Monday, June 19, 2017

Volkswagen's Meek Call to Storytelling

During Father's Day brunch Sunday morning, the muted broadcast on CNN drew my eye away from the table and my son's prodigious consumption of waffles. There was no disaster to report, at least not in the graphic trope of nighttime pandemonium lit by the passing strobe of red and blue flashers. No, the talking heads were merely parsing "presidential" Tweets from what I could discern.

What caught my eye was a Volkswagen commercial that featured a scene on some outcrop along the Pacific Coast Highway; as with many a car commercial Big Sur provides the rugged, ragged, horizon-laden metaphor of west coast freedom of space, thought and the open road. Unlike countless other commercials set there, the theme was not complemented by the openness of a cruising convertible.  Instead, the commercial ended with the spreading of a lost patriarch's ashes into the Pacific waters and a child attempting to frame the setting sun in her fingers.

What I saw on CNN was an abbreviated version of "America," a commercial for a new seven-seater that VW has introduced. Without the soundtrack, the ad seemed downbeat - as bleak and self-destructive as the EV-1 ads GM did when introducing and distancing itself from its first electric car. A visit to YouTube to watch the ad with the soundtrack gave more context.  Simon and Garfunkel's "America," is deployed to accompany a family's coast to coast journey through America's rural landscapes to evoke an attachment or some nostalgia for a nation that was once held together by its highways and its fondness for the open road and the promise that it held of there being enough space for everyone.

The longer version of the commercial begins with the matriarch urging her kin to see the country she wanted to see and doing it together, phrasing that struck me as awkwardly on the nose with its reference to the spacious car. However, when she says,"there is enough room for everyone" she is not talking about the car, but the country and echoing the same tone as the more positive commercials that were featured during the Super Bowl in February.  VW's spot tries to reiterate the need for the country to hold together, but there is a meekness about that message.  The journey starts in New York City with a drive across one of the city's bridges but that is the lone image of urban American life throughout the journey.  The family passes through countryside, stops to reminisce at the type of diner that is used in Iowa by aspiring presidential candidates to play the man-of-the-people role as campaign stagecraft unfolds every fourth January.

Each of the rural settings evokes the reminders of the wide open spaces and the purity of the landscape but with each shot in the sequence, the is an insistent reminder that these are the flyover states that turned Red last November. The efforts at quaint nostalgia around an old abandoned sedan just as easily remind people of the decay in the Rust Belt as they do the peak of the Greatest Generation.  Rather than stating the desire for diversity and defiance of Trump's myopic version of greatness as boldly as those Super Bowl ads did, this one come across as resigned and cautious in its assertion of what America ought to be and may still be.  If only...

The conventional symbols have morphed under the weight of pessimism and are now adulterated by the co-opting of the word "America" by the current president and the misplaced ennui that made him president. Through this lens, the comfort of these familiar tropes is lost and the Simon and Garfunkel tune now, even a year after Bernie Sanders' use of it, seems elegiac rather than aspirational.

Perhaps the images alone will carry that message with the caution and delicacy to win over the denizens of the flyover states.  Perhaps Americans will venture out once again on road trips and share stories such as the one that is the centre of this ad. The question that remains and does not evoke the most optimistic of answers, however, is whenever people will care enough to listen to one another's stories and let them unfold in the detail and richness of a few minutes and not 30 seconds or 140 characters.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Akulivik is Not Alone

On a sunny afternoon in late August 1992, if I recall correctly, five young women visited my home in Ivujivik, Quebec.  Actually, it was six young women if you want to count the three-month-old that one of those adolescents brought with her. 

For reference, today in 2017, Ivujivik is the next village past Akulivik if you happen to be flying Air Inuit up the west coast of Quebec toward the 60th parallel. I happened to have had a layover in Akulivik in 1991 when I was first heading north to begin my career as a teacher there.  These neighbouring villages vary only in topography and surroundings, the line of the shore and their orientation to the path of the sun or the routes of migrating caribou. Much else is the same. The government-designed housing that leaves me asking myself, "Is that Ivujivik...?" whenever I see a news report from the north, is the same. The isolation and reliance on Air Inuit and the late summer sealifts. The ineffable silence that can engulf you on the tundra, the prompt to stretch your ears for the slightest aeolian whistle of wind across the granite. The social challenges that have become so endemic that they only earned a shrug of resigned acknowledgement when anything less that these multiple stabbings transmits an echo from the North to the South.

North and on the reserve, the tragedies of indigenous communities only extend a ripple through the consciousness of the south when communities reach a breaking point that illuminates realities in the south. In a world as wired as ours is today, it is a testament to apathy that only the large-scale tragedy of an Akulivik merits our collective attention.  Since the stabbings occurred last Sunday (June 11) the people of the 14 communities of Nunavik (or Arctic Quebec) have made the effort to demonstrate their unity, their despair and their need for more comprehensive support from governments at the federal and provincial level. Makivik Corporation, a business entity that works in the region but has significant influence on the social capital of the Inuit of Nunavik, would also be a significant player in responding to the issues in Nunavik more meaningfully.

It has been clear for at least a generation that this community needs social services and support to deal with the changes that have occurred in their communities since they were established as fixed settlements and effectively began the dissolution of the traditions, culture and bonds that held those communities together and allowed them to survive in their environment for as successfully as they indeed did.

Let me turn back to that August afternoon. The five girls who visited me that afternoon were students that I taught.  A year earlier, one of their classmates, a 15 year-old-boy, turned that familiar despair on himself and took his own life. Another classmate took his life nine years later,  just as he was about to turn 20. And it did not end there.  It is common knowledge that the suicide rates in the north are haunting.  The numbers are ultimately ignored by those in the south.  Is it 6000% higher than the national average? Is it 250% higher? It does not matter because that number just does not seem to be enough to motivate decision makers and the stingy resource hoarders in government from directing the manpower, compassion or intelligence to address the suicide pandemic that is so prevalent in the south. The five girls who visited me that afternoon, not only lost two classmates.  Two of them, two of these five women, who are just crossing from their mid-30s to their late 30s, have lost their children to suicide.  One of those children was the three-month-old girl that I held for a few minutes that afternoon. I mused about asking the principal of my school if there would be an issue having her mother bring the baby to school if she wanted to continue her education, but I squashed the inquiry because I doubted there was an appetite for such an innovation. Those five women have been directly impacted by four suicides.  And those are just the suicides that I know of.  You can be certain there have been others.

Rather than waiting for a blip of multiple deaths to merit the attention of the south, perhaps it is time for the Canadian media to devote a week, a month, or a year to report each suicide that occurs among indigenous communities.  As it stands, those statistics are quietly accumulated and filed without any recognition of the detailed despair that suicide victims, their families and their communities go through.

Resource people need to be deployed to these communities to give the support that these people need. If one ponders social workers as an example, they need to be people from the community to support one another.  Better still, there might simply be a need for training to give people the knowledge to provide the support they already try to provide one another with more informed intention. Initiatives to give kids, and adults for that matter, more to do with their time and more opportunity to find their passions and things they can aspire to be.  Joe Juneau's efforts to organize hockey in the region as a means to give kids something else that they can divert their attention and time to.

If nothing is done to bring these resources to the region, and others like it, the suicides will continue, as will the alcohol and domestic abuse and other social problems that form a vicious, silent circle in the north and throughout indigenous communities everywhere.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Horizoned Management or Leading Without Limits

Twenty years ago, I was teaching English in a Japanese junior high school I worked with a number of Japanese English teachers and the contribution I made ranged from parroting pronunciation of English sounds or coming up with games to distinguish between the present perfect and the simple past. I had already been teaching in Japan for two years at that point and the time in the public school system was a chance to gain some insight about the obstacles or phobias for Japanese speakers that remained despite a minimum of six years of instruction in the language. Linguists could cite several barriers that stand in the way of Japanese learners. I could add to that discussion with an echo or two, but I wish to take this in a more metaphorical direction.

One of the instructors that I worked with was one I invariably had the following exchange with:

Me: Good morning.
Him: Fine thank you.

I do not wish to assert that he had a particularly inflexible or unmindful approach to English. Ironically, the Math teacher with the desk across from mine spoke more fluent English and had more innovative ideas for teaching English than my co-teacher.  In the classroom, it was clear that my co-teacher's limitations with the language immediately restricted what students could learn. He confined his students' growth to the parts of the language he was competent in. Discrete pronunciation of sounds over fluency. Grammar over vocabulary and so on.

He taught them, corrected them and tested them on only what he was capable of assessing. He was not unique among Japanese English teachers whose limited competency or fluency in English sets a low ceiling on students' language development.  English instruction in Japan, it could be argued, has even been institutionalized to allow teachers of low English proficiency to function in the classroom, despite the limits that imposes on the potential of the students. In that English classroom, Japanese is the prevailing medium of exchange and English is a remote object of observation, examined and theorized upon rather than practiced and cultivated.

For all that could be said about whether or not valuable learning could occur under such conditions, the same restrictions are imposed again and again by managers who operate from very small comfort zones that they do not allow their units to grow beyond.  Too many organizations are structured in a way that either managers or the organizational structures that they function in, restrain the potential of the individuals that comprise that organization or its discrete units.

When encountering the creativity or the autonomy of individuals able to come up with creative solution, a manager -- if uncomfortable with the uncertainty ahead -- may squelch that creativity for the comforts of safe confinement in the system or compliance with the rules.  Structure is intended to provide order and certainty to the work individuals do in large organizations.  However, the structure becomes confining if a manager, threatened by the uncertainties that may stem from individuals expressing their creativity or demonstrating ways to improvise and expand upon their roles.  The manager has the opportunity to be more response to the situation and the opportunities that an employee has identified and ought to support that growth the individual is proposing.  The choice to play it safe in those circumstances frequently becomes a cautionary tale because a manager refuses to stretch beyond a self-defined (or confined) measure of capacity.  Compliance is a cited as an excuse, but it is a poor one if the organization has a desire to maximize its potential and that of its employees. The problems that a staff cites and the solutions they offer could be the first indicators and responses to danger that an organization's central nervous system offers. Ignoring those signs will deaden that nerve and make the organization less responsive.

This inhibited, compliance-oriented and hierarchical approach to management imposes limits not only creativity, but ultimately competence.  It also takes energy and self-initiative out of the organization and inculcates an approach to work that is binary with a obedience to the punch clock and rules. The result is a passive defiance when the opportunity to create, contribute and expand roles is suddenly or urgently required.  Such cautious and limited vision helps avoid failure but only for the sake of keeping a manager in his or her comfort zone.  And this will occur at the long-term vibrancy of the organization. Jeff Bezos of Amazon said of his approaches to management, "If you only extend into places where your skill sets serve you, your skills become outmoded." If Amazon chose to remain an online bookstore, their share price would never have crested $1000.

If an organization allowed itself to get outmoded -- Kodak is a telling example -- then changes to business will loom to decimate or simply destroy your business.  For a manager, however, that threat is only as significant as an organization's interest in risk and innovation.  If there is no appetite for the possible rewards then that manager is safe and performance will be measured by fixed metrics of efficiency and return on investment.  That manager's performance will be well regarded, even if that individual and his or her organization has a sneaking suspicion on ineffable lack that will remain unnoticed until competitors out-innovate them into a smaller market share or the turnover of disengaged employees becomes something more pressing.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Mental Marathon

There appears to be some preparation, but not enough mental prep.
I would not pretend that I am a great athlete, but with the most recent marathon I have run still looming large in the rearview mirror, I can say that each of those races has been a significant event and perhaps even a turning point.

At the very least, each has been a check in and an opportunity to gauge where I am at physically and mentally after a few hours of high demand performance.

There has been the initiation to the distance, the disappointing hobble to the finish and the enlightening near-miss of the Boston Qualifying time. Each of those races stands out as a highlight in my life and this week I add to that collection a race that in my kindest moments I can still only regard as metaphorical in light of my frustration. The result was decent but the mental race was easily the most difficult and demanding.  With the passage of a few days and a solid recovery run under my belt, I can now digest the disappointment and start to get it out of my system.

I can rifle off a range of factors that came to mind during Sunday and since that made the race a little better:
- I could have gotten to the race start a little earlier
- I could have warmed up a little more or a little differently
- I could have eaten less for breakfast or even nothing
- I ought to have chatted with a fellow runner for a while to idle a way a few K
- I could have been carrying a little less weight
- I might have trained too hard, I might

Each of these tiny things could have made some difference but the fact was not at a mental or emotional peak for the race.  Throughout 2017, I have found that the circumstances and conditions for a race need to be spot on in order for me to do what I was able to do as little as 18-24 months ago. The proper

When it came time to grapple with the hills and then the heat of the race whatever emotional reserves I needed for the race were tapped dry with about 10-11K to go. With the heat building on the unshaded asphalt of Memorial Drive at 10am, I gave into to a fury of frustration and trudged my way to the finish, petulant and taxed by the race and the outside factors that had made it as metaphorical as it was. For some reason I was unable to lock in on the reliable images, thoughts, mantras or other touchstones that push me along through other races. Even before I emotionally tapped out, I did not have the enthusiasm for the distance that I have had in the past. The solitude of this particular run was telling.  Apart from my silence, there were only a few brief moments where I drew anything from the company I was running with.  I can recall aspects of running in sight of them but I was not connecting with them, even with mere observation, the way I had in previous races.

This race, like the previous ones, marks a transition but I am uncertain of what it will be.  The solitude of other races may have morphed into loneliness and a sense of exposure on this one. For some time I have believed there is a reliable correlation between the marathon and the training for a marathon. You can't hide from a lack of preparation in the marathon.  The results will tell whether you did or you didn't. A marathon is not going to gift you a fluke 15 or 30 minutes in speed if you haven't put the time in, or if you happen to be naturally gifted and you are just giving it a try for curiosity sake.  If you fall short, the excuses ring pretty hollow with anyone who is in the know. The honesty of it and the direct correlation between efforts and results are a pretty reliable thing to behold. This time around it didn't feel that way throughout the race. Despite running about 200 more kilometres between January 1 and the Calgary Marathon in 2017 than I did in 2016, I was only 90 seconds better (officially) than the year before, when I ran on a bad leg as well. That amount of training, which amounted to a sluggish start to the race, left me particularly vulnerable to the accuracy of the lyric from "In a Big Country"...

I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered,
but you can't stay here with every single hope you have shattered.  

While I've run to that song in previous races and accelerated to it, during this marathon, I nodded grim agreement to that sentiment.

So as the battered legs shed their tightness tonight as I blasted through a hill in the summer swelter of Calgary and rediscovered the form and speed that were nowhere to be seen four days ago, the lesson from this race, should I heed the advice is simple: I have to look after a lot more than my legs and cardio if I'm going to keep this up.  I have to look after me and restore the calm that I found tonight, when the run rejuvenated rather than fatigued me as I went along.