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A beautiful citizen uprising

12 May

“A beautiful citizen uprising!” Apparently, that’s what I said — and there’s video to prove it.

One of the most excellent regional unconferences (imo) is Transparency Camp, put on by the Sunlight Foundation. This year, I was interviewed as one of the participants, and my few moments of fame open and close the video.

Reducing board micro-management

27 Feb

For those of you who’ve ever experienced micro-management by a board (on either side of the table), here’s a potentially helpful document I wrote. It’s designed to help nonprofit organizations reduce unnecessary board intrusion, concurrently while helping the ED and staff serve the board and provide them what they need to do their strategic work.


See, I’ve served on two boards of late. And, educational experiences they have both been! I’ve learned through some rather twisted and uncomfortable ways about the roles of the executive committee, the board president, the committees, the executive director (ED) and the staff. I have not always been the easiest of board members to have around. I want information. I find it impossible to do my job of providing, among other things, strategic direction to an organization about which I know little.

In my frustration, I became a whirlwind of data requests. I had culture clashes with the staff and ED about what information I had a right to see. Me? I think Google Analytics are relevant when one is the Communications Committee chair.  And HTML newsletter open rates and clicks on links. Because I wasn’t receiving the information I felt I needed to do my job as a board member, and as my requests for information were often perceived of as stepping on staff and ED toes, the I-want-you-can’t-have push-pull became even more pronounced.

Now, EDs have to protect their staff from excessive board requests and ensure that mission critical operations continue. And usually, producing reports and providing information takes staff time that can impact the staff’s ability to do its work. So, what’s a sane organization to do? Well, I think the first thing is that people have to know is what they’re asking for and why … what purpose does the getting of the information provide? And what’s it worth? Is the information sought a $25 answer (a quick email sent), a $250 answer (perhaps a meeting with a few staff and follow up), or is it a $2,500 answer … perhaps a more extensive report? Board members should be able to ask a reasonable question of staff and get a reasonable answer. Equally, even without a master of science in management, board members need to understand “the cost” of their questions asked.

So, what’s a sane organization to do?

In my consulting work over the years (and in personal relationships), I see that it is my responsibility to ask for what I want and to make sure that I’m clear about what it is that I need as an answer/deliverable/date. My suspicion is that board member requests of staff would half and ED/staff resistance would subside tremendously if there were systems in place that required (forced) board members to be more thoughtful in what it is they need, and why.

So, I created a form, a document, a think-your-way-through-your-thought-process guide. I make no claim of perfection in this regard. I have yet to test and vet this form. I am, however, offering it for nonprofit boards, EDs and staff as a potentially helpful tool for navigating the sometimes-messy territory of board-staff relationships. (And for those of you who’ve got your thinking caps on but don’t serve on nonprofit boards at this moment in time, you’ll be able to see the business applications for such a form.)

I’ll take the soup of the day and the flu buster.

31 Oct

I have my own relationship to food. To health. To my body.

I find myself intrigued and compelled to things that seem logical, Godly and easy. In that, I like the concept that food is God’s kindest and smartest medicine for strength and capacity, for curative powers and for prevention. And while I eat my greens and such, I also feel drawn to foods that are strong in taste, and Dr. Schulze’s SuperTonic Plague Fighter is one of my favorite examples of this. It’s a combination of garlic, onion, habanero pepper, ginger and horse radish, in a base of apple cider vinegar. (Recipe/instructions here.) And, if that doesn’t spark things up inside my body, I don’t know what will. Recently, a chef in Atlanta, commented on an earlier blog post of mine, that he not only makes his own STPF, but that he also sells it at his restaurants, and his customers love it.

I’m wondering — and wouldn’t be surprised to see more of this — that as Individuals In A Nation Transforming, as expectations and attitudes toward caring about our health shift, what that might look like. Me? I’m interested in more personal responsibility. I’m interested in less righteousness about showing up at the doors of Our Health Care System, demanding endless treatment for problems self-created by a life-time of careless choices. I’m interested in supporting others and being supported by others in a culture informed by the belief that we each play a role in both the big — and the infinitesimally small — picture of A Healthy Nation. I want to walk into a local restaurant and be able to choose a good wholesome soup … and a bottle of flu buster, made fresh that day by the chef. I want to be acknowledged by The Health Care System for the choices and lifestyle I’ve lived. I want to be honored and respected for that. And while I’m not advocating for specific punishment, per se, for those who’ve chosen otherwise, I want to live in a culture that speaks with a clear and honest voice about the impact of choices made. And the responsibility of individuals to participate in The Care Of Their Health while they receive from the bounty of The Health Care System.

You? I don’t know what you want. I don’t know how you see it. I don’t ask that you see things exactly as I do. But I do want — and hope to find as I live my life — more people in the tribe/bandwidth/vibe of the realm of this thinking. The solutions: so many of them are right here, right now. It’s a matter of truth telling, I think. Being clear, real, straight up.

Hey, I’ll drink to that! And I invite you to join me. Perhaps we can have a  shot of SuperTonic Plague Fighter, straight up.

Why not Wednesday?

8 Aug

US-Postal-ServiceI’m all for the USPS cutting a day of delivery service to reduce expenses. Personally, I think for $.44, having a piece of mail picked up from my home and delivered straight to the door of any address in the U.S. has got to be the best bargain on the planet. So, if the Postal Service needs to trim a bit, ok, works for me.

But why Saturday? Why not a weekday? Are we such an old-school bunch of thinkers to believe life happens M-F? Yeah, I get that M-F are classic biz and gov days of operation. So, what biz is going to actually falter if they can’t have USPS pick-up or delivery one day out of the week? Really. But it would be, imo, more harmful/disruptive/noticeable not to have delivery two days in a week: Saturday and Sunday. And, mercy, what about a gov holiday? What happens on President’s Day? No mail delivery for three days?

I say cut Wednesday. Or maybe Thursday. But not Saturday. That’s a bureacrat’s answer. Think, people.

Getting friendly, fast, with cartoon advertising

4 May

Trends, trends, trends. Certainly not the first to spot this one. I just feel the cartoon-comic-drawn character approach to delivering marketing messages is firmly entrenched for now … and probably another 12-15 years before it starts to feel tired.

Examples abound. I just happened to be very impressed by this one for a coffee service. Gosh, how much more fun must it be to be a salesperson for this company?

I’d expect to see lots more of it … even, I’d bet, in government communications.

Give ’em hell, Bob

8 Feb

Just watched a snippet of news on CNN. About the 150 or so ice fisherman who knowingly went into dangerous territory … anyway. Uh, this time, things didn’t work out, they needed emergency rescue, etc.

The part I love-love-love about the story is the ever-so-irrate sherriff in the local area who is very upset about their irresponsibility and tying up emergency services and the cost to the county.

“This was wrong. These people endangered the life of volunteer firemen, [and] the United States Coast Guard,” Bratton said, estimating the cost of the sheriff’s office response at $25,000. “I’m sure that’s going to climb.”

Bratton told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the fishermen displayed poor judgment in building a makeshift bridge to get from one section of the ice to the other.

“I have no problem with people ice fishing, but these idiots should realize that when you see open water, you should not build a bridge and cross it,” he said. “It’s a shame you can’t arrest people for stupidity.”



Really, that era of expectation and thoughtless, reckless choices that impact us all (that includes, by the way, one’s diet)… that era is O-V-E-R.

I don’t normally type in all caps. You know that if you read my blogs at all. So feel my passion. Heed the warning. Straighten up and fly right. You are the only who command the ship called Y-O-U.

Long, quirky and surprisingly charming.

3 Aug

Reposting from Geren and Blather de la Semaine. A 42-minute long musical / movie: Dr. Horrible and his sing-along blog.


8 Jun

I host a lot of parties. All kinds of parties. Cocktail parties. Living Locally parties. Geek parties. Picnic parties. Hula hooper parties. You name it. I find parties to be an excellent personal branding system and means to keep in touch with friends, particularly weak social ties: you know, people I like but just don’t see that often.

Plus, parties are just way fun.

Now, as more of my friends have elem and middle-school-aged kids, I’ve become more cognizant of their schedule pressures. So, I just switched up my parties, especially the cocktail parties, and made them kid-inclusive. Now, this is a very specific word choice I’m using. These are not kid-friendly parties. There’s no face-painting. There’s no kid-friendly food. And, frankly, there will be drinking and alcohol. I hope my adult friends will give stern looks to interrupting children who forget their manners. And I hope that, when we’re at a more upscale place, that the parents will take advantage of the teaching opportunity to discern appropriate clothing for different events. A cocktail party is a cocktail party. It’s not an outdoor picnic.

The last 15-20 years of American culture — as I see it — have leaned toward parents and adults putting kids first and then socializing around the edges of their children’s activities. I understand this. I understand generational influences. I understand cultural shifts. And it’s all cool.

I also believe that what has become the norm is now shifting and the kid-inclusive adult events, rather than the kid-focused family events, will start to become more common place and will shift the culture in a new direction. In either case, whether I’m right or wrong, this is how I’m doing it. My parties are kid-inclusive. But, please, parents, understand (and help your kids understand) the subtle nuanced differences of kid-friendly and kid-inclusive.

Rock on.

I gave ’em 12-18 months.

23 Mar

But my timing was a bit off. It’s less than a year since this post, and Border’s is clamoring for cash in the most discomforting of ways. Oi.

I look at Border’s and their solution and way out of their mess is so clear to me. It’ll require different thinking and a different corporate culture to make it work, but their old thinking and old culture has already proven itself ineffective. So, gosh, given a choice, I’d pick a new culture and way of doing business over a collapsed business. But that’s me. I like fresh ideas that are logical, serving people’s needs and allowing businesses to succeed by being integrated in the functionality of their customers’ lives.

Co-knitting at Borders?

21 Mar

The local Border’s where I live in Columbia hasn’t received many of my dollars in recent years. The appeal of being in an endless big-box store, crammed (over-crammed?) with merchandise has lost its appeal. Yet, I’ve been to the local Borders more times in the last month than I’ve been in the last few years. Why? I’m interested in co-working: that is, working with others in a productive and social space.

Interestingly, for as large as my hometown is, I almost always run into someone I know there. I love it. I can work. I can have light interactions with weak social ties, and I feel included and connected to the human race when I’m out and about.

Wednesday evenings host the knitting club at Border’s. The ladies, and they are all ladies, were chatty, happy and loud. I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation and announcement that Border’s was, in essence, cutting them off. “The Fire Marshal this … ” “The Fire Marshal that …” Essentially, their success as a group means they are beginning to outgrow the place. Their announcement to the group: We’re looking for a place that can hold us all, like an empty room in a school or church.

Yeah, right.

Half the fun of getting out of the house and meeting up with friends to knit, cowork, study is being out. The chance encounters, running into friends I haven’t seen in ages, and striking up conversations with new people is why it’s worth going. Knitting in a school room? They’ll solve their problem right away, I’d bet. Their group numbers would plummet.

So, there I was in Borders on knitting night. Every table was full, as is almost always the case, regardless of the evening. The adjacent magazine area was packed. It was a chatty, friendly and productive environment. Once again, I found myself irritated at Border’s lack of understanding the business model that will take them forward into the next decade or two of financial success: People want public spaces to be together.

I decided to sleuth. I roamed the store and counted 57 people. This is a HUGE store in a grayfield of the suburban nightmare of one-story big-box stores spread over vast amounts of land. There were 63 people in the small bit of space in the cafe and magazine area.

I’ve blogged about this before here and what I think the solutions for Border’s are, so kindly click the link and read on if you’re curious.

Enough with businesses trying to do good with pink this, and red that and 10-percent-of-profits-go-to-X kind of overplayed, mediocre, boring corporate do-gooded-ness. It’s ineffective. It’s noise. It does little.

Just watch what your customers are doing and pay attention to trends. All the answers are right there!

“No, thanks, I’ve got enough.”

13 Jun

Wouldn’t it be something if a slew of our elder citizens, those with more than enough money in their pockets, bank accounts and stashes, would demonstrate civic leadership and personal virtue by agreeing *not* to receive their Social Security checks. You know, to give the cash back.

Come on. We know you’re out there. You made plenty of money buying property back in the day. Perhaps you inherited some highly successful stocks your mama bought decades ago. Maybe you just lived in an era when a blue-collar job was enough income to support your family, own a home, vacation here and there, and sock away some money for retirement.

There’s a significant chunk of elder Social Security check recipients who will never have to pay for the low-cost (below-cost) natural resources they helped deplete: water, agricultural land, mineral resources and petroleum come to mind. There’s a number of SS check recipients who will never pay for the federal deficit that helped create a booming economy where they made their money in land, business or stocks. There’s a number of them that will receive pretty much endless health care when they paid a fraction into the system for what they get out of it.

And, golly, if they got enough in their pockets, wouldn’t it just be the nicest show of citizenship and good will toward their fellow (and younger) Americans to say, “No, thanks. I have enough.”

Maybe they could create a memorial wall, kinda like the stunning Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.. Maybe they could create a special fund with the money to help less-fortunate elder-folk in their generation. Maybe, bless their souls, they’d direct those extra funds to the younger generations who will – have no doubt about it – pay for their generous access to and economically unsustainable costs of national debt and natural resources.

Gee, that would be swell.

Clean Commute: Ultra Premium

8 Jun

I just read about County Executive Ken Ulman’s “declaring May ‘Clean Commute Month‘ in Howard County and challenging residents to consider an alternative to driving their cars.” It goes on to say, “Today’s announcement is consistent with one of County Executive Ulman’s top priorities: bold and innovative protection of the environment in Howard County.”

OK, I get that this is a municipal endeavor. I see that it’s PR. I understand that it’s a values-based statement that says, Hey, HoCo is ‘about’ good environmental practices.” I believe that commuting, carpooling and public transportation options are components to be considered and developed. Everything’s cool.

And, how unoriginal.

… And, probably, irrelevant to most people’s lives and life conditions.

Now, here’s a concept: How about putting attention on the cleanest commute of all? Working from home!

If the county wanted to demonstrate leadership in suburban transportation issues, it could assemble a team to identify, develop, aggregate and publish professional technical support materials for local businesses that wish to increase their home-based (partial and/or full-time) workforce. (Perhaps they already have?) The team could consult and work with companies through the implementation period to make this happen on the ground, in companies of all sizes, across many industries and professions.

The benefits of offering such flexible work conditions are many and multi-layered, and this blog post is not about “the why” and the reason. There’s tons of info and easily accessible logic to answer that question.

The issue is Are we going to lead? Or are we going to mimic?

If we want to lead, then let’s do it.

  • Assemble the team. Do lots of thinking first. This is not a commission. This is not a task force. This is a PAID team of thinkers: a combination of generalists and specialists. Some county staff, but mostly private business folk.
  • Gather the existing resources for what works for home-based workers. In what professions does it work best? In what industries? Who are the local employers who can benefit most?
  • Create technical support: materials, resources, training. Identify software, best practices, consultants who can work more intensely with companies as needed.
  • Provide basic info back to the public for free, and then provide actual technical support and consulting for a fee … with a sliding scale determined by annual business income and volume of employees, for example.
  • Track what works. Observe. Get feedback. Be willing to be wrong. To be nimble. To create anew. Analyze it. Think. Publish more data.
  • Then create a product and sell it to other counties and regions. And provide technical support to other counties in how they can increase their home-based workforces. (This could be a county endeavor or a spin-off private business.)

Make Howard County a leader in providing *professional technical support* to other counties. We’re friggin’ loaded with smart, educated folk here. Let’s lead! We’re at the center of one of the most sought-after, intellectually dense (in a good way 😉 ) regions, so that’s our value, folks. We are the center. Let us send ripples of intelligence and thinking and problem-solving into our local county neighbors and beyond. That’s how we transition from being insular (bedroom community, boring) to being integrated and vibrant. Our intellectual capacity is our vibrancy. Our willingness to be at the forefront of social change is our identity. Let’s be that again!


And here’s another point: having extraordinarily strong, well-vetted, tested and efficient systems for allowing people to work from home is very good practice and super-smart for emergency preparedness.

The Horizon Foundation hosted a flu pandemic summit of sorts. See, one of the more probable emergency scenarios we face as a county is an avian flu outbreak, where people have to stay at home in a lock-down type situation. Think, for a moment, about what happens to commerce, services, safety and Normal Life in a situation like that!?

Really, folks, it’s good thinking to have as many people as possible already prepared to work from home, for companies to have up-to-date systems for communicating with their staff, to have plans in place for how people can be functional from home. It’s good for today — for families, for personal health, for integrated lifestyles, for receiving new generations and new life views into the workplace. As much as possible, we want continued functionality (safety, services, commerce, etc.) of our county and region, if we were to ever face a serious emergency. (Heck, such systems are even good for snow days!)

I’m not proposing a task force, or a list of recommendations. I’m proposing an actual, functioning, service-providing entity and system for vastly — and rapidly — increasing the number of Howard County businesses and institutions set up to allow many people to work from home. And, here’s what I’m willing to do: If this approach (and result) is considered a value to our county, and if there’s a budget for it, I’ll get it launched.

Borders with Spaces

28 May

About a month back, I walked into my local Borders in Columbia, Md., which I’ve done dozens of times in years past. After being there, walking the aisles, feeling the vibe and, yes, using the restroom (as businesses say so much about themselves and how they view their customers by their restrooms), I basically said to myself, “Whoa … they’re going down. I bet they’ll be declaring Chapter Something in the next 12-18 months.”

OK, so I’m not in commercial real estate. Nor am I in retail. But I can pick up lots of micro clues and feel the trajectory of the accumulated data: I can see the direction something is going in, and I can usually tell how they can switch directions.

So my suggestion here is going to require some future-think type of understanding to comprehend it.

The super-short version:

  • Border’s lost their specialness, coolness and newness.
  • They are trying to sell too many things.
  • They haven’t done much of anything new except bring in more things.
  • There store is junky with too much signage and stuff trying to get people to buy.
  • They’re struggling with the challenge of being so successful years back and spawning a lot of competition in their niche.
  • Online booksellers and the secondary markets eBay and have provided many more options for avid book purchasers.

OK, so maybe that wasn’t so short.

Here’s some more info to digest:

  • Read the societal need.
  • People today desperately need space to work outside their homes, gather for book clubs, study together in groups, check their email, post some information on Facebook and so forth.
  • Homes often don’t work for this type of gathering.
  • Parents need productive space to do some after-work work, while sitting with kids doing their homework.
  • Bookstores and cafes are taking the brunt of this need, but not maximizing the value. (I once saw a young couple who had literally packed their lunch and a thermos, then parked themselves – and took up additional space to either side of them with their books – and did this all in the café area of Barnes & Noble! Their gall is a whole ‘nother subject … )

So, what’s the solution? Here’s what I recommend for Border’s. (This is going to take some guts to implement, but it’s certainly better than “Chapter Something.”):

Remodel. Remove. Reposition.

  • First, get rid of about 60 percent of the books and 80 percent of the tchotchkes. Gone.
  • Create two or more café areas with numerous, plentiful electric outlets and stellar, free wi-fi.
  • Make one café the quiet zone in a quiet, back corner of the store. No cel phones. No group conversations above “library voices” allowed. Shhh.
  • Make the other café social, a cel-phone-friendly zone, with lots of tables that are meant for collaborative work, book clubs, homeowner association meetings and study groups.
  • Create a number of relatively sound-proofed rooms (with lots of windows to keep people civil) which groups can use for a specified and scheduled period of time.
  • And before anyone uses such rooms, require a Borders’ Customer Agreement (with some fancy name). Much more to say on this but this blog post is getting long! Basically it would cover rules of engagement, civility issues, respect for Borders property (i.e. not eating while handling a magazine or new book!) and a direct and specific request that in exchange for this new community space, Borders’ customers use, when price-competitive, the website for purchasing new books.

The bottom line: I believe that if Borders continues as it is, or only makes micro changes (such as a new store design), they’re going down. And hard. They have, at this moment in time, an opportunity to step into an entirely new relationship with their customers and the communities in which their stores are located.

My belief is that with a genuine and direct explanation of why they are reducing in-store inventory to provide space for the community, they’ll increase customer loyalty and sales.

I have more to say on all of this, but the main points are included in this post.

Coworking in Columbia?

5 May

by Guest Blogger, Frank Hecker

I’ve lived in Howard County almost ten years, and have spent most of that time commuting to Bethesda. I now work out of my home. (I’m currently living in southeast Howard but soon moving to Ellicott City.) Working from home is convenient (I can just plop down on the couch with my laptop) but also simultaneously distracting and boring; as when I commuted to Montgomery County, I don’t really feel that connected with the community I live in.

I work in the Internet/web space and have spent most of my career working for companies based in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. One of the latest trends to start in the bay area and spread outward is that of coworking: “a movement to create cafe-like community/collaboration spaces for developers, writers and independents“. Continue reading

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