We talk about community a lot. The word gets thrown around so much that it begins to lose its meaning. It begins to sound like just another empty word… like sustainability or vibrancy or placemaking or excellence.
Community is fundamental to human life on earth. We are not solitary creatures. We exist in context with those around us in a shared reality that we co-create in real time. We are able to shape this reality and accomplish great things only by working with others, by engaging, by being a part of the world together.
We are born into the world as individuals. We exist as part of a family. As we grow, we surround ourselves with others with whom we have some affinity of one kind or another. This may be interest-based, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a community of people who all hang out at the same place, or who all live in the same area, or who all play the same multiplayer game online, or who all work in the same industry. Communities don’t have to physically meet to exist, but the bonds formed by meeting in person tend to be much stronger.
What is important in our communities are the depths of interactions that we have with others, the levels of trust that we build, the ability that we have to teach and to learn from each other, and the support of all kinds that we provide for other members. Fundamentally, communities are groups in which members take care of each other.
Community is natural. It’s hard wired into us. But we’re losing it. In Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, he chronicles the decline of all forms of civic engagement in America since the early 1970’s. People are withdrawing into themselves and out of the public sphere, and have been for nearly 50 years. This trend has been significantly intensified by the social media addiction that has rapidly captured the attention of more than a billion of us in the last five years: we click “like” over and over again, and we receive a tiny endorphin rush, just like we’re having an actual human connection with another person, without any actual connection to anyone at all.
We have to get our faces out of the screens and engage with other humans, as deeply and as often as we can. That’s how we build community. And that’s how we will survive as a species. We are all, actually, in this shared reality together, and the only way to change it is to work together in community.
Originally published by National Arts Strategies here: https://www.artstrategies.org/2016/08/community-natural-losing/
The book is 268 pages long (or so) and packed with awesome photos from FIGMENT events from cities around the world. And, what's the book say? Well, here's what it says on the back of the book:
"If such a thing as the FIGMENT book existed (but there is no such thing) this might be it (but it isn’t). This is not the FIGMENT book; it is a FIGMENT book. This is a case for creativity, for sharing, for collaboration, for learning, for joy, for gratitude, and for love. It is a case against metrics and measurability. This is not a history of FIGMENT (although FIGMENT is celebrating 10 years of history in 2016). This is an invitation to imagine a place where everyone is invited to create and share and contribute and grow and build community—and then to create the world we imagine, and to live in it. This is a FIGMENT book."
Your name is probably in this book! (And if it isn't, it should be!)
Looking for an alternative to neoliberalism? Read this book. Have a hard time believing that the market can fix all of our problems? Read this book. British journalist Paul Mason gives a compelling history of capitalism's birth from feudalism and rise over the last few hundred years through four "long cycles" of development, and he sets the stage for what hopefully comes next, if we don't destroy ourselves first.
It's a bit of a tough book to read, not because it's written in a challenging way (Mason is a journalist, not an economist), but because it's brutally honest (and therefore pessimistic) about where we are, what our global condition is, and what the challenges are for capitalism in the years ahead (saving the environment, the aging population, the rise of population in the global south, and widespread human migration).
Mason's key thesis, and where the book begins, is that, as so many of the goods that we create and consume are now "abundant" not "scarce" (are digital, and can be copied for a marginal cost that approaches zero), that we are moving into a new economic reality, postcapitalism. Global conditions approaching the crisis point, with neoliberal capitalism unable to present a solution, is just the wake-up call that we need to look for something else, for what comes next.
I've been trying to read Thomas Piketty's landmark economics book Capital in the Twenty-First Century for a while now (and am still working on it!) but this book jumped in front of it in my queue, as it is far more digestible to a non-economist.
Something to note here: This is not about some dogmatic left versus right philosophical debate. This is about looking at the economic challenges the world faces, recognizing that the current neoliberal construction of capitalism has no solution for those challenges, and looking for another economic model that can help us work together to face the future. Mason doesn't have the whole answer, but he presents what he does have in the book's closing chapter. This book is about understanding where we are, the economic challenges we face as a civilization, and the promise that truly "abundant" goods presents for our future, and for what can come next for humanity.
And, interestingly, this is possibly the most pessimistic and optimistic book I know of... at the same time. The project of capitalism is in trouble, but if we look around, we can see the seeds of what comes next...
Welcome to the post-social media era! Now that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have implemented algorithms to drive what you see, and have become essentially advertising platforms, allowing brands to buy access to your eyeballs, the utility of these platforms for their users starts to go down, driving users gradually off these platforms (or at least to value them less, use them less frequently). Facebook isn't going away, at least not soon (enough), but its actual utility to its users is in decline.
So that's it. We broke social media. On to the next thing!
But what's the next thing? How do I get my logo and my irresistable offering in front of more eyeballs, if social media isn't the promised land? I need a replacement for the 30-second TV spot, which has been in decline since, well, since cable TV started 30 years ago.
There is no next thing, at least, not one thing. It's all fragmentation from here: continued fragmentation of media, and fragmentation of the audience.
"Conventional" marketing, at this point in history, is essentially over. The way you've learned about it, the way you think about it, the way you do it. It's basically obsolete. Not that it's pointless. Not that you can stop. You still have to do it. But it isn't going to drive growth. It's just going to keep you in the game.
In "conventional" marketing, we think about sales and marketing as driving customers (or clients or audience, depending on your industry) to a product, letting them know about it, understand it, and convincing them they want it and need it. The product is fixed. The marketing is what makes them want it (and believe they need it).
The first problem with this approach in today's marketplace is that the perceptual landscape of your target customers or clients or audience is packed to the gills. Open any popular website and look at what percentage of the screen is now filled with ads. Do people still watch TV, or just streaming media? How many billboards litter the nation's highways? How much junk mail do you get? How many times a week does a telemarketer call you?
As an audience, we are in a defensive attitude from the get-go. We hang up on telemarketers, we skip the ads whenever we can, we install adblockers, we learn to look at the sliver of Facebook that has the smallest percentage of ads in it (and ignore the rest), we show up late to the movie so we don't have to see the ads.
As a marketer or advertiser, the only way around this is to try to catch us when our defenses are down... like outdoor advertising! Or with annoying pop-ups that we have to wait 10 seconds to close. Or by putting ads in surprising places... like on Instagram!
But our perceptual filters will adapt faster than new advertising vehicles can be conceived and implemented. In the race to get noticed before the human brain figures out how to ignore you, the human brain will always win. Humans are very good at ignoring things they don't want to see. Denial is programmed into us.
Social media, when it came on the scene about a decade ago, held a great new promise for increased social engagement on the Internet. And, for a while, it delivered on that. You could see what your friends were eating for lunch. You could fight over politics all the time. You always knew who had a new baby, or a new cat.
It presented an obvious and delicious challenge for advertisers... How can we engage with our customers, clients, or audience in this new realm? How can we stay relevant, and in front of them? The savviest brands dived in, and went deep, and created robust content streams, birthing a whole new field: "Content Marketing," creating a stream of exciting stuff and getting it out there all the time and thereby engaging their customers, clients, and audience. For a minute, it was beautiful, and a new marketing order took hold.
Now that's in decline. Why? Well, now brands can buy eyeballs on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so the drive to actually be engaging, to actually create conversations, to actually care about their customers and not just flash a logo in their faces, goes way down. Make the logo bigger!
Of course, if you work in "Content Marketing" or some similar field, you will disagree with me here. "We believe in creating authentic engagements with our customers through content that is of value to them." Of course you do. That's your job. And you believe in it. But when you can pay a little money and get that content to more eyeballs automatically, guess what happens? The quality of the content, its individual stickiness and interest, will go down. The content itself can relax if you can pay to have more people see it. This is why articles are interesting in a newspaper or magazine or blog, and why ads are so dumb. The articles have to pay their way with interest. The ads are there because they are paying their way with cash.
But social media is not going away. It's now just one more tool in the advertiser's tool box... TV, web, outdoor, social, etc. It has become, for the most part, just like every other channel for advertisers. And there are a lot of channels. So how do advertisers figure out how to reach their audience, how to push their message out and in your face so that you notice it?
Well, first, you categorize your target audiences and profile them. You figure out what shows they watch, what stars they like, what news sources and websites they read, what movies they're going to see, what neighborhoods they live in, etc. Then you try to get to them by advertising there, someplace they'll see it.
But the fragmentation is real. Not just in terms of media, and all of the channels that people are watching and paying attention to, but in terms of the audience categorization as well. It is getting harder and harder to predict who is going to be interested in your offering. It turns out that people are not as easily able to be categorized as "conventional" marketing would have you believe. Everybody in their 20's isn't interested in the same things. We are, actually, all special snowflakes. And just because I'm a 40-something with a kid doesn't mean I want to go to Orlando on vacation.
So what's the answer here? Well, the answer is the same as it has been for 20 years, since the Internet achieved popularity and fragmented our attention into a billion channels. What's different is that we've just reached and passed the height of social media's utility (and therefore its interest) for its users. The answer is authentic engagement... actually connecting with your customers, clients, and audience... through the ether, across the miles, across time and space... finding a real connection. Not just selling them widgets, getting your logo in front of them, but realizing that you and your audience care about the same things.
And then guess what happens next... If you and your audience are engaged in an ongoing conversation about things that interest you both, guess what happens to the product or service that you offer? The product or service become influenced, determined, shaped, conceived, modified, refined, developed by that conversation itself. Marketing becomes not a process of taking some existing product that was developed in a lab and getting it in front of passive eyeballs. Marketing becomes a process of facilitating a conversation between people who are interested in similar things and who want to create something together.
I've been thinking for a while about the problem of innovation in organizations. Billions of dollars have been spent by leading organizations of all kinds (corporate, not-for-profit, governmental) to try to help them solve problems better, innovate faster, come up with new ideas, etc. And, after all those dollars have been spent, and millions of executives have attended innovation and "design thinking" classes, I think it's patently obvious that organizations, are no more innovative, on the whole, than they were fifty years ago.
So, why is that? What is it about organizations that makes them unable (or at least makes it very difficult) to come up with new ideas and be innovative?
Of course, before I answer that, you'll want to think about those few organizations that actually are, or have been, innovative. You'll mention advertising agencies, architecture firms, and Apple, of course. Well, first of all, it's easy (ok, easier) for companies to innovate when they're focused on something outside of themselves... when they're focused on solving another company's problems (see management consulting) or on creating some jazzy new idea to market another company's product (see advertising) or when it's about creating some zoomy new form or idea for somebody else (as in architecture). But it's really hard for companies to focus their creative energies internally.
The exceptions, where they happen, are incredibly rare. Apple comes to mind as the primary example. But Apple, at its most innovative, was driven by Steve Jobs, who had a relentless sense of purpose--to achieve a level of design perfection to create an "insanely great" product--and would annihilate anyone who got in his way. I think the only way that a conventional organization can possible actually be "innovative" is to follow this autocratic model, and be driven by a singular leader on a mission who will let nothing stand in his/her way.
Normal organizations, run by committees, boards, bureaucrats, uninspiring leaders, and otherwise nice people, have a hell of a time creating much of anything. For the most part, they move things around, buy and sell stuff, and try not to rock the boat. Why is that?
Innovation is such a challenge in most organizations because of the innate human need to establish a consensus reality. That is, we work to collaborate with those around us to build clear rules for how things work. These rules might include power structures, etiquette, cultural norms (what do we talk about, how polite/rude are we, etc.). These things are incredibly pervasive, and the longer we spend together, the more complex and developed they become.
Innovation is dangerous. Innovation is rebellion. When you innovate, you are challenging the established reality, the accepted way of seeing the world, and some of the "rules" that your organization has created, by consensus, for behaving in the world. This is a dangerous thing to do socially. It's risky. It can cost you friends. It can cost you social status. It can make people angry. Now, if we're talking about the place where you work, where you earn your livelihood, the place that enables you to exist in the manner to which you've grown accustomed, the risk of offending someone could be quite significant. And it's probably better, for your own survival and long-term career prospects, to keep your mouth shut.
So, as an organization, how do you get people to innovate? Well, you either relentlessly drive them to innovate by being a complete asshole, like Steve Jobs, or you lead them to focus their innovative energies outside the organization, like advertising agencies, architecture firms, etc. But getting people to innovate, inside the organization, is going to be difficult. You'd be much better off hiring an outside consultant to do the hard work of innovating if it relates to things inside the organization. Because the only people who want to take big risks like that inside the organization are either crazy, or completely secure in their position (like Steve Jobs).
Let's talk about the iphone for a second. Only Steve Jobs, only the CEO of the organization, could ever conceivably propose to cannibalize one phenomenally successful product (the ipod) to take a risk on a new product (the iphone). Nobody else would ever have the balls to do this. In almost any organization, proposing something like this would be pointless, because it would never be approved, and you'd lose status over proposing something unpopular. By proposing to cannibalize something successful, for something unproven, you are risking the livelihood of everyone you work with, for an uncertain future. And very few leaders have to guts to take that kind of risk.
I think organizations of all kinds would be better off to recognize that innovation inside the organization isn't worth the trouble. You're likely never going to overcome the institutional inertia and drive for comfort that makes organizations safe and boring unless you drive people to it with all your effort (Steve Jobs again). Innovation should be directed outside of the organization. Let people be comfortable. Don't try to force them to go against the power structure at work every day. And, if you need innovation inside the organization, get it from outside. Buy small innovative companies. Hire a hot little ad agency. Work with a ballsy management consultant. But don't expect the employees that you hired because they were the right "cultural fit" to rock the boat.
This is one of those things that I just assume everybody knows, but every so often I realize that very few people actually practice this. So either they don't know it, or they don't act like they know it. In any case, hopefully this can serve as a little reminder.
Your enthusiasm for what you do is the most important attribute you have. It's more important, in most cases, than your actual ability. Your enthusiasm is actually what gets you laid. And by "laid," I mean, gets you the job you want, gets you that new client, gets people to pay attention to you, gets people to give a shit.
So why do most people act they don't care about anything? I really don't know. Most people just seem to wander around doing what they do, like nobody is watching, like nobody cares. Everybody is watching all the time and everybody is taking note of what you do and what you care about.
I've met a lot of successful people. The thing that links them all is that they have a really good idea what they want, and that they go after it, totally, nonstop, with all the passion and enthusiasm they can muster.
The people who aren't successful either don't know what they want or they don't take any actions to get what they want. Why not? Again, I'm not sure... fear? uncertainly? confusion? playing it too cool? waiting for something to happen? depression? feeling like a victim? living in an imagined alternate reality?
I can't possibly count the number of times I've met somebody at a party or a social event or an industry event or through an introduction or at a conference, and we hit it off, and really seem to like each other and want to work together on something in some capacity... but they never followed up. I usually try to follow up immediately with people I meet, even if it's, "Hey, great to meet you. Let's stay in touch!" Too often silence is the response. I used to think, "Wow, maybe I was too enthusiastic." But now I think, "Wow, I guess they really weren't all that interested." And I move on, and forget about them, and the great conversation we had. It's over.
If you want something, define what it is as clearly as you possibly can. Have a picture of it in your mind. And, when you meet ANYONE who can help you get there, in any way, be enthusiastic. Let your passion come through. It's palpable. People respond to it. People will want to help you. People like being around people who are passionate about something.
If you want something, take action immediately. There is no reason to wait. If you want to meet someone, reach out to them. If somebody emails you, and you want to have a relationship, whether it's personal or for business or romantic or whatever, write back write away. The longer you wait, the less interested you seem, and the person you're corresponding with will lose interest. Now I'm not advocating writing back in 10 seconds, but that's probably ok in most cases. A day is fine. Two days is probably fine. More than that and you look like you either don't care or like you've been in the hospital.
I can imagine a few murmurs in my head... "But, what if I was on vacation? What if I was away for the weekend?" When people tell me they couldn't write to me because they were on vacation I think, "Well, that's great you had a nice vacation. I'm sorry to hear that your vacation was more important than whatever we were talking about." It's fine, really. But it indicates your priorities. It says, "This is less important than other stuff I'm doing." Which never feels good to hear.
But what if I'm not really all that enthusiastic about what I'm doing? Well, you have two choices: (1) do something else, because you're doing the wrong thing, and you should be doing something you care about, or (2) fake it. If you want people to respond to you, act like whatever you're talking about, whatever you're doing, is important, and interesting, and what you want to be doing. Otherwise you look like you're wasted your time, and everyone else's.
Of course, you can't fake it forever. Why would you want to? It's no fun faking it. But sometimes you need to put a smile on when you don't feel like it. Sometimes you need to push yourself. That's ok.
And it's ok not to push yourself, too. It's ok to just sit there, and wait for life to come to you, and wait for opportunity to appear. But when opportunity finally shows up, and you shrug, it's probably going to keep moving.
This is the most important movie I've seen in quite some time, and it's not because it's about art. It's because it's about money and power and how they actually operate when there is something that people with money and power want badly. This is a great documentary about the Barnes Foundation, which was created in 1923 by Albert Barnes. Barnes assembled an incomparable collection of post-impressionist art (Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, etc.) and created a school around it that reflected the way that he wanted it to be viewed. This movie documents how outside forces (with money and power) systematically violated what Barnes wanted, and what he tried to preserve in his will. All things considered, he did a pretty good job protecting what he believed in. But it still only took 90 years to violate it completely. See this film. I'll put the trailer here... but really, you have to see the film. Don't just watch this trailer and think you get it (or that it isn't interesting because it's about "art"). It's not about art. It's about money and power. And the way that money and power really work when people with money and power want something is documented in this movie better than anywhere I can remember. So just see it, please.
I just finished Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein and I feel like I've been recommending it (and emailing the .mobi file) to everyone I talk to. It was really eye-opening for me to think about the basis for money, and how the design of our currency system, in itself, could be such an important factor in why our society has such a conflict between what is good and what is profitable. Eisenstein argues very persuasively for exploring alternate currencies and systems of exchange that do not incentivize hoarding of capital in the same way that our existing fiat monetary systems do. Just read this book. I'd love to talk with you about it.
The book is available for purchase here. It can be downloaded for free, and then you can make a contribution to Eisenstein once you have read it based on how helpful/interesting/good you find the book. Eisenstein encourages sharing of the book, seeing the book as a gift, and your contribution as a return gift.
One note: I did find Eisenstein's style to be a bit overwritten, and it took some getting used to. It takes him about 10% of the book to really get started, and then he makes his central point about 40% of the way through the book. Once you start, keep going! You won't regret it.
When I woke up this morning and heard that police had cleared Zuccotti Park late last night under the orders of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, I was immediately struck by the irony of the fact that the sole decision to evict people who are protesting economic inequality in NYC rests with the 30th wealthiest person in the world, who paid $102 Million to be elected to a third term in 2009 (a cost of $183 a vote!) after fighting to have the term limits law changed so he could run again. Now, I actually like Mike Bloomberg. I've voted for him. I think he's something of a benevolent dictator for New York City, and I believe he authentically cares about this city, and about doing the right thing for the people of New York.
But the fact that he's in office at all highlights the very issue which it seems to me is at the heart of the Occupation movement. And it isn't easy to get to the heart of it all, because there are so many issues heaped on top of it. We've got economic inequality, social issues, the failure of capitalism, the deregulation of the financial system, the recent economic collapse, the bailout of the banks, and everything else. But all these issues are, I think, united very simply in one core problem:
Money buys political power, and our country is now effectively run by the wealthy, who exert tremendous influence over our government to make sure that policies that benefit their wealth are enacted, and that policies that do not benefit their wealth are blocked.
The ways that money buys political power and influences government decision-making are many, some direct and some indirect, some legal and some illegal. Of course there's graft and corruption, but there's also the spin of the media, political donations (it takes a lot of money to get elected), paid lobbyists, the power of political appointments, the promise of future rewards after serving in office, and a host of other subtle and overt ways that money influences decision-making.
This problem is not just a problem for the left or the right. It's a problem that threatens our entire system. We have become a plutocracy in which those with the most money have the most influence. Without wealth, we have very little voice... all that we can do to influence government decision-making is to vote, or to protest, or to write a letter. But those with money can hire lobbyists, make large political donations, influence coverage in our media, hire a "consultant" (say, a former influential elected official) to make a few phone calls, promise someone a reward in the future, or make an out-and-out bribe.
This is not about "capitalism" or "socialism." The ideological divide between these two idealized economic models frames a lot of the neverending debate between the left and the right about specific policies. But we don't have a capitalist society or a socialist one. We have a combination, and we choose when to adopt socialist principles or capitalist principles in our government. Capitalism works well for some things (incentivizing growth), and socialism works well for other things (military, major infrastructure, etc.). Some things work well when the government does them, and some things do not. Some things work well when businesses do them, and other things do not. We can debate when government or business is better equipped to handle one thing or another, but any dogmatic position that says "business is always good (or bad)" or "government is always good (or bad)" denies history and reality.
If the wealthy are effectively controlling the decisions that our government makes on our behalf, they will make decisions about when to apply socialist principles and when to apply capitalist principles so as to maintain and increase their wealth. So we have socialized military, police, roads, and socialized risk for "too big to fail" financial institutions. But we continue to apply capitalist principles to health care (health insurance and hospitals) for most Americans, even as our costs continue to skyrocket, and the quality of our service continues to decline. And we apply capitalist principles to job creation, even though the "trickle down" from the wealthy "job creators" doesn't seem to result in very many new jobs, because the wealthy are generally hanging on to their money, rather than hiring new workers.
So we have a country in which our representative democracy, under the influence of pressure from moneyed interests, effectively makes decisions for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. That is, actually, the definition of tyranny. Even though we still get to vote. Even though I can write to my senator if I want. My opinion is worth a lot less than that of Rupert Murdoch or George Soros.
If we approached decision-making at the governmental level from the perspective of "how can we make a decision that benefits the most citizens possible" we would have a very different approach to health care, financial regulation, job creation, defense, taxation, campaign finance and many other issues. But this isn't how most lawmakers approach the problems that face us. The one-person/one-vote system has far less power than the individual ambition and desire for personal benefit that wealth can bestow on our elected representatives and political appointees.
Let's look at three examples from the last few years, one from each branch of our Federal government, in which decisions very obviously placed the interests of the wealthy few over the interests of average Americans:
If we actually are a society in which everyone is equal... If we actually have a country that is (as Lincoln said at Gettysburg) "of the people, by the people, and for the people," then everyone's interests should be weighed equally in making decisions that affect us all. For many of us, I think that's the basis of our social compact, of what we agree to when we place our allegiance in America. And it is the very sense that this social compact has been violated through the pervasive influence of wealth in politics that has brought us the continuing Occupation movement. And this isn't going away until the social compact is restored, until we figure out a way to make decisions that affect us all in a way that serves the needs of the many, not just the needs of the wealthy few.
Is the era of the single, charismatic leader/visionary over?
One month ago, the Occupation of Wall Street began, and in the intervening 30 days, we've seen other occupations, demonstrations, and gatherings in over a thousand cities around the world. This movement is basically leaderless. At the very least, there is no singular charismatic figure who is orchestrating what is happening. It is happening more as a force of nature than as a force of will. It is happening because it needs to happen, because there are so many people who share a disillusionment with the way things are and disenfranchisement from the existing social and economic structure.
During this month of occupation, Steve Jobs passed away on October 5, and there has been a lot written about his genius, and also about how difficult he was to work for. But whatever you think of him, there can be little doubt that he was the singular leader of Apple that transformed the way we interact with technology several times over.
Also during this month, the Memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., was dedicated in Washington, DC, on October 16. It had been scheduled for August 28th, the 48th Anniversary of King's "I have a dream" speech, but was postponed due to Hurricane Irene. King, of course, was a charismatic leader of the Civil Rights Movement who was assassinated in 1968.
The passing of Jobs, and the memory of King, leave me wondering if something has changed in our world with regard to leadership. The fact that the Occupation movement manages to grow and spread without a singular leader makes me wonder if the era of "name above the title" "larger than life" personas like Jobs and King and so many others is simply over.
Clearly, we need leaders. And clearly, there are many leaders involved in the Occupation movement. But as soon as one singular leader emerges, as soon as one person stands up and says, "I speak for all the disaffected here," that person will very likely be immediately vilified, first by conservatives (watch how fast Fox News digs up dirt on this person), then by the mainstream media (trying to fill the 24 hours news cycle), then by elected officials, who will doubt this person's legitimacy, then by other leaders in the Occupation movement, and then by everyone else. This whole process will probably take a few days. It was shocking to watch how fast Julian Assange, the leader of Wikileaks, was discredited, brought up on charges, and silenced for the most part... all immediately following his rise to international prominence.
Why do we do this to our leaders? And what has changed to make this possible? Well, clearly, globalization, the Internet, the speed of communication, and the 24-hour news cycle enable this to happen. No sooner does a figure emerge on a national platform than we know everything there is to know about them. We've seen leaders like Eliot Spitzer, Rod Blagojevich, and many others exposed, discredited, and dismissed from public office almost instantly. When David Paterson took over for Spitzer after Spitzer's resignation, Paterson was quick to disclose publicly all of his dirty laundry: drug use, infidelity, basically everything he could think of that could be uncovered later... He just gave it all away, prior to his swearing-in, taking all the ammunition out of his enemy's hands.
So our leaders are instant targets... As soon as they emerge, they become the subject of a million Google searches, a hundred TV news stories, and a great hunger to figure out who they are, and what they have to hide. And that's scary. But maybe there's another way to look at this as a positive development... Since our leaders are no longer seen as everything, are no longer able to stand as singular representatives of all our collective hopes and dreams, it puts the responsibility more squarely on all of us, as leaders, to pull together and build the world that we would like to see.
Rapidly, the Occupy Wall Street movement has developed tools to communicate, both locally (the People's Mic) and globally (through websites and Twitter), and to make decisions (through the General Assembly and the proposed 2012 People's Congress). These tools, though in their infancy, are designed to reduce the power or authority of any one person over any other, to communicate and make decisions in as level a playing field as possible, to flatten the hierarchical structure that we all live and work in, so that every voice can be heard and that that decisions that are made can be as representative as possible of the collective will of the people.
And, if this movement can continue to pursue its highest ideals, without becoming compromised by the lure of the existing financial/governmental/media power structure, perhaps it can continue to grow without singular charismatic leaders. It can have spokespeople, of course. But as long as the movement continues to believe that every voice is as important as every other voice, maybe we won't need one singular voice to speak for us all. Maybe we can finally all speak for ourselves.
The Occupation of Wall Street is two weeks old today. Like many people I know, I’ve been watching the protest emerge and evolve through Facebook updates and Tweets and from an occasional forwarded article in the Gothamist. As I write, there are not only people encamped downtown, but similar actions cropping around around the country, and in fact, around the world.
One of the areas of confusion and criticism around the protest is that it’s not clear what the protest is about specifically... There’s not a specific call for action that we’re supposed to take. As an audience, many people would like more definition in order to better understand the protest, and to put it in a specific envelope, “Oh, they’re protesting for more taxes on the rich” or “Oh, they’re protesting for mortgage debt forgiveness” or “Oh, they’re protesting for the government to focus on creating jobs.” I’ve also read that various members of the audience would like to see a clear spokesman for this movement, some one person to step forward and become the avatar through which we can experience what is going on downtown and in other cities.
But I think it’s important to resist this desire, from the general public, to have this thing wrapped up with a bow. There is tremendous value in bringing people together simply to object to the way that things have been run, to unify not around a specific change that must be made, but in order to make a general statement that something fundamental needs to change in America, that America’s government has not been serving the needs of its people, at least not as its primary objective, for some time now. And whether people join the occupation because they are members of the long-term unemployed or because they have been significantly hurt by the recent financial crisis and recession or because of some other reason, there is still significant value in having them come together and make a statement about the injustice they feel.
This reminds me, to some extent of Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network:
"Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Then we'll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"
Yes, there’s change that has to be made, that many of us have been hoping for and talking about for some time. But, clearly, this change is not going to happen if we all sit at home simply writing blogs and tweeting and updating our facebook status as our primary means of dissent. Or even if we become active in the conventional political process and campaign for the lesser of two evils, or write letters to our elected representatives encouraging them to do the right thing.
First, we actually have to get mad. And then, we have to take our actual physical bodies and go out and make a stand, in the street. We have to leave cyberspace and go out into meatspace. And if it’s not specific about exactly why people are taking to the streets, if it’s just from a general shared disillusionment with the capitalist status quo, a reaction against economic inequality, a riot against the growing sense that our best days are behind us, well, that’s ok. That’s what it needed right now, before we start to move toward any specific change, we need to get people on their feet.
It’s amazing what this movement has accomplished so far, in only two weeks, and how many things have been done just right. There is no specific leader who has emerged who can be ripped to shreds by the media and cynical spectators (remember Julian Assange?). The inclusive “General Assembly” model, instead of some more formal leadership structure, means that anyone who needs to be heard, can be heard, that anyone who has something to say can say it, that anyone can be a part of what is happening. And it’s all happening, ostensibly, without any big-money interests behind it or powerful existing organizations (political parties, unions) calling the shots. So far.
And at the center of this movement are kids, young people, Millennials... the generation that grew up with computers all around them, and that we didn’t think knew how to do anything that wasn’t tied to a computer or handheld device. This is the generation that is getting people up and out in general protest at the way things have been run.
To me, the promise of this movement isn’t some minor revision to the existing legal framework (reinstating the Glass-Steagal Act, or changing the tax code) but in creating a more participatory model for government, a government that actually serves the people, and is actually accountable to the people. Some people are looking at Occupy Wall Street and advocating for a technologically fueled direct democracy. I’m not sure that would work all that well... There are two kinds of tyranny: tyranny of the few over the many (dictatorship, oligarchy, plutocracy) and tyranny of the many over the few (mob rule, total democracy, communism). Our government is designed in some ways to slow down the heat of popular sentiment, to make sure that we don’t start burning people at the stake when their positions become unpopular, to protect the individual from the state. We need to maintain those protections.
One of the reasons that we need to have a government infrastructure is also so that we can all spend our time doing things other than governing ourselves. As Oscar Wilde may or may not have said, “The trouble with Socialism is that it takes up too many evenings.” So we elect officials that take on the job of running the state so that we can work for living and have some time for leisure. Because somebody has to run things around here.
But when we elect officials, we have to believe and trust that they are going to serve our interests, that they are going to work for us. That’s the basis of the social compact between the government and the governed. And our existing government in the United States has broken the trust of many of us. There is a widespread and growing sense that those in positions of authority are far more concerned with their own individual self-interest (whether it’s re-election, lining their pockets, protecting their friends) than they are in doing what is right for the longterm health and prosperity for the majority of the people of the United States. So we’ve seen a trend, for the past 30 years or more, of a society that increasingly favors those who already have the lion’s share of the wealth, as the wealthy, quite obviously and dramatically, get richer, while those at the bottom have less and less. This is not the appropriate result of a representative democracy in which one person has one vote to elect representatives to serve their interests.
One way to look at the history of humanity on this planet is as an ongoing struggle between those who would limit participation, and those who would seek to maximize it. We are now at a moment in history in which our communications technology enables more and more of us to participate, and we need to take advantage of that to insist that our representatives take action that is in our interest.
So I think what is happening here is that more and more people are standing up and saying, “You guys are doing a really lousy job representing me. In fact, you’re letting 1% of the country walk all over the other 99%. And you know what? We want to be more involved. We don’t just want to elect you every two or four or six year and let you start running for re-election the second you get into office. We actually want a government that works for us. And, damn it, if we have to give up some evenings to get that, well, so be it.”
Inevitably, however, this movement will need to begin to advocate for specific popular policy changes. As Occupy Together grows to locations all around the country, and gathers an increasing groundswell of popular support (if that can be sustained) I’d love to see the movement try to maintain both it’s inclination for direct democracy and a desire to respect the existing framework of the Constitution and the government of the United States... by drafting and working to pass a number of amendments to the Constitution to further protect us from our government and provide for better economic equality... whether these are the “fair tax amendment,” the “campaign finance amendment,” or the “full employment amendment,” I don’t know... but it would be great to find a way to change the system directly, without necessarily becoming just another pet issue to propel another party or slate of candidates into office, and begin the cycle of inaction and disaffection all over again.
In Friday’s Weekend section of The New York Times, Edward Rothstein wrote a fairly evenhanded story about Governors Island as “A Playground for the Arts." As a follow-up, Ken Johnson contributed a dismissive and offensive post on the Times blog, the thrust of which is that good art requires money, the and if we want serious art people to take the art on Governors Island seriously, the best way for that to happen is to raise a few million dollars and throw an international art exhibition. Because, he writes, “Art just isn’t the kind of thing that lends itself to no-budget, laissez-faire populism.” He goes on to dismiss the work of No Longer Empty, FIGMENT, the Sculptor’s Guild, and even 4Heads, before their exhibition has even opened.
In his critique, Johnson manages to miss the point entirely. The art on Governors Island isn’t for him. And it’s not for the elite tastemakers who have decided who lives and dies in the art world for centuries. No, this is art for the rest of us. For everybody… for families, for communities, for every-day citizens who yearn for inspiration, for artists trying new things, and for connecting all of these pieces to each other in an accessible, fun, and interactive environment that encourages experimentation instead of censure.
Because Governors Island, unlike New York’s museums and galleries, is our place. It belongs to all of us. So the art that succeeds there is, by definition, populist (as you can see in videos of FIGMENT's projects). And, in the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, when foundations, individuals, and governments are stretched to their limits, that means low budget... reflecting the hardship in the lives of the people creating and enjoying that art.
And if this means that, to the elite sensibility, the FIGMENT minigolf course and interactive sculpture garden—enjoyed by tens of thousands of children and adults through summer at no cost (unlike MoMA, the Met, etc.)—is “an ugly mess.” Well, so be it. Better to be loved to death by the people of New York City than admired by an elite echelon of the art establishment.
We believe that public art is art created by and for the public. And Governors Island, as a place for all of us to share equally, is the ideal place for public art. And yes, this is a populist idea, and the point that Johnson misses entirely.
And, after all, as jaded as Johnson is about art that doesn't "thrill" him, what if something really important and innovative were actually going on here? How could Johnson tell? He is clearly so disinterested in populist forms that, if he had been writing at the time, he would have dismissed impressionism, dadaism, naturalism, abstract expressionism, pop art, performance art, and every other arts movement that came from the people, as opposed to those innovations, such as they are, that come from the establishment.
We believe in participation, the idea that we can all collaborate to create great art together that none of us could have created in isolation. FIGMENT has grown rapidly over the last four years on this simple idea, creating better and better participatory and interactive art each year. It's true that we're not in competition with the Venice Biennale, but that isn't really the goal. The fact that we're having this conversation in the blog of The New York Times is evidence that we're making tremendous progress in our goal to develop the island into an international arts destination focused on participation.
Mr. Johnson, we invite you to reconsider your position on what makes art important to society, and to learn more about FIGMENT and the other arts groups working on the island. We would love for you to join us and to be a participant in what we're building.
When our group got together to start FIGMENT in 2007, we never had any idea that it could ever grow this much, this fast. In 2010, our three-day NYC event had nearly 25,000 participants, and our Boston event, just in its first year, had something like 10,000 participants. It's really amazing to see how quickly the community around FIGMENT has grown, and it's exciting to see where it can go next.
FIGMENT began in New York in 2007 as a way to bring three important resources together: first, Governors Island, a former Army and then Coast Guard base in New York Harbor that had just been turned over to New York City; second, the creative energy of artists in New York, often creating work without ample resources, often desperately in need of space; and third, the ethos that many of the founders of FIGMENT had learned from Burning Man, expressed in the ten principles—basically, teaching us how to work collaboratively together to make great things happen in a way that is participatory, generous, and free from commoditization.
The idea took off immediately, and, while we expected 500 people or so at our first one-day event, we had over 2,600 people, with thousands more turned away at the ferries. We haven't stopped since. The New York event has grown exponentially each year, increasing how much art we cram onto the island's 172 acres, growing in participation as art projects become more ambitious, growing in duration as we add increasingly successful summer-long projects every year, and growing in stability as we build a team that believes in this event and can keep it going.
So what is FIGMENT, anyway? FIGMENT is a free, large-scale, public participatory art explosion, in which absolutely everyone is encouraged to participate in any way they see fit. We select projects for FIGMENT via open calls for art, and apply a very basic criteria to submitted projects: Is the project participatory or interactive in some way? Is the project appropriate for the general public? Can it be cleaned up easily?
There are a lot of things that have surprised us along the way as FIGMENT has grown… One is the kids. We really didn't expect FIGMENT to become such an amazing event for children and young families. When we began to plan the first FIGMENT, none of the organizers had kids (now I have a two-year old daughter). But we quickly found, in our first year, just how much kids love what FIGMENT has to offer: art that you can play with, 200 ways to get messy, hula hoops, rave music, rose petal and glitter pools, minigolf! At FIGMENT, you often see kids leading their parents around, and kids and their parents playing together, in a way that is fun for everybody.
Another thing we really didn't expect was that a daytime-only, alcohol-free event could feel like such a fantastic party. Since Governors Island is only open during the day, FIGMENT was forced to begin as a daytime-only event, despite the hopes of some of the organizers that FIGMENT could grow to include a nighttime element, or even become a 24-hour event at some point. But, surprisingly, the focus on daytime, and on maintaining a public face that is appropriate for everyone, has meant that the event is actually completely inclusive. Also surprising is that big parties have not really become part of FIGMENT—there aren't huge afterparties or related nighttime events. People go to FIGMENT, and then go home to sleep so they can get up early and do it again!
One of 11 minigolf holes for 2010 in the FIGMENT Minigolf Course: Just Dreaming Is Not Enough by WUKAG (Wichita State University Kinetic Art Group) – Jeswin Joseph Chankaramangalam, Wai Seong Choy, John Harrison, MohamdAli Ishaque Kazi, Christian Kindel, Ivy Lanning, Alan Whitaker (Image (c) 2010 Jason Eppink)
Given the fact that Governors Island is an uninhabited island that is open to the public for about 18 weekends in the summer, the idea occurred to us very quickly to try to create art that could be up for a longer period of time. In 2008, FIGMENT expanded to include two longer-term exhibitions, both of which were funded in part by Black Rock Arts Foundation: Emergence, an interactive installation in a 100-year old officer's residence created by 30 artists or collectives, and the FIGMENT Minigolf Course, which was actually originally suggested by Leslie Koch, the President of Governors Island. The FIGMENT Minigolf Course has become a staple of summer in New York City, spurring a new trend in artist-designed minigolf courses in the New York area. Now in its third year, the FIGMENT Minigolf Course remains completely free and funded by donations, enabling children and adults of all backgrounds to engage in a participatory art experience, providing a summer-long cultural experience for many people who do not go to museums, or galleries, or professional theatres. In 2009, we also added a summer-long sculpture garden, which has grown again in 2010. In 2010, we created our first architectural design competition to create a pavilion as a performance and gathering space on the island. The winning design, the Living Pavilion, opened on June 11 at FIGMENT, and has received rave reviews for its innovative use of milk crates and plantings that have been turned upside down.
Another way in which FIGMENT is growing is geographically. In my first post on the Burning Man Blog, I talked about what it was like not to go to Burning Man in 2009 for the first time in a number of years. A first-time burner from Boston, Jason Turgeon, saw that post after he got back from the playa, noticed my reference to FIGMENT, and contacted me, inspired to figure out how to recreate the spirit he experienced at Burning Man in his local community. We met, and started talking. Jason started to build a core group that could make FIGMENT happen in Boston, including Peter Durand, one of the Burning Man Regional Contacts for Boston. In cooperation with the Cambridge Arts Council, FIGMENT Boston took place on June 5, on a closed stretch of Memorial Drive along the Charles River in Cambridge. Since the event was located right next to the Cambridge River Festival, a more conventional arts festival involving food vending, artists selling their work, and paid performers, visitors kept wandering across the road into FIGMENT, and asking, "So what is this? And why is everyone smiling over here?" While I was initially a little nervous about having FIGMENT be right next to a conventional arts festival, ultimately the juxtaposition served to highlight how FIGMENT is different, and what makes it special. This feeling was helping along by the fact that Cler, a wonderful Boston volunteer, created beautiful hand-painted signs that explained the Ten Principles.
So what's next for FIGMENT? Well, it's certainly possible that we could see more geographic expansion, with other events popping up in other cities following the FIGMENT model. One thing that we're really interested in exploring is the idea of learning as a formal part of FIGMENT. I've realized that one of the things that is appealing to me about FIGMENT is just how much I learn every year by working to make this event happen… I've learned so much about leadership, management, planning, community, creativity, collaboration… And, as I look around, I realize everyone else is learning too… The team members, the artists, the kids who are in glitter up to their waists… How do we take that process of informal learning through creativity and make it some more established part of what we do, without crushing it completely into an "educational curriculum" or something like that? I'd love to hear your ideas… Feel free to email me.
When I was at the ARC-Interiors conference in late September in Miami, speaking on "A Sense of Purpose: The New Reality for Architecture Firms and How Principals will Need to Adapt" I had lunch at the conference after I spoke at a table with a bunch of nice conference attendees and exhibitors. Before long, the conversation turned to current events, and we touched on the controversy over texting while driving.
Without really thinking, in the middle of the conversation, I interjected, "The problem isn't texting... It's driving." I went with it: "I mean, texting doesn't kill people, driving does. The problem is that we drive too much, and driving is just too easy. We need to drive less, and when we do, it needs to be more difficult."
One of the others at the table asked, "Yeah, I need somebody to pick me up at my house and drive me to work."
I threw out, "We have that already. It's called a train."
Suddenly, I realized that I was in a group of people from all around the US, none of which lived in New York or one of the few other cities in the US where you can live a full and complete life without owning a car.
"Maybe we should spend less public money on roads, and more on trains. If the roads were more dangerous, you couldn't text while driving because you'd hit a pothole. Part of the problem here is that driving is too easy because our roads are too well-maintained. People have too much free time when they drive."
The entire controversy, and this conversation, points out to me that our dependence on the automobile, and all the evils that go with it (foreign oil, pollution, suburban sprawl, shopping malls, road rage, alienation, long commutes of wasted time) is a choice, a choice we can reverse. It doesn't have to be this way. And it shouldn't be this way.
I'm reminded of the James Howard Kunstler quote, that the suburbs "represent the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." The current controversy over texting while driving should be another wake-up call. The problem isn't texting, it's driving. Driving kills. We should be driving less, and texting more. People, get on the train. Get off the road. You're wasting resources, you're wasting time, and you're running the risk of killing somebody, or yourself. Why live this way?
I was talking to some of the marketing staff and business developers in one of our offices recently, and I thought of a gross simplification for the whole business development process, in terms of what the steps are, that I thought might be helpful, especially in this economy. Here it goes…
FIRST, YOU HAVE TO FIND OPPORTUNITIES. So, where do opportunities come from? Well, they can come from anywhere, but the best opportunities come from existing relationships that you have, because those are the ones you are most likely to close. Aside from that, they can come from referrals, or from public listings, or in the mail. Or you can even find opportunities by making a list of the 50 organizations you’d like to work for, and calling them all on the phone. But that not only is much less fun than emptying the cat’s litterbox, it’s also highly unlikely to be productive, in terms of finding opportunities. Calling on the phone is great for finding out information, and really bad for generating business. To generate business effectively, you really need a relationship.
SECOND, YOU HAVE TO DECIDE WHICH OPPORTUNITIES TO PURSUE. One of my favorite business articles ever is David Maister’s “Strategy Means Saying No.” The idea being, if you don’t say “no” to something, you don’t have a strategy, you’re totally adrift in a turbulent sea. Which invokes the famous Yogi Berra quote, “If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, you’ll probably end up someplace else.” Too many firms believe that all business is good business, and it simply isn’t true. You need to focus your efforts predominantly on work that you can win and that you want to do, and that you can do (and make money doing) if you win. It’s ok to throw a Hail Mary pass every so often, and to pursue something you have no business pursuing because you REALLY want it, but you can’t base a career, or run a firm, on this strategy.
THIRD, WHEN YOU’VE DECIDED TO GO, YOU HAVE TO NAIL IT TO THE WALL. Ok, so you want the project, you think you can win the project, and if you get it, you can do it (and make money doing it). So, why are you pursuing the project in a half-assed way? Give it everything you have! Pull out all the stops! Have early meetings! Stay up late! Convince the client how much you want to work with him or her, and how important the challenge they’re facing is to you. Show your passion. Be bold. And check your work.
Yes, it’s grossly simplistic, but having a list of three things you have to do to succeed is even better than having a list of ten things you have to do to succeed!
I was at a design industry cocktail party a few days ago, and I was talking to someone who is roughly my age who doesn’t understand Social Media. She’s on Linked-in. She’s on Facebook. She hasn’t used Twitter (yet). As I am (like everybody else) trying to figure out how to use these tools in a way that is productive and useful and helpful to others but not a tremendously wasteful time-suck, I offered her what I’ve been thinking lately about these tools:
“Linked-in is your address book. It’s your network.”
“Facebook is like a neverending cocktail party with all your friends.”
“Twitter is the future of the newspaper.”
She was quite surprised at how I described Twitter, “Really???”
Yes, really. She, like a lot of people (and like me until my wife Sasha sat me down a few weeks ago and said, THIS is how you use Twitter) sees Twitter as a tremendous time-suck, just like Facebook. It all depends on how you use it. If you think of it as a billion-channel broadcast system that allows you to access all (or nearly all) of the up-to-the-minute information and perspective you do now, in one place, it’s invaluable, or on its way to becoming invaluable. And, besides that, you get to be a channel, or several channels, and tell the people who follow you what you’re doing, or what you think.
With print media evaporating at a rapid pace (Have you seen Newsweek lately?), increasingly Twitter is how the information we need is going to come to us. I just hope it can ramp up fast enough, and that we can all figure out how to make using it part of our daily routine.
I’m writing this post on a plane from Chicago Midway to LaGuardia. At Midway I found something I haven’t seen before in an airport: a multiple-choice question that allows you to self-select which category of traveler you are, and the answer to your question determines which line you wait in as you go through security. There are three lines (and I’m paraphrasing the categories, because I’m on a plane without wifi!): “Family/Fluids,” for those of us traveling with kids or who have fluids of some kind with us, or some other item that’s going to raise eyebrows as it goes into the scanner, “Casual Traveler,” for those of us getting on a plane to go on vacation, or who don’t travel that much, and “Expert Traveler,” for those of us who travel all the time and have our whole ritual worked out… pull out computer, put in plastic tub, take off shoes, put in another plastic tub, put jacket over shoes, etc.
I kind of resented the segregation at first… I mean, am I really an “expert traveler”? Do I want to describe or label myself that way? So I got into the “Casual Traveler” line and got to the ID checkpoint. Then the lines continued toward the scanners. Overwhelmed by curiosity, I switched to the “Expert Traveler” line, and immediately felt my posture change. Now I had to perform. Through my choice, I had told everyone that I knew what I was doing. This was not the time to leave my Blackberry in my pocket, set off the beep, and have to go back through. This was a test, and I needed to nail it.
When I got to the scanners, I was surprised to see that the line really wasn’t moving any faster than the other lines. You would think that these “expert travelers” would be flying through the line! But, while not quite moving in a blur, we were remarkably efficient and well-behaved. It was a test for all of us. No one wanted to be the “expert traveler” to set off an alarm, or forget that we had a bottle of water or a letter opener in our bag.
This is the real benefit of this segregation: the choice we make changes the way that we define ourselves, which changes the way we behave. We have taken the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) and we are now on a journey that we have helped to create, and we are to some extent responsible for the results. This is actually a key lesson for participatory culture in general: it is important to make people partners in the experiences we create by giving them a choice. Once people pick the red pill or the blue pill, they become a partner in the journey, transformed from a spectator into a participant.
One of the (many) reasons that I believe Governors Island is a truly special (occasionally magical) place in New York City is that you have to choose to go there. You can’t just take a stroll into it, like you can with Central Park or Prospect Park. You have to get on a boat. Your journey is intentional. From the second you step onto the boat, you are a participant in the story, you are counted, you are a citizen of the island. You are no longer a spectator. And this influences the way people behave on the island, and the kinds of experiences that are open to them to have there.
Why are you in business anyway? To deliver shareholder value? Do you think that’s really enough?
Businesses, by definition, exist to engage in activities that deliver profits to their owners and shareholders. Other purposes or goals are secondary. For example, no matter how much a CEO believes that sustainability is important, unless the business case for investment in sustainable technologies can be made in terms of shareholder value, it likely can’t be justified.
But there is a fundamental shift underway in the way that our economy works, and the role of business in our society. It is becoming apparent that when we come out of this recession, the environment in which companies operate may be very different from the business environment we enjoyed when the recession began.
One of the big lessons from the unraveling of the financial products, unwise investments, and scandals that led us into recession was that it’s important to look at the whole system to understand what’s going on. From securitized mortgage products to Bernie Madoff’s fraud, many people chose to turn a blind eye to what happened behind closed doors they didn’t want to open.
At the same time, the general public is recognizing that climate change is an important issue, and that we simply cannot continue to pollute the planet. So it becomes important, to an increasing percentage of the population, to consider where products come from and where they go after we’re done with them.
As customers begin to recognize that with every purchase they make they are endorsing an ethical framework, both in terms of how the products they buy were manufactured, and in terms of how they can be reused, all businesses will be increasingly accountable not only for delivering shareholder returns, and for serving their customers, but also for serving the greater good.
In a world of increasing transparency, dramatically accelerated by the explosion of self-publishing and social media on the Internet, any organization will much have a much harder time playing anything “close to the breast.” If you aren’t walking your own talk, your customers will know.
Companies that have a clearly articulated mission to guide their decisions and actions will have an advantage over companies that operate by the same old rules of offering a good product or service to meet a client need at a fair price. A sense of purpose gives a company a way to inspire their employees and connect with their clients and other audiences. A good mission statement brings passion to business, creating a connection that is tough to match.
In this new model, profits are not the singular goal for an enterprise to exist; they are the result of the enterprise relentlessly pursuing its mission in service to humanity.
Two examples that come to mind of companies that seem to have a mission that guides them, even to the exclusion of profits (although both have been incredibly profitable) are Google and Apple. Google didn’t initially set out to be a technology juggernaut… they just wanted to make information as accessible as possible to everyone, and had an algorithm that could help facilitate that better than any that had existed previously. The profits came later, as Google figured out how to monetize the value that they were bringing to us all. Apple, in its latest incarnation, seems to have, as its highest purpose, the utilization of design to make our lives easier, simpler, and more reliable. BP also seems to be pursuing a mission (“Beyond Petroleum”) to be the clean energy leader, and to provide the cleanest power possible for all of our needs, but I’m not sure to what extent this is just marketing spin, and to what extent this vision actually guides the company. I’ll need to do more research on that.
There are a few companies out there that have been very good at times, and done a lot of good things for their employees and customers, but who do these things as a secondary priority after profits. Examples that come to mind are Starbucks and Ben & Jerry’s. Both companies grew from a desire to provide a food product to customers in a new way, and as both took off and soared into profitability, they looked for ways to use their profits to do good for their employees and in the world. But I believe the profitability in both cases comes first, and that we will see Starbucks shrink its philanthropic programs and generous employee benefits as conditions become more difficult, and that, if Ben and Jerry’s was following a higher purpose, they never would have sold to Unilever.
In the current recession, so many factors that companies have used in the past to differentiate themselves have just become part of the cost of doing business. Think about sustainability (who isn’t?) or fair prices or the use of technology to serve the customer or helpful customer service. If you don’t have all these things (and more) you’re probably not doing well.
So, in the next economic cycle, in order to pull away from the pack, companies need to find something else to make them special. Nothing is more special than what is in your heart, the reason that you do what you do. Discover it, connect it to helping the world and your customers, and talk about it. We want to know why you do what you do!
(I’m working on this topic for a series of talks I’m giving this fall in Miami, New York, Chicago, and Houston… So let me know if you have thoughts or ideas!)
I just joined Facebook today. I've been holding off for a really long time (Has it been years? It certainly feels like it...) because Facebook has made me nervous from beginning. First, it came up from the kids... It was originally designed and first used by high school and college kids to gossip. That made me not entirely trust Facebook. How could I find a use for the social networking tool of teens? Then there's the fact that you can really only have one Facebook identity with any depth at all unless you truly have a multiple personality disorder. This effectively brings an end to the "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog" era, and into a new era of transparency. On Facebook, your user name is not "MissSexyPants801." It's your real God-given (well, Mom- and Dad-given) name. And anyone, whether it's the government, a stalker, a loan shark, or a malevolent space alien, can find you, find out who your friends are, find out what you're into, when your birthday is, what events you're going to, etc.
So there's transparency on Facebook and there's (necessarily) a level of trust that emerges. I trust my friends, and I trust their friends. And my friends trust their friends' friends. And so on. I think this is, for the most part, a positive thing. But it roots us in who we are and our history. And I think it changes the way we grow up and evolve. A few times in my life, I have sort of rolled the dice, picked up and moved, or started fresh with a whole new group of friends and a whole new identity, to some extent. I can think of a few examples: Moving at the age of 8 to Pottstown from Phoenixville, moving to New York to go to NYU, moving to Ireland, going to Burning Man. That's four, I think. But Facebook crosses the beams. You are who you are who you are. Or, perhaps more accurately, you are who your friends are. If character used to be destiny, in 2009 your network is your destiny. Or something like that.
There is no dipping your toe in Facebook. This is a paradigm shift, and you can't just sort of be there. If you're there, you're there. By diving in, you make a commitment to put your name and face and friends and facts out there for anyone else who puts themselves out there to search and see and comment on. So now I'm in it, and what does it look like, 10 hours later and with 100 friends? Well, it's virtual reality, for real, with perhaps less sex. Who needs to go out and have events? All I need is an event invite. Who needs real friends? I've got Facebook friends. I write on your wall, you write on my wall, and we while away the hours. It reminds me of the last Matrix movie, when you get to the heart, meet the architect, see the man behind the curtain, and it all just looks like pure white light. Or Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World, when we can see our own dreams, what's inside our heads refined into images, and it's irrepressively addictive.
Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just a fundamental shift, and it requires a commitment from every participant, a commitment to participate. And I can see that this is the future. This is incredibly efficient, and equalizing. Hierarchy fades away, and I can friend anyone in an instant and they can friend me, and we reduce the entire world to one flat level playing field. It's amazing, it's liberating, and it's addictive. This is how we will organize ourselves in the future. This is how our government should work. And probably will.
But this all requires a level of optimism about people and our future that I find truly encouraging. The movement to Facebook, even in the face of continuing economic collapse shows that people will always find places where energy is abundant, and look to explore that. Our social and economic system is in the process of transforming itself completely. It is, and will continue to be, painful. But I think Facebook is part of what comes next, what society looks like after we've burned off all of our sins and excesses of the last 50 or so years.
As I sit here, along with most of the country and world, and watch states turn color to red or blue as the vote comes in and precincts report, I wonder why red places are generally red, and blue places are generally blue. Why is it, exactly, that more people in urban areas tend to vote for Democratic candidates, and more people in rural areas tend to vote for Republican candidates? What is it exactly? Is it economic? Is it somehow about pace of life? Or the result of immigration? Are the red voters, as McCain would have us believe "the real Americans" and the blue voters are, by implication, somehow less American, or even un-American?
Let's imagine for a moment that everyone is equally self-interested. That is, that everyone is voting based on their own personal belief of what will improve their own lives, rather than from a sense of duty to the good of the nation or other altruistic impulse. Red voters, I believe, generally have a sense that the Republican candidate will make their lives better, by focusing on defense, deregulating the markets, lowering taxes, etc. At the same time, blue voters generally believe that the Democratic candidate will improve their lives, by focusing on education, health care, and social issues. So why is the urban/rural divide so important in this? What's different about people who live in cities?
Here's an idea. One difference, again very generally, between people who live in or near cities, as opposed to those who don't, is that they have to deal with a lot more people on a daily basis than people who live way out in the "real America." I think it makes sense that having to deal with a lot of other people might lead to empathy, or at least a sense of being somehow connected, or in it together. The more "in it" we are together, the more it becomes apparent that education, generally, benefits all of us, even if we don't have kids. And health care, even if we aren't sick, is something that might improve the overall quality of life in the areas in which we live. Living in a city, I think I'd much rather have a leader who advocates the idea that we all need to get along and work together, rather than a leader who is a cowboy, a maverick. Living in the city, we understand that it's important to all of our happiness that all of us are relatively happy. And it certainly seems that this is closer to the Democratic message and purpose (focusing on education, health care, etc.), than it is to the Republican agenda of restricting social issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.) while liberating markets (tax cuts, deregulation, etc.).
So, can Obama's success in this election be to some extent attributed to the gradual growth in U.S. population, and our gradual urbanization? A higher percentage of us live in cities than ever before. And, over time, it seems likely that more and more of us will live in cities. What happens to the Republican coalition of big business, the religious right, gun owners, and other social conservatives in an urban America? Can we imagine an urban Republican America? Is that even possible?
I was part of a webinar last week hosted by the AIA on "Strategies and Tactics for Architects in an Economic Downturn." I was one panelist of 4 who spoke on the program; I covered "10 Steps to Marketing in a Slowdown," and spoke for 15-20 minutes towards the end of the formal part of the program, right before Q&A. The webinar was free to AIA members to tune in, and we very quickly received registrations for the 1,200 sites that we were able to accommodate. So, it was the most people I've ever spoken to at one time (except for that one time I was on the radio in high school, but that was pre-recorded!). To see and hear the webinar, click here:
I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to grow up. Why should I be thinking about that? Well, I've got a five-month old daughter, I just had a birthday, AND it's my 20th high school reunion tonight. So, I've been thinking a bit about how I got where I am, and wondering about all the youth rebellion that seems endemic to our culture. Is it just common knowledge that your parents make no sense at all until you become a parent? Is that how this works? Why is that? Here's what I've come up with: when you're young, you can only see things from your own perspective. The world revolves around you, and the great challenge (or one of a number of great challenges) is developing a consistent perspective, a unique voice and way of seeing things. Once you've got a perspective, and your internal debate over who you are has quieted down (allowing for occasional flare-ups, course corrections, and questioning over time) then you really start to develop empathy for others, and your perspective can broaden to understand more of the world than just what drives you, what's in front of you at this moment right now. Travel helps A LOT in this process. Then, as you mature, you can understand more and more of the world, have a broader and broader perspective. You can see youself as a tiny part of an infinite world, but still not get depressed about it. And that's what, I think, growing up is, learning to embrace and then lose your ego.
I just got a email from someone in Michigan that I don't know personally. The email went to a number of people, and I'm on one of the lists the email went to. The author of the email is trying to find a carpenter for a work-related project in Oneonta. The email made me realize a few things at once: (1) I know very few carpenters. I should know more carpenters. Carpenters are useful. (2) I have no idea where Oneonta is. Upstate? That's my guess. And (3) Cities, from the outside, are fixed points. "Oh, I need help in Oneonta! That's close to New York City! I'll write to people there!" From the inside, however, cities are entire worlds. I'm in New York City, and anything outside is someplace else. Part of this distinction, of course, relates to transportation. Cities are places where you don't drive, so it's a big deal to go outside. While outside of the city, you have have a lot of freedom of mobility, until you try to go into the city, and then you have to park your car (and probably pay a lot of money to do so) and then figure out how to get where you're going (gasp!) on foot or (double gasp!) using mass transportation. What's interesting here is that from the perspective of someone in Michigan, with an automobile-focused existence, the fact that New York City is close to Oneonta, relatively speaking, would make me a good guess to find a carpenter there. But, in fact, I'd far more likely be able to find a carpenter in San Francisco. And, in fact, because I've been to San Francisco many times and I know what the steps are to get there (buy plane ticket, go to airport, get on plane, etc.) it someone can seem closer to Oneonta (steps: figure out where Oneonta is, figure out if Metro North goes there, figure out if I need a taxi, figure out a number to call to get a taxi, etc.). A city is, in a way, something outside of conventional geography.
This is stencilled on the floor on the second floor of the Battery Maritime Building, where David Byrne's 'Playing the Building' is installed for the summer, and you can wait your turn and sit down at an organ whose tendrils extend into the guts of the building. You play the organ, and tickle the building, with motors, pieziometers, and compressed air. It isn't quite music, but it's more than just sound, too. Ultimately, it's an interesting effect, even if it's not quite beautiful. But I love this stencil! It's understated, industrial, and directly instructional. 'This is what you do here.' Like 'look left' on the crosswalks in the UK and Ireland. It's so simple, and almost a part of the building, as opposed to the installation. It's nearly (but not quite) ironic in tone... that you should actually have to tell people to play! Normally, you'd have to tell people to do something ('mind the gap') but here, the sign is telling people to play, which is by definition free-form. Play is open, and permissive. It's as if the sign is telling you to run around the building playing 'tag, you're it' or some other game. At the same time, it's also imploring you... 'please play.' It could have just said 'play,' but that isn't enough somehow. It's too rude like that. No, this isnakt a command, it's a request. Play is what you are to do here, and we very much want you to do it, but, ultimately, it's up to you. Nobody's going to make you do it.
Well, here we are... Governors Island opens today, and the Emergence Exhibition (www.emergenceshow.org) opens today! It's 10:15, and no rain yet... So let's hope it holds out! There's so much art happening on the island this summer, it really seems like last year's FIGMENT event really helped to push the issue of the arts as a catalyst for the rebirth of the island. There was a great article in the NY Sun on Thursday that talked about everything going on this summer, and a summer preview (with a picture from FIGMENT last year) in this week's Time Out. In anuy case, this should be a fantastic day, and this really kicks the countdown to FIGMENT into high gear!!!
FIGMENT is an annual participatory arts event on Governors Island in New York Harbor. The FIGMENT 2008 Call for Participation has just been released!
Also, there's a special program to design and build a mini golf course on Governors Island!
I remember back around 1999 or 2000, when I was walking home one night from work, and I felt like every other car I saw was a limousine filled with drunk, screaming, dot commers celebrating their IPO or their second round of venture cap financing or whatever, and I thought to myself, "Make this stop! Make this silly Fantasy Island world go away!" And it did, pretty shortly thereafter.
Through a friend in California I got invited to what I now think of as "the last party of the dot-com boom" at a rooftop penthouse in NoHo. The company that hosted it (I think it was Excite@Home) was already going under. My friend, who invited me to the party, had already been laid off. The party was her last day on the job. But, they had already paid for the party, so why the hell not? It was a hell of a party. I'm glad I saw it. It set a new standard for me of corporate parties, at least.
Anyway, why is this important now? Well, it seems like we're headed into a recession again (or we're already in one, potentially). And I can't help but think about the last time we were in this particular place on the economic curve, sliding downward, rapidly. There is certainly a sense of economic gloom in the air.
I've worked through two recessions already, and this will be my third. I first started working in architecture in 1992, when layoffs were common until 94 or so. Then, as I mentioned, there was the dot-com implosion. Now the housing bubble breaking and the credit crisis...
Just like when I thought "Make this stop!" in 1999 or 2000, I certainly had a similar feeling when I heard in late 2007 that Goldman Sachs was giving out an alltime-high $12.1 billion, or an average of $400,000 per employee, in its annual bonuses. Or when I heard in 2007 about the fact that apartments in luxury buildings in New York City are selling for more than $2,000 a square foot (sometimes MUCH more). It can't go up and up forever. What goes up has to come down, at some point.
And, though there's pain involved in a recession, there are a number of things that are good about the contraction. I have to say that I really like the return to reality, the recalibration that happens when people reevaluate their values. The value of a dollar, for example... In a booming market, a dollar is, well, just one more dollar. You need a dollar? Sure, here's a dollar. Sure, why not buy that cool new gizmo? Sure, why not buy the big car? Sure, why not get the premium gas? But when things get tighter, people think about those dollars differently. They have value. Every dollar counts. It forces people to ask the tough questions, and to engage in conversation. Do we really need that thing? Are we serious about expanding into India? Do I really need a new car?
When things are good, it's really hard to be cheap. When you're out with friends, it's really hard to be the person who doesn't want to split the check evenly. It's really hard to buy the lowest-cost choice in the category you're looking at (think car or TV or computer). But when things get tight, all those rules shift. Be as cheap as you want! Choose the answer that works for you! Pay only as much as you think is fair! Nobody can blame you for being cheap in a recession. You actually have MORE socially acceptable choices, not less.
And at work, it's actually easier to make decisions, because the final arbiter of decision-making is financial, the bottom line. This may seem limiting, but I think it's actually liberating. In a boom, who's to decide whether it makes more sense to invest in India than Russia? "Both are expanding! Invest in both!" But resources (time and money) are always in fact limited, and a recession points that out, focusing the discussion. "Look, we've only got so much money to spend here... What should we do with it?"
I suppose what I'm saying is that, while recessions create an environment of scarcity, and focus us on what we have and what we do not have, forcing us to make tough choices, I actually like tough choices, and I like the discussions and decision-making that accompany making tough choices. I think it's good for us, and I think it's good for me. But don't worry, I'm sure there will come other periods of wild economic abandon where we will again lose ourselves in orgies of consumption... and that's fun for a while, but hangovers can be fun too...
I just came across an article on RainToday called "The Myth of Differentiation" by Mike Schultz. The article basically posits that we shouldn't talk about our firms as "unique" or "different" because most people use these words incorrectly. Fair enough, but that doesn't mean that the process of identifying how your firm is different from the client is useless. (In fact, it's vitally important!)
So, I got up on my soap box, pressed the "respond to this article" button, and dashed off this response:
In the first part of his two-part “Myth of Differentiation” series, Mr. Schultz muddles the meanings of the words “unique” and “different” and narrowly defines differentiation as a communications process (“differentiating to the client”), ignoring the value of differentiation as a process of introspection—figuring out what makes you different from the competition so that you can better position yourself to your market or client.
First of all, the words “unique” and “different,” while synonyms, do not have identical meanings. In order to be “unique,” something must be different from every other thing in existence. Answering the question, “why are you unique?” is nearly impossible, because the comparison set is so huge—the entire universe. So I think that the word is usually used poorly in marketing, to describe a firm that isn’t really unique (or, at least, probably couldn’t tell you how it’s unique).
But the word “different” sets the bar lower, on a scale we can deal with. Something is different only in terms of how it compares with other things in the same limited category. In thinking of what makes a firm different, we consider the direct competition, and think about what makes us special. This is an absolutely necessary part of positioning your firm for a market or a specific client. Otherwise, you’re just talking about yourself, without a competitive context, and you have no way of anticipating how effective your words will be in reaching your client. Once you know how you’re different, you don’t necessarily need to say to the client “We’re different because…” but your understanding of how you’re different can inform ALL of your communications.
I agree with Mr. Schultz that calling yourself "different" or "unique" does not make you either one, but I do believe that an introspective process (informed by research, of course) about how you compare to your competition is invaluable in developing client-focused messages that differentiate your firm from the competition.
The real problem isn’t with the words, it’s with using them incorrectly to describe things that aren’t actually different or unique.
I'm a huge fan of Blink. I think it's the best quasi-business book I've ever read. I'd love to write a book like that someday. But I've never been able to get through The Tipping Point, and I've never quite been sure why. People LOVE that book. When it came out, it felt like everybody was recommending it to me. I bought it. I tried to read it. I got 80 or 10 pages in, and I put it down, never to pick it up again, without really a clear idea why.
I just came across an article in the February 2008 Fast Company called Is the Tipping Point Toast? by Clive Thompson, and I suddenly have some idea why I never connected with The Tipping Point. The Tipping Point posits that there are certain people that are really important, who make things happen, the influentials. This idea underlies the way a lot of marketing is done these days: get to the influentials, and you'll get to everybody. The article in Fast Company covers the research of Duncan Watts, who contends that reaching the tipping point doesn't have much of anything to do with reaching the so-called "influentials," that it's just about a good idea connecting with people, and that anyone can be a connector, anyone can be an influencer, anyone can make an idea tip over the edge.
This idea, as opposed to the common marketing idea that there are a limited number of "cool kids" who make trends happen, really resonates with me. One of the things I learned from working on FIGMENT last summer is that if you have a good idea, and that people believe in it, it will happen. Sure, the "cool kids" who have lots of friends and who won't stop talking about something help, but that's not the important thing... the important thing is having the right idea in the first place, so that EVERYBODY wants to spread the word, whether they're a cool kid or not. We are all participants here, no matter how "cool" we are.
Here's a great blog entry about the Burning Man panel at the AIA Center for Architecture that I moderated in October:
Smash and I went to see What Would Jesus Buy? yesterday, mostly because we have some friends who are in Reverend Billy's choir, and who are in the movie. The film does a good job of presenting the problem (as does Reverend Billy in his performances)... that we are, as a nation, addicted to shopping, and many Americans have dug ourselves into significant debt because of it. The Christmas season has become an orgy of shopping... buying things for our families, our kids, our friends, and ourselves.
In the day since seeing the film, I've had two thoughts about commerce. First, it has occurred to me that all of the advertising that we see is for products that we don't actually need, or that we don't automatically buy. Plumbers don't usually have to advertise, aside from making sure they have the biggest ad in the yellow pages (or online?). It's very telling that Starbucks has never run a television ad campaign before, and now that their market seems to be stagnant and their share price is falling, they've announced that they're going to run ads on television. They never had to do it before, because they were able to sell plenty of $4 cups of coffee. Now, people are buying a little less overpriced coffee, and the number of Starbucks stores is reaching the saturation point, so Starbucks is going to try to increase sales through ads. It's only necessary because sales are dipping... that is, our need for coffee is dipping. So they need to try to increase our need.
The other thought I had was that we are actually endorsing a shopkeeper's principles when we buy a product. That is, everything we buy comes with all of the principles that brought it into being and got it to the store in tact, and we are accepting those principles when we buy. So, if you don't endorse sweatshop labor, you shouldn't buy clothes that were made in sweatshops, and so forth. There's an opportunity for retailers that decide to educate their customers about the principles by which their products were manufactured and marketed. For example, what does "fair trade" actually mean, and why isn't every product a "fair trade" product? What's the alternative to "fair trade"? I believe that people, at heart, do care about where the things they buy come from, but retailers haven't known how to bring the story of the product into the marketing. I think we'll see much more of this as time goes on.
After Gensler's graffiti wall featured on the cover of September's Interior Design magazine (along with a great internal spread) the next piece of news that I hear from my Gensler alumni network is this youtube link that is making the rounds. It's an internal video that one of the creators seems to have posted to youtube.
I've been working with the AIA New York Chapter Emerging New York Architects Committee (ENYA) to put this event together for this Saturday... Please try to come if you can (but be early--it's free and it's going to be packed!).
Burning Man: Planning and Evolution of the Temporary City
Burning Man is a temporary city (Black Rock City), an experiment in community inhabited by over 40,000 participants for one week each year in the Nevada desert. As it is a place where artistic expression is highly valued, participants create incredible works of art and explore innovative ways of living.
The London Observer has described Black Rock City as a "beautifully zoned tentopolis, designed with a precision of which the Renaissance city-state idealists or Haussman would approve." Though the event began somewhat organically, the urban planning and design of this temporary city has evolved each year in response to its growth and the innovation of the organizers and the participants.
As a one-week experiment in community planning, Burning Man has a lot to teach us about how we plan more permanent communities. Since event participants construct their camps and works of art on a blank piece of land within the city plan, the entire city is a real-time, high intensity laboratory in planning, design, negotiation, and community issues.
Please join us for a panel discussion in which we will explore how the event chose its urban planning strategy, how the strategy has evolved over time, how participants interact with and respond to the plan, and what Burning Man may be able to teach us about the planning and urban design of permanent cities.
Larry Harvey, Founder and Executive Director, Burning Man
Rod Garrett, City Planner, Black Rock City
The Eye, Architect, Camp Disorient
Hayley Fitchett, Urban Planner, Gensler Architecture, Design & Planning Worldwide
David Koren, Director of Marketing, Perkins Eastman
Center for Architecture
536 LaGuardia Place
(between 3rd and Bleecker Streets)
Saturday, October 13th
I've been thinking a lot about integrity lately, and noticing the word and the concept appearing in leadership articles and in conversation. I just stumbled across this article from 1999 on the web: The Critical Importance of Integrity. The article makes a point that I think I've known, but never really thought about specifically before: integrity is not just important, it's critical for leadership. If a person is lacking in integrity, they will have a much harder time inspiring confidence and leading others. I think that some people in business believe that, to be a leader or manager, all it takes is a payroll. I tell you what to do, you do it, and I'm a leader. But that's a very short-lived transaction. This is reality here! These are our lives! And life is too short to put up with people, especially leaders, who can't be trusted. The importance of leadership is even more true in the age of the Internet, when any leader's idiosyncrasies or transgressions can be shared with the planet in an instant. Leaders have to have perfect integrity, or they will be found out, and discredited. Leaders from government and the private sector are shown to be culpable of illegal activity every day in the paper. The mighty fall at an alarming rate. So, if you want to be a leader, you have to have integrity, which means, at its essence, being who you are. If you are who you are, you will do what you say you are going to do, and you will do the "right" thing for the situation, no matter what. When your motives are confused, or you aren't sure who you are in a given situation, that is where you get into trouble. As Leonard Roberts, former CEO of Arby's, Shoney's, and Radio Shack, has said, "You cannot maintain your integrity 90% and be a leader. It's got to be 100%."
I'm one of the organizers of a new arts festival on Governors Island this Sunday (July 8). The festival is featured in today's New York Times and AM New York:
The website for FIGMENT is here: www.figmentnyc.org. Join our mailing list, so we can keep you up to date on what's going on with FIGMENT!
This is a proposal for a workshop to take place at THE Marketing Event, put on by the SMPS New York Chapter in November, 2007...
Many marketers struggle with their careers, asking questions such as: How can I get to the next level? How can I gain more influence and respect from my principals? How can I stay connected to my job, when all I feel like I’m doing is getting proposal after proposal out the door?
Marketing in our industry is
a relatively new career, and as a result many of us do not have a sense of
exactly what our career path is. But marketing is vitally important to our
firms, and there must be a way for us to feel valued for what we do and to grow
our careers continually.
The key is to consider carefully the way we think about our jobs—what we do on a day to day basis—and how it fits into where our firms are going. Being in alignment with the vision and mission of your firm is the way to make sure you’re adding value to your firm, feeling satisfied with what you’re doing, and gaining influence and respect from your principals.
In this workshop, we’ll discuss perceptions of the marketing function in our firms, and create strategies for what we can do to reinforce positive perceptions and counter negative ones. Only by taking on the perception issue head-on can we change the way that marketing is perceived and take our careers to the highest levels.
I just submitted this story for the "Did You Know?" column of the SMPS-NY chapter newsletter...
There’s an old story about
three stonemasons, each of whom is working on a block of stone. A traveler
comes along, and asks the first stonemason what he’s doing. The stonemason
replies, “I am cutting stone.” The traveler asks the second, who replies, “I am
shaping a cornerstone.” When the traveler asks the third stonemason what he’s
doing, the stonemason answers, “I am building a cathedral, which will be an important
place for the people of this community.”
If you’ve ever felt like you’re on a treadmill at work, that all you do is the same thing over and over again (say, proposals or presentations or cold calls or whatever it is that you do), maybe you need to stop thinking about it as if you’re cutting stone, and start thinking about it as if you’re building a cathedral. What are you really trying to accomplish by what you’re doing? How does it really help your firm? Why are you essential to your firm’s business? You aren’t just writing proposals, for example, you’re building a practice. You aren’t just cranking out PowerPoints, you’re helping to communicate your firm’s message to your clients.
I once had the privilege to
participate in a workshop put on by one of Tony Robbins’ affiliates. I have to
admit that I was a little skeptical about the “motivational” techniques that
the speaker was using: getting us pumped up through music, physical activity,
and rah-rah affirmation. But, towards the end of the day, the speaker told us
that we going to close the workshop by breaking boards. That’s right, he had
brought pieces of plywood, roughly 8” by 10” and 1/2” thick, for each of us,
and he was going to teach us to break them with our bare hands.
The speaker asked us to think of something to write on the board: a challenge that we were facing that, if we could break through, it would bring us to new levels of success. I thought about it for a moment, and one thing popped into my head, the idea that marketing was overhead, a support function. I knew that if I could break through that, if I could see that marketing is as important as design and technical expertise, I could take my career further. I wrote “marketing as secondary to design” on my board.
Then the speaker asked us to write on the back of the board what would happen if we could break through this challenge, what the reward would be to us. I wrote “increased influence,” meaning that if I could see marketing as equal in importance to design and technical functions, that I would have increased influence in my firm, in the industry, and in the world. The speaker demonstrated how to break the board, and all around me, other professionals with other challenges and goals used their hands to break their boards. Then I broke mine, and I’ve never looked back.
I believe that marketing is
as critically important to as firm’s success as design ability, or technical
expertise, or project delivery. And if we view what we do as critical, how can
it possibly be just overhead or support? I believe that each of us has the
opportunity to be a strategic leader in our firm. But first, we have to believe
that we are vitally important, we have to believe that we are leaders, we have
to believe that we are strategic. If we don’t believe it, how can we expect
anyone else to?
There’s a quote from Gandhi that I really like: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” What he means, of course, is that change starts with you. There’s no point complaining, there’s no point waiting for others to change. If you want to change the world, start by changing yourself. And that’s as true of your firm and your career as it is of the world around you. Be the change you want to see in your firm, and watch where it takes you!
I was tickled to see the Architect's Newspaper announcement of my move to Perkins Eastman last week. Apparently, while I wasn't paying attention, I became a guru. Which is a lot to live up to. I'm not quite sure what to do with that, or how it changes how I think of myself. I mean, it's nice to be thought of as an expert in something, but I'm not sure that the word guru sits well with me. The word guru comes to us from Sanskrit. It means "a personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism" or "a teacher and especially intellectual guide in matters of fundamental concern." It's important, as always, to just take this sort of thing in stride, and not to let it affect how I present myself or what my internal dialogue is. In other words, it's important to maintain humility, no matter what happens.
Upon reflection, what's interesting about being a marketing guru is that it implies that acquiring marketing knowledge can be something like a spiritual journey, which is an interesting idea. One of the ideas that I've been tossing around for my next book is a career guide that comes at career development from the perspective of a journey toward enlightenment. I'll post more here as I continue to develop the idea.
Having a new job is hard. Don't get me wrong: it's a great job. But, after 8.5 years at Gensler, the change is surprising. It's like a shock to the system. It's like rebuilding some part of my brain. The net effect of the change is that I feel fuzzy. Nothing feels sharp or definite. I'm moving, I'm talking, I'm meeting new people, I think I'm sometimes saying smart things. But I don't feel like I'm all here. I'm not sure what to look at. It's all so new.
I'm not used to this at all, and I keep telling myself that it will pass. At Gensler, I felt like I had developed a sharp acuity to slice through any vagueness around me and to make sense of things. Now I feel like I am the vagueness that needs to be clarified. While I'm thinking about making recommendations for changes in the way that Perkins Eastman markets itself, I need to be careful to recommend changes that are objectively necessary, not just things that would make me more comfortable (as in, things that are more like the way Gensler works) or things that are driven by some other arbitrary personal preference. It's tough because I am, of course, drawn to things that feel right, that are comfortable for me. I'm very aware of this conflict, and I think it contributes to the fuzziness.
If I were the kind of person who did not allow my own perspective to be changed by new information or the local context, this wouldn't bug me, and I wouldn't feel as fuzzy. But I want to understand how Perkins Eastman works, so I'm very open to what's going on, and trying to learn as much as I can as fast as I can. And the net result is the fuzziness.
I had lunch this week with a friend who has also recently changed jobs, and she knew exactly what I was talking about. This was very comforting, as I don't think I would have understood it if somebody had told me about "new job fuzziness" two months ago, while I was still at Gensler. It's tough to understand if you aren't going through it. If your world, your context, is more or less set, if you aren't in the process of redefining who you are and what the rules are of your life, then you aren't fuzzy.
I'm changing as I settle in to my new role at Perkins Eastman, and the fact that I am changing is what makes me feel fuzzy. Once it passes, it means that I am finished redefining myself for the most part, and that I am once again the center of my own, relatively coherent universe.
I'm the closing speaker at the SMPS Northeast Regional Conference ("The Business of Innovation") from May 2-3. To conclude the conference, I'll be talking about strategic planning as a way to bring all the talk and learning about innovation back home so that marketers can work to transform their firms. Here's the blurb that I've pitched to the folks putting the conference together:
Bringing it all back home
Developing a strategic plan to lead your firm to marketing success
We all know that creating a strategic plan is essential to success, so why do so few firms have one? Well, it's probably because you haven't written it yet!
In this two-hour closing workshop, we'll review the essentials of developing and working with a strategic marketing plan:
· Running a planning meeting
· Writing the plan
· Making assignments
· Following up
· Sharing the plan with staff members
· Empowering marketing staff to own the plan
· Using the plan to evaluate opportunities
· Evolving the plan over time
As part of the workshop, each participant will write a one-page strategic plan for their firm—and leave with an action plan to work with firm principals to complete and implement the plan.