Resilience in the Face of Tragedy?

I’ve always found it off the mark – in places like Pakistan or Israel or anywhere there is repeated violence as part of civilian life – to laud the “resilience” of everyday people in continuing to live their lives in the face of tragedies.

The day before yesterday, on Tuesday night at 6:20pm, seven people died when an MTA commuter train slammed into a Mercedes SUV that was inexplicably stopped on the train tracks, even though the guard gates were down. The woman driving the car, Ellen Brody, was killed as were five passengers in the front car of the train.

The accident happened on the train line I take every day, around the time I usually ride home, about five miles north of where I get off the train.

Yesterday, thirteen hours after the accident, I trudged to my train stop to go to work. People are mostly silent on the platform on winter mornings, and it was as quiet as ever. Eerily, though no one was saying anything, about 2/3rds of the people who usually wait for the first car of the train weren’t standing in their everyday spots.

Once on the train, I talked with some of the passengers around me about what had happened.  Mostly, though, people were quiet, reading their papers or their books, maybe shaken on the inside, but having what appeared to be a normal morning.

When I got to Grand Central Station, the only indication that anything had happened was this announcement on the train’s schedule board. No acknowledgment of what had happened, no words of condolences or solidarity with the victims.

 

MTA_Valhalla_flip

Even when things are this close to home, we can block them out and avoid the proximity. I’d been shaken by this tragedy, but it took this description in a New York Times article to make my stomach clench up and allow me to see myself in that front car of the train.

One witness, Chris Gross, appearing on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” said that he had been watching a Mel Brooks movie in the front car when suddenly the train was jolted.

“People started falling over each other,” he said. He was tossed into the aisle and saw flames, and he heard a man in front of him screaming.

“I turned over and looked,” Mr. Gross said. The man in front of him “lost his leg below his knee.”

In the chaos, he said, a man who had burns on his hands managed to pull the emergency latch so they could escape.

The man with the burns, Mr. Gross said, plunged his hands in the snow, hoping for some relief.

Today, on the train home, the same group of guys is playing bridge like they do every day in this car. As they wrap up their game, they talk about the twist in the road, what happened with the driver of the Jeep, how such a thing could have happened. But the conversations are clipped, and there aren’t many of them. People might be thinking about the victim’s families, or feeling especially grateful for good health, safety, and the chance to hug their kids tonight.

But resilient? No, I’m not feeling or seeing resiliance. I feel shaken and a little bit numb, like going on with my day and my life was at best a neutral choice, not a display of courage.

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Lean Data Goes Deeper

One of the most interesting questions we’re grappling with right now on the Impact team at Acumen is how to develop a more robust, rigorous, and transparent form of quantifying the social value our companies create. While I don’t believe we will ever fully understand all the social value created – and while there will always be room for debate and interpretation – I do think today we have the tools to get a lot closer to customers and hear how they value products.

And if we can figure this out in a clear and compelling enough way, I believe that would open the door to creating a true marketplace for social impact.

What we’ve learned with our Lean Data Initiative is that we can, thanks to the prevalence of mobile phones and other enabling technologies, now quickly and easily gather data directly from our customers in ways that drive insights for us and our companies – everything from customer loyalty metrics to poverty levels of who is being reached to customer satisfaction.

What we’ve been kicking around – and where I’d love your help – is the best approach to quantifying self-reported value.

Meaning, after a customer has purchased a product (a solar light, safe drinking water, an improved seed) and experienced the benefit, what are the best, most reliable ways to ask her how much she values that product? Because she is the one who is living it, accruing benefit from it, she is best placed to explain what it’s worth to her.

We’ve been having fabulous conversations on our team, conversations that get back to the basics about things like consumer surplus and why demand curves slope down; conjoint/discreet choice analysis to get to revealed preferences; and things as simple as asking how much, having experienced a product, someone would have been willing to pay for it.

To clarify the kinds of things we’re thinking about and where I’d love your thoughts:

  • How to best phrase questions that help Acumen’s customers accurately articulate the value they get from a product or service
  • Whether there’s a best way to ask “how much would you have paid” after people have a product to understand how much they value it
  • Prize-based, conjoint approaches where we give a subset of folks $100 to spend on one of a few bundles of goods / services, to understand real rank-order preferences

I’d appreciate ideas for approaches that might help us get the answers we’re looking for. Suggestions welcome in the comments or please just email me directly.

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CEO of me

Each person we meet in a professional setting sees two things: the person we are and the role we play. Often, that role casts a long shadow, as people are quick to look for shortcuts in figuring out who they’re talking to and what that person brings to the table.

When my business card said, for five years, that I was head of fundraising at Acumen, I felt like my first job in every meeting was to convey to someone that I wasn’t “just the” fundraiser (indeed every great fundraiser I know says that they “aren’t a traditional fundraiser.”) There was and is a lot of baggage associated with being a fundraiser – many philanthropists would tell me that they experienced many fundraisers as seeing them as nothing more than big wallets waiting to be cracked, which itself tells you something about how we all tend to caricature people. Indeed it was always a sign that things were going well when someone would say to me, often with a hint of hesitation, “Uh, so, how did you get into fundraising anyway?”

The pernicious, less obvious constraints are those we place on ourselves. We let a narrow definition of a role or a title create boundaries around the way we see ourselves, how we walk in the world, and impact we dare to have.

To be clear, in any organization our first job is to do the job that our organization hired us to do – indeed, if we don’t do that with excellence, professionalism and precision then we haven’t paid the table stakes for a broader conversation.

At the same time, we are often the ones who box ourselves in, waiting for someone’s OK to even begin to think bigger in anything but the most private ways.

What would happen if you sent yourself an email signed:

Sincerely,

Your name

CEO of me

The best part is when, somewhere down the line, the bigger, more audacious, more impactful version of how you play the role helps you, and others, reconsider how they mistakenly categorized the role in the first place.

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Turning Down the Strawberries

My three-year-old daughter has a funny way of turning down food. “No thanks,” she says, when presented with strawberries, which for reasons no one knows she’s decided she does not eat. “I’ll have them later.”

Most of the time, when we say we will do something “later” it means one of two things:

  1. This isn’t important enough for me to do at all, I’m just not willing to tell you that directly; OR
  2. Before doing this I need to check with three people so I don’t have to make the decision alone.

Yes, you might have a system in place to organize your work, so that “later” actually means “I will do this at 3pm” but when “later” is vague and loose, it is a quiet, subtle way to practice taking yourself off the hook, even for small things. And this sort of habit builds up until it becomes how we orient ourselves in the face of things that are ours to do.

It is so rarely the case that we need to you play smaller and ask for permission more.

Yes, consult when you need real input from people who will make your thinking better, but please don’t ask around in search of a lukewarm “no.”

If you find yourself snowed in by Juno today, then today might be the perfect time to practice starting to say “yes” and “now” and “this is up to me” more often.

Pass the strawberries, please.

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Egg whites, scrambled eggs, and egg shells

I’m seeing eggs everywhere this week.

Seth Godin’s amazing new book, What to Do When It’s Your Turn – which you can still order and share here – has a great parable about his 8 egg white omelet. It is a story about the slippery slope of compromise and the taste of fresh herbs, and his omelet is fabulous enough to convince a skeptical food critic that there is, in fact, such a thing as a “delicious egg white omelet.”

Then I came across this video about how to make a scrambled egg without breaking the shell.

And Tim Ferris has a video that was seen more than six million times (six million!!) about how to peel an egg without really peeling it. The video is completely unremarkable and downright boring until 0:50 in, when Tim blows on the egg and it jumps out of its shell.

That one-second moment, and its contrast with how dull and under-produced the video is, encapsulates what makes stories and videos spread: a tiny instant of “wow” that gets someone to share it with a friend with a “you gotta see this” message.

If we can create “wow” around peeling an egg, surely we can create it around the important work that we do.

The first step is to stop sanding off the edges; the big leap is figuring out out how to create a moment that shows that the impossible is, indeed, possible.

Tim Ferris_egg

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Subway Portrait

“Excuse me, m’am, may I draw your picture?” he says, white pad on his lap, fingers stained with charcoal.

“Pardon me?” says the woman sitting across from him on the subway, looking confused and a bit taken aback.

“Your picture…is it alright with you if I draw your picture?” he reiterates.

“Uh…sure.”

And then, as his hands glide across the page, his patter begins, not interrupting the drawing, which has to be complete in the two minutes before the last stop.

“This is what I do,” he says, “I draw pictures of people. Portraits. Been doing this for years, I’ve drawn 800 portraits of New Yorkers so far.”

She takes the bait: “All in one day?” she asks. Her guard is dropping just a little bit.

“No m’am, that would be impossible. Anyone who tells you they’ve drawn 800 portraits in one day, they’re lying to you. No, I’ve drawn 800 portraits since I started, and that’s why I can draw them so fast, because I’ve done it so many times. I’m an artist, you see, an artist. Don’t you like how that looks?” (he holds up the already – amazingly – half-finished sketch, which has gone from a few lines to, instantly, a pair of eyes, an outline of a mouth, a bit of expression, in about one minute).

She smiles, recognizing her likeness, the shape of her face, the crinkles around the outside of her almond-shaped eyes.

“See I knew that would make you smile! Now I can get that smile in the picture… Now I’m gonna give this portrait to you, that’s what I do, I’m gonna give it to you either way….Lots of people like these portraits, they hang them up, in their offices usually…And a lot of them pay me for them, even though I give them to ‘em either way, a lot of people pay me $10, or sometimes even $20…

(almost to himself) “Yeah, I try to get 10 people in a day to pay me $10 each, that’s what I try to do. Last guy I did this for he handed me a $10 bill, yes he did. And don’t tell me I’m not an artist, see? Artists make people smile and that’s what I’m doing here, I’m making something that will make people smile.”

Just a few more seconds for the finishing touches, and:

“So here you go, beautiful, here’s your portrait I hope you like it.” he says, handing it to her.

And she does.

And she pays $10.

 

In review: to create a situation where someone gives or buys, you must first create joy, a story, connection, a thing of beauty.

And in situations, like philanthropy, or busking, where it’s not clear what something is worth, it’s your job to tell them, to frame it for them, to say: this is what people who are happy and feeling a sense of connection in this moment typically pay. This is what the last 10 people did.

“I’m going to give this to you either way, but you gotta know that everyone else before you who liked their portrait gave $10 or $20 and hung the portrait in their office.”

Sure, she could decide not to pay, but if she does pay, you can bet it’s not going to be $1, which is what most people on the subway get when they ask for money.

His starting point was a $1 portrait. The story about the portrait, and the story about what people who like portraits pay, that’s what’s worth the other $9.

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Impact: The Future is Now (Take 2)

Something strange happened with the embedded YouTube video in my last post for email subscribers.

Until I figure that out, here it is again:

impact future is now

 

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