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

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My Beatles Top 10

Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison

Is it just me or we in the midst of a Beatles Renaissance? Each month of this decade offers a 50th anniversary of something surrounding The Beatles. I’ve already attended the 50th anniversary of The Beatles concert at Dodger Stadium. I’ve enjoyed a screening of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days a Week featuring the band’s live tours of the U.S. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their final stadium appearance. I’ve bought the live performance audio CD with reengineered recordings from the new film. I’ve subscribed to the new Beatles Channel on SiriusXM. I’ve marveled at multiple “Deconstructing The Beatles” lectures by my friend Scott Freiman, whose live presentations are now memorialized on DVD.

Okay, maybe it’s just me. Then again, with my new novel coming about how the soundtrack of our lives is inescapable in charting our life paths, The Beatles have never been more in the forefront of my mind.

For many years I have wanted to suggest my own Beatles Top 10 song list, but I have resisted for multiple reasons. First, because it does seem to change from year to year, depending on what’s consuming my attention or memory. Second, because I have been strictly advised by most Beatles luminaries that this is a fool’s errand—to rate The Beatles catalogue is akin to publicly stating the order in which you love your family and friends (a 2017 noble but flawed attempt to force rank all 213 songs is strong evidence of this). Third, because a single omission or overstated opinion might start an argument far more volatile than any around religion or politics, again putting the goodwill of colleagues at high risk. And fourth, because for all these reasons and more, I would undoubtedly be on course to a retraction, apology, restatement, or mass deleting of this post from the digital world, which is of course impossible.

Lists have a sad tendency to become permanent, even if deemed ephemeral.

Well, too bad, I’m doing it, if for no other reason than to defy my own fears, which I am certain John, Paul, George, and Ringo would applaud. I’ve restricted the list to songs written and recorded by The Beatles in their organic whole, without covers or selections from their various solo careers. The list is not in a precise order 1 to 10, because that numeration does ebb and flow with my mood, and so they remain unnumbered out of sheer fear of regret. Directionally this is my set list, and I hope I can stick to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles!

In My Life (1965)

Hey, it’s my wedding song. If I don’t put it in first position I’m really in trouble. But it’s my wedding song for a reason, and the lyrics sit in a silver frame on my wife’s dresser because I bought the frame and put them there for both of us to read every day. Have a look at the words sometime. You may want to change your wedding song. “In my life, I love you more.”

While My Guitar Gently Weeps (1968)

This George Harrison tune haunts me unendingly, even more so since we lost George in 2001. I remember walking into a rock memorabilia store in Las Vegas years ago and seeing The Concert for George playing from a DVD on a widescreen and just standing there mesmerized with the sound pouring out in tribute. The guitar licks emerge like spoken lyrics and weave in and out of the simple verses with delicacy and determination. If you wanted to solo within the voice of an originator, this song gives you the chance of a lifetime.

Get Back (1969)

Whenever the word “Beatles” crosses my eardrums, I think of this song. It’s the quintessential tune that harnesses the ethos of the band, emerging from the tension of the end of their career but harkening back to the earliest days at the Cavern Club. If you ever get a chance to see the amazing Cirque du Soleil show Love at The Mirage in Vegas, or simply immerse yourself in the soundtrack mixed by George Martin, note the placement of this song in the early transition of the show from one era to another. The back beat is railroad steady yet quiet, it roars and rumbles without being bombastic. It is sonic, uncompromised rock ‘n’ roll, with Billy Preston on the backing keyboards to bring it home.

Nowhere Man (1965)

Ever have a song you can’t get out of your head because you’re not supposed to get it out of your head? This song, which somehow found its way into the core of the Yellow Submarine screenplay and inspired the character Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D., sings to me at every level of interpretation and inspiration. It begins a capella, offers some of the band’s finest happy harmonies, and tells a story that reaches into our hearts. “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”

I Saw Her Standing There (1963)

Should you have the poor fortune of walking into a karaoke bar when I’m the leadoff fodder, I will be kicking off with this standard. It’s simple, it’s lively, it’s old school, and it works. It’s my wife’s second-favorite Beatles song no matter how badly I botch it. There is also a bit of sentimentality in it for me, as I remember when Lennon came out of hiding in 1974 after a tough few years, he was brought onstage for this one by Elton John—even more ironic because it’s a McCartney vocal. It’s on the B-side of “Philadelphia Freedom.” If you don’t know what a B-side is, my apologies.

Here Comes the Sun (1969)

How can a song be purely joyous and enormously sad at the same time? George Harrison had a way not only with melody and instrumentation, but with short words as fuses of emotion. Similar to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (and for that matter, “Something,” which just barely misses my list), it seems as though this epic was meant to be covered and reinterpreted. Did you see George play it with Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live in 1976? Yes, you need to do that.

Come Together (1969)

This is one of those Beatles tunes that sort of doesn’t fit in with the rest of their discography. It’s almost too dark for the lads from Liverpool to pull off, yet they do. The drumbeat cooked up by Ringo is as hallucinatory as the lyrics are caustic and scary. Possibly the only good thing to come out of the disastrous movie adaptation of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Aerosmith cover of this piercing track. If John hadn’t envisioned it for The Beatles he might have handed it to Steven Tyler (to be fair, the Earth, Wind, and Fire cover of “Got to Get You into My Life” is the only other decent tune to come out of that movie, but I digress).

All You Need Is Love (1967)

As if it weren’t enough for it to be a perfect anthem for the 1960s and every decade to follow, this beautiful tune debuted on one of the first global satellite TV broadcasts of all time, adding science to art to a community be-in that included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton sitting on the floor. It also was well placed as the denouement resolution to the Yellow Submarine movie in lovingly crushing the Blue Meanies. Love, love, love.

Eleanor Rigby (1966)

“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Yeah, on many days I’m one of them. When I was in high school the lyrics to this song somehow appeared in our poetry anthology. It was one of the more controversial classroom moments I can remember as a young student of literature and music, and I never forgot it. The question posed in English class was how to differentiate the contemporary (where the root word is “temporary”) from the canon worthy of poetic study. I wondered why that was important. I still do. “Eleanor Rigby” still makes the canon for me.

“Abbey Road Medley” (1969)

As I wrestled with the rest of the catalogue, I honestly couldn’t come up with a tenth song. I argued with myself and couldn’t find a way to win. I know it’s cheating, but I settled on the Abbey Road Medley, which is technically up to eight songs that begin with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and close with “The End.” Some people think it starts five songs later with “Golden Slumbers” and “Carry That Weight,” which is the shorter version Paul has been playing in his latest live tours as an encore. Regardless, it’s a powerful collection that spans the band’s musicality from rhythm solo to storytelling to full orchestration. It finishes big as a rocker. It’s how a lot of people remember the band coming to an end, myself included.

Agree, disagree, or want to chime in? I’m all ears, and always up for a good Beatles chat. Let me hear from you. Pretty soon these 50th anniversaries will have expired and we won’t have such a good excuse.

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Photo: Freda Kelly circa 1962 (a gift to the author)

Is Facebook the Next AOL?

 

I used to like AOL. Back in the day we called it by its full name, America Online. Prior to the broad penetration of the Internet, it was how we connected with each other. It was the company we paid on a subscription basis for both access to digital connectivity and content. For the ownership of AOL, it was a very, very good business, so explosive that it frightened the old guard in media and was merged into an even bigger entity, AOL Time Warner. If you were born after that wildly failed merger, it is difficult to convey just how powerful and influential AOL had become. Truth be told, I still have an active AOL account and get teased about that by friends. I wound it so tightly into my life it is still hard to completely unwind despite its deterioration.

I also like Facebook. As an individual enamored with words, I find it an irresistible way to communicate with a circle of acquaintances on everything from politics and social causes to MLB, The Beatles, wine, and business opportunities. As an author of fiction, I find it an essential tool to communicate with readers, let them know a new book is coming, tie that book into news of the day, and connect all of that with the monthly postings on my blog. Another confession: I was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook over the age of 40, invited for business reasons to create an account back when it required a .edu email to become a member. Companies I’ve led have been active buyers of advertising on Facebook at every stage of its evolution. Yet even with all that passion, I have been an ardent critic of Facebook. It reminds me of AOL. I hope it won’t suffer the same fate.

Is it alarmist to think that Facebook could collapse at the level of AOL simply because of its latest data breaches? Yes, I think that would be overstating the calamity of its current situation, and if Facebook does implode, it will likely be a slow and painful process much like AOL with a long-tail legacy business lingering into the digital future. I am not predicting that will happen. I am suggesting that it could if Facebook does not radically rethink its business in real time and take immediate action to course correct.

I am not specifically reacting to the gross abuse of Facebook’s members by Cambridge Analytica, but if ever there was a wake-up call to Mark Zuckerberg this bell is tolling awfully loudly. The sound of that alarm is the crying out of customers reminding the leadership of Facebook that they are not users as the descriptor goes, but human beings who have chosen to enter into a relationship with a brand. As I have mentioned here many times before, a brand is not a logo, a brand is a promise. When that promise is violated, all bets are off for the future of the brand. I believe AOL broke its promises way too many times and then sadly faded away. Facebook is now breaking many of its promises, real or presumed, and if the leadership there doesn’t do something material about it soon, they are rolling the dice against fate.

Here are the three most obvious areas of overlap I see between Facebook and AOL, and how addressing them now aggressively might change the course of history for the social network that changed our lives in the last generation much as the online access ramp that carpet-bombed the nation changed it in the previous generation.

DUMP THE MVP

I am at odds with many of my colleagues on the topic of “minimum viable product,” but I have always vastly disliked the MVP acronym and concept. I know how much Silicon Valley treasures the notion of The Lean Startup, and I suppose if a fast path to cash generation is primarily a company’s goal, a crappy first-generation product bounced off a wave of early adopters who will offer critique could make business sense. Because I favor brand development over fast monetization, I have never bought into the whole idea of “moving fast and breaking things.”

How did Facebook get into this fix with inexplicable amounts of customer data being exploited? Top management didn’t take the time to fully think through the implications of their product decisions. Likewise, AOL was legendary for releasing updates that crashed our computers and often made it impossible to even log onto the system. MVP is a shortcut that disrespects customers. Build excellent products tested thoroughly before deployment, and customer trust will compound rather than be wagered.

LEAVE SOME MONEY ON THE TABLE

AOL came to love hammering our screens with advertisements. We got them at sign-on, with our email, with instant messaging, with our stock listings, with our sports scores. The ad insertions were ceaseless and endless. When it was the onramp to connectivity we were already paying a monthly fee for the privilege of being an advertising target, but this additional banquet of media cash was a renewable feast of dots and spots. With so many eyeballs and so little competition they also assaulted advertisers with ever-increasing campaign rates.

Today on Facebook it isn’t quite that aggressive, but it’s getting there. What’s worse, the advertising depends on crawling through our personal profiles to target ads with astonishing performance response. The media business is certainly a game of haves and have-nots, but company leaders have to keep their eyes on the prize. Does the company think its demise is inevitable and thus seek to exploit its visitors with endless badgering? Or can it modulate the experience to show us a reasonable number of ads that are relevant but not beyond our comfort levels of intrusion?

SUSTAIN AN AUTHENTIC MISSION

Here we return to the luster or disposability of a brand, to the ability to make a promise and deliver on it consistently in the face of day-to-day business realities and financial opportunism. AOL’s stated mission was “to build a global medium as central to people’s lives as the telephone or television… and even more valuable.” AOL actually didn’t do that—the internet itself obviated its driving purpose—but rather than build on the goodwill of its access brand and attempt to enhance the customer experience through creativity, the company sought to keep customers in a “walled garden” and intervene in easy access to the open internet. Customers soon enough revolted and left in droves.

Facebook’s initial mission was “to make the world more open and connected.” That mission more recently has been revised “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Those are both lofty ideals. The question is whether Zuckerberg had the maturity to comprehend the implications of what path his company’s technology cut through the landscape as a result. Of course it seems like a great idea to be closer to our friends and meet new people along the way, but if that compromises our privacy and personal security, is it worth it? Who gets to decide that? I can’t navigate Facebook’s privacy tree and I work in the medium. If its brand offers us a lasting promise of sharing and collaboration, does it also offer any guarantees of protection? If not, then we arrive at the cynical conclusion: “If we aren’t paying for the product, we are the product.” If a company wants to build a brand for the long-term, that’s simply not a sustainable value proposition.

I would guess if AOL founder Steve Case had it to do over again things would have been different at his once pioneering enterprise. It was a younger audience that first championed AOL, but his demographics didn’t stay young as the massive brand quickly lost its cool factor. Facebook is already seeing a similar demographic shift as its relevance with younger customers is waning, ceding that excitement to newer brands. I wonder if Zuckerberg will someday have the same regrets as Case or if he will find a way to shift gears with thundering resonance and reinvent his company to achieve a greater destiny.

The answer isn’t in testifying before Congress, any more than it is about inescapable government regulation. The answer is in balancing business success against the real human needs of customers, about making a promise and keeping it, about building a brand that stands for something more than the dollars it attracts. Innovation is both challenging and valuable. Trust is much harder and worth so much more.

The Emergent Miracle of 50

Were popular songs from 1918 played widely in 1968?

How about songs from 1928 in 1978?

Or songs from 1938 in 1988?

So how come songs from 1968 are still widely played in 2018?

Want to know why? Here are ten songs from the top of the charts in 1968, from the Billboard Hot 100 of that year:

“Hey Jude” by The Beatles (#1).

“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream (#6).

“Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel (#9).

“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells (#13).

“Dance to the Music” by Sly and the Family Stone (#20).

“Born to Be Wild” by Steppenwolf (#31).

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by The Rolling Stones (#50).

“Light My Fire” by Jose Feliciano (#52).

“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (#57).

“I Say a Little Prayer for You” by Aretha Franklin (#93).

I don’t think I need to write any more words today. The point proves itself. We don’t need to know why. The songs speak for themselves. They sing for themselves. Our attachment is primal, mystical, enduring.

Given the fifty years between the 1960s and the 2010s, not a day goes by that we don’t celebrate the 50th anniversary of something, for many of us our own time on the earth.

Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This year it’s The White Album.

The Rolling Stones already have a 50 and Counting tour on their resume. Last year Fleetwood Mac hit 50 and headlined The Classic West and East stadium tours alongside iconic peers the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Journey, and Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Paul McCartney will likely tour until he can no longer stand on the stage. Ringo is still regularly on the road with his All-Starr Band.  You’ll remember that The Beatles led The British Invasion shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Yes, “all those years ago!”

So what is the endurance factor of what we now call classic rock? Is it simply that the baby boomers who shepherded these bands in youthful acts of defiance are living a lot longer? There might be something to that, but it doesn’t explain why so many millennials are subscribing to the same Spotify channels as their parents.

Certainly improvements in studio and consumer technology have made it easier to preserve and share high-quality recordings of later eras, but the conduit of access is a mechanical bridge, not an emotional path to replay. Variety shows on television in the 1960s and 1970s harkened back to songs of prior times, but not with the same urgency, devotion, or pervasiveness. The sheer volume of fifty-year-old songs populating playlists across age groups today tells us that “something’s happening here.”

Walk into a downtown bar or hotel lounge and you might be as likely to hear a cover band playing “Suzie Q” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, #97 in 1968) as you are anything from Bruno Mars or Beyoncé. I’m not suggesting every roadhouse on the highway basks in nostalgia, but when you walk into a live club and hear “Hello, I Love You” (The Doors, #14 in 1968) little about it seems dated or out of place. Of course there is an entire segment of the population who couldn’t care less about fifty-year-old relics, but the fans who forever revel in these not-so-ancient hits will stay up all night on the dance floor as long as the song list rolls.

It’s the music. It was good fifty years ago and it’s good today. For many who loved the music when it first hit the airways, this is the soundtrack of our lives. We love it, we love the memories that come with it, we love the way it makes us feel. We are silly enough to believe it keeps us young, and we want to share the beat with anyone who can’t sit still once the guitar licks begin pouring from the stage.

It doesn’t matter if that stage is a tiny corner platform in a pizza joint or a grand proscenium dragged into Dodger Stadium. We love the famous original acts when they are on the road, but we also love the young house bands who take the time to learn to play the hits well and then sneak in an original song of their own.

We love the occasional current star who braves an interpretation of a long-ago track (Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” covered by Devlin with Ed Sheeran is mighty powerful material). We love the new beside the old. We feel those classic rock tunes as part of our being, whether live, broadcast, streamed, satellite transmitted, or silently resonant in our minds.

Surely there is context to consider in a half-century of resilience, the voices of youth and diversity fighting for equal footing with established authority in the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet context doesn’t make a pop song last. Composition does. Performance does. Texture does. Maybe artists under contract just got better at the whole Tin Pan Alley game. Maybe they started to care as much about their legacy as their commercial acumen. Maybe connecting the generations came to mean more to them than the hunger for flowing cash. Well, maybe.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these songs most of my life, linking them to stories and plays, stitching their lyrics into the fabric of modern and historical philosophy. I’m never quite satisfied with the words I choose to explain why this music matters to me as much as it does. I suppose the songs are an organic whole without explanation. As so many of the young artists declared of their work when it was created, it was never meant to be analyzed. The songs were meant to be felt.

That doesn’t adequately address why this half-century is different, and why people like me believe so many of these songs are not likely to evaporate from the earth when we are no longer here to listen to them. The magic has emerged without anyone showing how the trick is done. That’s probably because the magicians don’t know how they did the trick.

It’s probably better that way. It keeps things authentic.

Keep listening. Keep embracing the beat. Feel young and stay young. You know I will—with any luck for another fifty years.

 

You Can’t Fix Morale

Here’s a phone call I sometimes receive, usually from someone senior in executive management or the investment team behind a once promising company:

Inquirer: Hey, we need your help with something. We have a situation and we’re not sure what to do about it.

Me: Sounds intriguing. What is the situation?

Inquirer: Well, we’re having… I’m not sure what you would call it exactly, I guess a problem with morale.

Me: What would you like me to do?

Inquirer: We would like you to help us fix morale.

Me: Oh, that. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.

Inquirer: We haven’t spoken two minutes and you already know that?

Me: Yes, I’m quite sure. I certainly would like to take your money because I’m sure you are willing to pay a lot to do something about this, but I only take on projects where I can actually help someone.

Inquirer: How can you be so sure?

Me: You can’t fix morale.

Inquirer: What do you mean? Morale gets fixed all the time.

Me: Yes, exactly. Morale gets fixed because whatever is causing it to deteriorate gets fixed, but that is where you need to look, at the disease, not a symptom.

Inquirer: Are you saying we need to fix something else in our company so that maybe it can have an impact on morale?

Me: Yes, that is what I am saying. In fact, you probably need to fix your company.

Inquirer: So a contract to fix morale is not big enough for you? You want a bigger contract to fix our company? But our company is not broken.

Me: Then you probably don’t have a morale problem and don’t need any help.

Inquirer: You’re not doing yourself any favors turning this down. It’s a big project. We have a sizeable budget for it.

Me: It’s tempting, but why don’t you have another look at the situation and maybe we can talk again.

The call usually ends there and we don’t talk again. Every once in a while we do talk again and then I tend to get involved in long stretches of dialogue with team members up and down the line. We talk about a lot of things: leadership talent, product quality, business model. We talk about creativity and innovation, passion for excellence, dedication to the customer experience. One of the things we never talk about is trying to fix morale.

Let me say it again: You can’t fix morale.

Bad morale is a byproduct, most often of poor direction, sometimes of impossible goals so ridiculous no one ever feels appreciated, other times of uneven credit and compensation in times of success. There are successful companies with good and bad morale, and struggling companies with good and bad morale. Good morale is also a byproduct — you achieve it by focusing on the right things.

I view morale as a result of process and outcomes. Process involves day-to-day workplace routines that reinforce or strip away employee engagement. Outcomes involve the continuity or deadend at the culmination of a milestone, the reward or repudiation for the commitment of time, expertise, or passion. If your process is bad, morale will be bad. If your outcomes are bad, morale will be bad.

Suppose your company wildly missed earnings targets three quarters in a row. You’ve seen your second round of layoffs in less than two years. More than half of your VPs were fired and hired in the past ten months. The CEO, also rumored to be teetering, has said repeatedly everyone needs to “work smarter, not harder,” but no one is sure which product in the pipeline is going to carry the day. Employee morale as you would expect is rotten all around you. Your colleagues are irritable and nasty. Every week someone you like leaves the company for another gig.

Let’s look at some options for addressing this:

  1. The company hires a consultant to run a survey on employee satisfaction and weeks after you fill out your survey they find out what everyone knew before the survey: Morale stinks like a decaying carcass. The CEO announces Fridays will be half days, the company will be publishing a weekly newsletter celebrating its best employees, and all VPs and above will be taking classes in how to write better reviews and talk nicely to their teams. Everyone is told he or she is appreciated and reminded to work smarter, not harder.
  2. The company holds an executive offsite where all the VPs get to articulate everything that is wrong with the company. The VPs report back to their teams that the CEO agrees, there are not enough resources in the company to go around, the timelines for deliverable are insane, and the competition has an edge on the industry that is daunting. Starting today you will have realistic goals, more resources, flexible timelines, and as long as everyone is doing their best, then management will back off and be satisfied.
  3. The CEO pulls together a half-dozen of the best minds in the company to conduct an honest post-mortem of why the company’s strategy is failing. That team then strips away all the derivative efforts that are draining resources from the company’s true mission and recommits to a narrowed product strategy that capitalizes on the company’s identified competitive advantage. The CEO then directs the executive team to align the best talent in the company with key roles on the narrowed agenda and hire new talent where mediocrity is being tolerated, then communicates the new plan to the full company in verbal and written detail, not just in an inspiring kickoff speech but in regular progress updates that are candid and coherent.

You might think the answer is obvious, but sadly it is not — especially to less experienced management teams where too many influential individuals have achieved authority through battlefield promotions. Here we are talking the bedrock of directing process and refocusing outcomes. Good process takes a lifetime to learn. Steering through outcomes whether planned or unplanned requires a deft touch. There are no shortcuts. If you don’t have the energy or commitment to take apart process and outcomes one building block at a time, you have little shot at repairing morale.

I often ask people to share with me whether they have had a single good manager in their careers. You would be surprised how many say no. In fact these days it is the rare exception of people who actually rave about a boss from the past and talk about how they are putting that learning to work. The ones who are tend to have fewer morale problems on their hands. Too many leaders’ lives are filled with morale problems because they haven’t learned how to steer past them.

Now think about all those unicorns out there — you know, the 150 or so privately funded startup companies currently valued at $1B or more. Those should be some of the happiest places in the world for people to work, big idea places filled with promise and hope for future riches. Go take a random walk through those gardens on Glassdoor. You might be surprised at what you find. They have a lot of problems. When the majority of them are unable to achieve liquidity for their option holders, they will have even more. With that will come a wave of demoralization sweeping through employee workstations. How would you go about fixing that?

You can fix a product. You can’t fix a byproduct. Fix what’s wrong in your company, not the normal human emotional reaction to what’s wrong in your company.

You certainly can fix engagement. You fix engagement through authentic vision, brilliant product design, and a rallying cry around consistent execution. Fix engagement and morale fixes itself.

Align the finest talent you can identify with challenging projects that allow them to do the best work of their careers. Keep an eye on process. Celebrate outcomes and share the wealth. Be generous with people who are meaningfully contributing to company success. Morale will be swell and you’ll have bragging rights to let everyone around you know what a great environment you’ve created for the next wave of outcomes.

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Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams

Tell Me About Your Day

Here’s something people often say in companies when you ask them what they accomplished last week, last month, or last year:

“A lot of time is taken up by everyday stuff.”

Let’s talk about that. What is the everyday stuff? Is the work being produced commensurate with the expense?

A few years ago I wrote a post called Too Busy To Save Your Company. I refer to this post often when I am asked to look at a company and comment on why it is not as productive as it should be. It can be a consulting or investment meeting, but when I see lots of people running around or pounding on keyboards but an income statement in decline, I usually start by asking a few key people in the company to describe their days to me.

They often tell me that they spend a lot of time going to meetings and responding to email. When I remind them that meetings and email are not tasks, they are tools for accomplishing tasks, there is often an “Aha Moment.” That’s when I know we can make some progress.

You are wasting time. It is inevitable. How do I know? Because I waste time. Everyone does. No one is 100% efficient. The question is one of scope. Do you own your priorities or do distractions own you? When you start there, you begin to take control of your destiny.

Time management is neither a touchy-feely topic nor a chokehold on creativity. It is how you allocate your most precious and perishable resource, the ways you choose to spend your hours. The portion of your time that is discretionary and how you choose to utilize it is the difference between having a shot at winning and losing for sure. Note that I say it is a choice, because even if you don’t make active decisions about how you spend your hours, the choice to squander time remains a choice.

Try this exercise for a week: Write down hour by hour what you do on the job. If you spend an hour on researching the cost of something, write that down. Log each of your phone calls and meetings chronologically. More importantly, note what you were talking about and if any key decisions were made. Be as detailed as you can. If you read an article on the internet write that down, including what you learned or didn’t learn. If you shopped for yourself, chuckled through laugh-inducing videos, or commented passionately on Facebook, account for these by collecting them into small blocks of time. Don’t worry about the confession, you can delete the audit later. Be brutally honest and exceptionally thorough. This is solely for you.

Now go back and look at your goals for the year. If you don’t have any goals, that’s a much bigger problem which you need to solve before this post will be relevant to your progress. I’m going to assume you have 4 – 6 overarching annual goals agreed upon with the people who pay you or your partners, stuff like “increase sales 25%” or “decrease customer complaints 10%” or “launch 2 new apps per quarter” or “hire 15 regional salespeople.” You get the idea, stuff that matters, the stuff that keeps you from falling into the trap of being too busy to save your company.

Color code each item on your time accounting to match one of your goals. Try green for sales or blue for product improvements, soothing colors of accomplishment. If a block of time doesn’t match up with a goal, use a different color for DOES NOT APPLY TO A GOAL. A good color for this is red because it should be a warning color.

If you see very little red and an even distribution of the other colors against your 4 – 6 goals, you’re doing fine and can stop reading here. Congratulations, you are in perfect harmony and have a well-balanced calendar. As long as your company is growing and generating a healthy profit, this post is not for you.

On the other hand, if what you see is a disproportionate allocation of color — say, 80% blue but you have 4 other goals with minimal color showing— you are out of whack. If what you see is a sea of red, either quickly finish this post and get back to work or find another good post about writing a resume.

Now on a clean calendar, I want you to block your time as you should be spending it. If cold calls are 25% of what you should be doing, block 10 hours per week; it can be 2 hours each business day or 5 hours twice per week, whatever you fancy. I know, you work way more than 40 hours, but for budgeting purposes use that as a baseline.

Now compare the calendars. Want to know why you are not making a bigger dent in your goals? That’s why.

Time management is a subject I address regularly with colleagues as a proactive tool. Each time I assemble a new team, I have this talk with the senior people about their own time management and how seriously they take it, manage it, and monitor it. Leadership by example, right? The people who take it seriously are usually much more successful than the ones who blow it off. At its core, it is active versus passive resource management. Time lost is unrecoverable.

Oh, one more thing: Please don’t forget to set aside time for brainstorming and dreaming. Sometimes we call that shooting the sh*t. If it’s about stuff you think doesn’t matter, it might be wasteful. If it leads one big idea in a year, it can transform your business. Leave time to shoot the sh*t productively. The 5% to 10% of your time you leave for dreaming is where real change starts to happen and companies begin to reinvent themselves. If every minute of your day is consumed with scheduled or forgettable tasks, big ideas are going undiscovered.

Don’t leave all your time to everyday stuff. Do stuff that matters. Then dream on.

Do You Want My Opinion?

dilbert-feedbackIt’s a new year. With another trip around the sun completed and ahead, we mortals often go to our cabinets to withdraw the long-procrastinated projects we someday hope to deploy. In that revitalized spirit of invention, people often ask me for my opinion on this or that idea. Often it’s a start-up business idea. Sometimes it’s an investment opportunity. Occasionally it’s a request for feedback on a manuscript. I’m sure you’ve been asked to be a sounding board for similar notions and found yourself in a similarly awkward situation.

“Hey, mind if I bounce something off you?”

I usually respond, “Why do you ask?”

You may ask yourself, Why does he ask the question “Why do you ask?”

My question to your question is born of its own overarching question: Do you really want feedback, or do you just want me to tell you that what you are pitching is wonderful?

Yeah, you’ve been there. It’s a tough place to be, because it’s impossible to be sure what the other person is actually seeking. Is the seeker in need of a boost of self-esteem, where anything critical you offer is likely to triple that person’s therapy bills and end a rebound before it finds form? Is the pitch-person stealth-seeking your financial commitment, where any positive response on your behalf will be followed by a deal memo solicitation at a valuation that would make the Uber people blush? Is the ask truly heartfelt but the work so early and unedited that it could be more harmed than helped by a random response?

It’s not easy to offer an opinion on someone else’s work. Way more can go wrong than can go right.

I tend to find that most people who ask for my opinion don’t really want feedback. They want validation. If you’ve partaken in-depth of the creative process, you know they aren’t the same. Validation is net neutral. Feedback can save your ass.

What do I mean by that?

Validation is a bifurcated switch. If I say the work is good, you’ve heard all you need to hear. If I say I don’t think it’s good, you’ve heard exactly what you didn’t want to hear. The effect is net neutral because either way I have added no value to your project. If I say it’s good, so what? You already thought it was good or you wouldn’t have shown it to me, so I’ve done nothing but increased your standing bias. That takes you nowhere you couldn’t have gone without me. If I say it’s bad, we may no longer be friends, not because I don’t want to be friends but by being honest (even if diplomatic) I have likely hurt your feelings. There isn’t much positive energy that can follow.

If feedback is what you seek and I have any grounded expertise to offer, then perhaps we have a place to go together. That feedback is almost certainly going to be nuanced (“this part makes some sense, that part not so much”) but it has to come your way without consequence to me or expectation of a secondary agenda that involves me. If I want to get involved, I promise I will let you know, but the act of giving you feedback should be reward in itself. That means you have to enter into the feedback discussion with an openness to critique solely because you want your idea to improve, or perhaps decide instead you don’t want to waste any more time on it. There can be no ulterior motives or it’s not feedback, it’s evaluation. I don’t want to evaluate your work. That’s your job, not mine.

As an author, I seek feedback constantly. When I draft something, I always go out for feedback from a broad sample of demographics. When I get good feedback it can be life-changing, because anything that I have missed and you found I can fix. Is it painful? It’s horribly painful. Yet even worse than negative feedback is the silence of no feedback from someone who said they would offer it. That tells me with uncanny certainty that I have failed to connect with their voice. Do I regret asking? Never for a moment.

As much as we dread feedback, we actually should cherish it, because it is the only path from mediocrity to something that matters. The creative process is laden with setbacks, but each time we find a nugget of corrective action, we can improve. That’s what makes the creative process both daunting and healing. It is the reality of success quantified one fix at a time. It’s never fun to edit away what doesn’t work, but that’s how innovation at its finest evolves. There are no shortcuts. If you ask, be sure you want to listen for the answer. It may not be pleasant, like medicine, but hopefully it makes us better one way or another, if it’s the right medicine.

Most people don’t know how to give useful feedback, especially tough feedback that can help us improve our thinking or channel it to more productive ends. Words of validation or invalidation are relatively easy to render and equally useless. Offering consistently constructive feedback is an art. Be careful whom you ask to help you, or you can really go astray.

If you don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it. If you ask for it, don’t be defensive when you get it. If you don’t ask for it, you probably will never reach your potential. If you do embrace it, you can make a small idea become a big idea. A big idea becomes something tangible when we add the necessary recourses and fight past the objections readily available from amateurs. Those who embrace feedback are resilient by nature. There is power in vulnerability. Embrace it, and the sky is the limit.

Do you still want my opinion? I don’t mind if you say no, but if you ask carefully, I’ll try to answer in the same honest spirit.

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Author’s End Note: It’s been hard to write about anything other than Trump the past year. I am still aghast at what has happened, but I am forcing myself back into more diverse subject matter as sanity demands. With my third book now in first draft and about to go into the editing process, I find my love of words never more pronounced, but never more conflicted. It’s hard to write about normal subjects in a world where nothing I once considered normal ever will be again. It is impossible to think about characters more outrageous than the strange ones emerging on the stage of reality. Regardless, I am committed to diversifying my output in continuing this creative journey we began together. I’ll still write about Trump when I must, but I promise you I will pursue more interesting material, if only to prove that he hasn’t won. Stay with me, and I’ll stay with you.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Dilbert.com ©Scott Adams