Monthly Archives: November 2010

Paris, Vienna, Thanksgiving, Stereotypes

RecoveringFed (with her mom) is currently in Paris and Vienna for Thanksgiving Plus. Here’s an excerpt from my travelogue to friends. (Disclosure: I am not in the pay of any commercial brand mentioned below.)

All in Europe is progressing smoothly even if it is the coldest late fall experienced for many a year. My mother and I limit our city walks to the bright, sunshine hours of the day, which means in these northern climes that we’re out and about for almost 45 minutes. Our stay in Paris began with a really nice Thanksgiving dinner prepared Parisian style. The restaurant served the well-known Mayflower salad featuring corn and that other ingredient familiar to Indians and Pilgrims alike–avocado. But the turkey, all kidding aside, was among the best I’d ever had and the stuffing tasted like Stouffer’s. When in Paris for Thanksgiving there’s only one wine to have–Beaujolais Nouveau.

The French have banned smoking in restaurants and everyone seems to be adjusting nicely. We were a little taken aback, however, when during dinner the entire table of six next to us seemingly disappeared at once, their half-eaten Mayflower salads still moist upon their plates. It really seemed they had been sucked up by aliens. But then one of our dining companions noticed that the purses of the women were still there; we peeked out the front door and sure enough there were the six, grouped for warmth, smoking their intra-prandial cigarettes.

Another custom we observed at this restaurant for the first time was the waiter sprints. About halfway through our dinner, the waitress/host dashed out of the restaurant, easily reaching top speed as she burst through the front door. I was concerned, thinking maybe she was hoofing after someone who had skipped l’addition and also worried because she was only wearing a sleeveless (and essentially backless) bright red dress. (Although I guess if you are an attractive young woman and you’re going to be sprinting through the dark winter streets of Paris, red sleeveless, backless dress would be one of your better options.) But again our wiser dining companions reassured us that sprinting and dashing waiters are common sights in small Parisian restaurants. “You see it all the time. It usually means they’ve run out of bread and five minutes later they return with half-a-dozen baguettes tucked under their armpits.” This gave me a completely new appreciation for warm French baguettes. Our waitress returned with nothing, however, thus successfully retaining her air of mystery the entire evening.

Our hotel, Castille on Rue Cambon, is right next to the Chanel House in Paris. They had the cutest Chanel rag dolls as part of their Christmas window decorations.

One day, as I was tweeting on the hotel computer, I noticed that on the French computer one does not have to shift to use the exclamation point. I think that says something about the French.

On the Saturday we traveled to Normandie to visit the famous invasion beaches. I really recommend that but in retrospect I would pick a day other than the one following a recent snowfall.

And so now we’re in Vienna. A very merry Christmas town. We visited the Hofburg Palace this afternoon. If you’ve been, you walk through room after room of the Imperial Cutlery and Dinner Service. My mother caused quite a stir as, after each even more ostentatious display of wealth, she snorted violently and said, “I can’t believe this. With all the poor people in the world, the emperor spent all his money on dishes!!” I think she’s got a good point there. Less convincing was her observation that instead of displaying these plates, it would be best to send them all to Haiti. But as I anticipated, she was fascinated by the section of the museum devoted to the life of Empress Elizabeth.

The contrast between the French and the German/Austrians remains acute, despite Europe’s integration. When you’re in Paris and you come across something untidy, you think of it as charming and bohemian. If you run across the same thing in Austria, you think, oops, their standards are slipping.

Or maybe it’s our stereotypes that never change.

The Angry Birds Guide to Organizational Change

This is such a cheap, exploitative blog post that, really, I’m just ashamed of myself. But at least I can say it’s authentic. Like  several other million people on the planet recently, I’ve been playing Angry Birds. I’ve completed all the levels, but haven’t gone back to get the 3 stars. And as I whiled away, oh I don’t know, maybe ten hours on the game, about half of them on plane flights, I got to thinking, there’s something about these crazy birds attacking the Pig Castles that’s like a metaphor for organizational change, more precisely for the quixotic charge of the rebel trying to bring down the status quo. And if you know me at all, I’ve yet to meet a metaphor I didn’t fall madly, if only temporarily, in love with.

So maybe there are some people out there that haven’t played Angry Birds yet. Or, like I ten days ago, had only heard of the mania but hadn’t actually seen the game. So let me explain it briefly. These green pigs steal the eggs of some local birds. The pigs construct these Rube Goldberg-inspired castles to protect the eggs and assorted other  treasures they pick up along the way. The now Angry Birds, which have unique offensive characteristics, launch themselves against the castles like Avian Kamikaze. Your task is to direct the birds in an optimum way against the pig castles until you bring them down. Here’s a nice little cinematic trailer that summarizes the setup.

So what have I learned about organizational change from directing my birds against the Château de Cochon (sounds cooler in French, methinks.)

1. It’s all about the angle of attack. Not all the birds are equally powerful, some drop bombs, some mirv into multiple birdheads, others speed up and penetrate the targets like torpedoes. But it’s rare for a bird, until the end when the Red Giants emerge, to be able to take down the Pig Castles or even do much damage unless you precisely aim it at a critical junction or weak point. We organizational heretics, we would-be topplers of the status quo really spend too much time on frontal assaults, getting beat up because we’re not willing to analyze the best place, time and way to make our arguments.

2. It’s all about trail and error. I know there are some gifted Angry Bird players who never waste a shot, but for most of us the sweetness of the game play is in the learning slowly, often painfully incrementally, the best way to get to the pigs. Here’s a part of the metaphor that doesn’t apply that well to organizational change. The rebels and organizational heretics certainly don’t get that many chances to reshape an organization. But we do usually get at least a couple. Observe what goes down very carefully. Learn from it. Share lessons within your rebel alliance. And then, like the birds, take a couple of aspirin, dust yourself off, and try again. BUT IN A DIFFERENT SPOT.

3. Stop banging your heads against Brick Walls.

4. Show some patience and let some of your moves play out over time. Angry Bird kamikaze attacks against Pig Castles often play out slowly. Sometimes when you don’t think you’ve landed a particularly powerful blow, the superstructure nevertheless begins to sway just enough to bring down the entire Château.

5. Resistance can be found in unexpected nooks and crannies. At the higher levels of Angry Birds, there can be upwards of a dozen pigs in the castle. Naturally, we concentrate on bringing down the obvious Pig Leaders, but even when we’ve used up all our bird attacks, a small seemingly insignificant pig lurks in the tall grass to defeat us.

6. It’s all about the sequencing. The larger Château de Cochon can require about ten Angry Bird attacks and many of your early launches appear to do very little damage to the superstructure. But your final assaults won’t succeed without those early attacks. All organizational heretics need to think hard about where to begin their campaign against the status quo. And organize it like a campaign!!! I think one of the things that kills change initiatives is that the status quo defenders have much better tactics and strategies than the change advocates.

And Finally…

7. Sometimes you just have to chip away.

Anyway, that’s what playing Angry Birds taught me about organizational change. Any others?

Do We Have to Choose between Transparency and Real Authority?

A friend sent me this email in response to my last blog post. He has agreed to let me post his thoughtful reply on my blog:

I enjoyed your recent blog post “Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween“.

I wanted to push back on your first scary idea (actually listed as number five) about making your ideas public.   The story you used involved a man who doesn’t even own a computer and his inability to comprehend why someone would want to share their ideas.

My question to you is who is more out of touch?  Him or you? How powerful was this man?  How much authority does he wield?  If refusing to share broadly is such a disability in today’s networked world, why do so few people who have power and authority actively engage in the conversation?  Could it be because they have real power and authority?

I may be reading more into your scary idea than you intended as you only speak about the complexities of the challenges we face.  However, your statement exudes the air of someone who feels all but certain their view is right when all of the evidence around us suggests that traditional power comes through quiet networking amongst a select group of individuals of roughly equal stature.   Even powerhouses who participate broadly in today’s global conversation make their deals in private meetings, not in public.   The real decision over who will partner with whom to accomplish something remains opaque until well after the deal is sealed.

I do believe we are on the fault line of two tectonic plates colliding (opacity and transparency) and that, at least at the moment, transparency is putting up a good fight.   If history is any guide, the opacity plate has tremendous resistance to movement and often lurches back in earthquake-like convulsions.   I think the lack of trust of large organizations today is interlinked with this idea.  Large organizations are always complex jumbles of partially formed deals, challenges, and new ideas.  Organizations have to lie to anyone outside their walls to protect those ideas (intellectual property, legal issues, pre-decisional material, etc) as well as their very existence and thus there is real schizophrenia in their actions.  When confronted with one of these falsehoods they rationalize their actions by saying “we weren’t at liberty to divulge that information at the time” or “that was proprietary information” or “it would be improper to talk about the deal before it is finalized” or “it was classified”.  To those outside though each episode is another withdrawal from the trust bank account.   Yet, the folks in charge of these organizations wield tremendous power and can, for the most part, weather these storms because the entire apparatus around them is designed to protect them and keep itself going.   They have tremendous capital.  They have tremendous legal authority.  They have tremendous ability to legislate, investigate, shape, pressure, buyout, and influence.

In your recent speech you described two possible models for the “motor” that runs the world and then proceeded to categorize people by which motor they believe is the true driver of world events.  This duality, IMHO, misses nuance and complexity.  For instance, a third model, can be some weird hybrid in which the benefits of large high-mass organizations as described above sustain opacity and give those who run them very real advantages even if they aren’t consciously and intentionally undertaking “secret agreements and machinations” but rather just trying to advance and protect their organization. That same size and complexity creates vulnerabilities and blind spots to the organic and unpredictable nature of the world in which they reside.  Historically, the benefits of the large organization have outweighed the disadvantages.  The question in my mind is whether that equation is changing.

As a complex planet with complex problems will we always need these large complex organizations from Exxon to the USG to Salvation Army to manage the globe’s complexity?   If the answer is yes, then I believe it is likely the primary centers of power will almost certainly continue to reside with folks who do not broadly share their views and ideas  in a global conversation because the organizations around them will demand they remain silent for a whole host of reasons and because to succeed in those organizations requires cunning and bureaucratic savvy that is the antitheses of a dynamic dialog.   When transparency gets too close to unraveling these centers of power, they use their heft to put things back in the bottle.  As one example, a researcher used publicly available information to show all of the infrastructure that was below Manhattan only to have the “system” react by classifying the report and having it removed from the web. When RIM provides security that is too good, India demands a back door, as does the US, as does Saudi Arabia, and countless others.   Products quietly are discontinued.  Tools quietly disappear.  Information quietly disappears from Google.  Capabilities are hobbled.   The examples are too numerous to count.

If the answer is no, large organizations are not required (maybe not even healthy) for the planet to effectively deal with the complexity of the challenges we face as a global community and a global society, what does that transition look like?