31 December 2006

Worth Remembering for 2007

Heard today, courtesy of one of our ministers:
"No one ever became less by giving their all."
- June McDonald

30 December 2006

What if Saddam is the Best Iraq Can Do?

Last night at the gym, the TV news was flitting from one image to another to confirm that Saddam was evil and deserved execution. It's an easy sell to an American audience, raised as we are to be repulsed at the thought of such unchecked power.

But what the media will never allude to is that Saddam may have actually been exactly the kind of leader one would expect for a country like Iraq.

Iraq does not have the foundation of one nation on which to build a nation-state. Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds are three distinct groups that see themselves as Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds before they see themselves as Iraqis. Creating one nation-state with these three groups requires a strong leader.

For a significant portion of the population, the authority of religious dogma far outweighs the authority of the uncertain processes of law or science. Such a population cannot be reasoned with for the simple fact that they've little respect for reason. Force is the one alternative for dealing with such a population.

You don't have to make a formal study of children to know that what is appropriate for a child of 16 won't work for a child of 6. And to be fair to the Iraqi legal system that found him guilty, no people should have to endure the rule of a tyrant, as Saddam clearly was. But the type of rule appropriate for a country at the stage of development of Iraq is going to look more like the rule of Saddam than the rule of, say, contemporary Dutch Parliament.

Afghanistan, freed of Taliban rule, is gravitating back towards Taliban rule. Why? The fundamental social dynamics that led to the rise of the Taliban have yet to be changed. Don't be surprised if the same country that yesterday executed Saddam doesn't soon raise up a leader much like Saddam. History shows us that it is much easier to change individual leaders than it is to change the social reality that allows them to rule. But then, George doesn't even acknowledge the differences in social dynamics of San Francisco and Midland, TX, so how could he be expected to acknowledge differences as vast as those between a quasi-theocracy and modern democracy?

29 December 2006

The Corporation is Today's Dominant Institution

Fortunately, you can't see air. If you could, it is unlikely that you could see anything else.

In a similar way, when a particular institution dominates a community, it is nearly invisible. In medieval times, that institution was the church; today, the dominant institution is the corporation. Its influence is so pervasive that we can’t even see it.

Think about the typical day of the average person.
The alarm goes off at 6:30. The programming is courtesy of a corporation - the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The very thoughts that first enter her head aren’t daily prayers sanctioned by her church but are, instead, news items and commentary approved by employees of a corporation. The radio that conveys this programming is made by the Sony Corporation and was bought from a retail outlet the Best Buy Corporation. This person lifts herself off the bed, a bed made by the Select Comfort Corporation. The alarm goes off at 6:30 because the time it takes to commute in her car (made and sold by the Nissan Corporation) plus the time it takes to get ready (using products like toothpaste, shaving gel, hair gel, and deodorant provided by the Proctor & Gamble Corporation) equals the time that the corporate employer expects her to begin working. She has scarcely gained consciousness and already her day is defined by corporate norms, products, and expectations.

Even the context for the use of the products listed in the above paragraph is a product of corporations. The very notion of “body odor” is a product of corporate advertisers trying to create demand for deodorant early in the 20th century. The idea of time zones was not an idea of governments but of railroads that needed uniform time zones in order to create schedules. It is one thing to notice that we’re bombarded by about 3,000 advertisements a day. It is another to notice that the very expectation of wearing deodorant or chewing mints is created by corporations, much less the expectation that we’ll all synchronize our watches and alarm clocks.

Our clothes and transportation are defined by corporations. Our working hours and the number of years that we need to work are also defined by corporations. More than 90% of Americans are employees and their role as employees is either defined by a corporation or an institution that patterns itself after a corporation.

The level of pollution that we accept is defined by the needs of the corporation. Only when health needs of people and the planet are being too obviously ignored is that negotiated or changed. The extent to which children are allowed to be with their parents during the work day is defined by the corporation. Even our diet is defined by corporations and if the health consequences of this are harmful, then corporations are ready to offer prescription drugs that remedy the complications from the diet.

One of the real obstacles to transforming the medieval church was getting enough intellectual distance from it to see it, rather than simply see through the lens it provided. Our situation is little different today. Just take note of how pervasive is the corporation in defining your daily life. Once you do, you can begin to explore ways to define it rather than accept it defining you, taking to heart the warning that Emerson gave: "We have become the tools of our tools."

Why does this matter? It was impossible to change life, to make progress, coming out of medieval times without changing the church - and changing it fundamentally. Today, fundamental progress depends on changing the corporation, today's dominant institution.

George: Hero or Villain?

WASHINGTON Dec 28, 2006 (AP)— Bad guy of 2006: President Bush. Good guy of 2006: President Bush. When people were asked in an AP-AOL News poll to name the villains and heroes of the year, Bush topped both lists, in a sign of these polarized times."

Somehow, this makes a great deal of sense. This is, after all, the USA, land of contradictions. We have more Olympic athletes and more obese people than any other country. We have more extremes of wealth and poverty than any other developed nation. We lead the world in the export of pornography and religion. We are the United Schizophrenics of America.

Beyond the Church & State

Oddly, the argument about religion and politics continues. On the one hand are those worried about the drift from religious principles that ensure a certain level of morality. On the other hand are those worried about the intrusion of beliefs that can neither be proven nor disproved into our politics, the imposition of the religion of a few onto many. As long as some voters have religious beliefs, there will be a commingling of church and state. This seems inescapable. So what, really, did our founding fathers and their Enlightenment era peers bring us?

The transformation of religion in the West took place through two waves. The first wave was most simply illustrated when Henry VIII made himself the head of the Church of England and severed ties with Rome. The second wave was best articulated by John Locke about 200 years later, arguing that it made no sense for the state to force a particular kind of worship on its citizens. In the first wave, the church was subordinated to the state; in the second wave, religion was made a personal matter that could not be imposed onto the community.

This is worth mentioning because suddenly, in the last few years, this matter of religion and politics has reared its head again. It's as if a drunk at a dinner party has suddenly gained consciousness and forced the polite guests to repeat the conversation of the last hour. The neocons have revived this ludicrous notion that our laws should be based on religion; the neo-atheists have revived this amusingly unreasonable notion that our values and policy should be based only on reason. Personally, I find the revival of this argument tiresome. I find it tiresome because the church and state are so clearly no longer leading the parade of social development and norms that to spend an inordinate time worrying about which of the two deserves first place is like arguing about whether the Brooklyn Dodgers or Philadelphia Athletics are the better team.

A topic that is far more interesting is the question of why we are so endlessly fascinated by this topic of church and state. I suspect that it is because we have a wealth of arguments to draw from (to support either side) and prefer to parade our intellect in familiar garb rather than retire to the back room to sew new garments. More relevant than the separation of church and state is the separation of state and corporation, the role of the multinational corporation in modern communities, and the transformation of national identity as globalization accelerates.

The church and state argument is to intellectuals what the music of, say, Dylan and the Band is to folks born in the late 1950s and early 1960s: an argument that we can admire, that engages us, even as we are comforted by its predictability. Well, if New Year's resolutions are about nothing else they should be about stretching the comfort zone. Perhaps its time to shift our attention from church and state to question the role of the most powerful institution in our modern world: the corporation.

21 December 2006

When is a Blog Not a Blog?

When it's a blob.

Blog is a verb, an active, updated, and on-going monologue for others to hear.

Blob is a noun. It suggests something that just sits there - like a street sign or old book.

This next week, R World will be a blob. Tune in next week and witness it's return as a live broadcast, words streaming across your computer monitor like stock quotes across a ticker tape.

Have a very, merry Christmas. Do at least two things that seem unnecessarily kind: one for someone else and one for yourself.

20 December 2006

Cash Flow, a Career & a Calling

I think that an inordinate amount of grief is caused because of confusion between cash flow, a career, and a calling. All three represent very real needs and all three can be ignored - for awhile.

It still amazes me that our school system can keep children in class for 12 years and not bother to teach cash flow. It's my opinion that failure to understand this is the cause of a host of problems. A bill for property tax or car insurance or car repair suddenly comes at you, seemingly from nowhere, and that flush feeling you had just last month is suddenly and abruptly taken from you. You go from a feeling of financial relief to a feeling of dread. Why? You had no decent mechanism for seeing these things in advance. Cash flow is also key to building wealth. The person who resorts to financing a purchase with a credit card and subsequently pays it down at 18% over a period of, say, 3 years is going to have much less wealth accumulated than the person who waits 3 years to make that same purchase, accruing interest at, say, 8%. People who pretend that cash flow doesn't matter usually have a safety net of some kind and foist onto others their needs for money.

A career is different from cash flow. Probably the simplest example of the difference between the two is this: a 19 year-old who subordinates his career to cash flow will drop out of college in order to stay out of debt. His career will be set aside as he works a job in order to meet the demands of cash flow. He's being responsible, in a sense, and should be applauded for his good intentions. But he's being irrational, sacrificing a career path that could make his pressing cash flow problems fairly insignificant in about five to ten years. Ideally, a career represents the intersection between three things: what he's good at, what he does well, and what there is demand for - what someone would pay for. It does little good to ignore any one of these three because to do so is unstable - it's like sitting on a two-legged stool. Properly done, a career addresses the demands of cash flow. That is, the very real demands of cash flow will be met when career needs are properly addressed. Initially, however, the demands of a career conflict with the demands of cash flow.

Finally, we come to a calling. This is not merely a ringing in the ears. This is to career what career is to cash flow. What distinguishes it from a career is that it may well represent something that you don't do well and something for which there may be little obvious demand but it is something that seems inescapably fascinating, unavoidably alluring. Buckminster Fuller said that your purpose is to do what obviously (to you) needs to be done that no one else is doing. You may not be great at this, but this is what you need to do. Just as the need for cash flow seems to conflict with the needs of a career, so does the need for a career seem to conflict with the needs of a calling. Perhaps the way this most obviously shows up is when people take assignments or jobs within their career that preclude them putting their creative energies into anything other than work. The good news is that they make a little more than others; the bad news is that they never get time to reflect or define something bigger, something that feeds the soul. In Po Bronson's book What Should I Do With My Life, he quotes Sidney Ross who says, “The moral is to not set yourself goals which don’t leave you any freedom to maneuver.” Just as a college kid accumulating debt may seem to be sacrificing too much to his working class friends, so might a career guy passing on promotional opportunities seem to be sacrificing too much to his peers who think that a calling is just for professional actors or singers.

I'm of the opinion that you should only marry a person if you can't live without them. A calling seems to me similiar. If you can't pull yourself away from this thing, you need to do what you can to feed it, explore it, and somehow work it into your life. The important thing to remember is that even though each of these - cash flow, career, and calling - needs to be met, you want to subordinate them in the proper order. Don't be afraid to sacrifice the demands of cash flow for your career and don't be afraid to sacrifice the demands of your career for your calling.

The bad news is that this takes a long time to all work out. The great news is that you have your entire life in which to do so. And really, what else were you going to do with your life?

19 December 2006

Quick, Laura, Grab My Drugs! We're Invading Iran!

Pentagon officials have announced that they're building up forces for an invasion of Iran. This after the November election indicated that this nation has largely lost its confidence in the Bush administration's ability to start and conduct wars.

Baffles the mind, doesn't it? We require drug testing for grownups playing children's games like baseball and football but don't require psychiatric and drug testing for people who make policy? George has got to be doing cocaine again; his administration has been characterized by unmoored optimism interrupted by random bouts of paranoia. Unbelievable.

18 December 2006

Love Politics - Hate Policy

The media was obsessed with the question of whether the Democrats would be able to gain influence in DC. WAS. Now that the election is over, even before these newly elected representatives and senators are sworn in, the topic has shifted to the 2008 presidential election. Could Hillary beat McCain? Will Obama run? What is getting completely skipped is any discussion about actual policy changes that will result from the 2006 election.

Apparently the mainstream media and its audience have no interest in policy. Instead, like high school kids who watch study body elections for signs of popularity, they care only about politics. For them, the discussion of candidates is little different than the discussion of celebrities. "Barak Obama has so much charisma." "Paris Hilton is so hot."

Now if only the media would put as much effort and imagination into making policy as engaging to the common voter as they put into getting interviews with Obama or pictures of Britney Spears, we might finally get the media we pay for.

Best Investment for 2007

The business and personal finance magazines are offering their usual advice about the best places to invest for 2007. I’d like to suggest that you look no further than you.

Imagine two 25 year-old people making $30,000 a year. One person invests $1,000 a year into seminars, books, tapes, classes, and activities that improves her productivity by 15% a year, half of which goes into her paycheck. Another spends his on season tickets, and his productivity grows by only 10% a year (more experience means greater productivity, whether or not the person gets further education), half of which goes into his paycheck. In other words, one is getting raises of about 7.5% a year and the other is getting raises of about 5% a year.

10 years into the career, she is making just over $60,000 a year and he is making just under $50,000. A significant, if not huge, difference. By the time they are 45, she is making about $125,000 a year and he is making nearly $80,000. By 55, she makes about a quarter of a million a year and he makes about half that. By 65, she is making about $500,000 a year and he is making about $200,000 a year – a really big deal.

But here is the most amazing thing. During this 40 year career, she makes $3.5 million more than he does. This little difference of 2.5% on an initial salary of $30,000 a year can make that big of a difference. What mutual fund or real estate investment offers that kind of investment return?

So, where best to invest in 2007? Perhaps you should look no further than you.

17 December 2006

The Difference Between Crime & Politics

In politics, you change the laws as pleases you; with crime, you ignore the laws as pleases you.

16 December 2006

Blogging, Video Games, the Progression of Art & the Future of Politics

I saw a recent report that suggested that blogging has peaked. I'd like to suggest that the full influence of blogging has yet to be felt.

Renaissance art changed how people thought about reality. The art went from iconic to realistic, from celebrating divinity that merely happened to take a human form to celebrating the human form. The Renaissance, with its emphasis on secular issues and response to market forces, represented a shift from heaven to earth. How people perceive the world through their art makes a huge difference in their expectations about how the world ought to be.

In the last generation, video games have become a huge market. It is not just true that the video game industry has become bigger than movie videos, but I would strongly suspect that time spent with any one video game is a multiple of the time spent with any one video; gamers play for hours and movie fans watch for about 100 minutes. Hence, the time spent on video games is even greater than the money spent on video games. These games have changed the consciousness of a generation of youth.

What makes video games unique in the progression of dominant art forms?

Through the history of the West, the dominant art has arguably progressed from the painting and sculptures of the Renaissance (think DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli) the classical music of the Enlightenment (think Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach), and the novels of the age of capitalism (think Dickens, Faulkner, and Twain) and, most recently, movies. In each of these past forms, the spectator is expected to admire. You are expected to gaze in awe at Michelangelo's David, to listen enraptured to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or become engrossed in Faulkner's Sound & the Fury or sit in admiration of Benigni's film, Life is Beautiful. By contrast, I am expected to become a participant in the video games Civilization or Halo. Video games, although not yet the dominant art form, are different from any other “art” form in the history of the West.

Blogging is to news and commentary what video games are to entertainment; blogs thrust the spectator into the role (however briefly and for however small of an audience) of performer. Blogs blur the boundary between spectator and participant.

Has blogging peaked? I doubt it. Rather, I suspect that the real influence of blogging has only begun to be felt. Just as the orchestration and precision of classical music symphony presaged the factories of the industrial age and Renaissance art shifted focus to the here and now, video games and blogging have changed the definition of spectator and will change what it means to be consumers or voters. The generation that grows up blogging and playing video games is going to scoff at being excluded from participation in formulating policy or having to choose options that have been defined by others. Rather, the politics of this generation will be a politics of participation.

The successful politicians and parties won't pretend to offer a tightly plotted narrative like a filmmaker; rather, they will offer a context and platform for participation, like the designer of a video game. The successful policy makers won’t be those who craft the most admirable policy; they’ll be the policy-makers who are best able to create mechanisms for policy formulation that engage the average citizen.

Whoever first makes this shift will win over a new generation of voters. Has blogging peaked? No. Rather, the medium of blogging has only just begun to change our expectations of politics, policy, and community. As with all technology, the really interesting stage of adoption occurs when new technological inventions trigger new social inventions. This is the dance of social evolution and the popularity of blogging is just the first step in that dance. Get ready. Soon the floor will begin shaking.

The Lost Leaders of Viagra

Years ago I remember reading what one historian felt was a contributing factor to the cause of WWII - the fact that so many could-be leaders of that period had been killed in WWI. It's an odd source of speculation, this, wondering what derailed the would-be leaders of a generation.

Perhaps historians of the future will blame Viagra for our lack of leadership. Historically, men have eventually seen the influence of their libido wane, enabling them to think about grander things than mating. Napoleon Hill claims that the really remarkable men did not begin to do remarkable things until they were past 40 and their libido had diminished to the point that it, no longer acting like an excited dog yelping every 3 minutes, actually allowed these same men to divert their drive into something productive. And perhaps this was the way of the world - young men engaged in exploits designed to impress a mate and old men engaged in tasks designed to make the world better for their grandchildren.

Which brings us to today. Thanks to advances in medical science, men no longer have to divert their attention from the yapping dogs of libido. In fact, they can agitate that dog on command. The result? While problems as pressing as those faced by any generation loom before us, we lack the leadership that could formulate and execute a coherent response.

Where are our leaders? Not killed in a past war but, rather, made AWOL because they've perpetuated the distractions of youth.

Of course, I could be wrong.

15 December 2006

Bring me Data on the Future

"History doesn't repeat itself but it rhymes."
- Mark Twain

Policy that makes perfect sense in the context of the past doesn't always make sense in the context of an ideal future.

People who frame policy decisions out of past events are largely defined by them.

If you want to see starkly different policies described, try this. Have one person or one group talk about the past and what has happened so far. (This could be a personal past, a past for their company or for their nation.) Once you see that they are firmly in that place, have them describe policy, strategy, tactical options. What you will hear will be variations on their past and will be as likely to describe desire to right wrongs as create an ideal.

If you want people to create fresh policy options, get them to tell you about the future. Have them describe an ideal that they could begin making real right now. Don't even let them engage in reminiscing. In that place, in that ideal future, have them describe who they are and what kind of thoughts and feelings they have. Then have them work backwards towards what policies, what choices, what strategies and tactics they've pursued to get there, starting from the present.

In the first instance, people drag the past into the future with them. In the second instance, they drag themselves into the future. In the first, they are busily mending past wrongs. In the second, they are creating future rights.

It's worth remembering that we have no data on the future - unless we chose to define it by our past. I recently made mention of changing the national dialogue. Part of that would be getting people to talk about possible futures and work backwards from that. Maybe it's time to start remembering the future.

Report on Senator Tim Johnson's Condition

CHULA VISTA (RD) — Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson is recovering from emergency brain surgery.

The family is optimistic about the positive signs of his physical recovery. There are lingering concerns though, that if this has diminished his cognitive functioning Johnson may begin voting with Senate Republicans.

14 December 2006

Progress Ignored

3,000 years ago, a potential to be good at math didn't matter much. 300 years ago, being good at dance might well be interesting at best. One of the ways that we've made progress is that we've given a wider variety of talents and potentials the opportunity to find a role, to pursue their passion. As we have a wider variety of career paths and increasing levels of specialization, the individual has a greater chance to develop his or her own personal potential. To me, this is perhaps one of the most overlooked and most important dimensions of progress.

Social Evolution and the Next Corporation

The evolution of technology interplays with the evolution of social structures. The cotton gin played a big role in the demise of slavery. Dee Hock, the original CEO of VISA and the man who probably did the most to change our everyday conception of money, tells how critical an information technology development project was to the success of the credit card. (As credit cards became more popular, it became impossible for banks to keep track of the gap between credit and purchases and to track payments from and to businesses and households. The old manual system literally cost the banks hundreds of millions, probably billions, in the 1970s, triggering an audacious IT project to meet demand.)

It has become cliché to mention it, but information technology continues to rapidly drive down the time and money it costs for communication, research, and discovery. Google now fields 100,000,000 queries a day (according to an article by George Gilder, cited at http://info-innovation.blogspot.com/2006/10/george-gilder-information-factories.html).

Ronald Coase won the Noble Prize in Economics for explaining the reason for the existence of corporations where an economist might expect to see markets instead. He explained that information costs were too high to support daily and monthly markets for work and that in its place people formed organizations that made for stable, predictable, easy to communicate roles. But what if information costs plummet? What does that suggest about the future of the corporation? Suddenly, as the cost of markets approaches zero, the value of the corporation potentially becomes less.

This suggests to me a variety of possibilities, two of which I'll mention here. One is that internal markets within corporations will increasingly substitute for employee contracts and formal roles. The other is that decision-making will disperse outwards from the center along with increased capability for information-processing and analysis. Both suggest to me that the corporation will go the way of the medieval church and Enlightenment-era monarchy: its power will be dispersed outwards from the center, as power and wealth will be dispersed from elites to the "commoners."

If your organization is not reconfiguring in order to exploit new information technology, it is likely subordinating possibility to inherited corporate structures. The management generation of the last few decades has increasingly emphasized innovation - but almost invariably in the domain of technology or process. The management generation of the next few decades will also emphasize innovation - but this will be directed at social constructs, at changing the concept and expectation of organizations.

The cotton gin was exciting, ending slavery more so. The revolution in information technology during the last couple of decades has been fascinating. Transforming the corporation and our very notion of institutions will be even more so.

13 December 2006

Britney Spears & the Reverse Pyramid Scheme

1,000,000 websites providing commentary.
1,000 websites reporting news.
100 reporters and photographers documenting news.
1 Britney Spears frantically trying to do enough weird and remarkable things to provide work for this odd and unwieldy media pyramid.

Bill Gates, George Bush & The Predictability of the Unpredictable

I don't think that it's a coincidence that the world's richest man is a software programmer.

Software programming reveals the predictability of the unpredictable. Even smart people who write code very quickly find themselves dealing with unexpected, unpredictable results. These are called bugs. Bugs can be trivial, causing text to overlap in places it shouldn't. Bugs can be catastrophic, locking up the system or causing a program to crash. Bugs are inevitable because lines of code interact in ways that our brains are simply too small to predict.

Microsoft has had a history of failures, but those failures are rarely the final story. It's not hard to think that Gates approached the business setbacks like debugging software - problems that were not to be taken personally but needed to be understood and solved. What context did the business fail to take into account? What unexpected interaction with customer needs or competitor actions or technology ecosystem rendered the old plans obsolete? What new plan would be appropriate? Gates seems to have taken the lessons of debugging to heart, applying them even in the formulation and execution of business policy. The approach has seemed to work.

By contrast, George has been meeting this week with ... Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to formulate a plan for Iraq, a session almost guaranteed to be an exercise in defending earlier decisions rather than discarding them as failed. His administration's earlier announcement about unveiling a plan in December has been pushed back to January. Already George has indicated that he's resistant to the solutions offered by the Baker - Hamilton report. His refusal to listen to that commission or anyone else on the topic of talking with Iran and Syria suggests that military action is inevitable, action that will suck him deeper down the rabbit hole.

It's not obvious that George has written a line of code in his life. As George has encountered problems with his Iraq policy, he's failed to get the message that his thinking, his policy, has bugs in it. Instead, he's blamed the computer (the global community), the operating system (the political dynamics of the Middle East), and the user (the Iraqi's). Never once has it occurred to him to take those as givens and adapt his policy to those realities. Never once has it occurred to him that many of the bugs have resulted from unpredictable (or even ignored in advance) interactions between pieces of his own policy. For George, programming (or policy) bugs are personal.

Bill Gates has become the richest man in history. George Bush has become the worst American president in history. The difference could be as simple as their different levels of willingness to acknowledge bugs and go about the difficult business of debugging policy and thinking in order to better understand reality before taking further steps to change that reality.

If there is one bit of certainty in the midst of all this uncertainty it must be this: we can't change reality until we change ourselves and we cannot continue to change reality unless we're willing to continue to change. And this is perhaps the defining failure that has made the rest of George's failures inevitable.

12 December 2006

Changing the National Conversation

My buddy Bill often talks about the need for a new conversation in this country, one that transcends the irrelevant banter that substitutes for political discourse in the popular media. It seems to me that the hope for such a conversation lies in this: we begin asking questions that matter instead of offering answers that don't.

Value of a MBA? Negative $100 billion a year

It's worth noting that George W. is the first American president with a MBA. I'm a business consultant privy to the inner workings of many great companies. I'm not particularly convinced that the way George handled Iraq is all that different from the way that senior management in corporate America handles affairs.

He delegated hugely important issues like the reconstruction of Iraq after the invasion, basically showing little or no interest in helping to solve these incredibly difficult problems. He created a "can-do" culture in which dissent, questioning, and pointing out that a particular plan was unlikely to work were all discouraged. He talked in broad strokes about vision of the future regarding a reality he knew about only through PowerPoint presentations that had been heavily filtered. He focused on a series of intermediate deadlines (e.g., capturing Baghdad, approving a constitution) with little consideration for how achieving those intermediate goals might complicate his longer term goals. His approach to managing Iraq shares many of the traits seen in managers throughout corporate America.

The Iraqi debacle is not just a warning for policy makers in DC. It ought to be a warning for every senior executive seeped in the current style of management.

11 December 2006

The Paradox of Organizations

Organizations will always be problematic. Organizations have to institutionalize a particular approach. This can be seen in rituals, process, and a particular solution set. Yet organizations have to be flexible, open to change, willing to abandon what no longer works as they strive to survive.

Create predictable processes and worldview? Or be open to re-arranging around unpredictable learning? Without the first, there really is no contiguous organization. Without the latter, the organization is eventually made obsolete by a changing environment, by changing people.

Predicting Education

Think about the real challenge of education. You have five year olds entering the system. It’ll probably be 2026 before their careers begin and 2066 before they retire. If you go backwards in time as far, you’d be in 1986 and 1946. If we agree that the pace of change over the next sixty years will be twice as rapid as the last sixty years, it would be more appropriate to go back to 1966 and 1886. Whether or not you make it explicit, education is aimed towards preparing those precious little five year-olds for this largely unknown future. It seems to me that we would do well to think more about what that suggests about changes to the system of education rather than focus so much on competition within it.

I’m curious. What would you say most needs to change in education? My personal vote would be for education that includes fluency in systems thinking – raising the expectation that high school graduates would be able to model interdependencies through at least a couple of different methods, understand variation inherent in systems and how to work with that, understand tipping points, etc. Sustaining economic advantage during accelerating globalization, protecting the environment in a time of rapid economic growth, adopting policies that mitigate rather than exacerbate terrorism – all of these and other issues are inherently systems issues that will require a popularization of systems thinking to be dealt with by democracies. I would argue that fluency in systems thinking will be as important to sustaining effective democracies in our century as literacy was to creating them. What’s your prediction about the future?

10 December 2006

Three Cheers for John Bolton's Exit

One of the biggest illusions any individual can have is that he can just focus on building a good life while ignoring the community he’s a part of.

If the community deteriorates, it'll provide crime that threatens life instead of vaccines that save it, theft that takes goods instead of prosperity that provides them. It is hard to stay happy in the midst of those chronically sad and hard to stay sad in the midst of those who are chronically happy; even our emotional life depends on the state of those around us.

This ought to impact what an individual does. It should also impact what a country does. There are a variety of reasons to formulate policy that deals with the whole world rather than just our country. One of the biggest reasons is that globalization has made it official - we are one humanity with one shared planet and our fate is bound up. Even the simple and ubiquitous yellow number two pencil depends on trade between three continents. We can’t create a good life on a world gone mad.

Patriotism that pretends that the rest of the world doesn't matter, that we don't need to kowtow to international organizations like the UN, that we can fight childhood obesity without caring about starving children abroad - this is not just immoral. It is, ultimately, dangerous. No matter how strong the individual, his safety is a function of whether or not he lives in a safe neighborhood.

For this reason alone, Americans ought to cheer the fact that John Bolton lost his position as US Ambassador to the UN. He embodied the disrespect for international institutions and foreign people that seems to have characterized what is most repugnant about this Bush administration. His leaving offers hope that the US may again join the world community as a participant rather than dictator.

08 December 2006

Happy Tangencies and Recovering From Iraq

Look at A on the left. At a low resolution, it looks like one fuzzy line. At a higher resolution, it looks like two lines that mostly overlap.

Now, look at B. In B, you can see that the two lines that sort of overlapped in fact were just tangents to one another. If you trace the line long enough, it eventually diverges from the circle for a simple enough reason: the line is straight and it can only overlap with the circle for a certain period of time.

I'd argue that all philosophies start as happy tangencies - a line that seems to overlap with the circle, a philosophy that seems to overlap with reality. But eventually such philosophies show their true nature - products of minds much smaller than the world they're trying to explain, philosophies, hypotheses, and beliefs are all eventually shown to be limited and eventually diverge from reality. This shows up in a variety of circumstances. For instance, the problems at WalMart are in part due to their institutionalizing the solution to a past situation - one that is becoming less relevant.
Reactionaries are worse. They don't just cling to a particular world view. They try to recreate the conditions that seemed to make that worldview correct - stop the world and take it back to the point at which the tangent was happily coincident.
Ultimately, this has to do with a sense of awareness about how much we can actually know the extent to which we need to be open to changes. William James put it this way:
“But the faith that truth exists, and that our minds can find it, may be held in two ways. We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.” [Louis Menand, Pragmatism: A Reader (New York: Vintage, 1997) 77.]
Some have asked whether there is any hope for Iraq. There is, in the meta-sense. If George would only understand that personal conviction has little to do with actual knowledge and were to express that ... If he were to express a mea culpa that included his denunciation of certitude in the face of complexity, arrogance as an approach, of failing to test the null hypothesis ... That could be one way that this debacle could actually translate into something positive for this country.

07 December 2006

Secretary of Happiness

I have decided upon my criteria for the 2008 election: vote for the candidate who takes seriously our declaration of independence and, if elected, creates a new cabinet position: the secretary of happiness.

Since about 1950, income has more than doubled in this country and yet levels of happiness have not budged. This is not a strictly American issue; it is true of Europe and Canada as well. Oddly, no politician seem the least interested in this critical issue that, one might argue, is the only one that makes progress on any other issue meaningful.

The secretary of happiness (The official pursuer of happiness?) would be tasked with the most marvelously interesting responsibility - seeking to increase the level of happiness of the nation's population. Probably one of the first policies would be to institute classes on happiness as a fundamental part of education. [Note the psychology of happiness link to the right of this blog as a great example of what that might look like at the university level.] There is a great deal that we know about happiness but too much of it is stuffed into esoteric journals read by crowds of only five or six. It is difficult to think of a more important measure of welfare than the level of happiness, yet our society doesn't even make an attempt to measure it they way we do daily fluctuations in the stock market or quarterly movement of GDP.

We could have a healthy debate about whether the secretary of happiness ought to be a comedian like Robin Williams or a psychologist who has dedicated his life to studying happiness like Martin Seligman or Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. But surely, no one could debate the need for such a position, could they?

So, that is my criteria for judging a presidential candidate. Any candidate who wants my vote will have to take happiness seriously as a national goal. It has been 230 years since Jefferson and his peers dared to found a country on the notion that every individual has the right to pursue happiness. There is no need to delay any more in taking this seriously.

05 December 2006

Vouchers for Teachers

Advocates of vouchers define the education system as something that parents consume. In their minds, if parents were given vouchers that were equivalent to money and could "spend" these vouchers on the school they wanted their child to attend, schools would respond to demand for education like companies respond to market demand.

I'd argue that the parents are not the best decision-makers about how to shape schools: teachers are. In that light, perhaps we should set up a system in which teachers had the vouchers and could spend them as they wished. Imagine what it would be like.

Right now schools spend roughly $6,000 per student per year. Now, give that money to teachers. If they had, say, 20 students they'd get $120,000. But here's the catch. From that money, they'd have to lease or rent a building where they could teach, hire janitors for cleaning, hire administrators and assistants to help them, etc. Now, the entire administrative structure would be directed towards helping teachers to succeed. Rather than focus on pleasing the folks in Sacramento (or Little Rock or Albany), administrators would, of necessity, focus on helping teachers in the classroom. If the teacher(s) did not see any value in the school psychologist, teaching materials, or school principal, those entities would get no money. The ones that did help would receive money - perhaps even more than they do now.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I'm married to a teacher. The neighborhood she teaches in is lower income and she regularly brings home stories of her frustration with nonresponsive administrators or supposed helpers with teaching, cleaning, etc. It would be a very different matter if all these resources that were supposedly directed towards helping children learn were dependent on her for their funding. The level of responsiveness would have to go up.

One of the many advantages to this kind of system would be that you'd have the equivalent of about 6 million businesses (there are more than 6 million teachers in the US) all innovating and creating demand for high-value added resources and materials. What this would do to the level of innovation could be amazing.

02 December 2006

Tailoring Self to Fit a Job

Far too many jobs are the information age equivalent of flipping burgers. “Two minutes on side one, 90 seconds on side two – slide onto the bun to serve.” “Look at the data from these stores and determine if there are anomalies or trends that are worth analyzing.” (And the unspoken command is to analyze even if nothing significant has occurred, because one doesn’t want to appear less than busy.) There is nothing particularly engaging about this work, nor is it sustainable as a means for making a living. If a job can be reduced to a set of instructions, those instructions can be fed to a worker in any country – even one where costs are so much dramatically lower that an employee needing enough income for housing, services and goods in a country like France or the United States could never hope to compete with what is considered a good salary in places like India or the Ukraine.

Jobs ought to be process oriented, but not in ways that can be replicated by robots. In his study of happiness, Csikszentmihalyi has found some common patterns to what most engages the individual. The task that most engages us is one that represents a balance between challenge and skill, when both the skill called on and the challenge faced are above average for us. One’s sense of time becomes distorted in such activities, typically seeming to accelerate. And, a paradox emerges from Csikszentmihalyi’s study of flow. The more one loses himself in task, that is, the less self-conscious one is during its execution, the more able is self at the task’s completion. The person who loses herself in the task is more likely to find herself in her work. Thus, the state of mind that Csikszentmihalyi calls flow is not just psychologically rewarding – it is a means for development and growth. The strict adherence to process required in too many jobs precludes the attainment of flow and, by extension, development of the self.

As with carrot and stick, forcing process on the individual shifts the locus of control to the institution. Control not only over what is done but also how the individual develops. This is a kind of control over one’s life that certainly mocks the notion of freedom.

In his book, Good Business, Csikszentmihalyi quotes Robert Shapiro, former CEO of Monsanto. He makes a critical point about how individuals are fit into organizations.

“The notion of job implies that there’s been some supreme architect who designed this system so that a lot of parts fit together and produce whatever the desired input is. No one in a job can see the whole. When we ask you to join us, we are saying, ‘Do you have the skills and the willingness to shape yourself in this way so that you will fit into this big machine? Because somebody did this job before you, somebody who was different from you. Someone will do it after you. Those parts of you that aren’t relevant to that job, please just forget about. Those shortcomings that you have that really don’t enable you to fill this job, please at least try to fake, so that we can all have the impression that you’re doing this job.’”

“It’s a Procrustean concept, and it studiously and systematically avoids using the most valuable part of you, the part of you that makes you different from other people, that makes you uniquely you. If we want to be a great institution, that’s where we ought to be looking. We ought to be saying, “What can you bring to this that’s going to help?” Not, ‘Here’s the job, just do it.’”

What does Shapiro mean by “a Procrustean concept?” Procrustes was a figure in Greek mythology who forced travelers to fit into his bed by stretching their bodies when they were too short or cutting off their legs when they were too long. It is probably true that the vast majority of employees are both stretched to the limits of their capacity in some aspects of their job and literally cut off from real and crucial parts of their self in others. In either case, fitting into a job in such a way does little to realize their own potential or, by extension, the potential of the organization.

In fact, such programming of one’s actions is antithetical to what any society would hope to see emerge: genius. “One admires genius because one has the imagination to see that there is no mechanism in him or his work, nothing that can be analyzed and rationalized, ” Barzun writes.

Maslow's Needs, Bad Societies, and the Modern Corporation

The difference between a bad and good society seems to me rather simple. In a bad society, human needs are subordinated to the dominant institution - whether it is church, state, bank, or corporation. In a good society, institutions are subordinated to human needs.

In a bad society, the very real needs of a human to inquire about reality are shut down by a church with a monopoly on truth. Scientists like Bruno are killed - Galileo shut up by the church. In a bad society, the individual is not allowed an opinion that contradicts the head of state - whether that is Louis XIV or Lenin. In a society gone bad, the 9 year-old loses his childhood to factory work, as the demands of capital are allowed to trump the rights of children.

Today's corporations are wonderful. They create more wealth, products, and services for more people than any social invention in history. And yet the role of the individual within the corporation is a role that subordinates basic needs - even the need to contribute.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs still seems a useful way to articulate human needs. Physiological and safety needs are basic. Beyond that are the needs for a sense of belonging and esteem. Finally, the need for self-actualization.

The good news is that our social constructs to date have brought us to the point that most of us in the developed nations have our physiological and safety needs met. Many of us even have the need for belonging met by our inclusion in a corporation and occasionally we have even our esteem needs met.

But given how unique is each one of us, self-actualization is elusive. One might scoff at this as an important need, but one dimension of progress is the capability to meet successively more advanced needs. I would argue that self-actualization is ultimately a creative act that requires that the individual create his or her own context. This context will be in the form of a social construct - a role that works for the individual. Rarely will such a role be assigned or found and more often will it have to be created.

Yet in today's model of the corporation, the individual's need for self-actualization is simply not a consideration. Oddly, management is largely uninterested in its most important resource actually realizing its potential. And by potential I don't mean some strictly subjective and personal definition (although it would certainly include such an element) but potential to contribute, to create value as measured by markets. Rather, the model of the corporation assumes that the entrepreneur or his / her proxies (in the form of senior managers) will define the roles within the organization and the individual will fulfill them.

Social Inventions and Progress

It is time that we gave more praise to entrepreneurs. Not just those that create businesses and the resultant jobs and products but those that invent a variety of social institutions - from Martin Luther's protestant churches to Jefferson's form of democracy and the Rothchilds international bank and bond market.

One way to overcome a limit is through invention. If you want to overcome the limit of gravity, you invent an airplane. If you want to overcome the limit of capital, you invent stock markets, central banks, and fiat money.

Progress occurs when communities break through limits. They typically do this through new social inventions.

So what limits progress today in the G-7 countries? I'd argue that we're no longer limited by capital. Trillions of dollars of capital is sloshing around the world in search of higher returns - alternately driving up prices of stocks, real estate, art, bonds, and other investments. We're not limited by knowledge workers - especially as the confluence of new graduates from China and India and global technology are making it possible to assign tasks to low-costs mechanical engineers, x-ray technicians, and software programmers.

I would argue that the limit to progress is no longer land, capital, or knowledge work (labor). It is, instead, entrepreneurship.

The central question, it seems to me, is how we trigger a series of social inventions that address modern problems. How do we popularize entrepreneurship, devolving power from corporate elites to the common employee, encouraging more applied creativity? How do we create credible institutions that are able to address the problems that defy today’s institutions – problems like global warming, immigration, and intellectual property? How do we get more people thinking like entrepreneurs, questioning how we create relevant institutions instead of questioning how to succeed within them?

The big problems won’t be solved, nor possibilities exploited, by people focused on succeeding within the current social institutions. Rather, as they have been at every major inflection point in history, they will be solved by people who create new social institutions – social entrepreneurs. Progress in the West has not followed from the best efforts of those who struggled to rise up through the Catholic Church or gain the favor of monarch. Rather, it followed from people who struggled to create new ways of worship and new forms of government – dispersing the power once held by elites.

Cost of the War in Iraq

Here's a make-you-think web site. It tracks the on-going cost of the Iraqi war, numbers scrolling like the cost at a gas pump:


Be sure to play with the comparisons to your local community. For instance, the portion of costs they allocate to San Diego County (about $3.6 billion and counting) could have been used to hire about 63,000 teachers.

01 December 2006

If Not a Civil War, What Should We Name It?

Re: Iraq

If we don't call it a civil war, what should we call it? How about "the situation which must not be named."

Imagine How Grateful We'd Be to Have Been Invaded

The blame game in DC has a new target - those thankless Iraqis. The new story is that we did so much for them and the way that they thank us to plant roadside bombs in the path of our troops and finally devolve into savage butchery against each other. Our invasion and occupation is now their fault.

It's worth reviewing in simple English just what happened and assess whether Iraqi reaction is actually so very incomprehensible.

What Happened
Around World War One, the British decided that three regions of the former Ottoman Empire would make a tidy little nation-state and drew a border around Kurds, Shia, and Sunnis. It took a dictator's iron rule to make this pretense real. Once liberated, these groups moved towards independence from one another

Imagine if...
About a century ago, someone had decided that Mexico, the US, and Canada should all be one country. And a dictator had made it stick. Once liberated, various militias were intent on moving back towards three (okay, Quebec, four) separate countries.

What Happened
We dropped bombs on the Iraqis and called it liberation. It is worth remembering that the "shock and awe" campaign resulted in more explosive power than we dropped in WW 2. Even Bush admitted that the invasion killed about 30,000 Iraqis. The Red Cross and other international aid agencies have estimated that the death toll was closer to 150,000.

Imagine if...
Saudi Arabia "liberated" us from our hated president. (The hated president could be George or Bill or Jimmy or Ronald or Dick - any president that some credible portion of the population hated at some point.) To do this they lobbed bombs on our major cities and killed (by their own admission) about 300,000 civilians (an equivalent portion of our population). This is the equivalent of 100 9-11 events. International aid agencies estimated that the real death toll from the Saudi's occupation was closer to 1.5 million civilians.

What Happened
We stripped away the power that Sunnis had under Saddam. They lost their places in government and in the military. Unemployment sky rocketed and is now at 50% or more. These Sunnis who were abruptly laid off from careers in the military were still armed. Further, we kicked in doors to find insurgents, occasionally killing and often harassing innocent civilians in the process. Our military vehicles drove down the middle of their streets and would "light up" civilian cars with gunfire when the drivers did not understand the need to stay back. We began a military occupation of Iraq while touting the benefits of freedom. Worse, the troops tasked with this impossible mission did not speak the language.

Imagine if...
All the Republicans were laid off from the defense industry or military or that all the Democrats were laid off from teaching or government jobs. Arabs with guns knocked in the doors of our homes and forced us to the shoulder of our highways every time they passed by. They interrogated us in a foreign language. Most everyone knew someone who had been unjustly detained, tortured, or even killed. Your two nephews and one niece were killed when Saudi troops bombed their neighborhood in retaliation for "insurgent" activities.

What Happened
We came into Iraq excited about making them like us - passing along a constitution, institutions, and laws that we've evolved over centuries in our, very different context.

Imagine if...
Arabic experts came into our country to establish law based on the Koran as the basis for our laws. Explaining that our laws and culture were primitive because they are not based on teachings from the one God, they changed our constitution to look more like theirs.

Really - who is to blame in this?