Saturday, 17 November 2012

Weaponized Marketing - A Glimmer of Hope

The Israel-Hamas conflict has taken on a new turn. I'll give some commentary in the form of Q&A.

Q: Is this good or bad?
A: People getting killed isn't good. But what's happening is different in some subtle ways, and that difference could be a good thing.
I have never been as optimistic about the conflict moving off to new ground.
Possibly new ground that would no longer be able to sustain the ghastly status-quo for decades on-end, change the rules of the game, and lead everyone to re-think what's in their best interests.

Q: How has this played out in the past? (because the next question will be "what's changed?"
[a] Hamas gets paid the bulk of its sustaining revenue by Iran, in exchange for teaching its kids to hate and fight an attrition proxy war of harassment against Israel.

In the present environment, this is done by throwing rockets (artillery), randomly, into Israeli cities. Not disputed territories. Not military targets. Not Strategic objectives that happen to be near a school or a hospital.

[b] Like any sane nation having its cities - schools, offices, hospitals, residences - bombarded, Israel's government is tasked with making it stop.
That's not a good situation to be in, but the response is predictable and understandable. It's to defend themselves. I don't buy into arguments against one's right to self-defence. They're hypocrisy. Guess what happens when someone threatens those who argue it.

Israel's approach to date has been to find a (typically rare) opportunity when they know the whereabouts of, say, the Hamas military wing chief executive, and have a gunship pop an anti-tank missile in his face.

What they argue happens as a result of this approach:
a - An analogue of Osama Bin-Laden gets vaporised (they should have stressed this comparison further as there is already widespread global acceptance sentiment towards putting an end to Bin-Laden)
b - The next guy to follow in his shoes is allegedly sent a very clear message on who he's messing with.
c - The next guy might be less Osama-Bin-Laden-Crazy than the current one.

In reality, only 'a' happens. Again and again we see how the theory that predicts 'b' and 'c' is wrong.
Israel has done this many, many times, and each 'the next chief executive' (or whoever) of the Hamas military has neither been trending towards sanity, nor heeding any particular message of who he's messing with.
It's a nice theory, but it just doesn't work. Evidence-based practice and all.

The cons of this approach don't stop with it not doing what it says on the box. It also creates wholesale collateral. It kills innocent people too.

It's bad because Israel's government is signing the death-warrants of innocents, bystanders, children. I am not against getting rid of the Osama Bin Ladens of the world. But I do think how we go about it sets us apart from them, and I do believe there is more than one way to skin a cat.
It's not the -consequences- of killing children, but the actual killing thereof. If your anti-tank weaponry ends up shredding a 9-year-old, I'm sorry, but you're bloody doing it wrong.

That said, it absolutely is bad because of the consequences of this collateral. It gives the Hamas a moral leg to stand on, or rather, cuts off Israel's moral legs so it's left legless on the floor, right next to that eliminated chief executive who lobbed rockets into Israeli schools.
And while any Israeli can successfully argue the difference, insofar as the rest of the world is concerned, it doesn't fly half the time.

Q: So what's changed?
Well, the IDF just grew up a notch (I'd argue that so did the Hamas, except the Hamas has made this particular step 20 years ago).

They finally (yes, in 2012, in a nation with an unprecedented technological literacy rate) realized this is a war that will be won with communication, public opinion, political pressure and the subsequent flow of big dollars, not just with bullets. If bullets could have won this, they would have long ago.
This time around, Israel has mounted an unprecedented PR offensive, that seems to be handled by professionals whose job is to convince large groups of people. Marketers.
The Hamas has been fighting this war in the BBC and CNN for years now, where the traditional media repeatedly falls for "Palywood" - an industry of staged newsbytes, produced to help victimize the Palestinians in the international psyche and level the moral playing field between the Hamas and Israel.

In the eyes of the Hamas, as in the eyes of all  dictatorial regimes, propaganda, lies, staged content and self-serving half-truths are totally fair game, as they are required to keep any dictator in power.

 They've spent the last decades perfecting an industry that time and time again successfully manipulates western media into misrepresenting the situation on the ground. By far not always, there's no cabal of Palestinian Illuminati controlling the world from a secret room in Venice (or of Jewish ones for that matter) but this nevertheless happens far too often. I've brought two documented examples here from the past week alone.

This time though, Israel's campaign didn't bother with the CNN and BBC. Instead, they went straight for the jugular - the social media.

Q: They have both been on Facebook and Twitter for a while. How is now different all of a sudden?
A. Being on social media is one thing. Changing what you say to increase the likelihood of getting your message out is another.
But to do that, you don't just call the Facebook office and ask them for exposure. You need social traction. You need a compelling message many people will care to like.
To that end, their campaign no longer says "We are victims" as loudly. It says "We are like you. We are sane.".
And that's very important, because on Facebook and Twitter, you live or die on how many times you get shared. In my personal experience as an Israeli expat, many of those who live abroad and intuitively understand that no matter how hard we say we're victims, nobody buys into this, would welcome a message with better capacity to convince.
Given such a message, they would go to the effort of sharing it with their non-Israeli friends, who in turn are more likely to bite and re-share. And it's these non-Israelis who are the target market of the campaign, as the Israelis expats themselves need no convincing.

Q: Big deal. How will a few more likes change anything on the ground? How will it change the attitude of the leaders of either side?
A: It already has, and it will go further.

Let's look back for a moment longer. The one set of ground rules Hamas did strongly heed are the rules of what it takes to get your message out.

They used to bomb restaurants with suicide bombers. The goal was not to get themselves reviled by the world. The goal was attrition on the Israeli populace, making Israelis live in their own borders never knowing where death would strike next. Terror, quite literally.
The Hamas then figured out they can achieve this same goal using artillery (rockets) too, and it would create far less of a PR mess for them than exploding Israeli restaurants do.
When was the last time you saw Hillary Clinton vigorously demonize them on CNN?
Mainstream media treats rocket fire with a 'meh'.
A marketing imperative drove a change in their strategy. And we're about to witness this again, further, only this time on both sides.

Q: How is Israel changing?
A: After the colossal failure of Israel's PR machine in the Gaza Flotilla incident, Israel has now very visibly laid out its intention to prioritise communication to the world's audience in its war effort, using our favorite social mediums. These have some physics governing them too, and both parties are already forced to bow to these to get traction.

One such rule - for the message to be popular beyond the in-crowd, they need to appeal to a globally shared set of morals.
Israel realised it needs to get back onto the moral high ground where their target audience sees itself to be. They need to sell a stronger moral position. They chose "We are as sane and well-meaning as you are" - a good start.

After a certain amount of singing this tune on a global stage, the cost of saying sane things but continuing disputed practices (e.g. Collateral-rich assassinations) will be:
a. a successful gunship pilot
b. a failed marketer
c. minimal or no vital message spread versus a strong anti-Israel message spread by Hamas on the backs of the innocents caught in the crossfire
d. An Israeli leader who gets ridiculed and pushed by global policies. And Israel is no autarky (too many people there say "we'll do whatever the hell we like as a nation" by day and complain about cost of imported goods by night.
No friends, expensive trade. Israel  needs trade, both in and out, to afford food, fuel and US dollars to buy steel to make guns.

Denial will eventually dissipate and the marketer's efforts will eventually get priority.

Q: How is the Hamas changing?
A: A different version of the same thing. Facebook and Twitter are not BBC. They're a two-way medium where criticism cannot be squelched, where 30 seconds are not it, and where lies and misinformation are perhaps easy to start but harder to sustain, because people with more access to real facts and no gun pointed to their head get to vote. Not four million Palestinian people, but over a billion Muslims, quite a fair few of which are sane and online. They vote with their like and share buttons, and THEY decide how mass-promoted and viral a claim gets. And guess what. A lot of them used to live under someone very much like the Hamas, and sacrificed friends, relatives, livelihoods and limbs to get rid of that shit. They'll have a thing or two to ask the Hamas before 'liking' and 'sharing' their song.
If you read Arab blogs, that long-overdue housecleaning process is already in full swing.

For the Hamas message to continue being appealing and viral to a post-Arab-spring Muslim world that is increasingly technologically literate and wants an India/China outcome for itself more than a Pakistan one, the Hamas will need to align with answer with those who control the outcome of their struggle - Qataris, Turks, Egyptians. They need to appeal to these people, because they need them to click on 'like' and 'share'. Like their move from restaurants to rockets, they'll need to move their core message a notch closer to sanity, and one notch further from victim and towards merit and earned prosperity.

Q: How is the environment around them changing?
A: The geopolitical backdrop has never been better - a shattered Iranian economy where what Iran can afford to give the Hamas diminishes by the day, the (inevitable, in my opinion) demise of Assad's Syrian regime, and Iran's brand of Islam losing major ground to Turkey's (and Egypt's, tho the jury is still out) newer, more liberal brands means less and less of the old world that the Hamas can go back to. This is a one-way road to eventual sanity, a shared moral ground and a shared realization everyone is better off with new untried ideas than with an old horrible yet morbidly tolerable status-quo.

Here's to optimism.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

I Don't Believe in Gold Stars

This is going to be half rant and half blowing hot air up my own rear end, so if that's not your cup of goose, well, tough. You've been warned.

I don't like job titles.

With the exception of a few professions like midwives, pilots and doctors, where not playing it safe and forcing everyone practicing these to go through a rote learning routine can lead to adversity, I think job titles do more harm than good.

People don't use job titles to define what they do. In my humble experience, 99.9% of the time they use them to define what it's not their bloody job to do. And that goes so hard against the grain of what I perceive my role in any organisation to be that it makes me want to toss the whole titles notion away.

Your job is to make the organisation you work for do its thing. Do it good. Do it betterer. It's not to sit at a goddam desk and in meetings, or clock N hours a day in an office.
I don't care how bloody senior you are. I don't care how many gold stars people gave you. I don't care how many years you've been around, how many academic or personal development certifications you completed, or what your net worth is. NONE of these is a measure of merit. The only thing that counts is how much sense you talk, and the magnitude*quantity of the problems you succeed at solving.

My pet peeve in the IT outsourcing industry is monkeys (pardon derogatory language, technical term) who think their job is to pull a trigger rather than to hit a target, who neither know nor care to know why they were asked to press the button, and what the success criteria of the whole exercise is. Their job is to press the button.

When I'm dealing with a 3-year-old, I'll praise her/him for trying.
When I'm dealing with a 30-year-old, I'll praise her/him for succeeding (I may rarely thank her/him for trying, if resources to try were limited and she/he nevertheless took the risk and tried anyway).
If, on broader things where you get more than one go and can try and try again, you're not succeeding  when you're 30, in my book you do not deserve praise until you either bother trying, or succeed at figuring out what it is that you've doing wrong.

Harsh? Maybe. I can already hear the fingernails of some of my friends. But from my angle - if I can encourage a person to aspire to something, it will be to aspire to be somehow, in his own way, useful.

And mind you, we're not all equally crazy, and the bar I hold the person's achievements up to is not mine. I do care that it exists and has a usefulness score above zero (some people just don't care to achieve anything, which I find sad), but it is his own bar first, environment second. Walking might seem trivial to me, but may be a colossal problem to solve for someone involved in an accident. I recognise this.

I've had this realisation while re-reading my newly-overhauled resume.  I realised some interesting things. First - I didn't bother completing the final bits of my bachelors degree, my RHCE exam or my MAICD exam. Yes, only now have I connected the dots. I came. I learned. And on reflection, the reason I didn't bother with that last bit is that for each one of the above, time was scarce, and I just didn't perceive it as important enough. It didn't solve any problem I cared to solve. I genuinely couldn't give a flying toss about what the people who taught me thought about what I've learned. I didn't feel they contributed value, and in the spirit of lean, that which does not contribute value is waste. I didn't feel I needed their acclaimed gold stars for anything.

(Mind you, where there is value to be gained from a certification - access to further education, a license to practice, a hard criteria for hire, a pre-requisite to publish or the credibility of a specialist - Where tangible value is involved, I'm all for getting certification).

Here's the funny bit. So far - despite armies of people having told me how important gold stars will be in life, starting from my parents in my "You are a Russian Jew, you need to have a degree" indoctrination, I seem to have been right, and they seem to have been brainfeeding me utter shite on this one. I keep discovering every few years that my dreams of what I wanted to tick off in life were too goddam modest.

Being able to understand and apply what my official and unofficial educators and mentors taught me  has so far gotten me through every single door I've ever tried to walk through. Talking sense, critical analysis, a modicum of self-awareness and an acute disregard for the sanctity of rules, together form a magic ticket. And I've been walking through some damn interesting doors.

In some places I've worked we've had a running joke about there being two kinds of people in any organisation - everyone else, and the secret police.

The "secret police" is my home.

These are women and men of many hats, who have the capability to switch these hats more often than they change socks. They often move around an awful lot in an organisation, and often stop and stay in one place for a long time, tasked with solving a big, hairy problem others don't even know how to begin to tackle.

Rank to them is a meaningless, interchangeable means to an end, like a username to some software application. Their rank is what military rank is to a CIA operative. You need to be a corporal for what you need to do today? Pin the corporal badge on. Need to be a general? Just pin four stars on your lapel before you leave home. Low or high, it doesn't matter. It's just a gold star.

Their job is everywhere and everything. It has no clear boundaries, only clear objectives, and clear problems on the way to these objectives. They follow process when it makes sense, but challenge their way through it and fix it when it doesn't. They have one mandate: Understand what's happening, and fix what's broken. A key way to spot them: These guys can't sit on their hands. Literally, cannot.
On their first day of work, before you gave them a laptop, they're already working out what needs their attention, if not already outright fixing it.

One organisation I often lionise is Valve Software. Yes, the guys who make Steam. Valve is a company with a 10-figure revenue. Big shit. The unique thing is how Valve is run. People at valve have no job titles or rank (except on some unique occasions when facing the outside world requires them to pin something to their shirt). No, really. These guys, in essense, only ever hire secret police people. And it works.

Artificial boundaries on what one should care about, set by a narrow definition of what your "job" is, set by what your rank allows you to do, set by longevity, set by someone with rank who cannot defend his views with common sense, these make my brain explode. Twice in my life I've worked in such places, and twice I passionately despised every moment of being there.

Looking at my new resume, I've made a few more interesting observations that tell me how aligned with this view I was even years and years ago, long before I had the ability or desire to articulate any of it. Almost anywhere I worked, from the very start, my work resulted in something tangible that I built or a real problem that I solved. I did not get educated to be an engineer. I just solved problems, someone noticed, called me engineer and threw money at me. And so did the guy after him.

My resume keeps saying not "I was a part of a team that did _", but "I identified a problem, architected a solution, convinced people it's worth the resources by hook or by cook, with what people I harnessed around me, got that bloody shit sorted".
In many positions, I listed many hats that I wore, many unofficial positions whose responsibilities I carried.
More interestingly, if I play at "hide the job title and read the paragraph about that job", an intriguing game ensues. Is this guy the executive, the architect or the most junior operational guy at the bottom rung? Is he the Project Manager? It becomes very hard to work out. Looking at what I got done, and ignoring what I remember and know, I can't always tell.

It wasn't just stuff getting done. It was the blatant nonconformism. Mind you, I play by the rules within sense. I'm not an anarchist. I understand the role of rules or processes, understand how in many cases we're better off with them than without, I understand the adverse affects of people ignoring them and respect rules to a sensible limit.

But I'm the one who draws that limit. And then I don't care what people think. I don't care about the negative opinions, and I don't care about the good. For years, my line to my colleagues above, below and beside me was the same. This is me. This is the problem. Come join me if fixing it, it'll be awesome. That, or get the fuck out of my way. Bad managers fired me for it. Good ones gave me a machine gun and a crateful of ammunition, and promptly proceeded to hunker down.
I didn't feel compelled to get a gold star, a pat on the shoulder or even official recognition. I didn't have a vision of a raise in front of me. I just wanted to go home knowing I made something broken better.

Some people told me they found behaving this way scary. I usually reply that I'm not scared of a moving train that's 50cm away from me when I'm on a platform, because I can predict its behavior - it won't move sideways (a good analogy, because usually, they don't fear the train hitting them either).  That works equally well with being afraid of government, a policeman, your boss, your CEO, corporate culture or "the system" for any definition thereof. When you understand the fundamental physics that make something tick and can stay out of its way, it simply stops being a threat.

So what is it I see? Is it "An Engineer"? "An Executive"? "An Entrepreneur?" "Secret Police?" "An obnoxious meritocrat?" "A guy who just really gives a shit?" "A crazy guy?" "An asshole?" "A guy with a borderline ENTP/ENFP personality type?"

Does the label we give it matter?

I don't think so.

I don't care what you call it, or the cursing or the praise that may ensue. I don't need the compliment, except maybe one specific type.

The one that I try and give, as often as can be justified, to my team.
One that makes them want to drop their other tasks and join whatever cause the next day. One that makes them genuinely believe they're part of the glue that holds the universe together.
I'll take that one any day myself.

It's the one that says, in the words of my business partner:

"We fixed the shit out of that shit."

Yeah. I'll take that.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Making Awesome By Having Impact

What is awesome?

If we want to set it as a shining beacon for people, we need to define and quantify it.

I've observed some attributes, but that's no definition.

To define it, I've looked closer at what creates it.

There are three categories of awesome I've observed people use. There may be more.
Something can be awesome through impact, emotion or quality. Wikipedia, Pink Floyd and Lamborghini, respecitvely.

In many cases, people got there from two or even three directions at once.

I want to explore awesome through impact in this piece.

When we think of something that has positively impacted the world at scale, we say it's awesome.
Fire. The wheel. Electricity.  The Internet. Google. Wikipedia. Cars with internal combustion engines.

Wait, cars? Sure. They allowed us a level of personal mobility we never had before. They allowed us to prosper as a society. Check out the 20th century, at least in that latter half, once we got tired of shooting each other.
But they addicted us to oil on a global scale, propped up petrodictators and contributed meaningfully to trashing our environment. Are cars awesome?

My answer is that in examples like cars, where one lacks a choice, it doesn't matter.
Cars are there and nobody is going to dis-invent them without providing a viable alternative. Nobody really knows how the world would have evolved without them. There's no real choice today, so it's moot, pointless speculation. It only matters at that point in time when you face the choice of inventing the car. And when they were introduced, they were absolutely awesome. Far more awesome than the alternatives none of us actually remember. Alternatives like this.
It is on the day we are faced with choice, that we need to ask "If I make this, will the universe be better?"

For everyone, not just for your narrow interest. This is a qualitative question, easier to answer using simple human intuition. It's often not quantitative. This is because it directly ties into our values.
Lots of slaves may have seemed to make the universe better several centuries ago. So would non-empowered women. This question must be asked with our current moral code in mind.
And it must be asked first of him or those who choose to create something new.

If only Ron Hubbard asked himself that one simple question before he set off.

In some cases, it absolutely becomes quantitative.
A $40bn government project would be a project gained, but $40bn of community money and other projects it could have funded - spent. Is it net gain or net loss? Accountable governments have controls to ensure this debate is had, and that specialists are used to contribute to the discussion. And no, not everyone will always agree.

Note I avoid using the word "welfare". "Welfare" carries too much specific local context. We can increase our welfare by invading another country and stripping it of its resources. Does doing this make the universe better?

This "does it make the universe better" question is just the pre-decision hurdle. It's not the metric by which we actually measure ourselves. Once we decide to act, we should revisit it occasionally, but there are two more concrete ones:

One is "How much inertia do you create acting out your idea?" or in its simpler form, "Will you grow?"
Note I used "inertia", not "money". This is because while money is one form of inertia, it is by no means the only form. An army of free contributors (take the Salvos or Wikipedia as examples) is another form. Non-paying users, say if you're a social network, is yet another. Voters is yet another.

This holds equally true if you're an individual, a company or even a government.

If you're bleeding inertia to do what you do, you're doing it wrong. It's killing you.
Remember they tell you on airplanes to always put your own oxygen mask on first, before helping a child? You're no use to the universe if you're a liability, impaired or dead.

We hope for any vision of ours that it generates inertia, and the more the merrier.

The third and last question is a controversial one. It reads "What does your environment think about you?"

Linkedin have figured this out. They figured that what you think about yourself is biased. Instead, they now ask your mates and past colleagues what they think about you.

Apply this question to a new idea, enterprise, cause or government program.

Group 1 - How many people think what you're doing is awesome?
Group 2 - How many others think that it's not for them but there's nothing wrong with it?
Group 3 - Last, how many think you're outright bad?

Go ahead. Put yourself in the shoes of a board member in Philip Morris. What do your metrics look like?

If that last "bad" percentage is particularly high, especially if it's far higher than the aggregate of the first two... then somewhere, somehow, there's a good chance you're stepping on people. And while they may be conservative bigots with no vision, that doesn't make stepping on them right.

Some of the time, it means you failed at the task of building a rich, multi-faceted value proposition.
If people (other than your competitors) actively oppose your idea, it means you haven't solved for them too. It means someone will mount a campaign against you. It means your idea's value proposition needs more panelbeating.

When the Australian federal government passed the carbon tax, they avoided making lots of ordinary people oppose it by directly compensating them for costs passed down to them by affected providers, like their utility. That's a multi-faceted value proposition right there.

The best way to keep your idea on the tracks of awesome is to make enemies become friends, and engineer a value proposition in advance for those who will otherwise block your path.

But asking the environment is also dangerous. It assumes a shared moral code. It assumes people can think... and actually bother to do so. The movie "The Wave" made a strong point of this.
Asking the environment also assumes nobody has unfair power over the measuring tool (and measuring tool isn't just Putin scoring a 107% election turnout - it's an industry that sells facebook likes and youtube watches).

Gauging public sentiment can yield very healthy warning signals for when something has stopped being awesome. But it has time and again become a killing ground of personal freedoms when satisfying a vague definition was required by law. One must tread carefully, and ensure public sentiment systems, in whichever form they come, have the adequate failsafes.

Most current societies have some tools - from legislators that will draw boundaries around you if you step on too many people, to class action lawsuits that will be thrown at you if you break laws, hurt others or pollute.

The GFC, our deteriorating environment and some unstoppable, abusive multinationals suggest this is not done well enough in our world today.

So the next time you have an idea, ask yourself -
Am I making the universe better? Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?
Can I make my inertia grow? Will I be an asset to the good guys, or a liability?
And ultimately, how can the universe be made to appreciate the idea?