Monthly Archives: November 2007

Negotiation Skills

I had a friend in law school who had a five year old daughter.  When Gail was taking Mediation and Negotiation, she said it as the easiest class she ever took, because she got nightly practice with her child, sharpening and honing the skills in her own little real-life lab.  Now that I am a parent, with two boys, 12 and 9, I understand this much better than I ever did at the time.  Having kids sharpens your negotiation and mediation skills to a fine art.

In an odd way, this is one of the reasons I think Hillary Clinton might make a great president.  She’s a lawyer and a mother, so she knows how to bargain and get things done.  I sort of wish she had had at least two children-  more kids raises the stakes in the balancing of needs test parents do between kids.  And lord knows when it comes to foreign affairs, balancing wants and needs is critical.   I know that the tri-partate talks we have here to solve the lost remote control crisis would make me perfect for solving the arab-palestinian problem single handed.

That aside, I am always fascinated on how negotiations start out pleasant, but after a while, people just need to take off the gloves and say the underlying truth of the matter, to solve the problem. The manners I wrote about yesterday are important, respect and honoring each other is important, but ultimately, it should be about solving the problem at hand, not about feeding the egos of the participants.

In parenting, you are often forced into a situation where you just need to tell kids the truth.  “I am sorry that you are upset over the loss of the remote control.  however, after watching two hours of uninterrupted brain candy, your father rightly is exerting his authority and position in the house to watch whatever he wants- please go read a book or find some other source of amusement.”  Acknowledge feelings, tell them, “tough luck” and give them directions on how to move on.

This kind of honesty would be refreshing in foreign affairs.  I just heard a story on NPR about how foreign investment and profits from the high price of oil in putting lots of money in the hands of countries that are not always the biggest fans of the US.  That whenever they wanted to, they could mess with our economy- what stops them is that the economy of the US is tied to global economic health, and tanking our economy for fun would also hurt them.  Mutually assured destruction.

But what’s stopping us from taking off the gloves and trying a fresh approach, like going to Arab states and Russia and saying “You are in great economic shape, we are in the tanker right now.  We are pouring money into Iraq with only moderate signs of progress.  Coincidentally, this country is a neighbor of yours, and any political unrest is closer to your neighborhood than ours.  Is there any way we can work together to fix this problem, as good neighbors and world citizens?  If we fix it, everybody wins; if we let it go, everybody loses.   We aren’t in a position to do this indefinitely.  We have decided it’s time to withdraw and let other countries become the heros.  How about you?”

The point of this essay is this- everyone- families, communities, countries- we’re all interconnected.  We need to let everyone have a chance to succeed, let everyone have a chance to share and grow.  And we need to start looking at everything as a global responsibility, and not be solely concerned with ourselves.  Once we look at the human population as one giant community, with responsibilities that span not only our homes, towns, states and countries, but globally- then we will start to have an inkling of how to best move forward.

We have to start looking at every negotiation as not what makes us happy or the big winners, but how everyone wins in the end.  When everyone wins, no one is diminished or feels less, and then we can form the global community we want and need.  If we could harness the power of cooperation, acknowledge competition drives us, but no one wins in the end if someone has to lose- then we would be in a truly better world.


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Social Contracts and Constructs

A friend of mine from out of town came to spend the night- he had a speaking gig nearby, and so he came to the “Hoffman B & B”- bed and breakfast at our house.  It was super to see him, and I am so glad he stopped by.  He also did something really nice- he brought us a bottle of wine as a thank you.

When I was growing up, this was normal.  If you went to someone’s house, even for dinner, you might bring flowers or a bottle of wine;  if you stayed there, you always brought a small gift of some kind.  It may not have been “necessary”, but it was always appreciated.  Thank you notes were also part of the process, and especially at birthdays and holidays.

These “traditions” seem old fashioned these days.  I remember not loving the process of writing thank yous to all the relatives after the holidays, but my mom insisting on our doing so.  I have not always pushed my kids to write thank yous, but I am changing that this holiday season- and here’s why:

I think we are not as appreciative of the small favors and kindnesses that others do for us as we should be.  The act of bringing a small gift or writing a note is a gift of time, thought and effort.  We don’t see these very often any more.  Those people that do take the time have become remarkable- what was commonplace courtesy is now a rare personal value.

I think the act of writing a note from a kid’s perspective can seem tedious and formulaic.  I remember grumbling and writing “Dear _______, Thank you for the _______.  I will use it when I _________.  Thank you for thinking of me, I hope you have a happy new year.  Love _________”  and looking at it as a silly thing to have to do.  Now, as an adult, in a world that is getting more and more impersonal, i am seeing it differently.

What the thank you note should do is instill a sense of value, and maybe even reciprocal obligation, in them, and make them consider the time and effort someone else took on their behalf.  It’s making an effort to see things from another’s perspective,  and to instill gratitude, even if the gift is only “ok”.  These values are important, especially later on in life.

I don’t know when or why good manners and common courtesy became old fashioned and got dropped out of the vernacular. I do know that having a sense of being thankful for all that we have, and all that we can share with others is a value I want my children to learn from home, so it becomes a part of them when they are adults.

Manners, courtesy, and all those little touches that can make us think Martha Stewart is a perfectionist with too much time on her hands, are the small things that make interactions with others special.  In terms of social contracts, the small touches and efforts make people feel welcome, and it helps bring people together, knowing someone else thought enough to make the extra effort on your behalf.

Seth Godin talks about things being remarkable and this then making them valuable.  It’s true.  I always notice this small touches, like my favorite barrista who can even make a pumpkin in the latte foam, and this keeps me coming back for more.  The small stuff, from mints on the pillow, to homemade anything, is now what I value more than ever before.  I have enough stuff, I don’t have enough value.  The trick is to create value in everything you do, and it may be as easy as being kind, courteous and thoughtful of others.

Rereading this post, it  sounds like I am Emily Post’s secret love child.  Maybe.   But I guess what I am really trying to get at is that in a community, online or off line, the personal effort and special touches go a long way to building your reputation as being remarkable.  I hope I can pass these values on to my kids, as well as help them learn to appreciate a little more in life, rather than take everything from things to people for granted.

Thanks, Howard, for reminding me how important this is.

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Quick thoughts on Education….

I got a postcard today from a virtual charter school.  One where kids can essentially take all their classes from home, on the computer.  I called them up, not because I am dying to enroll my kids, but because I wondered if they could take some of the classes- like a language class, or maybe an advance math class, as a supplement or addition to their regular coursework in school.  No go- it’s an all or nothing proposition.

But this brings up a question- why couldn’t there be more classes a kid could take for “credit” in middle school or even earlier, available online?  It would promote early computer literacy.  It would allow kids needing more challenging curriculum to get it in a cost-effective manner.  Kids could take remedial classes online, to boost their understanding of material presented in class.  We could turn education into a truly multi-media experience, helping visual and auditory learners at the same time.

My kid could see if he was ready for an advanced math class, or get remedial writing support.  Individualized education plans could be designed for each child, allowing them to progress through school at their own pace, as long as they met certain goals and standards.

Sure, there are loads of problems with this.  Social justice issues with the digital divide.  Ability of some kids to accelerate, and maybe not enough support for kids that need it.  The time and effort in designing an a la carte curriculum would be tedious, as would ensuring quality.  But it would also solve the age old problem of even Individualized education plans being small group  education, not prescriptive education for individuals.

We’ll see what comes to pass, but I hope some elements of a la carte education become available, soon.

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Community and Critique

I love that the internet is a small town.  I love that I know people through certain channels, then run into people in real life where we share friends.  probably the best example of this is when I met Alex Hillman of Independents Hall at a meeting about Blog Philadelphia and Podcamp Philly, and found out we were both friends with one of the best people on the planet, Eric Skiff.

As such, there’s a fair amount of the benefits and burdens of small towns as well, this time spread digitally over the world.   This means gossip and speculation, things getting blown out of proportion and becoming a “big deal” when in real life, the incidents are at best minor and barely worth a mention, let alone passing along the gossip chain.

But this also means accepting a sense of responsibility for ourselves and others.  It means acting like a grown-up.  Managing your digital footprint so it doesn’t cause problems for you personally or professionally.  Erring towards being kind and generous with others rather than keeping score or tabs on other people all the time.

Like any small town, news travels fast.  There are people you trust, and people you don’t.  You aren’t always sure who’s just friendly, but not necessarily your friend.  And then people will surprise you by their extreme generosity towards others and willingness to help at the drop of the hat.

I find this analogy is most helpful when I think about the ‘net and social media- what’s your point of view?  Is it a small town, or more like a college dorm?  how do you view things?

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Redesigning the Conference Experience

I’ve been involved with the Podcamp and the Podcamp Foundation from very early on, having attended the first Podcamp in September, 2006 and having helped organize four others so far. Most of you know this. What’s intriguing though, is the thought of redesigning the conference business as a whole.

I was bouncing ideas around with Chris Brogan this morning, talking about the benefits of small versus large, tracks, and what makes Podcamp special and different. How is an unconference, and podcamp in particular, different from other conferences, and how do we seed change in the stogey conference business to make it useful and engaging?

A couple of quick ideas, to get you thinking and maybe coming up with other ideas to add to the mix:

1. Heterogenous groups are much more interesting than homogeneous groups. People like differences and the surprises- it shocks our neurons and keeps us engaged. I like being a “hybrid” myself, not easily classified as just a geek, just a lawyer, or just an anything. This means I also feel I can learn something from just about any situation, and try to stay open to that learn whatever the kernel is from a new person or experience.

If we only associate with birds of a feather- people just like us all the time- we will share and learn some new things, but I think not as much as when we have people out of our day to day fishbowls along for the ride. Podcamp’s mix of business folks and hobbyists, audio and video geeks, developers and people who only have their geek training licenses brings the ability to cross pollinate, deal with real world situations, and solve problems that aren’t just theoretical. It’s sort of like creating a giant working group, where everyone can bring their issues and if they choose, throw the issue open for group think and dissection. Where else does this kind of on the spot trouble shooting happen with the best minds around?

And frankly, I am much better at taking a real problem and thinking up all different possible solutions, things to try, and different approaches to take than when something comes up theoretically. (I guess it shows that I had an engineer for a Dad, and I love to tinker and dissect things.) I have a “Let’s take it out for a spin!” mentality. But I do believe the mix of people is part of the spark, the secret sauce, that makes people sit up and take notice.

2. Architecture and Design Matter. I have a husband who loves architecture- we have books from Sarah Susanka and Robert Stern in the house, so we look at how buildings “work” as a hobby. Then you look at someplace like Pixar, where the creative people have been unleashed to create their own environments, yet work collaboratively, and you find out how much good design matters even more.

This means the more the environment works with people and does not create barriers between them, the more interactions you will have. Apartment buildings and hotels encourage us to retreat into cubes, not free associate. Even traditional conferences at convention centers have an infrastructure, as Chris Brogan noted, that is designed to have you in a specific place or to simply leave as soon as possible. It doesn’t say “Come hang out here!”

Contrast this with retail environments. What about the success of Starbucks and Borders, which have a design that says “please come hang out here!”? Even in the Best Buy Store, only the high end audio/visual encourages people to come and hang out to test drive the equipment for more than 10 minutes. The Apple Store, however, often provides chairs and an area for kids, along with an environment than encourages play and interaction. The Apple Stores near me never seem to be empty. CompUSA, in contrast, is often like a tomb.

Best Buy attracts a wide range of buyers based on its inventory, but there’s no hands on experience that is all that helpful. What if you could actually do a load of laundry and see if you liked a machine before buying? Saw a stocked fridge and got a better sense of whether it would work for you? It would be different, it would be remarkable, and I bet they’d sell a lot more stuff, as well as encourage the sales people to know an awful lot more about the widgets they are selling, instead of acting as a bricks & mortar catalog for things.

3. Leaving with Ideas and an Education.  One of the topics Chris and I talked about was the educational nature of the Unconference.  It’s like a weekend long college experience, often complete with some of the frat party atmosphere, for good or for ill.  There’s also been a compelling discussion about the value of a college education on Chris Penn’s Financial Aid Podcast  blog, and how it’s often the hands-on and real world experiences that provide the best education available, at any price.

Chris Brogan often talks about ideas having handles, those ideas that stick and you mull over long after they have been shared.  I hope one of the things we provide traditional media and PR types with at Podcamp are ideas and the ethos of the community- the spirit of sharing, transparency, and original voice.

I attended a traditional conference recently, and I am amazed at how many people still read their slides as their whole presentation.  Or read off of  a prepared speech, with occassional glances upward.  I spoke with relatives about this phenomena this past weekend, and they remarked at how their experiences were exactly the same, at University lectures, tech conferences, and continuing legal education seminars.

This way of presenting provides a security blanket for the speaker, but it is a big ZERO on the engagement scale with the audience.  I would rather see someone speaking from the heart, talking TO me, not AT me, any day of the week.  The same goes for any marketing campaign whatsoever.  And I hope we can teach people in the traditional business world the fundamental skill set needed to implement the Cluetrain Manifesto is all its glory- that the community, the connection, the being just plain old honest and accessible, the treating the “market” with respect and as intelligent humans, is the way to win in the end.  People want what you have, but you need to approach them in a way that is welcoming.  Like family.

(This is why I think Martha Stewart, HGTV, and the Food Network are so popular- at the heart of it, it’s about creating welcoming experiences to share with family and friends- everything from the napkin rings to meals is about doing something special and remarkable, to bring people together and let them know they matter.)

So what does this have to do with conferences? I have clearly digressed, but the point remains that people interact with an environment based on its architecture- both physical and organizational. If you can organize conferences in a phsycial space that says- “come talk and interact” rather than “Hands off- we’ll tell you where to go and what to do- Don’t step on the grass!”, you’ll get a dramatically different experience all the way around.

This will mean giving up perceived notions of “professional” and “business-like” – it will require a willingness to stop preaching and start listening. But can you think of anything that would be more interesting and compelling? I have seen “stiff” people come to Podcamp, totally relax and get the wild eyed look of a religious convert after the event, realizing conferences, and unconferences in particular, are a different animal, but what a difference! It’s like finding a zebra in your living room- quite a surprise, but perhaps a good pet in the end?

Time will tell, of course. But in the end, I think we’ll find design and organization, meeting up with heterogeneous groups will radically change the usefulness of conferences, making them worth the money spent far more than ever before. But it means willing to try the new and not be satisfied with the old and traditional. And that’s a radical notion whose time has come, especially when money is tight and business needs to maximize the results of mass gatherings more than ever.

What do you think? Am I crazy? What is your version of the perfect conference? What matters most to you?


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The Joy of the iPhone

My husband was kind enough to give me my christmas present early- a new iPhone.  While I could go on and on about the coolness of this toy, I want to talk about the consumer experience first.

When you get the iphone, it’s in a box that is spectacular.  It’s pretty enough to the eye.  Black, with silver- great contrast.  When you start to open the box, it reveals the phone, all silver and black, like a museum piece in the box, floating in a lucite cradle.  Under the cradle and directions, there are all the pieces- the recharge cradle, the cables, the headphones.  All carefully packaged like an ornate puzzle.  The whole experience of opening the thing is magical- it feels special.

The thing I adore about the Apple experience is the opening of the package is a prelude to the magic contained within.

The iphone itself integrates perfectly with my laptop.  It syncs my music, contacts and calendar, forcing me to be a bit more organized- always a good thing for those of us on the ADHD side of life.  It allows me to get directions on the fly, and search the web if need be.  It can show videos, play podcasts-  there is nothing not to love about this device.

I was prepared to like this device.  I thought it was beautiful, but I wasn’t counting on getting one this soon, so I was not counting on having the joy of playing with one.  It is a phone, but it is also the closest thing to a universal device I’ve played with so far.

I should say I have never had another smartphone, so I don’t know how this compares to a blackberry or treo.  I can say this device is awesome, and I love it, even if it makes me a total Apple freak.

The iPhone is awesome.  If you can, put it on your Christmas list.   It lives up to the hype.

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A quick post-

We just saw Enchanted- a Disney send-up of Disney tales.  My younger son was perplexed- Why did everyone end up with the wrong person?  Explaining to him that life often means emphasizing contrasts versus similarities is pretty deep stuff for a boy of nine.

Girls grow up with fairy tale ideals more frequently than boys- we are weaned on princess stories, weddings, and happily ever after.  How do I explain to my sons that girls expect them to be a prince, but happiness comes from mutual respect and interdependence- not one person depending on the other, but both supporting each other equally?

What fairy tales do boys learn growing up?  And how do we make these innocent and artificial dreams ring true at the core?  What dreams really do come true, and which are the stuff of movies and dime-store novels?

I feel so very lucky to be married to someone I admire; someone I love to be around for his kindness, his sense of humor, and for his realism.  Even when we get bogged down by the mundane things like laundry and bills,  I like that I can still see him as a prince at heart.

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