Lost in Noise is Learning

We are so bombarded by noise at times it’s hard to think. The raging debates around coronavirus public policy, racial injustice, and the presidential election form a perfect storm of noise. A cacophony of this magnitude only naturally sends us to seek shelter from the storm.

Don’t give in to the temptation of numbness. Where there is noise there is a signal. Sometimes you have to listen hard for it, but it’s worth the effort.

Where there is crisis there is learning.

During the entirety of the Covid-19 crisis, my own company has been digging deeper into data, questioning every one of our prior assumptions, revisiting foundational convictions that have proven to be upended by circumstances. It’s been meticulous work, exhausting in many ways, but every bit of analysis has been worth the long hours of difficult discussion. Through a highly Socratic process, we have reinvented our business model for the better.

All of that has me thinking: What else might these crises be telling us? What else can we learn from the turmoil all around us if we don’t allow ourselves to hide from the rhetorical barrage?

Here are a few ideas penetrating my consciousness in the realms of global warming, trusted communications, and government core competency.

Everyone Doesn’t Have to Drive Every Day

I live in Los Angeles. I look outside and the air is clear. The freeways are empty. Coincidence? An accidental moment without significance? Perhaps that’s the case, as some have argued the temporal reduction in emissions and anecdotal benefits of fewer cars on the road, but what if it were sustainable? Could one of the answers to climate change be so obviously right before our eyes? I’m not a scientist with the credentials to make such an assessment, but I certainly would like the problem studied objectively.

Until a few months ago, we woke up daily with the habit of getting in our cars and driving to work no more questioned than brushing our teeth. It was just something we did. In no previous discussion of environmental distress did I hear anyone credibly propose getting more than half our cars off the road, because the proposition would have been a non-starter. Then one day a bunch of us stopped getting in our cars. Poof, just like that, we were working from home. We also got the commute time back for more productive work, and while I’m at it, how about all of those car accidents that stopped because people behind the steering wheel weren’t texting. We will go back to the office regularly at some point, but does it have to be every day, for every person? Not in my world. The benefits are yet to be understood. Let’s understand them.

Media Desperately Needs Reinvention

We don’t understand fake news. We don’t even have a common definition of fake news. Some of us define fake news as the biased reporting of a media brand. Others identify it as the blatantly false information peddled to the public for effect without fact-checking. I remain a fan of journalism and consume branded media daily with my own filter for accuracy, but my litmus test for truth will never be yours. Until we can agree on some form of objectivity, we will continue to debate the source of our information rather than the implications of the information’s validity.

This is not healthy. If we can’t agree on what constitutes an empirical fact, the clear and present danger to our decision making is likely to have a catastrophic impact. No source, however reputable, is without fault. The New York Times isn’t sure what belongs on its op-ed page. Facebook as a public platform of democratic exchange has become an unmitigated disaster in its inability to parse purposely placed disinformation in unending disguises, free or paid. Elections are won cynically on ad volume, fueled by cash, fueled by special-interest investment in yet more noise. We know we need journalism, but given how few people want to pay for it and how compromising its ad base has become, its business model has failed. Whoever reinvents this business model is going to change the world. I believe this will happen, because accurate information is not a luxury but a necessity.

Readiness Is Pragmatic

Perhaps my most troubling observation is how flat-footed the United States has been caught with the ramifications of the pandemic. Of course no one knew any sooner than late 2019 that Covid-19 could interrupt every aspect of our lives, but we’ve been around long enough to know pandemics exist. How could we have so few of the necessary medical supplies or personal protective equipment in stockpiles for such a calamity? How could we not have a clear chain of command between federal, state, and local authority? How could we shut down the nation for three months and not make strides on healthy measures to address the next semester of student education?

We are a pragmatic nation known to focus our vast resources on innumerable global crises throughout our history, but have we become so focused on the here and now that we aren’t paying enough attention to scenario planning and game theory? If we don’t think carefully about reallocating resources to planning for the unknown, the chances we will be struck down even harder by the next surprise attack would seem to be 100%.

Do yourself a favor: Tune out the noise, but tune in the learning. Opportunity is always around us if we muster the discipline to trade demoralization for inspiration. That’s how we get better.

The alternative is to stick with what we’ve got. I hope we’ve learned that’s not much of an option.


Image: Pixabay

The Last Word on This Election Year

All week I have been trying to devise a clean getaway post for the year 2012 and it has been a struggle.  Then performance on demand, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan did the heavy lifting for me in this weekend’s edition of her column, Declarations.  Because I can’t say it any better than she does, here is an extended excerpt from her article on what she got correct and wrong in covering this year’s Presidential Election, in particular, what she got quite right:

In writing about what struck as the president’s essential aloofness, I said there were echoes of it even in his organization. I referred to a recent hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. “It read like politics as done by Martians. The ‘Analytics Department’ is looking for ‘predictive Modeling/Data Mining’ specialists to join the campaign’s ‘multi-disciplinary team of statisticians,’ which will use ‘predictive modeling’ to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. ‘We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.’ “

This struck me as “high tech and bloodless.” I didn’t quite say it, but it all struck me as inhuman, unlike any politics I’d ever seen.

It was unlike any politics I’d ever seen. And it won the 2012 campaign. Those “Martians” were reinventing how national campaigns are done. They didn’t just write a new political chapter with their Internet outreach, vote-tracking data-mining and voter engagement, especially in the battleground states. They wrote a whole new book. And it was a masterpiece.

Hats off. In some presidential elections, something big changes, and if you’re watching close you can learn a lesson. This was mine: The national game itself has changed…

For those who followed the FiveThirtyEight blog by newly minted celebrity Nate Silver most of the year, the numbers were the story, and the importance of understanding the underlying truth to the numbers brought a new tone to political commentary.  Data tells a story, but the story is seldom obvious.  You have to dig through numbers to see what they are saying.  Statistics don’t create strategy, they inform it.  You try an unending number of contact experiments in outreach, measure tactical responses carefully against controls, see what is working and what is not, reevaluate and act.  The secret is, you must do this on a one to one basis, scale personal interaction without treating people as a mass, without using a blunt instrument to address pushback and slow acceptance.

Data can be aggregated and cut, but it comes from somewhere, individual people.  If you read the data in geographic and demographic segments, it can help guide both strategy and tactics, allowing you to be responsive in near real-time.  Your core remains your ideas — conviction, creativity, and vision — but how you express those ideas better to achieve consensus, how you improve your message, how you harness the power of a devoted following to add their deeply personal beliefs to the mix and build a unified voice with impact, that is where data is your friend.  Yet it’s critical to fully appreciate and understand that friend, with humility, with nuance.

There isn’t much commentary I recall from the endless talking heads covering the election, but one almost throwaway interchange I remember was led by longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield.  He was admiring just how expert Nate Silver’s predictions had been across the board, calling the electoral votes in advance for all 50 states, when he sort of joked, and I paraphrase from memory, “Well, I guess those of us who got into journalism because we liked English in school so much we could use it as an excuse to avoid math, we can’t make that assumption anymore.”  That simple concept seemed profound to me.  In the same way we can no longer draw clear lines in organizations that identify and confine analog departments, the separation between language and numbers in our thinking has naturally blended.  They may appear to be separate areas of study, but our connected world of internet communication, social media, dramatic global speed, and authority transfer to communities has put words and mathematics on a collision course of unified discipline.  As integrated tools, they are perhaps becoming more the same than they are different, inseparable in decision-making.

The lesson here is hardly isolated to politics, it is a story of marketing at large.   If you have spent any time trying to understand e-commerce, you know well the power of data and the risk associated with ignoring it.  Great products and services have no substitute, but as a former boss taught me long ago, good marketing helps bad product fail faster, and bad marketing can undermine the best of innovation.  Both right and left brain are now requirements to win in business.  Fail to master either at your own peril.

My last word on this election year: Analytics.

Necessarily reflective of authentic, individual voice.

Thank you so much for continuing to share this journey with me.  Here’s to an informed and inspiring new year!

More Words Next Year!

Our Real Work Begins

It has been over a week now since our Presidential Election, a good time to reflect. A broad consensus would seem to exist that it is good the election is over — on this we can all agree, and hey, that’s a start.

If the numbers tell the tale correctly, slightly more than half of us are pleased with the outcome and slightly less than half not so much. Some might argue this is how the Founding Fathers would have it, the decision is meant to be hard, to test our minds around this important choice, to continually rebalance power and draw it back from wide deviations away from center. The election is also meant to test our system, the backbone of this magnificent, ongoing experiment known as democracy, with the orderly assignment and peaceful transition of authority. No one in any lifetime favors all the victors in office, but we know to lawfully accept them until it is time to choose again. We can be proud that the process of choice remains a shared value, whether we got whom we wanted or not.

As mentioned previously, I try hard in this blog to be nonpartisan, because I believe careers are best approached from a nonpartisan context and that business is something we share, something that can bring us together more than separate us if we want that. I like that a broad coalition of CEOs is putting immense pressure on our elected leaders in Washington to make a deal that avoids the Fiscal Cliff, and I am assured that when that deal is made it will include varied input and smart compromise from any number of clever contributors.

Elections probably shouldn’t be emotional, but they are. If ever logic needed to prevail over sentiment, one would think that would have to be the case in choosing our government officials by the prized process of casting a vote. Unfortunately our human leanings get in the way of that, and rather than carefully analyzing the particulars of a candidate’s expressed ideas, we get drawn into the contest. We begin to root. It becomes too much like a sporting event, the candidate is coached and the marketing team fuels the public rivalry. There we are, cheering and booing for one side or the other. The problem with that is that unlike sports, even if my team loses, I still live in my city and you live in yours. I don’t have to get onboard with your team because they won, and next season I can go back to rooting for my team, hoping at last justice is done and yours loses. I am happy to allow my emotions to be manipulated because it’s all part of the entertainment experience. It sort of doesn’t work if I don’t feel that way — why buy tickets and t-shirts and stay glued to the TV unless my honorable team can defeat your hack team?

Those kinds of emotions may carry over to the voting booth, but it is obvious the metaphor implodes there. Your team will never be my team, but the President has to be our President. That’s not just Constitutional law, it’s pragmatic. It’s meant to make sense, to bring order and assurance. In the workshop I teach on executive leadership, I spend a lot of time talking about how business is well advised to be pragmatic. There is a role for emotion in business, but that is in brand building, bringing a customer into a relationship with goods and services where Like Is Not Enough. Decision making among business leaders has to be sensible, reasonable, credible. When you work for a company, you may agree or disagree with the executive team, but you don’t undermine them. You discuss, push back, respectfully argue and create reason to be heard, but to defy the leadership is not only to put the business at risk but also yourself at risk.

Both major party candidates in this federal election had strengths and weaknesses. Both raised vast financial resources. Both purchased gobs of advertising in key battleground states, and both tirelessly traveled the country to connect with their prospective constituents. Much has been and will be written about the strategy and tactics utilized by each, but on Election Day the competition ended. When a President is elected, he is not the party’s President, he is the nation’s President. To think anything other than we all have a stake in the President’s success is folly — dangerous folly.

Where are our passions now best applied? To ensuring the pragmatic. To demanding consensus. To lending our shared voices to the phones, email, and social networks that reach our Congressional Representatives — letting them feel the heat and urgency of our need to get on with it. Democracy works when vast numbers participate and fails when apathy rules. Be passionate about insisting on reason, be passionate about reminding our elected leaders they have chosen a path of service, be passionate about our shared need for innovation and ingenuity that takes us somewhere better and doesn’t leave us running in place. Let all emotion — especially anger — be tabled for pragmatism, at least until the highly paid political consultants whip us into a frenzy again two or four years from now. If you have to be mad, be mad that our elected leaders just might have the chutzpah not to work together on your behalf. That is something you really can do something about. I can be accused at times of idealism, but I promise you we do have that power. We really can begin the real work that only gets done when shared.

A unique aspect of our humanity is the ability to experience emotion, to feel passion, and when appropriate, act on that to drive an outcome grounded in substance and belief. I have seen it happen more than a few times in my career, and when I have, it has been almost impossible to replicate or counter. It has to be well placed. Right now it has to be placed not on who won or lost the election, or whose team got a trophy or some time off, but on how the important work ahead gets done in a pragmatic way we can together acknowledge as progress.

New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously articulated, “We campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.” That’s a much more applicable conceit for elected leaders than winning the World Series or the Super Bowl. Let’s not wait another two or four years to do democracy. Let’s do it daily. Together.

Back to Business

Last week more than eighty corporate CEOs signed and published a manifesto, agreeing that our nation needs both spending cuts and revenue increases to move forward.  It was a simple, clear statement, meant to advise Congress and our soon to be elected President that it is time to break the stalemate.  Here is the text that appeared in the Wall Street Journal, October 25, 2012, reprinted for convenience:

“Policy makers should acknowledge that our growing debt is a serious threat to the economic well-being and security of the United States.

It is urgent and essential that we put in place a plan to fix America’s debt. An effective plan must stabilize the debt as a share of the economy, and put it on a downward path.

This plan should be enacted now, but implemented gradually to protect the fragile economic recovery and to give Americans time to prepare for the changes in the federal budget.

In order to develop a fiscal plan that can succeed both financially and politically, it must be bipartisan and reforms to all areas of the budget should be included.

The plan should:

Reform Medicare and Medicaid, improve efficiency in the overall health care system and limit future cost growth;

Strengthen Social Security, so that it is solvent and will be there for future beneficiaries; and

Include comprehensive and pro-growth tax reform, which broadens the base, lowers rates, raises revenues and reduces the deficit.

The recommendations of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission, which saved $4 trillion and addressed all parts of the budget, provide an effective framework for such a plan.

The plan should be conducive to long-term economic growth, protect the vulnerable, include credible enforcement mechanisms to ensure that debt reduction is achieved and leave the next generation better.”

Strangely the formation of this consensus among competitors from a sample of highly influential business leaders on multiple sides of the political divide did not receive more attention.  No, it’s not a perfect proclamation or unusually eloquent, but it could be a spark to ignite meaningful pressure on those in our government who need it most.

Perhaps there is too much noise out there to hear the unified voice of corporate direction demanding an end to party stalemate.  Agree or disagree with the particulars, but it is time for the entire population to embrace the same demand.  No action  by Congress is not a reasonable response to the Fiscal Cliff we face together.  No deal in Congress means all Bush-era tax relief will be eliminated at the end of 2012, while across the board federal budget cuts will be mechanically enacted in virtually all areas of non-entitlement or interest expense as a result of sequestration in our failure to address the debt ceiling.  Both parties agreed late last year to sequestration in the event that well-considered budget policy could not be deployed on a line by line basis, with expected care and diligence applied to the hard decisions that have to be made rather than whacking the morass with a machete.  You would think dedicated, elected officials would have long ago embraced the gravitas of their charge.  Sadly, the time for surgical precision is quickly running out.

Any common ground has to agree that the Fiscal Cliff is not worth any ideological mandate.  The nation cannot afford a repeat of last fall’s debt ceiling fiasco, which in my opinion was one of the worst failures of democracy and representative government in a generation.  We need to get back to business.

As I have written before with respect to innovation, building a consensus is not the same as caving to compromise.  There is cop-out compromise and there is collaborative compromise.  Cop-out compromise means walking away from one’s core values, abandoning that which is fundamental to being constructive, the undermining of sound judgment.  Collaborative compromise arises from acknowledgment of the real prize — progress that likely cannot include every single designated component serving an agenda.  Collaborative compromise is guided by consensus, a combining of good ideas around an agreed set of goals articulated and guided by sound leadership.  The eighty-plus CEOs who delivered their move-ahead manifesto understand how to build a consensus because they have to do it everyday to hold teams together, get stuff done, and create economic value.

When compromise means abandoning one’s truest values to survive then I agree that is not a good definition to support, but I don’t see that in our economic dialogue in Washington.  If compromise means reasonable give and take to support a well-advised consensus as illustrated in the CEO Manifesto, then it is time for our government to compromise.  More than time.  It is the essence of representative democracy.  It is what they were elected and hired to do.

We must get back to business.  People need to work.  Government services have to be provided so we don’t bump into each other.  Taxes need to be fair and they need to be paid.  Credit markets need to flow.  The economy needs to function.  All of this underlies the free markets we cherish.

No candidate should ever take your vote for granted, you award it as your precious right.  Reasonable action by Congress is overdue.  Contact your representatives now.  Tell them that walking us over they Fiscal Cliff will cost them their authority.  Sequestration means they didn’t do their jobs.  Demand leadership, demand shared vision.  We need to overcome the impasse immediately following the Presidential Election.

Let’s get on with it.  Back to business.