Volkswagen as Symbol

Volkswagen as a brand has had a rather positive global image. So did Enron for a while. Enron lost it when news spread that the entire operation was a scam. VW is not a scam, but it has scammed quite a few buyers and regulators.

So what can we expect? Exxon and BP have been able to overcome massive bad over scandals of performance. Can VW? Here are a few thoughts.

My take on this — the VW scandal will be remembered as part of the transitoin out of diesel and out of gas burning cars altogether.

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What Was Wrong with 20th Century thinking?

At the end of the 19th century, there were quite a few voices speaking up about what was wrong with it. We are going through a similar shake out now and the story line is simple — the 20th century drive to ultimate efficiency levels made institutions too rigid and unable to adapt to changing circumstances.

If you are interested in the longer version of this story, check out Greg Satell’s post for Forbes. He tells the story well.

But if the 20th century was too inflexible, how do we get more flexible? We do this by empowering individuals to see more clearly what changes or adaptions are needed and how to bring them about. This is why “empowerment” is such an important word these days.

But there is a hitch. You cannot just willy nilly empower everyone to do whatever they want to. That is called chaos. The empowerment has to be around a shared vision. Gen McChrystal’s efforts in Iraq were based on this idea (see link for the story or buy hi sbook)

It was that shared sense of purpose that enabled (McChrystal) to empower his forces on the ground.  But as the General stresses, the order is important.  As he writes, “an organization should empower its people, but only after it has done the heavy lifting of creating shared consciousness.”  That’s how he transformed his command into a “team of teams” and prevailed.

Right! So how do you developed a “shared consciousness”? There are two elements to this. The first is creating the consciousness to be shared. The second is persuading folks to take it over (to help them see it).

So, after me clas

  1. create consciousness
  2. sell consciousness so that is shared
  3. empower folks to act on the shared ocnsicousness

Got that? Great! Have a great 21st century!

Building Movements

Before I write this, I would make a disclaimer. I am not writing as an expert on building movements. I have dabbled in building movements. So I have some experience. But I cannot say I am able to do this better than any other person. I am instead, a student.

One thing I have come to believe, however, is that building movements is a key skill these days that can lead to business success. We used to call this marketing, and we used to confuse marketing with advertising. But these days, building a brand is more about generating passion among a loyal following than just broadcasting a slogan. So how does this work?

I like Digital Tonto’s approach to the challenge. He lists several factors that go into building a movement around an idea (or brand). I will summarize here

  • earn your mission (authenticity)
  • create hackable platforms (interactivity)
  • balance cohesion and diversity (persuasion)
  • create genomes of belief (adaption)
  • sustain passion at scale (agenda building)

In parenthesis I have written the underlying value that I think is at work. Movements grow out of real problem solving (not just hype).

That means authenticity is a starting point to make people get involved in what you want them to do. When authenticity is questioned, things become less spontaneous. But starting the movement must lead to empowerment not domination. So broadcasting a message won’t get people to live that message. In addition,living the message has to attract new and different types of followers. The harder it is to persuade people to join in, the less successful your movement will be. Which, of course, means that the message has to be adaptable to different settings and over time.

This is rather complex, but it does create a learning path of sorts:

  • learn from doing
  • translate doing into sharing
  • sharing has to add value
  • that value has to have broad and long term use

Notice how we have worked from the micro (and individual) level of activity to the macro  (historical) level of thinking. Doing this aint easy.

Journalism is Morphing into Something Better

Our understanding of the media business is based on 20th century ideas. Those include the revolutionary idea of marrying technology and broadcasting, and adapting broadcast media to the purposes of marketing. Advertising revenue coupled with the relatively high cost of entry into the market gave the business model a huge push forward.

This is all changing. First, the cost of entering media markets has fallen dramatically (to close to zero) and we have a tsunami of media content every day via the web. Traditional media can claim that it is higher quality (a claim that for TV at least, carries some irony), but it no longer monopolizes our attention. Second, advertising money is moving into digital space and away from traditional media. So it is both more difficult to find audiences and money. Yikes!

Some argue that this means that journalism is in trouble. Well, it is true that traditional formats that journalists are used to working in are in trouble. But the truth is — as Mathew Ingram points out — that we have more journalism now — not less. the challenge for journalists is to figure out how to get ahead in this heated up space.

I would humbly offer a suggestion. The traditional model for journalism was oriented towards filling space in a magazine or newspaper or TV news show. One reported each day on stories that were developing. This has a two pronged focus. First, to identify events worth reporting on (news) and second to fit the news into a storyline that connects it to the reader. The low hanging fruit for journalists was and is sensational stuff. Dog bits man is not news. Man bites dog is.

The problem with this is that it has limited educational value for the consumer. One scans the headlines without learning why the headlines are there. And so the consumer gets an endless barrage of sensationalized accounts of stuff that is largely irrelevant to his or her life. Fox News and similar shows add a new dimension to this. To make this palatable, they throw in indignation, knowing that people get addicted to getting angry about stuff that has nothing whatsoever to do with their lives and which may or may not be based in reality.

We can do better if we re-think what journalism could offer. Journalism could start with a thesis about the future. The future should look like “x”. Then the news becomes who is moving us to that future and who is not. How can we get there? And what can we do to make it happen faster? In other words, journalism can create news that is relevant to targeted groups.

We see hints that some journalists are moving in that direction. Reporting about the environment, for example, has a future vision. We should stop global warming, for example, Whether you agree or not with this vision, at least it is a vision. It organizes stories around the goal and creates a logic and a culture. How many other visions do we get from journalism? I will be on the look out for this in this blog. Stay tuned!

Thinking about Tesla’s Gigafactory

Wow! Elon Musk has proved before that he is a bold risk taker. He is rolling the dice again, this time to build an enormous battery manufacturing facility. Why? Because he has to reduce the cost of batteries in order to sell more electric cars and solar energy panels. Can he reduce costs in his own factory? The jury is out. A lot of these costs are for materials (over 75%) and they are relatively fixed. BI offers a more detailed look.

What will happen? Who knows. But my guess is that by entering the field, Musk will accomplish two strategic objectives before he starts producing. First, he will put pressure on other battery manufacturers to innovate faster. Second, he opens the door for more battery design thinking.

Let the games begin!

Sometimes Understanding Happens

When I was a child, I dreaded the question “Do you understand?” Inevitably, it followed up the exercise of authority. One was supposed to understand the rules … or else there might be trouble!

But understanding has more nuanced meaning. One should be “understanding” of deviations if they are somehow justified. So arriving at a meeting 10 minutes late might produce understanding if one had been a bit held up saving the universe from cyborgs … or perhaps just traffic.

But there is more. As the rate of knowledge acquisition accelerates, our notion of what understanding changes as well.. The value of memorized data falls compared to the value of ordering data. Understanding, in other words, becomes more of a strategic asset. Something that is not guaranteed by mere participation in the game.

Which brings me to the topic of journalism. Journalists are supposed to tell us “What we need to know”, right? In the old days, that meant getting a “scoop”. Being first to uncover a sensational new story. Evelyn Waugh makes wicked fun of this in his 1938 novel “Scoop“.  Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell have even more fun with this idea in the film “His Girl Friday“.  And btw, the 1974 re-make with Walter Mathau and Jack Lemon called “The Front Page” is also very funny.

The key point here is that getting “scoops” was not designed to build understanding. It was designed to sell sensation. But what happens when we are awash in scoops? It gets harder and harder to deliver sensation on a regular basis. Bad for the news business.

Rupert Murdoch and his friends at Fox News understand this. So they adapt by creating sensation themselves. They become the story by their own barely concealed outrageous behavior. Well, this is old news by now. But it still works. We still talk about Fox News and so the business model is still sustainable.

But there is a problem. And that problem is that we have less time for this silliness than we used to have. We have more and more pressing needs ourselves to keep up with the pace of knowledge acquisition in our own area. And if we get led down the wrong track, wasting out time in the process, the results are damaging.

So, Mathew Ingram is right that the news business is morphing into the understanding business. Journalism is less and less about getting scoops and chasing sensation than it is about holding our attention over time. The problem is that we are just not very good at this yet.

Stay tuned!

Peeking Back in Time

I did a post today for another blog called “Your Daily Buzz” about Brown’s Hotel. As part of my very attenuated research, I found that Brown’s was founded in 1837 by Mr. James Brown and his wife Sarah, both of whom had been in service to Lord Byron. Mr. Brown had been valet to the great eccentric, who had gone to meet his maker back in 1824 while assisting the Greeks gain independence. He did not die in battle (though that would have suited his temperament), but  from “sepsis” well before the battle started. BTW, the sepsis was most likely brought on by the medical treatment he was receiving for a rather bad cold.

Hmm … 1837. What was going on in the world back then? In fact, quite a lot as it turns out. Queen Victoria acceded to the throne that year, for example. And Martin Van Buren was elected president of the US. Van Buren was not overly popular and in 1842 he was defeated by the apparently more folksy but in fact rather calculating, William Henry Harrison (nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe”). Harrison had, by the way, acted shamefully to Chief Tecumseh but made quite a reputation as an Indian fighter.

Then Harrison died just a month after his inauguration. It was said that he died from pneumonia. In fact, it was probably because of a gastric infection caused by poor sewage management in the area around the White House. As it turns out Harrison is not the only White House resident who was probably victimized by this.

This was around the time that Dickens was writing his great novels, in which he brought out certain cruelties that society inflicted on children and the poor. Indeed, we do well to remember that while Dickens had a point, not only the poor suffered. Health risks, and not just from terrible wars, were rather pernicious.

And this was just a short time ago. We are much smarter now, right?