Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Gonzales Is Gone. But The Disease Remains.

At the conclusion of The House Lawyer Departs, its lead editorial on the subject, The New York Times says "Mr. Gonzales, for all of his undeniable deficiencies, merely reflected the principles of this administration. His resignation is a necessary but hardly sufficient step in restoring the nation’s commitment to the rule of law."

Contrast this with the words of President Bush, who - when he went before the cameras to report Attorney General Gonzales's resignation - said "Al Gonzales is a man of integrity, decency and principle. And I have reluctantly accepted his resignation, with great appreciation for the service that he has provided for our country....After months of unfair treatment that has created a harmful distraction at the Justice Department, Judge Gonzales decided to resign his position, and I accept his decision. It's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable person like Alberto Gonzales is impeded from doing important work because his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons."

The Rule of Law vs. The Rule of Bush. It doesn't get any clearer than that, folks. President Bush's world remains untouched, unfazed, and undisturbed by the very bipartisan "mud" through which his friend's name was dragged. All that counts are Bush's feelings. Facts? Bush doesn't care about facts.

Having said this, I hope it's clear to you all that we should not really celebrate Gonzales' departure. Why? Because we are dealing with a problem far more pervasive than the work of any one man... far worse than the work, even, of a team led by Bush, Cheney, and Rice... worse, even, than the cancer on the presidency that America cured itself of over 30 years ago.

We are dealing with a systemic condition within our country. For lack of a better term (and with apologies to Walt Disney), I will call it "Living In Fantasyland".

It is a condition that exists in ways big and small throughout our society. From the ENRON Fantasyland of Ken Lay... to the "dog-fighting as sport" Fantasyland of the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick... from the "I spent as much time as the rescue workers" Fantasyland of Rudy Giuliani... to the "I was lied to by President Bush" Fantasyland of Hillary Clinton (who chose not to read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq before her vote).

People we want to trust - with our money, our cheers, the future of our country - are just making stuff up as they go along. Facts? They don't care about facts!

As I said, the cancer on the presidency of Richard Nixon was of limited scope. We were able to contain and eliminate it. And the 93rd Congress - contrary to popular opinion - actually got a lot done while it conducted Nixon's impeachment hearings.

But a lot has happened to the American psyche since the 1970's. The "Greed is good" me generation of the 1980's (and the updated version brought to us by the current Bush administration and today's Wall Street) and the pervasive "you create your own reality" transformational technology personal development trainings (such as est and Landmark Education created by Werner Erhard) launched in the early 1970's are just two of the major cultural trends steering America towards a "You can have it your way no matter what the existing reality tells you is possible" mental belief system.

We know this is how George Bush and his team think, from Ron Suskind's amazing 17 Octboer 2004 article in The New York Times. But what not enough of us seem to realize is that this is a society-wide disease. Al Gore knows the magnitude of this problem. It's the subject of his book "The Assault on Reason".

So, what to do? How can Truth and Facts defend themselves in the face of this very virulent disease? Well, here's my suggestion:

Truth and Facts can become known for being about more than what the real bad stuff is. Truth and Facts can become know for showing us - all of us - the real... honest to God... exciting and adventurous road forward. If I told you that the true nature of what's possible is quite literally "Heaven on Earth", that would get your attention... wouldn't it?

Yes, there are truths and facts about Ken Lay's business dealings, Michael Vicks' leisure activities, and Rudy and Hillary's post-9/11 political calculations. But there are also truths and facts about how much better our world could be, if the majority of Americans were to learn what a number of research scientists and international development theorists know. And what is there that the American people could learn? That it is now scientifically possible to build - with the support of enlightened business and political leadership, of course - a world beyond war in our lifetimes.

Now that's something that no pack of lies can give us, no matter how well packaged they are. A world beyond war in our lifetimes can only be the product of the truth.

This brave new world - if we choose to build it - will be built on the facts, research, and hard won wisdom of those on the front lines of the sustainable international development movement. For proof that these facts exist, I invite you to explore the work of Amory Lovins, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, Business for Social Responsibility, The UN Global Compact, and The Next Great Transformation conference taking place at The Eden Project in October.

There's more to truth and facts than most people know. It can be a great world in which to spend your time... and it's no Fantasyland, either!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

America's Infrastructure Crisis: Are We Really A Developed Country?

In the three and a half years in which I worked in the office of Dr. Russell Ackoff, my mentor in the field of Systems Thinking, he probably talked about one thing more than anything else: the true nature of development. "Development," Russ would say, "increases the capacity of people to manage their own lives. Growth - which is what people usually talk about when they say a community or a nation is getting better - is about the accumulation of greater amounts of things, some of which are beneficial and some of which are not. Growth is not the same as development."

One of the expressions Russ used most often to make this point is If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach them to fish, they can feed themselves for a lifetime.

When it comes to our nation's infrastructure, I fear that our political and civic leaders have - for decades - been giving us "fish" in the form of lots of roads, bridges, mass transit systems, utility systems, and other elements of what is sometimes referred to as the built environment. We know who these leaders are. They're the people in the photographs taken at the ground breaking ceremonies when new projects start.. and at the ribbon-cutting ceremonies when projects are complete. After that, we rarely hear from them again.

Well, perhaps with the collapse of the I-35 bridge, we will. In fact, we already are... in the personages of Senators Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Chuck Hagel (R-NB). Their National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007 is an important first step in moving we Americans past our long history of "being given fish" and towards a future in which we learn "how to fish for ourselves" and then act of that new knowledge.

Of course, by "learn how to fish" I mean learn how to take care of what we've got... not just admire it when it's new and then let it fall apart under our very noses.

Russ loves using this fishing analogy to help people understand what true development is. And - because he emphasizes that development involves wisdom that focuses on long-term (not short-term) results - I'd like to start a national dialog on the following question:

Is the United States truly a developed country? Or are we just a "built up" country?

It is common to talk about how our world is divided into the developed and under-developed nations. And the US - based on its GDP and other factors - always falls into the "developed nations" category. But based on my knowledge that to be truly developed is to know how to take care of yourself and what you have - not just to have a lot of stuff - I no longer personally put the USA into that category.

I think - and this seems especially appropriate when you consider how young America really is, in "country years" - that America is in a category that may have never existed before. Neither under-developed nor developed, America appears to be a "proto-developed country". We've accumulated a lot but do not yet have the wisdom to manage what we've got.

Now, having just described the problem, I'd like to suggest at least the beginning of a solution:


As H.G. Wells once said "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

I almost hate using such extreme-sounding language, but there really is a catastrophe awaiting us if we don't address our infrastructure crisis very soon. Just as the homes we live in will fall apart if we don't maintain them, so will the larger built environment - literally, our national "home". And for this analogy I have Sam Schwartz to thank. Sam was the First Deputy Commissioner at the NYC Department of Transportation when I worked there in the late 1980's. He ran NYC DOT's Bureau of Bridges. (I directed the office in the Bridge Bureau that contracted with private engineering firms to fix NYC's bridges... in my former life as an engineering program manager.) Sam recently wrote a very blunt New York Times OpEd piece entitled "Catch Me, I'm Falling in which he points out how crazy the bridge maintenance financial system is throughout America. I highly recommend you read it, as a first step in educating yourselves about the true nature of our problem. Because, it's only when a problem is truly understood that it can be permanently solved.

Solving America's infrastructure problem starts with understanding the magnitude of the physical challenge (see the report from the American Society of Civil Engineers) and then understanding the financial system challenge... which includes the long-term financial costs which will be incurred as more and more of our infrastructure falls apart.

To some extent, I suppose, this is a painful thing to come to terms with: that we now have to find the money (and fast) to "learn how to fish"... to maintain that which we have. But I also expect this is exactly the lesson America needs to learn in the run-up to the 2008 elections.

We need to ask ourselves - and those who would be our political representatives - if they "know how to fish". We need to find out if they know how to think long-term. We need to find out if they know how to learn to do the right thing - as defined by experts in the field such as, in this case, Sam Schwartz and the American Society of Civil Engineers - when information about a problem is presented to them.

Making sure we take care of what we have. Making sure what we have works and is the best quality it can be. That, my friends, is the hallmark of a truly developed country. And right now, this is not something that is true about America.

But it's not too late. We can still learn how to fish.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

China's Quality Problem: A Long-Term vs Short-Term Thinking Teachable Moment

With the recall by Mattel of 19 Million toys made in China, the question on my mind is "How will the business world - and the American people in general - respond to this teachable moment in the never ending struggle between short-term and long-term thinking?"

Here's what I mean: We have a product quality crisis on our hands, one that is so big it could upset the entire economic relationship between the United States and China. Both short and long-term thinking based solutions exist to this crisis. And the differences between these two types of solutions is huge... like night and day. In fact, the real difference is that one will actually solve the problem, while the other will just sweep it under the carpet. Guess which is which.

That's right, short-term thinking will not solve the crisis. Only long-term thinking will. And isn't it funny how you knew the answer intuitively, even without knowing what the long-term oriented solution is in detail?

Regrettably, the main stream media voices are not speaking from an intuitive place. They are speaking from a classic regulatory mindset, which says "If there are bad things in the world, we should put more people in place to catch the bad things before they reach us." Here's what I mean, from today's New York Times:

In its editorial - "China, Unregulated" - The New York Times says "What China needs is an effective and transparent regulatory system to enforce product safety standards. The United States and other countries can help with technical advice and warnings about what would happen if Beijing refuses to take it."..."American regulators...must also do a lot more to ensure the safety of Chinese-made goods, sending their own personnel to China to perform inspections of factories and test goods before they are shipped."...and - lamenting the inability of the Consumer Products Safety Commission to protect us - "(The CPSC) must inspect tens of billions of dollars worth of goods sold every year with only about 100 field investigators and compliance personnel."

Yup. Regulations and enforcement...threats to stop doing business with them...that's how to get people and organizations to change. Motivation by fear. (By the way, while to the best of my knowledge it hasn't been widely reported, the head of a major Chinese toy manufacturing company at the center of this crisis committed suicide over the weekend. Anger, fear, betrayal and other related emotions got to him. This is a real tragedy. Not only has a human life been lost, but any knowledge he had regarding why his products were of such poor quality was lost with him.)

Speaking of people who are no longer with us, if he were still alive, Dr. W. Edwards Deming - famous for helping the Japanese make "Made In Japan" a symbol of world class quality (even though right after World War II it meant the opposite) - would be saying something like this to government leaders, manufacturers, and consumers in both the US and China:

"You cannot produce high quality products by inspecting them at the end of production. All you can do at that point is prevent poor quality products from reaching consumers, at a tremendous waste of time, energy, and materials. High quality results from a process of redesigning your manufacturing processes - including your relationships with your suppliers - so that your products are built correctly in the first place. This is a long-term process requiring a continuous learning and improvement mindset. I predicted it would take the Japanese five years to turn their manufacturing processes around. Through dedicated effort, they did it in four."

(I studied with Dr. Deming in the early 1990's.)

This is how you really solve a production quality problem. You design the manufacturing system so that it produces a high quality product from the get go... or re-design the system, in the case of one that's already up and running.

At the end of World War II, the American government sent Dr. Deming (and others, such as Dr. Joseph Juran) to Japan so they could help the Japanese successfully rebuild their manufacturing capacity. Our government did this, because our foreign policy was amazingly enlightened at the time. Just like with The Marshall Plan, we knew that helping rebuild the countries of our former enemies would benefit them, us, and the whole world in the long run.

I would like to humbly propose (and if I'm lucky, maybe someone from one or more of the political candidates' organizations will pick up on this) that the US government send a team of experts to China to teach Dr. Deming's methods. Dr. Deming may no longer be alive, but his and related work continues thanks to such organizations as The W. Edwards Deming Institute, the In2:InThinking Network, and - perhaps most appropriately since it's funded by our tax dollars - the Baldrige National Quality Program or people from the State-wide programs that are based on the Baldrige criteria.

This is the long-term thinking solution. Why? Because quality management takes time to implement. It takes time to learn. But so does anything that enables you to do something you've never done before.

In an American society that continues to be fixated on "instant gratification" and "flavor of the month" lifestyle choices (not to mention addicted to quarterly profit statements), long-term thinking and its associated life long learning approach is the true route to solving China's poor product quality problem (and problems in our education and health care systems as well).

Will average Americans realize that short vs. long term thinking is at the crux of our problems? Will America's opinion and policy making leaders? Will the Chinese? Only time will tell.

But there is a parallel to China's quality problem in American history. If you go back to the 1970's, our poor quality products (especially our automobiles) were losing market share to products from Japan. There was a lot of time spent asking "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" (which is the name of a famous 1980 NBC- TV White Paper report). That report showed what was going on in Japan, including their use of the management theories taught to them by Dr. Deming, who was still consulting with Japanese businesses at 80 years old. America learned then that it needed to get the "quality religion". And it worked for a while. But old, short-term thinking habits die hard...especially when supported by the demand for quarterly profits at any cost.

It's not too late to learn those lessons once again my friends. Short term thinking is killing China's export business. And, if truth be told, it is killing the American way of life too.

So you can learn more about Dr. Deming and the quality revolution he helped launch, here's the first part of a 3-part BBC documentary from 1991. Links to the other three parts can be found when it's done playing. In it, Dr. Deming himself speaks about his work, as does Don Petersen (former CEO of The Ford Motor Company) and others.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Hope and "Life Long Learning" go hand in hand

I'm sure you've heard this quote before: "It's not what we don't know that hurts us. It's what we know that just ain't so anymore that does."

This, to me, is the crux of the problem - and the source of the solution - to all the challenges we face. It's also why I currently think that Barack Obama is the candidate with the best chance of helping America (and the world) get out of the mess we're in right now.

I believe that the only way to get from this really unhealthy reality to a better one is to look with a critical eye at what we believe to be true and what is objectively, actually true regarding the capabilities we - as a human race living in an increasingly "we're either all going to make it or none of us are going to" world - have to design and build the better world that's out there waiting for us.

Barack's "politics of hope" suggests to me that he has at least some knowledge regarding how much better our world can be. I think he is familiar enough with recent technological advances that he knows humanity has reached a point where - if we organized ourselves to do so - we could feed, clothe, house, and educate every man, woman, and child on Earth.

Of course, we aren't organized to do this. And if our political system - both within America and throughout the world - continues to function based on the "win - lose", zero sum principles in use today, we will never get to that better world.

But with his international perspective (based in part on where he grew up) and his apparently "world class" intellect - which I'm sure includes a healthy desire to keep on learning new things for the rest of his life - I believe Barack has the potential ability to open the eyes of enough people that we will undertake the "redesign effort" of the current sociopolitical economic system that is needed so that this much better world... this much more "hopeful" world... has a chance to be born.

I definitely see "life long learning" as key. Because, as I'm sure most people would admit, "if you want to get some place you've never been before, you're probably going to have to learn new things in order to be able to get there."

My feeling is that - unlike the current occupant in The White House - Barack is a "life long learner". I believe that's how he's able to keep hope alive within himself. He's learned things that the majority of Americans haven't. He knows we can be a much better country - morally and ethically - than we are and achieve the promise of "prosperity for all, not just the rich and powerful" that was part of the vision of the Founding Fathers. After all, the Founding Fathers ended the Declaration of Independence with the words "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

"...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." sure sounds like the words of people who knew we were all in this together. Doesn't it?

I look forward to hearing any comments you all have.. and to the prospect of hearing Barack speak on this issue of "learning what we need to learn... and unlearning what we need to unlearn" some time soon.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Responsible Journalism: The Journalism That Matters Conference, Day Two

Day One of the Journalism That Matters conference was great in that I saw how determined this group is to create a new business model for journalism in the 21st century (the group is calling it "the next news room")... and also how open they were to my pitch to apply the business concept of innovation to their "product"... to their reporting on what happens in our world. You can read my previous blog, about Day One, here.

Of course, getting to discuss what innovation applied to journalism looks like was what I was most excited about going into Day Two. And that discussion is still the highlight of the day for me, but the additional isights that came from some of the other breakout sessions were very impressive. Here are what those other key insights were, at least as I heard them...

1) "Watergate style" journalism is turning off young people big time. What young people want are partnerships and conversations. They are fed up with the "us against them" world in general and are looking for journalism to not be about that all the time either.

2) More women than men are enrolling in journalism schools across America. This may be because the starting salaries for journalists aren't as high as they are for other professions, so fewer men are interested in the field. Whatever the cause, it means that the profession will have an increasingly feminine aspect to it. You can take that in whatever direction you want to take it. For me, it means a greater interest in stories that have to do with the building up of society rather than the tearing down of society. (Both types of activities are going on, after all, even if we don't hear constructive stories as often as we here destructive ones.)

3) Major news organizations are able to bring people together for events, such as political debates. This capability could be used to bring people in a community together for other reasons as well. This insight came out of a number of breakout sessions (including my own).

What follows is how I reported the results of my session: A Blue Ocean Strategy for Journalism. Before you read that "report", I want to ask that you make sure you look at the end of what I've written. Because I end with a link that relates to what we all saw a Blue Ocean Strategy for journalism could be. But I recommend that you first read the report. Thanks!

A Blue Ocean Strategy for Journalism

Convener: Steve Brant

Reporter: Steve Brant


Jeff Young, Chronicle of Higher Education
Holly Stocking, Indiana University School of Journalism
Jennifer Ward, Fresno Bee
Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Education Week
Tom Davidson, The Tribune Company
Manny Garcia, The Miami Herald
Angela Nelson, The Boston Globe
Maurreen Skouran, The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC
Andrew Haeg, American Public Media / Public Insight Journalism, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Bob Greiner, The Washington Post
Rob Park, Graduate Student, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA
Wally Bowen (came in for the last 30 minutes), Mountain Area Information Network, Asheville, N.C.

Essence of the session: "From reporting on problems to reporting on problems being solved!"

The professional journalists in this session recognized that they are currently selling a "failed product". The evidence for this is that their customers are "voting with their eyes and dollars". They recognized that this existing, failed product model is one in which the story being reported almost always ends with the description of the problem. It doesn't go to the next step... to the "end of the story".

This group was very responsible about the current reality of journalism. Rather than thinking "all we need to do is find better ways to fund what we're already doing" (as if their product cannot not be improved), they looked at what they are selling with a critical eye and saw the potential to develop a "Blue Ocean Strategy" for their profession that goes beyond what their customers normally get.. to go beyond what their customers think they can have.. beyond what their customers are asking for (at least the majority of customers)... to go from reporting on problems to reporting on problems AND how they are being solved.

In addition to seeing the appropriateness of going "beyond problem reporting... to problem and solution reporting", this group envisioned expanding the services their businesses deliver on-line (and possibly also out in the "off line" world) to include facilitating the honest, open, and transparent search for solutions. They discussed examples they were aware of in which their companies had helped convene groups for various reasons in the past, even as those instances were not the main stream nature of the reporting being done by their organizations. They came up with the image of a "block party" in search of solutions, to signify that the process of uncovering root causes (through the use of expert researchers, I think.. but also community dialog ) and developing solutions would be done in a spirit of fun.

From a "what constitutes a well-written story" perspective, the group recognized that news stories must contain an element of tension... and that this tension usually comes from the element of conflict that is in the story. The group realized that stories about solutions, not just problems, could also contain tension when they told how various obstacles were overcome in the process of developing the solutions.

The commitments on the part of this session's participants to use this new business model were not recorded. I don't think they all got to that point in their thinking. However, they agreed that they wanted this conversation to continue and agreed that they should all receive each other's email addresses to help facilitate that process. By "CC'ing" the entire participant list, I am giving each of them the contact information for the whole group... in addition to giving them easy access to these notes for future use and / or comment. (I may have missed something or miss-stated something and am open to correction.)

Here is the summary of the session, as recorded on the newsprint which was posted on the conference wall...


VISION: Hopeful but skeptical analysis of problems and their solutions

MISSION: Journalism reports on and helps facilitate solutions-seeking "Block Parties"


- Hype Free Zone (Show what's working and what's not)
- Story tension comes from overcoming obstacles (not "Gotcha Journalism")
- Study root causes so that solutions target disease, not symptoms
- Involve readers in search for solutions

What is the Blue Ocean? It's going from reporting on problems to reporting on problems being solved! ... thereby giving our customers HOPE that society's "fires" can someday be put out.

What can we then have in a world that's no longer "on fire"? Hmmm....

End of report.

The link I want you to see is about this: While this group developed a business plan for moving from reporting on problems to reporting on how problems are being solved, Phil Bronstein, Editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, was launching a very similar sounding news-about-solutions" initiative which is being called "Journalism of Action". Here's where you can read about what's happening at The Chronicle. (Have you ever heard of synchronicity?)

Lastly, I call this post "Responsible Journalism" because I believe it's irresponsible for journalists to stop telling the story after they finish describing the problem. "Responsible Journalism" is journalism that admits that reality consists of both problems and solutions... and takes responsibility for telling us about the solutions too, even if it's harder to write about solutions than it is to write about problems.

I don't know where or why the practice of "ending the story with the problem" started. But I know one thing: It drives me and a lot of other people crazy! When we read about something bad and are then left hanging, it's like hearing almost all of a song but not getting to hear the end. The mind wants completion - not open-endedness - at least most of the time. "Things are bad. End of story." That's incredibly frustrating!

Years ago I wrote a letter to 60 Minutes in which I said "Why don't you folks tell people how to do something about the problems you're reporting on?" I never got a reply, but the problem has only gotten worse. After all, only 25 percent of the American people think our country is going in the right direction. If the public knew that solutions to our problems actually exist - And. They. Do. - they'd be more hopeful about the future.

Fortunately, people like Phil Bronstein are beginning to see the light. And all the people in my breakout session did. Oh, and Katie Couric appeared to have seen it too, based on what she said at a July 2006 event at the Aspen Institute. This was as she was preparing to take over as anchor of The CBS Evening News. You can watch the video of her answering a question from the audience about solutions, not just problems, below. (It's less than 2 minutes long.)

There's still time for Katie and her team to make this happen. Maybe she'll see this post and decide to do it!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Journalism That Matters - The DC Conference, Day One

Without taking you through "The Business Side of Journalism 101", I'll tell you what you probably already know: From a business standpoint, the profession of journalism is in trouble. I'm in Washington DC right now, attending this year's Media Giraffe Conference which has as its theme "Journalism That Matters". This conference is designed to get the assembled journalists, professors of journalism, bloggers, editors, and other journalism-focused people (roughly 175 or us) to develop a business model for the newsroom of the 21st century.

It probably won't surprise you that a lot of people are talking about alternative funding structures, including the co-operative business model.

What I've contributed to this dialog is the idea of changing this industry's "product line" rather than its funding structure. I am convinced that the journalism profession is suffering from a severe lack of innovation. For example, when was the last time The New York Times added a new section to its paper? I think it was the "Home" section, and that was a long time ago.

Looking at your product line to see what else you might give your customers is basic business strategy. But when was the last time someone did something really innovative in the world of journalism?? (Other than Arianna, of course, when she started The Huffington Post.)

Well, I've been thinking about American journalism's product line for some time. And here's what I told the assembled group last night: I said they should following the advice of "Blue Ocean Strategy", one of the leading business book of today, and use the power of innovation to give their customers something those customers aren't asking for because they don't know they can have it. The "headline" I suggested might be written to describe the launch of this innovative product line is "Journalists Decide To Tell The Entire Story of Humanity. While still reporting on the bad things we need to eliminate, the good things we need to learn how to do will be covered too."

This is a kind of Zen concept for me. If you only report on the Yin part of life but leave out the Yang, you are reporting on only half of what constitutes reality. "All the news that's fit to print"? Not really. Try "All the news about the part of reality we choose to cover that's fit to print." That's what we're really getting. But we don't have to. And based on how the end of Day One of this conference went, we won't for too much longer.

I was approached at the end of today's session by someone who said one of tomorrow's break out sessions should be all about planning to launch a new journalistic venture based on the Blue Ocean principles. So, that's what we'll be doing!

Stay tuned for my report about Day Two. Tomorrow should be a very interesting day!