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    2012 Rewind: On Gates and Gatekeepers

    Note: I am winding down the last, waning days of 2012 by re-running a few posts from this year that either I liked, were (reasonably) popular, or just didn't get a fair shake the first time around.  If that is not your sort of thing, then come back on January 2, 2013 when fresh and tasty content resumes. Thanks for reading in 2012!

    This piece, On Gates and Gatekeepers ran in May as part of what seems like the annual blogging exercise of finding interesting college commencement speeches to write about. Of course I complied, and this was both my favorite post on the subject as it talked about the wonderful commencement address given by author and artist Neil Gaiman.


    On Gates and Gatekeepers

    A week or so back I had a post titled, 'The Skilled Trades Need a Famous Commencement Address Too', in which I whined for 500 words or so about the prevalence of actors, politicians, ridiculously successful internet gazillionaires, and the other non-relatable types that seem to deliver just about all of the annual college commencement addresses, or at least the ones we hear about. My point was more or less that in a tough economic climate, and with an enduring and worsening need for talented people to enter fields such as the skilled trades, teaching, and other not-as-glamorous-as-acting-or-being-a-social-media-consultant, that the consistent set of messages stemming from the annual round of typical commencement speeches, ('Just go out there and be fantastic', 'You can save the world', 'Borrow $20k from your parents and start a business'), were all just getting tiresome.  If the nation truly needs more machinists or nurses or accountants, then could we at least start acknowledging that more openly and with more conviction?

    So as I said, I don't really give two shakes about 99% of the latest round of commencement addresses. But once in a great while there is a talk worth talking about, and worth sharing, even if it does bear some similarity to the hacky, same-old same-old advice that gets recycled each spring.  The speech I wanted to call out was given on May 17th at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia by the author Neil Gaiman, famous mostly for The Sandman, a series of comics written between 1988 and 1996.

    In the speech, (text here, embedded video below, email and RSS subscribers will need to click through), Gaiman, speaking to a graduating class from an art school, offers advice and wisdom gained over his career as a working, and certainly, highly successful creative. While the entire speech is interesting, I wanted to call out two passages that speak more broadly to issues about career planning and management, and to the pace of change impacting not just the creative industries, but almost all organizations these days.

    On career planning and management:

    When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.

    This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not.

    Value in the real world - In your organization, the people making the rules, setting the boundaries, (maybe that's you?), are inherently limited by their tendency to fail to envision a world outside those boundaries. Having a job setting rules, well it seems that is a path to a long career setting rules and enforcing boundaries. Maybe you are ok with that, maybe not. 

    On organizational and business model change:

    I've talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing, in bookselling, in all those areas, and nobody knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds.

    Which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we're supposed to's of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.

    Value in the real world - In the arts, and probably your business too, the landscape two, five, ten years out is entirely unpredictable, and it is likely what works today will not work tomorrow. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. 

     Don't allow yourself to use that as an excuse to over-analyze or hesitate. The winning organizations are not waiting to 'see how things play out', by that time, it's likely that you'll be too late to adapt once the new landscape is revealed. Better to set off on the course you think will be successful than wait for some kind of signpost from beyond.

    Anyway, that's it for me on commencement speeches, at least until next Spring. 

    The video of the full speech is below, and I think definitely worth your time over lunch, or at night when you have a spare 20 minutes or so.

    Have a Great Weekend!


    2012 Rewind: The Plain Writing Act

    Note: I am winding down the last, waning days of 2012 by re-running a few posts from this year that either I liked, were (reasonably) popular, or just didn't get a fair shake the first time around.  If that is not your sort of thing, then come back on January 2, 2013 when fresh and tasty content resumes. Thanks for reading in 2012!

    This post, 'The Plain Writing Act', ran in April.  Looking back on it, the Sonny & Cher picture is probably the highlight, but I liked the piece anyway.


    The Plain Writing Act

    This piece from the Washington Post online caught my attention over the weekend - 'Advocates of the Plain Writing Act prod Federal Agencies to Keep it Simple', a review and summary of the 2010 'Plain Writing Act', a law that requires United States Federal agencies to "train agency employees in "plain writing" (defined as writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and intended audience."

    Yes it is a Sonny & Cher pic. It came up when I searched for 'Plain Language' pics.

    The Act proscribes some specific steps for agencies to demonstrate compliance to the new 'Plain Writing' requirements - official agency communications must now use the active voice, avoid double negatives and use personal pronouns. “Addressees” must now become, simply, “you.” Clunky and made-up words and expressions like “incentivizing” (first known usage 1970) are discouraged. The use of internal jargon and acronyms should be limited, etc.

    The Act also mandates that Fedeal agencies "designate one or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency's implementation of this Act", essentially naming a kind of 'Chief of Plain Writing' within each agency. According to the Post piece, at least some of these appointees are running into some difficulty converting agency communications to meet the 'Plain Writing' guidelines:

    “Part of this is we have a change in culture,” said Ed Burbol, the Defense Department’s plain-language coordinator, who oversees two full-time staff members assigned to promoting clearer communication. “We’re going to encounter resistance.”

    It might seem kind of odd, or in a cynical 'look at the government, they have no clue as usual' way that an internal Federal agency culture would be at odds with an idea like Plain Writing, which is a concept and a goal that is kind of hard to argue against. But if you think a little bit deeper, and perhaps a little more honestly about organizations that you have worked in, functions you have been responsible for, or even in the current role you possess - can you honestly say you haven't been a little guilty of the same kinds of communication problems or failures that the Plain Writing Act is at least attempting to address?

    I know I'd raise my hand to admit that - in fact I am not totally sure this blog post would meet the new criteria. I set out for about 200 words on a simple subject, and on and on it goes. If you have made it this far, congratulations!

    And now I ask you close your browser, find a piece of copy on your website, or some HR form instructions, or the 'All Hands' email you are working on and see if it could use some editing, some simplifying, or some 'Plain Writing'.

    Have a fantastic Thursda!


    2012 Rewind: On Culture, Strategy, and Talent

    Note: I am winding down the last, waning days of 2012 by re-running a few posts from this year that either I liked, were (reasonably) popular, or just didn't get a fair shake the first time around.  If that is not your sort of thing, then come back on January 2, 2013 when fresh and tasty content resumes. Thanks for reading in 2012!

    First up, a post from February on Culture, Strategy, Talent and Rock, Paper, and Scissors.


    If Culture Eats Strategy, then what Eats Culture?

    I still play Rock-Paper-Scissors.

    For a simple game, it is incredibly nuanced and complex. Like all good games, there is no sure way to win, and no sure way to lose. Some day I hope to hone my skills to the point where I can compete for big bucks on the R-P-S circuit.

    Why mention Rock-Paper-Scissors? Choose wisely

    It came to mind from thinking about two things - one, another run around the park for the popular 'Culture Eats Strategy' meme, (ok, it is not really a meme, I just couldn't think of a better word. Sorry.). This line of thought posits that without the 'right' or 'good' or 'well managed' company culture, that it does not really matter much what the business strategies are, that decreased or lacking employee engagement levels caused by that poor culture will effectively short-circuit and lead to failure even the best, most intelligent strategies. It makes plenty of sense, is fairly hard to argue against, and tends to play to the part of us that simply likes to believe if we create great places to work, great experiences, and happy/engaged/satisfied employees that everything else might just fall into place.

    But like the Rock-Paper-Scissors game, that is non-linear, and where any choice you make can potentially be trumped by another choice, is it possible that while Culture may eat Strategy, that there might be something out there that might eat Culture?

    How about Talent?

    A few days ago mega fast food franchise company Yum! Brands, (think, Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell), announced its latest quarterly earnings, and one of the highlights was the company's strong growth and performance in China, with an expansion of locations and same-store sales up 21% on the quarter. On the quarterly earnings call, Yum! CEO David Novak was asked about the company's successes in the often difficult to crack Chinese market, and his explanation of the reasons behind this excellent performance curiously did not attribute it at least primarily to some kind of superior business strategy, or wonderful organizational culture. No, he talked about Talent. From the transcript of the earnings call:

    I think our whole formula for success in China has been geared on great local management team with phenomenal local operating capability. And we've always had one rule, we never want to expand any further than or faster than our people capability.

    But we're like the Procter and Gambles, the king of marketing talent in the United States. We see ourselves as the leader in operating talent in China. The second big thing on people capability is just our development operations. Our development team -- we have 700 people in our development team. And we have the best retail management base in China. This is a huge competitive advantage as we go forward. 

    Let that sink in a minute. People capability. The leader in operating talent. The main reason Yum! is winning in China.

    Later in the discussion Novak does talk about the importance of flagship locations, and arriving first to local markets, both clearly business strategy type decisions, but the overall emphasis and the main reason for success and ongoing competitive advantage is finding, developing, and pipelining great local managerial talent.

    Talent. Not culture, not strategy, not some innovative marketing or social media outreach.

    It is a very interesting take, and I'd recommend reading the full transcript of the earnings call, (come on, you have time, lay off Facebook for ten minutes).

    What do you think - if culture eats strategy, could it be that talent eats them both?


    Christmas Past - Can you tell all the Mad Men were men?

    Keeping up a little tradition on the blog here and sharing some vintage Christmas and holiday ads of days gone by - this time sharing a few examples that remind us how far we've come (let's hope).

    Nothing says you care like the gift of a household appliance:

    For the lady that needs to drop a not-so-subtle hint or two about what she'd like for Christmas: (that toaster looks sweet!)

    How did the menfolk figure out what to get for the wonderful women in their lives? Over some holiday whiskey of course! Nod nod, wink, wink - 'Well Carruthers, you sure have that Mrs. of yours in line!'

    And finally, once the gifts are exchanged and it's time to sit down to that fantastic Christmas family dinner men often had to worry that the cook would somehow botch up the meal. But at least she can't ruin the beer!  

    Am I right gentlemen?  Am I right?!?

    Ah yes, the good old days....

    I hope you have a wonderful Christmas - full of fun, familycleaning, and trying not to drive each other crazy!


    Scrooging on Christmas Eve

    Happy Holidays all!

    Are you reading this at the office today?  Sucker!

    Since working around the holidays can be kind of a drag, it totally is understood if having to work puts you in a bit of a crabby mood. I mean everyone else is home, on the way to Grandma's house, sleeping in (and waking up with some Egg Nog or Bloody Marys), while you are stuck in a two-thirds empty office.  The mental math that attempts to answer the question, 'When do I think I can leave and not get in trouble' started about 8:25.  

    Note: The answer to this question is 2:30PM.  It seems a little late I know, but if you want to be sure to not get hassled, stick it out until then. Besides it is a pretty slow day anyway - can you really call reading this post working?

    But I do feel for the folks that have been left holding down the fort so to speak.

    Take heart though, it could be much, much worse. You could be one of the retail front-line workers and managers that routinely are asked required to give up more and more of their holiday time to be at work. Or you could be manning the grill at the local Mickey D's and be facing the prospect of dishing up some fries and McRibs on Christmas day.

    So it isn't all that bad, really.

    If you are working today, or even if you are not, one thing we can all try to do a little better at as we make the last of our rounds at the mall, grocery, or local package goods shop is to have some patience, understanding, and thanks for the  good folks that really are out there working today and tonight.

    Think of it this way - you are a crabby, miserable Scrooge since you have to sit in your office (until 2:30), pretending to work. They have to stand behind a counter or cash register and deal with the likes of you all day.

    Happy Christmas Eve!

    Now try and do something productive.