Air, Water, Food

AstronautThere’s no time like the present to set goals. Here’s a framework I use for myself and those I manage or advise.

I generally try to classify projects into three levels of priority before I consider adding resources to anything on deck: Air, Water, and Food.

In the unlikely event everything classified under Air, Water, and Food is done and behind us, I might move onto the next realm of importance, but generally, if it’s not Air, Water, or Food, it is going to get a very low priority,

I’m stealing broadly from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but suppose you were an astronaut in orbit and the red light in the capsule appeared. How do you set priorities? Largely by survival.

Without air, you have seconds to live.

Without water, you have days to live.

Without food, you have weeks to live.

Everything after that is discretionary.

Whether you are setting high-level goals or project priorities, try ranking your options into these categories.

What is Air?

In a services business, it might be customers.

In an e-commerce business, it might be secure uptime.

In product development, it might be an innovative, competitive technology solution that is worth marketing because it will surprise and delight customers.

“Air” initiatives are the items on your to-do list that if not attended to immediately may cause a business to be gone very soon. Sometimes they are obvious. Take the examples above. If you don’t protect your customers in a services business, you don’t have a business. If you don’t have a product worth selling, you don’t have a business. If you are selling online and you are not safely live to the world, you don’t exist.

It’s relatively easy to see the obvious examples of Air, but sometimes they are counterintuitive. I often write about People, Products, Profits—in that order. Are people, or the talent that drives your company, Air? The answer is absolutely yes—we cannot accomplish much of anything without the right team, but none of us has the unlimited capacity to hire everyone we want. It is precisely because talent is Air that it takes discipline to know which people you need now and which may have to wait. Your budget will always create some constraints, as will the availability of people you wish to recruit and the forced ranking of your priorities.

Of all the choices you make, Air should be the least subjective. When you feel it leaving the room, you know you are doing something vitally wrong. Don’t let Air get away from you, or the next two points won’t matter.

What is Water?

In a services business, it might be tailoring what is offered to individual customer needs.

In an e-commerce business, it might be sufficient variety of differentiated listings to attract and retain customers.

In product development, it might be the process management that lets you create a dependable schedule.

“Water” initiatives are what you need to build the business once you are certain the Air around you is sustainable. These are the projects in your organization that are essential, the ones that cannot be postponed unless there is an Air-eliminating crisis to address. Of course, if there are too many crises in an organization, you will never get to Water, and that will only keep you going slightly longer than losing Air.

Consider the example of product development: Air is ideation, the vision that will set your offering apart from those of your competitors. Water is the ability to deliver it. If you can’t create a project plan and product development schedule that you can actualize within your financial means, the concept won’t have any value. You need to be demanding about Water, but you also need to be realistic.

How important is knowing Water when you see it? Take the metaphor to its extreme: Suppose you have an abundance of Air, but you can’t get to Water. How long will you last? That’s how important Water is. It’s not Air, but it’s not far behind. Use discipline when you deem something Water. Everything that isn’t Air can’t be Water, or you’ll never have enough.

What is Food?

In a services business, it might be referrals, reputation, or word of mouth,

In an e-commerce business, it might be reliable customer service.

In product development, it might be the parsing of features and benefits to plan generational updates that improve upon each other.

“Food” initiatives allow you some discretion. You can live a relatively long time with just Air and Water, so you get to decide what constitutes Food and how to procure it creatively. If you make a mistake anointing something Food, perhaps prioritizing one product feature over another, if you’re wrong it probably isn’t the end of the world. That doesn’t mean you can be cavalier about determining your alternatives, but at least you’re out of the realm of immediate time pressure and into a set of choices where course correction is possible, even if you make a sizeable error in judgment.

I often suggest to people that one of the common elements of Food is time. Some people will think time is Air or Water, but a ticking clock is not the same as a clock that is not wound or has no power source. Time is something we all have to navigate, and we never have enough because of the deadlines we establish for ourselves or the demands of meeting customer needs. I prefer to manage time the way a good sports team works the game clock. There is an element of urgency with a game clock, but not desperation. You can use it as a motivational tool, or as a way to outsmart competitors. Time is always critical, but when it is too critical, innovation can take a hit.

Balance the Elements

Have a look at all the conflicting priorities around you. Force yourself to rank them into Air, Water, and Food. Chances are you’ll discover you are trying to solve for Food when you should be trying to solve for Air or Water. That might be why you are going in circles or nowhere at all. I have taken part in some heated constructive conflict about how to classify any given task in an organization, but I have seldom seen the framework for this kind of healthy argument fail to create a productive dialogue.

Agreed priorities are empowering, When you achieve consensus around Air, Water, and Food, you are making critical progress in your team building and goal setting. Measurable success is often lurking in meticulous editing.

Most important, if what you are working on is beyond the scope of Air, Water, Food and you’ve left these priorities behind, stop what you are doing immediately and rethink your course of action. If you haven’t got Maslow working in your corner at that basic level, the battery in your clock may be about to take away all your choices.

Own the clock. Always own the clock.

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Photo: Pixabay

Why We Should Give More

Give!
It’s that time of year for me, another trip around the sun complete. This one is not quite a milestone count, but as good a time as any to reflect on purpose. Age will do that to you. We don’t get to reflect indefinitely. That which goes into our permanent record is anything but limitless.

Covid-19 will soon pass into history, but not its devastation. The time it has given us to think about our uses of time may be one of its few constructive legacies

Do we look externally for validation or is it intrinsic? What is a job well done? Are we meant to behave as survivalists with a primary worry of self or something different?

Giving is a curious notion. Perhaps it presents a choice that is inescapable. We do or we don’t. We make a choice even if we don’t make a choice.

I do wonder at length why we give. It’s easy to be conned and give wrong. The charlatans and traps outnumber our investigative hours. The risk of being fooled is an occupational hazard. I’ve made peace with that.

Here’s one good reason to take the risk and give: When we believe in others, we reinforce their courage to believe in themselves. When we share compassion with others, we demonstrate that compassion is possible and can be a virtuous circle.

We are directed to welcome the stranger. Soon after that our bond becomes our gift.

I find myself increasingly thinking about the notion of fairness. I do believe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but I find the pace of alteration lethargic and unsatisfying. Are things better than they were 50 years ago? My father says yes and he has a 40% premium on years of observation to mine so I’ll go with his affirmation, but better is not the same as good. Relative unfairness is still unfairness.

Black Lives Matter shows us conclusively that the application of law is unfair. Two and a half million dead globally of coronavirus shows us that the availability of healthcare is unfair. The wealth of stock market gains for the few against the lost jobs and bankrupt businesses of many is almost violently unfair. Unfairness is not solvable. It is at best addressable through personal generosity and accessible charity.

Woke isn’t working. The Dr. Seuss debate was not a debate at all. A company for its own reasons decided to exercise copyright authority and stop selling certain books. It has that right. That is not book banning. No government or autocratic mandate was issued. If you still want for some reason to read these books they remain available at libraries, specialty stores, or in digital form.

I find the debate around capitalism equally disingenuous. If you think you have reason to storm the Capitol because socialism is coming for your freedom, you are deluded. There are no pure forms of economy. They are all mixes of this and that, some weighing more heavily in one direction or another, but always open to reversion by market forces.

Likewise, any cheesy rhetoric that would seek to undermine capitalism in the extreme is pointless. Free enterprise has created unbounded benefits for billions. No, it is not equally or fairly distributed. There aren’t enough recognized referees in the rough and tumble. Policies that ensure ardent competition inspire innovation with incentive compensation. That kind of moderate regulation protects our livelihoods and drives imaginative initiatives without useless polarization.

If you’re really worried about economic instability, worry about runaway income inequality. Without thriving buyers and broad access to manageable credit, there is little need for growth in sellers.

I am both beneficiary and critic of our system. If you’ve worked with me or read any of my books, you know I am not shy or apologetic about this.

I love our nation. I love free enterprise. I love working hard.

I despise exploitation. I despise greed. I despise arrogance and lack of humility.

Hegelian dialectic has taught me these head-banging notions can co-exist.

I love the impossible challenge, the learning that comes from failure, the teamwork of a shared victory overcoming competitors and naysayers.

I despise the selfishness, self-congratulations, and coldness that comes when we fail to recognize that too many trusting, hopeful, well-meaning individuals tirelessly try in their own way to navigate daunting obstacles, but often end up with little or nothing.

I believe we begin to bridge the gap by giving. We can give our time and attention. We can give money. We can give opportunity. We can give understanding and empathy.

As it becomes clear that there are fewer trips around the sun ahead of me than there are behind me, I find myself retreating to the existential. I find less meaning, reason, and justification in fairness than I hoped I might find at this age. At the same crossroads, I see time as more precious and commitment to social justice more urgent. I know I can’t fix much, but where I can have a slight impact, time is increasingly shorter.

I think perhaps we give to beat the clock. We can see a life change before our eyes because of something caring we do, but we have to endeavor to do it.

We give because all forms of faith suggest it is our duty. We don’t have to agree on spiritual reckoning to have this in common. We don’t have to believe in anything more than the tangible world we see to know we are expected to do something unexpectedly selfless with the disproportionate gifts we are awarded.

It is our calling to repair the world. Civilization will remain conflicted and in conflict, because human beings are imperfect, troubled, fundamentally flawed while evolving. That doesn’t give us a get-out-of-jail-free card. Existential does not have to mean cynical. It can mean we are empowered to consider the unfairness around us as a challenge to be met, an uneven distribution of pain to be healed, a sense of acknowledgment if not quite purpose.

We give to be more complete.

We give to be part of a whole that has been shattered by our own achievements.

We give because the math suggests there is little other way to balance a scale that assures us history will maintain its imbalance.

We give to combat rhetoric, indifference, and convenient but incomplete argument.

We give because justification is not justice, and because words will always fail us.

We give to remind ourselves we are human, and we have no choice to be anything otherwise.

Whatever necessary mission that elevates your imagination, whatever human cause that fuels your passion, consider increasing your commitment. No, it’s not a carbon offset, it’s not retiring guilt, it’s not a debt you owe or a pledge against salvation.

It’s the right thing to do, to whatever extent you can. It’s not hypocritical and it’s not posturing. It’s how you can be more dimensionally human.

An investment in your belief set is a pact with yourself. The outcomes of your contribution can carry you many more times around the sun with reason to renew your journey. Stay honest, stay measured, stay authentic. That distant, mythic, flickering light at the end of the tunnel has cascading spectrum to shine on you.

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Photo: Pexels

Getting Better


The Beatles sang it. Now I feel it.

I’m not saying things are great. For many they are not. I’m not even saying good. I’m saying better. It’s qualitative. It’s relative. It’s palpable. It’s real.

I don’t care if Trump wasn’t convicted. If 43 U.S. senators want to live with the shame of turning a blind eye to a lying, seditious, self-serving megalomaniac, that’s their lifelong curse. It’s not survival politics as much as it is inescapable shame. The badge of cowardice doesn’t wash off. No bleach will eradicate it.

That cynical, boisterous voice is gone from the White House bully pulpit. That alone makes me feel better.

His Twitter account has been silenced. That’s even better. That’s a real punishment, where we are protected from harm. Not quite a penitentiary, but a fitting alternative sentence, particularly in his mind.

If he tours again on hyperbolic rhetoric or creates his own “alternate facts” media network, he’s sectioned off. We can ignore him. If his followers want to adore him they can have that space in obscurity.

Our new president is sane. Joe Biden is thoughtful. He reads, listens, and takes advice from subject matter experts. He reconsiders his positions. He is immersed in dialogue, not monologue.

He’s reversing the damage. Climate change. Environmental justice. Immigration and border normalization. Broader access to healthcare. Global wellness as a shared concern.

Economic compassion. Sustainable job creation. Sensible credit and finance policies. Respect for our allies. Clear, coherent, calm lines with our adversaries.

Cabinet secretaries are taking shape with gravitas, conviction, relevant experience, and an emphasis on character. They will likely serve without unnecessary drama and ridiculous turnover.

Mostly the voice of government is quieter. The tone is softer. It is moving into the background so we can focus again on our lives, our businesses, our daily routines, short-term and long-term planning.

Science is science again. Facts are facts again. Fake news is fake news again.

Journalism is not the enemy of the people. Hard questions are the safeguard of our democracy.

The notion of any potential sympathy for white supremacy or xenophobia has been erased from the office of the president. To the extent there was any ambiguity around tolerance for racist acting out, it is clear that it will be prosecuted.

Those who participated in the violent January 6 insurrection are being indicted, tried, and convicted. Aside from their cheerleader-in-chief, they will be sentenced and go to prison.

Unity is an inspiring ideal on the table. It is noble to challenge the nation to come together and address our problems. It is a lofty ambition. If the choice has to be between unity and sanity, I’ll take sanity.

Covid-19 vaccines are moving into the mainstream. By midyear, we should have one if we want it. This human suffering and loss of life will end.

Optimism. Pragmatism. Confidence.

Empathy. Humility. Decency.

Trust in words. Belief in promises. Not perfect, but directionally agreed as aspirational.

Blood pressure is down, at least mine. Cortisol levels are decreasing.

Most of all, we are rediscovering honesty. The blatant, unending lies have got to go.

We still have an insurmountable way to go on income inequality, civil rights, Black Lives Matter, hunger, homelessness, all of the endless maladies that divide us. If we can admit that with candor, we can commit to priorities of positive consequence.

We are regaining freedom. We are regaining quality of life. We may be inching forward, but we are off our knees.

The republic has survived. It was a close call. If I ever did, I will never again take democracy for granted.

We are slowly, deliberately healing. That’s what needs to happen. That is progress. That’s what it means to get better.

We are getting better. I absolutely believe we will get even better

Getting so much better all the time.

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Photo: Beatles Complete (1976)

My Take On 230

A good friend on social media asked for my opinion on why Donald Trump would be so adamantly opposed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. For years it is precisely Section 230 that has allowed him to expand his unedited voice and create his vast following. Now he’s banned on most of these platforms including Twitter and Facebook, which some would argue are at long last exerting a form of editorial oversight. Rather than hide behind their legal ability to allow him to rant, they have essentially silenced him.

Ironic, huh? Not exactly what he wanted in limiting this broad permission.

Has something good or bad happened? I think the answer is neither, but something evolutionary is unfolding, and depending on where that takes us, we can decide later like most history if it was good or bad.

Confusing stuff, no question. Let me try to unpack some of it as someone who has been working in this space almost since day one of the commercial internet.

While personally I would say my life has improved without the constant noise of Trump tweets, I’m afraid the world is not that simple. The resolution of this exercise may have frightening connotations in the abstract. Many are worried about free speech and arbitrary limits on the power of a single individual to curtail the public expression of another, which is something that matters dearly to all of us.

I’m not a legal professional by any stretch, but I don’t think a specific defense of ex-President Trump is what matters here. Trump no more understands Section 230 than he understands global trade and tariffs. He wants his speech free and speech against him controlled, like any dangerous autocrat. Let’s set him aside (doesn’t that feel great?) and think about the real risks and privileges waltzing into the arena of public discourse.

For reference, the historic 26 words that constitute Section 230 read: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

As simply stated as possible, that means the technology platforms are not liable for what they publish. They don’t want to be considered authors, publishers, or broadcasters. If the Wall Street Journal prints something that bothers you and you think is unfair or sloppy, you can sue it. Same with legacy brand survivors like CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, CNN, Us Weekly, or your local talk radio station. You can sue the person who said it or wrote it, too. If you think you have been libeled, you can sue everyone. You are way more likely to lose than win, but your case can be heard in court.

These kinds of traditional media companies have accepted the responsibility to abide by legal standards of accuracy and honesty of some sort, and they must stand by the messages they share. Mostly they print retractions when they find themselves wrong, but that doesn’t stop you from seeking damages. It’s an imperfect system dependent on evolving standards, and whether we like it or not we have learned to live with it.

If you don’t like what I say about you on Facebook or Twitter, you can sue me. You can’t sue Facebook or Twitter.

What’s the difference? Section 230.

Why is there a difference? That’s what’s about to be debated heavily.

Why was the exception created? That will also widely be debated in the months and years ahead, but having been there at the outset, my sense is that it was because federal lawmakers wanted the internet to grow. They wanted to increase free speech, so we all could bring our voices to the marketplace of ideas. They probably had an inkling some of us were wacky and would make up lunatic fringe falsehoods like QAnon, but they also knew if they held the platforms liable for everything published, very little would get published. The internet would have the same filters on it as traditional media, a funnel and a gatekeeper on opinions that limited expression with editorial oversight. They hoped for something more accessible.

Remember, this was a quarter-century ago. Better angels were optimistically anticipated.

The problem here is the division is not clean when all of our voices are collected. If the technology platforms exert no control, we have the chaos we have experienced. If they exert traditional editorial control to manage or reduce liability, all internet dialogue becomes gated, and as a practical matter, the scale of the task makes it impossible to be done by humans. That would put the editorial control at the mercy of algorithms, which at this point in their evolution given the nuance of language will be even less successful than humans.

That brings us to the present conundrum. If a platform now and again edits a comment to conform to its terms and conditions, has it crossed over to becoming an editor liable for everything else on the platform? According to current law, as private companies, these platforms have a right to state terms and conditions and assert the right to enforce them.

The real question becomes whether multiple infringements of terms and conditions can justly lead to the banning of an individual, like Trump. This is the heart of the matter: Do we want an individual company or CEO deciding who gets to have a public voice and who doesn’t?

I think the banning of Trump is going to open a huge can of worms to the platform companies because they just made policy on the fly and that can’t be extrapolated fairly.

Free speech is an interesting corollary, but only because we largely understand it must have limits to work in practice. Today we know there are legal restraints on free speech because it has been tested and adjudicated. While we now understand that a Nazi group had the right to march in Skokie, we also know that is not the same as yelling fire in a crowded theater. We didn’t always know that. It took a lot of time and argument to unfold and reveal itself to multiple courts. It’s been messy, and yet free speech survives.

I think we’re there with Section 230. It’s the right big idea, but 25 years later with wildly consolidated corporate power and big new media money at play, it requires a great deal of interpretation, nuance, and finesse. It’s no more an absolute than free speech. Yes, we really can disallow direct, personally threatening hate speech without fully destroying the First Amendment. The reasoning is not straightforward except in hindsight, when we consider the more pernicious alternatives.

Regulation here is our friend, not our enemy. My sense is the dialogue we need to have is not about throwing out Section 230, but reasonably debating the rights and responsibilities of social media platforms without making them liable for every post crossing their servers. Here is where it gets even more tricky, because the law clearly allows a private business to ban an individual for violation of its stated terms and condition, yet provides very little in the way of enforcing those standards evenly beyond obvious discrimination.

One person gets banned, another does not. How does one challenge or appeal the equal application of silencing rules? In the final analysis, what ensures us or at least gives us confidence that authority is anything but arbitrary? There is no such thing as goodwill or trust when the profit motive of the platform benefits enormously from throwing kerosene on the fire of controversy—fueling viral engagement equates to generating revenue—yet it can eliminate its critics at will under the guise of decency. That is a mega problem we aren’t even close to solving!

We don’t want to make the economic consequences of our discourse addressable only at a practical level by silence. Likewise, we don’t want any business individual with a profit motive to have the power of doling out silence for convenience. Hearst had that kind of power. Zuckerberg can’t.

The Trump legacy may be the bookends that form around Section 230, which clearly are necessary because the platforms are neither fish nor fowl. This is new ground. Internet platforms are not voices per se, but the application of needed editorial standards around facts and lies does not make them voiceless. As I write often, technology advances much faster than our ability to understand its ethical consequences.

Sadly, this morass is likely to be argued largely on economic grounds, because the remedies surrounding liability are compensated in our system through cash settlement of lawsuits. The key problem with lawsuits is they favor the well funded, and while legal, that will never approximate the ideal of fairness. I think there is a lot more at stake than whether a company might be brought to bankruptcy paying fines and settlements, which might cause it to be overly cautious, or bold and flagrant if it has deep pockets to defend itself. Financial penalties can’t be the point, be they absorbable or game-ending. There is a public-interest necessity in our ability to express ourselves. Our government has to protect that and let the business of the internet expand.

Yes, we can.

As for Trump’s point of view, he has demonstrated repeatedly that he only cares about what serves his agenda, not nuance or principle. He has succeeded in blasting open this door, but his own point of view remains self-serving. He is purposefully ignorant, a blunt object in a fragile ecosystem that requires reflection.

We are once again facing the question of whether we do truly relish the marketplace of ideas, or if this only matters when it is safe, convenient, and nominally polite. We don’t need to open the door to criminal insurrections that put our democratic nation at risk; the off switch just worked well in that regard and I’d comfortably welcome it again, if for nothing more than a badly needed time-out.

We have addressed this before, however imperfectly, and I have great faith that given the breadth of legal minds in our nation we will begin to solve it again. Trying to make it an either/or decision is a fool’s errand. We need to retain the big idea of Section 230 and add some guard rails. Once they are tested, we can adjust them. This is likely to be a combination of legislation and judicial resolution. It will be slow and complicated and evolving. It’s worth the ambiguity to sort it out carefully.

Let the real debate begin.

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Photo: Pixabay