Lenses and Levers

A couple of years ago while working on a project. I thought of the idea of “lenses and levers” as a simple but valuable way of thinking about organizational development tools. At the time, I just noted it down on the outside of the project file folder (I’m cleaning out old files today) and thought I should capture it in a more permanent location.

“Lenses” are methods and tools that allow you to view and understanding what’s going on in the organization. Reports, surveys, metrics, analytics, and dashboards are examples in this category, as well as more qualitative approaches like ethnographic research.

“Levers” are tools that allow you to alter or control what goes on in the organization. These might include governance, strategic planning, management, training and development, communications, and incentives.

AB — 29 May 2009


Great life advice: Write stuff down

On Hoovers World today, Gary Hoover published a great bit of life advice (or call it a lifelong “best practice,” if you want to couch it in businessspeak). His advice is deceptively simple:

Write everything interesting down.


If you don’t know who Gary Hoover is, you probably should. It would be ‘way oversimplifying him to say he’s a serial entrepreneur, but that’s one easy way to put it. Gary is the founder of the superstore Bookstop (later purchased by Barnes & Noble) and the Hoovers business information service (now owned by D&B).

Lately I have been enjoying his Hoovers World blog because he is a voracious consumer of books and writes excellent and useful reviews of extraordinary books I have never heard of.

But today he published the entry “Two Small Practical Tips That Could Change Everything For You,” which included the advice to write down everything interesting that comes your way.

I started doing this about 20 years ago as a result of reading the wonderful little book “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” by James Webb Young. I have found that I never know when a useful idea, large or small, will come my way, whether from the external or the internal world. So I always carry a pen and pocket-sized pad with me, so I can capture information or ideas even when I am not in front of my computer. (I also never buy a shirt that does not have a pocket.)

One of the most interesting things Gary says in today’s entry, though, is that you might not ever need to actually read what you have written down:

I don’t care how smart you are or how good your memory is, 80-90% of all the good ideas you hear or think of in your life will slip right through your fingers if you do not write them down.

You do not even have to go back and re-read them; the kinetic process of having the idea flow through your mind and down your fingers through the pen onto the pad has a significant impact on your memory. [Underlining mine.] Of course, you can always reread them if you want or need to.

I also find that writing stuff down – from the book recommendations of friends to music I want to buy to business ideas I have while walking down the street – takes a burden off me. I can forget about it, I know the thought or information is securely stowed away.

I have found this point about memory retention to be true as well, and have found that what leads to even greater retention is making my notes in visual form — also know as idea mapping — see my previous blog entry “Doodling is good for thinkers.”

As a result, I seldom use lined paper for any purpose other than financial tasks. When I am planning, taking notes in a meeting, preparing an outline for public speaking, leading a group process, or just thinking, I use an unlined sketch pad or a white board to give myself space to lay out the idea I’m working with and to go in multiple directions on the page if I need to. I have even purchased custom-made pocket pads without lines on them — it’s not hard or expensive to do this through the printing department at any of the large office superstores.

Oh yes, you might have noticed that Gary’s post mentioned “Two Small Practical Tips That Could Change Everything For You.” The other tip is also simple, and maybe deceptively so, as with the first. The second tip is:



AB — 25 May 2009

‘Pay your bill or die’: Verizon Wireless excels at customer intimacy

The Times-Reporter of new Philadelphia, Ohio, reports that police searching for a potential suicide victim were thwarted by a Verizon Wireless operator who refused to turn on the customer’s cell phone so the p0lice could use a nearby cell tower to locate the victim.

The man was behind on his bill, the rep informed police, and the police would have to make a payment on the bill or the signal would not be connected. (See “Unconscious Carroll man found after 11-hour search,” by Nancy Schaar)

This kind of intransigence makes me think that Verizon Wireless has been unsuccessful at implementing a key practice in good customer relations: Empower your people to do the right thing for the customer.

Perhaps my experience with Verizon Wireless is not typical, but twice in the last ten years I have had to write letters to company executives and lodge complaints with the state consumer protection agency simply to get Verizon Wireless to do the right thing for me as the customer. In both cases, I was in the right but customer service reps and even supervisors were evidently trained and incentivized to stonewall. (One of these incidents occurred when the company was still called Bell Atlantic.)

The Times-Reporter article describes the interaction between Sheriff Dale Williams and the Verizon Wireless operator:

Williams said he attempted to use the man’s cell phone signal to locate him, but the man was behind on his phone bill and the Verizon operator refused to connect the signal unless the sheriff’s department agreed to pay the overdue bill. After some disagreement, Williams agreed to pay $20 on the phone bill in order to find the man. But deputies discovered the man just as Williams was preparing to make arrangements for the payment….

“I was more concerned for the person’s life,” Williams said. “It would have been nice if Verizon would have turned on his phone for five or 10 minutes, just long enough to try and find the guy. But they would only turn it on if we agreed to pay $20 of the unpaid bill. Ridiculous.”

AB — 23 May 2009

The Ukulele Tsunami

Who knew that the humble ukulele would become the object of a worldwide surge of musical passion? An upcoming documentary, Mighty Uke, explores this phenomenon. Take a look at this fun trailer to get an idea what I’m talking about:

Margaret Meagher, writer and producer for the film, informs me that the team has nearly finished the editing for the movie. “Post-production,” she says, “will take a couple of months and the DVD should be available in early fall [2009].”

The filmmakers have this to say about the growing interest in ukulele music:

In the internet age, the ukulele is making a comeback. Clubs and ensembles are sprouting up around the world, and a new generation is pulling their grandparents’ ukes out of the closet, challenging our images of the humble ukulele. Ukes top the charts in Japan, Swedish punks thrash uke angst, California popsters serve it to ya ukulele style, classical composers carefully pluck out musicbox sonatas, and all of them meet together at the myriad ukulele festivals from New York to London to Tokyo.

AB — 22 May 2009

Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation

[Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

I’ve been interested for a long time in how people use language to market or “spin” their own points of view, to one-up and intimidate others rhetorically, to use implication and insinuation to make the other side look bad. (See “Rhetorical Intimidation” and “Spin and Gaffes.”)

I think of “spin” as manipulation of words to further one’s own quest for dominance or superiority. One thing I wrote in my “Spin and Gaffes” entry is that I suspect that:

… spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas — including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing — but also in groups and interpersonally.

In my “Rhetorial Intimidation” post I gave examples of some words and phrases that are used to gain the upper hand in disputes. Examples are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong,” “There is no dispute that,” “nonsense,” and “utter.” Terms like these are used to add artificial certainty to an assertion or to cast someone else’s idea as inferior and unreliable.

Why do people use terms like these?

One possible reason is they truly think that somehow it advances their cause or agenda. It plays to the prejudice of listeners or readers and perhaps makes them less likely to listen to the other side.

In this case, motivations can be political — using rhetoric to influence fellow citizens and lawmakers can be a tool to gain political ends, such as securing a certain freedom, enforcing certain moral behavior in society, or obtaining funding or government intervention toward a given issue.

Another possible reason is more psychological — people use this kind of language because it reinforces their sense of moral superiority.

The potential harm of spin and rhetorical intimidation is that they can shut off dialogue and discourse by appealing to emotion, sentiment, or prejudice. Each person on his or her own side can resort to insults and labels and thus avoid having to really listen to what the other person has to say.

Recently I have thought of some additional terms that are used to exert spin in discussion or public discourse, to intimidate, or, put more neutrally, to persuade. Consider:


In my “Rhetorical Intimidation” entry I referred to this as a term “used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions.”

“Pseudo-science” was once used by Tom Cruise to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is “sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models,” as I wrote previously.

A related term that has emerged and is used more and more frequently now is:


I have heard this term used to disparage people who oppose the destruction of human embryos for use in research, people who doubt whether human activity is causing harmful climate change, and people who doubt that darwinian processes could be responsible for the development of all varieties of life and who doubt that life could have arisen spontaneously.

Although disparagers lump all these points of view under the single “anti-science” label, these are in fact very distinct issues, and science informs both sides of all these issues in very different ways. Many people who hold these points of view are in fact very well informed about the science involved.


This epithet is starting to appear now in similar contexts with “Pseudo-Science” and “Anti-Science” as discussed above. The utterer attaches “-deniers” to some ideological position to cast their own position as superior and the “denier” as ignorant, deluded, or evil.

Few would argue that Holocaust deniers have any rational claims to make. However, the “-denier” label is now being used to cast in a negative light those who think there are reasonable arguments against evolution and global warming.

As in other cases of rhetorical spin, the “-deniers” label serves only to cut off dialogue. Indeed, that seems to be one of the important purposes of the label.


Writing about “anti-science” reminded me of this label, which I have seen used by partisans of particular business practices that are under attack.

Someone once accused me of being “anti-business” because I wrote an article discouraging companies from using spam email advertising as a marketing method. (The original article is still online — see “10 Reasons Not to Spam.”)

In fact, I’ve been in business for many years and have used email as a marketing communications tool myself. So I’m hardly anti-business or anti-marketing in any real sense. The person who made this accusation was evidently in a business that involved sending unwanted email to Internet users, and he wanted to try to score some points against me by painting me with the “anti-business” label.

Political correctness

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about this term is that, curiously, it is used about matters that are only tangentially political, if at all. It seems to me the “PC” label is applied as a kind of excuse not to show sensitivity toward someone else’s minority status, ethnicity, or disability.


Nowadays this term is only used to describe someone else’s ideology, never one’s own.

Bigotry and Homophobia

Certainly hatred and fear are involved in the attitudes of many people toward gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, many sincere people subscribe to religions that proscribe homosexuality among their members. Not all such people and not all such religions are motivated by hatred or fear, and not all such people intend to limit the legal rights of gays and lesbians. What purpose does it serve to cut off communication by labeling such people with insulting terms?

Cult and Sect

Often these terms are used to label unpopular minority religions that are said to be unorthodox. But what should really be the standard for judging what is orthodox? Surely it is not simply the fact that a religious group is unpopular or a minority.

Over the years, I’ve changed my mind on a number of important questions, and I’ve seen other people change their minds as well. In most cases, dialogue with others has been an important factor.

Not that we are always going to change sides on an issue, but at least through dialogue we can understand others’ thinking more clearly and establish more peaceful relations.

The use of spin and rhetorical intimidation might serve political purposes and might give the user and artificial sense of superiority. But they are not conducive to mutual understanding and make the user look arrogant and dogmatice.

AB — 19 May 2009 [Updated 23 Oct. 2009]