Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Do Not Attempt (Trust) Until We Do Some Work

I was invited to give a lunchtime talk to graduate students in the M.S. Program in Public Relations & Corporate Communication at NYU last week. Here are a few excerpts:
When I saw the bar chart below, published at the end of November by Gallup, I knew I had the nugget for my topic.

Though Public Relations is not a separate category, on this rating scale of honesty and ethics, a reasonable extrapolation might be in the range of Journalists at 24% and Advertising Practitioners at 11%. Not good. 

This is not a new trend, of course, as illustrated by this chart from Pew:
But why worry about the journalists? Journalists are still the most credible vehicle to transmit the stories, issues and events PR practitioners wish to appear in the media. If their credibility is shaky then so is ours. This matter of trust transcends public relations; it's one of the hottest topics in business, government and academia. Which led me to say:
It's part of life, I suppose. We know what to do, but many times don't follow through. Intellectually, we know we should exercise and eat more vegetables. And just look at all of the avoidable wounds that professionals, performers and politicians inflict upon themselves. But we can take an active part in reversing the trend of what Bill Margaritis, SVP of global communications and IR at Fedex called "trust destruction."
Again, it's easier said than done because:
We need the right environment, the right training and mentorship in order to gain the insights that allow trusting relationships to be built. Otherwise, we'll go into default mode: survival. And, in many cases, survival means pushing responsibility and accountability onto others.
I've written about fear before; it's powerful. So, how does one fight fear? Whistle a happy tune? Tell a joke? Try some learning instead. If we want to prove we can speak the language, understand the motivations and add value to business, we must act like scientists and explorers.
I told the group that my scientific training gave me an inquisitiveness that never left. A yearn to learn is what everyone should have in any pursuit. Truthfully, if I were ever quizzed on my major subjects in biochemistry and physiology, I'd have to look up a good deal of the the material. What I really took away, though, was the power of asking a good question.
See how happy that little clip art guy is when he's thinking of a question? The questions listed above just scratch the surface but it's crucial that we get into a habit of thinking things through and turning over a few more rocks before we reflexively answer a question or jump into a new situation.

And how can I leave the talk without adding some thoughts from a legendary tale (and mentioning my book, Camelot, Inc.)?
Please feel free to contact me. I'd enjoy hearing your questions and comments.

Thank you!

Between blog posts I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Establish Real Time Fact Checking During Political Debates

I posted an article on these pages a little over a little over a year ago entitled, How Google, IBM and Others Can Help Hold Feet to the Fire. Tired of all the distortions, half-truths and actual falsehoods infecting our politics today, I suggested that real time (or near real time) fact checking should be established for political debates. If IBM's Watson computer can win at Jeopardy!, why can't we get an indication of veracity while the debate is still in progress? Waiting for the analysis after the fact can be hazardous. Our brains tend to cling to information even after it's been refuted, not to mention all the viewers who tune-out before the corrections can be reported.

What's worse is that purposeful inaccuracies are now an expectation. I was angered when Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, announced recently on MSNBC's Morning Joe that, "Distortion is in the eye of the beholder." What? I understand all about perception and reality but Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had it right when he said, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts."

At least there seems to be one point of agreement among the political parties: This election is the most important in a generation. So, here is a non-partisan effort to bring the Commission on Presidential Debates, the political parties, the networks and technology firms together to "hold feet to the fire" and institute real or near real time fact checking into these crucial debates. Here is my petition:

"I call on you to support an initiative to bring real or near real time fact checking to the presidential and vice presidential debates.

As our technology and the number of media channels have increased, so too has the distribution of false or misleading information. It is time that we reverse this phenomenon.

Currently, the news media and political fact checking organizations provide analyses after the debates have concluded. Unfortunately, as important as this function is, it may be too late. Misinformation is difficult to retract and, harder still, to erase from one’s memory. Furthermore, far fewer people stay tuned for the analyses or read the follow up news articles the next day.

During the course of the debates, all of the statements should be verified through the vast holdings of credible, objective knowledge. In addition, out-of-context remarks or assertions would be reviewed and addressed. No opinion sites, blogs or political party sources would be part of the fact checking database – only transcripts, proceedings and testimony; almanacs and atlases; laws, regulations and policy statements; credible survey data, and non-partisan news articles, journals and research reports.

Ideas include a box on the screen that displays a true/not true or green/red or similar indicator of validity. And, before the candidates shake hands and leave the stage, there should be a final segment where they are confronted with any false or misleading claims and are asked to address the issues right then and there.

Thank you."

Click here to go to the petition. Please sign and share with others.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Apologies – Beyond the Goldilocks Dilemma

This article first appeared in odwyerpr.com.

The Use, Misuse and Disuse of Sorry
The 19th century fairytale Goldilocks and the Three Bears provides us with an important communication checklist: Is something too much, too little or just right? In our profession – especially in managing issues and crises – we attempt to match the response with the language and tone appropriate to the circumstances.

This applies to apologies, too. Does the situation deserve an apology? If so, will the apology be too weak, will it be viewed as over-apologizing, or will it be pitch-perfect and accepted as authentic?

As recognition of an apology’s importance has grown, the number and demand for apologies have exploded. However, I don’t believe it’s because we’ve become a more sensitive or civil society. More and more, apologies are being used to gain leverage. Did you perceive a slight? Demand an apology. Was there a missed milestone? Demand an apology. It’s a strategy of putting your adversary on the defensive.

It’s interesting to note that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has staked a claim on the strategy of making no apologies. Indeed, in his book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness,” he makes the case that apologies have no place in American policy; he believes they’re a grave weakness.

In 2009, when newly inaugurated President Obama went overseas in an attempt to repair damaged relationships, former Governor Romney went on the Today Show and said, “Of course America makes mistakes but what we have done to sacrifice in terms of blood and treasure for the freedom of other people is beyond anything any other nation has done in the history of mankind. And so that, if you will, overshadows all the mistakes and it suggests that you don’t go around the world apologizing…”

Here, I see a gaping ethical hole. Yes, you can cash-in the good deeds and good will you’ve banked over time to give you the benefit of the doubt in an uncertain situation. But a previous record of good does not immunize any one or any organization or any government from accepting responsibility for a serious error or worse.

Beyond the issue of too hot, too cold or just right, there’s the issue of timing. While there’s fairly broad bipartisan agreement that Mr. Romney jumped the gun when he criticized the President for what he viewed as an apology in the face of violence directed at our brave representatives serving in our embassies in Egypt and Libya, there’s an opposite problem. In the past week, there have been some stunning examples of apologies coming too late. Twenty-three years after 96 soccer fans were crushed to death in what’s been called the Hillsborough Disaster, UK Prime Minister David Cameron apologized for government efforts to blame the victims.

Even more ill timed (and ill conceived) was the apology from the German drug firm Gruenenthal, makers of thalidomide. Fifty years after the drug was pulled from the market, CEO Harald Stock said, "We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being. We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us." Thalidomide, you may recall, was a sedative given to pregnant women in the 1950s and 60s for morning sickness. Tragically, babies were born with very serious birth defects, including missing arms and legs.

The suspicion and anger caused by the half century delay was compounded by the claim that it was the result of the company’s own grief – a 50 year-long post-traumatic stress that somehow erased their ability to reach out to the right people with the right words. What an absurd and insulting attempt at rationalizing an egregious decision. It’s a reminder that poorly developed and executed communications can do more harm than good.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Incremental Excuse

Aurora and the Rejection of Small Steps
In the aftermath of the tragedy at the Aurora, CO movie theater, the pundits, politicians and lobbyists were at it again with all of the typical arguments about gun control in full force. Both sides of the issue dusted off the same statements they’ve used following the shooting of Gaby Giffords, and the massacres at Fort Hood, Binghamton, Virginia Tech, Columbine and on and on. We weep, we mourn, we do it again.

At the core is the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America (ratified in 1791): A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

One the one side:
·     The Second Amendment has been ridiculously over-interpreted. (The Fox show Family Guy took a satirical jab at the subject.)
·     We need to limit the number and type of guns available for sale to the public, especially those designed for combat.
·     We must ensure that those who own them do so legally after appropriate background checks and registration.
·     Ammunition that is designed to inflict maximal damage and penetrate body armor should be banned, as should high capacity magazines.

On the other side:
·     Our freedom is threatened and the country is undermined if the individual right to bear arms is in any way curtailed.
·     The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm whether or not it’s used in connection with service in a militia.
·     If we lived in a more moral society, we would not see people misusing guns.
·     Gun laws won’t stop the insane from finding ways to kill people.

Personally, I have a difficult time with the last four points but the last is particularly irksome – the rationale that inaction is the best option. The line is that stricter gun laws won’t cut down on violence. It might cut down on gun violence but the violent will find other ways to fulfill their intent.

It’s the same line of reasoning used to say that we shouldn’t invest in solar or wind energy because it would only be drop in the bucket compared to our overall energy needs. Opponents to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) want it replaced or repealed; there’s nothing to negotiate. Or, it could be taxes and the deficit. The so-called millionaire’s tax can’t get any traction because, the logic goes, it would do so little to cut into our national debt.

Enough! We have to start someplace. We’d like to get to the goal line in one play but we can’t. It’s not happening. “Whatever axiom you want to use – half a loaf is better than none or Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good” (originally, Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien) – incrementalism is hard to accept but equally hard to forswear.” That’s what I wrote in my book, Camelot, Inc., and it seems appropriate to repeat it here.

We should remember that our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many of the Founding Fathers wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted that it remain. So, the Declaration of Independence was a compromise. It was a step. We had to wait nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

Of course we must cherish our individual rights but we are one nation. Those who love the Constitution should think deeply about its first line: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Please note the words “We” and “general welfare.” And notice also “union,” “Justice” and “domestic Tranquility.” The Founding Fathers would be in tears if they could see how we’ve misused and abused their words, and became one of the most violent societies on earth.

Compromise and incremental success may not seem satisfying, but it’s the way most things operate and succeed. Baby steps can sometimes add up to a completed marathon.

Congress and state legislatures across the country should take note. Indeed, we need to elect leaders with the courage and conviction to move the country forward. We need to reject the all-or-nothing mentality and reward the smaller but still important measures. We need to learn from the past, not live in it.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, July 9, 2012

ExxonMobil Lifts the Veil on its CSR

This article first appeared in odwyerpr.com.

I caught notice of ExxonMobil’s “Let’s Solve This” TV ad campaign a few months ago. Its message is to “invest in teachers and inspire our students.” Indeed, ExxonMobil has been a supporter of science education for many years. After all, they need to stay competitive and find the best engineers, chemists and geologists.

The ads are terrific… and terrifying. In each iteration of the ad we’re told that, in a recent world ranking, the students in the United States scored 17th in science and 25th in math. It’s shameful.

But remember, we didn’t get nudged off the pinnacle; we can’t blame the countries that have overtaken us. This is a self-inflicted wound. We slid toward the bottom of the heap with creeping anti-intellectualism and cuts to education.

My admiration for ExxonMobil’s effort was spoiled, however, after reading an AP report on a speech delivered by the oil company’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, to the Council on Foreign Relations. Though Mr. Tillerson broke with some industry colleagues and recognized that burning fossil fuels is warming our planet, he said, “we’ll adapt. It’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”

He downplayed risks to the environment and agriculture, the threat of rising sea levels and the potential for contamination from drilling (by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) in oil shale formations. Quoting the AP report, he blamed “a public that is "illiterate" in science and math, a "lazy" press, and advocacy groups that "manufacture fear" for energy misconceptions.”

So, what is the oil industry’s biggest challenge? It’s not finding new sources of oil. It’s not a threat from wind or solar energy. Mr. Tillerson said it’s "taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks."

There you go; there’s the essence of the ExxonMobil CSR (corporate social responsibility) campaign. The Company’s logic is that a more scientifically literate public won’t believe climate scientists or environmental advocacy groups. They’ll question and challenge their data and they’ll come to accept the information provided by ExxonMobil.

It’s neither a surprise nor wrong that a corporation should seek some sort of gain from its CSR investment. I’ve been involved in plenty of socially responsible programming that reaped corporate benefits and am proud of the work. But the campaign in question raises cynicism to a new level.

One of the beneficiaries of ExxonMobil’s outreach is The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). They state that, “American students are falling behind in the essential subjects of math and science, putting our position in the global economy at risk. The mission of the National Math and Science Initiative is to help provide the ideas, inspiration, and resources to close the gap.”

We all recognize that our science and math rankings are competitiveness issues. But it goes beyond this – it’s also about our democracy. Jon D. Miller, director, Center for Biomedical Communications, Northwestern University Medical School told The New York Times in 2005 that “People’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” With the politicization of so many topics – stem cells, gene therapy, vaccines, evolution, climate change – a better educated public is essential.

I hope that ExxonMobil continues to fund science literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education programs, even though I’ve now alerted them that their ultimate goal is wishful thinking. It's a classic example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. And, I hope the public doesn't view all CSR programs as nefarious plots. There’s too much good being done to have CSR get redefined as Cynical Social Responsibility.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, June 4, 2012

On Leadership: Serious – Yes, Boring – No

I recently caught up with an article by Joel Stein on the Harvard Business Review website entitled, “Boringness: The Secret to Great Leadership.” His title for the article is wrong, though a good deal of the message inside is right. He notes that the leaders he observed didn’t obsess over the level of their charisma or how tough they looked. Instead, the leaders demonstrated humility, maintained focus, were fair and had good listening skills. To me, that means these individuals are earnest and authentic but are by no means boring. I don’t understand why some people automatically assume mutual exclusivity.

I reflect on this in greater detail in my own book, Camelot, Inc. In the chapter “Dutiful versus Inspired Thinking,” I reject the false choice of either/or. One can be tough and fair as well as serious and interesting. My reaction to the title of Mr. Stein’s HBR article was similar to the one I had when reading a particular line in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It was said of an aging King Arthur that he “had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.” In Camelot, Inc., I wrote:

“What was meant by this? Was this an insult? Is there an implication that dutiful thinking is inferior to creative thinking? A dutiful thinker is a habitual thinker, one who is always observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future.

Peter Drucker, the iconic management and leadership expert, wrote in the concluding chapter of his breakthrough book, The Effective Executive, “What is being developed here, in other words, is leadership—not the leadership of brilliance and genius, to be sure, but the much more modest yet more enduring leadership of dedication, determination, and serious purpose.”

One who perseveres and chips away at a problem until it’s reduced to a manageable nugget deserves great credit. Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian general and father of modern military strategy, wrote in his epic On War that “if we were to ask what sort of intellect is most closely associated with military genius, observation and experience inform us that it is the analytical rather than the creative mind, the more all-encompassing than the narrowly focused mind, the cooler rather than the hot-tempered mind that we should more readily entrust in war with the well-being of our brothers and children, and the honor and safety of our country.””

I’m for a balanced approach to leadership – a one-dimensional personality is not the best recipe for influencing others. We should all be serious in our purpose but without an ability to generate any sparks of interest, no one will pay attention, no one will rally. In the end, there will be no one to lead.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day and the Men in Black

A Lesson in American Opportunity
Spoiler Alert! There are details about the movie below.

My wife, one of my daughters and I joined many others to make Men in Black III the number one movie this Memorial Day weekend. We enjoyed it; in our collective opinion, it was better than II but not as good as the original.

But there was a moment when the fun turned to unease. When the world seemed suddenly unnatural (for someone who deals with aliens all day), Agent J (Will Smith) went to the apartment of his partner, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). The door opened, however, to a Jewish family. (I could see a Mezuzah – a prayer rolled up in a small decorative case - affixed to the doorframe.) Overcome with a strange craving for chocolate milk (because of a change in the timeline of history), he took a cup from one of the children. The child then exclaimed something along the lines of, “Mommy the President drank my chocolate milk!”

I let out an audible laugh and then I heard a grandmotherly African American woman in the audience yell, “Racist!” There were other people that laughed, but I was among those closest to her. I couldn’t tell if her remark was directed at me or the screen. Either way, her reaction was the subject of discussion on the car ride home.

Our first thoughts were with the woman in the theater. We felt bad about her response to the movie scene – that she heard prejudice, that she was hurt. Why? Did she think that the line was akin to saying “black people all look alike”? We won’t ever know. Needless to say I wouldn’t have laughed if I thought it was a racist comment nor do I think Will Smith would have tolerated being the target of a slur. (And it’s hard to imagine the key people behind the movie – Steven Spielberg, Barry Sonnenfeld and Etan Cohen – would be so insensitive.)

Though we can’t deny the woman her feelings, we felt quite the opposite. Here’s a little child who sees an African American man and thinks “President.” How great is that? Not sports star, not janitor, not criminal. President. The three of us in the car reveled in this. Despite the sad and destructive political division in our country, we have nonetheless reached a major turning point. If there’s any stereotyping going on here, I’d take it this version.

It’s about time, of course, and there’s still further to go in erasing intolerance, but our country has come a long way. It’s a long way pioneered by civil rights activists and progressive politicians who wanted to see the realization of our founding vision. These principles have been upheld and defended by courageous civilians, and by our men and women in uniform. So, it’s fitting that on this Memorial Day we can again salute those in the military who have given their lives to protect our freedoms and the American ideal.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Doubling Down: A Communication Gamble

--> This article first appeared in odwyerspr.com.

In the casino game of blackjack, doubling down is the chance to double your bet after receiving your first two cards. Then, you’re allowed just one more card. But doubling down is now code for reinforcing a controversial or politically charged position with a potentially more controversial or politically charged position.

The inspiration for this article, of course, was the days-long verbal attack on Georgetown University law school student Sandra Fluke by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. While Fluke argued that contraception should be made available through any employer, Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” His logic makes us, the U.S. taxpayers, the “pimps.” Limbaugh doubled down when he continued the next day and demanded, “If we’re going to pay for this, then we want something in return… the videos of all this sex posted on-line so we can see what we’re getting for our money.”

Was this just a passionate stance on morality or on the First Amendment? Can we excuse it because, after all, Rush will be Rush? Georgetown President John J. DeGioia had it right when he wrote that Limbaugh “responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student." A number of Limbaugh’s advertisers seem to concur. Two sponsors – Sleep Number and Quicken Loans – took a stand and reacted quickly. Now, a total of eight firms have walked away or suspended their support.

So, what about the front-runners for the Republican nomination? Their response has been shamefully, how should I say, impotent. Mitt Romney said, “It's not the language I would have used. But I'm focusing on the issues that I think are significant in the country today and that's why I'm here talking about jobs in Ohio.” And Rick Santorum rationalized, “He's being absurd. But that's, you know, an entertainer can be absurd.”

Seeing the advertising dollars begin to disappear, Limbaugh finally apologized over the weekend:

“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.

I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? Where do we draw the line? If this is accepted as the norm, what will follow? Will we be debating if taxpayers should pay for new sneakers for all students that are interested in running to keep fit? In my monologue, I posited that it is not our business whatsoever to know what is going on in anyone's bedroom nor do I think it is a topic that should reach a Presidential level.

My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

This looks like an apology wrapped in an explanation inside a justification. And, in predictable fashion, Limbaugh told his listeners that he felt no pressure to apologize:

"I reject millions of dollars of advertising a year, much to the chagrin of my ad sales team including General Motors. I made the decision [after the government bailout] not to accept [GM advertising] because you, the audience, comes first. We're going to replace those that leave."

It’s hard to quantify but the doubling down phenomenon seems to be growing; when challenged, the default response is often a lurch toward further entrenchment. President Clinton’s denials about Monica Lewinsky, Mel Gibson and his tirade against Jews, Michelle Bachmann and her assertions that then Senator Obama has anti-American views, Anthony Weiner and the infamous Twitter messages and photos, the list goes on. In each of these examples, and so many more, the offenders were given an opportunity – a big media platform – to reposition or restate their claims (i.e., apologize and just plain ol’ admit that they were wrong or lied). Some do apologize eventually but not until a good deal of damage has been inflicted on themselves and on those around them. Some can recover from the incident depending on the amount of trust and previously banked good will, degree of authentic contrition and subsequent behavior. But why take the chance on shattering credibility, crushing a reputation or poisoning a legacy?

Will Rogers’ cowboy wisdom still echoes: “If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.” No matter how awkward or embarrassing or uncomfortable, bite the bullet and take the pain as early as possible. In his apology statement, Rush Limbaugh asked, “What happened to personal responsibility and accountability?” Exactly, Rush, exactly.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Remarks to the 12th Southern Connecticut Invitational Science & Engineering Fair

It was my great pleasure to be a part of the 12th Annual Southern Connecticut Invitational Science and Engineering Fair on Saturday, this time as president of the sponsoring foundation. I made a few remarks to the students, teachers, judges, volunteers, mentors and parents before introducing our terrific keynote speaker, Dr. Dan Riskin. Dan is an award-winning evolutionary biologist known for his work with bats. He’s also the co-host of Daily Planet for Discovery Canada, and the host of Animal Planet’s Monsters Inside Me.

Here’s some of what I said to the students:

There is so much to be gained from your participation here. It goes well beyond the competition – there are life lessons here, too.

The great sportswriter, Grantland Rice, said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” True enough. In our case, though, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s what you’ve learned. I hope all the research and preparation for your projects propel you higher and farther in science or engineering. But even if that’s not your final destination, there’s much to be gained from the process.

Aside science and health, one of my interests is researching the stories of King Arthur and Camelot. I’ve found that there are a number of important lessons in leadership, management and communication to be learned from those medieval stories. And, believe it or not, important lessons on the scientific method.

I want to share just three quotes from T.H. White, who wrote five terrific books on the King. Merlin said to a young Arthur, “Learn why the world wags and what wags it.” The message here is to observe, question, probe and explore. We need to use these techniques in science and engineering but they’re equally important in any school subject or at work or in figuring out relationships.

We think of Merlin as a magician, the archetypal sorcerer, the starting material for Albus Dumbledore in the wonderful Harry Potter series. But he was Arthur’s teacher and mentor, and thought of himself as a scientist. He said, “The only thing worth doing for the race [for all people] is to increase its stock of ideas.” That’s it, isn’t it? We need to keep thinking – and thinking habitually – because that’s the way we solve problems both big and small. We need to turn issues and problems around, look for other perspectives and other options. We can learn on our own and we can learn from each other. We can reuse or reformulate old ideas or create new ones. It all depends on the need.

Finally, when Arthur was an old man and about to face his final battle, he was depressed that his vision for a peaceful and united England was unraveling. He asked Merlin if he was a failure. Merlin snapped back, “Certainly not. [Using the Knights of the Round Table to enforce a new civil code] was an experiment and experiments lead to new ones.”

I can tell you that during my days in the laboratory a great deal of what I learned was what not to do! Unfortunately, in science it seems that there are more dead ends than through roads. But as many of you are finding out, what may look like a wrong turn is by no means a wasted effort. It might be frustrating at times but we need to take what we’ve learned, turn it over, examine it, make good use of the insight and push forward. No one can promise a smooth path but I can promise that it will be a rewarding one.

Thank you for participating this year, and congratulations on your wonderful projects and impressive achievements! 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Groups, Thinking and Groupthinking

We Need Time Alone and Time Together to Be Effective
Several former students from my Strategic Communication class at NYU sent me an article from The New York Times recently. (I already read it but remain so appreciative that they thought of me.) “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” written by Susan Cain, caught their eyes because we had a deep discussion about the groupthink phenomenon. Unfortunately, the article didn’t capture the real essence of groupthink nor did it mention who coined the term.

Groupthink is not just thinking in groups. Dr. Irving L. Janis, as a research psychologist at Yale in 1971, said it’s “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”

While it’s important for teams to feel and be cohesive, it’s our mutual responsibility to confront bad or negative behaviors. Too often, team members try to please one another; they don’t want to “rock the boat.” What’s most important to them is to be perceived as team players and to retain their membership or standing in the group. But groups that can’t challenge themselves can seriously threaten (and in some cases destroy) the groups’ very goals and principles. (The examples are too numerous to mention but one of the most extensively studied were the groupthink decisions that led to the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and her crew.)

Janus identified eight characteristics of groupthink:
  • Illusion of Invulnerability: A belief that any decision reached will be successful. (How can we lose? We’re too big, too important to fail.)
  • Belief in the Inherent Morality of the Group: A belief in the righteousness of the decision. (God is on our side!)
  • Rationalization: Objections are overshadowed by perceived negative reactions. (No one will notice or care. It’ll work because it’s always worked.)
  • Stereotypes of Out-Groups: Falsely characterizing another group. (It’s the media that’s giving us a bad name!)
  • Self-Censorship: What we commit upon ourselves in the guise of group loyalty, team spirit or adherence to company policy. (I should have said something, but…)
  •  Direct Pressure: Dissent is presumed to be disloyal or counter to the group’s interests. (If you’re not with us, you’re against us.)
  •  Mindguards: Data, facts, opinions kept deliberately away from the group. (Oh well, you already made up your mind anyway.)
  •  Illusion of Unanimity: As drawbacks are downplayed and the inevitability of the decision is reinforced, the group coalesces around the decision. (We have to make this happen, we have no choice – so we’re good to go, right?)
In her NYT article, Ms. Cain posits that we’re crushing creativity by teaching in classroom “pods” (where desks are arranged together) and working in open-plan offices. (Yes, it is nice to be able to close the door every now and then.) When referring to brainstorming new ideas she says, “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.” And quoting Steve Wozniak of Apple fame: “Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Of course we need time and solitude to think. That's a "no brainer." (I couldn't resist.) I’m a big advocate of carving out some amount of time every day to ponder. More connections form in our brains when we think habitually. (More on this in the previous article, "A Creative New Year's Resolution.) So, generating ideas on your own is great. I’m all for it. But ideation, like just about everything else in life, requires balance. In this case, it's balancing time alone and time together. Refining and enhancing ideas through collaboration and gaining the buy-in of the group are essential elements in any organization and in any business. Indeed, the team concept isn’t at fault; it’s the team dynamic that can lead to trouble.

Janus offers us some help here, too, with some methods to avoid the effects of groupthink: 
  • Keep an Open Climate: Keep the discussion free of judgmental attitudes and accept divergent thinking.
  • Avoid the Isolation of the Group: Frame the issue/problem from different points of view; bring in outside opinion/experts.
  • Allow Critical Evaluation: Grant power to assail the “sacred cows” and challenge areas outside one’s expertise.
  • Avoid Being Too Directive: Allow the group it’s own space – leaders don’t need to be present for every meeting.
Ms. Cain concludes by acknowledging that collaboration is crucial, at least in some spheres. “The problems we face in science, economics and many other fields are more complex than ever before, and we’ll need to stand on one another’s shoulders if we can possibly hope to solve them.” My belief is that “many other fields” is more likely most, if not all of them.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me @pauloestreicher.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Creative New Year's Resolution

This article first appeared in the MENG (Marketing Executives Networking Group) Blend.

How many times have you heard it? “Tell me something I don’t know.” “Give me your best creative ideas.” “I want a concept that people will be talking about.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re inside an organization or sitting in an agency – there is a never-ending desire and need for differentiation. Whether it’s a company, product or person, engaging and persuading stakeholders often involves thoughtful, clever marketing. The problem, though, is that creativity is both misunderstood and dropping in supply.

Although LinkedIn reported that “creative” was the most overused term in on-line profiles1, a survey released in 2010 by IBM of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries emphasized that even “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or even vision—successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.” Creativity was cited by 60 percent of the CEOs as the most important attribute; integrity was next at 52 percent.2 With such a high premium placed on creativity, the CEOs in the survey signaled some concern because less than half of them “believe their enterprises are adequately prepared to handle a highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment.”

This may not be just a staffing problem. It may also mean that there are not enough creative thinkers to go around. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that we may be heading for a creativity crisis. A review of nearly 300,000 creativity tests, also called Torrance scores, of children and adults collected over several decades showed that American creativity has been declining since 1990.3 (These tests were based on the work of the late E. Paul Torrance, an educational psychologist best known for his research on creativity.)

Yet, creativity is in the eye of the beholder. There’s more than one definition and more than one way that creativity can lead to a successful outcome. Still, we must ensure that our educational system emphasizes idea generation and problem-solving techniques in addition to the more traditional memorization and drills.

Recognizing the importance of creativity, some advertising and public relations agencies have elevated people into positions such as chief creative officer. You may have also seen the titles creative guru, creative ninja, or even head of creation (which may get an argument from, shall we say, a higher authority). That’s all fine but I have known a few who took their titles to mean that creativity was their personal domain and theirs alone. These individuals would go into seclusion so they could develop “the big idea.” Then, they presented their concepts as a fait accompli, like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s head fully armored and ready for battle. We want and need exceptional thinkers on our team, but they sometimes rail against process and fail to realize that there is, or should be, a team. Without good leadership from the “creative types,” the other human resources in the organization will be wasted and demoralized.

While meeting the business objective is the ultimate measure of success, it’s been known that the quest to be creative sometimes becomes the objective in itself. In the drive to knock the socks off of the client, or win an industry award, the true customer – the end-user – is forgotten. We need to spend more time orienting on the audience, reminding ourselves of the real prize. As King Arthur said when he rose to power, “I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them.”4

As a fan of the Arthurian legends, I was taken aback by a comment made about his style of thinking toward the end of his life: “The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one.”5 What was meant by this? Was it an insult? Was there an implication that dutiful thinking was inferior to creative thinking? The truth is we need both. A dutiful thinker is a habitual thinker, one who is always observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future. The creative spark is precious but dutiful thinking, steady and stepwise, is a virtue of its own. Sometimes we can get to the goal line in one play. More often, though, progress is made in important, incremental steps that ultimately add up to the win. As Merlin, Arthur’s mentor, told him: “…the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas.”6

The creativity deficit could be reversed in short order if more people adopt the concept of marrying dutiful with inspired thinking. Getting ourselves and others to think a bit more and a bit more regularly is surely a lot easier than other New Year’s resolutions we’ve proclaimed and then later abandoned. It’s interesting to note, too, that habitual thinking is a form of mental exercise that, over a lifetime of consistent contemplation, changes our neurological patterns.7, 8 More time thinking helps to remodel our brains so that we get better at thinking. If only weight loss and getting in better shape were this painless!

1. Ceyhan, Simla, “Buzzwords 2011: Who’s been ‘creative’ and ‘effective’ this year?,” December 13, 2011,  http://blog.linkedin.com/2011/12/13/buzzwords-redux/
2. 2010 IBM Global CEO Study, http://www.ibm.com/ceostudy.
3. Attributed to Kyung-Hee Kim in P. Bronson and A. Merryman, “The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek, July 19, 2010.
4. White, T.H., The Once and Future King, p. 246.
5. White, T.H., The Once and Future King, p. 630.
6. White, T.H., The Book of Merlyn, p. 11.
7. R. E. Jung et al., “Biochemical Support for the ‘Threshold’ Theory of Creativity: A Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy Study,” Journal of Neuroscience 29:16 (2009): 5319–5325.
8. R. E. Jung et al., “Neuroanatomy of Creativity, Human Brain Mapping,” Journal of Neuroscience 31:3 (2010): 398–409.

Between blog posts, you can follow me @pauloestreicher.