xPotomac, the Next ‘Big Thing’ and Behavior Change

xPotomac and mind mapsYesterday I attended xPotomac, a conference on the most influential media technologies most likely to impact businesses and marketers in the immediate future. Both the conference’s content and its organization showcased disrupted shifts in recognizing and harnessing change.

Its organization you ask?

What I found interesting was the fact that none of the speakers used extemporaneous PowerPoints. Instead, they used handhelds with colorful mind maps to remind them where they were in their talk (kudos to Kathryn Garrett for first pointing this out via Twitter). The result was more eye contact and audience interaction than you typically get when speakers are stuck in a pre-personal computer = overhead transparencies paradigm.

The conference room did, however, have a big screen. It was filled with the top tweets and Twitter influencers using the #xPotomac14 hashtag. The result was crowdsourced speaker notes not only perfectly calibrated to audience interests in real time, but also short and sweet enough (due to Twitter’s 140-character limit) to be able to be read quickly without tuning out the speaker. If you have ever developed a PowerPoint, you know it’s hard and time consuming to get buy-in for appropriately concise and readable slides.

This brings me back to a frequent topic, the need to focus many public outreach efforts on mitigating or encouraging specific and pre-determined behaviors appropriate for your audience—not simply raising awareness.

Think about it.

Spreading the word about how great xPotomac’s crowdsourced speaker notes worked is unlikely to result in its replication at conferences outside of tech circles. Touting the benefits of mind maps would be similarly ineffective at invoking change.


xPotomac and mind mapsBecause sitting at a conference tweeting on your computer, tablet, or phone is not considered socially acceptable in most venues. Further, most people still are not on Twitter, so the crowdsourced speaker notes would be a flop in most places. Most importantly, the majority of people simply expect to see overhead slides and for audience members to keep their eyes on the speaker or overheads—not their computer, tablet, or phone.

The only way an organization could replicate xPotomac’s success is by encouraging Twitter adoption and demonstrating influencers (i.e., bosses and clients in a professional setting) are on board—for both behavior changes.

In other words, to position ourselves and our organizations to compete in the future, it’s not enough to have a few innovators see the potential of the next big thing. It’s a question of reimagining how and why we do things and then ensuring the requisite behaviors are in place, have social support, and are culturally acceptable enough to harness and benefit from the efficiencies of technological change.

That is my main take-away from xPotomac, at least from my strategic communications perspective.

Crowd Accelerated Innovation and the War of Ideas

David BaileyOne of my posts from 2010 was about a TED video on “Crowd Accelerated Innovation.” The video is about how the Internet is connecting people all around the world, enabling people who otherwise would never meet to share ideas and fuel and perfect innovation.

I recently connected with David Bailey of The Military Social Media Blog after writing my recent series of posts about the lack of sound communications strategy plaguing the U.S. military in the very places sound strategy is needed most to curb Islamist extremism. David, a former officer in the British Army, is a “digital whisperer” who has been involved in British military influence activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

In the video below, David is interviewing me for a vlog post about how knowledge management could help the military, particularly in the United States, overcome many of the obstacles it faces and adapt to a war of ideas in the Web 2.0 age. In another recent video, David interviewed his associate Nicole Matejic, the #SocialFirefighter™ out of Australia, on how newsjacking can do the same.

I’m honored to be asked to contribute to military learning and be a part of David’s effort to tap “Crowd Accelerated Innovation” to fuel understanding and learning and win the war of ideas.  As the 2010 TED video shows, amazing things are possible when people around the world connect to share and innovate. Fingers crossed David’s efforts make a difference! Thanks David!

The ‘Knowledge Management’ Cure?

Operation PLATEAU (2005 Pakistan Earthquake)A potential cure exists for the lack of sound communications strategy plaguing the U.S. military in the very places sound strategy is needed most to curb Islamist extremism.  As I’ve blogged about before, it’s mindboggling that the suggested reason for obvious blunders is large contractors hoping to make an easy buck pushing sales/ marketing/attitudinal communications to enact change versus the more effective behavioral/ strategic communications approach.

The potential cure? Combining  behavioral/strategic communications with “knowledge management” to force/empower behavioral/strategic communications contractors and personnel to capture, develop, share, and effectively use knowledge.  I use the term force/empower because another possible reason for a lack of sound strategy can be government officials hesitant to approve spending time or money on research, especially in the face of budget cuts, sequestration, etc.

When contracts merge behavioral/strategic communications and “knowledge management,” the result is:

  • A literature review of lessons learned and best practices from previous attempts to change a behavior
  • Stakeholder mapping to identify the networks and organizations influencing the behavior as well as their “influenceability”
  • An inventory of information sources and influencers target audiences turn to for information and social norms for the behavior
  • A target audience needs assessment covering information flow, use, storage, and sharing; appropriate technologies; and triggers that will effectively and measurably change the audience’s behavior
  • Facilitation techniques, such as Open Space, World Café, Peer Assist, and After Action Reviews, that encourage people with expertise in the behavior to work together and share their experiential knowledge for the purposes of peer-to-peer learning, problem-solving, and strategic planning

Knowledge management, done right, also can result in outcome vs. output performance measures and improved processes, policies, and procedures organization-wide. More importantly, done right, it facilitates swift learning from mistakes and swift adjustments to disruptive technological change.

To visualize more fully the possibilities, skim the Global Health eLearning Center’s free Knowledge Management course, particularly the Malawi Case Study, and imagine Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan collaborating to apply the model to opium poppy cultivation. For example, the target audience needs assessment might have revealed farmers prefer working with opium traffickers because they provide advance credit and quick and lucrative payment. Such an assessment would not have resulted in billboards claiming opium damages the Pashtun’s house, country, community, and future generations. Rather, it would have resulted in harnessing appropriate information and communications technologies (ICTs), such as mobile payments for alternative crops, to reduce the economic incentive to grow poppy combined with other social marketing methods (e.g., barriers eliminationinfluencer messaging, promptsnorm appeals, financial incentives and disincentives, commitments, etc.).

While the sound communications strategy case study I blogged about from Colombia does not appear to have had a knowledge management component, the kind of excellence it illustrates would certainly more likely stem from such a combined approach than one likening the complex fight against Islamist extremism or poppy cultivation to convincing people who already brush their teeth to switch to a different brand of tooth paste. Just starting out the gate, it changes the requisite qualifications of the contractors brought on board.

Channeling Sun Tzu, Not Orwell’s 1984


Billboard in Afghanistan extolling the virtue and loyalty of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Sadness. Shock. Disbelief.

These are the emotions I felt reading a recent report by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College indicating the U.S. military’s information operations (IO) and strategic communication efforts were bungled in the very places they were needed most to curb Islamist extremism. As I’ve blogged about before, it’s mindboggling that the suggested reason is large contractors hoping to make an easy buck pushing sales/marketing/attitudinal communications to enact change versus the more effective behavioral/strategic communications approach.

In this post, I am detailing three examples of what appear to be extremely counterproductive communications efforts in Afghanistan that upset and shocked me. Two are from the U.S. Army War College report, written by Dr. Steve Tatham, Great Britain’s leading military expert on strategic communication and IO, and a third is from media reports:

  • Doublethink Billboard: As shown in the photo above, billboards were put up across Afghanistan extoling the virtue and loyalty of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The problem is corruption is widespread in Afghanistan and the ANSF is hardly immune. In the words of Dr. Tatham:

 “[I]n a society where corruption is endemic, where successful passage through a checkpoint will almost certainly require the giving of some money, such attitudinal communication does not stack up against the pragmatic reality of life on the ground.”

The billboards remind me of George Orwell’s book 1984 and its 2 + 2 = 5 and doublethink (i.e., sometimes they are five, sometimes they are three, and sometimes they are all of them at once). While such an approach might work in a dystopian novel, it is not a fit with building a trust-based democracy in real life.

  • Corruption-Covering Campaigns? Afghans citizens intensely resent the corrupt political patronage networks that replaced the Taliban. According to the Brookings Institution:

“Murder, extortion, and land theft have gone unpunished, often perpetrated by those in the government. At the same time, access to jobs, promotions, and economic rents has depended on being on good terms with the local strongman, instead of merit and hard work.”

What was done about the scourge of corruption from a communications perspective? USA Today reports IO campaigns were used to bolster corrupt Afghan officials:

“A Feb. 10, 2010, cable from then-ambassador [Karl] Eikenberry recounted a meeting between State Department and military officials with Abdul Raziq, an Afghan border police official.

Raziq, Eikenberry wrote, said he wanted to improve conditions on the Afghan-Pakistani border in Kandahar province and fight corruption. Coalition officials proposed a campaign including local radio spots, billboards and ‘if credible, the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the reform of Raziq, the so-called Master of Spin.'”

A year earlier Harper’s Magazine had published an investigative piece about Raziq’s drug trafficking. While use of the term “if credible” in the excerpt above comforts me a little, the possibility of communications being used to fake reforms and prop up a drug trafficker is depressing (corruption = bad governance = fueling support for “honest” extremist governance alternatives). This example too is a bit Orwellian.

poppy billboard

Billboard in Afghanistan reading: “Poppy. Poppy is damaging the Pashtun’s house, country, community and future generations. What do you think? Contact us on this number.”

  • Doublethink Billboard II: Per the photo to the right, billboards were put up in Afghanistan reading: “Poppy. Poppy is damaging the Pashtun’s house, country, community, and future generations. What do you think? Contact us on this number.” Surely, the question toward the end was not designed with Orwellian doublethink in mind? In the words of Dr. Tatham:

“[I]t might be argued that far from ‘damaging the Pashtun’s house,’ poppy shores it up by being extremely profitable, providing a source of income to farmers that they would not be able to derive from vegetables, fruit, and wheat. Indeed, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) John L. Cook believes that in Helmand and Kandahar: ‘The poppy is king providing, either directly or indirectly, nearly 80% of all jobs in these provinces.'”

I could write pages on how these examples are likely to harm Afghanistan’s fledging democracy and fuel extremism. I’m limiting myself, however, to five communications blunders not fully developed in my previous post on Dr. Tatham’s report (but I could go on and on about communications blunders too):

  • Framed as Lies: As I have written about before, not only do you need to communicate truth (which should go without saying), you need to be very careful to avoid framing your message in a way that contradicts widespread perceptions, even if these perceptions are wrong. Perceptions lag reality, and fighting perceptions will only trick the brain into perceiving you as the liar, even when you are the one telling the truth. (Of course, using deception to trick military adversaries into surrendering, panicking, etc. are obvious life-saving exceptions, but that is another subject…).
  • Create Unrealistic Expectations: Audience members who give you the benefit of the doubt will expect messages that appear to be lies to become reality at some point soon. In the examples above, many Afghan citizens would expect a virtuous ANSF and local government to be delivered in the near term along with livelihoods as lucrative as the drug trade. When something more or less promised is not delivered, disillusionment and mistrust intensify (disillusionment + mistrust = potential support for governance alternatives).
  • Aimed at a Mass Homogenous Audience: A tenant of behavioral/strategic communications is targeting audience segments who are accessible, amenable to persuasion, and closely related to the survival of undesirable behaviors. The Colombia case study I recently blogged about is a great example. The examples above are unsophisticated and target a mass homogeneous audience.
  • Divert Money from Potentially Powerful Policy Tweaks: A tenant of effective social marketing is changing bureaucratic processes along with public outreach to nudge adoption of desired behaviors. This approach recently became more mainstream after the best-selling book Nudge came out in 2008, but it has been being fine-tuned for decades in social marketing circles in the health and environment sectors. Getting back to the ANSF example above, if audience research revealed Afghan citizens have a low opinion of the ANSF, and, as a result, potential recruits do not join or quickly quit, implementing, enforcing, and advertising policy tweaks that make ANSF service more culturally acceptable would be a better use of limited funds. As one of my communications professors once said: “If you have a restaurant owner as a client and your client wants you to use public outreach to counter customer complaints about dirty bathrooms, strongly recommend hiring more janitors first.”
  • Divert Money from Potentially More Effective Communications Channels: Billboards are not an ideal communications channel in Afghanistan for two reasons. First of all, only 28 percent of the population is literate (43 percent of men and 13 percent of women), so most Afghan citizens cannot read them. Secondly, advertising is not accepted as an everyday part of life in Afghanistan. Unlike in the heavily consumer-based societies of the West where ads are taken for granted, Afghan citizens are not as used to seeing them (or at least until not after foreign troops arrived), and an unwritten contract between marketer and potential customer does not really exist. Mobile and radio, for example, would likely be more effective and, done right, would come across less Orwellian.

Most sadly, some of these types of blunders have been known for centuries. Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military strategist, wrote sometime around 500 BC the following in the Art of War:

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections.”

Tzu recognized hearts and minds as key to military victory. Over and over, he states forms of the following:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Just imagine what could have been possible if the U.S. military and its contractors in Afghanistan had been channeling Sun Tzu vs. Orwell’s 1984?

Editor’s note: In the interests of full disclosure, some of my past and present clients and employers do anti-corruption, anti-fraud, and good governance programming on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and domestic federal agencies, so I do not see the above issues through a military lens.

Case Study: Behavioral Communications Done Right

Editor’s Note: I am pretty upset about the U.S. military’s mind-boggling bungling of information operations (IO) and strategic communications programs, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here’s a positive post on psychological operations in Colombia to break up what will be a series of critiques (I have another post planned on why lying, except in battle planning in the spirit of Sun Tzu, is counterproductive to stabilization and democratization). Also, on a full disclosure note, a previous employer/client of mine worked with the Colombian government to run outreach campaigns in Colombia on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development, so I am beyond thrilled peace may be in reach for the Colombian people.

PsyOps done rightNews coming out of Colombia during the holiday season warmed your heart. The end of Latin America’s longest insurgency may be in reach, and the government’s heart-warming Christmas campaigns targeting Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla fighters (better known as the FARC) are a case study in how to do behavioral communications right.

The award-winning Christmas campaigns, taking place the last four years, are strategically designed to motivate guerrilla fighters to sneak out of the jungle and surrender their weapons at the time of year they are the most homesick and vulnerable. Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, in conjunction with the Lowe SSP3 ad agency, runs the annual campaign, which mixes advertising with social marketing’s promptsbarriers elimination, and influencer messaging. Moreover, the positively framed ads and holiday light references elicit feelings of happiness around the prospect of defections and remembrance of religious values.

The campaigns get better and better every year:

Here’s a YouTube video from this year’s campaign. You don’t even have to speak Spanish to be moved:


I could go on and on about how strategically sound the annual campaigns are in terms of conceptualization, design, implementation, and evaluation, but others, such as the World Economic Forum, have already done this.  I love the way the World Economic Forum ended its evaluation piece last year:

“Wider societal impact was achieved: In addition to the direct effect on guerrillas, the campaigns also had a broader impact: to some degree they changed the context for the conflict, and improved international perceptions of the country.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The campaigns, and all of the accompanying press and social media coverage, have had a unique ‘humanizing’ effect which led to wider shifts in perception and behavior:

  1. The campaigns made guerrillas increasingly feel they are still part of society, even though they have chosen to stay on the fringes. They made them feel wanted and nostalgic;
  2. Crucially, the campaigns changed the military’s disposition to welcome the demobilized “enemy” by reminding them that these combatants are as human as they are after all; and,
  3. By touching the hearts of ordinary Colombians, the three operations helped smooth the reinsertion into society process by destroying some barriers that existed against accepting demobilized guerrillas in their workplaces or in their neighbourhoods.

The over-riding message is that even in the most challenging of circumstances, communication can be a powerful tool of behavior change.”

Surely, there had to be a way to design similarly effective behavioral campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq respectfully eliciting the warm fuzzies via moderate Muslim traditions to achieve key objectives?