Monday, May 08, 2006

Don’t Stop Believing

For all the talk and awe surrounding our creative, fast-moving, constantly connected, ever-innovative world, there are some dangerous challenges. The most pernicious problem may be the belittling and marginalization of belief. The postmodern world trains rising students not to believe that an organization will provide a career. “You will change jobs 7-15 times!” we tell them. We train consumers not to trust press releases, advertisements, and the basic claims of our businesses—just check out the well known Cluetrain Manifesto for some of the most profound and startling claims surrounding this perspective. From parishioners to the body politic, we are disillusioning the masses en masse.

The academic in me says there is real value in belief bashing. The Eric Hoffer’s of the world have shown the terror of True Believers. The extremes of belief are dangerous to be sure—particularly in promoting the loss of self. Still, there is something divisive and destructive happening as we are today pushed to the other extreme; because, at our core, we are desperate to believe. Just look at how the US population turned to faith after 9/11, how family reconnect during the terminal illness of a parent, or how quickly we rush to the banner of a new politician that holds even the sliver of a promise of being real. While we need to be personally fulfilled, we remain a believing bunch.

If you want to make a difference in a student’s life, drive a movement, transform your business, or change the world in this turbulent time, here’s a thought: don’t stop believing. As leaders in our schools, colleges, corporations, or counties, we can thoughtfully embrace belief without cynicism and achieve amazing results. We really are Better Together. And we owe it to ourselves, and those who join us in working toward a collective mission, to at least try.

Here are four pillars to consider for harnessing the power of belief:

1. Be worthy of it. Don’t even think about going after what’s possible with belief if you’re not willing to be authentic and real. Remember the classic line from King Arthur, “you are the land, and the land is you.” When you’re in a healthy, authentic place, there is transference to your organization. Don’t think this is trivial. In my experience, it is the root challenge in most organizations.

2. Encourage it. You may find that there are so many caustic, cynical people in most modern organizations that it feels more hip to be flip, to deride those who dare to care about making a difference. Have the courage to fight this feeling. As long as you authentically believe, encourage others to as well. The result will be more than worthwhile for you and for the people in your organization starving for something worthy of their extra effort.

3. Create a safe place for it. The minute you and others begin believing, the attacks will start. Be careful. Often, the people who come at you are folks who’ve been burned by belief in the past; and they will play out their psycho-drama on you and others with vitriol you cannot imagine. Verbal aggression, cultural bullying, and much, much more may come your way. Confront it; stand up for those who are going the extra mile without fail. In particular, protect the absent in meetings and side conversations—this is where much of the cultural belief bashing takes place.

4. Be real with it. Don’t skimp on this one. If you’re not a tough-minded realist about what’s working and what’s not, belief will backfire. The cynics will have a field day. Unfortunately, some people think that just because they care, because they believe, because they try hard, what they are doing is valuable. Nope. If you really believe in making a difference, check—and check often—if your strategies are working. Whether your desired outcome is learning, profit, or efficiency, make sure you are tireless is testing your assumptions. In addition, do not hesitate to take action, confront negative behavior, separate poor performers and cultural-poison spreaders from the love of the institution, and follow through on your promises, or else. Your credibility is everything.

These are just a few thoughts for fellow architects—leaders—who dare to care enough. Let me know if you have other “pillars” I need to add to this building.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Phoenix Flight

I’m sitting in 16C, unsettled, flying to Phoenix after attending the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) in Austin, TX. WCIT brought together government, technology, healthcare, and education leaders in a discussion around innovations and issues in information and communications technology worldwide. The event was an interesting exploration of challenges on the road ahead and the unique swath of global programs and practices being engaged to make a difference and make money. Moreover, the WCIT collective agenda of digital access, 21st century medicine, and privacy framed some compelling international dialogues. In the end, one cannot attend this kind of event without being taken aback by how far our world has come in the use of information technology in such a short time. It’s stunning.

But it’s not the bits and bytes blazing by that are bothering me on this plane ride. It’s hearing about how Korea has made high-bandwidth computing available to ALL citizens; how China is committing to wiring its rural communities; how the Indian government is strategically investing in its education system to turn out elite engineers equipped for this new world. And these are just a few of the examples from the keynote stage in Austin. I’ve heard these before; but hearing them altogether once again got me thinking. Where are the American examples of coordinated national responses to our changing world?

It hit me like a punch in the chest—the embarrassment that is. Particularly after Brazil just announced its energy independence, while we can only offer political pandering in the face of our national energy crisis. It seems that we are paralyzed in our industrial revolution paradigm; we seem stuck in a painful “aren’t we wonderful” mindset. Meanwhile, countries around the world are happily using our current self-congratulatory largess to outfit themselves to pass us by.

Don’t get me wrong; there are amazing technology and education programs taking shape across the US. But, where is our national coordinated educational response to the needs of our connected world? Who is in charge of visioning a national response to creating a technology infrastructure that allows citizens to connect, companies to compete, and our country to once again stand out as a world leader, not just a world dominator? No, we just let the companies fight it out for market share, while rural and inner-city school children suffer in collapsing schools. Test them more, that’s our answer to our utterly embarrassing educational outcomes. Let the market sort it out, that’s our national technology plan.

While other countries are designing compelling national strategies to take on the opportunities of our globally connected knowledge economy, our response is to focus more on old bureaucracies like the US Departments of Labor, Transportation, Energy, and Agriculture. Agriculture! You can’t help but notice, the players at our national table gained their seats as responses to the agricultural and industrial revolutions; and they are not likely equipped to—or interested in—outfitting us for the information revolution. Its no wonder the Department of Homeland Security is replete with behind-the-times technology.

Maybe I’m just a little overtired from all this travel. But I can’t help but think, we’ve got to catalyze this conversation soon if we plan to rise in concert with the Phoenix-like countries all around us. Otherwise, we’ll just be focused on our landing.