The sticky pole

March 19, 2010

Why does anyone want to be a politician now?

There are a number of factors counting against it as an attractive career: comparatively poor salary (one reason it seemed acceptable to top it up with expenses); general mistrust – if not downright dislike – by the public at large; unsociable hours & travel; astonishing bureaucratic lethargy; etc.

However there are two really big ones that stand out for me, and there is something to be learnt here.

1) They all seem mediocre, because no-one really believes that they sign up in the name of public service. We tend to think of them as middle managers who’ve slipped sideways, in it for the duck islands because they couldn’t get onto the Boots grad scheme.

I have to say I don’t hold with this; if nothing else, look at the battery of reasons to do any other job. I believe only a genuine sense of duty, a desire to improve and to shape, could get someone over that hurdle. I’m sure that’s not always how it pans out, but I think it’s a valid hypothesis for a starting line.

You might say that power is an alluring bauble, but it is plainly evident to any observer, potential applicants included, that any power that does come is extremely hard to achieve and obviously very unwieldy. I don’t think anyone thinks that you can start banning people called Gerald and cut all diplomatic ties with the Shetland islands in your third week.

2) In our public lives, we as a country have become physically allergic to failure.  This is dangerously insane – learning lessons this way is the fundamental reason humans have risen to our status as Earth’s pre-eminent monkey, and we all constantly do it in our own, private lives.

I see this dichotomy every day; we can run a tactical online ad campaign, and discover that one particular site or format just doesn’t perform. We don’t run around screaming, or write to the Daily Mail and demand the nostril hairs of the buying team are plucked out one by one. We compile the results, establish what works and then repeat that bit. Of course we do.

I fail to see the difference between this and PFI IT schemes, or ID cards, or buying helicopters.

OK, so in the public realm then the money being apparently wasted is our money – but in my private realm, the money being spent is my client’s, so I am immediately and constantly accountable.

There is a separate issue of doing it once and failing to learn the lesson – and of course that should be highlighted as failing to perform, just as we should be slapped for recommending a website that has not delivered time & again.

There is a management concept specifically called ‘rewarding failure’ – because if you don’t accept that not everything will work, then you will never try anything new and your company will wither & die. It’s not like this is new news.

So why would you be a politician? Everybody starts off hating you as a matter of course, assumes you’re an imbecile, you can’t really get much done – and in any case if you try anything new then you will be burned as a witch.

Lesson: give people who at least should be helping you the benefit of the doubt, and be prepared to learn that some things don’t work.

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We cannot recall

March 15, 2010

There are two interesting things about Toyota’s epic recall-a-thon:

1: They are not alone in recalling cars on a large scale. So far from alone, in fact, that they should get some badges and a special jacket made, and elect a club secretary.

2: They have handled it really, really badly.

To look at the first point, an instructive 15mins spent reformatting the list of all car recalls ever issued in the US from the NHTSA here shows you very quickly that pretty much every car manufacturer you can think of does this all the time. In 2010 alone, so far 22 different proper car marques have issued recalls in the US – more if you include Ford, Chrysler & GM!

Only joking – actually no I’m not. Anyone would think that the US media canon wasn’t very happy about Toyota taking over GM’s world number one spot… I must have missed the torrent of panic & opinion about the Chrysler 300 saloon’s wheel nuts being recalled, or the instrument display of the Jeep Grand Cherokee [both listed as 2010 recalls above].

Anyway, the point is everyone does this, all the time. Are they as serious as Toyota’s issues potentially are? Not always, but definitely sometimes.

So why is this such big news now?

Along with no doubt a number of other important factors, one reason is my second point; how was this issue fumbled so badly by such a massive company? The presumption here is that massive companies are more prepared & well fortified from a communications perspective. That may sometimes be the case, but often the reality is that it becomes another process, just like ordering new wheel nuts or instrument clusters.

In the case of Toyota, one of the things that happened was that this issue blew up 10 days before a scheduled fortnightly PR meeting – meaning no-one did anything until the process told them to. After all, you don’t want just-in-time automated systems ordering more wheel nuts whenever they fancy. And all those fancy haircuts at the PR agency are just another supplier, aren’t they?

So there was a big gap, which inevitably got filled with the opinions of everyone who could be bothered to give one. When President & CEO Akio Toyoda (yes, relation) did make a statement, he immediately personalised it by being ‘deeply sorry’ about everything – rather than appearing in control of what had caused the situation. And then he drove off in a nice big, safe Audi

Things to learn here:

1) People don’t hang around waiting for you (as the official brand) to tell them what actually happened; they will form conclusions based on the available evidence, and if you’re not there when that happens – tough.

2) Embrace all dialogue. Imagine you’re a Prius owner that gets an email from Toyota, before there is a story at all, saying ‘It’s no big deal, but because we’re so safety-minded and curious, we’d like to check our solution to the problem everyone has – of making cars stop & go – is still the best one in the market. So come and say hello and we’ll give you a free [insert anything of value here]’. It’s the same solution, but doesn’t totally destroy your brand’s core value..

3) Buy an Audi.

Clifford Stoll wrote a an essay in 1995 explaining why the internet will fail. This has been unearthed recently by the ThreeWordChant blog, and discussed on BoingBoing – and most likely elsewhere too, especially in the form of the accompanying contemporary book ‘Silicon Snake Oil’.

Obviously, this kind of stuff is fun and common grist to the tech press mill – it being eminently satisfying to us sat in the future, looking at the internet. But actually, there something more interesting in this as well.

Stoll was an internet professional before most people knew that existed as an option; he caught hackers. In other words, he was pretty close to the technological coalface.

Bearing that in mind, let’s look at what he actually said – along with the developments that have negated his reasons for pessimism at the time:

“Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading” [search engines – Stoll is writing at pretty much the exact launch of the consumer-facing search tool, starting with Lycos then AltaVista, Ask Jeeves and then Google in 1998]

“You can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure” [fundamentally, the relentless downsizing of components is the key here, but also the development of Amazon from its launch at this exact point in 1995 to becoming America’s biggest online retailer]

“Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee” [everything from Skype & IM to blogging and social networks]

“And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?” [about a billion people – as of October 2008, about one quarter of employees visit Internet porn sites during working hours according to Nielsen Online]

“We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. ” [this covers pretty much the whole internet, but certainly PayPal, Lastminute.com, eBay, Toptable.com.. all the obvious e-tail candidates]

Now imagine that instead of a negative article, decrying the lack of these things, instead Stoll had written a positive one – listing the necessary waypoints the internet would need to accomplish on its journey to omnipotence.
He would rightly be considered the father of internet commerce, and there would be statues of him in every town. OK, maybe not every town – but certainly Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perhaps in Second Life too.
My point is – he actually understood very well the physical specification of a successful internet. He listed precisely what would need to happen in order for it to embed completely into peoples lives.
As Jonathan MacDonald says, assumptive certainty is more dangerous than unpredictability.
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