American Politics

June 7, 2008

As many of you know – I have been visiting in the US now since the end of January (with a short stint in Europe in the middle). I am loving it. Particularly here in San Francisco and the Bay Area specifically. It’s an amazing place where amazing things are getting done every day.

But I have made an observation in my travels that I thought I would write about today.

American Politics is a fascinating spectacle. And I don’t just mean the politics of government, but the politics of business, community and culture as well. These patterns, trends and reactions are consistent in all sorts of other political interactions here.

The themes go something like this.

If you have been doing something for a long time and talk about very practical, operational things, then you must be good at whatever you do. You typically talk about being against something than for something else.

If you are new to the process and/or attract large crowds of new people, then you are interesting and inspirational but you surely can’t have any substance to your message. You typically talk about being for something rather than against something else.

These two positions are always seen as polar opposites. Many people seem to refuse the idea that someone who is new can also have substance. Or something that is experienced may actually need new blood and new ideas.

It’s a politics that fights not the ideas on their merits, but the way those ideas are derived, or who proposes them.

There’s also a tendency to focus on what ‘has worked’ rather than what ‘could work’ – or what has worked in other organizations or other structures outside the immediate scope of inquiry.

Universal Health care for example. Surely the government can’t look after our health right? They couldn’t even look after the victims of Katrina. Of course, if we look beyond the borders of the United States it’s clear that every other 1st world country does have Healthcare backed by the federal government and it works well to create a safety net for their people. It’s a simple observation that allows the conversation to move beyond ‘could it work’ to ‘how could we make it work for us’.

There’s often a lack of subtlety – a sense that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater rather than taking the good and building on it. Making what is work for us.

As I said, I love this country and my experience here has been amazing – I hope it continues in fact. But as always, I will continue to look for patterns and see if they can be improved. At least in my little corner of the world.

Some of this also comes down to an idea I posted on Twitter the other day – I think it explains some of my thinking in this area.

“We need to extend the time frame inside which we evaluate what is in our best interest”

Everyone acts in their best interest. It’s inevitable and irrefutable. But if you open the window from 1 month or 1 year to 5 or 10 years you realize that what’s actually in our personal best interest is actually in the best interest of many other people too.

But that’s a post for another day.

How? Using Silverlight.

Here’s the strategy as I see it.

First, the underlying Silverlight technologies (XAML and .NET) are encouraging client-side Windows developers to think beyond boring forms apps and delve into the wonderful world of vector graphics with 3D, sliding reflective surfaces. In short, Microsoft is encouraging developers to use the power of the client-side to ensure that Windows apps to continue to make web-apps look like boring documents.

Second, having raised the bar on client-side user experiences, the Silverlight runtime enables developers to maintain that high bar of multimedia user experience in the browser. But Silverlight is not like flash. Developers can use the exact same development assets, metaphors and tools they know and love. Objects, Controls, Visual Studio and more. Users will come to expect web-based experiences that match their newly enhanced client-side ones.

Third, if Silverlight makes it possible to essentially deploy client-side style applications through the browser, which Microsoft product can now become truly web enabled?

You guessed it. Office.

Silverlight represents a way for Microsoft to not just complete in the online office space, but blow it out of the water with a product that is as good (or better) than its client-side counterpart. There was no way Microsoft was going to bet their web-based application strategy on Flash or try to hack together an Ajax word processor. Silverlight, and its true Object Orientated .NET foundation, are a perfect platform for the web-enablement of their traditionally client-side suite.

Fourth, Silverlight is positioned as the new application platform. It exists in places Microsoft has never existed before. On Nokia phones (the land of Symbian), Linux workstations and OSX. Even iPhone could conceivably run Silverlight since it runs the full fledged Safari browser. And now there is an announcement that Silverlight will be shipped with millions of HP computers.

With Silverlight now coming out on Nokia phones, delivered as part of the Olympics coverage and embedded throughout MS properties and content deals popping up everywhere, Microsoft is gaining enormous distribution potential. If they can somehow skirt the anti-trust issues, they could even bundle it with IE8.

Silverlight is a critical and masterful piece of technology and strategy from the Redmond giant. It allows them to leverage their tools and technologies from the client, raise the bar on web-based experiences, deploy their client-side apps through a browser and broaden their platform reach into every device and screen in a user’s life.

I was told recently that a big part of leadership is listening. That’s true of course.

I actually think a bigger part of leadership, however, means learning how to say no. No to distractions, no to the nay sayers and no to feature creep.

Being able to say no is a very empowering and important leadership quality I have only just begun to learn. It is a super hard skill to master. Particularly saying no to the right things in the right way. Saying yes is far easier.

The problem with saying yes to feature creep is that you end up a big blob trying to do everything while actually achieving nothing.

The problem with saying yes to any and all criticism and changing your behavior is that you often end up being put into a corner by other people’s expectations. You end up trying to please everyone and you actually achieve nothing. You never break through expectations, passive and active resistance and the ‘old way of doing things’. It’s said if you have a genuinely good or original idea you will often have to drag people kicking and screaming to your way of thinking before they will get it. You can’t do that if you give way to any and all criticism.

Like with all things a balance needs to be struck. Each of us, as leaders of something in our lives, need to be clear about our end goals; our vision. We need to continue to execute on our daily tasks with true north in our sights.

Balance is particularly important in today’s political climate. There is far too much extremism going on from all sides of the political spectrum. For example ‘staying the course’ is not a call for balance, it’s a call for stubbornness.

The course may (and must), of course, involve all sorts of corrections to account for criticism, new scope and other changes ‘on the ground’, but being able to say no to major deviations when you still believe in the final destination is a mark of true leadership.

We’ve all heard about User Generated Content (UGC). I don’t like the term. Once you start generating content in a two way ecosystem you are no longer a user, you are a participant. In fact I have written long rants about the subject.

But that’s a subject for another day. An oft missed point re-occurred to me today so I thought I would write it up.

Bloggers and social media consultants are still trying to convince mainstream media and businesses that Participant Generated Content is a new media reality. Many companies are trying to grapple with the phenomena and are wondering if users remixing copyrighted material and/or generating their own media is an opportunity or a threat. At the very least it is highly disruptive to the role of traditional broadcast media – and where there is market disruption, opportunity is usually mixed right in.

It’s key to remember or realize though, that Participant Generated Content is not new. In fact, it’s as old as cave paintings. You don’t even have to look that far back. What about Lego and Crayons. What about singing in the shower. What about writing a letter or making a mix tape.

It’s clear through these examples that people have been expressing themselves through their creations since the dawn of time. The only difference in the new web ecosystem is the scale, scope, tools and business opportunities associated with this self expression. As usual the web simply gives us new visibility and connectivity to each other and new tools to create and share.

It’s important to have this context in mind during the debate around the purpose, place and legality (in terms of copyright) of participant generated content; Because with this more long-term lens perhaps more businesses and media companies will properly understand the phenomena and the instinct that drives it. It might even help them to engage with the opportunity in more creative, human ways.

It’s not a set of weird web early adopters. It is not just ‘the bloggers’. It is not some fringe activity. It is a basic human instinct to create and share. And it certainly isn’t new.

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