Friday, December 30, 2011

It’s been said many times, many ways* - Traditions updated

Blame the holidays for my lack of blog activity.  The run-up to the holidays is hectic, all in preparation for taking a break to focus on family and friends.  I love this time of year and when it comes to celebrating, I tend to be old fashioned – even if in other areas of my life I am a self-described geek.  And, with a blended Christian-Muslim family, we celebrate lots of holidays.

For Christmas I buy an 8’ Frasier fir – no fake trees for me.  I carefully wrap at least 12 strings of white lights around the branches.  Then it takes several hours, usually over a couple of days, to unpack my ornaments, collected over the years, and find the perfect spot for each on the tree.  My ornaments recall the places I have lived over the years, from the cable car my mother sent me when I moved to San Francisco to the glass balls from Hebron and olive wood items from Bethlehem that I brought back from Palestine. For the past several years, a trip to the Christkindlmarket in Chicago has been part of our family tradition.  My collection has grown and my boys have started their own, adding one German glass ornament a year.

Naturally, some traditions have been updated.  While trimming the tree we enjoy chestnuts roasted, not on an open fire, but in a gas oven.  I plug my iPhone into the stereo and put my Christmas playlist on shuffle. An early adopter of online tools, I’ve been eviting neighbors to our annual caroling party for close to ten years.

Until this year, I hung onto one tradition longer than most:  I stubbornly insisted on hand-addressing over 100 envelopes for my holiday cards. Sure, I prepare my card online using photos I took with the digital camera on my phone.  But I want recipients to know they are more than just a name on an electronic mailing list.  For several years, however, when Shutterfly asks for customer feedback I have urged them to pre-print the return address on envelopes.  This year they offered that and more:  I could upload a csv file and they would print the recipient names and addresses directly on the envelopes.  I took the bait.

Still, if you receive a card from me, there will be at least a few words scrawled in my semi-legible script.  To those with whom I’m in touch regularly, I may say simply, “see you next year”.  For those further away – from those years in San Fran, Italy and Palestine – I take more time and often don’t finish the cards till mid-January.

Whether snailmail or email, I thoroughly appreciate receiving greetings from friends far and near.  These days most send photos, but some prefer more traditional cards.  Some write a brief note while others enclose an annual holiday letter.  More and more are moving to the e-mail or video card, often with clever animation.  After the hustle and bustle of Christmas is past, I cherish a post-holiday tradition:  I take my card box and sit down to reread all of the messages that have arrived in the preceding weeks. 

Now, as I write this on my Nook I can’t help but wonder if the tradition won’t change soon too.  Maybe in the next year or two I won’t need that painted wooden box for my cards.  Maybe I’ll be reading them all on the Nook – or an even newer device.  In the meantime, although it’s been said many time, many ways, Happy New Year to you.*
*from The Christmas Song, one of the best known American Christmas carols, written by (as a dear Jewish friend reminded me) by two Jews, Mel Torme and Robert Wells.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Friday Reflections

Market instability.  Government bailouts.  Depression.  Recession.  War casualties.  Non-violent protesters assaulted by police. 
While these are familiar headlines in 2011, they are also the headlines associated with Black Fridays and other black days in history: 
·         On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, leading to a run on banks and precipitating what became known as the Great Depression.  Black Tuesday was so-named because it was the worst stock market crash in the history of the United States.
·         Sixty years earlier, September 24, 1869 was known as Black Friday for a financial panic caused by speculation on the Gold market, US currency backed by nothing but credit, and insider trading scandals.  Sound familiar?
·         In the UK, Black Friday refers to Friday, April 15, 1921.  The “Triple Alliance” between labor unions representing miners, seamen and railway workers unraveled over the failure of the seamen and railway workers to support the miners striking against reduced wages.
·         On the other side of the globe, Black Friday refers to Friday, January 13, 1939, when one of the worst wildfires in the world burnt almost 5 million acres of land in Australia.
·         Survivors of a failed World War II attack on a German destroyer referred to the February  9, 1945 operation as Black Friday because of the heavy losses sustained by the Allies.
·         In May 1960, on Friday the 13th, Berkeley, California police assaulted students at a sit-in protesting hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  What started as a non-violent protest became a riot.  This Black Friday is identified with the birth of the protest movement in the 1960s. 
These “black” days all refer to bleak moments in history; moments to be commemorated, perhaps, but not celebrated.  How then, did “Black Friday” in the United States become associated with a shopping extravaganza, which now starts immediately after Thanksgiving dinner?  How did we shift from protesting the House Committee on Un-American Activities to the post-nine-eleven idea that the best thing we can do for our country is go shopping?  Until recently, Thanksgiving was the last of the holidays that were about family and fellowship; about giving thanks for what we have:  family, friends, health and happiness.  No more.  For many it has become about giving thanks for what we are going to get as soon as we scarf down that last piece of pie and rush to the mall to wait in line until the doors open.
The Friday-after-Thanksgiving has been the “kickoff” to the Christmas season for decades.  Among other things, this meant that people who work in retail could never go out of town for Thanksgiving because they had to work the next day.  Moving the shopping hours up, first to 12:01 a.m. Friday and now to 9:00 p.m. Thursday means they can’t even have a drink with their Thanksgiving dinner – because they have to leave for work.  And, it’s not just any workday: they’ll be up all night dealing with frenzied shoppers! 
It’s often said that history repeats itself. 
In 1960, the Black Friday riots were about free speech.  In 2011, the Black Friday riots are about freebies (buy one, get one free).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Language Fundamentals

I still get my news from the newspaper every morning.  The other day, in between the news and the funnies, I came across a letter to an advice columnist in which the writer was concerned about a relationship between 'people who believe, “thou shall have no other gods but me” and those who believe, “There is no god but allah”'.  The writer mistakenly thought these beliefs are incompatible because they are saying different things or worshipping different gods. 


They are not. 

Allah is the Arabic word for God.  Muslims aver, “la ilahu ila allah” which translates to: “there is no god but god” – almost identical to the phrase, “thou shall have no other gods but me”.  By translating the first part of the phrase and leaving the “name” of god in Arabic, the differences are emphasized rather than the similarities.  By focusing on the “foreign-ness” of the religion, we create and perpetuate negative stereotypes.  Yet we live in a world where the French worship Dieu, the Italians worship Dio and the Germans worship Gott!  Jews are not supposed to “name” g-d at all; but no one would suggest they don’t worship g-d.

Separately, a friend who is working on her third university degree recently commented on her own ignorance of Islam.  Like most Americans, her "education" on Islam has primarily come from American media reporting on terrorism.


The fundamental function of language is communication and presumably the purpose of communication is to promote understanding.  Of course, language can mislead as well as inform, whether intentionally or not.  The overemphasis on linking Islam to fundamentalism and terrorism is misleading.  I prefer to promote understanding:

There are three major mono-theistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and although there are important differences, they all spring from the same roots and they all worship the same god.  Islam is the youngest of the three and recognizes Jews and Christians as “people of the book”.  Each tradition has a sacred language:  for Jews it is Hebrew, for Christians, Latin (or even Aramaic and Greek), and for Muslims, Arabic.  In the 20th century, Jews and Christians gradually allowed sacred texts to be translated into “vulgar” (i.e., commonly spoken) language.  Muslims around the world pray in Arabic.

It's been about 10 days since I saw that letter to the advice columnist and this emphasis on the differences that separate us over the similarities that draw us together has been weighing on me.  Today is the third day of Eid al-Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, during which Muslims sacrifice a lamb to commemorate Abraham's sacrifice, a story which should be familiar to Jews and Christians around the world. 

It seemed like the right time to raise this question:
Why do people who call themselves "fundamentalists", of whatever stripe, focus on their differences when fundamentally we are so similar?

To those who celebrate, I wish you "Eid saeed", or "Happy Feast".

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Doing Good and Doing it Well

When I saw
GO
DO
GO
OD
on the side of the building in downtown Chicago where Old Navy is located, I assumed it was a store campaign.  The simple block letters in black against a yellow background make a good logo that I can easily picture on t-shirts, hoodies and other items sold there.   After all, the company Life is Good started with  t-shirts featuring a smiling character named Jake with the simple message, “Life is Good” and propelled two brothers to commercial success beyond their wildest dreams.
The message to Go Do Good was compelling enough that I decided to look it up online and was surprised to learn that it was in fact a public art campaign put together by the Chicago Loop Alliance (CLA) and United Way – Metropolitan Chicago (UW-MC) with the goal of inspiring people to do and record 100,000 good deeds.   The campaign launched in May 2011 with the six-story mural by Kay Rosen and apparently ended a few weeks ago although the mural will stay in place through spring 2012. 
It was surprisingly challenging to find reports of the results of this campaign.  Most of the articles I found were written in May 2011 announcing the launch and directing users to the www.godogoodchicago.com.  That site, however, briefly displays plain text, “Thank you Chicago” and immediately redirects to the UW-MC site where there is no information beyond the May launch - and I had to search the UW-MC site to find that.  The first summary article that comes up in a Google search ran in Time Out Chicago and was surprisingly critical of the initiative, citing the “debatable merit” of “arguably trite” suggestions, such as “thanking a CTA bus driver” and noting that “the campaign fell short of the 100,000 mark, with about 80,000” deeds recorded.   In the fourth page of search results, I found the CLA’s own assessment which was understandably more positive, and lists the highlights of over 90,000 good deeds.
Although I came late to the party, I applaud the Chicago Loop Alliance, UW-MC and Kay Rosen. I have never forgotten an important lesson I learned from Sociology Professor Dane Archer more than 20 years ago:
Dr. Archer sent a group of students to a busy grocery store to observe people’s behavior when one student “shopper” exited the store with a full bag of groceries, tripped and spilled the groceries.  As items rolled across the parking lot, the shopper attempted to retrieve them.  People glanced at the struggling shopper and walked around the mess on their way to or from the store. 
An hour later, Dr. Archer repeated the scene with the spilled groceries.  But this time, one person was designated to go to the shopper’s aid.  When one person started to help, almost everyone in the parking lot pitched in.  It only took one good Samaritan to motivate passerby to help.
I’ve never forgotten that lesson and try to make a point of setting the example and stepping up when help is needed.  I’d like to think that as a result of the Go Do Good campaign, someone thanked a bus driver, which prompted other passengers to thank the driver, which made the driver feel good about her job and maybe do a good deed in turn, whether for one of her passengers or later, on her way home from work.  Those 90,000 deeds recorded at godogoodchicago.com represent only those deeds reported by tech-savvy users who had the time.  I would bet that far more good deeds were done as a conscious response to the Go Do Good initiative and that those 90,000 plus good deeds triggered exponentially more good deeds as a result.
Kudos again to CLA, UW-MC and Kay Rosen for a job well done or, doing so well at doing good.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Saved by Scepticism

I'm back online after a bizarre "proactive" phone call from someone claiming to work with Microsoft.  Fortunately, I was only ever offline because I intentionally temporarily disabled my router when the caller started threatening me/my PC.  But let me start at the beginning:

My caller had a heavy Indian accent and told me he was calling to alert me to the fact that my PC had been severely compromised by a malicious virus.  He claimed that the "infection" had come to their attention because I was broadcasting personal data from my IP address.  I was immediately sceptical about his claims, but because I have had some "technical difficulties" in the past few days, I decided to listen to what he had to say without volunteering any information. 

My first clues that something was amiss was that the caller called my home phone, not my business line, and the caller ID was "Private caller".  Not only have I never heard of Microsoft making proactive service calls, I imagine that if they were, they wouldn't mask their identity.  I pushed back, "how do I know you are who you say you are?"  and got a rambling response about Microsoft being a big company and they were a department within Microsoft...or maybe they were a subcontractor helping out with this particular issue.  He finally consented to give me a link to "prove" his identity and sent me to ifixyrpc.com. (I am not printing this as a hyperlink as I don't want to drive traffic to the site.)

Meanwhile, he kept trying to get me back on task, which in this case was looking at the error and warning messages in the Event Viewer.  He had an answer ready for every objection I raised.  No visible warnings?  That's because my antivirus software has been compromised and blocked from giving me these warnings.  He said he was able to contact me because he called the "phone number associated with my IP address".

As I kept pushing for him to identify himself, he started to get hostile.  "You think you're clever?  You think you can solve this yourself?  I'm a certified Microsoft engineer," he insisted.  Well, yes, I do think I'm clever.  You see, although I'm not a certified Microsoft engineer myself, I've worked closely with many of them for years.  And, as the "technical translator" between engineers, developers and end-users, I'm quite comfortable navigating Computer Management screens, and tossing around terms like "IP address" and "Event Viewer".  Still, he made me nervous when he started threatening me, "if you don't listen to me, your computer is going to crash.  I have your IP address and as soon as you hang up the phone, your computer is going to crash."  I was 99% sure he didn't have access to my PC - because I knew I hadn't done anything to open the door.  Still, with the 1% uncertainty, I immediately unplugged my router and called my service provider just to be sure.  After all, my home phone is associated with my account - but I don't have a static IP so the relationship he claimed to identify doesn't really exist.  I also reset the password on my email - which I should do more frequently anyway.  Finally, my domain is hosted by a local business with excellent customer service and although they were unfamiliar with this scam, they researched it immediately and sent me this link - from the real Microsoft site describing the scam.

I trusted my instinct and did not trust the caller.  Still, it's easy to see how many would fall for the ploy.  Someone that sounds like a customer service representative who volunteers information that seems to make senseFuthermore, he throws around a lot of technical jargon that sounds impressive (and scary) if you're not familiar with it. 

Trust your gut and caveat emptor

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Following Directions, Detours and Delays

My husband Mahmoud and I went for a long bike ride yesterday. It was a glorious fall day in Central Wisconsin—a little past the peak of fall color, but beautiful nonetheless. I’d planned a 50-mile route from Castle Rock Lake to Petenwell and we expected to be out for about three hours. I printed out my Google map and didn’t worry too much about Google’s disclaimer that the bike directions were “beta”. Of course, it’s hard to read a map while moving. It’s also not particularly safe…
We cruised along Country Trunk G, passing the turn at 19th Avenue at about 20 mph, enjoying the long flat road with relatively light traffic. By the time we stopped at a busy intersection and checked the map, we’d gone two miles too far—but we misread the map and went another mile into heavy traffic before we stopped again and figured out our mistake.
Lesson #1: Stop and assess your position often enough to avoid costly mistakes.
We got back on course and paid closer attention to our route, only to discover that a proposed left turn did not exist. After circling around trying to find the non-existent left, Mahmoud commented, “Do you realize we’ve ridden eight miles so far and we’re only about a mile from our first stop?”
Lesson #2: Recognize when it’s time to plan an alternate route.
According to Google Maps, there should be a bikeable route that follows the shoreline of Petenwell Lake. We rode north along County Trunk G and made several futile attempts to reach the water. It appears that most of the lakefront is private property. There is a Wisconsin law that makes the first 100 feet of shoreline public, but that doesn’t mean that it can be accessed from anywhere on land. While the public has the right to walk anywhere along the lakefront, we found no evidence of a bikeable path. Meanwhile, we were running out of water and with the odometer reading 38 miles already, we were clearly not going to make it home within three hours or 50 miles.
Lesson #3: Make sure you have the resources you need to execute your plan.
Fortunately, although we were not on our intended route, we were never lost. Furthermore, we work well together and recognize each other’s strengths. Mahmoud is a big picture guy and has a better intuitive sense of direction. I tend to be more detail-oriented and better at following directions (but I’m also the one who misread our location at our first stop). We worked out a fairly direct return route, minimizing turns onto tertiary roads and planned to stop for food and water when we got to Highway 21.  We had to tweak our plan again when we discovered that both restaurants we’d seen were closed. We were able to buy water at the Hwy 21 Pawn & Gun shop, which will remain one of our more memorable rest stops!  After four and half hours and 66 miles, we reached our final destination, tired but happy – and ready to enjoy a glass of wine beside a campfire.
Lesson #4: Work as a team, leverage each individual’s strengths and make the best of the situation!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What's in a name?

Polyglot. Pondering. Musing. KristinBrown. Who knew that it would be so challenging just to name a blog?

I went for a run along the Evanston lakefront and pondered the issue. I wanted something simple, easy to remember—and to spell—that said something about me or what the blog was about. I liked the idea of highlighting my love of languages and making connections to my experiences as a business consultant. Sitting down at the computer a few hours later, I quickly discovered that every variation on every idea I'd had was already taken.

Polyglot? Unavailable. Polyglot Perorations? Too pompous. Polyglotte? Poliglotta? Also unavailable. Even my own name, KristinBrown, is already taken!

Curious, I decided to see what the other Kristin Brown was writing. Nothing. I checked out other names I'd considered. All blank. I don’t mean private. Just blank. It seems like a lot of people have gone to a lot of trouble to "set up" their blogs—and then done nothing with them.

I considered a French name, “préciser” but without the accent it looks like “preciser” and I’m certainly not pretending to be “more precise” (or even necessarily precise) in my posts.

I finally settled on “dicodici”, or “I say, you say”. The Italian name pays homage to my interests in language and word play. The verb “dire” is recognizable in any language with Latin roots. Finally, “I say, you say” suggests a dialog. I hope this blog becomes a dialog about what I have to say about business issues and what you have to say in return.
Arrivederla. Arrileggerla.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Execution: You play the way you practice

We were watching our sons’ varsity volleyball team lose badly to a team they’d expected to beat when another mom leaned over and said, “I was worried about this game as soon as I saw the teams warming up.  You play the way you practice.”  Our team had come into the match confident that they would easily beat their opponent.  Maybe since they expected it to be easy, they thought they didn’t have to work too hard at it.  Whatever our opponents expected, they used their warm up time to practice hard and played to win.  Our team was going through the motions but they weren’t executing. 
It is often said that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  For organizations, however, the individual parts do not usually come together on their own.  Organizations need leaders who not only set the strategic direction but stay involved to make sure that all parties are working together so that the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.  Do our people have the skills they need?  If not, is training enough or do we need to fill new positions?  Are people working in silos or are they pulling together as a team focused on a common goal? 
While the individual players on the volleyball team are all highly skilled, it is the coach who ensures they’re working together and working effectively.  Two days after losing to the team they were “supposed” to beat, the demoralized team faced their biggest rival and lost again.  Halfway through the second game, the coach started making adjustments to the lineup and they started to improve.  Over the next several days, the coach refined those adjustments, including giving opportunities to some of the “bench”.  They held additional practices, reviewed video of past performance and designed drills to address specific weaknesses.  They’re practicing to win because they’re learned an important lesson:  You play the way you practice.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Weight Watchers: An Effective Strategy Implementation Model

Seven years ago, in April 2004, I finally got serious about weight loss.  I joined Weight Watchers, set goals and over the course of the next year I meticulously logged everything I ate and drank.  I recorded measurements and tracked my progress and lost a little more than 50 pounds in 9 months.  I continued to keep careful records for another 3 months and on the one year anniversary, I decided that I knew what I was doing and I didn’t need to bother keeping records anymore.   Little by little, the weight started to come back – so slowly, in fact, that I didn’t worry about it too much at first.  After all, I know that I eat really healthy food and exercise regularly.  I do 2 or 3 sprint triathlons every year and ride 150 miles in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s “Tour de Farms” every June.
Nevertheless, two pounds became five and then, six years and 20 pounds later, I woke up to the fact that merely knowing “what” to do isn’t good enough:  I still need to take measurements and keep records.  If things start going in the wrong direction, the sooner I am aware of the problem, the sooner I can make adjustments and get back on track.  In fact, study after study on weight management shows that the programs that are most effective in the long-term are those that require ongoing measurement and record-keeping.
So what do my weight-loss struggles have to do with your organization?  A lot. 
The problems I describe above are common in organizations:  you put a lot of work into setting a strategic direction and creating a plan.  You identify the Key Performance Indicators, create an operating plan and kick it off with great fanfare.  Then what?  You know what to do.  Now you just have to do it.
As of today, we are one-third of the way through the year 2011.  Do you know if you’re on schedule to meet the goals you set for this year?  Chances are, if you’re managing the plan, taking regularly scheduled measurements and recording your progress, you’re on track or very close.  If you’re managing by instinct, stop and take stock.  You might be surprised to discover how far you’ve deviated from plan without realizing it.  It’s all too easy to fall back into sloppy habits that can lead you astray. 
With my Weight Watchers plan, I weigh in on Wednesdays.  I’ve learned to love Wednesdays because I either get a clear confirmation of progress or not.  When I know I’m moving in the right direction, it’s an affirmation that I’m doing what I need to do.  When I’m not, I get immediate feedback that corrections are in order and I can address the problem before it gets out of hand.