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    The Wisdom of Crowds?

    Although not a Broadway fan, (I think the last Broadway show I actually saw was 'Showboat', you know the 'Ol Man River one), I am a big comics fan, and such have been casually following the saga of the 'Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark' show, a Broadway musical adaptation of Marvel Comics most famous hero.

    You may have heard something about this show, even if you are not a Broadway fan - the backstory is quite interesting. It's filled with mega-stars from U2 (Bono and The Edge), writing the music, a series of mishaps and injuries to several actors during preview performances, middling to scathing reviews from audiences and critics, and finally a major re-architecting of the show and the replacement of the show's original director Julie Taymor.

    Ms. Taymor's ouster as the director and leader of the production not only says as much about her creative vision, (or lack thereof I suppose), as it does about the role and influence that audiences have over the creative process and results of that process, and how these audience voices are amplified in the social media age.

    Last week Ms. Taymor offered a couple of very interesting observations about the show and her dismissal, and I think these insights might also have more broad implications for leaders and creatives of all stripes. 

    First - on the immediate feedback loop of social media:

    "It's a new time," she said. "Twitter and Facebook and blogging just trump you. It's incredibly difficult to be under a shot-glass and a microscope like that. When you’re trying to break new ground, the immediate answers that audiences give are never going to be good.”

    Second - on succumbing to the pressure of social feedback:

    "There's always something people don't like. It’s very scary if people are going more towards that, to have audiences tell you how to make a show. Shakespeare would have been appalled."

    Getting past the notion that Ms. Taymor sort of compared a musical about a comic book hero to Shakespeare, I think she does make some important points, or at least raises some good questions. It has never been easier for fans, customers, citizens, employees, candidates - any engaged group of people to gather and wield significant influence over organizations, institutions, and leaders. We have seen this play out time and time again in the corporate world, particularly in the areas of branding and logo re-design.

    But, as Ms. Taymor suggests, is that always a good thing? As a leader, or anyone that is involved in creation of products, services, processes, art, literature, whatever - when is staying true to your vision and version of the truth and what you believe in more important than bending to the will of the crowd? Sure, Taymor's 'Spider-Man' may have been a bad show, but is it at all possible that the more accessible, simpler version that now exists is artistically at least, inferior to her creation and vision?

    Shakespeare probably did not run 'Romeo and Juliet' by a focus group and he certainly did not monitor the buzz on Twitter.

    The question today is do we always have to listen to all the shouting online?

    Or can we believe in our creativity, decision making, and direction despite some heat on the backchannel?


    Why You're Wrong about LeBron James

    Subtitled : I am not sure I completely believe what I am about to argue in the post either, but someone had to take an opposite position.


    The facts of the case are these:

    1. Last summer two-time league MVP, consensus best player in the NBA, and one of the best all-around players in league history LeBron James, a free agent no longer under contract with his team of seven seasons the Cleveland Cavaliers, elected to sign a contract to play for the Miami Heat. The 'decision' by James to join the Heat was panned not so much for the actual business and competition factors, but rather for the manner in which it was announced - a one-hour TV special on ESPN, that in combination with the backlash against James from the jilted Cleveland community, ended up backfiring on James, portraying him as an out-of-touch, arrogant, self-important and egocentric person.  

    2. James, (and his new teammates Heat stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), compounded the PR disaster spawned by 'The Decision', with an over-the-top, flashy, introduction event in Miami, where James and the others (in uniform), pranced around a smoke-filled stage and opined about winning not just one NBA title, but 'six, seven, eight... ' titles. I am paraphrasing a bit, but you get the idea.

    3. The Heat concluded an up and down season, (it was painful at times to watch these three star players attempt to co-exist on the court, when each was accustomed to being 'the man'), with a 58-24 record, good for first place in the NBA's Southeast Division, and the third-best overall record in the league.

    4. Entering the NBA playoffs the Heat then defeated in succession the Atlanta Hawks; their nemesis, the Boston Celtics; and the league's top regular season team the Chicago Bulls. Each series was decided 4 games to 1, making the Heat an impressive 12-3 in the first three playoff rounds.

    5. In the NBA finals, the Heat were defeated by the Dallas Mavericks, a veteran team playing at the top of their form, 4 games to 2. James was harshly criticized for poor play in the series, particularly in the 4th quarters of Games 4, 5, and 6 (all Dallas victories). James lack of production in these situations served in stark contrast to Dallas leader Dirk Nowitzki, who consistently made big plays and shots to lead Dallas to the title.

    6. Immediately following the Game 6 loss, James further damaged his already shaky reputation by implying that people hoping he and the Heat would lose would 'got to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before.' While James would also have to wake up and continue his life, strongly implying that his life, with his millions of dollars, mansions, private jets etc. was somehow superior to yours, mine, and pretty much everyone else's.

    These are the basic facts of the case, my apologies for going on so long about them prior to mounting my apologist defense for King James.

    If you are like my friends and fellow bloggers Kris Dunn at the HR Capitalist, or John Hollon at TLNT.com, you have taken LeBron to task for arrogance, lack of humility, inability to win or lose gracefully, and over-confidence. While Kris and John and the hundreds of other writers that have participated in the LeBron dogpile have their points, I'll offer three (hope I can come up with three), reasons why they and you are wrong (or at least a little hypocritical) about LeBron.

    1. History 

    LeBron is most often compared, unfavorably, to Michael Jordan, the greatest player in NBA history. Jordan won six titles with the Bulls, the first one in his seventh season in the league. This was on a team with another all-time Top 50 player in Scottie Pippen and the greatest coach of all time, Phil Jackson. LeBron just completed his 8th season in the league falling just two games short of winning his first title. And since he started his NBA career at a younger age, LeBron is only 26, while Jordan was 28 when he claimed his first title.

    Sure, maybe we take shots at LeBron because he compares unfavorably to Jordan, but lets not forget Jordan was a a transcendent, once in 50 years or so player. Everyone compares unfavorably to Jordan. No matter what line of business you are in, be in basketball, software development, or running a company, chances are you won't hold up well either when compared to the legends of your field. 

    2. We like to selectively remember

    LeBron left Cleveland, and several million dollars in salary on the table, to play for Miami in a situation that he (rightly) assessed as providing a better opportunity to win the title. In sports, fans usually take to task players that are perceived as being only in it for the money. Now LeBron likely earns so much from off the court endeavors that the few million he walked away from in Cleveland did not play into his decision rationale all that much, but it still sets him apart from probably 90% of professional athletes whose primary objective is to wrest every last dollar from their team. LeBron gets bashed for taking proactive steps in his career management to attempt to improve his chances to win and we kill him.

    Remember that Cleveland team that LeBron single-handedly dragged to the finals in 2007? That was the worst team I have ever seen that actually made the finals. LeBron was not going to win in Cleveland. But he played out his contract, did not whine to the press and try to force his way out via a trade, and exercised his right to choose the team that best fit his goals and career aspirations. The same process any of us would do. And that over the top 'Decision' TV show? We usually fail to mention that show raised over $2M for the Boys and Girls Clubs, one of James' favorite charities. Finally our friend Michael Jordan, who we like to compare LeBron with since we know LeBron can't measure up, let's also not forget how he quit his team to pursue an irrational dream of playing major league baseball, only to come back a year later.

    3. You're only angry because LeBron didn't win

    Much of the heat LeBron is getting is not so much because he and the rest of the Heat bragged, strutted, and pranced around before they had won anything, but because in fact they did not win. We give lots of slack to arrogant winners, not so much to arrogant losers. We look back with reverence about the famous Larry Bird three point contest story, where Bird famously derided his competition prior to the event by telling them they 'were all playing for second place', and then proceeded to win the contest. We can either take shots at arrogance or take shots at talking too much and not backing it up, but it seems a bit hypocritical to have it both ways. In business and in sports, we want our leaders to be confident, to project strength and resolve, we need to have someone to follow into the competition.  Do you really want a person leading your team or your company that doesn't predict victory? If all LeBron ever said was 'We will take one game at a time' and 'We have to continue to work hard', the media would kill him for being a drone or a cliche-spewing dullard..

    4. (Hey, I actually thought of another reason) - There are bad guys everywhere.

    LeBron is an easy target, in fact he has placed the target right on his back. But the fact that the target is there doesn't mean we need to take shots at it. But professional sports is full of guys of questionable character, that have had run-ins with the law, and a demonstrated history of bad behavior. In fact some of those kinds of guys play for the Dallas team that everyone adopted as some kind of rag-tag, Hoosiers-like plucky band of underdogs, (who were led by Dirk Nowitzki and his $17.2M salary). If you don't believe me, just Google 'Jason Kidd domestic violence' or 'Deshawn Stephenson arrested'. Sure blast LeBron for being arrogant or out-of-touch, but let's not give guys who have done much, much worse things a pass while we are at it.

    Well there it is, my 1400-word defense of LBJ. While I am sure I have not convinced most of you, especially the Cleveland fans, I hope that I made you pause just a bit to think about LeBron in a wider context. Let me have it in the comments...

    Have a great weekend!


    Foursquare for Kids, or Technology Means Never Having To Let Go

    I was a little late to the Foursquare hype, but in the interests of wanting to stay up to speed on the latest developments in technology and social networking I did, eventually create an account. I wrote a little about that experiment here. I still do use Foursquare pretty regularly, although my long reigns as Mayor of both the local Bruegger's Bagel Bakery and my son's elementary school have yet to pay off in the form of free bagels or a hearty 'Welcome Mr. Mayor!' from the principal on days I pick up Patrick from school. 

    Certainly like all other social applications, the real value is in the interaction and insight you can gain from friends' Foursquare activity, but since my Foursquare friends are scattered all over the country the knowledge that Sam Higgins is eating breakfast in Austin, TX has not really paid off for me all that much. But still I persist, somehow comforted that if I ever go missing, someone could look at my Foursquare check-in log and attempt to track me down.

    Like many parents the idea of your kids growing up, becoming more independent, moving about the world much more freely can also engender those same feelings of worry and concern - 'What if little Timmy does not come home one day?' or even the more benign but common lament - 'Where the heck is that kid, he was supposed to be home an hour ago?'

    Most parents elect to try and mitigate these concerns by giving their kids cellphones. In fact, in most areas of the country you'd be hard pressed to find many 12 or 13 year-olds that didn't have some kind of mobile device. The story plays out mostly the same way everywhere. Kid starts begging for a mobile phone at about age 11 or 12, kid assures the parents that the phone will let them stay in touch at all times, and that they will always and immediately answer calls and texts from the parents, and voila - everyone is happy and content in the understanding that mutual assurance or location and safety is just a text or phone call away.

    But after a short time for many kids and parents reality sets in, and increasingly persistent calls and texts from parents get slower and slower responses, kids' excuses that start with 'I forgot my phone at school' or 'The battery died' get more frequent, and many families end up sort of where they started - maturing and adventurous kids out making their way in the world, with nervous parents at home to wait and worry. Sort of the way life has played out for, well, pretty much forever.

    Enter a new application (currently in private beta) called 'I'mOK'. I'mOK is a location-based check-in service (think Foursquare), for iPhone that helps parents monitor the whereabouts and activities of their children. Every time a child checks in with the app to let the parents know where and who they are with, they are rewarded with points that can be exchanged for parent-supplied perks such as TV time or allowance money. Check out the video below for an overview of the service (email and RSS readers may have to click through)

    ImOK Intro Video - Knowing without the nagging from I'mOK on Vimeo.


    The service's tag line is 'Knowing without the nagging' and while I suppose the idea is sound in behavioral modification theory, (kid checks in a lot, earns points and rewards for checking in, parents feel good about knowing the kids are safe and thus are happy to provide more rewards), I wonder if application and the others like it that are bound to come, are pushing some of the less appealing aspects of the social web further down the demographic chain.  I feel a little silly letting my 10 or so Foursquare friends know I am at the gas station, but I know that no one is really watching or monitoring my movements (at least I don't think so).

    But with a 'family' location-based tracking application, the ideas of constant connection, of small insignificant activities gaining more value in the form of rewards, and the feeling of never really having true and complete privacy and anonymity, even for a short time, seem to be a pretty high price to pay for peace of mind. 

    Back in the day my parents (and I am sure many of yours), sent us out in the world to hang out with our friends, to play sports, to ride bikes - whatever. They had no practical way to monitor our movements. But even if they had such a way, I am not completely convinced they would have wanted that ability. Not because they did not care about our safety, but rather because they knew that we needed to learn how to navigate the world for ourselves, and that they couldn't or shouldn't always be at the ready, a phone call or a text message away from us.

    What do you think - would you set up a 'family' based location network to keep track of your kids?


    Summer Hours and Fear

    By now you have likely heard something about the latest 'fired for something you Tweeted' tale, this one from the Philadelphia area where Social media specialist Vanessa Williams was fired from the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. after using its Twitter account last weekend to tweet the following:

    You can argue about the relative offensiveness of the tweet and whether or not the agency overreacted in its rapid termination of Williams following the Tweet, but it seems to me beyond doubt that this Tweet only became noteworthy, and the publicity surrounding the affair massively augmented by the decision to fire Williams, rather than simply issue a clarification, retraction, apology - whatever, and move on.

    While I have no access or insight to private communications between members of the Lehigh Valley community and the agency following the 'Summer Hours' tweet, and thus don't know if the tweet truly resulted in a flood of outrage and angry calls and shouts about 'wasting the taxpayers money', I can see from the LVEDC's timeline that the public Twitter 'backlash' to the tweet was pretty tepid. In the moments after the tweet was sent, it appears only one other Twitter user, @KBlumenau, directly engaged with the LVEDC account on Twitter, and even his comments were not outrageous or all the angry. LVEDC, for it's part, offered a few responses about how 'no one is leaving early' and 'how the finance department was making deals'. Kudos LVEDC, I am sure we were all in fear that a couple of slack hours on a Friday afternoon in June would destroy the Lehigh Valley economy.

    Certainly after the news broke the the LVEDC had fired Williams, and the news of the firing began to spread on the web, a flurry of tweets, most all of them expressing disappointment and disagreement with the firing decision for what most observers took as at worst an honest mistake. Williams herself has hired a lawyer, and wants to have her 'name cleared'.

    We talk quite a bit in the blogging/tweeting/social communities about transparency and openness. And how organizations that come to more fully embrace the new modes of engagement and communication that social platforms provide will be the ones that can innovate more rapidly, attract (and retain) more dynamic talent, and be able to respond to customers in a meaningful and proactive manner. And of course many of us try to convince our organizations or advise other organizations that this kind of openness is really the way forward, and gives us the best chance for success and plays a role in crafting the kind of organization we'd be proud to work for.

    But in order to do that, obviously, organizations need to trust that their newly empowered people will do the right thing, will act honestly and responsibly, especially when acting and participating in public forums on behalf of the company. Trust is essential. And the LVEDC had already taken that step, by placing their trust in Williams to Tweet on the official agency account and as part of her job duties. The LVEDC trusted Williams to do the right thing.

    The problem was after the mildly inappropriate 'Summer Hours' tweet (again, very arguable), the LVEDC didn't trust that their community would not over react and become enraged at the most slight perception there was something amiss at the agency. The reason Willliams was fired, and the ongoing interest in the story is completely centered around the LVEDC's lack of faith in the community, businesses, and people they serve. The LVEDC assumed the worst of them, that they could not understand a simple comment about summer hours and golf on a Friday in June would bring the whole house crashing down.

    If you don't trust your employees, then social media probably is not for you.

    If you don't trust anyone, well, you have bigger problems than social media.


    Let's Pass on That, (The Hamster Wheel)

    Really late to the story on this, (about nine months late to be more precise), but I recently found and read an incredible piece by Dean Starkman for the Columbia Journalism Review site titled 'The Hamster Wheel'.

    In the article, Starkman compares the changes in journalistic approaches, and the increasing demands on journalists to create tons of consumable content for a myriad of platforms, (TV, radio, Web, Social Networks, blogs, live blogs,and on and on), to the proverbial caged hamster running on an exercise wheel. Lots of activity, lots of energy being expended, but no real progress, and of course the hamster ends up in exactly the same place when exhaustion sets in as it was before the running started, and theoretically it still had some options.

    In the context of the news business, Starkman describes the Hamster Wheel psyche like this:

    The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics. But it’s more than just mindless volume. It’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an underappreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: How much time versus how much impact? This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!). Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?

    It is perhaps difficult to find another industry than news and information services that has been disrupted more massively in the last 15 years or so by the rapid development of the web, the birth of so-called 'citizen journalism', and the perfect storm of cheap data plans, incredibly powerful smartphones and other mobile devices, and hundred of millions of social network platform users ready and eager to report and comment on the news - all in real-time. In the CJR piece, Starkman paints a vivid picture of increasing activity with possibly dubious benefit, and that underscores more endemic tensions in workplaces today - we are all asked to do more, or at least the same, with far less people and resources.

    The article contains an example of the Hamster Wheel in action using the illustrative chart on the right - over the last ten or so years, story production in the printed Wall Street Journal has increased substantially, with corresponding reductions in headcount leading Starkman to conclude the average WSJ reporter is now 69% more productive that in 2000. 

    In the race for web traffic, more views of a networks' or news organizations' YouTube videos, 'likes' on Facebook, or Twitter followers; Starkman makes the argument that the traditional values and importance of deeply reported and in-depth investigative pieces (the ones that can't really be tweeted), are suffering. And not only are news organizations steering away from the investment of time and resources to produce these pieces, the long-term financial benefits of the current 'Hamster Wheel' strategy are dubious at best. Some estimated claim the popular and 'Web 3.0' model of journalism The Huffington Post only creates about one dollar of revenue per reader per year.

    Is that a large, more applicable to the workplace take on all of this?  In other words, why did I just spend 45 minutes and 600 or so words writing about a nine-month old article on the news business?

    Well here goes - I think many of us of running on our own personal or organizational Hamster Wheels. We too have to be everywhere. We have to connect and communicate with colleagues and staff on many more platforms than ever before. We have to engage potential job candidates all over the social web, and create compelling engagement strategies for the conversation, (that will work on all kinds of mobile devices including ones that have not been invented yet). We have to stay on top of news, information, coming and goings in our industry in a 24/7 global context.

    In short, we kind of have convinced ourselves, just like the execs at many of the news organizations that Starkman discusses in the CJR piece, that we can't take a breath, miss a tweet, an update, follow the hashtag from a conference we could not get to, or let someone else beat us to the punch.  It is a hard way to live without any kinds of filters to know what is truly important and meaningful and what isn't.

    I'll leave you with a final nugget of insight from the the piece:

    The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.

    They might be the most underused words in your business too.