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Stigma and Identity

Need Tools?

For a time, when I lived in Washington, DC and was a fairly ardent triathlete, I would pick one Sunday per month for an out-an-back “Payback Ride” on the Mount Vernon trail, a 25-mile scenic trail that is very popular with occasional weekend riders. Another thing that is sadly popular with occasional riders is riding a bike without doing any maintenance and, almost invariably, without bringing spare bike tubes or tools of any kind. So, once a month, I did my payback ride as a karmic “thank you” for all the great rides I got to do the rest of the month. I would load up my beater-bike with tools and spare tubes and ride along the trail stopping whenever I came upon a rider in distress (flat-tire, broken chain, etc.) and offer help.

I learned over the course of the first few payback rides that how I approached male riders in particular, especially those in the company of female riders, made a huge difference in any acceptance of help. Originally, I would cycle up to people obviously having a problem, and say, “Need help?” Nearly every time the stranded rider was a man, and absolutely every time it was a man with a woman, the man would say, “no thanks,” even if it was plainly obvious he was in a jam.

Then it occurred to me: I might as well have been asking, “Did you leave your manhood at home?” I was asking the question in such a way that it left little desire for the man to admit — to me, to himself and especially in front of his female companion — that he needed assistance.

So I changed my tack. The next week, I started asking, “Need tools?” and found that simply forgetting tools is below the embarrassment threshold of most guys. I was now giving them the option of essentially saying, “Yeah, I forgot my bevel-edged throckulator or obviously I’d have this fixed already.” Some guys actually used my tools, some helped, some just watched me work, but I had given them a way to accept help without admitting anything they did not want to admit.

Which is to say, they could accept help without stigma.

Stigma comes in many forms and while most people easily understand the stigma that is essentially tied to judgment from others (imagined or real), what’s often not thought about are the kinds of very powerful stigmas we create and place upon ourselves — or how powerful (and often unconscious) is the drive to avoid doing so. (In the case above, a man trying to avoid feeling less like his idea of “a man.”)

Stigma forms an identity, created in a person’s own mind or via what somebody else is saying to them, or via their interactions with them. And when a person feels the discomfort of stigma, they get to decide what to do with that feeling and that identity. They can accept it, or they can resist it. Resistance to the stigmatizing identity may take the form of not reading your website or not watching your commercial. It can be ignoring an offer of assistance from an organization doing work that directly helps them. Resistance can be hostile, angry, even violent. And I too-regularly see stigma getting in the way of good work; often stigma accidentally created by the very people and organizations seeking to remove it.

For people dealing with conditions like addiction or depression where stigma is so easily attached, they may be particularly sensitive to being seen as accepting even a message, never mind services, intended to help them. And so it is that the people most in need of help can become those most difficult to give it to.

This applies to all kinds of relationships. Personal, commercial, or community. And it’s why it’s so important to offer people an identity they can easily accept. One that doesn’t attach stigma. One that does not bring up feelings they are working hard to avoid.

For example, in work Idea Engineering has done for organizations that help people in poverty, we have worked to change the conversation away from being one in which recipients are offered an identity where they are “lifted up” by the organization. Because, if you’re being lifted up, part of your identity becomes being a person that needs lifting, which can be a tough identity for someone to accept. Back to my earlier example of offering tools instead of “help,” we’ve worked to make the conversation much more about offering people stability so they can lift themselves up. A very different conversation, perception, feeling and identity than being lifted up by someone else.

In every conversation about drugs, suicide, poverty, race, etc. this is obviously important. But it’s also important in conversations about gender issues, politics, branding, fashion, high school and body-type. Which is to say LIFE.

How these conversations look from the outside and feel from the inside can offer divergent trajectories to success or failure in the short and long term.

What identity are you offering those who come into contact with you? Wife? Husband? Teenager? Customer? Employee? Client? Political opposite?

— Simon Dixon

Game of Thrones

“He would have made an excellent King of France,” is a quote about Steve Jobs that has always tickled me in its aptness. (The quote came from Jeff Raskin, an early Apple employee.) It speaks perfectly to Jobs’ regal status which he fully believed in and was fed relentlessly by press and fans alike. It represents Steve Jobs, in all his good and bad. His complexity: he achieved truly great things, but he thought you were less than him, whether he met you or not. It, also to me, opens the door to a lengthy conversation around how much of a jerk is it OK to be if you are changing the world. (Presumably for the better.)

Soon after Steve Jobs died, I wrote a post that posited that we would “now get to find out if Steve Jobs was a great man, or if Apple is a great company.” My bet was on Jobs. And, although Apple still sits on piles of money, I’d say that I won that bet. Apple has done nothing earthshakingly new since the crown of Apple passed to Tim Cook. They just polish what they already have. Samsung and many other companies jump over that same, lower, bar. Most of my personal technology is still Apple, but their ownership of me is no longer unassailable.

But now we have a new “King of France,” in all the ways of good and bad, in Elon Musk. It’s actually rather eerie, the similarities of how they treat people and how they think in ways that others find hard to do. And let me say quite clearly, I am not suggesting that if we all started treating people poorly, we’d all be more successful. I, for one, think a huge problem in modern America is how narrowly we have come to define the term, “success.”

Anyone who knows me or my writings knows that I am a car nut. Since I was a kid I have read and mused about electric cars and why they could never succeed: because there was no refueling infrastructure. So they were dead out of the gate. (Or at least 100 miles or so later.)

Then along comes Elon Musk who says, “OK, I guess we’ll build a refueling infrastructure.”

It’s so ridiculously simple. Rather like putting apps on a handheld phone/computer, but only one person said, “Let’s do it” while everyone else said, “It can’t be done” (or didn’t think about it at all).

The lease on my wife’s Chevy Volt recently came to an end. It has been replaced by a Tesla Model 3. After the first day, I said to my wife, “It’s like driving my Mac.” You can really feel where Musk conceded on the whole “cars should have 4 wheels” tradition, but after that, nothing was sacrosanct. I am not saying it is the perfect car, but it represents such exciting thinking in an industry that has generally been so incremental. The Volt was quickly resigned to being a commuter appliance, but we both love driving that Tesla.

My ’71 Buick Riviera essentially runs like a 2019 BMW. I put flammable liquid in a tank, turn it into an explosive fuel-air mixture, detonate it and use the explosive force to push me down the road. That formula essentially has not changed since Karl Benz got it running in 1885. Thank goodness that other industries have been a little faster to embrace change, otherwise you’d be reading this as a hand-written letter, snail-mailed on parchment.

I’m actually rather proud that an American car, built in an American factory with American workers is leading the world – in a manufacturing-heavy industry!

But it asks us to change our thinking. Embrace the possibility of new.

Recently, I bought some Apple AirPods. You know, those geeky-looking ear pods with no wires. I must admit they still look weird to me. But they are perfect for helping me dictate notes to myself as I stroll around.

I got great help from a pundit online (name lost) who asked, “How resistant to change are we, when we think that having wires hanging from our ears looks less silly than not having wires hanging from our ears?” – I relented and bought the AirPods the next day….

Similarly, something that often gets brought up about Tesla is that people don’t want to spend 40 minutes “refueling” their car. I had been taking it as a valid point – that filling up with electrons just takes longer – but today I looked at it in a different way.

99% of the time I fill my gasoline cars, I do it at Mesa Fuel Depot. Largely because it is a half-mile from my house, but also because it is a local business run by good folk who support the community. So, usually when my tank is around half empty, I head over there and, if they are not too busy, I pull in and refuel. Generally takes 5-10 mins, hopefully not when I’m rushing to a meeting.

99% of the time I refuel my Tesla, it is with the electron pump in my driveway. I pull in at night, hook it up and retire. And I start each day with a full 300 mile tank.

So, in truth, I spend much less time refueling the Tesla than the Riviera or my woody wagon. Only on the rare trips that go beyond 300 miles do I need to bother actually making a special stop to refuel.

What Would Be Amazing.

My point in telling all this is that Elon Musk, like Steve Jobs before him, did not feel chained to existing ways of doing things. They saw beyond that. They seem to have started with, “What would be amazing?” and worked backwards. And the problems that some of us have with their solutions are that we have not necessarily caught up yet or recomputed our standards of “normal.”

As I have been known to say to clients; The answer to polishing a turd is very rarely found in polishing harder…  In my world, a regular part of work is showing a client that something needs replacing, not fixing. That the answer to their issue is not just a pithy new headline, or getting a new logo; the answer starts with re-imagining the perfect relationship.

So, the question for you is:

What would be amazing in your world?

— Simon Dixon

Option B

A few years back, I gave one of my talks at a Ladies America conference in Washington, DC. Once I was offstage, a small line of people formed to ask me questions. One woman had in her hands a marketing mailer she had put together. She was planning on starting an executive coaching business and intended to send out the mailer to drum up business. Sadly, her mailer was not destined for success. It essentially played off the supposition that “you are failing” and that by hiring this woman, she could guide you from failure to success.

I pointed this out to her and said that it is never a good first step, on the way to a relationship, if that first step, for one of the parties, is to feel bad about themselves. In this case, a person had to agree that they were failing… as a first step to un-failing. I told her, “So let’s call that Option A: I am a failure and I give you my money. BUT there is an Option B: I don’t agree that I am a failure and I keep my money. I’m liking Option B; I feel better about myself and I keep my money.” (And, to be clear, for most people, most of the time, choosing Option B is unconscious – it just feels better.)

You’d be amazed how many relationships are offered this way. Commercial relationships and personal relationships. Too many offerors forget that the other person always has an “Option B” – and that it can be triggered by our words, positioning and brand.

Some time ago, I was hired to consult with a non-profit doing very valuable work around implicit bias and educational equity. They asked for my counsel because they were not having much success in soliciting donations from large donors. I explained to them that their name (which I am withholding) was provocative, in such that it suggested a line between doing good and not good and that people with money would see this organization as judging them to be on the not good side. Also, the way that they told the story of their constituents was one with significant guilt to be found for any listener with money and power. So, the Option A would be “I am guilty, perhaps even bad, and I give you money.” Option B would be, “I ignore your message and/or I blame your constituents for their predicament and I save my money.” (Or give it elsewhere). You know how that movie ends….

Much as the executive coach could have told her story with the idea of “would you like to have the tools to climb higher?” who’d say no to that? – this non-profit could tell a story about building a stronger workforce and stronger families – who’d be against that? Guilt and entitlements have many enemies and those enemies are not stopping to ask if the guilt is real or imagined, earned or incidental. The light-switch disconnect of Option B is both reflexive and easy.

In spite of all our personal work to make it otherwise, people are mostly just sacks of feelings, mated to a life-support system. And much of day-to-day, minute-to-minute life is navigated via what feels comfortable (which, sadly, can be very different from what is correct or healthy…) So when building relationships, whether it is with brand creation, a 30-second commercial or that delightful person you just met, be purposeful about what your Option A offering really is. And never forget that they always have an Option B.

— Simon Dixon

Your fake is my real

A couple of nights ago, at my history book club meeting, we had a spirited discussion comparing China vs. US from governmental, cultural and social perspectives. Not sure we came away with anything we collectively agreed as the “best way” but it certainly got me thinking – as I did throughout reading the book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos.

One thing we did agree on is the long-time reliable political ruse of finding an external enemy to take the public’s eyes off domestic issues. (China – South China Sea; Argentina – Falklands; US – North Korea; Take your pick – USA.)

Over a decade ago I started pointing out to clients that websites were a new leveler. Big companies can look small; small companies can look big (or vice versa). But websites also provided a new way to warp the truth. Promises can be made or implied that can be hard to suspect or disprove, except in the rear-view mirror.

I have written before about social media apps creating “micro-groups.” Now, we are seeing huge pushes toward “micro-nations” (e.g., Catalan, Kurdistan, California). By various means, we are pushing to surround ourselves only with other versions of “me.”

More than ever, “news” is part of the mix. Prior to the advent of the internet, the press that any one person was exposed to was small enough to read/watch and compare. It was further “contained” by accepted and pursued standards and ethics. The first weakening came with the rise of CNN and round-the-clock news. News started blurring the lines with entertainment in the search for content (and profit). Once news could be a money-maker, everyone wanted in. Now there is a deluge of news sources. But, just like micro-grouping, we pick the one that supports what we already “know;” one that supports our worldview.

Far from the standards of Brokaw and Jennings, whose legacies of integrity are fading day by day, people now demand only homeopathic concentrations of truth to support arguments and theories. We no longer search for truth; we search for validation. We have all the knowledge in the world available to us, but we seek just the parts that say we’re right.

This is leading to a world where small groups separate themselves from others via ideology, using manufactured or selective facts to support a view, and then demonizing everyone on the outside. It is happening in our Facebook feeds, our schools, our states, our nations. Dangerously, these groups (and don’t kid yourself, we’re all in them), see any form of compromise that asks the group to change, as a price too big to pay. And, those seen as doing the asking are often virulently attacked for it.

As someone who has spent his career in the study of psychographics, it is very interesting to watch. Outrage, that in times past may have dissipated after a quick water cooler chat, is now stoked and exponentially amplified by micro-group rage-athons.

From a marketing perspective, it is ever more important to identify (and deliver!) communications without hitting “triggers” that might bring down a firestorm of ill-will. I don’t mean creating fluff, I mean creating thoughtful and purposeful messages, delivered without detrimental distractions. Language, particularly the English language, is, and always has been, in constant evolution. Increasingly, we are in a time when fast and loose communications are an unforgiving minefield. — Your “gut feel” does not feel your neighbor’s gut.

Be careful out there…

— Simon Dixon

On a Mission

 

As I mentioned previously, a few weeks back I went to see a lecture given by General Stanley McChrystal, who made a name for himself by leading the development of a more informational and intelligence driven form of defense in Iraq and Afghanistan. He talked about how the world, from the industrial revolution up until recently, followed what he termed a “complicated” model, where the makeup of a company was too complicated for most to know it, but those at the top sent down orders to keep the various parts operating as they should.

The General posited that we now live in a world that, more than ever, follows “complex” and/or “chaotic” models where, in order to keep up with rapidly changing dynamics, decision making capability has to be pushed down to (in his case literally) front-line troops who can make decisions in real-time and need to decide if the orders they are receiving from the C-suite are, in fact, the correct decisions to follow. As General McChrystal said, “we tell our troops not to follow the order we gave, but the order we should have given.”

Well, you might ask, how the heck is a 24-year-old Sergeant supposed to know what order the 60-year-old General should have given?

The answer is simple: Branding.

When the people inside your organization truly understand and inculcate what the organization stands for, then they can make decisions that reflect that understanding. And the obverse is true: if your people don’t understand what you stand for, well, it becomes a crapshoot as to how they express their own particular understanding, and your brand gets dictated by whichever employee a customer happens to deal with.

Truly knowing what kind of company one works for can come in handy when deciding the best way to remove a passenger from an airplane, for instance…

This is the part where someone says, “We need a mission statement!”

No, you don’t.

In fact, if you have a mission statement hanging on the wall of your conference room, take a short break and go remove it and toss it (forcefully) in the trash can. I’d be happy to swing by and do it for you if you like; it always makes me feel good.

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Your mission statement is what you say; your brand is how you make people feel. Guess which one people actually care about: the few broad and obvious platitudes your Board could agree on, or the actual way you move through the world?

A mission statement may be a handy internal planning tool, but externally facing, it is either a cure for insomnia or a petard from which to hang.

I often remind myself, “if someone cannot feel your love, then you are doing a lousy job of loving them.” So then, if someone cannot feel what you are trying to say in your mission statement in the way you treat customers and employees, in the language you use, in the deals you make, in the walk you walk, then that sign on the wall just reflects your hypocrisy — to your customers and your employees.

Ask one of your customers if they can guess what your mission statement is. See if it is close to what you would have written. If it is, thank your branding firm. If it isn’t, you’ve got work to do.

Either way, write your mission statement on your heart, not your wall.

— Simon Dixon

You, Robot.

A couple of years back, Jay Ruskey, developer of the “Stak Block” — a wonderful way to reduce a huge source of worldwide carbon emissions by turning waste rice straw into building blocks (BTW, someone needs to go and make a few million dollars selling this to the Indian government) — told me of a conversation he had when presenting his technology in China. From the US perspective, a major selling point was that the machinery they had developed, and the newer machinery that was under development, would increasingly reduce the manpower needed in the production of Stak Blocks. The Chinese representative protested, saying, “No, no, we want more people needed to do it, not less.”

Where the US view was looking to more efficiency and profits, the Chinese view was looking to social stability.

Last week I attended a talk given by General Stanley McChrystal at the Westmont University President’s breakfast. It was a thought-provoking talk.

The General touched on a fact that we are beginning to see play out more and more: that technology, in various ways, is taking over jobs traditionally done by people. It is a known fact that most jobs that have been lost in the US have not been lost to off-shoring, but to robots, efficiency and technology.

And it’s worth noting that these changes are only just beginning to pick up steam.

For instance, think of any job that involves driving: truck drivers, bus drivers, train drivers, etc. Estimates are that those jobs are all going away, perhaps within ten years. (That is approximately 6 million truck and bus drivers.)

I think many people (yours truly included) have found refuge in the idea that their job could not easily be done by a robot (or more correctly, Artificial Intelligence).

But what happens when we are the robots? Because I believe that is where we are heading.

THE FOLLOWING IS NOT A POLITICAL STATEMENT. (How’s that for the sign of the times!)

So our President made a speech to Congress recently. I think everyone agreed it was his most balanced, reasoned speech to date. Some of his previously most ardent fans worried that he was wavering on important issues; some of his bitterest opponents found hope in his words. (That may be the bell-weather for a good speech! :) What I found amazing is that the next day Van Jones completely reversed his opinion of Donald Trump based on that speech. I wanted to ask him, “So your recommendation is that our opinion of people should fluctuate based on how they acted for an hour yesterday, not on what they did for the previous year?”

What was glaring to me was that, in this “Kardashian” world of ours, we are more and more open to having our views and opinions moulded for us, and that the timeframe for our malleability is becoming very short.

The warm up act has been a general acceptance of product malfunctions in our current “technology age” that was never accepted in the engineering age that preceded it. Witness the almost blasé acceptance of fatal shortcomings in the Tesla self-driving technology vs. the backlash that was the exploding Ford Pinto or the crashing Chevrolet Corvair. And as AI gets more involved in our lives, with algorithms deciding which Google results pop up and what movies, songs or clothes are recommended for us, one might legitimately ask, “Who is in the driving seat, me or the AI?”

Is AI moving toward us, or are we moving toward it?

In the world of starlings (birds), they call it “murmuration” — when a flock of starlings change direction as one. They are not thinking the course changes; it’s an automatic subconscious process. Similarly, our technology is encouraging us to hand over more and more of our cogent work to be computed external to our own brains. I know Netflix says their recommendations are based on our preferences, but are they? And is that all they are based on? — My son tells me that Dr. Dre is regularly in his “recommended” list on Apple Music. Yet he has never listened to Dre on Apple; but Dre is a business partner of Apple…

Remember, a small rudder can turn around a super-tanker, given enough time, and the change of direction is so gradual that in the open-sea you might not notice that it happened. Yet you end up chugging in the opposite direction to your previous course.

Do you really know what “being you” means? Because if you don’t, then how could you possibly know whether “who you are” is being manipulated?

In 20 years, I probably won’t need to influence you directly, I will just need to influence the person in charge of the AI that influences you — if it even is a “person” at that point…

Some say that in 50 years, most jobs will be gone and the “basic living wage” will be enacted. And most of our choices will be made for us. At which point the question will be:

What is the point?

And I must admit that there, I’m rather lost for an answer.

— Simon Dixon

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Who are we now?

istock-538165625_webAs I looked back over 2016, and really stopped to take in what a watershed year it was, there were a few things that really stood out to me going into 2017.

Aside from the election, one thing that got me pondering was the Chicago Cubs winning of the World Series. Their first since 1908.

In all the glee and hubbub over winning it, there is a question that looms in front of Cubs fans: Who are they now? What does it mean to be a Cubs fan? For as long as anyone can remember, being a Cubs fan meant wearing a special badge on your heart. “Long suffering”; “lifted up and dropped right down”; — a group of people bound together by pain and sorrow and the feeling that they are a special breed of “foul-weather” fans who will stand in allegiance no matter what.

But now what? None of that applies any more. Now, the Cubs are just the most recent team to win the World Series. No more being able to bond over “a century of heartbreak.” An identity that many Cubs fans may realize was their #1 coalescent catalyst is now gone. The icon of their identity is no more. A whole bunch of new conversations will need to be developed. What it means to be a Cubs fan will need to be reinvented.

Identities shift and we’d all be wise to pay attention. The way you talk to a group today may not be the way to talk to them tomorrow. Whether it is your company that is changing, or your customer base, or the market conditions, you need to stay alert to how your customers perceive you, your product, but especially themselves.

A question I have been spending a lot of time on, on behalf of clients, for the last year or so, is: “who am I asking someone to be, in order for them to do business with me?” And the obverse: “How must someone define themselves, to make us the answer?”

This came up huge in the 2016 elections. Groups that had not previously been under the same umbrella were presented with an identity (of themselves) which brought them together.

Quite abruptly, the questions of “who do I have to be, to vote Democrat?” and “who do I have to be, to vote Republican?” are being answered very differently.

So whether it is for a Cubs fan needing a new way to identify themselves, a voter seeking a new answer to address their most critical problems, or a prospective customer looking for a “fit” that feels right; we need to be asking: “who does somebody have to be, to be with me?”

If you’re asking them to be someone they don’t want to be, then you have a problem.

Optimally, someone gets to think better of themselves because they are “doing business” with you. — That they will arrive at, or are on the road to, a better destination because you are their travelling partner.

It’s not just about telling someone how great you are; it’s allowing them to imagine relevant greatness for themselves, too.

— Simon Dixon