Sunday, December 11, 2011

Item #60: The Weight of Doing Something

“She rises in the morning, and her first thoughts go to the disasters that may have befallen during the dark hours of the night. She checks all known sources for assurance and re-assurance, feeling the panic rise in her throat in catastrophic anticipation, as she combs through all the unlikely possibilities. As her pupils register the daylight, so her mind registers some rationality. As an emerging list of things-to-do, reality comes into focus. She runs through the expectations of the day, anxiety regulating minute by minute, though never to a baseline level. Task: consider, write, review, reconsider, rewrite, re-review. Pause, close, walk away, distract. Sit down again. Consider, write, review, reconsider, rewrite, re-review. And so on. All while the beating of the heart continues its race, the formulation and prediction of possible alternative outcomes in overdrive. And then, eventually, exhaustion. No more ‘consider’ left in the cognitive pathways, no more writing left in the fingertips, no more optical reserve to channel into reviewing. And so she presses Send.”

Feel familiar to anyone?

I call it The Weight of Doing Something.

It goes by common everyday names like procrastination, perfection, and sometimes amongst the more aware and honest of us, it is named fear or anxiety.

It is that feeling of wanting to ‘do something’ followed up right behind by that feeling of ‘oh no’. That ‘it isn’t right’, ‘maybe I should talk to someone else first’, ‘I just need a little more time with it’ or yikes, ‘it’s just not good enough yet’ feeling.

This is the language of The Weight of Doing Something.

It exists for good reason. It keeps us careful. It pushes us in the direction of excellence. Maybe it forces us to stop and think a little harder at the right times.

But like much of life, it has a dark side. The Weight of Doing Something can make us never do anything. Too scared to try. Too paralyzed to risk. Too flooded with fight or flight hormones rushing through the system to act.

So how to carry The Weight of Doing Something? Well it means acknowledging its angel side resting on one of your shoulders, and its devil side perching comfortably on the other. It means heeding the cautions, the questions, the pushing for excellence that the devil side advocates, and then garnering courage from the angel side to move forward: to try, to take those calculated risks, to act.

It means telling oneself regularly how important it is that The Weight of Doing Something doesn’t become The Iron Ball of Doing Nothing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Item #58: Making, Makers and Maker-Dom

There is an amazing movement sprouting up: A Maker Movement. Where people in spaces and places all over the world, come together to make things. Productive things like 3D printers made from scratch, with human hands, in small rooms, by tiny teams. Or fun, imaginative things like go karts that look like cupcakes. Depending on the persons involved or the viewpoints of one, the printer might be fun and imaginative and the cupcake go karts productive. But that’s the essence of the whole thing right there. Making, Makers, Maker Spaces and The Maker Movement is at the same time fascinating and captivating, indefinable and non-capturable. You can’t pin it down to reasons for being, or the potential it holds.

It is The Maker-Dom, a kingdom unto it’s own.

It’s tentacled still in terms of it’s ideologies. ‘Making’ could be a counter-point to traditional education models. ‘Making’ could be anti-consumerist, or anti-corporate: an alternative to buying. ‘Making’ could be evolutionary and natural, meaning with ‘making’, we are just getting back to our inborn instincts and abilities. ‘Making’ could be an outcropping facilitated by the access that technology provides. Or ‘Making’ could be a cry of individualism to see ‘self’ imprinted on ‘things’.

The Maker Movement has its characters – a cast of thousands in all corners of the globe. Kids, Parents, Nerds, Artists, Scientists, Businesspeople and Billionaires. Perhaps that’s why it enthralls me so. Let me introduce you to three of these characters I came across in my investigative travels.

MAKER 1: Gail Folsom of The League of S.T.E.A.M.

Here she is, the gorgeous lady that first caught my eye. The League of S.T.E.A.M. was birthed when years ago Gail Folsom wanted a costume for a party that glowed, functionally, and so, she collaborated with her husband, an accomplished prop designer to make it so. Acclaim came, the idea grew, others came on board and now The League of S.T.E.A.M. is a veritable indie Cirque du Soleil of entertainment. A traveling theatre troupe, music partnerships, a podcast and web series, plus merchandise for sale has made this Maker’s Maker-Dom.

For fear of mis-representing the glory of this being, the League of S.T.E.A.M. self-describes as:

“We are monster hunters from the Victorian era. From up on the stage to mingling with the crowd, our members engage the audience with proton packs capable of firing blasts of “steam,” zombie man-servants on chain-leads, net guns and titillating electro-shock packs and ethereal glowing ghosts. Every piece of machinery is meticulously designed, detailed, and fully functional, from the steam cannon to the extendable “Punchy Fist”. The League of S.T.E.A.M. is one of the fastest-growing entertainment groups of its kind, and our series of filmed exploits has ensured us a popularity that fills our events to capacity.”

MAKER 2: Lindsay Lawlor and Russell, The Electric Giraffe

Inspired by trips to Burning Man, and a want to create a device that would get him up high, carry a few people and pump out “some bitchin’ sound”, Russell was born. Russell is a maze of wires and components and a product of thousands of lines of code yet looks like a ferris wheel come to life. Dotted with glowing lights and outfitted with ‘eyes’ that seem to convey emotion, Russell always ‘gets the mike’ so he can speak for himself. Russell narrates his ongoing upgrades via blog-stream at Lindsay and Russell’s Maker-Dom destination at

“Ouch! That plasma torch hurts!!! HELP, he's gone nuts!!! Help! Eeek! My owner went crazy and tore me to pieces! He’s assured me I’ll look better than ever, but for now I’m very nervous about my future and wondering what’s going to become of me!”

MAKER 3: Michael Smith, The Inn Chef

Many know Michael Smith as popular TV food personality, published author, professional chef and food ambassador.

But Michael is also a Maker.

Says Michael: “I think one of the neatest things about cooking and recipes in particular is how easy it is to make them your own, and stir your own personality into them…the essence of a recipe is that it’s just a starting point…a good well-written recipe is the kind of thing where you can free-style and riff off of it…to be successful with a recipe, you don’t have to do it exactly the way the person who wrote the recipe does it, but you find a way to stir your own ideas into it…there is an interesting trend called open-source recipe sharing…let’s see what we can do when we collaborate on what a perfect recipe can be…”

You can see the full interview with Michael Smith and Maker Culture on Youtube.

This is only a tiny little sampling of the Maker-Dom cast. And there is even more fascination to find when you begin exploring Maker Spaces, like Maker Faires and NYC Resistor Lab, or Maker Media via Make Magazine or Make Online.

If this interests you, start exploring…better yet, start Making!

Picture sources:,,

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Item #57: Words: Communication, Art and Science.

I have always been fascinated by words: short pretty words, long meaningful words. At one point, I started writing down words that just all by themselves looked beautiful: clairvoyant, elixir, labyrinth, serendipity, love. I always chalked my attraction up to interest: I like Italian coffee, Tori Amos, red boots and words.

But wow, there is so much to words.

Words as Communication

Words are a primary means of communication of course. With words, we get through the basic requirements of our days. We can share a pleasantry, offering a “good morning” greeting to a neighbour, we can secure something we need, “excuse me, where are the washrooms?” and we can signal danger, “Call 9-1-1”.

We can take words up a level and use them to foster interpersonal emotional understanding. “You seem upset, what’s wrong?” “So it sounds like the teacher said you did something wrong but you don’t know what she meant, so now you are confused.” And words are exchanged until the emotional experience is shared and clearly understood.

Words are critical to learning. I know we say people learn by doing, but I would have a very difficult time explaining the theory of distributed cognition if I was unable to use words. I can’t show you distributed cognition. I can’t show you ‘austerity economics’, or ‘a progressive political platform’. Those are concepts that require words to explain.

Words as Art

And then words can be art: storytelling takes communication to a more creative, more imaginative place, where words are not only to convey productively, though they often do as well: just think of fables and fairy tales which teach important life lessons in beautiful packaging. Storytelling elevated to art form is to create an experience of enjoyment, to convey for pleasure.

But the word art forms I love most are poetry and lyrics, in particular, where words aren’t required to communicate with clarity, but instead to paint a visual picture in your mind, or elicit an emotional reaction.

She railed at the doctor:

"He cannot be mine.

He smells of the ocean, of seaweed and brine."

"You should count yourself lucky, for only last week,

I treated a girl with three ears and a beak.

That your son is half oyster

you cannot blame me.

... have you ever considered, by chance,

a small home by the sea?"

(Tim Burton)

“if I look

at the crystal moon, at the red branch

of the slow autumn at my window,

if I touch

near the fire

the impalpable ash

or the wrinkled body of the log,

everything carries me to you,”

(Pablo Neruda)

Words as Science

And finally, I have just been reminded that words are also an important scientific tool, things we can analyze and through which we can comprehend meaning. Precisely the same words we use as people living in different cities, different nations, and different continents all over the world can have entirely different meanings. And the words we use in one context can have one meaning, when used in another context, can mean something very different. And the study of these different uses, in these different spaces, in different contexts, is a scientific tool that teaches us about people, and about the cultures they live in.

A simple example:

In most family environments, saying “I think I’ll have a beer” might serve to signal a relaxing mood, a time of social gathering, a celebratory event.

In an alcoholic family environment, saying “I think I’ll have a beer” might signal danger.

Referencing God has radically different associations depending on where you are in the world. The meaning associated with the word ‘woman’ differs radically, signaling hierarchy, power or influence in some cultures and the opposite in others. We can observe these differences using words as a scientific tool to help us understand the significance behind these differences.

I love how important words are, how multi-faceted, how magical they can be. I’m not sure I recognized all that before capturing this here. Words indeed are Communications, are Art, are even Science. Maybe they are more too.

I was inspired however when I noticed an advertisement for an event happening next week, one which I suspect will be attended by fellow word-lovers. If this sounds like you, you might be interested too. Words By Design: An Evening With Bruce Mau is opening the International Festival of Authors, speaking in the Fleck Theatre at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on October 19 at 8pm.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Item #56: 'Elementary' Distributed Cognition

Distributed Cognition. Fancy words. It’s a fancy concept. But in true ‘me’ form, I’ll strive to share it in simplicity.

Distributed cognition can be summarized and understood as 'a series of distributed elements in an environment whereby there is some social component, in that the components have various and different properties but come together to work as a system of memory primarily, but also of knowledge and understanding’ – in order to achieve a cognitive function’.

Even more basically, distributed cognition is a process of thinking, computing and organizing that makes a system work to accomplish a cognitive task. And embedded is the notion that an effective system of distributed cognition makes a system smarter.

It can get very intricate; there are lots of moving ‘factors’: engineered usage of the environment; socially accessible information; physical representations of information or memory; adaptable or flexible forms of information i.e.: visual, kinetic or auditory; symbolic physical elements i.e.: altars, activity centers and artifacts.

But here instead I’ll provide a real-world example in hopes that tangibility explains better than any theory.


My daughter’s school has a system of distributed cognition to manage communication between the school/ teacher and home/ parent. This home-school communication system works to ensure that my daughter is in control of and responsible for communication between home and school, however it is a system that supports her in that process, providing information to teacher and to parent without relying exclusively on her as the sole conveyor or the sole memory source. There are three key components of this system: The Red Folder, The Schoolbag and The Lunchbox.

The Red Folder is a plastic coated folder with two interior pockets, one on the left and another on the right. This Red Folder has spatial references that indicate the role of different kinds of information: the left side of the folder holds documents routing from school to home, while the right side of the folder holds documents routing from home to school. Because of this spatial reference, without having to rely on reading skills, my daughter is able to immediately discern whether there is an action she needs to take i.e.: provide information to parent or teacher, simply by noting whether a side of the folder holds documents. This spatial component of the system also allows parent and teacher to immediately be able to determine whether documents that were intended to be routed were successfully routed. If a document remains in the Red Folder for longer than a day, it becomes an alert to the routing party that communication has not been successful and that investigation is needed. This Red Folder provides social access to information, which accommodates family systems that are varied. In my daughter’s case, she spends half her time with me (mother) and half her time with my ex-husband (father) and his new family (step-mom); she also has a day-time caregiver. The Red Folder serves to make all parties aware of information being transmitted without interrupting its primary role to route information between home and school.

With the Red Folder, my daughter is unequivocally the center of the communication system; while it’s protocols create awareness for the larger group and ensure communication flows across many parties, her involvement is central.

The Red Folder interacts well with another important component of the Home-School Communication System: The Schoolbag. The Schoolbag serves as an important component of this Home-School Communication system. The Schoolbag also carries information between School and Home, by transporting the Red Folder as outlined above, but also because it transports The Lunchbox.

The Lunchbox conveys messages to the student each day when it is accessed, whether that be via a loving note from Mum or the implicit message conveyed by providing a fruit snack instead of cookies. It also conveys information to the lunch room monitors; the level to which it might be considered a healthy or well- packed lunch informs the monitors regarding the level of care being delivered by the home environment and an observed change in the standard of lunch by the monitors might prompt a need to investigate. For the parent in the home environment, The Lunchbox contains artifacts to be viewed at end of day which provide information to the parent: is she eating well, is she eating all components packed, are quantities being packed sufficient.

There are more factors in this system of distributed cognition (but I don’t want to bore any further if that’s a risk factor): there is an activity center in the school environment as well as the home environment and an altar in the home environment, all which bring spatial and time-oriented cues to the system, meaning they indicate spaces and cue to times where and when activities occur and transfers of information happen.

I suspect the school is unaware of the factors they have built into this system or the degree to which they have, perhaps unintentionally, created a system of distributed cognition. But it’s a great system: functional for all parties and supportive of the central user. Some individual teachers at the school have started employing technology to facilitate Home-School Communication – and, while there are clear benefits, I already see risks that may end up degrading the strengths of the ‘low tech’ system that is currently functioning.

This is the potential value of this understanding for you, reader: awareness of these systems functioning in your everyday. What distributed cognition systems are currently functioning in your life? In your workplace? What is driving their effectiveness? Where is the room for improvement? And what risks might be at play with the integration of technology? Awareness is the first step to understanding, change, growth…most of anything good that happens in life.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Item #55: Ode to the Imagination

Oh morning minutes,

When the eyes peek open,

And shut again as quick.

For the time is not yet,

For the day to begin.

Not yet to wash the night away,

Not yet to mask the markings,

Or taste the drops of starting.

No return to slumber,

The unconscious wasteful place.

Here to rest in respite,

In empty random space.

Here to rest in white land,

Where the mind becomes the canvas,

The sky has different colours,

The stars come out in day.

The leaves have blades between them,

Reflections that can sing.

The drapes blow words in poet form,

And church bells signal wonder,

His bark says hi, good morning,

Her smile says I am gold.

Her sighting is the first one,

His glance in 40 degrees,

Cars cease in clearing.

Situation mere detail,

Alteration a welcome demise,

Future is dotted with daisies,

Time is to arise.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Item #54: Recalibrating Perspective

When I go away on vacation, I look for a reset experience: to relax, to down-gear, to chill-out. My most recent vacation was none of those things. It was hectic, unfamiliar and stimulating, even over-stimulating. I visited about 19 places in 14 days. I jockeyed between English, French and Italian, drove a rented manual shift car up steep hillsides and on extended suspended Italian coastal highways. I ate new foods, saw new places, drove new streets and swam new waters every day. I loved every minute of it, but a reset was not my experience.

My experience was a recalibration of perspective.

Universally Human

What became very apparent to me amidst all the unfamiliarity was the clear similarity of the worlds we humans have built for ourselves in almost every corner of the world. The same key cornerstones of daily life define us all. Interactions with people: talking, smiling, laughing, yelling, hellos and good-byes, pleases and thank yous, regardless of the language. Eating and drinking: sometimes a cheeseburger and a Coke, sometimes a pizza and a beer, sometimes baguette with cheese and a glass of white wine. Sleeping: whether it be perched on a hillside with windows the size of doors, or looking over a town square where blinds are drawn to protect against the harsh sun, or in an expansive brick construction inside a gated community. Driving: tiny cars up steep terrain, roaring sports cars on sweeping mountainous highways, or sports utility vehicles along spacious suburban streetlight-laden roads.

This is the daily life that defines us all: people, food, shelter, transport. And there’s more. But this is universal. And in the hierarchy of life, these indicate the deepest, most fundamental, most authentic, most important needs of humans.

Creators of 'Work'

Somewhere along the way, we must remember that we – humans – created something that we believed would improve the experience of this daily life I’ve just outlined. We created a tool that we believed would contribute to a betterment of this daily life: we created ‘Work’. ‘Work’ provided a number of outcomes: something to occupy our time, the creation of products and services that we believed would improve the experience of our daily lives, and ultimately through the development of this ‘Work’ into a structured system of activity, an economy. With the creation of Work, we believed we would create greater prosperity for ourselves, a more prosperous daily life.

Prosperous = Success or Economic Well-Being (Mirriam-Webster)

Let’s stay connected to the hierarchy I am clarifying here: we – humans – created Work i.e.: the manufacturing of products and the provision of services – and the consequent system of an economy - in order to occupy ourselves, provide the things we wanted or needed to improve our daily experience of life, in order to achieve greater prosperity. A human creation, Work and The Economy was intended to be a tool in our service, in service of improvement of our daily life experience.

The Recalibration

And that was the recalibration of perspective experience of my vacation. It struck me that we have lost sight of a) the original role and purpose of Work and The Economy in service of our human daily life experience and b) the hierarchical place that Work and The Economy were originally intended to play in this experience of our daily lives.

We – humans – the creators of this tool - need to raise our awareness around both of these things in order to recapture, reframe and recreate the original intentions of Work: manufacturing, services and The Economy. We – humans – the creators of this tool – need to recall that Work was created to be a tool to serve us, not the other way around. We have let the machine (The Economy) enslave us, to take on a life of it’s own, removed from its role and its purpose. We have let the machine (The Economy) separate us further from the things it was originally intended to bring us closer to. We have let the machine (The Economy) be taken away from it’s real master – everyday people – and be controlled by elites who want to abuse and manipulate it for means that are excessive and unnecessary.

We are all essentially and universally human. We talk, love, yell, eat, sleep, drink, travel and more. Work and The Economy is our creation, and we must be it’s master, not vice versa. Its role is to occupy us, to manufacture products and provide services that will improve our daily life experience so that our lives are more prosperous i.e.: successful defined by well-being.

I recalibrated my perspective over the last two weeks. And determined that this is what our economic system requires as well. A recalibration of perspective.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Item #53: Human Life

Just a few weeks ago now, the third weekend in July 2011 was a weekend of loss. 92 people corralled and executed in Norway, many under the age of 25 years. Talented British musician Amy Winehouse died, at the age of 27. And the tragic daily deaths continued to mount due to an unprecedented drought in Africa.

The loss of life fed discussions, debate, and even disdain from people across the corners of the world. Many expressed belief that it was an inevitable outcome for Amy, that she should’ve gone to rehab, even that it was her own choice and her own weak doing. Others were appalled that Amy Winehouse would receive more attention than the Norway deaths. And a few railed at the lack of attention being paid to the lives being lost daily in Africa.

In the midst of this, I came across an unrelated article. It’s a theoretical opinion piece whereby the author observes a growing discourse about humanity and the value of human life. To the statement that ‘every human life is valuable’, he questions, is that true? And based on what tenets? Is it a religious reduction? He wonders if it bears its roots in the biblical belief that every human life is sacred and that by definition, it is a spiritual concept, versus a scientific one.

Is every human life valuable? Equally? And if so, why?

The heart of every one of us should break equally at each of the losses that weekend in July, for Amy Winehouse, for each of the 92 killed in Norway and for every single death in Africa. And for every loss to come today and tomorrow, with whatever inevitable crisis erupts in this societal chaos we are living in the midst of.

Because yes, every human life is valuable.

Because every human life is in part our own human life. Because every one of us is valuable and a death of any one of us is in some way a death in all of us. Because the degree to which we each, every human, tap into, and feel the importance of every human life, and the impact of the loss of every human life, is the degree to which we will each independently and collectively be fully human.

Every single human life has equal potential. We are all the same: genetic material brought together inside a womb, a heart, a soul, a spirit; altogether a being of potential. We are each born into immensely varied situations in many different parts of the world, and we live days and lives of radically different experiences. Of hurt and loss. Hopefully of joy and laughter too. But none of us humans choose what we are born into.

Because no single human life ever ‘chooses’ death. Those living in Africa would rather have lived; were the land they live on capable of keeping them alive, life is what they have. Those youth in Norway would rather have lived; had the hateful person not shot them each with a bullet, life is what they would have. Amy would rather have lived; had her heart and her spirit not been eating her from inside, life is what she would have. We humans are all the same. We all, we humans, want to live.

And that’s what makes us human. That’s why every human life is valuable. We are all each born of the same parts, with hearts, souls, spirits and equal potential. And we all, each of us, want to live. This is not religious belief. This is biological reality. We are all humans, built of the same components. Not one human living a productive, happy, healthy, safe life would rather die. And if every human had the opportunity to be productive, happy, safe and healthy, every single human would choose life every time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Item #52: Follow the Yellow Brick Road GUEST POST

Follow the yellow brick road?

As a child my parents bought me my very own pair of ruby red slippers. I would put them on every night and click my heels. I would click and click and click, but after all that clicking, I would still be standing clutching my blankie in the hallway with the blue carpet. Really, I think my main problem was that I was already home – dummy – I hadn’t yet started down my yellow brick road (YBR), I couldn’t even cross the street. I was 6 with an overactive imagination.

In high school, I had an aptitude towards creative writing, but I never really thought anything of it. I’d day dream about writing a book though - that and becoming a world famous figure skating pop star that EVERYONE in the entire world admired. Britney and Christina had nothin’ on me!

Reality checked in around 17 and I applied for university in Hotel and Food Administration.

After 6-ish years of post secondary education (4 years Uni + a 1 year victory lap, 1 year off working and then 1 more year of college), I was ready to begin my professional life as a big city Ad Girl. I was going to make it and I was going to make it big!

While busting my butt off working insane hours in the fast paced, intense industry of Advertising, I decided that I should take on more hours and work on a side project. With inspiration from a former colleague (Max Sawka), I decided that the world needed (yes, I said needed) me to write down my ridiculous scenarios and unnecessary opinions.

Jenerally Speaking (aka. was born and the internets (all three of them* ) became filled with my incessant ramblings and wild and/or mild adventures.

What’s next?

Where is my YBR headed? Well, to write that book (obviously). I’m currently working with the talented illustrator from Windsor, Jen Huggins, who has turned me into a cartoon:

She also is beautifully and creatively taking the words from my stories, and visualizing them in imaginative, hilarious ways.

To successfully accomplish this new goal, I now have a series of next steps to go though:
- Continue to work hard and love advertising/ marketing.
- Write, write, write.
- Determine printing costs. To do this I need to determine page count.
- Determine page count.
- Find money. (I hear there’s a money tree planted in Trinity Bellwoods – DIBS - if it’s not there when I get home tonight, I’ll come after you. I know where you live.)
- Find an editor. Just because I love to write, doesn’t mean I don’t make tons of grammar mistakes.
- Determine if I’m to work with a real publisher, or publish it on my own. Yikes.
- Get training again so I can be that world famous figure skating pop star. Twenty-nine’s not too old to be a teenage pop star right?

So, with some zigzagging and jigjagging, I now know what I’m supposed to do. No matter where I am in my life (professionally or unprofessionally), I need to write. It’s what I’m supposed to do. I feel it, writing is my YBR!

If you’ve managed to read this far and are interested in this new endeavour of mine or just feel like contacting me, my info is below:

*Max gets joke cred on that one!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Item #51: In Pursuit of Simplicity

I am inspired to deconstruct what is an often used and potential widely mis-used word: Simplicity.

I hear colleagues give voice to varied expressions of the concept: “let’s stay focused on simplicity; let’s keep things simple” in different iterations, from different mouths, many times a week. In isolation, I applaud and encourage the pursuit, but then I end up hearing the following as identifier: “because we over-think things, we over-complicate.”

My alarm antennae go up and start buzzing when I hear this, because instead of pursuit of simplicity for the sake of smart, creative, and effective work, I start to hear the pursuit of simplicity being used as a proxy for ‘short-cut’.

I say this because I know for certain that ‘over-thinking’, and ‘over-complicating’ is NOT a problem plaguing most modern day advertising agencies. Au contraire, I’d suggest there’s a whole lot of under-thinking and under-complicating going on. While I know the pursuit of simplicity is intended to be a good thing, I am wary of its misguided pursuit ending up as the dictionary defines it i.e.: “artlessness of mind”, “weakness of intellect”.

So let’s not go there. Let’s discuss the somewhat oxymoronic path I believe is required to achieve simplicity and harness the wonderfulness within its pursuit.

The Path to Simplicity:

This won’t take me long, because it’s really quite ‘simple’. Millions of dollars are spent every year by advertisers against initiatives that don’t perform. Thousands of product innovations are introduced every year of which the vast majority fail. Hundreds of new businesses are launched every year of which the vast majority fail. I’m not against failure, I embrace it, but not when it happens because of ‘short-cutting’. Every business category today is packed with competitors, packed with dynamics. Every ‘consumer’ out there is motivated by different drives, different needs, different loves, many changed from even yesterday. The world in general needs radically different things: economies are struggling, people are starving, and violence is an ever-present issue. Communications today are so complex that we literally are in an embryonic stage of understanding how to effectively and meaningfully interact with people today. Today is COMPLEX. There is very little danger of over-thinking, or over-complicating in this environment. There is plenty of opportunity to ask more questions, consider more ‘considerately’, take a pause, and yes, also check in with our gut instincts. Under-thinking and under-complicating is not the path to simplicity; that is the path to artlessness of mind and weakness of intellect. Embracing complexity, wading into it bravely and thoughtfully, and applying artfulness and intellect to it, that is in fact the path to simplicity.

The Outcome of Simplicity:

I propose that the outcome of simplicity is the arrival at three things: focus, clarity, and elegance.

Focus: Per above, let’s call it as it is. The world today is COMPLEX. Business today is COMPLEX. People are COMPLEX (always have been). Communications today is COMPLEX. Have you wrapped it all up neatly and uncovered something that is real, true, meaningful and important within this inherently complex environment? If so, you have achieved focus.

Clarity: Have you managed to capture the heart and the essence of that thing you are trying to convey or to do in a succinct, easily understandable way. Can you wrap up the story you want to tell in 30 seconds, in the length of an elevator ride, in such a way that your mother would understand it immediately? If yes, then you’ve achieved clarity.

Elegance: Elegance is where the magic opportunity lies in the pursuit of simplicity. If you’ve found your focus, if you can convey it in an elevator to your mother and have her understanding immediately, you are still only part-way there. Elegance happens when the way you convey it, the how you convey it, brings it to life. When someone hears what you have to say, or sees what you want to do, do their eyes light up? Do they ask how they can be involved? Do they instantly have a million suggestions or ideas to share with you? If so, you have achieved elegance. [If you like the idea of ‘elegance’, I direct you to author Matthew E. May.]

This is a challenge to steer clear of short-cutting, to embrace complexity, to wade into the waters of thoughtfulness.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Item #50: Leadership is Responsibility

When you think about leadership, what comes to mind for you? A corner office? Higher pay? Power? Influence? Privilege? Be honest.

I’ve looked into it and definitions for what leadership means are mostly unclear. I’ve also seen varying versions of leadership firsthand in my years. Most of the time, it involves the leader feeling some sense of importance in having been granted the position of leader. But let me plant an alternative thought on the topic.

Paramount to successful leadership, in my opinion, is a sense of responsibility.

Successful leadership, to me, requires understanding that business strength depends on people. And also then, interdependently, and equally importantly, that people depend on business strength. Successful leadership requires understanding the delicacy of that inter-relationship. Successful leadership ‘lives’ the understanding that the best way to be responsible to people is by ensuring the business that employs them is strong. And the best way to build a strong business is to be responsible to the people that fuel it.

Leadership is therefore very little about ‘self’ and very much about ‘other’. Leadership means you’ve been trusted – to bear the responsibility - to do what is best for the business, and thereby for the people, and hence vice versa. Strong businesses will be best able to care for their people. And strong people will be best able to create business strength.

It’s very little about the corner office; it’s about being in the trenches. It’s very little about higher pay; it’s about heightened accountability. It’s very little about power or influence or privilege; leadership, in my opinion, is about responsibility.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Item #49: Katy Perry. Modern Marketing Wonder.

I took my 7 year old to see Katy Perry last night. Holy Moly. The whole thing was like a walk through a 3-dimensional version of the Candyland board game from my youth – but even way better because it’s done with 21st century technology!

The woman is a modern marketing wonder. The music is pure bubblegum teenage pop, the costumes deserve their own Tim Burton film and the stage design appears like a modern pinball machine that ate a ‘grow-humungous’ pill.

But what stood out for me was the permeation of social platforms like Twitter, Youtube and Facebook in her show production. And the degree to which she attaches to pop culture, embracing those platforms to build connection with her audience.

Here’s what Katy Perry Did:

She started out with the typical format of ‘the opening act’. Marina and the Diamonds, who I happen to love, put on a mediocre show at best, which disappointed me. But that’s for another post.

But that’s where ‘typical' ended and Katy started to mix it up. Opening Act 2 was DJ Skeet Skeet, helming a 30 or so minute dance party with a set list that included Dragonette, LMFAO, Kesha and more. Clearly a mix board master, he had the 14,000 odd fans on their feet, shaking their bodies fueled by their cotton candied sugar rush. DJ Skeet Skeet closed his set by directing us all to his Facebook page where we could download for free (“cause who doesn’t like free music!” he yelled) his debut remix of John Legend doing Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. I have not been able to locate said free download as yet, but that’s not my point. My point is that Katy Perry had a DJ for an opening act!

Then here’s what Katy Perry did. She posted the Twitter hashtag #TorontoDreams on the big screens. Within seconds, profile pictures and twitter posts started appearing on the big screens. Yes, I sent a post with the hashtag and watched to see my profile picture with my twitter post appear on the big screens at the Air Canada Centre for 14,000 odd people to see! Very cool. And there’s more. So many people were sending posts with the hashtag #TorontoDreams, that it started trending. Random Torontonians, having no awareness that it was the concert hashtag began tweeting about how they want world peace, a huge home, a lot full of fancy cars, or (apparently) to move to Vancouver. The power of Katy Perry.

And here’s the last thing that Katy Perry did. She had a little sojourn mid-concert, which she called her ‘Karaoke Break’, whereby she sang a few covers. And covers of what, you might ask? Well Rihanna’s Only Girl in the World, which was lovely, but then… oh yes, after a prefacing discussion about her favourite videos on Youtube (many of which involve cats it seems), she sang, to my dismay, the infamous Rebecca Black’s Friday, to which my 7 year old knew all the words, to my even greater dismay.

Katy Perry in Summary? Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Popular Culture Tie-Ins, Entertainment Production Goddess. Modern Marketing Wonder. And yes, I loved it all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Item #48: The Inflection Point Upon Us

Prepared for the Canadian Marketing Association, June 2011

I, like many of you readers, work for a communication agency. Formerly known as an advertising agency. I was ruminating recently about the mountainous inflection point I felt we were in the midst of as communicators. Here is the story:

Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time there was advertising. ‘Advertising’ agencies created television ads, ads for newspapers and magazines and ads to run on the radio. Structured advertising agencies had different departments producing these advertisements, presenting them to a client and ‘putting them on the air’.

Around twenty years ago came the internet and hence ‘the digital space’. It lingered in its formative stage, mainly driving the emergence of e-commerce, for about a decade. Only about ten years ago, ‘advertising’ agencies decided that the internet could be a canvas for advertising. So advertising agencies started developing web sites and digital banner ads. They’d build these websites and banner ads and then ‘put them up’.

Maybe around five years ago, social media came to be. Suddenly all kinds of conversations were being had in the ‘digital space’; shared information was circulating among people without advertising agencies or their clients having anything to do with it.

And then mobile devices came to be which sped up all this communicating and commerce-related activity in the digital space to a lightning fast pace.

A Reality Check

Today, people everywhere - colleagues and friends, moms and dads, students, artists, technology gurus, teachers, policemen, investment bankers and academics – ‘live’ the internet. They access Google dozens of time every day and get their daily news updates online. Photos are shared and commented on via Facebook, Flickr or Instagram. Vacations are researched, planned and paid for online. Moms right now are circulating blog postings about some new organic pasta on the market. Grandparents are Skyping with their grandkids from continent to continent every day. Youtube is an entertainment channel for just about every single person I know, including my 67 year old father. New bands are born every day on MySpace. My mom lives by her iPhone as does my Dad; my niece and my daughter both carry their Nintendo DSi in one hand and their iPads in the other. This is not a minority report tech future; this is today, everyday, for more and more people as part of daily life.

When we step away from the language in communication circles about ‘the digital space’, ‘the social space’, ‘the mobile space’, this is the reality.

And so, The Inflection Point:

For all the decades past, we communication agencies and clients have considered traditional media to be king and digital media to be secondary, not even at queen status, but more so a court jester. I could go on separately about why: it’s cheaper to produce digital media so it doesn’t get as much attention as traditional media which is incredibly expensive still. And we don’t have good impact metrics yet around digital media to PROVE how much it is contributing to communications and brand health in the minds of our audiences.

But this has changed. Now, today, traditional media and digital media sit at the same table. They have rapidly come to be equals. And we communications agencies and clients are waking up to that reality. Brands are being built exclusively in the digital space in many cases. And among the new generation of consumers, traditional media may indeed be falling by the wayside.

Insert panic here.

If you accept that the above is true, because it is - now, today, traditional media and digital media sit at the same table - then what? Communications that happen in the digital, social and mobile space do not function like traditional media. You do not ‘put them on the air’ or ‘put them up’. They are ongoing, immediate and dynamic by their very nature. And this simple reality radically impacts everything.

We have to think about communications today as an eco-system: interconnected, always-on, living, and constantly evolving.

Impact 1: We can no longer think of communications development as projects that follow a straight path, each one in a separate lane, being developed in parallel. We need new ways of working: fluid, connected, nurturing. We need to ‘carry’ communications, constantly. This has radical implications for the mindset and consequently the processes of developing communications, evaluating communications, and maintaining communications.

Impact 2: This acknowledgement that communications is now an eco-system, requires by definition that the people charged with managing those communications understand ‘systems’ and this is not a common capability. Understanding systems means having an incredible ability to see the big picture – how everything is working together – productively, seamlessly, responsively. And yet it also means having an ability to go deep into any singular ‘node’ within the system to maximize its individual role in the system. This is complex thinking.

Impact 3: Communications producers – writers, art directors, technologists, etc… – need to truly work together to create. Which means they need to understand each other’s craft, in order to truly be able to integrate and build off of each other. This is not a skillset that has been nurtured or taught either through the education system or inside agencies historically.

Journey through the Inflection Point:

There is a mountain to climb to be able to really traverse this inflection point. It may seem straightforward, but it is anything but. It requires:

a) The acceptance that the digital space is seated at the table right next to the traditional media space and that the need to adjust to it is urgent.
b) The acknowledgement that communications today are not about ‘putting it on the air’ or ‘putting it up’; communications today are about creating and managing eco-systems of activity.
c) A change in communications agency processes and client review, ‘purchase’ and maintain processes.
d) An upgrading of communication producers skill sets – to foster a better cross-discipline understanding.

Insert easy button.

I, for one, believe that if brands want to continue to have a place in people’s lives in the future, traversing this inflection point is a must-do. Adjust or be left behind seems to me to be the harsh reality. But more optimistically, this required shift in communications could get us to a much better place on so many levels. This shift will get us communications that matter to people; by default that means brands that are engaging in ways that matter to people. And ladder that further to a place where communications (and brands) can be positive contributing forces in the world. This is free market dynamics at work. Best to acknowledge and understand what people want, and deliver it, because it’s those who will survive.