Thursday, December 18, 2014

3D Spark

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One of the smartest people I worked with during my time on the board of New Zealand Telecom – now Spark – was Rod Snodgrass. Now CEO of Spark Ventures, Rod recently wrote a think piece for Accenture about the three D’s – digital, disruption and design – in relation to telecommunications. I’ve covered it in a condensed format here.

By way of background, Spark Ventures is an internal incubator and accelerator for Spark. Rod is mandated to deliver ‘long term health’ for Spark – creating new businesses and revenues through being bold, agile and different. This tenacity in approach is reflected in Rod’s comments below.

On how digital comes into play: “In order to make magic happen, we will charter a new way of doing things for the Spark group, build deeper partnerships, and grow future talent… We are increasingly design-driven and have a very strong digital focus.”

On whether digital is helping telcos stay relevant: “If you want to survive in this world you must remain relevant to consumers… Unless you remain relevant, are mobile-centered, are using cloud and apps, digital and design, you’re going to be irrelevant and one step removed from the end-user where the value is moving away from. Being removed from the end consumer is not a good place to be.”

On his advice for leaders who are trying to drive change: “If you want to change, you have to be willing to embrace disruption and rethink your mental and business models. I see disruption as a positive word if you apply it in the right ways in the right places… I also think failure is part of the learning process, so fail fast and fail cheap and learn from it… Ultimately, you need to have a vision for driving an outcome for the consumer and a recognition of what you are good at versus the rest of the pack. What’s your competitive advantage or right to play?”

On what makes Spark’s digital initiatives different from those at other telcos: “We’re able to move a lot faster to embrace digital, disruption and design – the three D’s. We are open to partnering and have invested in third party companies to support our strategies and ventures… I think where we’re also different is that we’re very open and embracing of change with a culture of curiosity and trying things. If they work we adopt them, if they don’t we simply move on.”

On his vision for the unit: “Ultimately I would like Spark to be seen as the most innovative corporation in New Zealand and as the most innovative communications company in the world. To do this we have to deliver our mission and create awesome connected digital experiences for consumers. And to do that we must develop the new ways of working, build partnerships and foster and grow talent.”

On what’s driving his passion for the role: I love change and this role allows me to pursue that in a business context. It’s incredibly important for the company to do this… to change and to move to digital and become more customer-centric and indeed relevant… It’s also important to have some fun. You spend a huge chunk of your life at work so you better enjoy it. Have some fun and celebrate your successes.

On what inspired him to work in this area: “I’m a huge believer in the internet, as I saw it as a thing that was going to change the world. A lot of people think that what can be done with the internet and technology has already been done, but I think it’s only really just starting… I’m a very curious person and I think things can always be better. So why not have a go at making it so?”

In the Penal Colony: This Way Out (part three of three)

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Last week I wrote about the launch of the Marshall Project, a new not-for-profit, non-partisan journalism outlet that aims to jumpstart the conversation around our nation’s criminal justice system. In this third and final post in a series about the failings of America’s “prison-industrial system,” I’d like to shine a light on other, laudatory efforts being made to help make prison sentencing reform a reality. They include:
  • Education: A New Yorker article this September profiling Bard College President Leon Botstein underscored the vital role education has to play in keeping convicts from returning to prison. The Bard Prison Initiative (B.P.I.) is considered by many to be the signature success of an academic institution known for taking big, creative chances. Founded in 1999 by a Bard undergraduate, B.P.I. has helped to establish college-in-prison programs in institutions across the country including Wesleyan and Groucher. The program is as far as imaginable from the stereotype of prison education—remedial coursework, education test prep, and vocational training. Instead, B.P.I. offers students the same high-caliber liberal arts education that Bard undergraduates receive. The article quotes Anibal Cortes, a B.P.I. graduate who earned his degree in 2008: “If you put that kind of humanistic education into the inherently dehumanizing space of prison, you can restore a person’s individual agency.”

  • Jobs: If education is one effective way to reduce recidivism, solid job training is another. According to an article in The American Prospect, about half of Americans serving time in prison have full time jobs. Although these laborers aren’t included in standard labor surveys and lack the protections and benefits most workers expect—disability, worker’s comp, Social Security withholdings, overtime pay—most inmates want to work. Meaningful work gives inmates a sense of purpose, a break from the drudgery of prison life, a trusted place to be for part of the day, and helps them save in commissary accounts. Indeed, numerous studies have shown what common sense dictates: prisoners who gain strong professional skills and earn a good wage while working behind bars are far less likely to be locked up again. One amazing example of this sort of thing is a program in California that transforms felons into highly skilled deep sea divers. The Marine Technology Training Center is a commercial diving school located on the prison grounds at the California Institution for Men in Chino, San Francisco. The skills the program participants learn enable them to make lucrative, six-figure salaries as commercial divers, underwater welders, and heavy construction riggers upon their release. The program is tough—inmates are required to spend four times as long training as civilian divers—but the rehabilitation figures are remarkable. While the state’s recidivism rate for the incarcerated landing behind bars again within three years of release is 63.7%, the dive program’s rate is less than 15 percent.

  • Scientific Testing: DNA and biological evidence has revolutionized how criminal cases are prosecuted, and how wrongful convictions might be overturned. Founded in 1992 by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, the Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully incarcerated through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. Affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City, the Innocence Project explains on its website: “DNA testing has opened a window into wrongful convictions so that we may study the causes and propose remedies that may minimize the chances that more innocent people are convicted.” Since 1989, 321 people in 38 states have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing.
Education, jobs, scientific testing, and good journalism are just some of the ways we can begin to alleviate the strain the prison-industrial complex places on society. And positive signs of reform don’t end with the initiatives described above: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recently proposed widespread changes to mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug offenses; the decriminalization of marijuana has moved from a fringe movement into the mainstream; and for the first time in a generation, the national prison population is beginning to decline.

These recent strides, coupled with a growing awareness of the system’s egregious failings, make this the right moment to press for a national conversation about our criminal justice system. Together, we might find a way out of our national penal colony.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cleese On Life

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Monty Python’s influence on British popular culture is inarguable. Ask anyone who has lived through the heyday of the 70s about the sharp and witty band of comedians and you’ll get a quip straight out of one of their infamous sketches. John Cleese was hilarious. He’s every bit the British comedy icon today as he was then - self-deprecating, funny and insightful.

Cleese is touring the US promoting his recently published memoir, So Anyway… and I caught an interview he gave with Jeff Slate of Quartz where he speaks of the art of reinventing oneself. Cleese shares that his spirited approach to life has mainly been around developing successful working methods through outside inspiration, having the support of a ‘venerable patron’ Sir David Frost, and his determination to succeed through relentless trial and error.

Whenever you hear about someone having a new ‘lease of life’, you immediately think that the person has received a shot of energy and is more active than they were before. In Cleese’s case, one specific example was when, before he was 35, he heard a remark by the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung that made him reflect on his life, and specifically on the law of diminishing returns.

“The more that you do of the same thing – if you’re doing the same things at 70 that you did at 40 – then you may have missed the point,” says Cleese. “I think that there are some people who love what they’re doing so much that they just go on doing it forever, and that’s fine. But I think for many of us it’s important to try new things. Of course, we’re loathe to do so, because when you try something new, you’re not very good at it, and you feel a bit embarrassed. But that’s okay!”

Cleese’s approach is similarly appealing to me. It’s simply that it’s all about feeling relaxed and enjoying yourself. Cleese has adapted over the years as a result of different personal realizations, one being that you can control what you do, but you can’t control how people respond to it. So it’s best to relax and be yourself. Nothing funny about that.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Competency and Charisma

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The ‘Red Bull’ of management thinkers, Tom Peters, said that leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders. And he’s right. There is no point having inspirational performance and flare if you can’t be effective and reliable. Leadership is entering a new age, and a recent article in the Financial Times by Herminia Ibarra from INSEAD makes an astute observation that the time has come for leaders to roll their sleeves up.

Leadership theories have focused on different things over time. At the start of the 20th century, personal traits of successful leaders were most important. The ‘60s saw a move towards situational leadership and a focus on context: ‘command and control’ for large manufacturing companies and ‘collegial collaboration’ for small, knowledge organisations. The focus turned back to the individual in the ‘90s as organizations became more complex. It was then that a clear distinction between manager (leading on process and procedure) and leader (leading on change) was established.

Today’s environment requires leaders to be inspiring and mobilising, while strategizing and architecting processes and procedures. The details (and getting into them) are no longer just the domain of a ‘boring’ manager role. In fact, boring simply doesn’t apply – efficient systems and robust controls carry value that inspirational messaging and charisma simply can’t.

Leaders who simply ‘talk the talk’ create followers, while true leaders create more leaders by leading by example. Sometimes that might mean providing vision and inspiration in a traditional way, but more often than not it means getting involved and showing how things should be done.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Speaking of Looking

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We live in a visual age. I wrote a post last year about how aesthetics rule, and that humans are visual thinkers first and foremost: we remember 80% of what we see compared with just 20% of what we read. And, thanks in large part to democratization of design, visual literacy has never been higher. When you hear casual moviegoers waxing rhapsodic about those extended long-takes in Birdman, TV viewers geeking out over a six-minute Steadicam shot in HBO’s True Detective, or consumers getting giggly over the look of the new iPhone, you know that visual literacy is our new, true lingua franca.

It is for these reasons that a recently opened art exhibition in New York City is cause for celebration. In October the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened to the public “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection.” I am fortunate to know Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estée Lauder. This show across seven galleries featuring 81 works collected by Leonard over three decades, explodes the synapses. The New York Times called this exhibition “a transformative gift” and “a sterling act of philanthropy.” It focuses exclusively on a quartet of artists—Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Leger—who all worked in Paris during the first part of the 20th century. Through the early work of these “four horsemen of the Cubist apocalypse” the Leonard Lauder Collection charts the genesis of a watershed movement in modernism that forever changed the way we look at things. (In broad strokes: if impressionism proposes that color and light—rather than line—is the defining element of an object’s form, Cubism tacks the other way, breaking objects up into various planes to suggest how they exist in time.)

Leonard’s gift represents a watershed moment for the nation’s largest art museum, which had for the most part steered clear of modern art, ceding that space to the equally magnificent but very different Museum of Modern Art. Until the 1990s, the Met held no Cubist of proto-Cubist paintings by any of these four artists. The unveiling of the collection also signals high-water marks in the history of arts philanthropy and the generosity of New York’s society set. In the pages of The Economist, gallery owner William Acquavella called the group of Cubist drawings, paintings, and sculptures, “without doubt the most important collection any private person has put together in many, many years.”

It took Leonard, a lifelong New Yorker, over 30 years to build this unparalleled collection. In a short video on the Met’s website, he explains how he’d been bitten early by the collector’s bug: starting at six with his treasured picture postcards of Miami Beach Art Deco hotels, then World War II posters, then Toulouse-Lautrec prints. “I liked the idea of the concept of looking in depth at a moment in history,” he explains about the appeal of Cubism. “It’s a thrill to put together a harmonious collection, because now I have something I can share.”

From the birth of perspective to Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expression, Pop Art, and Minimalism, each fresh wave of artistic thinking has taught us more about how to look, and how to digest visual content. The Met’s Leonard A. Lauder Collection helps fill an important gap in the narrative about how our visual thinking has progressed. See it. It’s an infinitely better experience than the new eight-story billboard in Times Square.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In the Penal Colony: The Marshall Project (part two of three)

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In a post last week I described America’s prison-industrial complex and provided some unsettling facts about the explosive growth of our nation’s incarcerated populations. In this post, I’d like to turn our attention to some phenomenal work being done by a newly launched journalism outlet to help make the criminal justice system and prison sentencing reform a reality.

Launched in November by former Wall Street Journal reporter and hedge fund manager Neil Barsky, and led by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, The Marshall Project is a not-for-profit non-partisan news organization that exists to spur “a national conversation about criminal justice.” The website promises to be a digital hub for news and debate about our legal and corrections systems. Rather than advocacy driven, Keller envisions the “single-issue site with a million story possibilities” as being a home for “journalism with a sense of purpose.” Keller recently told PBS anchor Jack Ford: “The idea is to try to restore some of the aggressive accountability coverage of the criminal justice system that’s been lost as the American media downsizes in a lot of really important ways.”

In his launch letter, Barsky writes how the inspiration for the project came from his reading two powerful books: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove. The first aimed to demonstrate how mass incarceration “represents the third phase of African-American oppression in the United States, after slavery and Jim Crow.” Considering Alexander’s thesis, Barsky writes: “Intent can be difficult to prove; impact is irrefutable.” King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, meanwhile, is the true-life account of the 1949 case of four African-American males falsely accused of rape in Lake County, FL. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall bravely but futilely fought in Florida’s courts to spare the young men’s lives and it is in his honor that the news organization is named.

In a major coup, the Marshall Project sought and found the best journalists in the business. Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning 30-year veteran of The New York Times, who stresses in a letter from the editor that while the Marshall Project is non-partisan and non-ideological, the organization has an indelible sense of mission. “We want to move the discussion of our institutions of justice—law enforcement, courts, prisons, probation—to a more central place in our national dialogue.”

In an interview with VOX describing his decision to leave the Times to join the startup, Keller suggests how all-encompassing a subject like America’s criminal justice system really is: “. . . not just the very obvious—law enforcement, the courts, the corrections system—but immigration, drug policy, how we treat juveniles. It gets into the realm of education; race, obviously; inequality, obviously. It’s a subject that gives you tremendous license to write about the society we live in.”

The arrival of the Marshall Project comes at the right time. From the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO this August, to “political odd couple” Rand Paul and Cory Booker teaming up to support sentencing reform, it seems that the public is ready to open a dialogue about America’s criminal justice system. In my next post on the topic, I’ll talk about additional strides that are happening in education and employment that seek to keep people from getting ensnared in our nation’s penal colony.

Next week, in part three, I will look at other laudatory efforts being made in three areas to help make prison sentencing reform a reality: education, jobs, and scientific testing.

Head here to learn more about The Marshall Project and the important work they’re doing.