Creativity Ideas

Easy Ratatouille

Two months ago, I received a rude awakening when I discovered my Cornell meal plan card no longer delivers an all-I-care-to-eat playground of delicious delicacies. In cafés, restaurants, bodegas, bistros, and nosheries across the world, the Cornell card nourishes me with nothing but spoiled stares. Outside of the culinary orb of campus, the card is then rendered useless and inedible (even marinated, spiced, and flambéed, the plastic card provides a poor meal replacement).

Cut off from my meal ticket, I stumble around the grocery store collecting rice cakes, cereal, peanut butter, and canned hominy. Occasionally I read the NY Times while munching on my hominy and today I stumbled upon a link to “The Minimalist: Easy Ratatouille”.

In the post, Mark Bittman explains that the intricate name translates to a simple, “tossed vegetable dish”. Unfortunately, easy ratatouille requires more than a spoon and frozen vegetables and involves a delicately choreographed sauté ballet of vegetables. Eggplant, “must be cooked until it’s very soft”; zucchini, “takes less time to cook”; tomatoes, “break apart so quickly that you have to be careful” (Bittman, 2011).

Call me old-fashioned (or malnourished), but my frozen vegetables, without stirring, occupy a stable place in my food pyramid (or Food Yin-Yang). In the 30-60 minute prep time required for the Easy Ratatouille, I could probably stage a compressed adaptation of War and Peace starring raw vegetables. Clearly, Bittman and I disagree on the culinary definition of “easy”.

While the recipe failed to produce its promised yield of 4 to 6 servings of ratatouille, it did in fact yield about 4 to 6 servings of philosophical food for thought. We toss around words like “easy” without considering their essential relativity. In conversations ranging from disability accommodations to environmental conservation, “easy” does not yield a universal translation. This challenge is acutely apparent as I work in public administration and attempt to create standardized language that can communicate to all constituencies.

Here, Bittman deserves a pass. For the culinary connoisseurs perusing his post, this recipe probably reads like a Ratatouille-for-Dummies guide. Yet for the average Cocoa Pebbles connoisseur like me, it looks like a federal grant proposal accidentally translated to Esperanto. Let’s at least agree this is an easy, or convenient, opportunity to reevaluate our approach to language and audience. And if someone wants to cook me ratatouille that would be nice too.


Steve Martin & Internet Bullies

Steve Martin, comedian, art collector, and novelist, was interviewed at the 92nd Street Y the other week. The onstage conversation was interrupted when Martin’s interviewer was handed a note.

It read: “Discuss Steve’s career.”

The message was delivered by Y staff members who were trying to breath life into Mr. Martin’s musings that were focused squarely on his new book and the modern art world.

The paying guests got a full refund and Mr. Martin got his feelings hurt. He wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times lamenting the Y’s actions and the crowd’s impatience.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Y’s actions were largely inspired by the torrent of angry comments dispensed by people who were watching the show online. As we all know, people will write the first thing that comes into their heads when they click into anonymous comment boxes. They won’t edit themselves and they certainly won’t bother with manners. Apparently, the people at the Y didn’t know this.

Steve expressed his shock succinctly: “What I didn’t expect was that the Y would take the temperature of…e-mailed reactions, and then respond to them by sending a staff member onstage, mid-conversation, with a note.”

Mr. Martin’s windy, yawn-inducing, conversation wasn’t cut short by the audience members–it was cut short by online hecklers who were bored when they didn’t hear a celebrity inspired joke every other minute. Why Y staff members bent to the tyrannical will of an online mob is an another question completely.

Mr. Martin learned that people on the internet are bullies in a very public and very embarrassing way.

Companies and leaders who conduct business online should take note. People on the Internet can be mean and often forget basic manners. Social media isn’t always a fun and entertaining way to generate consumer interest. Sometimes it’s just a sounding board for loud-mouths who are simply seeking entertainment.

Similarly, companies conducting online events should ensure they aren’t easily swayed by the bored, fast-typing, masses.

Picture Credit: djwudi

BLG Leadership Insights Managerial Competence Proactive Leaders

Failing Upwards: Jeff Zucker & NBC

The New York Times reported today that embattled NBC Chief Jeffery Zucker has stepped down.  Zucker was instrumental in Jay Leno’s questionable move to primetime last season as well as several other high profile calamities (Ben Silverman anyone?) in the network’s core programming. In a scathing opinion piece by Maureen Dowd earlier this winter, she summarizes the structural problems plaguing NBC. Zucker, an able manager of numbers, main critical failing was that he lacked a basic understanding of what Americans like to watch and political competence required to keep creative principles content in their work environment.

Jeffery Zucker tenure raises important questions for those in the realm of organizations. Too often management becomes seduced by the information produced by “hard data” and fails to pay proper attention to the more central question: are our core businesses serving their consumer bases? Anyone with a television in their home could tell you that NBC’s nightly programming wasn’t up to snuff, yet executives continually rolled out shows that would succeed on the basis of “cost per hour.”  This neglect for the viewer has come back to bite NBC in the form of depressed advertisement revenues, which has reduced NBC’s operating budget to fund scripted shows. This self perpetuating cycle leads organizations to employ a Hail Mary strategy- this explains moving Jay Leno to ten.

Mr. Zucker is sadly not the most significant case of someone constantly failing upwards; shareholders and managers continue to be wooed by the promise of success through the magic of numbers. For further evidence of this culture look no further than shamans of Wall Street peddling mortgages with dubious payment schedules.  To be clear, I am not advocating a management approach that does not use statistical analysis to make informed business decisions.  However, it is important to note that number-crunching can never substitute for enterprise and adventure. Leaders should focus upon staying true to their core constituents. Execute and the numerical indicators will follow suit.

Photo Credit: Arnisto


The Case for Online Distractions

It’s easy to blame Google and PowerPoint for distracting us and making us employ bullet points. But, as Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, argues in last week’s New York Times, we shouldn’t get worried about technologies’ power of distraction. Perhaps, he says, we should be thankful since “technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.”

Pinker states that new forms of media usually meet initial skepticism. The printing press, radio, television, comic books and, of late, video games have all been labeled dangerous in one way or another during their admission into popular culture. With time, each medium eventually finds acceptance and praise.

Today’s critics of new technologies like Twitter, PowerPoint, e-book previews, and blogs worry that we’ll all suffer from information overload. We often hear the line that computer and smart phone users will get lost, confused, and increasing unproductive in a content-filled cyberworld.

Pinker doesn’t see it that way. People who seek to increase their knowledge on a particular subject will and be able to do so with greater ease with new technologies and won’t necessarily be driven to idle distraction. While the computer age has bred a new variety of time-wasters, it has also created a powerful learning tool.

Ultimately Pinker thinks we must approach new technologies with caution. Exploit its benefits while diligently abstaining from its idle pleasures. He advocates turning off smart phones at dinnertime and logging out of your email for hours. For Pinker, with great internet access comes great responsibility.

The internet has cataloged great amounts of information and Google (and sites like it) have become its sponsored librarian. Pinker argues that if we stay in the smarter sections of the library for a prescribed amount of time, we won’t suffer from information overload all that much. If we start wasting time in the general interest and entertainment sections, we’ll distract ourselves and not get anything meaningful done.

Perhaps, but wandering has its benefits and charms.

While new technologies make it easier to waste time, they aren’t responsible for time wasting. Pinker’s conclusions are welcome among worried headlines technology critics who fear the loss of rational thought in the age of Twitter. We don’t have to fear the perpetual distraction of new technologies since they can inform progress, help rational thought, and aid analytical research in exciting ways.

Artwork by: Hotdiggitydogs

BLG Leadership Insights

The Business Of Cat Pictures

Americans spend an amazing 32.7 hours a week on the internet. You can only throw away so much of the day checking Facebook or actually doing work, but there are a few spare hours that need to be filled. That’s where websites like step in.

Jenna Worthham of the New York Times writes about how this silly time waster has blossomed into an empire that includes 40 employees and 50 other popular websites.

If you don’t know what is you need to go take a look. It’s funny, cute, and totally nonsensical. The site is dedicated to cat pictures with grammatically incorrect captions. The site, aside from teaching us that people love the absurd, illustrates how internet success can come in all shapes and sizes.

Ben Huh bought the previously unknown website for $10,000 three years ago and has used all of his business and proactive leadership skills to turn a seedling, wacky, idea into a mini-web-empire.

Conventional wisdom tells us that we are supposed to come up with an idea, product, or even a way of life that people desire and actually need in order to succeed in business. If you can build a better mousetrap, you will do well. Thanks to the internet we can see the outline of a new paradigm more clearly: create stuff that no one really needs, but everyone decides they can’t live without.

Ideas don’t have to fit a box in order to work. They need people who can get involved and get things done.