Blank Spaces

There’s no way I can fully know and see everything you know and see (and vice versa). So how do I react when I discover you did something that seems wrong?

I start by reminding myself that what I know right now about the facts you had and the decision you made is full of blank spaces. In the absence of knowing what you know, I can choose to have a bias in favor of believing that you likely did the right thing. (did you really?)

I can decide that the difference between the choice I’d have made and the choice you did make is the different, better information that you had.  (or you just acted without really thinking things through)

And I can remember that it is always better to enter conversations about what happened and why with genuine curiosity, not judgment. (even though, let’s be honest, we’ve seen you do this sort of thing before)

I can also remind myself that there’s a short game and a long game at play, and be careful about sacrificing your long-term agency for my desire to get each and every step right between here and there. (at the same time, this was a screw-up)

This doesn’t mean that the decision might not have been wrong, or that there aren’t things to learn—because it might have been, and there probably are. But the strongest message we send in each interaction is whether we really believe in and trust each other, and how much we are committed to investing in each others’ agency. (and let’s remember that trust needs to be earned every day)

Finally, and most importantly, I can hold firmly to the notion, each and every time, that your intentions, like mine, were overflowing with goodness, with care, and with as much desire as I have to get the best outcome.

(And to be honest with myself about my own inner narrative.)

(Everything in parentheses is the corrosive inner dialogue, the one that says “I really do know better,” the one that communicates just going through the motions rather than honestly and fully embracing the other persons’ decisions and actions.)

(Even if that voice is speaking truth in this particular situation, you’re kidding yourself if you think that you’re the only one who hears that narrative of doubt.)

(So does the other person, in his own head, and he’s just waiting for you to amplify it.)

(The point is to actually, truly, let that go.)

Meet Marlon

Marlon was driving his truck down West 19th street on Monday morning, when he saw something in the middle of street that made him slam on the brakes. To the protests of the other driver in the cab, he stopped his truck and got out to pick up the wallet that was just sitting there.

My wallet. The wallet I’d dropped out of my bag on the way to work, ruining my day and causing me all sorts of headache.Marlon

Marlon called me a bunch of times over the course of the day, to no avail. He kept at it until finally, at 7:30pm, we finally connected on the phone and spoke for a while. He told me what had happened, how he’d been trying to get a hold of me, how his friend thought he was crazy for stopping, and how I had a “really big wallet!!” (I carry around too many cards). We laughed about that. And then he asked me when we could meet so he could give me my wallet back – with (of course) every last dollar and card intact. His only disappointment was that he hadn’t gotten to me soon enough to avoid my cancelling all my credit cards.

What strikes me is how easy it is to do the right thing and how clear it is what the right thing is. I think that what happens is that, at the initial moment when we have a decision to make, we obfuscate and justify and tell ourselves and others all sorts of stories that get in the way of what we know: the simple, clear, right thing to do.

Marlon, you’re a model to me and a model to us all. You make me wonder why something that was so simple and easy for you is not simple and easy for everyone. And you give me hope.

Thank you.

The demise of social currency

In the late 90s, when moving back from Madrid to the U.S., my wife and I took time in the weeks prior to our departure to say goodbye to our friends at the pastry shop, the butcher, the cheese vendor and the fruit shop – our friends at the miniscule, fabulous fruit shop, Tomad Mucha Fruta, gave us one of the aprons they use at the shop as a parting gift.

We’d spent hours with each of these people, whether in line talking to the butcher and to a gaggle of old ladies debating the best cut for making a stew; at the cheese shop where we’d never have to remember the name of that wonderful piece of cheese he’d sold us last week; and at the fruit shop when spring came around and, for three short weeks, strawberries were everywhere.

In places where these stories are common, social currency is at play.  You are known and trusted and each individual transaction is small compared to the whole.

Increasingly, this is no longer necessary or common – all in the name of progress.  Need proof?  Once, every vendor commonly extended a little bit of credit to customers; everyone handed out an extra orange or a sliver of manchego to a customer who was also a friend.

Today it’s “Cash or credit sir?”

The old way wasn’t better, but something has also been lost in translation.  When commerce is everywhere, down to the smallest detail and interaction, relationships of trust – where the trust actually means something in terms of how people act – are harder to come by.

Are we better off?  We’re definitely more efficient.  We’re also probably reinforcing an unhealthy, unnatural level of isolation as we walk through the world.

Things that work

Here’s post #3 in a connected series of events.

First, I wrote a post about trust which, from what I saw and heard (traffic, comments, feedback) was well-received.  Then, connected to that post, I received a totally unexpected gift from a friend, which itself generated another post about delight, and I spent most of Friday on a real high thanks to this delightful gift and the real generosity it showed.

At the end of the day Friday, just as the skies opened up with yet another downpour, a little something brought me down a notch:  I discovered that I (boneheadedly) left my coat on the train that morning, and it was lost.

So here’s post #3 in the series, because I just got my coat back.

Yes, it’s true.  I was sure I had left my coat on the train on Friday morning, so I called up the MTA on Saturday to register the lost coat.  I figured it was long gone.  A medium black Banana Republic coat on the commuter train on a Friday morning…seemed like it would quickly find another home, and my faith in the MTA lost and found system wasn’t too great either.

Imagine my surprise when I got a phone call today from the MTA Lost and Found department.  “I believe we have your coat, sir.  We just need you to come in before 6pm to verify and pick it up.” Boy was I wrong about the MTA and their lost and found.

I rushed to Grand Central at the end of the day, and, lo and behold, Jason who mans the MTA lost and found went in the back and returned with my coat.   I filled out a short form, gave a copy of my driver’s license, and I was on my way.  I feel like I won the karmic lottery.

My only choice, then, is to put something positive back out into the world, but I need your help to create it: we need a blog or a community that holds up wonderful, daily, surprising, delightful, surprising examples of things that works.  We need more things that works and need to celebrate these small and big daily victories, and for Jason at the MTA Lost and Found Department, we need a space to celebrate the people on the front lines who create delightful customer experiences (but who, ironically, often find themselves buried somewhere deep in the org chart).  Unfortunately, the thingsthatwork URLs seem to be taken, but I’m sure there’s a blog waiting for someone to make this happen.  For example:

  • That cellphone rep who helped you sort out international calling plans.   Things that work.
  • Amazon giving a guarantee on price drops on items bought from their store, and getting $300 back a month after buying a TV.   Things that work.
  • The airline check-in agent who talked the gate agent into keeping the flight open for another 10 minutes so you wouldn’t miss a wedding abroad.  Things that work.

(oh, those are all real examples).

Please, start here in the comments section with your ideas.  But wouldn’t it be fun to create a crowdsourced conversation celebrating things that are so positive, unexpected, and important?  Go ahead, kick it off.

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Glenn Urban at MIT teaches us about the importance of the power of trust.  Glenn observes, as have many others, that we have shifted from a mass-media, high promotion world (that effectively ended at the start of this decade) to one focused on relationships and two-way communications.  In this new world, the single most important thing that matters is trust.   (For more on this shift, check out Clay Shirkey’s TED@State talk, below)

Ironically, building trust is easier than it looks – be generous, act consistently, and make promises that you can and do keep.   (The harder part is doing this within an organization that has thrived on another way of doing business for decades.  But it’s important to remember that being trustworthy really isn’t difficult at all).

For example:

I’ve been playing with an out-of-production squash racquet for about three years now.  Since squash is played in an indoor court with cement walls, the racquets break often, so it’s common to go through 1-2 racquets a year.  Since my racquet model (a yellow-and-black Dunlop Hot Melt, if anyone knows where I can still dig one up) is out of production, I’m down to a single racquet, and I’ve no choice but to buy a new model – with a different feel that will play differently.

Squash is a niche sport in most places, including New York, and it’s hard to find stores that sell squash racquets, and harder still to find stores that demo racquets (let you pay to rent a racquet for a day or two before deciding which to buy).

A fellow player recommended Grand Central Racquet, and I went there this afternoon and met Tony, the store’s owner.  Together, we picked two racquets for me to demo.  I was a little rushed, hoping to catch a train, and was dreading the inevitable swiping of my credit card, preapproval of $300+ on my card (the value of the two racquets), maybe even making a copy of my drivers license…all the necessary evils of walking out of the store with a few hundred dollars worth of unpaid-for merchandise.

I’ve been trained so effectively by our trust-free world that I was beside myself when Tony took out a pad of paper, wrote down my name, my phone number, and the models of the two racquets I’m going to demo, and asked for $10 (cash was fine).  No approvals, no verification, no nothing.  “Enjoy them, and we’ll see you on Wednesday,” was all he said.

Why does this work for Tony?  How does he know I’m not going to run off with the racquets?  Did he make some sort of judgment call about me personally (I doubt it) or is this just how he runs his business?

The point is, he is taking a risk.  But he’s decided that being generous and trusting of me in a way that never happens in the big city in the 21st century makes sense.  And by giving me this gift, he’s taking someone who could be a lifelong customer – but who has the option of buying online for 20% less – and giving that person a reason to be loyal to him.

I’m sure the lawyers and the rule-makers and the people whose job it is to say ‘no’ would tell Tony that he’s crazy, and maybe he is.  But if trust is all that really matters today, if success is about building communities of trust, and if trust can be established so quickly and easily, we all need to find ways to act a little more like Tony, and we’ll have to break some rules to get there.

Do you have any great trust-building stories you’d like to share?

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What’s in it for me?

There are a lot of ‘what’s in it for me’ strategies out there, and they are usually run by ‘what’s in it for me’ people.  Right now AIG feels a lot like this, as do seven- and eight-figure bonuses at firms that received government bailout money.

Unfortunately, ‘what’s in it for me’ strategies do work to a point.  You get the big paycheck after posting record losses, you make a pile of money spamming or interrupting people or just generally being slightly misleading as your core customer acquisition strategy.

So what’s wrong with a ‘what’s in it for me’ strategy?  It’s that it absolutely, positively guarantees that you won’t create something great.  Which forces you to ask yourself, “why am I doing this in the first place?”

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What does the financial meltdown have to do with raising money?

What have I found most surprising about raising money for a nonprofit?  It’s that, when seen on the spectrum of “objective decisions” v. “relationships and trust,” most philanthropic decisions are made based on relationships and trust.

This shouldn’t be too surprising, but it belies the (appropriate) emphasis on measurement and impact assessment that is so preoccupies the nonprofit sector.  Put another way, many nonprofits care a lot about proving that what they do works, but they should remember that this kind of information does not drive many decisions about where to allocate philanthropic capital (for more on this, see the SSIR piece called “Why Measure” by Katie Cunningham and Mark Ricks, which essentially says that most individual donors do not look at nonprofit data, even when it is available.).

And here’s the tie-in to the financial meltdown.  Today I read an incredibly sobering article in the New York Times titled “From Midwest to M.T.A., Pain From Global Gamble” about school districts across the country that lost millions investing in complex financial structures.  In one example, the Whitefish Bay School district in Wisconsin, on the counsel of a financial advisor named David Noack, took $35M of its own money and borrowed an additional $165M from a bank called Depfa to invest in a synthetic collateralized debt obligation.  The district’s $200M was used as a type of insurance guaranteeing $20 billion of corporate bonds.  That’s right – $35M in equity to insure $20 billion in corporate bonds.  They leveraged up and were acting like a hedge fund, playing with the district’s financial future.  If 6% of the insured bonds went bad, the district could lose all its money.

What was the payout for taking on this much risk? $1.8M a year, versus $1.5M the district would have received investing in risk-free treasury bills.

Why did they do it?  Mark Hujak, a local financial advisor and member of the school board, said, “I never read the prospectus…We had all our questions answered satisfactorily by Dave Noack, so I wasn’t worried.”  The catch is, Mr. Noack was no expert.  He had, according to the article, “attended only a two-hour training session on C.D.O.’s”

The Whitefish Bay School district is one of scores of organization that are getting caught in this financial meltdown, which is why it will take a long time to unravel.  And the the truth is that the world has gotten so complex and interconnected that in many cases our only option is to follow the guidance of experts whom we trust.  Building anything big – whether a great nonprofit or, unfortunately, selling large swaths of risky CDOs – happens because one person trusts another, listens to their story, and puts their money behind that story. Without trust, you have nothing.

So whether you’re raising money or selling books or cars or (gulp) financing, recognize that the real currency you’re trading in is trust, and that earning, nurturing, and maintaining trust is really the only thing that matters.

And, by the way, if this is right, who do you want on the front lines talking to potential supporters – a “fundraiser” whose only job is to raise money, separate and insulated from “the work,” or someone who embodies the spirit, capability, execution, drive, motivation, and passion of your organization?