I Least Expect It!

tickle me quynh by Flickr user deadplace
"tickle me quynh" by Flickr user deadplace

One of my children used to love to be tickled, surprised, pounced upon, – still does. Back in the toddler days, it would be a repeated request. “Tickle me! Get me!” Eventually, the tickling and surprising doesn’t work and Daddy gets tired. “I’ll surprise you when you least expect it,” I would promise.

The reply would come back: “I least expect it! I least expect it!”

I know that behavior so well. I do it all the time. Often, there’s some hoped-for outcome I have pinned my whole emotional state upon. Maybe it’s a work thing, maybe it’s my personal life. Maybe it’s money. I know deep down, from bitter experience, that the only way many such things come to fruition is for me to let go entirely of the outcome. Don’t try so hard, loosen up. But it’s impossible to will yourself into that state.

So I push myself to let go. I fool myself: Yes, now I really have given up on the outcome, so surely this thing must happen.


It’s only after time has passed that the hoped for state of equanimity comes around. Eventually, I notice with a start that I actually don’t care about the outcome. And just thinking about my big plan doesn’t set into motion a new round of pining. It just stays neutral.

When that state comes around, the state of perfect readiness, I have found that things really start to take off. The things I used to want so badly but couldn’t have begin to come true. New things I had not dreamed about come into my life.

It only happens when I truly, really, least expect it.

And that just can’t be forced.

Management Lesson From The Boy Scouts: What Looks Simple From The Inside May Be Complex From The Outside

Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.
Sea Of Cars. Our shift over for the day.

For the past few days I have been helping in a small way on a large crowd control effort. My son’s Boy Scout troop parks cars at the local county fair every summer. The boys plan and execute it each year. This is a huge undertaking, as tens of thousands attend the fair. It’s one of the largest in the area. The temperatures out on the fairgrounds can easily reach 95 and above.

The task involves getting cars into the fairgrounds, up to the people who take payment for parking, and then onto the parking lot and directed to the right space. It is a constantly fluid situation and the leader in charge (one of the older boys) has to make decisions about where to direct manpower, how best to fill in parking rows, and how to handle unforeseen situations.

Everyone in the whole troop, boys and adults, pitches in. I was just one of many.

The adults’ roles are few. We drive a golf cart around to the boys at various stations, making sure they have water. We jump in where necessary to help if there are backups (this is amusingly called being a part of a “Fast Action Response Team”). And we flag the cars at the main gate as they enter the fairgrounds, and then at a key turn from the parking payment area into the actual parking lots. These are seen as “unsafe” for the boys because we are actually in (or almost in) traffic.

The Challenges Of Crowds

I mostly worked the main gate, flagging cars in from the road into the fairgrounds. People came in from two directions, and I had to get them to line up into the leftmost two lanes in a three lane road (we kept the right lane free for emergency vehicles).

There were some fundamental issues that made this difficult:

  • Not only are there a lot of people, but each one has his or her own goal: They want to get into the fair and don’t want to wait.
  • While we did our best to make it easy, people were disoriented: They were being asked to follow signs, flags, and hand-waves  in ways they are not used to.
  • Each carload of people is being asked to relinquish control: We tell them where to park; they don’t get to pick their spot.
  • There are many possibilities for special circumstances that can disrupt flow: There were more kinds of unique situations that came up than anyone could have prepared for, as everyone is different.

I came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the role of tradition and institutional knowledge. This troop has been doing this for decades, and there is a vast amount of lore that is passed on from generation to generation. Many of the things that did not make initial sense to me but that were done “because we have always done them this way” turned out to be exactly right.

The Difficulty Of Simplicity

I also came away from this experience with a deep appreciation for the difficulty of simplicity. We tried our hardest to make it dead simple for people. In fact, I think it was about as simple as it could possibly be. Enter, follow the flags, park your car.

For many drivers, this was a challenge. Some weren’t paying attention, others wanted to maximize their personal convenience and find the “best” spot, some did not realize it would cost money to pay to park, some had kids yelling in the car about visiting the midway, some were not used to seeing young boys waving flags and telling them where to go, some just were confused.

Many drivers did things that disrupted flow. Some stopped, or tried to park on their own, or just went into the wrong lane. Some wanted special consideration, and not unreasonably so. As workers, it was frustrating because it seemed simple — because we knew the system. Follow it, and all will be well.

But, to the drivers, it was all new. And we were asking them to give up control. “Trust us, follow our lead, we’ll get you parked.” This turned out to be terribly difficult for many people. (As it would be for anyone, I imagine.)

Management Lesson From The Scouts

If you look at the four bullets above that made this overall task difficult, you can see that they can apply to lots of different situations, even ones where there are not crushing volumes of people. Web sites, meetings, publications, strategic plans, organizational change efforts — lots of things.

And the main wrinkle here is this: Even things that look simple, from the inside, may still be quite complex when viewed from the outside. And in the doing, there are always unforeseen special circumstances.

I am going to try to keep this in mind the next time I design a training session, write a report, or develop some new system. No matter how simple I think it is, it can probably be simpler. But then, when I have made it as simple as possible, it may not be that easy. And I will always try to have a way to handle special circumstances.

I am very thankful for this small lesson, taught me by an incredibly dedicated and helpful Boy Scout troop.

Are You Playing Restaurant?

Playing Restaurant
Playing Restaurant

When I was about eleven, I learned how to make my favorite cheese sandwich: white bread, mayonnaise, American cheese. Yes, I grew up in the midwest. Shortly after I learned this special skill, I developed a fun game to pass the time: I would play “restaurant.”

More precisely, I would play short order cook. I would pretend I was a cook at a diner, with lots of orders coming in. Only thing was, everyone ordered the one thing I could make — an American cheese sandwich. So I would make sandwich after sandwich, as fast as I could, pretending I was a cook deep in the weeds during a big rush.

I got to thinking about this the other day as I reflected on my own career arc, current strategy, and future plans. I wondered, “Am I playing ‘restaurant?'”

Treading Water

A lot of my friends are solopreneurs — lone people plying their trade on a project-by-project basis. I have been working independently since 2003, and proudly so. But sometimes, I see other friends who are happily ensconced in organizations, managing, meeting, memo-ing. Then I look at my own workstyle, in which I write from about 6:30 am until 10:30 am, have a stretch of less productive time, and then come back hard from about 2:00 pm on. Sometimes I go deep into the night.

The things that rarely occupy this time are the things that routinely occupy my office-working friends’ lives. I have few meetings, the phone rarely rings (almost everything is email, txt, Twitter, and IM). There is zero office politics. The way things are right now, I can get a ton of stuff done. It leaves room for lots of possibilities.

But, sometimes, I worry. Should I be doing more? Am I just going through the motions of “working?” Am I treading water? Am I pretending?

I think these kinds of questions are ones that other solopreneurs also face. Twitter has given many of us a window into some water cooler cultures that we are not part of. I see lots of my friends “going into meetings,” or “having conversation with the boss,” and “talking to HR.” If I don’t do these things, am I just, in the end, making a bunch of cheese sandwiches and pretending I am the real deal?

Having Direction

I think the key lies in whether I have a direction or not. What’s my path? Having few in-the-flesh coworkers means I can get a lot of strategizing done. It also means I can succumb to one of two temptations. I can not write down any of my plans, in which case they are just dreams. Or, I can spend so much time on my planning, developing fancy slide decks for no one but myself, that I can fool myslef into thinking I am already GE. There’s a happy medium to be struck.

But I need to have plans, a direction. And they need to be written down. Otherwise it’s just cheese sandwiches.

Sometimes this planning can raise self doubts about how far I have come, or not come, but that’s OK. As solopreneurs, we are still writing the rules and for now — we are where we are.

Maybe you can tell I’ve been thinking about my own direction these days. There are some exciting things in store. But I always need to remind myself to keep it real. Don’t pretend I’m bigger than I am.

Nor should I pretend I’m smaller than I am: Maybe, I will look down and notice that those aren’t cheese sandiwches I’m making, but whole meals. A sub. A steak. Mashed potatoes.

Maybe I’ve been feeding people all along.

How Can Government Work With Philanthropy?

In a recent discussion with a number of Michigan based foundation heads and staffers, respected Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Katz discussed the tough economic conditions and what government responses to it can look like. The notes from his conversation suggest that it was wide ranging. Katz, who runs the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, was recently working with administration officials in HUD helping them figure out new ways for the federal government to work on things like housing, transportation and improving cities’ economies.

The conversation turned to roles that organizations outside of Washington could play in forging a new way for government to relate to the public. Here’s the recap:

Katz says he sees five, nonpartisan roles that local/state/federal officials, citizens and foundations need to play to make the bureaucracy more responsive in time of great economic and social upheaval:

  1. There is a role for metros and states to implement well the policies and programs that have already been put in place by this administration, the Recovery Act being the major piece of that.
  2. There is a role for states to prepare for the next wave of programs and initiatives that are about to cascade down from Washington and they will look much different from those created in the 1970s and 1990s. There will be more focus on integrated problem solving and inter-jurisdictional collaboration along with a focus on catalyzing markets.
  3. There is a role to play for states like Michigan in identifying areas where the Obama administration is not focused with precision on issues that have regional applications. There needs to be both policy development and advocacy by Michigan and other state’s congressional delegation that focus on and utilize that which is unique due to their shared industrial heritage.
  4. There is a role for state and federal government officials, foundations and community leaders to think through how the national government can leverage and align with needed state reform efforts.
  5. There is a role for everyone to focus on the 2010 election cycle and its upcoming state and federal campaigns and how candidates will work to implement metro-focused solutions to 21st century problems.
Shunting by Flickr user John Spooner
"Shunting" by Flickr user John Spooner

I do believe that there are people throughout the government and policy world who are thinking hard about how to create a different kind of relationship between governmemnt and the public. And I am not criticizing any individual, least of all Bruce Katz who knows far more than me.

But these points illustrate just how hard it is for even innovative, respected thinkers to break out of their deep-seated perspectives. Policy people have a very strong sense of who is supposed to do what.

I added boldface to the above points to highlight the real actions that were being suggested: implement, prepare, identify, think, and focus. Step back from these and it adds up to a common mindset: “Step back and let us do our work. Give us input as and how we ask.”

The difficult thing — and I do recognize it is difficult — is to think about how people outside Washington can actually work with government in a different way, not just support the things that government does. This is the challenge of placing one’s own organization (or in this case, perspective) first.

This is a critical issue, as public life shifts from being institution-centric to citizen-centric.

What would it look like, for instance, if the federal government asked local people to do more than “implement well, prepare for new programs, and think?”

The center of gravity for policy development needs to shift. It’s based inside the Beltway. But experimentation and innovation happens in states and cities. And, in those states and cities, the innovation doesn’t come from thinkers but from doers.

How can the policy world, which values thinkers, really start to place doers in a more central place?

One answer is that this is the role of philanthropy — to fund promising innovations, let some fail, and foster what succeeds. But that still keeps all this innovation essentially on the sidelines, and relegates it to the role of “input.” What would a partnership look like, instead? And, what mechanisms would it take?

I honestly don’t know the answer. But I know that it’s something we have to tackle.

Journalist As Craftsman

Here’s an interesting story about the news and journalism. It has a few intertwining threads. It needs a bit of set up, too, so bear with me. Thank you to my friend Adam Pagnucco for doing the heavy lifting here.

Here’s how Adam puts a recent situation with DC’s Metro system in his indispensable Maryland Politics Watch:

On July 30, an anonymous Metro bus rider told an anonymous blog that he had witnessed a WMATA bus operator talking on a cell phone while driving. The rider stated:

I caught my bus driver using her cellphone while driving Tuesday. I was riding the 63 from Takoma as I do every morning now that commuting on the Red Line is a mess. When we got to the stop just outside of the Petworth Metro station, our driver got out of the bus and started talking on her cell phone. One minute goes by, 2 minutes, 3 minutes … and she’s still talking on her phone. Passengers start getting very angry. One, in particular, steps outside and yells at the driver to get moving. Yet another minute goes by before the driver bothers to get back on the bus. And she’s still talking on the phone. If I were smarter (and more awake), I would have caught this moment on video, but she sat down and pulled out into traffic with phone to ear, and drove several hundred feet before ending her call. I got a crappy picture with my cell phone. It was the best I could get from my vantage point. If you zoom in on the driver, you can see her holding up a phone to her ear with one hand and pulling out into traffic with the other.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post ran a story the next day that recounted the same basic (alleged) facts.

When confronted with the story, Metro’s chief executive, Jack Catoe, told the Post, “We will determine who this operator is . . . the action for speaking on your phone or texting on your phone is termination.”

But, according to Pagnucco:

Catoe spoke too soon. A source with knowledge of WMATA’s investigation related the following account:

“The actual story was that a number of passengers reported that the destination sign on the bus was not working and asked her where she was going.

“The operator stepped off the bus and examined the sign and determined that it was not working correctly. She then proceeded to the rear of the bus to “re-boot” the sign so that it would re-set. This did not correct the problem. When she went to board the bus again, she tripped on the steps of the bus and suffered minor injuries to her arm and leg.

“She attempted to contact central control via the phone system installed by Metro (a fixed radio-phone system installed on the bus). Central control did not respond. The operator then stepped off the bus to call central control with her cell phone. She was able to contact central and report both her injury and the need to schedule a “change-off” where a bus with a working sign could replace her bus en route.

“While still speaking to central control outside the bus, passengers became agitated about her not leaving the terminal on time and began “berating” her. According to the operator, she boarded the bus, sat in the driver’s seat and completed the call to central control before actually moving the vehicle.

“A witness on the bus corroborates her story. . . .”

What’s interesting here is not the he-said, she-said between the two blogs. What’s interesting, instead, is the relationship between the Washington Post and Maryland Politics Watch (the blog Adam writes for).

The Independent Journalist As Craftsman

Mario le Perfectionniste by Flickr user bluespot23
"Mario le Perfectionniste" by Flickr user bluespot23

At a recent conference with a number of journalists, I heard a number of complaints about “these bloggers” who have “no standards” when it comes to Journalism. “They can just write anything,” people complained, miffed.

But here we have a blog taking a print newspaper to task for what seems like a very reasonable — and fundamentally journalistic — transgression: not following up to dig deeper on a story.

(I’m not saying that Adam’s right, and it is important to note that his post was not focused on the Post. But he is still raising the issue.)

Yesterday’s post touched on the difference between Journalism and News. Journalism, the kind practiced by large newspapers, sees itself as the gold standard of news delivery. And there is a decent argument that it takes a large institution to continue to foster such standards.

However, there’s another model that could work, too: Journalist as craftsman. That’s what Adam is. He is one lone person, toiling away at his craft (on his off hours, mind you, this is not his “job”) for the love of it. And, by devoting himself to his craft, he can regularly outperform larger news institutions.

This is the competitive advantage that the craftsman has over the factory. Today’s tools make it possible for some Journalists to be craftsmen instead of laborers.

I’m not saying this is an overall business model — I’m saying it is a threat to large Journalism. It is possible that there are so many Journalist-craftsmen that people can get the Journalism they want and further erode the mass Journalism practiced at institutions such as newspapers. Maybe not yet . . . but it is possible.

The Case For Nonprofit Journalism?

Visiting from Twitter? Thanks so much! You might enjoy this post, too: Why Social Media Is Like The Telephone Circa 1915.

Newsroom by Flickr user victoriapeckham
"Newsroom" by Flickr user victoriapeckham

I was having a conversation with my good friend (and former boss) Rush Kidder just the other day, and the subject turned to journalism — specifically, the idea that as newspapers tank that foundations ought to step in and shore up journalism. Newspapers can become nonprofit entities.

This is an idea that has a number adherents among my journalism friends. I thought I would lay out what I think is probably the strongest argument in favor.

News vs. Journalism

“News” has always existed, since recorded history. People have always wanted to know what’s new.

“Journalism,” on the other hand — that is, a profession with a strong set of specific values to which everyone agrees — is a recent phenomenon, dating only to the late 19th century. This distinction between News and Journalism figures in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s important essay, What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

While the goal of News is to tell people what’s new, the goal of Journalism, according to Kovach and Rosenstiel, is to “provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

Until recently, you might say we were in a “golden age” of Journalism.

Also until very recently, you could argue that people were buying News, but were getting Journalism. But the business model that newspapers were using to deliver that Journalism (based on classified ads and display ads) had not yet broken. So everything was working. People bought News, and got Journalism, which looked close enough that they didn’t complain.

The Hole Only Journalism Can Fill

But now, that business model is broken. Free classifieds coupled with easy online availability has killed it. News has now migrated online and into various other distribution channels. And it’s been decoupled from Journalism as it has migrated. People find out what’s new in lots of different ways, without the help of Journalists.

For many things, this is perfectly adequate. I don’t need a Journalist to tell me who won the ball game, I can find out from my Twitter peeps or from a realtime score on a website.

But there’s still a hole that only Journalism can fill. One obvious one is investigative reporting. While in some instances individual bloggers have been able to break big and important stories, in most cases it takes a long time — and resources — to do a proper job of investigating. There’s also an important context-setting function Journalism can play, by being the long memory that helps make sense of what is happening.

And, most importantly, News sees its readers as customers, while Journalism sees its readers as citizens. I don’t mean individual people see it that way. I mean that News is in the business of giving people what they want — knowledge of what’s new. Journalism, on the other hand, wants to give people what they ought to know about (in addition to the news).

Is Journalism Commercially Viable?

A mutual friend of mine and Rush’s once said that the job of an editor is to know what people ought to know, and to make them want to know it.

Problem is, there is not yet a decent business model for creating and delivering Journalism.

That’s where philanthropy comes in. It is the duty of philanthropy to support that which is a public good but is not commercially viable or able to be self-sustaining.

While it is not clear that Journalism is commercially viable, it is clear that Journalism provides an important public good. Journalism is not the simple conveyance of News; it is something more.

It is also very iffy that Journalism could be commercially viable when it competes with News. (In other words, to the extent commercial models exist for News delivery, they aren’t as attractive for Journalism delivery.)

Supporting Journalism On Paper

News delivery is not necessarily the best use of the resources of a printing press. I get four newspapers delivered to my door every morning. By the time I pick them up, I know what they contain. However, paper delivery of Journalism may well be a good use of those same resources, as it provides permanence, long-form friendliness, and builds in a longer time horizon which can improve the quality of the Journalism.

Given this, why wouldn’t philanthropy see it as a good investment to keep some print newspapers afloat? Perhaps there would be a small handful of nationally-focused papers that are kept afloat in this way.

But you could also make an argument that some cities ought to have a Journalism resource of their own, too. Why couldn’t community foundations step in to fill that void? Certainly, you could make a strong argument that the state capitals ought to have such a source of Journalism.

Yes, But . . .

One last thing. I am not entirely sure I buy this line of argument, primarily because I am optimistic that today’s pain will drive new creative responses that we haven’t thought of yet. It’s happening more quickly in News delivery, but things like ProPublica give me hope on the Journalism side, too.  Soemhow, I feel like resorting to foundation funding for Journalism is throwing in the towel (maybe that’ll be a later essay).

However, there is a strong argument that it is the right thing.

Perhaps, in the end, there will be a much richer variety of News and Journalism outlets — some nonprofit, some for-profit, some volunteer.