03 November, 2014

#breakingItTogether (satire)

After the failure of the global Shabbat Project to usher in the Messiah, organizers have had an urgent rethink of their strategy, and released their startling new initiative.

Tradition tells us that if all Jews keep just one Shabbat, then the Messiah would come. This was in fact the secret agenda of the Shabbat Project organizers, even though they are not affiliated with Chabad. South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein admitted in a candid interview that despite his Litvish affiliation, he too believes in the coming of the Messiah, and pines daily for his arrival, as expressed in much of the prayer liturgy. "When I conceived the original Shabbat Project in 2013, it was just about uniting our community, but after its success, I figured if we went global it could just be the trigger to bring the coming of the Messiah", he said.

While the global campaign was wildly successful, with over 340 cities around the world participating, it became clear late in the piece that a group of saboteurs had emerged. "It seems our message of unity cut both ways", continued Rabbi Goldstein, "and there was a secret collaboration of Bundists, Progressive Jews, and neo-Orthodox feminists who were irked that men were not invited to the challah bakes". These diverse groups suspected there was hidden agenda to the Shabbat Project, and united against it, deciding they would all switch off the lights in their homes at exactly midnight on Friday night, thus thwarting the Messiah plan.

As the Jewish world celebrated the global success of the project in terms of people reached and increased engagement with Jewishness, the South African organising committee were secretly brooding. "Missed it by that much!" said Get Smart fan and Chairman Clive Blechman.

But after further research revealed that Messiah would come either if all Jews kept the Shabbat, or if all Jews did not keep it, the committee had a brainwave for a follow-up campaign to encourage Jews all around the world to not keep the Shabbat on the weekend of 17/18 April 2015. "We figure the week after Pesach, people are feeling pretty washed up, and it's long enough after Yom Kippur and before the next one that they won't feel too guilty about participating", said incoming event Chair Monique van Buren.

Rabbis around the world have acknowledged that it's far easier to encourage people to break the Shabbat than to keep it. Van Buren continued: "Our 'Community Disengagement Committee' is already talking to the developers of the ShabbosApp - if we can get everyone using that, they will all be mechallel Shabbos!". Also trending on Twitter is #breakingItTogether, with people fantasizing about the one thing they will do to break Shabbat, with the two most popular suggestions being watching live sporting events, and using perforated toilet paper. Rabbi Goldstein was very pleased at the initiative, saying "I don't know why the Chabadniks didn't think of this years ago" with a grin.

In related news, Mordechai Ben David and Shwekey are collaborating on a cover version of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers classic "You say Shabbat / I say Shabbos / let's call the whole thing off!"

01 June, 2014

Maleficent, Mirror Mirror, and Moral Relativism

There I was, happily going about my day - on my way from work, driving the kids somewhere, or sitting down to read the weekend paper - and there she was. It's as if Disney has taken up a full frontal assault on my senses, bombarding me with Angelina Jolie wherever I go. The billboards, promotional pieces, and media profiles are everywhere I look. That freaky headpiece and the huge black wings are being embossed in my brain by sheer overconsumption. No, it's not some dark conspiracy, it's just the huge marketing campaign for the latest Disney blockbuster movie Maleficent (on the other hand, maybe it is some dark conspiracy).

But something about this movie struck an odd chord with me. A cursory look at the plot for this movie reveals that it's just a retelling of the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty: beautiful young princess put to sleep by a curse from a bad fairy and awoken by handsome prince. But this movie has a twist: the star is not the beautiful princess, or even the handsome prince who rescues her, rather the vindictive fairy.

"What's really going on here?" I asked my teen and tween daughters, who sit squarely in the target demographic for movies like this. "Stop carrying on about it Dad", they said, "they are just telling the story from a different perspective". Indeed, after you run out of sequels and prequels, the next way to keep squeezing life out of a movie franchise is to do a 'perspective shift'.

But what bothered me here was the cultural implications of these 'shifts' on such classic tales of good and evil.

Another example is the movie Mirror Mirror (2012), which is a remake of the classic fairytale Snow White, but this time starring the evil queen/stepmother, played by Julia Roberts. Maleficent takes this shift a step further.

The pattern "good against bad and eventually good wins" is common in movies and TV series. But after people began to tire of the same old story line, writers responded by blurring the boundaries and exploring the complexity of the characters. They might make it a little harder to work out who is good and who is bad, or have lead characters who are deeply flawed (such as in some of my favourites like House, Dexter, and The Shield). Some of them are likeable, and some we love to hate. In all cases, the intent is that we empathise with the baddie as well.

In Mirror Mirror, we know that the queen is bad - always was, always will be. In Maleficent, we are taken on a journey into the life of the lead character to understand why she turned into a bad fairy. And inevitably, it likely wasn't her fault. Rather she was the product of some terrible experiences as a young fairy that "radicalised" her and caused to her shift to the dark side.

Pop culture is a product of the sentiments of society at the time. Back when these fairy tales and similar stories were composed, society had a clear idea of what is good and what is bad, and a strong desire to see good triumph. More recently, in the gangster movie genre, we still retained the boundaries between good and bad, but liked the escapism of wanting bad to win, or at least give good a run for their money.

But nowadays, there is no more good and bad. In moral relativism doublespeak, war is peace, freedom is slavery, good is bad, and bad is good. We can't tell the difference between good and bad any more because there is no such thing as bad. Instead of trying to eradicate or fight bad, we are asked to understand it and its 'root causes' and show empathy. People aren't intrinsically bad at all; rather they are forced into bad behaviour by external events beyond their control. The Twinkie defence has been broadened into a global excuse for bad.

Movies like Maleficent are just a "Mirror Mirror" of our own attitudes.

28 May, 2014

Case Study: Oligarch Enterprises

This is written in the style of a Harvard case study. It is an allegory; imagine a real company in this situation and facing similar challenges. The questions at the end are a guide to what the issues are and the process to deal with them. Suggested answers are most welcome.

“They did what?!” exclaimed William, Chairman of Oligarch Enterprises, at one of the regular informal gatherings of the “mini-board”. The recovery of the supermarket division was progressing well, and the cafés were holding ground, but yet again, two senior executives in the café division had committed a very public faux pas, leading to widespread condemnation in the media, and from some key investors. “Get them to make a public apology with a bit of self-serving commentary”, he directed. “This will blow over like the last one”. But in response to the e-mail advising the board of his decision, he was challenged: “These things keep happening to us again and again. Maybe we should hire a professional PR firm to help us communicate better with our customers and use the media better?” asked Frank, the newest member of the board. William was taken aback by the show of dissent. “We don't need to waste money on expensive consultants. We know what our customers want, and what's best for them”.

Was this just another hiccup along the way in Oligarch’s recovery? Or is it symptomatic of some deeper issues? What should William and the board do next?

Here’s a brief history to help understand how Oligarch found themselves in this predicament.

The Coup
The best kind of coup is the one no-one notices. And so it was at the supermarket and coffee shop giant formerly known as Autocrat Enterprises – nurtured and grown into a large group of businesses for many years by Gerald, who over time assumed the position of Group Executive Director (GED). Nothing happened in the business without his knowledge or approval. When he started, there was just one supermarket and a small coffee shop. But with a combination of marketing savvy and his natural warmth to and connection with customers, Gerald grew the business into the major force in the sector with the highest ranking in customer loyalty. The flagship mega-café was Gerald’s pride and joy, and he would visit regularly to sit and talk to customers.

Knowing that his days on earth were numbered, he set up a new board of individuals he trusted, and a constitution uncommon amongst other companies in the sector. Just a handful of people held ‘A Class’ shares with voting rights, and several of them were also directors. The company was largely kept running thanks to the ‘B Class’ investors – who together represented 92% of issue capital – who continued to pour money in despite having no voting rights, largely out of loyalty to Gerald and the brand.

When the time came in 2008, the coup was swift. Gerald had wanted the senior executive of the flagship mega-café to take over his position, but after his passing, the role of GED was effectively dissolved and all control passed to the board, and principally to William as Chairman. The senior executive remained exactly where he was, and while many people – particularly outsiders – viewed him as someone who held a lot of sway, insiders knew that he was destined to run the mega-café as a silo, and never anything more. The only other person Gerald would have liked to take over was Harry – a regional senior exec in the café division, and was also on the Master Franchisor Committee because of his longstanding relationship with Gerald. But William had successfully marginalised the only two realistic contenders for the top job.

At the time, the biggest parts of the group – the two supermarket chains – were headed by a couple of older execs who had each been there for over thirty years. Rather than fully retiring them, they were gently shifted into consulting roles and given positions on a newly formed board subcommittee that actually did nothing and had no real responsibilities.

Supermarkets
Oligarch had been in supermarkets for as long as anyone could remember. They launched back in the 1950s with two distinct brands – Gold and Bronze – servicing what they considered two distinct and non-overlapping market sectors. Most other companies in the industry preferred to run a single brand, but this segmentation strategy worked well for Oligarch, and both chains flourished. Despite owning both, they operated as silos with separate management and administration. Over time, Gold pushed ahead thanks to its ability to position as a brand with broader appeal to its primary target market and several adjacent market sectors, as well as a better-executed growth strategy. There was also long term stability at the CEO position, Gold was able to attract superior staff, and they didn't suffer from any of the OH&S issues that seemed to plague Bronze.

In theory, Bronze's market sector was of similar size to Gold, but they were unable to make serious inroads in the market. By the time the OH&S breaches at Bronze became public in 2010, the CEO had stepped down but stayed on in a senior consulting role, as well as the board advisory committee. An initial attempt to find a long-term successor failed miserably. A global search for a CEO conducted by a specially appointed board subcommittee ended up choosing someone not much younger than the previous CEO. She didn't fit in culturally, many staff were disaffected, and customers ran for the competition. After just two years, she was paid out of her contract early, and a much younger CEO, Michael, was poached from a competing chain where he had risen through the ranks and established a reputation as a turn-around expert and a good leader.

After just a year in his position, and following the shift of the CEO of Gold to an advisory role, the board appointed Michael as Group CEO of Supermarkets. He quickly set about merging administrative and supply chain of both brands, resulting in economies of scale and improved performance. He was unafraid to ruffle some feathers as he set about restructuring and running a series of redundancies, but a few longstanding staff refused to leave, and one of the board members suggested to Michael that he should prioritise other things. Despite some minor issues, it appeared that the supermarket chains might be turning around. But still the OH&S breaches continue to haunt him.

Cafés
The café chain also had its challenges. With a strong history and loyal following, the original flagship mega-café was very successful, particularly during the peak of Gerald's tenure as Group Exec Director in the 1970-80s. But with the growing popularity of coffee, new competition emerged and challenged Oligarch.
After an international chain announced a new concept store – a combined book-store and café – Oligarch was under pressure and quickly opened one in the same category, headed by Gerald's trusted associate Harry. It was widely viewed by the market as a reactive move, and after enjoying initial success for a few years it began to flounder. Initially considered a loss-leader for other categories within the brand, the losses continued to mount, and the customer transition to other brands within the group just didn't happen. Gerald emphatically refused to close it down, and it continued to be a drain on the group for many years.

In 2011, a new ‘next generation’ CEO was appointed to work alongside Harry. His presentation to the board was very impressive, and he had strong credentials working abroad in the same niche category. He set about turning the business around quickly, controversially cutting some long-standing senior staff and embarking on some innovative marketing campaigns. Things are looking positive for the book-store café, but as a loss-leader, its value to the group is regularly questioned.

Franchise
With population surges in a few key areas and the mega- café unable to service a growing market, Oligarch needed to act quickly to capture market share, so Gerald embarked on an aggressive franchise program. Cafés under the group brand started popping up everywhere, with Gerald handing out franchises to almost every applicant, ensuring along the way that those close to him received franchises in what were considered the most attractive areas.

Even people who weren't happy with Oligarch's own flagship café were issued franchises to open elsewhere, so what in fact was a growing dissatisfaction with the flagship café was masked by significant growth at group level. Even Harry, who operated the book-store café, had a separate franchise café of his own on the side, despite questions about divided loyalty and conflict of interest.

Gerald was the master franchisor, but following his death, his role was replaced by the Master Franchisor Committee (MFC), consisting of three members: Harry, Sam – who merged his café franchise with Oligarch – and Gordon, who was a franchisee himself. The MFC was a very dysfunctional group, as each member had their own franchise as well as tribally loyal franchisees, and there was no process for conflict resolution. It didn’t even have formal reporting lines to the board, nor was there a board member on the MFC. At one stage, it descended to the point where the committee members themselves were no longer on speaking terms. Somehow, the franchises continued to operate and new ones were issued despite the problems.

The mega-café
The mega-café was for many years the flagship of Oligarch. Gerald took a special interest in the mega-café to the point of micromanaging, yet imbuing it with a personal flavour and warmth that attracted customers from far and wide. But as Gerald grew old, it was harder to find and retain staff, and many regulars stopped coming. Some became regular customers at other Oligarch franchisees, but many left for competing cafés.

The position of senior executive running the mega-café is unclear. He is considered by the market as holding a senior and influential role within the group, but has little support from the board, especially after almost regular public gaffes. The mega-café is in desperate need of some investment to provide a fresh look, but while it can’t attract customers, continues to lose money, and is unable to hold on to good staff, board support for the capital expenditure is not there.

The OH&S Scandal
Gerald was not one for keeping meticulous records, and a series of occupational health and safety (OH&S) incidents in the Bronze supermarkets and one of the cafés that occurred in the 1990s became public in about 2010. Gerald knew a lot about supermarkets and cafés but didn't know much about OH&S, and the regulatory environment at the time was weak. Some of the affected customers demanded immediate sackings and the involvement of external inspectors. But the majority were satisfied at the time for the matter to be handled internally, which meant they would receive full medical cover and that the staff who committed the OH&S breaches were dismissed and sent away. Despite the breaches, they actually liked the supermarket chain, and didn't want it to suffer too much damage as a result of a few bad apples (no pun intended).
Gerald thought he had the wisdom of Solomon to fix what was actually a very complex problem and satisfy all stakeholders. He wanted to protect both his loyal employees and the customers affected by the breaches. In hindsight, these would turn out to be mutually exclusive goals.

What Gerald didn’t realise was that some of the OH&S problems were systemic, and that standards changes were in the winds. So like any sore left to fester, things only get worse with time. With the introduction of the new OH&S standards, and several high-profile OH&S breaches at a very large competitor supermarket chain, the issue started receiving more and more media coverage. A newly formed advocacy group came after Oligarch Enterprises, with claims for retrospective compensation, and demands for the sacking of the former CEO of the supermarket, who remained employed at a senior level, as well as any other senior executives who may have known about the breaches.

Oligarch knew that current OH&S processes were now fully compliant and went out of their way to tell the market about it. But instead of seeking to draw a clear line in the sand from the sins of the past and working with the advocacy group on some related structural reforms, Oligarch hunkered down for what would likely be a long battle. Knowing that a large compensation claim was sure to come, the board’s lawyer prohibited any public comments, but that didn’t stop several senior executives from entering the public debate on the issue, and each time with disastrous consequences.

Group CEO of supermarkets, Michael, was regularly under the pump. Even before his tenure, the chain had brought itself up to the new OH&S standards, and Michael extended the program of compliance with a full external audit. But as the face of the supermarket chains, he was still paying the price. While he assured customers that standards were being met, some long-standing customers demanded more. Given the history of the group and the possible scope of previous breaches, they wanted to hear not just from the head of the supermarket division, but from the board itself. They continued to demand a full clean out, not just of the board members who were there at the time, but of any senior staff who were in positions of authority during the breaches. While Michael was in control of standards now, he could not speak on behalf of the board, nor did he have control over the other parts of the group. He was caught between a rock and a hard place.

The latest faux pas came when two senior executives showed public support for a storeman and packer union protest. The public outcry was from all sides – regular high-profile customers, competitors, and of course the advocacy group and its followers. A leaked e-mail from a board member protesting their comments was also circulated, and there were rumours of dissent from several other board members regarding the way this was being handled. Many were astounded that both the board member and the senior executives retained their positions.

The 24/7 news cycle moved on to the next crisis, and it seems Oligarch had against dodged a bullet. But everyone knew that a class action led by the advocacy group was not far away, and that every time anything went wrong at Oligarch, all the old problems would be dredged up again publicly.

Oligarch Org Chart

Questions
  • What patterns of behaviour can you identify in the board? What is driving these behaviours?
  • What drove the choices the board made and how did that affect their ability to deal with the issues? Why do they consider this an acceptable outcome? What could they reasonably expect would happen and why?
  • What are the barriers to a different outcome and how might you change things to create a different outcome?
  • Why are the senior executives retained in some form or another? What are the consequences of failure at Oligarch?
  • How would you describe the culture of Oligarch? How would it look using the Bolman & Deal four frame model?
  • What would you do if you were William? Harry? Michael? a disaffected 'B class' shareholder?
  • How would you restructure the Master Franchisor Committee?



Thanks to NG, CS, and JC for their feedback

11 April, 2014

News about the community: a user's guide

A couple of articles were published recently (in The Age and the Herald Sun) about the latest very public scandal associated with the Yeshivah Centre. Below is a guide to the interpretation of often-used phrases in these and similar articles:

22 March, 2014

Kapital Nun

I've been saying kapital nun (chapter 50 of Tehillim) daily for a while now. Many people in our community have also been saying it daily, as part of a series of prayer and mitzvah initiatives for Rivkie Barber OBM, who passed away on Friday (in New York) after multiple battles with cancer. Many were shocked to hear the news in shul this morning (Shabbos), especially as it punctuated a community in the midst of celebrating several weddings.

I was discussing Beth Rivkah's planned response to students - particularly the cohort in the same grade as Rivkie's daughter, and the group Rivkie taught last school year - with the headmaster, and he commented that in the middle of the meal on Friday night, he and his guests all paused to say kapital nun. His remark hit me like a ton of bricks. Tomorrow, I will continue to say kapital nun, and will continue for several months, and then proceed to kapital nun aleph, and so on IYH U120. But all those who took it on as an extra prayer for Rivkie will stop.

12 March, 2014

Repost: 50 Thousand Haredim March So Only Other Jews Die in War

This was posted on the JewishPress web site, then removed and the writer sacked. I'm reposting it here for posterity, with commentary to follow shortly.

They flooded downtown Manhattan with the anti-draft for Haredim message: everybody else is welcome to get themselves killed. What was even more astonishing was their honesty regarding the bankruptcy of their entire school of faith and study.

They flooded downtown Manhattan with the anti-draft for Haredim message: everybody else is welcome to get themselves killed. What was even more astonishing was their honesty regarding the bankruptcy of their entire school of faith and study.

For the record, I believe the new Shaked-Lapid-Bennett draft law is by far worse than the one it came to replace, the Tal Law. Most importantly, because the Tal Law was getting results, without the idiotic, needless, divisive rancor generated by the new legislation. Killing the Tal Law, or, rather, issuing an edict that it had to be replaced by something that worked faster, was the parting poisonous gift of Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, protégé of that beacon of light unto the nations, Chief Justice Aharon (evil genius) Barak.

25 February, 2014

Flight Attendants as Salespeople

The role of the flight attendant is changing. Airlines are unbundling services - moving from the days of all-inclusive flight, luggage, food and entertainment to making all except the flight itself optional (and therefore paid) extras. This achieves two things: reduce the "headline price" of the flight to the bare minimum (which in turn can be used to confuse the market and make it more difficult for customers to compare offerings), and allow customers who don't need or see value in the extras to not pay for them.

So instead of a single point-of-purchase before the flight, there are now purchase opportunities at almost every stage of the flight experience. You can buy luggage or a special seat at check-in, food and entertainment on the flight itself. This means that the customer-facing staff must evolve from their traditional role of just providing a service to salespeople.

31 January, 2014

Facebook Death Protocol

Marc died yesterday. It was quite a shock - I don't think he was even 60. I knew he had some serious health issues a few years back, but didn't quite know the extent of them. We weren't close friends - I'd see him a handful of times a year at our synagogue and have a bit of a chat. He was always congenial - something of a big friendly giant. The e-mails went around the community mailing lists announcing his passing, with the funeral and minyan details.

Then, this morning, something strange happened. In my Facebook feed, a FacebookFriend™ of mine posted a condolence message on Marc's page. I was a bit taken aback, so I went to his page to discover a handful of messages posted - some of them farewell messages, some directed to his family, and other nice things about him.