Each year, this week is circled on my calendar. Well, it may be more of a metaphorical circle on the mental calendar, because who circles things on calendars anymore? The first week of the NCAA Basketball Tournament is an event that I begin yearning for right after New Year’s Day. It almost always coincides with St. Patrick’s Day, and brings back great memories of watching marathons of games with friends in packed Irish bars in New York City…or traveling the country with many of those same friends to experience Tournament games live in various Americas cities.
(My Top 10 St. Patrick’s Day cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Savannah, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Seattle, Philly, Kansas City… wait, I think I’ve only been in those 9 cities for St. Patrick’s Day. Oh well.)
The NCAA Tournament makes this one of my busiest weeks of the year, all in support of the annual MARCH MATTNESS bracket pool. I spend hours each day answering individual questions, managing “customer service” needs, reminding people to complete their brackets, and collecting participation fees from ~500 entries. It’s really a full-time job. But I live for it. It’s here!
So here is one last plug to get in on the fun. The NCAA Tournament tips off on Thursday and Friday, but with an unconventional, unprecedented format. The schedules are very different and every single game will be played in a “bubble” in or around the Indianapolis area. There really is no east, west, north or south quadrant of the bracket. And thanks to COVID, anything can happen and everyone has a chance in this year’s March Mattness Pool.
As for your playbook to some other things happening this week, here are Four Ps.
(And make sure you’re subscribed for all future drops.)
Something Practical: Playbook for How We Work
I was recently talking with a colleague in Germany about my inability to “turn off my brain at night,” as well as how I often eat two or three meals in front of my computer while working each day. He was mortified, and immediately suggested that I read a brand new book titled Eat Sleep Work Repeat by Bruce Daisley. I know… who has the time for books these day? But that’s what reading in the middle of the night is for!
For the better part of the last year, those four words — eat, sleep, work, repeat — capture the cycle that has many of us feeling trapped. While work can, no doubt, provide us with meaning, it can also feel stressful, draining, and devoid of meaning. I've worked at companies that span the spectrum: from incredibly supportive, innovative positive environments... to drab, negative, politicized cultures. Yet the majority of workplace studies dating back to the start of the Industrial Revolution show that professional unhappiness is a widespread problem that deeply affects our health, well-being, and productivity. The majority of people report negative sentiments about their work. 83% of American employees say their jobs make them stressed.
Corporate culture rewards those who persevere in spite of stress, but spends less time on stress prevention. In addition to interfering with our creativity, stress can also undermine our ability to make accurate assessments of our own achievements. To be creative, we need to be willing to explore new ideas and take risks. When we’re under pressure, the stress boosts our adrenaline, which can give our brains a little kickstart. But it also activates our brain’s fear system. This, in turn, deactivates the parts of the brain involved in exploration and risk-taking. Pressure encourages people to play it safe, to adhere to old ways of doing things rather than trying out new ones. Stress is also one of the most dangerous factors for our health, yet is usually the first to be dismissed when doctors warn us to “eat better, exercise more, and reduce stress.”
Stress can be an indicator that someone cares a great deal about her job, or it can reflect someone who may not care at all. Far too many people lack engagement with their jobs, which can also be bad for business. They don’t feel enthusiastic about, or connected with, the jobs they do or the people they work for. A majority of workers work at, or just above, the bare minimum of what they need to do to receive their paychecks and keep their jobs. But the more employees feel engaged by their jobs, the more motivated they’ll be to put in higher levels of effort.
Which gets us back to Daisley's book. The primary takeaway: companies need to focus on EX, or the “employee experience.” Work can actually be fun, and management should deprioritize individuals’ impact and tracking time. Companies that actively enhance employee engagement, on a per employee basis, see profits that are 4x higher than the average company’s profit.
One specific recommendation is to reduce the quantity, but improve the quality, of our communications. For me, that reads: “Fewer, better emails.” If it’s not one of the hundreds of emails we send and receive each day, it’s one of the myriad texts, chat messages, or video meetings that demand our attention.
Another recommendation is to break up the day into blocks. The past year has changed the way we work, both positive and negative. But the changes to our schedules, along with other distractions at home (kids, laundry, Amazon deliveries, etc.) make it harder to take real breaks, and we feel a relentless pressure to keep busy. Before the pandemic, we exceeded 70 hours of connectivity per week. Now, well who knows?
Implementing these changes is harder than it sounds. Turning off the email notifications on our phones and computers sounds great, but for many, NOT knowing when emails are coming in can actually create MORE stress. Blocking off time for lunch breaks is also a great idea… until you get double-booked before, during, and after mealtimes. “Go for a walk during a phone meeting,” people have suggested. Which sounds great, but I personally like to have access to notes and documents during meetings. Ultimately, these tips and tricks for better employee experiences only work if EVERYONE buys in, from top to bottom. This is hard for global companies working across different time zones, as well as companies that have a hierarchical structure that reward activity over achievement.
But now is our chance. While some companies will permanently shift to a remote work culture, most are going to return to some form of in-person work once it is deemed safe again. With this reset, we can think about, plan, create, and implement new working guidelines, make tweaks to our work environment, and improve our relationships between colleagues. Fostering environments of positivity and psychological safety will make employees more comfortable, motivated, and productive. Some ideas:
Promote in-person conversation over email exchanges. Workplace loneliness has been an issue since COVID hit, but you can also be lonely in an office, as well. Talking face-to-face is the best way to minimize this.
Encourage "small talk" has disappeared in the age of virtual meetings, but will be an important aspect of re-building in-person relationships.
Re-think workspaces designed for health and safety, but also in a way that encourages informal conversation, are key.
Get social: Plan formal and informal activities both during and after working hours.
Increase the empathy: We all found new ways to flex our empathy muscles this year, and we cannot let that atrophy in the months and years ahead. We stopped apologizing for the interruptions and WFH adjustments, so continuing that freedom from fear of judgment in-person... feeling like we can be ourselves around each other in both old and new ways... it's going to be huge.
Something Political: Playbook for Local Change
Last week, I spent some time talking with two of my neighbors who are weighing a run in the local school board elections later this year. Several of us worked together to organize a petition and protest last summer. Guided by medical advice and science, we pushed our school administration to re-open schools on a full, five-day schedule. The experience revealed how our district's Board of Education is an out-of-touch, non-functioning, vestigial body that favors meetings over achievements. As a result, these two concerned parents are contemplating putting their money where their mouths are and running for open Board of Education seats.
The saying that "all politics is local" is not entirely true, but within a small town where everyone knows each other, the blueprint for a successful protest, movement or campaign is relatively simple. In our case, we organized a petition with over 1,100 signatures from parents in our community. We established simple, clear objectives and prioritized on which terms we were willing to compromise. We held a rally on school grounds with hundreds of parents. We invited experts in health and education to speak. And we called the press.
It wasn't a revolution, but we achieved a resolution. The word “revolution” usually stirs up images of barricades and armed struggle. Yes, I had the Les Miserables soundtrack in my head as we congregated around the administration building, but the common blueprint for nonviolent protest movements have proven effective in changing the world for the better.
The first step to any successful movement is picking a battle you can win (or small, winnable battles). While public sentiment for change can be hard to gauge, candidates and activists need to first make names for themselves before they can draw in the crowds. And to really get people moving, they need a vision of the future that followers can support. Harvey Milk lost two elections in San Francisco before revising his strategy to campaign about something that everyone cared about: the dog poop in the city’s parks. That issue got him elected, and then he was able to focus on bigger issues once in office.
Whether national or local, public or private, institutional regimes are held up by pillars of support. If you can knock one down, or even apply pressure to one or more of these pillars, the whole thing will topple. One pillar is almost always financial. That’s why movement organizers or campaign leaders must identify the sources of financial support that the existing leaders in power draw on, and neutralize them. Another pillar is social. Human beings tend to follow group think, so aligning with key influencers and tastemakers in a community can sway large swaths of public sentiment.
The objectives and the strategies are important, but delivery of the message can also make or break the success of any movement or campaign. Groups in power often rely on limited transparency, public ignorance and even outright deception to maintain the status quo (or, in the case of dictatorial regimes, force the compliance of their subjects). Forcing transparency is a great tactic that the challenger can use against an incumbent, because there is almost always something that isn't being fully shared. And tone matters perhaps even more than the message. People want to be informed and educated, but they also need to be inspired and entertained. By cleverly tapping into emotion, activists can change the perception of an incumbent regime.
When most people hear the word “revolution,” they imagine an absolute bloodbath. However, a wealth of historical knowledge and data shows us that nonviolent revolutions are actually more effective in terms of producing positive change. Peaceful revolutions are more likely to create vibrant societies. They uniquely inspire action and draw in many people. After all, people are much more likely to join a group of joyful, ordinary people who are fighting for their rights. As we saw earlier this year at the Capitol Building in Washington DC, using violence to achieve change does NOT work.
Ultimately, the keys to local movements and campaigns follow the brand and consumer marketing funnel: Awareness, Consideration, Conversion. Candidates have to make their name and platforms known. They have to overcome inertia and compel an action (protest, march, vote, etc.). Change movements can be quite simple, but must be built on powerful visions for a future in a way that ordinary people can believe in and work toward. Getting involved in local issues has been more rewarding than I realized it could be. These are the most relevant issues that impact us on a daily basis. So if you want to change the world, you can and should start in your own neighborhood. So to my neighbors who are passionate and purposeful about bringing change to the local school board, I look forward to your proposals for a compelling path forward, I am excited to see how you work creatively, and am ready to join you out there to make it happen!
Something Professional: Playbook for a Better Internet
I make no secret about the fact that Twitter is, and probably always has been, my favorite digital platform. At least for personal use. The openness of conversation, the unfiltered serendipity, the ease of use, the moment-driven social dialogue all come together in a raw, exciting way. It never sleeps.
Sometime last year, Twitter added a feature allowing users to limit who can reply to organic tweets. I hated it at the time. I hate it still. I've never used it. But now Twitter is expanding this feature for brands to use in their promoted posts. In short, brands can now limit who is able to reply to their ads. But in limiting the ability for members of the community to interact, whether on individual or promoted tweets, Twitter is continuing down a slippery slope.
Yes, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter are as much media platforms as they are social communities. These companies are smart to offer features that make brands feel more comfortable about putting thousands, even millions of dollars into amplifying their content. But deliberately restricting interactivity and engagement goes against what Twitter was founded on in the first place.
One caveat: If a post or tweet sparks some sort of negative reaction or a dangerous thread after it has gone live, I can see turning off replies then. This could be a good post-moderation compromise if the unintended consequences of a tweet cause brand or personal damage. But this should not be the original intent behind any public brand post. Building a tougher skin when trolls or critics try to derail the conversation is just good practice at this point in the path to digital maturity.
Instead, brands should welcome comments, feedback, replies, and discussion. It won't all be positive. We know this. But smart, prepared brand managers, digital teams, and agencies should have contingencies for most scenarios, with moderation and escalation protocols in place at this point. So let's agree to keep this feature in our back pockets, and protect the internet, and especially Twitter, as an open, fun, and occasionally weird platform.
Something Personal: Playbook for Vaccine Deployment
As of writing this, COVID vaccine deployment across the United States has now reached about 15% of all adults. Which is great. While we can look back and learn from many of the mistakes made in first preparing for and reacting to the spread of the virus, others are choosing to look ahead. You can start to feel it, to see it… that time in the not-too-distant future when we can re-open and return to many of the pre-pandemic activities we enjoyed (and definitively even took for granted). President Biden has said that by early summer, any adult who wants the vaccine will be able to get one. In the meantime, the rollout prioritization of sick, elderly and at-risk citizens makes sense because pre-existing and co-morbidity conditions have proven more catastrophic for those who contracted COVID-19.
This pandemic has been an exercise in social collaboration and communal responsiveness beyond our wildest imagination. It has also been a test of our individual morality and decency. Despite a scary, yet small, number of Americans who believe the virus to be a hoax or overblown (and put others at risk by not following basic safety precautions), the large majority of the global population took this virus seriously and did what was necessary to keep themselves, and their neighbors, safe. Most people stayed home, or wore masks when they could not.
But in our collective quarantine fatigue, there is a growing number of people who are circumventing, or ignoring, the prioritization guidelines (different in each state) to "jump the line" and get their vaccines ahead of others who are at greater risk or in greater need. In the past two weeks, I've heard too many stories of young, healthy people receiving their vaccines, while others (who may not be as digitally savvy) still cannot get through to schedule their appointments. Now is not the time to sacrifice morality and decency for selfish impatience.
In New York State, I do not meet the age requirements for "Phase 1" vaccine deployment. I only (questionably?) meet one health/pre-existing requirement (hypertension) for this stage of population eligibility. My wife, parents, and in-laws all received their vaccines, but I face an ethical dilemma of my own. As the weather gets warmer, and spring looms, my impatience is growing by the day. I've casually searched for, and found, numerous opportunities to secure an appointment for myself, and could even go this week if I want. So... do I wait? On one hand, there are people who need it worse than I do... but by getting my vaccine, I would no longer put others at potential risk, either.
So here's how I found my own compromise: I've put myself on the list for "throwaway vaccines.” Because people are making multiple appointment, then cancelling at the last-minute, the surplus of expiring vaccines are being offered and administered "last minute" at the end of the day that would otherwise be thrown away. I do believe that my getting vaccinated is better than wasting a dose. So… I do wait. But no matter when or how I do get vaccinated, I do hope you all get it as soon as you can.