CliffsNotes as Long Form

Neal Gabler always makes me think; last week he made me think a little harder.  His op-ed piece in the New York Times on August 13, 2011 “The Elusive Big Idea” (which I added to the Corporate Intelligence Radio Library) caused me once again to reflect on our spiritual respect for the technological achievements that too commonly enter our lives without enough awe.  Thousands of years of civilization and learning have taken us through The Renaissance, The Industrial Revolution, and now Digital Transformation, putting on our desks and in our hands more MIPS (millions of instructions per second) than humanity ever could have envisioned just a half century ago, with Moore’s Law in little jeopardy of compromise anytime soon.  And the question remains: what are we doing with it?

Gabler is a prolific author and senior fellow at the Annenberg Norman Lear Center at USC who suggests in his recent essay that in this post-Enlightenment Age, we may for the first time be going backward intellectually, and that as “information narcissists,” we are allowing our brain cycles to be consumed by endless temporal factoids at the cost of more thoughtful inquiry.  I can’t do a better job of making the point than Gabler, so I invite you to read the full piece which is linked above, but his concern stems from the impact of the parade of dribbling tidbits from the internet that distract us from the harder work of digesting and discussing what were previously known to us as Big Ideas, the most recent of which were summarized in The Atlantic and didn’t seem so big to Gabler (me either!).  We store and remember these media snacks for their brief life cycles, failing to reserve more extensive internal processing power for the ambiguous and abstract.

Since I have spent almost my entire career as part of the problem and never the solution it would be hard for me to get on this bandwagon without impeaching a life’s work, but I have to say, I am sympathetic to Gabler’s critique.  I remember well our teachers’ fears when we were growing up, watching and memorizing ceaseless half hour episodes of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, that our fragile attention spans were being decimated by the power of television.  Every sitcom with its full 22 minutes of content has a beginning, middle and end, it tells a story with resolution that is mostly satisfying and even has three laughs per script page.  Prior to that you’d need an hour of dramatic TV for story, prior to that a 2 hour movie, prior to that a 3 to 4 hour stage play, and prior to that a novel that might be as brief as Huck Finn but could be as long as Moby Dick.  Indeed, our generation was the beneficiary of staggering efficiency.  We welcomed those little yellow books then called Cliff’s Notes covering a novel with about 90% compacting — but then again, that still left a thirty or so page pamphlet that had to be read.  The second year I was in college something crawled out of cable called MTV, and that took storytelling down to just about three minutes, even more efficiency, and many of these micro video operas were created by TV commercial directors, who could tell a story in 30 seconds.  When YouTube gets the job done in under 8 seconds, I say that’s nice, but that was the easy part of the optimization, that just knocked out the last 22 seconds, the hard work of leaving Herman Melville in the dust was already diced and strained long ago.

How about that, an entire moral tale bypassing hundreds of reading pages, fully consumable in 22 minutes with two breaks for bathroom and pantry runs — O Brave New World (that’s a line from The Tempest, which is a play that was written by Shakespeare, who was a kinda like Steven Spielberg, back when Queen Elizabeth I would have had her mobile tapped if phones had been invented)!  So if our attention spans are now down to 140 characters because that’s the Twitter standard adopted from mobile texting, how do we keep “longer forms” viable and where do we get into trouble when we don’t?  I don’t have a solution anymore than Gabler does, because efficiency really is attractive for anyone who does not know what they are missing in the nuances of polysyllabic adjectives and adverbs, but I do worry about the ramifications.  Because so many stories are now reported in sound bites, those featured in stories have learned to communicate with directed outcomes in sound bites.  I am not too worried about this for entertainment purposes, if someone enjoys an 8 second tree squirrel ballet on YouTube and doesn’t wish to sit through The Mahabharata, I see it as their loss, but the sun will come out tomorrow.  Eventually all culture could be destroyed, but after a few generations no one will remember.

What I do worry about is news and government leadership.  Currently we seem satisfied to be internalizing critical issues in sound bites, and that is why we are being treated like idiots by our incumbent and aspiring leaders.  They are taking for granted that we don’t have the patience to get in the weeds, so they are feeding us unsprouted seed fragments.  They are failing at devising levels of substance because it is not required of them, we are accepting their failure, and the cycle repeats.  We must make this stop.

The first decisive media sound bite I can remember was the Ronald Reagan game winning “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in their 1980 debate, halting then President Carter from launching back into a long form malaise of more pedantic matters.  I sense that much of Reagan’s future success was defined real-time in that smack down, and we learned to like him for style whether or not he followed through with substance.  It seemed quite unscripted and endearing, and it worked.  Today we listen to endlessly planned runs at sound bites, poor imitators of extemporaneous reduction, not even extracting them from context because they are context.  We must make this stop.

How can we obstruct the content obstructionists?  Again, Gabler is much more eloquent on the problem than I am, but I fear neither of us has a good solution.  Here is what I can tell you — gadgets and efficiencies are going to continue to accelerate, and even if we could break free of needing to interpret consequential texts and tweets and posts, our kids are in it for the short haul.  All I can suggest is that we do everything we can to teach them an appreciation for reading, help them to understand that multitasking while useful is the antithesis of focus, and lead by example by not letting any leader off the hook with a chorus of sound bites and no carefully composed libretto.  The information is there if we want to read it or hear it or debate it, more than has ever been available is now being ignored, but we have to be willing to invest the time.  Just like you won’t accept second-rate technology, stop accepting second-rate garbage in the form of info morsels where substance is required.

Feel free to still enjoy YouTube and reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  Society will survive the culture shock, but where brevity is meant to mask laziness among issues that are critical to our sustenance, that has to be called out.


On Polarization

In my last post I suggested that a good product development process was not democratic, it was the product of clear leadership, shared vision, teamwork, and consensus building.  Given the unacceptable performance of our elected leaders currently chewing up news headlines, I wondered what application effective free enterprise might have on the product development process that is democracy.  What can we expect of democracy in the laws and policies it creates if we think of that enterprise as group of employees whom we fund?

Imagine working for a company where you were assigned to solve an extremely difficult, hugely complex, mission critical project, and the best your team could come up with was a status quo stalemate where almost any way you projected various outcomes of the stalemate, the company was doomed to failure.  Because of the stalemate, you were more concerned about whether you would have a job when all was said and done than whether you helped your company make any progress solving the problem.  Your supreme tactic would be to blame the other side of the stalemate for the stalemate, and hope that enough people believed your story rather than theirs so that you survived and they didn’t.

Then the proverbial *$&# hit the fan.

Would this somehow be a justifiable position?  Ethically, emotionally, or logically?  Would you feel good about yourself, that you had acted within the bounds of expectation for which you had been given authority?  Would you really think you were safe from the temporarily ducked wrath of those who put you in the job?

I don’t think so.

Ringing any bells?

It is essential that we always remember in a democracy the government works for the people.  That’s makes every taxpayer an employer, since we fund the operations of our elected officials and those they appoint.  Think of yourself as a traditional employer.  If your employees were acting in the way our government is acting — posturing and manipulating and behaving with a level of dysfunction that would never be acceptable in any corporation — would you continue to tolerate it?  I would not.  I would demand cooperation, collegiality, collaboration, and progress.  Most of all, I would insist on honesty over spin, humility before ego.  That is only right in exchange for the trust of authority, plus salary and benefits.

How do we lose sight of this?  Because we fear government?  Because we don’t understand government?  Because we have become cynical and weary listening to rhetoric in all the media channels it now flows, endless noise absent of substance that drives us to the refuge of silence?  Because we are overwhelmed by the process of government where change seems so elusive we find it less painful not to engage than to engage?

Hegelian dialectic encapsulates a framework where the evolution of ideas and events is resolved through history in a process of thesis meeting antithesis resulting in synthesis.  Any reasonable person can understand this even if he or she has never heard of Hegel, who may be attributed disproportionate credit for the model.  The concept is as much observation and interpretation as it is construct, opposing opinions are always present and result in outcomes, intended or not.  Nation A and Nation B do not have a shared belief set.  If they resolve their differences amicably, change occurs.  If they do not resolve their differences amicably, they go to war.  One point of view slams into another point of view, one largely prevails, and change also occurs — much of it unpredictable.  We can only hope that the change is for the better, we cannot ensure it.  Consider the consequences of knowing attempts to drive change for unsound motivation — we get what we get.

We know that change happens when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.  If we accept the status quo of the current process, the pain will remain.  If we demand better, we will get it.  Self-serving entrenchment is not a strategy of public service, partnership is.  This requires more than a letter or two to our elected officials threatening the loss of your vote, it requires a consistent communication loop that makes our expectations of consensus building a mandate, a necessity rather than an abstract goal.

It is an honor and a privilege to serve in elected public office, not an entitlement and in democracy not a power grab.  It was never meant to be a career, it was meant to be an opportunity for those with some hard-won bits of knowledge, experience, and wisdom to give back to the community through a period of public service.  That is the beauty and brilliance of representative democracy, the leadership is expected to evolve and turn over specifically for the public good.  When we all forget that and allow the political landscape to exist as an ecosystem unto itself — an inorganic bureaucracy that feeds and fuels its own self-aggrandizing perpetuation — we abandon good business practice and invite shenanigans.

I don’t expect the government to make a profit, it is a service organization meant to be self funding for critical needs, thus the true practices of free enterprise cannot apply.  Yet the basic behaviors and expectations of executives and managers that any responsible and passionate business owner or employer would demand must apply, or dysfunction will continue, and the business owners will suffer the consequences.  If you have ever been part of an enterprise where management allowed dysfunction to take over, you know how quickly the tables can turn and the potential devastating outcome.  It can happen quickly, without enough warning, and without a path to correction.

We all learn in grade school that the framers created a series of checks and balances specifically to ensure that one set of ideas did not permanently crush another.  However they did not design our legislative product development process so that it would bring stagnation and impasse, anymore than a business would want checks and balances to impede innovation and growth.  Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill showed us just a generation ago that we can have our cake and eat it too, so there is a proven model in recent memory.  We need to embrace that now or we all lose.

Good managers do not leave the most important problems to the last second.

Good managers appreciate the differences in the points of view around them and strengthen their outcomes with a mix of ideas.

Good managers talk to each other, not with poorly staged sound bytes to third-party forums to relay messages to each other.

Good managers put the enterprise and those they serve first, their teams above self-interest, and only accept reward when those conditions are met.

This isn’t hard, it is standard operating procedure for anyone who has ever worked in an important company role under time sensitive and otherwise impossibly difficult circumstances.

Demand better as an employer.  We deserve it.  We’re footing the bill.  This we have in common, all of us.