Quote from Bill Nighy

I have a theory with art of any kind that when it’s true and great, you receive it as if you are remembering it. There is a familiarity about it. And with his dialogue, it’s as if, if he’d given me another couple of minutes I would have gotten around to saying that.

Actor Bill Nighy discussing acting, art, and the playwright David Hare on the “Charlie Rose” show, May 16, 2012.

Social Media and Leadership Stagnation

Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times column yesterday posed a question about social media’s effect on political leaders that made me wonder how these tools might be affecting our business leaders, as well.

Friedman questioned whether the diminished number of successful political leaders in the world today is one result of too many people voicing their opinions on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media that give them a means of instantly commenting on everything leaders do and say, or perhaps are even thinking about doing or saying. He adds:

The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations—top-down—to overwhelmingly two-way conversations—bottom-up and top-town.

He notes that we derive some benefits from this new communications norm. But he asks, “Can there be such a thing as too much participation—leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?”

As in politics and elsewhere, we in PR have seen the rapid and intense rise of social media within our own more immediate world of employee communications, an area that heated up even more today when Microsoft announced it is paying a premium $1.2 billion for Yammer, a four-year old enterprise social network service used by businesses to create private networks for employee project collaboration and information sharing. Besides Yammer, companies are implementing internal podcasts, video programs, Twitter-like applications, and other social media. And employees are demanding a voice for everyone who wants a say in how the company goes about its business and presents itself and its products to stakeholders. Corporate communicators, who now love being on the forefront of internal social media and the opportunities for comment these tools offer, are delighted to grant this demand. C-suite executives are reluctantly giving in to it.

This communication a good thing.

For too long employees had no (or only a very quiet) voice. They were communicated at, not with, by leaders and many in corporate communications who thought they knew what employees needed to know and were highly reluctant to listen to employee opinions.

Finally, their voices are being heard.

Could it be possible, though, that the proliferation of criticism and comment on our internal social media is starting to cause leadership stagnation within companies around the world, companies whose leaders (like their political counterparts) are being second-guessed so often that they’re waiting to move forward until they get a greater consensus from those who are loudly and persistently speaking out?

Many have noted the increase in ever-delayed product launches, the decline of innovation, and the hording of large stashes of cash within today’s companies. I don’t know that it’s true, but perhaps, these situations result, at least in part, from leaders’ fear of making decisions that few within their organizations (not to mention outside stakeholders who also grasp an understanding of social media’s power) would find acceptable.

We hope our leaders are listening to a wide range of opinions, opinions that coincide with their own and those that conflict directly with them. Nothing should block the upward flow of comments, and nothing should filter out the controversial. We hope, too, that our leaders have the skills to listen thoroughly and to then quickly make decisions that benefit not only their companies, but also their stockholders, employees, and other stakeholders.

Food and Dignity for the Hungry

Creating good community relations and great branding is an ongoing effort for most companies. Some never succeed at it. Some are moderately successful. Others like Panera Bread Company get it right because they have a great product and are doing good things for the community, things that, in turn, shine a warm light on the company itself.

Panera Bread today opened its first pay-what-you-can cafe in Chicago. This outlet has long been a regular Panera store, and was, in fact, where company founder, chairman and co-CEO Ron Shaich personally wrote the company’s mission statement years ago. But today it becomes a Panera Cares community cafe, where the Lakeview area residents can pay normal prices for their meals if they feel like it or pay something extra if they wish so those who have little or no money (and who may even be living on the street) can get their meals free.

One of the goals of this program, the company has said, is to “ensure that everyone who needs a meal gets one. People are encouraged to take what they need and donate their fair share. There are no prices or cash registers, only suggested donation levels and donation bins.”

Beyond providing free meals and addressing the problem of hunger in the United States, the idea behind the community cafe concept is to improve the dining experience for those who need a little help, an experience nothing like that of a soup kitchen since the cafe has the exact Panera environment and food found at all its other outlets. The experience, Shaich has said, provides “dignity to all—those who can afford it, those who need a hand up, and everyone in between.”

The new location and the three existing community cafes—in Clayton, Mo.; in Dearborn, Mich.; and Portland, Ore.—differ from the other 1,500-plus outlets of this restaurant chain only in that they are now run by the Panera Bread Foundation, a non-profit organization.

Any profit earned by the new Chicago community cafe will—like that already being made by all three of the other outlets—go to organizations that train at-risk youth, youth who are offered jobs by Panera after they’re trained.

Brainstorming: Generating Ideas or Wasting Time

Brainstorming.

If you’ve been in PR, marketing or corporate communications for any length of time—more than, say, a couple of months—you most likely know that word well, having already participated in several brainstorming sessions to help come up with a new ground-breaking idea of one sort or another.

Communications practitioners live by brainstorming. They believe it is highly effective.

But according to a number of studies over the past half century, this exercise, first used in the 1940s with the promise of “doubling a group’s creativity,” does not provide more, or better, ideas than other attempts at uncovering great ideas to push our work forward.

Keith Sawyer, a professor of education and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis says: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

It’s not that group collaboration itself is bad. It’s that by eliminating criticism and debate about the merit of the ideas thrown into the brainstorming pot and scribbled on the white board, we leave out key components of group creativity. Brainstorming’s main characteristic—the absence of any form of criticism of a participant’s ideas—may, in fact, be 180 degrees out of sync with what we should be doing.

Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, says,

The only way to maximize group creativity—to make the whole more than the sum of its parts—is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes…. When you believe that your flaws will be quickly corrected by the group, you’re less worried about perfecting your contribution, which leads to a more candid conversation. We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.

Professor Sawyer is an advocate of creative collaboration, but he says on a website about his latest book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration:

But only certain kinds of collaboration work in the real world—improvisations that are guided and planned, but in a way that doesn’t kill the power of improvisation to generate unexpected insights. For example, studies of brainstorming have shown that in most cases this popular technique is a waste of time. The truth is that, despite the proliferation of advice in the business press, many companies don’t know how to foster creative collaboration.

Over the years, I’ve participated in hundreds of brainstorming sessions that have led to thousands of ideas. Some seemed pretty good, innovative, and useful. So, I’m not totally convinced that brainstorming results in little of value. But I have no way of knowing now if we would have generated better ideas had we approached brainstorming differently or, perhaps, had each of us worked on the problems alone at first and then collaborated and critically discussed each other’s ideas.

Quote from Mary Wells Lawrence

You can’t just be you. You have to double yourself. You have to read books on subjects you know nothing about. You have to travel to places you never thought of traveling. You have to meet every kind of person and endlessly stretch what you know.

Mary Wells Lawrence talking about how to become successful. Ms. Lawrence was an advertising woman, who in 1966 founded the agency Wells Rich Greene. She ran the agency for 20 years or so, creating campaigns for a number of companies, including Braniff International Airways, with the noteworthy campaign “The End of the Plain Plane” (view one TV commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3_aNtQFsLk); Alka-Seltzer; and Procter & Gamble. The quote comes from a New York Times June 10, 2012, article, “A Pioneer on a Mad Men’s World,” in which Ms. Lawrence is compared with women in the TV show “Mad Men” and identified as perhaps the inspiration for the show’s Peggy Olson character.