of companies have them as well. It seems like an odd role at times, though. Good chiefs have massive power in their own right, but they also have to reflect the boss almost perfectly so their own opinions vaporize. Seems like an interesting dance. Here is a very interesting and long piece on Obama`s chief of staff -- Rahm Emanuel: The Gatekeeper.

The Stories of Community

Why Stories Matter: The art and craft of social change -- "Learning skills and practices is not like learning a formula; it’s more like learning how to ride a bicycle. You can read 10 books about it or listen to someone lecture about it all day, but how do you really start learning to ride a bicycle? You get on. And you fall. That’s how you learn practices. That’s how you learn organizing." -- Marshall Ganz

Nice article from Marshall Ganz on using the power of story (four specific levels of stories, actually) to engage people and build communities that drive change. Story telling is as old as it gets and remains probably the most effective way to deliver information that resonates. Here`s a little Ganz video, too. Good stuff.

Saturday Feb 28, 2009

Never Waste a Really Good Crisis

Huge article in the NY Times about the financial crisis. It's called The Big Fix, by David Leonhardt. Really nice bit of perspective and history and a great read. But what keeps jumping out at me is one quote that puts things into an interesting context:

"TWO WEEKS AFTER THE ELECTION, Rahm Emanuel, Obama`s chief of staff, appeared before an audience of business executives and laid out an idea that Lawrence H. Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser, later described to me as Rahm’s Doctrine. 'You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,' Emanuel said. `What I mean by that is that it's an opportunity to do things you could not do before.'"

That's absolutely true. Even a quick flip through history demonstrates this concept quite clearly and it cuts right across a variety of societies. The leaders of countries (the smart leaders, anyway) tend to use a serious crises to change policy significantly and usually in ways that, in retrospect, represent an obvious paradigm change. In other words, big changes that are only realized later. I'd feel better about it if the power elite suffered the same consequences of these paradigm shifts as the rest of us, but that's not how the world works. I get that. Also eerie about Emanuel's comment is just how much it reminds me of Naomi Klein's latest book, Shock: Disaster Capitalism, in which she documents leaders manipulating events, shocking their populations, and changing policies radically (and generally to the detriment of the people). This phenomenon is not new, and it's not used exclusively by leaders of so-called capitalistic societies. Noam Chomsky has talked about the concept for years, especially and most recently with respect to how governments around the world used 911 to clamp down and reduce freedoms if those tendencies were present in the first place. The crisis was their opportunity. And they didn't waste it. Now, in the quote above, Rahm is obviously talking about fixing things, but the process is the same as wrecking things: you do it using a crisis.

So, if the power dudes view a good crisis as an opportunity never to be wasted, why don't we feel the same way and do the same thing? It's certainly a different way of thinking, but it can be liberating if you look ahead and actively jump paradigms on your own terms instead of holding on to the past as it crumples under your feet because others are acting in their own interests. This is a good lesson for project management as well. The life cycle of any great project snakes around like a river running wild, so it pays to step back occasionally and plan for those times when things break badly. They are opportunities "to do things you could not do before." Take advantage of them.

And finally, here's Rahm's crisis video at the Wall Street Journal.

Monday Feb 23, 2009

Alinsky to Obama: Organize! Organize! Organize!

I`ve been catching up on my Saul Alinsky now that we have a community organizer in the White House. I was never much inspired with Alinksy, although I certainly appreciate his place in American history. When I read his stuff I just feel dirty, sort of like plodding through Eddie Bernays and his propaganda or Machiavelli and his lessons for princes. But all that is reality in power politics, and many of those guys articulate some wonderfully evil and practical tactics to gut a variety of opponents in just about any situation you`d find yourself in. If that`s the sort of thing you want to do, anyway.

It`s interesting, though. We oftentimes hear that you have to fight fire with fire, and that`s probably true in some cases. But what about the exceptions? For instance, I never get that dirty Alinsky feeling all over when reading Ghandi or King, and those guys were certainly grand community organizers fighting bad guys too. In fact, they were probably the two most effective community builders in modern history. I wouldn`t put Alinsky in their league. Ghandi and King inspire. Alinsky manipulates. Ghandi and King transcend and transform. Alinsky fights. Both views are probably necessary at various points in a great struggle, but I prefer to focus a tad more on the positive and not so much on an Al Capone street fight in a dark and dirty Chicago alley. But that`s just me.

Sanford D. Horwitt, an Alinsky biographer, writes nice piece about what the so-called father of community organizing would say to President Obama today (Alinsky would be 100 this year). I guess Obama studied under some of Alinsky`s guys for a bit. So, what`s the fatherly advice on building community? "Barack, remember what got you here ... Keep your eyes on the prize and keep organizing, organizing, organizing!" That`s not surprising. And it`s good advice. But it will be interesting to see if Obama can follow it, if he can keep his obviously well honed community organizing skills up to date from the perspective of living among the power establishment that Alinsky was always fighting. That`s where Obama sits now, after all. Will it work from way up there? To me, this is what makes the Obama presidency fascinating.

Also of note is Obama`s view of Alinsky himself. It`s far more expansive view than the narrow minded Alinsky pitched. Check out The Agitator: Barack Obama's unlikely political education for a lot of Obama`s views of Alinsky. I like this bit right here:

"Alinsky understated the degree to which people's hopes and dreams and their ideals and their values were just as important in organizing as people's self-interest. Sometimes the tendency in community organizing of the sort done by Alinsky was to downplay the power of words and of ideas when in fact ideas and words are pretty powerful. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.' Those are just words. 'I have a dream.' Just words. But they help move things. And I think it was partly that understanding that probably led me to try to do something similar in different arenas." -- Obama, 2007

In other words, community organizing isn`t always about going head to head. It`s not always about cutting people down. It`s not always about taking power away from the powerful (after all, what do you do with the power you get? Will it corrupt you as it did them?). Sometimes community building is about, well, building. It`s about inspiring. Liberating. Leading. And it`s about distributing power, not centralizing it. It goes far beyond words, too.

Saturday Jan 03, 2009

Asserting Responsibility

Sink or swim: Haruka Nishimatsu, chief executive Japan Airlines: "Nishimatsu says that in the big picture, JAL's change process has to be much more than just talk - Asia's biggest airline needs to genuinely be overhauled. While some say his plan does not go far enough, particularly in terms of job cuts, Nishimatsu says pragmatism must be adhered to. He also insists that if his targets are not met that he will take full responsibility. 'If you were to ask is this the perfect, completely realisable cost-cutting plan, then that is a very difficult thing to declare,' he says. 'But if we don't achieve our targets, I do not intend to stay on.' "

A leader asserting ... responsibility? I find that especially shocking. Usually leaders spin, deflect, duck, attack, point fingers, lie, and steal. And they usually get away with it, too. I don`t see very many people leading by example these days, do you? And I don`t see very many leaders emerging from real communities of people engaged in direct action, do you? I`m talking about people who actually work not just talk. These people are obvious on every project. They are the leaders even though they don`t have the title and most times never get the title. That`s unfortunate. It seems to me that the era of the experts and special people spinning us like sheep should be over. Humor me. I can dream, can`t I? But is that happening at JAL? Can it happen in government too?

Tuesday Dec 30, 2008

Real Leadership Starts with Real Action

I find most conversations about "leadership" little more than meaningless chit-chat. A waste of time. Talk is cheap. Just ignore it. Action speaks clearly. With that in mind, watch this CNN clip of Japan Airlines CEO Haruka Nishimatsu's attempt to manage his company through tough times -- Evolving Excellence: $20 Billion Company CEO ... Takes the Bus. (Video: here, here,)

What do you think? I've watched the darn thing a dozen times. I can't get enough. It's an inspiration. Yet, it's so stupidly simple. And it speaks quite clearly about this guy's priorities and those of his company. Can you imagine in your wildest dreams business, labor, and political leaders in modern America following this reality of leadership? Yah, I doubt it too.

Now, some of this is cultural in that the distribution of wealth in Japan is not nearly as insane as it is in the United States, and the so-called "talent" market in Japan is nothing like it is in the West as well. The Japanese think very differently about individual talent and its value in relation to an overall organization. It's difficult to explain, but I see it everywhere around here. And I can see both good and bad in it as well. So, I'm not saying that the Japanese know best in all cases. They don't. Neither do we, actually, but we tend to not recognize that. But I do find it remarkable that this story in Japan is really not a big deal at all. Should it be? Regardless of the obvious cultural differences, the United States may be forced to make some cultural changes like these in the near future. It will be fascinating to see how the country deals with it. Is all that "talent" worth all that cash? If it is, so be it. I'm all for paying for the best. But if not, can we finally recognize it, please? Can this be any more obvious now? So far the solution is simply to raid the pockets of us regular people to save all the experts and billionaires with a never ending series of bailouts. How long that will last who knows. I suspect not for very long before people get really pissed, but what do I know. I'm nobody. I have no power. I'm not special in that system, and don't think for a minute that that doesn't get me very down at times. I know, I know ... Obama is going to save us. Right. Got it.

Oh, and by the way, when I travel throughout Asia for Sun, Japan Airlines is always an option for obvious reasons. They fly there a lot. And I generally choose based on times and prices, etc -- just like everyone else (well, everyone else who flies 3rd class, I mean). So, do you think knowing that JAL's CEO is taking the freaking bus to work hanging on to the damn strap like I do and making less money than his pilots will affect my decision to choose an airline? You can absolutely count on it. Never mind that the service on JAL (and most Asian airlines) is vastly superior to every single American and European carrier in the air, I'm talking this guy's plane because he's talking the bus. Period. And Nishimatsu didn't initiate this no-frills style of management when the U.S. fell off the financial cliff a few months ago. Nope. He started a couple of years ago. Anyway, I gotta calm down. Here are some related links talking about this issue. Good stuff. All worth a read if you are just a regular working stiff trying to figure out how to retire and put your kid through college.

Ah, one more thing before I forget. And this is a big deal. If you want to build community in this new era -- one where the people have more of a voice than ever before -- do what Nishimatsu-san does. It's required. How else would you have any credibility whatsoever?

Saturday Feb 23, 2008

Rapid Response Counterattack

McCain turns tables on Times. An interesting read about how the McCain forces jumped all over the Times the other day. This is standard procedure, of course, but it really depends on how well you execute (and that execution always makes interesting reading) and if your enemy responds in kind. Politicians know that in terms of public perception you can absolutely influence by going negative, hitting hard, using overwhelming force, and yelling with extreme language. The purpose is to intimidate. If the other side counters, well, then you have a brawl. If they hesitate, though, you've got them. That's the critical part that comes through in this article. The Times found itself responding to its own article and responding late. Now, this is politics so truth is not really that important, and I have no opinion about the substance of the article or the counter attack (nor do I particularly care about either). What I find fascinating, though, is the dynamic of influence and how large organizations of people can be rapidly moved to action. What are the techniques? What foundational work is necessary beforehand so a message resonates? Anyway, the LA Times talks about some of this, too: McCain story proves incendiary among journalists, conservatives

Wednesday Dec 26, 2007

Stagnation Leading to Revolution?

In Japan, Stagnation Wins Again -- "Maybe it’s time for a revolution." -- Joi Ito

Monday Jul 26, 2004

Blogging Boston

Congratulations to all the bloggers who earned press credentials to cover the Democratic National Convention in Boston. I'm so excited for these guys. The New York Times talks to a few of them here. You gotta love the opportunity blogs have provided people. I mean, Jeralyn Merritt, criminal defense lawyer in Denver, now has access to the bowels of the Democratic National Convention? Wonderful! And Stephen Yellin in Berkeley Heights, N.J? Where's that? Who's he? He's 16! Now that's opportunity.

Merritt told the Times after getting her credentials:

"It was someone who was judging me on the work that I was doing for free over the last two years and found me worthy."

Guess it wasn't for free after all, eh? Having a passion pays off.

I think many in the media get it and are adapting, even leveraging, the new medium. That's great. But it's always fun watching those still fighting from the other side of a dying paradigm. I love this quote in the article from a journalism professor:

"I think that bloggers have put the issue of professionalism under attack," said Thomas McPhail, professor of media studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who argues that journalists should be professionally credentialed. "They have no pretense to objectivity. They don't cover both sides."

Both sides? Objectivity? How silly. Tom, I have to say ... THAT'S THE POINT! At least for me, I don't care if a blogger covers only conservative issues or only liberal issues or any of the several hundred points of view in between. At least I know where bloggers stand within 10 seconds of reading their stuff. They are smart enough to have absolutely no pretense of objectivity, which is a dopy notion, anyway, one that only the elite media talk about yet no one believes. I've never met a single objective person in my life. Not one. Not even a journalist. And I've worked with several hundred of them from all over the world for a decade. Journalists are human, just like the rest of us, Tom. You are not special.

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