But We’ve Always…

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things:

  • We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals.
  • In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones.

That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends:

  • Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics.
  • We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction.

How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position?

It all begins with three wretched words:

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before:

I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day.

I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.”

I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon.

I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins.

I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget.

Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for doing what’s right.

Earlier this year I attended the third-annual ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas. It had grown 50% over 2017 with more than 8400 attendees. Ecommerce remains an escalating magic buzz word. There were two types of presentations:

  • “People may think our proud, established, vastly well capitalized legacy brand can’t adapt to new technology, but we’ve always been a customer favorite and there’s no reason anyone should bet against us.”
  • “We’re a new brand and will lose our jobs if we don’t succeed, but our investors are betting that if we brainstorm new experiments and focus on customer behavior, the results will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Which bet would you place with your own money?

Let me restate the choice:

  • “We’ve been around more than fifty years, we know exactly what we’re doing having coined a business model for hard-won success, we’re a household name, and we’ll still be a household name fifty years from now.”
  • “We have no idea if we’re going to be around in two years, but we’ll take whatever runway we have to figure out how to do what’s never worked successfully before.”

Don’t bother answeringit’s a trick question. The truth is you need some of both to win the long game, some of the newbies and some of the dinosaurs. Yet too many people convince themselves there’s little downside to a buy-and-hold strategy with “forever” companies like GE or GM. They won’t invest in a risky start-up with a funny name and an unproven business model like Amazon or Apple until it’s a fully valued blue chip.

No one knows what companies are going to win in the future, whether cemented or emerging. They all have unpredictable choices to make. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s how new companies are born and old companies die, or old companies are reborn through reinvention. It’s called creative destruction.

My point has nothing to do with improving your stock portfolio. My point has everything to do with recognizing the death knell of an established brand and bringing life or invigoration to a challenger brand.

It can be a fair fight. An established brand can be a challenger brand when it acts like an underdogwhen it stomps out the status quo and humbly looks to customers for confirmation or rejection of any working thesis.

I am willing to bet few employees at Amazon or Apple wander the halls uttering the words “but we’ve always” as a response to why they aren’t trying something new. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they are becoming slow, cynical, and comfortable that they know what they are doing. I doubt it, but if they are, an opportunity for a challenger brand is out there for the taking.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Sears.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Toys ‘R’ Us.

When was the last time you said it? Still feeling good about that?

This year’s holiday shopping strategy is already behind us. There’s nothing we can do with history except study and learn from it.

The new year awaits all big ideas, particularly those focused on truly delighting customers with a sustainable business model and a resonating brand promise.

My advice going forward in whatever you are doing?

Eliminate the phrase BUT WE’VE ALWAYS from your company’s vocabulary before it eliminates you.

Erase those three words entirely from all conversation.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS is defensive, uninspiring, and telling.

Try something instead that hasn’t worked, something that you think might work because you have reason to believe in a thesis. Measure the results. If there’s promise, hone it with precision. If it starts to work, stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Question the potential interpretation of every collected data point. Remember that every successful idea has a life cycle, and a bad idea yesterday might be reformed under changing market forces as a good idea tomorrow.

When an idea works dependably and someone questions it in a future review, just don’t say BUT WE’VE ALWAYS done it that way. You haven’t always done it that way. It had a beginning. It can have an end. What can’t end is innovation.

_______________

Image: Pixabay

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More Fallout from the Zuckerberg Files

Should the unintended consequences that emerge in the course of a company’s evolution be a primary concern of management?

Is the exponential creation of shareholder value still the overriding force when a wildly successful company grows even faster than its own outsized vision?

Are the naive philosophical aspirations of under-experienced entrepreneurs a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ramifications of otherwise noble intentions?

In answering these and similar questions, is Facebook somehow a different animal?

These are some of the issues examined by a new Frontline documentary recently aired on PBS that frames a deeply damning critique of Facebook and its leadership team. While purposefully steering past the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Facebook’s innocent exchanges of family photos and recipes, The Facebook Dilemma dives into Facebook’s structural roots.

The critique presented is strident but not unfair: Why didn’t Facebook as an enterprise heed the many early warnings of the pervasiveness of its influence and more strongly consider mitigation strategies, and now that the political chaos has been unleashed, is there any possibility of getting the bad genie back in its bottle?

When Facebook launched, founder Mark Zuckerberg braved a bold and curious global community manifesto:

“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

That sounds good on the surface, and it sounded so good to so many of Facebook’s early employees that they rallied around the life-affirming purpose. They believed they were building a platform toward the betterment of humanity.

Simultaneously, the size of the audience embracing the platform created a media opportunity unlike any other in history. No company has ever thought about achieving monetization of a billion (heck, now two billion) individuals. To make sure no money was left on the table, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg from Google to build that side of the equation.

The inherent conflicts soon became apparent. Facebook claimed to be a technology company, not a media company, even though its business model was selling advertising, which is what a media company does. To be the most valuable media company it could be, it needed two things: the world’s most in-depth data warehouse, and a rule set of utilizing that data with the fewest possible restrictions.

As a business, this all made sense. As you can see every day in the public company’s enterprise value, it worked beyond all expectations. The problem remains, it was initially fueled by another slogan:

“Move fast and break things.”

This ethos is not unique to Facebook. One of the tenets of Silicon Valley is to drive value from what is called an MVP, a minimum viable product. The point is to get a functional offering in the market quickly, find where it is successful, worry little about its failings, and start to iterate while building cash flow. Success is defined first by penetration (audience reach) and second by monetization (lifetime customer value). When things go sour, startups try to fix them, but because success is winner take all, most teams unapologetically expect there will be a lot of sourness to sweeten.

The question Facebook has encountered is unsettling: Is its very business model antithetical to fixing the byproducts of its success?

The Frontline documentary illustrates many of the ways Facebook has gone sour. Arab Spring. Fake news penetration in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian intervention in media buying in the same election and outrageous exploitation of privacy by Cambridge Analytica. Violence in Myanmar.

Even Roger McNamee, a celebrated early investor in Facebook, took it upon himself to act counter to his own financial interests and ask Facebook management to step back and rethink the implications of its mindset. They did not heed his warnings. They were either too optimistic, too idealistic, too hooked on winning, too greedy, too ambitious, too arrogant, too busy to see the light of day, or a combination of all of those.

Facebook management has been reactive on all these fronts and done what it can to play whack-a-mole as crises emerge. Executives and managers there admit repeatedly they have been “too slow” to address the ramifications of their global viral adoption. The “too slow” apology parrots Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. It was a well-played chess move. It reveals no ethos of a fundamental commitment to a proactive playbook of innovative solutions. It’s a cost center, not a profit center.

Traditional media companies work under the direction of a qualified, responsible editor. When a journalist makes a mistake, the media brand runs a retraction. Facebook doesn’t want to be a media company, and it doesn’t want to be an editor, but any way you slice it, the algorithm that sits under News Feed is a robotic editor more likely to show you what it thinks you want to see than what is true or real. Then a perfectly targeted ad is inserted. That is how the game has been won at Facebook. It’s a winning formula. Any risk to changing that is far riskier to the company’s stock price than a few incidents of political unrest.

The real question remains: If Facebook’s mission requires that the company remove most obstacles to the free flow of information, the result of which is to facilitate unfiltered speech, the result of which is chaos, can it both stay true to its values and smooth over the chaos? And if the company is selling some of the most valuable ads in the world because the vast archive of privacy data is what makes those ads click, how can it impose limits on the interests of its ownership?

It’s a greater good question, one that capitalism believes is best left to the free market to solve, but in this case, it’s almost impossible to see how that gap is bridged.

Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is an “idealistic and optimistic” company. He said it when we was hauled before Congress to address the breach of privacy trust. When he was a younger man, it was a quaint proclamation I could have believed were it not for the true origin of Facebook as a college hook-up site. When he says it today, it sounds cynical. People who work for him might still be drinking the Kool-Aid. He’s selling advertising, justifying it, and trying to dodge regulation. To wit, he’s doing his day job as CEO.

Part of the problem might be social media itself. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. While pure democracy of publishing without a filter is liberating, audiences can easily be misled and mislead each other in chaotic exchanges of raw opinion. Add in bad actors buying access for covert agendas and the danger can become uncontainable.

Shortly before Zuckerberg testified earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At that time I wasn’t sure. Now I am. The byproducts of Facebook are so pernicious and likely unresolvable, I do think at some point the vast audience will abandon the platform. The cost of trading one’s privacy for family photos and recipes is too high. I don’t know when that will happen, and Facebook has a ton of cash so it can last a long time, but I expect the devoted masses will eventually exit their loyal addiction in self-defense. I don’t think this invention can adequately address the inherent conflict of interest it has created to thrive. Creative destruction will replace it with a better, more respectful product.

A brand is a promise. When trust is eroded, a brand dies.

I remain active on Facebook, but the broad notion that the world would be better as an open and connected place has always troubled me. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a kid learning of Nixon’s enemies list. Privacy to me always seemed to matter. Today’s political climate almost makes the Nixon era seem welcoming.

I’ve long subscribed to the notion that technology is advancing much faster than our ability to understand its implications. I saw that in my early career with the addictive nature of computer games. We see it all around us with people’s attention glued to mobile screens as they bump into each other and fall into fountains. We don’t really know what this stuff is doing to us. We buy it and use it and another tech company goes public.

Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things because it’s good for business. Collateral damage is expected and as long as a company survives and grows few real tears are shed. Expecting it will change is unrealistic. It’s a form of realpolitik. Expediency wins over ideology because of the vast money at stake.

Since you’re probably staying on the social media playing field indefinitely, protect yourself. No one else will.

_______________

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Pixabay

The Press and the President

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a briefing of journalists this past week exclaimed in exasperation:

“You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country, when ninety percent of the coverage of everything this president does is negative, despite the fact that the country is doing extremely well, despite the fact that the president is delivering on exactly what he said he was going to do if elected.”

It would be difficult to disagree with her observation that media coverage of the president is 90% unfavorable.

Why is the press overwhelmingly negative toward this president?

1) He lies obviously, shamelessly, and constantly.

2) His ideas and policies are uninformed, constructed from whim, and largely empirically wrong.

3) His behavior is morally repugnant and his driving force is feeding his ego.

4) The circumstances of his election are being investigated for criminal intervention by credible authorities.

The press is doing its job. The press is reporting on the dangers it sees threatening our nation. Were the weighting of critique not so uniformly negative, we might wonder if there was some hidden agenda in an institutional bias, some collusion with ulterior motives. The only collective agenda I can glean is the reporting of information allowing us to make critical decisions about our freedom and well-being.

Fake news is not the work product of trained journalists under credentialed editorial supervision. Journalism and a free press are the backbone that anchors the ongoing experiment that is our democracy.

Fake news is the drivel that emerges from undisciplined commentary and targeted propaganda. Misdirection is a tactic of human divisiveness, subversion of logical process, and chaos that beckons autocratic control.

Journalism and misdirection are not the same, unless one purposefully hijacks the other. When a true journalist makes a mistake or misstates a fact, the press runs a retraction. When an ignorant or hateful opinion-maker deliberately attempts to mask a lie as the truth, the lie is left to stand because it was intended to spread falsehood.

To confuse journalism with fake news is to misunderstand the fundamental pillar protecting democracy from authoritarian rule.

The press is not the enemy of the people.

Our president is not a victim. His relationship with the media is his own making.

Make change happen. Change happens when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. We are in severe pain.

Read your ballots carefully. Studied reporters have filled our news sources with more analysis than at any other time in history. We always have a choice.

Get out the vote.

Bad Behavior Made OK

I haven’t written about Donald Trump for quite some time. No, I’m not unwell, not more than anyone else. I brought out my third novel earlier this year and wanted to try to focus on storytelling without being overly divisive, although I will say at some of my book talks the social sparks found a way to fly. Guess I can bring that out in an audience even when I don’t try too hard.

I also became creatively exhausted on the topic of politics as it pertains to my blog and let Facebook do a lot of the heavy lifting for my rolling commentary. Apologies if you have been overwhelmed by that. Well, no apology really. It’s stuff I needed to say, just not here.

Sadly the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have roped me back in for the moment. It’s not just Kavanaugh, with whom I sadly share a branded diploma. It’s the voice of Trump that set me off. It always is.

The pervasive nature of Trump’s dysfunctional behavior for the almost two years he has been in office oozes without containment far beyond the Capital Beltway. The question of Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament was brought to bear during his highly combustible vetting. Even if he were deemed to fail this test, his shortcomings are but a pittance compared to Trump’s demonstrated abomination in presidential temperament.

Trump is not satisfied laying waste to government conventions and respectable demeanor. He has declared a culture war on civil discourse as we know it. His public comportment does not end at being reprehensible. He strives to be offensive in order to fully make the point that he has the bully pulpit, he is in charge, and he is entitled to any style of verbal combat he alone condones.

Unfortunately, his influence does not end when the video clips cease to loop. He has changed our neighborhood rules of engagement. His warring rage on opponents is bad behavior made OK.

Perhaps The Beatles said it better:

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.

If he can be an aggressive jackass without any filters of polite society, then it’s an easy step to thinking so can I. So can you. So can we all.

So many of us are now emulating his frightening postures, we are transforming our interactions into Trump World. This seems to be what he wants. It divides us. It keeps his platform solidified while we crumble into anarchy.

What makes me so sure? It’s hard to argue with the psychological tyranny of the workplace.

If you’ve worked in an office—or pretty much anywhere with a hierarchy—you know that people begin to take on behavioral traits of the boss. It’s a real phenomenon that begins subtly enough with quirks and builds over time with implicit permissions.

Allow me to illustrate the case, and then you can fill in your own anecdotal corollary.

I once had a prominent boss who sat at the head of the table during meetings with a disposable plastic water bottle. When he finished drinking the water, he would put his hands on either side of the bottle and crush it accordion style. Within two weeks of his arrival most everyone around the table was doing the same thing. With the echoing thunder of crushed plastic, our meetings began to sound like the Fourth of July.

Want another one?

I often use a borrowed expression in work situations: “Luckier than Steve Guttenberg.” At this point in pop history, few remember where it came from, let alone the target of its sarcasm. When the movie Three Men and a Baby was released in 1987, it starred the very famous Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and… Steve Guttenberg? In its time it was a quirky joke. It still comes out of my mouth when we get unexpectedly lucky in business. Within a week of saying it in any environment, I will hear it repeated back multiple times. I’ve asked the younger people who parrot it what it means. They have no idea, but they keep saying it. Often they laugh at the joke, not even googling the punchline.

Let’s call those relatively innocuous examples of boss behavior becoming everyone’s behavior. It gets much worse.

I had another boss with a penchant for taking credit for other people’s creative work. I should have known something was up when he regularly used brilliant media samples created by companies unaffiliated with ours to pitch the potential of our company to clients and investors. He never actually said we created those samples, he just used them to illustrate possibility, so I bit my tongue and let it go. I noticed others around me were also squirming, and the level of trust with this boss became built on silence rather than candor. Later he decided a high-profile project I had designed from concept to prototype hadn’t really been created by me but by him. He took over development of it from me and asked me to focus again on blue-sky initiatives. At that point I fully understood the downward norms of his success. I quit and restarted my career in a much better place.

Think of your own office emulation. Got a nasty example you can’t shrug off?

Now imagine the biggest Boss-in-Chief. Imagine how his daily abhorrent conduct is eating away at our nation’s cultural norms. Think about what you are seeing, hearing, and reading in routine circumstances that two years ago would have been considered appalling.

He mocks a victim of sexual assault. He mocks a physically disabled journalist. He belittles the military service and wartime imprisonment of a senator. He insults the supreme sacrifice of a Gold Star family. He touts his wealth as permission to have his way with women at his whim. He proclaims that his ability to avoid taxes makes him smart. He denies climate change in direct opposition to the vast majority of the global science community. He cries out “America First” in a nation that already consumes the most natural resources per capita and maintains the planet’s unequalled reserve of nuclear weapons.

What impact might that egoism be having on the rest of us? I’m not suggesting most of us long to lead rallies with chants of locking up an opponent, but think about what you are doing that you wouldn’t have done publicly in the prior time frame. Might you be acting ever so slightly differently? Are you feeling OK about it? I’m not.

Trump’s impact on our lives rises beyond the content of his thin theories and thinner policies. His stab to our innards is more than the overt lies he tells without remorse. The deterioration he is causing is systemic. Were we to be transformed in his image, his chaos would become our chaos.

Modern leadership is a privilege built upon empathy and humility. To rise above cynicism, we must embrace the notion of leadership by example. When we are entrusted with authority, what we do is what we allow others to do.

When a boss whispers, it’s a shout. When a boss shouts, it’s a call to arms.

Ridding ourselves of this malady will be no small trick. If it’s crept into your world view, start to root it out. If it’s infected your workplace, blow it up with a bomb. No, no bombs. Just eliminate it without drama. Insist collectively that the dreadful antics go away!

When enough of us allow Trump’s norms to become our own, the detriment to our well-being will last well beyond his term, likely beyond the life service of a Supreme Court justice. That vile tone will remain his legacy long after we think we are done with him.

When we rot, we decay until we dissolve. It’s not OK to let ourselves rot. Not now. Not ever.

_______________

Image: Pixabay

What’s Eating Brother Elon?

Let’s start with what needs to be said before all else: I am an enormous fan of Elon Musk. I think he is quite likely the most important and visionary entrepreneur today leading the way in technology, business, and innovation. He walks in the American continuum of Edison, Disney, Gates, and Jobs.  I wrote as much in a post dating back to 2014.

So when a guy as brilliant as Musk goes sideways, I start to ask myself some questions. Like, what’s up with all the weirdness?

Clearly I have no ability to understand what’s going on in this amazing individual’s life, other than to observe the monumental toll that stress can take on even the mightiest of titans. To guess at what might be at the root of Musk’s recent unpleasant run in the headlines would seem a fool’s errand.

While I am unable to fashion an informed evaluation of why Musk appears in many ways to be undermining his own success of late, I am thinking about the learning that might be had from observing his stress. I am reasonably certain he will have no interest in my reflections of what his behavior could be telling us, but perhaps this will provide a mirror for others on what some of this means and how it possibly could be addressed.

Here are five thoughts on that.

Focus Is No Small Trick

Can one person really be an effective CEO at more than one company? It’s hard enough to be a decent CEO period. Now add longevity to the CEO run and enormous competitive forces, and you start to wonder if running both Tesla (after integrating SolarCity) and SpaceX is remotely possible. Let’s also not forget that Musk is additionally CEO of Neuralink and The Boring Company. If you have ever been CEO of a high-growth company or even know one, you are aware that the job requires super-human energy, and even then the clock is always ticking against the corner office. Musk is beyond super-human, not only as a leader but as a founder who tackles some of the most difficult problems of our day. Will he succeed at all of his goals? I am sure a lot of investors and customers are counting on that, but wouldn’t the odds be more in his favor if he narrowed the scope of his personal agenda and delegated authority with a much broader brush?

A Competitive Advantage Is Not Forever

Tesla has created leading-edge, clean-exhaust automobiles. These electric vehicles are as beautiful and luxurious as anyone could have imagined. Most Tesla owners are evangelists for the company and fiercely loyal to the brand. There is no question that Tesla has been an inspired market leader, but all it takes is one visit to the showrooms of other luxury car companies and you start to see that high-end electric cars are on a fast path to becoming commodities under many brands. BMW and Jaguar already are introducing competitive product lines. Others are on the way. Staying ahead of the pack is its own form of madness and a lot less fun than introducing first-of-a-kind category killers. Can playing king of the hill without a summit in sight have a troubling impact on the psyche? How can it not?

Production Efficiency Is as Difficult as Innovation

Why hasn’t a new auto manufacturer in the U.S. survived at scale beyond the Big Three? The bulk of car buyers want cheap—most consumers don’t have an option to spend more, so the entrenched behemoths take small margins to achieve broad sales and then make money in other ways like service and financing. When you are playing with other people’s money, the demands of Wall Street can be insanely demanding. It’s hard to make big bucks selling very few cars. While Model S and Model X are both category-defining luxury cars, they remain low-volume production units with difficult margin economics given their scale. Model 3, the low-cost mass-market entry, is supposed to change the scale of Tesla, but realizing the dream of high-volume, low-cost, low-margin automobile economics seems precisely what is eating away at our hero. Is the problem perhaps not solvable with the reality of capital constraints all businesses face? Is there another business model beyond manufacturing that Tesla might want to explore with respect to the investment burden they carry?

Health Matters

A lot of people at the upper echelons of business take pride in working themselves to death, or at least appearing to do so. I will admit I am personally not beyond this criticism, and have winced more than once when listening to colleagues celebrate the notion of work-life balance even in the most competitive environments. Many leaders demonstrate manic obsession in their devotion to their enterprises, and it is hard to argue a company can be at the top of its game with a standard forty-hour work week. That said, no matter how much we wish to argue the contrary, we are human, our bodies have limits, and when we cross our own lines of practicality, we can become counterproductive. Sleep matters. Nutrition matters. Some relief from stress is necessary to be consistent in exercising good judgment and productive reasoning. When our vitality breaks down, it is only a matter of time before we collapse or the responsibilities we own become compromised.

Authenticity Does Not Require Unrestrained Drama

The modern workforce is not put off when a boss exhibits some vulnerability. Relationships defined by org charts actually can be strengthened when a manager exhibits humility toward his or her own limitations. Leaders who acknowledge that emotions and potential exhaustion set them on a level playing field with peers and subordinates can foster a dynamic environment of trust and support. That doesn’t mean employees and other stakeholders want executives to ramble, wander, or become media fodder. Remember that old saying, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Random proclamations to shareholders and needlessly quirky public appearances can leave deep craters on the social graph. All organizations want some form of predictability in the leaders they choose to follow. When they lose confidence in top management because of repeated, silly, and unnecessary antics that can demoralize their aspirations, they can make another choice. They vote with their feet.

I am rooting for Elon Musk to win, for SpaceX even more than Tesla, because he has proven that not only government bureaucracies can build dependable rockets. That is forcing innovation around reusability in space exploration and keeping admirable government spending on otherworldly travel in check. While I probably can’t put a dent in Musk’s corrective arc (which I want to believe is on the horizon), perhaps I can open the eyes of a few mere mortals to the underlying tension of his story. Perhaps your story of stress and self-expectation has similar subplots of immovable market forces. What could you be doing to course-correct that might give Musk reason to pay attention?

Three Thousand Ears in Cape Town


You’re probably thinking there is a typo in that headline. Nope. It’s correct. Not years. Ears.

This is a story about service. This is a story about choices and not enough choices. This is a story about experiential learning and tangible human impact, one small moment at a time.

Three thousand is an estimate of how many children’s ears were recently screened in Philippi Township, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa. At best count and two ears per young child, a volunteer team screened about 1500 children for otherwise undetected ear infections. If left untreated, this preventable and correctable condition could easily have left many of these children permanently deaf. About ten required immediate surgery. Six had cysts that could have resulted in meningitis or death.

A project of this scope had never been attempted. The average number of children screened by public health services in the township for ear care is 150-200 per year, largely based on referrals. The team we assembled, working hand in hand with local clinicians familiar with medical infrastructure in the township, took on more than that each day. Once this model partnership committed to the challenge, there was nothing stopping them from achieving a new record they can’t wait to break or see broken.

The ear clinic was only one of many innovative projects our group of volunteers tackled earlier this month near the far-away Cape of Good Hope. One team worked on AIDS prevention and education in a place where HIV remains epidemic, potentially impacting the vitality of an entire emerging generation. A construction team built bookshelves for public schools across the township. Another team focused on robotics learning, with young children lighting up as their minds opened to the basics of computer programming.

We also ran a dance program led by a former champion from television’s Dance Fever. We engaged a team of professional journalists to start a school newspaper. We organized a series of open discussions on women’s health and personal well-being. We developed a peer-to-peer math mentoring program for high school students.

My own team focused on business consulting with micro-entrepreneurs, working with an NGO called Business Activator to help bolster start-up companies. We were based in a unique business park created from the remnants of an old cement factory, with stacked shipping containers creating storefronts along a makeshift plaza.

So what’s the buzz? Why were we in Cape Town? Why take this on in lieu of a leisurely vacation?

It was all about service—an alumni project organized by my college. This time a hundred volunteers descended on Cape Town, a highly unusual metropolis of contrasts and contradictions. You may remember that I wrote about a similar project a year ago at the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation. Indeed, this is the tenth anniversary of the Yale Alumni Service Corps, harnessing the passion of individuals from all walks of life to immerse themselves in unfamiliar cultures and spend a week helping to ignite a spark in the lives of others that will be embraced, measurable, and lasting.

If you’ve ever dedicated any amount of time to volunteer service, you know the cliché is apt that you take away much more in your heart than you can ever give of your time. A visit to a place as complicated and torn as Cape Town can change your life if you let it. At the very least it can change your perspective on what you thought you knew about a subject as harrowing and sadly unresolved as apartheid.

I thought I understood the plague of apartheid from reading about it in newspapers and history books. I thought I understood the plight of institutionalized racial oppression from seeing the struggles on television and internet video. I thought I understood the meaning of healing through Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

The little I understood was academic. I didn’t know it until I was in Cape Town, but I needed to be in the townships to even start to internalize what apartheid was and what of it remains. Apartheid may officially be dead, but its pervasive toxins leave long, lingering trenches of decay.

Now I have seen this. I also see the corollaries to many of the deepest problems in our own backyards. A simple service project made this possible.

Service isn’t just about doing good deeds. Service is about cultural immersion. Service is about lifelong learning. Service is about coming to terms with empathy for distant problems that on closer examination are wildly close to home.

On the second day of our trip, my direct observations on an extended bus ride through the townships almost stopped my breathing. I had never before seen systemic, uncontrolled poverty on that scale. As much as I thought I knew what economic inequality meant, nothing prepared me for seeing the ruins brought on by apartheid sprawling without containment almost a quarter-century after the election of Nelson Mandela.

Service let me see this. Service opened my eyes to the impact of history and the seemingly immovable obstacles of current events.

There is no way words can adequately describe the inequality in Cape Town. The city center is picturesque and opulent, with cascading views of the gorgeous waterfront. Quaint streets reflecting British influence and signage wind past towering universities, luxury-car dealerships, and New World wine-tasting rooms.

Fifteen minutes down the road are the townships originally created by apartheid, still standing—expanding actually—with millions living in abject poverty. Many live ten or more in tiny corrugated metal shacks, if they have an overhead shelter at all. There is minimal plumbing, shared toilet structures, electricity pirated from public lines tempting common incidents of fire. School dropout rates approach 80%. Unemployment stands near 25% with utter confusion among the suffering how America is not stuck in the same recession.

It all seems apocalyptic. We aren’t talking a few blocks or a few streets of urban decay. We’re talking mile after mile of human beings on top of each other trying to survive, source decent food, tote clean water, find a way out.

Remember, this is more than 25 years after the end of apartheid, which astonishingly lasted as law into the early 1990s! I was shocked to hear several young people actually speak ill of Mandela. To some he has become more myth than legend, and they question why his promises haven’t panned out for their prosperity. Many have become cynical, wondering why his vision was never realized, whether he compromised too easily and sold out their future. It is common to hear the electorate speak openly of parliament as corrupt and self-serving. They ask if the ANC can once again become their champions.

In service we seek to offer hope, and while there were glimmers of resilience in each of our day’s work, the scale of oppression remains impossible to talk past. All of this is the long tail of apartheid, a system so vicious and deeply embedded in societal ills it is difficult to decipher how many generations it will take to overcome. I was left thinking of the United States after our Civil War, how long it took for any kind of normalcy to prevail, where even today we can’t seem to get past racial hatred. I wondered how in the embers of Nazi defeat at the end of World War II, with the Nuremberg Trials in the headlines, it was possible for apartheid come to power with the National Party in 1948. The irony of 1948 is impossible to escape. That was the founding of Israel.

Our work in Cape Town was facilitated by a dynamic NGO known as Amandla Development, whose mission is to “empower children to succeed from cradle to career.” One of the sheer joys of being in Cape Town was getting to know the local staff of Amandla, to spend time with people who grew up in the townships and are now determined to reverse the course of history by touching the lives of children one at a time. This is how hope becomes action—not with epic commitments of resources in attempts to shatter daunting obstructions, but in finding one or two individuals open to the idea of collaboration and helping them improve their lives.

Our volunteers in journalism reported that many of the students in their program seldom interact at all with white people. They simply don’t have the occasion or opportunity, another awful remnant of apartheid. One student wrote that she never thought she would develop a friendship with a white person. That friend became the person who encouraged her to publish her first story.

All that brings me back to the 3000 ears in Cape Town. Perhaps on equal footing with ensuring quality hearing for these 1500 children was the opportunity to let each one of them know that we care about them. Our volunteers didn’t just process them through a waiting line. These were very young children, most of whom don’t begin learning English until the third grade. Of course they wondered why we were there. Our loving colleagues went to their classrooms and explained through a translator what we were doing, that they would be in no discomfort, and that we truly were friends from abroad.

Raising awareness of the scourge of hearing related diseases was as important a part of the mission as the specific medical attention offered. Adroitly changing the perception of these maladies from endemic to treatable afforded our educators an enormous creative window. While the children were waiting to see the doctors, our volunteers played games, sang songs, and worked on art projects with them to reinforce this learning. I can’t help hoping that some of these children will remember these joyful moments of sharing as they become adults. I know our volunteers will never forget them.

Perhaps the Cape of Good Hope is well named. I won’t forget any of it. Not apartheid, not the townships, not the children, not the entrepreneurs in their offices anticipating a brighter future.

That is the nature of service. I’m pretty sure we can’t fix this rotten, broken, unjust world. I’m completely certain we can always help one or two strangers if we care to make that choice.

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Photo: Copyright Melanie Belman-Gross (shared with permission)

A Beguiling 20%


This month our nation celebrated its 242nd birthday. As I was sitting in the stands at Dodger Stadium on July 4 watching a spectacular and patriotic fireworks display (following a wonderful midseason win) something quite obvious but strange occurred to me:

I have been alive for over 20% of our nation’s history.

That may not seem curious to you, but it does to me. No one in Russia, China, or most of western Europe can say that.

It is only because we are such a young nation that our lives constitute such a significant portion of our nation’s entire state of being.

I have been trying to put that in context. I am over a half-century in age, and the nation is less than five half centuries in age. For sake of context, I have tried to segment those de facto quintiles into what I have experienced as current events (the most recent 20%) and what I must study as history.

Latest 20%: Age of economic triumph, the information age, and age of civil rights.

Prior 20%: Age of two world wars, one Great Depression, and vast immigration.

Middle 20%: Age of Civil War and Reconstruction.

Second 20%: Age of Manifest Destiny & Industrial Revolution.

Initial 20%: Age of our Founding Fathers, American Revolution, and the visionary foundation of secular democratic governance.

It doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time for all that to have happened when you think about it. I guess that’s because it really isn’t. What’s 242 years? These days, it’s about three full lifetimes. If you time them correctly, you could talk to someone who talked to someone who knew someone who experienced Independence Day as current events.

That’s just wild. Mind-boggling! And look how far we’ve come!

Or have we?

Well, we have sent humans to the moon and probes to Jupiter and Pluto. We have air conditioning, spiffy kitchen appliances, and running water in our homes (when we don’t run out). We have lots and lots of TV channels. We have supercharged computers in our pockets we call mobile phones. We have this Internet thing that has eliminated almost all barriers to information access and makes globalization a reality.

Yet we still fight a lot, among ourselves and with faraway strangers. It seems that in every one of those quintiles we fought a lot. Maybe fighting is a constant in almost every nation’s evolution. History would seem to reinforce that recurrence.

We haven’t had all that many U.S. presidents. Our current office holder is only number 45. Many recaps of U.S. presidents show that many of the individuals who held the office weren’t very good at it in hindsight. Luckily, there are a few most of us agree regardless of political affiliation will always be American heroes. There’s Lincoln. There’s Washington. I think it might start to get controversial after that.

I wonder if the top people in charge of running our nation day-to-day in all its complexity—whether elected officials or policy makers or military leaders or business executives or educators—are in awe of their 20% stage time. I doubt it. The truly influential people I know and the many I study from afar seem to like their gigs a lot, but in my observation very few of them seem in awe.

I also wonder how many of the leaders guiding our 20% are good listeners. Do they hear the studied voices among us? Do they listen for the quieter voices who choose not to enter the knock-down, drag-out drama of overpowering influences and powerful, conflicted mandates? Do they immerse themselves in understanding the previous 80% of our time as a nation where we might have emerged a winner but didn’t necessarily embrace a sense of humility and real justice in establishing a fair set of rules? Do they strive for a true sense of vision or just winning for bragging rights and lovely take-home prizes?

I also find myself thinking about things I have lived through largely from inception, particularly the rapid compounding of computer technology. I imagine this is how people felt who went from horses and buggies to the Model T, having seen automobiles take over roads that were created for drawn carriages. I can’t remember a time before air travel, but my dad can. When I think about his lifespan, the numerator and denominator tell me he has lived through almost a third of the nation’s history. He may achieve a beguiling 40%!

I thought life was breathtakingly scientific when I sat in front of a black-and-white CRT eating Space Food Sticks while NASA astronauts blasted into orbit. Now I write about that as nostalgia while pretty much every public document in human history is available to me by typing on this keyboard into a conceptual framework of storage we simply refer to as the cloud.

Why take pause on the magnitude of a quintile? I guess for one reason because I am naturally sentimental about milestones. All forks in the road of consequence inspire my introspection, giving me excuse if not reason to try to put into perspective the meaning of our timeline.

Yet more than that, I am particularly absorbed in trying to make sense of the coming quintile, which by all stretches of the imagination I will not see resolved. I suppose if lucky I may live to see our nation on its 275th birthday, but there is not chance I will see our Tricentennial.

Am I worried what we might become collectively between now and then? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know the depth of my concern. I guess that will give me much to write about as we walk forward together through future milestone celebrations. Between now and then, I can only hope that the nation’s leadership does embrace the gravitas of our current context.

America is an idea more than anything. Promising ideas need to be nurtured, not battered.

Speaking of milestones, this happens to be my 200th blog post since I launched CorporateIntel in 2011. Along the way I have met hundreds of interesting new people both virtually and in person. Writing is a solitary endeavor until you push the Publish button on your text editor. This magnificent innovation has opened my life to so many minds I would never otherwise have encountered. When we share ideas and swap stories, technology goes into the background and our human thoughts take precedence over the engineering that facilitates our interactions. As long as human interaction and exchange overrides the technical wonder of its creation, you can count on me for another 200.

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Photo: Pexels