Saturday, December 27, 2008

Develop A Habit: A Learning Mindset

According to Howard Gardner, this is an obsolete idea:

Life can be divided into distinct periods such as an education period which is then followed by a work period.

Many, however, still mindlessly embrace this idea. If you embrace this obsolete idea then you risk the fate of what Alvin Toffler warned when he said that 'the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.'

Help in avoiding this fate is as close as the internet. The use of tools available via the internet can help develop the habit of lifelong learning. For the inquisitive mind, the internet is like an 'all you can eat' buffet. If anyone is interested in a resolution for the New Year, consider pledging to develop the habit of lifelong learning. While the options seem endless, here are a few spots to get you started.

Malcolm Gladwell has a great website: This site offers an archive of Gladwell's New Yorker articles and information about his books. You are sure to learn something.

Watch or listen to a TED Talk: TED is about spreading ideas and each talk only takes about 20 minutes.

Download and read a .pdf file. The Medici Effect by Frans Johanssen will help you learn to be creative. The entire book is available for a free download at The website offers a huge selections of manifestos by some great minds.

Use the websites of traditional media such as or

Use the websites of the new media such as or

Want to learn to play the guitar? There seems to be an unlimited selection of videos on with guitar players showing the chord sequences of songs.

Want to learn to cook? Check out Mark Bittman's wikipedia entry: There are several links at the bottom of the page to Bittman's presence on the web.

What to learn a foreign language?

Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are touting the value of learning to play bridge. They are funding programs that teach bridge to school age children. If you think that bridge would be good for the plasticity of your brain, download a free program at that will help you learn to play bridge.

Museums can be great for sparking creativity and learning. Many museums now have a presence on the web. If you want to examine the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, go the British Museum's site that lets you turn page by page through those notebooks:

Watch video on the internet. I learn by watching an unbelievable lineup of guests on The Charlie Rose Show. Episodes are offered at

Listen to a lecture from one of this nation's great universities. MIT offers what they call 'open courseware':

Many are available through itunes: including Stanford: and Yale:

Some universities have related centers and ventures that maintain a separate web presence. For example, Stanford's Entrepreneurship Corner: or The Harvard Business Review:

Many of these sites offer the option of subscribing to a podcast: If you want to learn something about economics, you might like

Truly, the options abound. It is up to each individual to decide what they are interested in learning about and then to find the teacher. The idea is to develop a mindset of learning. Always be learning. Committing to be a life long learner is simply a matter of habit.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Born To Learn

Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
Act IV, Scene IV
A plain in Denmark

What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.

Sure, he that made us with large discourse,

Looking before and after, gave us not

That capacity and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

Humans are designed to learn.

We are born to learn. Babies learn vast amounts of skills and behaviors, without the aid of school or direct instruction. They learn through their senses, through observation, and largely through practice, trial and error. I know way too many adults, fully capable, that have stopped learning. They are too busy, too tired, not interested, too afraid, too lazy. This is sad and I think creates great sadness as these individuals find themselves more and more out of sync with the realities and demands of our world.

We need to learn and learn and learn. Being a lifelong learner has never been so necessary, so exciting, and so easy. Every day one can travel to the great museums of the world, into concert halls or rock stadiums, to classes at great institutions of higher learning, into the minds and lives of teenagers posting to blogs, Twitter, or You Tube. I just don't understand the adult who has decided they are as good as they get or as necessary right now.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Design Rules Applied

I enjoy reading Garr Reynolds' blog and love his book, Presentation Zen. He recently posted this list of 10 design rules to keep in mind for graphic presentations.

10 design rules to keep in mind
(1) Communicate — don't decorate.
(2) Speak with a visual voice.
(3) Use two typeface families maximum. OK, maybe three.
(4) Pick colors on purpose.
(5) If you can do it with less, then do it.
(6) Negative space is magical — create it, don't just fill it up!
(7) Treat the type as image, as though it's just as important.
(8) Be universal; remember that it's not about you.
(9) Be decisive. Do it on purpose — or don't do it at all.
(10) Symmetry is the ultimate evil.

Because my mind loves to make bigger and more connections, I immediately saw that this list aptly applies to great writing as well, for oral presentation as well as to be read. Here is my interpretation of these rules for writing.

In creating an impactful and effective message, it is important to be direct and precise without being flowery and cute. If the speaker or writer expects the audience to spend time staying focused and open to the message, then communicating directly without decoration respects the audience.

Images and analogies provide a way to tap into the audience's well of experiential wisdom. Visual language helps the listener or reader place themselves in the message. Taking the audience to an idea through their experience or a place is a beautiful and powerful thing. Yet, be aware that this skill is not well-developed in all listeners. Some people derive great comfort and control from concreteness and exactness. I would recommend using nuance and imagery and data. Imagery moves the listener. Data sells.

Typeface is a mode of graphic representation. The analogous element in speaking or writing would be the tone. Pieces are better if they have the same overall tone throughout with maybe some change in tone for effect or mental break along the way. An old writing teacher called these digressions "windy roads," solidifying the point that they twist and turn, but they lead somewhere; they are purposeful.

Colors have great subconscious significance. Using color intentionally is merely a subset of the charge to use every element intentionally and respectfully, always conscious of and focusing on the audience needs and perceptions first and foremost.

Less is more is a simple yet powerful goal in all things. In writing there is a paradox. You must write clean but you must communicate fully so that the message is not left up to the interpretation of the audience. In order to effectively seed the message, you must control the message and its interpretation. Just enough words is the goal. The same former writing teacher advised, "When you think you have taken out all that you can, take out 10% more." I think it's hard, and tedious. Having a day or so between drafts helps one see what can go.

Negative space in an oral presentation is the pause. Allowing time for words to penetrate is essential. Creating space for the audience to listen then fully receive and think about the message in the moment is vitally important. The writer can create this space through the structure of the message, controlling the arc and pace, and by signaling recovery time through paragragh breaks and topic changes.

Being universal; remember it is not all about you. This is the best advice on the list. Think about it don't you tire quickly, and almost immediately, of people who drone on and on about themselves? The message should focus always on the audience needs, interests, concerns, values first. Having empathy and deep understanding of the audience is how to ensure you are creating a message that is appealing and authentic enough to be heard and considered.

Being intentional shows the care and consideration and diligence and passion one has toward any project. Being intentional takes great time and reflection and huge effort. The benefit is that being intentional leads to a more authentic, more personal, and more intimate message.

Symmetry in a message to me connotes balance or indecisiveness. As the listener or reader, I continue paying attention to a writer or speaker that honors my time and earns my trust. What I am looking for is his or her argument. I want to see and follow their reasoning and their passion. My sustained attention signals that I am willing and seek to be convinced. Whether the speaker or writer will prevail in convincing me is different, but I want them to use their time and mine in a diligent direct effort. I don't want to be presented with a balanced argument because in the end, the message is empty because I am right where I started, in a position of either-or, and I have wasted my time and effort. There needs to be a call to action which is not symmetrical.

(Treat the type as image - had to leave this one out. Any analogous ideas? Send them to me!)

Monday, December 15, 2008

Open Source Thinking

This post by David Gurteen of the Knowledge Cafe was too good to alter. It explains the big cultural shift in knowledge -- it is not power anymore. Sharing knowledge and using your knowledge to participate in something bigger than it and bigger than yourself is what the new climate is.

Open Source Thinking

To me this is at the heart of what web 2.0, enterprise 2.0 and km 2.0 are all about! Its a different mindset that many people still do not get or like to see. Open source thinking is sharing and remixing. You've got to set your ideas free, you can't control your content. It is a different mindset: "Ah darn, someone else has got there first" versus "Great, don't have to do that, I can build it on it!" For me, it's been the ability to think out loud with colleagues on ideas and topics, share presentations, etc.

Credit: Momentum by Alison Fine

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is Your Organization Smart?

The analogy waiting and wanting to be made is to ask is your organization smart? Just as asking the right question is paramount, understanding all of the embedded criteria in a direct question is paramount as well.

Using the Smart car as our focal point, one must specifically deconstruct "smart" in order to understand the question, or in effect, the many questions encoded in the word "smart":

  • intelligence -- does your organization use intelligence to derive solutions?
  • whimsy and personality -- does your organization's actions and responses delight and reveal your personality?
  • custom and made to order -- does your organization aim to provide person-specific solutions that conform to your values and mission as opposed to a one-size-fits-all type service?
  • just-in-time -- does your organization lumber along on rhythms that fit the organizational structure or are you sensitive and responsive to customer needs as they occur, or even proactively?
  • collaborative -- does your organization strive to co-create with your customers and collaborate internally across division boundaries and power hierarchies?
  • effective and efficient in a just enough way -- is your organization meeting the needs of the customer as described by your mission in a balanced and effective way?
  • open-minded and forward thinking -- is your organization constantly looking to make improvements in order to meet customer needs and actualize your mission? Are you striving to learn new ways and new things as an organization, all the time?
  • conversation starter -- is your organizational energy such that people want to be connected to you and know about what you are doing? Do they want to be in relationship to your work?

Is your organization smart? It seems like a simple and easy question. But, really, it is very hard to be disciplined and committed to developing a responsive, innovative, energized organization that is striving to be the best at what it does, and is working diligently to delight its customers.

So, you can't quite say yes, without a doubt, yours is a smart organization. The value is in knowing that options and criteria exist in order to work toward culture change and mission definition and alignment so that soon you can, in the future, regale yourselves at your journey to Smartville.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Smart, Open Your Mind, Forward Thinking, Passion

As I drove north on I-55, the sounds of George Thorogood's version of an old Chuck Berry tune played in the radio of my mind. Just one verse repeated over and over in my head: 'I met a German girl in England who was going to school in France. Said we danced the Mississippi at an Alpha Kappa dance. It wasn't me. No No No it wasn't me'. Enough of that, I fiddled with the car radio of the new car that I was driving. I had never turned on this radio before and wasn't quite sure how to work it. I picked up the local NPR station to hear talk of the financial woes of the Big Three car manufacturers. The green interstate sign that loomed overhead read 'Next Exit Nissan Dr'. Wow! What a combination of events I was experiencing. I thought of Thomas Friedman and concurred that the world is truly flat. My reality that day was that Jamie and I had just driven to Mississippi, near a Nissan factory, from our home in Memphis to purchase a German car with a Japanese engine that had been conceptualized in Switzerland and made in France. To add more globality, Thomas from the dealership where we had just bought the car took us to lunch for sushi at a Japanese restaurant. That is sort of what George Thorogood sang about but with cars instead of girls.

We had just bought, and I was driving, a Smart car. A 2009 Smart Fortwo Passion coupe, to be specific. Jamie ordered this car on the internet with a $99 deposit about 18 months earlier -- not a typical car purchase. This Smart was made to her specifications. Thomas at the Jackson, Mississippi Smart dealer called Jamie about a month ago to tell her it was on the way from Europe. Since Memphis does not have a dealership, we were assigned to the Jackson dealer.

Thinking about our new Smart car and the ills of the pantheon of American car makers, these ideas occur to me:

* Americans truly have a love affair with the automobile. People's reactions to this new Smart car and our own excitement with it makes this clear.
* The Big Three are begging for financial help from Washington. I guess that is because they are not selling enough cars. Yet we waited for this specific car, choosing not to purchase any other car, for 18 months.. While we were at the dealership in Jackson, people walked in to ask about the Smarts, only to be told all the cars on the lot were sold. I asked myself why I was not driving a new American car? I distinctly and viscerally remembered the last time I drove a new American car. It is when I rented a Pontiac last Spring. It was poorly designed, uncomfortable, and awkward, to put it as nicely as I can.
* Why did Jamie want this Smart car? It is whimsical, easy to park, 44 mpg, is just enough room and space, has good design, and is unique. And, it is just plain fun. When she ordered it, she had never even seen one in person. Yet, she picked out every detail to her liking from the website and bought it without a test drive or a kick of the tires. That is customer-focused.
* The Canton Mississippi Nissan Plant reminded me that the Big Three are not the only car companies manufacturing in the US. I assume that Americans work in that plant. I also suppose that if it came to it, that factory could be retooled for wartime use.
* The Smart brand tagline is 'open your mind'. It is displayed on their printed materials, strategically placed in large placards throughout the dealership, and on their promotional clothing. I read in the smart literature at the dealership that the arrow in the logo was for forward thinking. The model was called a Passion. To recap: 'smart' 'open your mind' 'forward thinking' 'passion'. I like all of that, a lot.
* Some say that the Smart car is not masculine enough for a man. While the new Smart is Jamie's car, let me tell you, it is not as emasculating as a mini-van. It might not be masculine but it sure draws the attention of women because it is cute, and radically different. It makes a statement on its own, bolstered by its brand monikers: smart, open your mind, forward thinking, passion.
* This Smart car is a conversation starter. Questions abound. The somewhat random facts below answer some of those questions. Everyone likes a story and this car has a story.
* The Smart project was originally started by Swatch. The Smart idea came from outside the auto industry from someone that knew nothing about the auto industry. Swatch understood that it was not enough to offer a watch that was mechanically functional. Function is a given, the base level of entry. It takes good design to set a product apart. Swatch had been successful with this concept in watches and wanted to give it a go with cars. Like a Swatch watch, the Smart is good looking, whimsical, and just plain fun. Like the Swatch it is daring and innovative.
* Swatch offered their idea to GM as a joint venture. GM turned it down. Swatch eventually collaborated with Daimler as the manufacturing partner. Daimler and Swatch have since divorced. I guess all is not storybook in Smartville. Daimler is now the sole owner.
* Although Daimler is a German company, The car is made just over the French border in Hambach, Lorraine, France. This area is traditionally industrial and has been depressed economically.
* It only takes about 4 hours to make a Smart car from start to finish in the factory in Hambach. Smarts can be manufactured in four hours because it just requires assembling component parts which enter the Hambach factory from smaller factories that are adjacent to the Smart factory. These supply factories are not owned by Daimler. Krupp and Siemens, among others operate these adjacent plants and supply the components for the Smart as they are needed. Collaboration and sharing of information between these suppliers and Smart is a requirement for success.
* Because the Smart cars are made to order, the actual Smart factory has no extra parts. Components are supplied just in time and in the order needed from the adjacent factories.
* The Smart has a 3 cylinder, 1 liter engine made by Mitsubishi that provides 70hp.
* If you tire of the color of your Smart, then you may change out the injection molded plastic panels that are made by Dynamit-Nobel using technology developed by General Electric.

For almost a week now, we have been fielding questions about the Smart from the smiling people whose paths cross ours. It is the car that makes them smile. Maybe people just like a good jolt of whimsy, especially in unexpected places. We already have a collection of stories. My son was pulled over by the bike-mounted police who questioned whether the Smart was even street legal. Jamie got a note on her windshield from a local reporter asking for an interview about the car. Like most of the folks that I see when in the Smart, I am all smiles and thumbs up about this car! I like the smiles this Smart puts on our faces as we roll around town. And, I like the smiles coming toward me from others. It is just plain fun!

Our Smart experiences over the last week, make me realize that many of the themes that Reverb helps address can exhibit themselves in the most unexpected places. It sometimes seems to be everywhere if one just pays attention. I work at being observant of things that are hiding in plain sight. To realize these themes in my everyday life is rewarding. It is exciting and encouraging to see Smart incorporate these themes with success. Remember: smart, open your mind, forward thinking, passion in all things!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Creating Value

As we continue to shift through the new realities - the economic recession, new technology, etc - it becomes apparent to me that creating value in who we are, in what we do, and in what we choose to invest ourselves and our time is key. To me, creating value is inextricably tied to creating or connecting to a deep sense of meaning. Reconnecting to a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose, and a sense of efficacy will give us that sense of stability, familiarity, and comfort that is disrupted by the increasing pace of life and economic uncertainties.

To create a sense of value in who we are, each one of us should objectively analyze our relevance to the current reality. Take stock of our skills, our attitudes, our mindsets. Are they in sync with the needs of the job I am asked to do? Are my technology skills strong enough to compete with the younger people in my environment who seem to have been born texting and googling? If not, how can I quantify the value I have and the value I place for myself on my contributions? Maybe we have work to do in this area to make ourselves more valuable and to make our contributions more relevant and sought after.

To create a sense of meaning in what we do, each of us should intuitively examine if we love it, if we find meaning in how we invest our time and effort. I often talk with people who have lost their sense of meaning in their work. I think being able to focus on the mission and big picture of the work of the organization can make the relevance of the compartmentalized work that each of us does more meaningful and more connected to a purpose that we can value and draw inspiration from. Learning to see the big picture and to value effort toward making a vision become a reality is highly motivational and inspirational.

If one can't love or connect to what we are investing our time in, then finding a way to understand our effort as a path to a different pursuit makes the current part of the journey necessary. What do I need to learn from this experience to carry with me, to put in my toolbox, for what I am working towards doing at a later time? Understanding or having a sense of trajectory of one's own life makes each experience and each encounter of potential value and meaning.

I call what I have described living more intentionally, with more strategic awareness. Many, including Ellen Langer and Jon Kabot-Zinn in their writings, refer to this as mindfulness. Developing mindfulness has taken a lot of time and effort but has increased the joy I receive from working hard and learning new things, and even dealing with difficult people and difficult situations.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Schools Out of Sync

Here is the presentation that I gave in conjunction with All Kinds of Minds at the Tennessee Association of Independent Schools Biennial Conference in Nashville. There were 14 different schools represented in my workshop, and it is amazing how everyone is grappling with the same issue: how to be relevant to the 21st century.

Schools Out of Sync: Teaching and Learning in a Global Society TAIS 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Wanting Change

Election 2008 will take a momentus place in history. It was amazing to see throngs of people gathered to celebrate Obama's victory not just in Grant Park, but all of over the world. People voted, in record numbers, for change. People want change. Millions of people actually became in engaged in a change movement.

This whole campaign cycle has been amazing and so will be Obama's attempt to bring change to one of the most entrenched, self-aggrandizing, complacent, complex organizations ever - our government. We have become numb to a sense of civic responsibility and service.

What will he bring? Although we lack specific details, President-elect Obama brings a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to having a government that serves the people, a government that creates opportunity for people to achieve all that they are capable of, and a hope that we can reclaim for the United States a proud position in the world as Great Leader in ingenuity, innovation, and inspiration.

How could we not invite a renewed sense of our founding values into our governance at this time?

Impeccable with your Word

The four guiding principles of The Four Agreements by Don Miquel Ruiz came to mind as I watched the election returns. Senator Obama, either naturally or in a studied way, certainly applies these principles. I have been using these seemingly simple guides for about four years myself and it is amazing how they focus your behavior, your thoughts, and your attitudes. I like them because they are simple, straightforward and inwardly focused. They are about, for me, developing emotional intelligence and discipline.

1. Be Impeccable With Your Word
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don't Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.

3. Don't Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

4. Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tangential Topics to SAIS Presentation

I touched on all of these topics or used them as deep background thinking in my presentation at Southern Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference this past weekend:

Alan Greenspan on Education


Important Questions: 1) What do you do that brings you joy? 2) What are you good at? and 3) Does the world need you to do it?

Learning Between the Lines

The Risk of Mediocrity

Managing Uncertainty

Niceness Hurts the Organization

SAIS 2008 "Developing A Whole New Mind"

One of the most influential books that I have read in the last three years is Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. I had the pleasure of sharing how I have used his "six senses" as a leadership development and innovation tool with school leaders. You can view, print, or bookmark the presentation here:

Developing "A Whole New Mind" At Your School SAIS 2008


SCRIBD is tool used to post presentations and documents on the web. It is also a community of content producers who want to share their work, to learn from each other. It is easy to use, reduces emailing presentations individually, stores documents for you so that you can bookmark a document instead of downloading. Downloading and printing are also available.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


I love when the messages that are out in the universe trying to reach you finally catch up to you. I regularly eat at various Vietnamese restaurants, especially in cooler weather, because I love pho, and I love hoping that a little wisdom will be imparted to me via the fortune cookie.

I also love a calendar that gives daily advice or food for thought. My 2008 calendar is Tom Peter's Re-Imagine! It is full of incredible snippets for the brave, imaginative warrior like I am.

Today's advice is this:

Opportunity now lies,
not in perfecting routines,
but in taking advantage of instability --
that is, creating opportunities of the
daily discontinuity of the turbulent marketplace.

I don't think that Tom Peters, as smart as he is, could forsee the market crash that we are experiencing, but I love that his advice is so fitting. Here is my interpretative application of this advice from the master for finding opportunity in instability:

1) Get over it and deal with the reality at hand. Start to talk and plan for decreased customers and a cash poor operating environment. This applies to a manufacturing plant as much as it does to a church or a school or the neighborhood deli. Look for the opportunities you have to change the conversation with your customers to one that focuses on the value that you provide.

2) Reign in account receivables. I am just starting with a new client that is generous to a fault. He extends credit to distributors and waits more than 90 days to receive his payment. All the while, his suppliers have their hands out. He is getting squeezed by his own doing and it is draining him unnecessarily because he has to worry about cash needs too much. When I was the GM of a hotel, one of the innovations that I introduced to that system was to pay the first room night including taxes upon making a reservation. All of a sudden, no-shows went down dramatically. And the cancellation policy within 72 hours was a penalty of the first night's stay, which we had already collected. It is especially dangerous to get strung out in cash positions in this cash poor environment.

3) Instead of perfecting routines or the same old-same old way of doing things, the current environment is a perfect excuse to pull the trigger on the things that you might only have been thinking about. For example, there are tremendous cost savings to be had in communicating to your customers through technology that is by and large FREE. Online publishing and strategic use of email far exceeds producing and sending paper documents. Evites are part of daily life, why can't they be used for institutional life. I just received an Evite to my college reunion and I can look to see who is coming and RSVP at the click of a button. No telling the hard dollars saved in printing much less the design effort and stuffing and sealing efforts. I am sure on the other end, many steps are decreased in creating guest lists etc because the database is built from customer responses. You will save in paper costs, labor costs, mailing costs, and message ignored costs if you go paperless. Extending your organization down the status quo path when the market fundamentals are so dramatically new and unusual is dangerously naive. Dramatic change in fundamentals requires a re-evaluation and re-consideration of all previous assumptions and directions.

4) Invest in learning and innovation. Now is the time to find ways for everyone in your organization to be able to give more and to be able to work more effectively and collaboratively as a team. Also, to create an environment where employess feel they receive more in the form of meaning in their jobs helps fulfill their spirit when raises might not happen for a few years. Together, there is more leverage in coordinated effort than in many uncoordinated efforts. We all with have to get used to accomplishing more with less. I anticipate expectations of service and communication and value will dramatically increase while resources for expansion in programs and personnel will decrease for the next few years. Asking how and what we can do that is more with less will be a fruitful conversation for all organizations to have.

There are great opportunities in instability. Only those that actively engage in the exploratory process of discerning the needs creating by this new instability will find them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Create The Future You Want

I had the distinct joy last week of hearing Cory Booker speak to over 900 leaders in my city of Memphis. Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey who has set out to rescue his city from urban decay and reposition Newark as a world class, family friendly place to live. Mayor Booker spoke eloquently and passionately about what it takes to influence change in an entrenched, tolerant, complacent environment that suffers from a mindset that says this is the way we do things here. "The problem," he said, "is that people suffer from lack of imagination and are paralysed by fear."

The solution for Mayor Booker's efforts in Newark, and for any leader attempting to create a culture of innovation and creative progress, is "to have a clear vision, bold ideas, and the willingness to work long and hard despite the many, many people who do not believe that it is possible or necessary."

The engine of his change machine is instilling a sense of personal responsibility for the future in each individual. He called for the citizens of Newark to stop tolerating less than -- less than in their school system, less than in the crime occurences, less than in the quality of city services, less than in the fabric of their neighborhoods.

Mayor Booker inspires hopeful action, "The current times - despite economic difficulties; despite fear -- are an opportunity for us to show our mettle, our strength. That is what we, as Americans, do. We endure. We invent. We commit to values that our current realities show that we have lost sight of."

Mayor Booker envisioned a better future for Newark. This was his guiding vision as he set out to reinvent his hometown:

Newark will set a national standard for urban transformation
by marshaling its resources to achieve security,
economic abundance and an environment
that is nurturing and empowering for families.

Booker carries a slip of paper with this vision statement on it in his pocket. In essence, he wears this vision and works to create it in every action and interaction.

The enemy of bold imagination and bold action, Booker says, is incrementalism. "You just won't get where you want to be my trying to retool irrelevant and outmoded ideas and systems. Better," Mayor Booker advises, "is to work backward from the vision and let the process of meeting a challenge and problem solving flow downward from the vision. Life is too short," he says, "to not know what you stand for and not to believe in your ability to accomplish your dream."

If ever you get the chance to hear Newark Mayor Cory Booker, go early and sit in the front. It is an inspiring experience. Go, not because you care about urban planning, but because you believe in dreams and because you believe, as he does, that our greatest talent and strength and human desire is to be creative.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Culture of Wisdom

In this time of economic stagnation and uncertainty, it is of utmost importance that organizations of all types (even if you think you are the type that doesn't need to) need to start the conversation about value: Are we offering value? Do our customers perceive what we do as value-added? Critical to survival in economically stressed times will be to offer value, convenience, and efficiency. Internally, effective and efficient management will be of supreme importance as organizations will have to do more with less for potentially a long time.

A good way to enter this conversation is to start to talk about what it means to develop a culture of wisdom. A culture of wisdom has three key ingredients:

shared knowledge (arrived at by the discipline of reflection)
shared ethics
a valiant sense of responsibility to self, to peers, to organization's mission.

A wise culture leverages the knowledge of each individual to create shared organizational knowledge. In addition, a wise culture actively creates new knowledge of various forms. They learn, learn, learn all the time in order to increase their knowledge, their efficiencies, and their effectiveness.

A wise culture is driven by shared ethics of what it means to work effectively with the other members of the organization. In a school, this would include working effectively with peers, administrators, students, parents, and community partners.

The shared ethics would also extend to the commitment that each individual makes to learning to improve their contribution to the whole effort on a daily basis. Learning and improving and sharing with others becomes a deep personal responsibility. Thus, everyone is a leader in a wise culture as each strives to model optimal learning and sharing habits and behaviors.

In managing or guiding a wise culture, management should focus on creating the future by growing the systems and individuals of the organization to make that future a reality. Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, says, "management's job is to teach, teach, teach." He says, "Management's goal in teaching is to grow the future of Costco."

Jim Sinegal's belief about planning:

You have to schedule it. You have to plan the opportunity to think about your business and plan what you're going to do. Otherwise you're just a hamster running on a treadmill; you're never going to get anywhere. You've got to schedule it. Strategic planning is an important part of running any business and the more so for businesses that operating in multiple states and countries.

A big part of that planning, which is an often and ongoing thing, not a twice a decade thing, is to plan the learning that you are going to infuse your culture with so as to create a culture of wisdom.

21st Century Standards

If we value them, we will learn to foster them and measure them. This article from Education Week, "States Press Ahead on '21st Century Skills'" by Catherine Gewertz tells about what some schools are doing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

21st Century Survival Skills

The work of Thomas Friedman and Daniel Pink does a great job in providing evidence that a new world, one that is fast and dynamic, is here to stay. They make the case that we indeed have experienced a massive paradigm shift to a global, interconnected, technology-driven way of communicating and interacting as people and as organizations. As a result, all types of individuals and organizations are struggling to respond and stay in sync, to remain relevant. Some do this willy nilly and others are trying to devise plans such as personal learning plans, organizational learning plans, or sustainability plans. The basis for these plans is this question: What will it take to survive in a new, fast, flat world?

A recent article in ASCD, "Rigor Redefined" by Tony Wagner, outlines 7 critical survival skills for us, as adults, trying to be in sync and us, as teachers, charged with preparing students for their challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. It is worth assessing where we are in relation to these skills:

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
2. Collaboration and Leadership
3. Agility and Adaptability
4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
7. Curiosity and Imagination

How are we further evolving these skills in ourselves?
How are we explicitly teaching these skills to our students?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Managing In a Recession

"It is time for us to stand and cheer the doer, the achiever, the one who recognizes the challenge and does something about it." - Vince Lombardi

This quote seems timely for the current treacherous environment. I think the most natural reaction is this: because I am not directly involved in the capital markets, I will steer clear, stay away, keep on keeping on. I don't think any business in any industry will be able to address this current crisis in this innocent way because of the tremendous ripple effect it will have on consumers.

The hard part is ascertaining what to do and when. Some things seem obvious and essential.

Everything is on the table. Bring all operations to the surface - the strategic plan, the marketing plan, the advancement plan, the learning plan, the growth plan, the succession plan and question all of the assumptions that fueled these plans.

Investing in human capital in appropriate. Build the capacity and expectations of each person working for you. In analyzing the plans, a combination of defensive and offensive thinking will be vital. Plan for at least a 20% decrease in customers. But, don't just shrink accordingly. A better tact is more nuanced. Find efficiencies in everything. If you don't outright cut some things, then find out how you can get more out of the outlay. Look from the smallest routine item like coffee, drinks, and snacks which were benevolently available to energy efficiencies in plant management to combining tasks and roles so that much more is accomplished with the labor force that is in tact. Been waiting to go paperless? Now it is the time to highly leverage free, creative, paperless communications - more intimate, higher quality, more convenient for sender and receiver, file-able and retrievable.

Attracting new customers is vital because of the loss of customers that will occur. Finding ways to build relationships and add value in ways that do not cost is very important. Quality, supportive, authentic relationships with our customers is paramount. Constantly adding value above and beyond expectations will keep people buying from you. Email is free, phone calls are free, handwritten notes cost next to nothing. Build relationships. Everyone in the organization should become relationship savvy and relationship sensitive. Reach out. Be visible. Have voice that illustrates your value.

Innovate. Now is the time to invest in distinguishing systems, distinguishing messages, and distinguishing products. Customers will become more value conscious than ever before. They will be searching to spend wisely and to become involved with organizations that are efficient, effective, and progressive. Spending money for less will feel painful, wasteful to customers. Innovation is the antithesis of inaction, staying out of the way, steering clear. Innovation is about intentional, disciplined re-thinking, re-considering, re-strategizing based on changes in the current environment. Innovation is essential like never before.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Searching for Familiarity

In listening to the post-debate coverage, opinion writer David Brooks uttered a phrase that captures the ethos of the age as well as the current crisis: we are all searching for familiarity. In dealing with this financial crisis, everyone is searching for a model, an analogy, something familiar to help us understand the details of the unraveling of our economy. But, there is nothing familiar because we are dealing with interconnected, highly leveraged complexity that is completely new, global, dynamic, technically very sophisticated.

Beyond the financial markets, we are all searching for familiarity. And, it eludes us in more things everyday. The rate of technological innovation renders even those of us who are trying to stay relevant out of sync at times. Managing the speed of change, the volume of new information, and the complex interrelated nature of everything is unfamiliar. It used to be if you just didn't make a mistake, if you just didn't offend anyone, life was good, manageable. If you just managed your life and your business in the comfortable, familiar way, you were fine. No more. The current dynamic environment is dynamic and unfamiliar. Competition in all industries, from healthcare to consumer goods to education is fierce. The consumer is more educated and discerning than ever before, armed with scads of information and comparison data one click away. Inaction is a decision that widens the gap between your organization and contenders in the marketplace.

Where can we find the comfort of familiarity when we are chronically surrounded by the demands of this dynamic environment? I think the answer is in focusing on the process we use to manage complexity and to make decisions. We have to rely on our values and a strong sense of our strengths to lead us to find a path through information and considerations to clarity. The leader needs to understand that he or she is leading into unchartered territory and become comfortable with the discernment and decision-making process of his or her team. Here are a few critical tips;

1) surround yourself with smart, industrious people;
2) surround yourself with people who think differently than you, who will bring out often unconsidered perspectives and challenge assumptions; learn to highly value differences for the stretch they inspire;
3) clearly define and express your values. Use them as lens in making decisions;
3) take in information from sources you trust. Ask your team to actively engage in broad learning as well; share and transfer knowledge among your organization;
4) engage in invigorating pre-decision debate and analysis. Encourage deep thinking and deep discussion in order to fully consider all perspective and concerns; Be concerned if this is not happening;
5) start at the end: what do we want to accomplish? what values do we want our decision to reflect? how does this decision meet the needs of our customers and distinguish us from our competitors?

While we may all be dealing with issues that are unfamiliar and situations that are completely new and unanticipated, a robust process of critical thinking, strategic alignment, and creative problem solving that holds our performance outcomes as the top value should be something we can hold dear as completely familiar.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Managing Uncertainty

The current plight and panic of global financial markets is unlike any event ever in world history. I have yet to hear from all of the sideline analysis any true explanation and comprehension of the complexity and scale of this current crisis. Needless to say, there are no models from which to extrapolate logical and comprehensive solutions. It is quite possible that we will be faced with a great deal of uncertainty in our economic futures for some time to come.

It is helpful to understand how the brain perceives uncertainty. According to Australian neuroscientist David Rock, author of "The Neuroscience of Leadership," the brain perceives uncertainty as a major threat. Threats are equated by the brain with pain. So, the current financial crisis is causing our brains to experience great pain, which causes the limbic system to become hypervigilant, activating its fight or flight stress reaction. The impact of this stress reaction on the brain, especially if endured for a long term, is quite dangerous. Stress and anxiety severely limit out capacity to engage in effective cognitive activities. In other words, stress and anxiety limit our abilities and capacities to think, eliminate our ability to be creative in finding solutions, and cause our normal ability to manage the complexity of our work and of our daily lives to falter.

In this current crisis, it is imperative as leaders that we increase our abilities to think, communicate, and problem solve. Others are looking to us specifically to make some sense of the uncertainty by placing it in the context of our daily work and our daily lives. They are looking to us as leaders to ease their pain, thereby steadying their ability to think and manage their work and daily lives.

How to do this?
Here are a few suggestions:

1) manage your physical needs diligently - good nutrition, good hydration, physical exertion, and sleep. It is a great mistake to turn to anesthesizng pursuits (drugs, food, alchohol, gambling, etc) to ease psychic pain.

2) limit your intake of information to two limited time periods during the day - once in the morning, once in the evening. Fueling your own sense of pain and panic is counterproductive to your call as leader and chief strategist. Stop spectating and start thinking.

3) start to analyze the scenarios and plan for the worst case. As painful and distasteful as it is to have to rethink current and future plans, it is imperative to take a hard look at not only the plans for the future, but how to survive the current declining situation. Pining over lost opportunity for the future can easily distract you from managing defensively in this current environment.

4) assemble your team and get down and dirty with the hard questions. Key questions would be things like what are current receivables and how can we decrease those? What are our current credit needs and how to manage those? How can we protect our current customer base - both size and volume? What sort of reduction in our current customer base can we comfortably tolerate? How can we maintain and strengthen all of our organizational relationships during this time? Where can we restrain spending without hindering our mission? How can we increase capacity and impact in the system now as to rise to new levels of impact and efficiency?

5) pay attention to innovation. Once the current environment becomes less panicked and somewhat stable, customers will appear again with an awareness of value that we have never seen. Sensitive to the difficulty of amassing capital and the possibility of hard and fast lost, customers will choose to spend only for incredible perceived value. Don't wait until the economy recovers to address your value offerings because it will be too late. Make sure you are incorporating all of the pain of these current markets to make your products and services of great value to your customers - new, different, above and beyond value.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Evolving Beyond Niceness

Evolving beyond niceness means that we develop organizational cultures and teams that value productive work and results in addition to civil and fulfilling relationships with work mates. The first step in doing this, in my opinion, is understanding what we are trying to accomplish when we are nice and polite.

The origin of politeness theory can be found in the work of sociologist Erving Goffman and his 1963 article, "On Face Work." Goffman observed that in verbal social interactions, speakers try to protect their identities and social standing by "saving face." Face is broken down by Goffman into two different categories. Positive face is the desire of being seen as a good human being, maintaining a positive self image. Negative face is the desire to remain autonomous or powerful. Acting to save face, therefore, is the desire to be appreciated and protected. Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson furthered Gottman's observations and developed a full politeness theory.

Understanding that protection and safety is an essential human need, how do we evolve the communication within our teams to move beyond politeness? I think the answer lies in building committment to a common goal and creating the dynamics that allow each member to become vulnerable. It is in the process of strategizing and problem-solving toward the common goal, that members should be able to shift their focus from self-protection to vulnerability, tapping into whatever methods of problem-solving they offer. It is also of critical importance that each member show great acceptance and respect for the process of developing ideas and decisions so that a team member is not encouraged back into a self-protecting posture by virtue of his or her ideas and opinions being ridiculed. So, niceness and politeness, is replaced by critical thinking, respect, and process.

With time, each team member should feel full satisfaction from the collective work of the team and the individual problem-solving contributions that he or she has made. This sense of accomplishment accompanied by the process of reaching full decisions is infinitely more fulfilling that self-protecting politeness. It is the productive work of selflessness.

Individual members who lack the awareness or perception of inter-personal dynamics, the shared sense of mission, or the patience for the process of thinking as a team will have difficulty in shifting their interactions toward intimate teamwork.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Niceness Hurts the Organization

Getting real in what you do as an organization and how you do it often requires a change in your organizational culture. Changing organizational behavior and organizational mindset is imperative to creating high performance teams that are able to create and accomplish highly relevant goals and objectives. One of the most common starting points that I find sadly pervasive in many organizations is a culture of niceness that weighs down most all group (more than 2 people) discussions. The effect is lack of realism, lack of team cohesion, and lack of enthusiasm, lack of real direction, lack of an ability to align to a changed business environment.

A culture of niceness is one where members are perfunctory. They show up at meetings, they pay attention, they offer support when it is safe, and keep quiet when they disagree. Often, they offer their reservations or add-ons to a discussion among their peers long after the meeting is over, completely defusing the effectiveness of the leader and completely eliminating the possibility of the group working as an effective team with collective knowledge and collective thinking abilities.

The result is that what is most likely to get done is more of the same because it is comfortable and the grooves of behavior (we know how to do this, we have always done it this way, this is easy for me because I don't have to think about it) are well worn. This can really threaten an organization's relevance and sustainability. It can also dampen the heft of the work environment to the point of being rather mind numbing for those interested in generative, robust work.

Why do we value niceness? Obviously we value niceness because we want to have pleasant, friendly connections with people. Because we spend so many hours at work, it is common to seek to fill a need for friendship, connection, and intimacy with our work associates. Most people, by nature, seek harmony and avoid conflict like the plaque. Most people value saying something nice and acceptable over the truth - think of the old scenario of do you like my hair?
And, you don't but you say that you do because you don't want to hurt someone's feelings.

A couple of things must be brought to collective understanding in cultures that are wrought with niceness. First, why we are here? We are here to fulfill the mission or the business objectives collectively. The member is personally there because he or she offers skills toward that end. First and foremost, it must be understood that we as members of this organization have a defined, mission-driven job to do. That has to come first over all inter-personal needs. How can we best accomplish that job? Through effective teamwork and effective leadership. Leaders must lead with vision, consistency, clarity, and boldness. Teams need to be cohesive, collectively skilled and motivated, and effective at working together. This takes full engagement from all, honesty, and collaboration. If you are not sharing information for the team to utilize in fulfilling the mission, then you are hurting the team and the organization as a whole. If you are sharing your ideas and opinions outside the group, then you are limiting the ability and opportunity for the group to cohese and develop thinking skills and collective knowledge. People engage in these behaviors routinely and often without awareness because they value their selves, their own personal comfort, more than they do their team or the mission: It's just a job. Or, that makes me uncomfortable. Or, someone else will bring that up. Or, I didn't feel comfortable saying that. This behavior is an indication of a lack of skill, a lack of trust, disengagement, lack of buy in or understanding of the mission, and/or lack of leadership. Most often it is a combination of many of these things. Conflict is healthy, productive, and necessary for an organization to make full, enlightened, well thought out decisions. It is not the job of the leader to think for everyone. He or she absolutely needs others full input and diverse perspectives.

If this looks and sounds familiar, you have some work to do in managing your organizational culture and climate in order to develop effective, reliable, high performance communication and teams. Why bother? Read that mission statement again. Think about what the organization is paying you to do and the trust they have put in you to do it: Is it to be comfortable or to deliver results?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ground the Strategic Plan in Realism

A good strategic plan is grounded in realism and born of imagination. An organization's efforts are wasted in formulating a strategic plan if they do not take the necessary, and often painful, first steps of understanding fully who we are, what we do, how well we do what we say we do, and the current environment in which we are operating on a local, regional, national and global level. You also have to ask, do future customers want what we do, how we do it? And, you best get real in your answers. Only when you bring an honest assessment of these elements to the planning table are you able to design a way forward. Knocking the sugar-coating from the environment and actually objectively quantifying your current state of operations and affairs is critical to planning for your future.

Using a completely different set of skills, planning for the future requires imagination and fancy, as well as critical thinking abilities. You must be able to imagine what it will take for your organization to find alignment with the world as it will be in 6 months to two or three years from now. Someone on your team must be able to see the future that you will plan to create. You must see it whole and work backwards from there to fill in the action steps and time table. If you take the opposite approach and try to build the future by extending from where you are now, you have perpetuated, very logically, the status quo. Unless you can argue convincingly that the status quo is relevant in the changed and ever-changing environment of the future, your logical efforts are suicide.

Forget about the staid and steady 3 to 5 year strategic plan that is neat and laid out and incrementally wise because market forces do not shower that sort of stability on anybody in any industry anymore. For a modern, viable, realistic strategic plan for the 21st century, know from the onset that it must be dynamic and flexible, pliable and expandable in order for your organization to respond to changes in your industry, your customer base, the economy, technology, etc, etc.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Realism is Source of Good Decision

One vital and radical move toward better decision making is to foster realism. Too often organizations are guilty of looking at the world the way that they would like it to be, chronically engaging in a sort of happy, comfortable group think or grand organizational delusion. This can be amplified and perpetuated in cases where most people in the organization have little or no contact with people in the industry outside the walls of their workplace. People inside organizations often think we all love each other and love what we do, so customers will love us, too. It's not that simple or that "all-about-me-the-peppy-provider."

Customers makes decisions about your product and what it does for them. Customers search for products (and services) that fill a need. It is all about them, the customer. Customers buy your product (or service) based on its quality and performance in meeting their needs. So, the organization's thinking must start here: customer first; quality always. Ask yourself and those in your organization realistically, what does it take to accomplish customer first, quality always?

What is needed in order to reach and support good strategic decision making is looking at the world the way it is, even when the reality of the way the world is conflicts with our desires, comfortable level, current knowledge base, and values about how things should be. Organizations, which are wrought with group think for many reasons, have to remember that the day they start situating things for the comfort and benefit of the people inside the organization is the day they start to go out of business. The reason is because customer needs and customer comfort has to come first. The auto companies and the airlines should be able to sound off on this paradigm shift from tremendous painful experience. This benefit mentality, which is complex and complicated, coupled with a complacency which denies reality and a sense of entitlement, has just about killed off all of the auto and airline mainstays - the very people who forever considered themselves invincible. Where are they now? Undergoing a tremendous, public, expensive, extensive reality check.

Organizations with leaders who can infuse reality based on the now, and those willing to learn to do it, will be the victors, especially as we head into strange new realities and market alignments that are coming as our bubbly economy adjusts. And check this reality: don't think because you are not a airline or auto company or because you are not big that it does not matter. Customers are savvy and in touch with their needs, and they vote with their dollars. Customers use the same analytical framework whether they are looking for a doctor, a dentist, a car, a lawyer, a new vacuum, a college, or a preschool. Don't kid yourself or let the people in your organization cloud reality. I heard a organization leader say, unfortunately more than once, "we are not a real business." Reality check: then what are you, besides deluded?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sustainable Decision Making

One of the hardest things in my view that a leader has to do is to change or alter something that he or she has put into place. This makes continual progress and innovation especially difficult for a manager or leader who has been in place for a long period of time because they have put so much into place over time. Leaders with longevity can become very attached to the status quo, as if they were nearing the end of a finish line, or reaching a finish point or final destination. This is a mental trickbag because the last thing a good businessman wants is to reach the end of their business. There is not an end and should always be new beginnings. This realization alone, or lack of it, is the source of much exhaustion and frustration for many, many leaders.

Good leaders make decisions with tremendous deliberation: input from inside the organization, analysis of outside trends and movement, worst case scenario analysis, cost/benefit analysis, cost of doing nothing analysis, and more. Because much time and effort is expended, leaders become emotionally attached to the decisions they make. Becoming emotionally attached to a decision itself or a course of action deemed strategic at the time, makes it hard, as writers say, "to kill the darlings." And, it is "killing the darlings" that makes a leader able to continually stay in touch and aligned with current market needs and conditions.

A better tack, in my opinion, is to become emotionally attached to the decision-making process, not the decision or outcome itself. One must become not only emotionally attached and energized by the decision-making process; he or she must trust the process, and work to make their decision-making processes full and expansive and trust-worthy. Tweaking the ends and outs of how decisions are derived, what input is considered, what input is customarily not considered but should be, etc. is invaluable to a leader who wants to be at the helm of a sustainable organization. Past decisions should reflect the best available thinking available based on input, time, and talent at the time. Thus, a leader should reflect and learn from the past, but not be wed to it.

Become wed to thought leadership and forward thinking that continually drives improvement, innovation, efficiencies, and downstream leadership in each department of your organization. Model "killing the darlings" for each member of each department of your organization in order to keep the place rolling strong.

What needs to be decided today to keep this business competitive, relevant, sustainable, on course, an industry player?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Mr. Friedman's newest book - Hot, Flat, and Crowded - rallies the cry for America to become the leader and innovator as only Americans can be in the new field of ET - energy technology. Friedman predicts that the ET boom will be akin to the IT (information technology) boom in that it will be a game-changer. More than that, Friedman sees ET as the ticket to the United States' sustainability and respectability in the world.

Article from Wired magazine on Friedman's newest book: Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Thomas Friedman on Charlie Rose (video)

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Bold, Fresh Perspective at RISD

On September 12, John Maeda will be inaugurated as the 16th president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). RISD was founded in 1877 as one of the country's first colleges to offer a combined education in arts and design. RISD is one of only 35 colleges and universities that offer dual art and academic accreditation - see Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design (AICAD).

While Maeda has been a university professor, he has never worked in education administration. He is a designer. He is best know for design the Reebok "Timetanium."

In a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, "Design for Learning: RISD Gets a New Type of President," Maeda admits, "I don't know how to do this job! But, I know how to learn! I love to learn!" How refreshing that a university would tap someone who is creative and industrious and not wed to the "we have always done it this way" mindset. He can't be because he has never done college presidency before. RISD is setting themselves up for an organizational growth mindset and freshness and new perspective that comes with naivete. There is real courage and boldness to this choice that will yield a leg-up on innovation.

What does Maeda bring? The succinct answer is his mind and his energy. Art is about learning to see and problem-solving, in that order. One must be able to see clearly and anew what a problem is. To do this one has to ask obvious questions to tease out entrenched, subliminated assumptions and beliefs. One also has to be comfortable with developing a sense of what if..., why not?... and imagine....all stances of inquiry that lead to vision. Artists/designers make things go together, sometimes loosely connected yet exciting things. More organizations should consider this sort of fresh boldness that is much more likely to lead to innovation and renewal.

Mr. Maeda is a consummate blogger. Check out his blogs:
Our (and Your) RISD
The Laws of Simplicity
Simplicity at the MIT Media Lab
Technohumanism/Technology Review MIT

The Reebok Strucess by John Maeda

Monday, September 1, 2008

Are We Going To Abilene?

Everyone needs cool friends. Cool friends is Tom Peters' term, and one can get lost investigating his list of cool friends. Were I to have a list like he does! I, however, was meeting with one of my cool friends the other day and, as often happens, he introduced just what I needed to further my thinking on my thought project du jour. I have been thinking a lot about meeting culture: if it is good or bad, effective or wasteful, necessary or ancillary.

Here is what my cool friend offered me: The Abilene Paradox. Here is the story that it comes from:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. His daughter says, "Sounds like a great idea." His son-in-law, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it." The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The son-in-law says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The daughter says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored. The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted.

I didn't know its name, but I recognized this behavior from the work I have been doing around meetings. Why do we allow the need for a harmonious group to trump the need to make sound, full, focused decisions? The answer is: because we are human. So, the strategy is to learn to recognize this tendency or need in our meetings and groups, and to learn to guard against it so that better decisions that further the mission of the organization are derived.

Some questions to use as a start:

Do we value honesty and truthfulness?
Are we inclusive of multiple perspectives?
Do we attach ideas and perspectives to their owners in an unhealthy way? (A version of Kill the Messgenger)
Are we comfortable and skilled in the analytical process of making a full decision?
Are we afraid of new information, new input, and new ideas because of where they might lead us?
What is not being talked about or said, and why?
Do we understand and strive to do what it right for the organization or what is comfortable for our self?
What if we disagree? What does that tell us?
What can the leader do without full, open, honest input?
How can the leader stop us before we go to Abilene?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Use of Analogy

During the Democratic National Convention coverage this week, I caught an interview with John Hickenlooper, mayor of the host city, Denver. He comfortably talked about how being the mayor of a big city is like running a restaurant. A man after my own heart because I love analogical thinking! Hickenlooper, a former brewpub owner, explained that running a restaurant is all about meeting the needs of the public. He says you have to understand "constituency service", learn how to manage conflict, and develop good empathy and communication skills. He explained that the restaurant business taught him that "there is no margin in having enemies". When he talked about being mayor, he said the same thing, explaining that one needs at all costs to be a collaborator and to stay positive, even in the trenches. Taking a longer view of what in his past has prepared him to manage the complication that being the mayor of a big city requires, he points to his career evolution: English major to geologist to brewpub owner to mayor. "I learned how to learn," he says.

Extrapolating from what Hickenlooper offers, I see that he has collected solutions in all of his experiences and is at the ready to apply them. When I am called to work with a leadership team over a long period of time, part of what we spend concentrated time and effort doing is systematically collecting solutions. I orchestrate, in fact, Solution Retreats, which is a visceral analogical thinking experience. Recently I guided the leadership team of an independent school through the charge of understanding the analogous businesses of a liquor store, a bank, a global manufacturer, a hospital, an architectural firm, and a symphony by having them question each CEO over a series of day long retreats. The analogies were not evident to them at first, but each solution retreat yielded new awareness, new understanding, new analytical frameworks, and specific projects for shaping the culture of their school. Learning through stories and conversation provides a richer, deeper, more meaningful and more useful experience than studying facts and figures. Why not create analogical learning experiences and reap the rewards.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Power of Words and Vision and Hope, And Determination

8/28/55...Emmit Till murdered
8/28/63...Martin Luther King, "I Have a Dream"
8/28/08...Barack Obama, "Change We Can Believe In"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Prepare a Better Speech

Barack Obama will address the Democratic National Convention on the 45th anniversary, to the day, of Martin Luther King's "I have a Dream" speech. I think this is amazing and wonderful given the importance and power each man gives to the power of public speaking. I think leaders of organizations of all sorts would do well to hone their speaking skills, becoming more deliberate in using speeches as an opportunity to articulate their organization's values and product position, and outlining how their organization meets the needs of their audience.

Martin Luther King preached and Barack Obama articulates a deep, resounding message of hope, hope for all. Their resplendent, visionary illustration of what could be, and what should be, aligns with the need for people who are struggling or feel systematically marginalized to believe in hope, which will activate their willingness to work for and demand change.

Every time the head of an organization speaks to an audience, (an internal or an external audience), they are the face, the voice, and the values slate of the organization. Some would advise to wing it, be yourself, just say what is on your mind, be spontaneous, and carefree. I disagree. Each public address is an opportunity to articulate the vision. If the vision is articulated well enough and often enough, others begin the process of co-owning the vision which brings wonderful dividends to the leader and to the organization.

Preparing public remarks is an essential pursuit. I agree that a non-stuffy, genuine delivery adds, but off the cuff remarks that miss the target are disappointing. To prepare a good public address, I always start with questions:

What is the goal of this speech?
Who it the internal audience? What do they need to hear?
Who is the external audience? What do they need to hear?
Who is the stakeholder audience? What do they need to hear?
What is the mix?
What are the three themes that I want to emphasize? How are they related?
What story can I use to illustrate these themes? How can I make an emotional connection?
What is the last thing I want my listeners to hear?
Have I misrepresented or sugar-coated anything? Is it authentic and transparent?

I also recommend archiving all of your public remarks, even if yours is not a public company. Anything you do with great intention and great analysis is worth leveraging.

I look forward to identifying all of these structural elements in Mr. Obama's speech and always aspire to greater ability and facility, as he so aptly demonstrates, before my meager-by-comparison audiences.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Tactics for Communicating Vision

The purpose of a compelling vision statement is to inspire and guide in a cohesive way the actions of a group. Once a vision statement has been decided (an intentional, intensive process), it is paramount that it be communicated in a consistent and effective manner. The goal is for the vision to take root and take hold within the organization, and to be known and confirmed by your users' experiences as they experience your organization. Additional happy users can become your best marketers and must be able to communicate your vision consistently and effectively.

This blog entry from The Practice of Leadership blog lists communication tactics that leaders can use to communicate their vision. It would be hard to improve upon their list:

  • Stories. When you tell a good story, you give life to a vision. The telling of stories creates trust, captures hearts and minds, and serves as a reminder of the vision.
  • The elevator speech. Every leader needs to be able to communicate the vision in a clear, brief way. What compelling vision can you describe in the amount of time you have during a typical elevator ride?
  • Multiple media. The more channels of communication you use, the better your chance of creating an organization that "gets" the vision. Use the newest communication technologies, but don’t forget the tangibles: coffee mugs, t-shirts, luggage tags and whatever else you can think of that will keep the message in circulation.
  • Talk to me. Individualize the vision by engaging others in one-on-one conversations. Personal connections give leaders opportunities to transmit information, receive feedback, build support and create energy around the vision.
  • Draw a crowd. Identify key players, communicators, stakeholders and supporters throughout the organization who will motivate others to reflect on and be engaged with the vision.
  • Go outside. Communicate to external customers, partners and vendors with advertising and public relations campaigns, catalogs, announcements and other statements.
  • Make memories. Create metaphors, figures of speech and slogans — and find creative ways to use them. Write a theme song or a memorable motto.
  • Guide the expedition. Use visual aids and updates to keep everyone aware of the progress you are making toward your vision.
  • Back it up. If you’re talking it up, be sure to back it up with actions and behaviors. If people see one thing and hear another, your credibility is shot and your vision is dead.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Purpose of Vision

I ran across this description of vision from The Practice of Leadership blog:

"A vision describes some achievement or future state that the organization will accomplish or realize. A vision has to be shared in order to do what it is meant to do: inspire, clarify and focus the work."

Here are some vision statements that accomplish everything this quote describes.

The Google guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page:

Google provides access to the world's information in one click.

Chief Executive Officer of Cisco, John Chambers:

Cisco changes the way we live, work, play and learn.

Bill Gates, for the first 17 years of Microsoft:

We're going to put a computer on every desk in every home.

These statement are visions, not strategies or tactics. Everything these companies say, do, decide, plan, design, research, invest in, acquire, divest, hire, cultivate, and express in any way is related, guided by, determined by the vision. I commonly hear here is our mission statement, shouldn't that cover it? Mission statements are often too long, too inclusive, too proper, so much so that most employees can't recite them and don't use them as a decision-making tool. A vision statement is precise, concise, and forward thinking. A common mistake that many organizations make is not taking the time and energy to craft a solid, clear, guiding vision. Many people confuse the difference between vision, strategies, tactics, and goals. Each is different. Each is necessary, and they all flow from the vision. If the vision is weak, opaque, off-target, under-developed, outdated, or flat, the effects will be similar in your organization. The vision infuses. The whole organization will mirror the vision and the level of inspiration, enthusiasm, and commitment with which it is communicated and the level at which it is modeled, lived, from the top.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Have You De-Committed?

Rick Wagoner, Chairman and CEO of General Motors was interviewed recently by Charlie Rose. The whole interview was worth a quote near the end of the hour. When Charlie Rose pushed him to shed some insight on the critical error that GM has made over the years, Mr. Wagoner replied, "The day you de-commit to producing the best product, you are losing ground." He could have gone on to state the obvious which is that once you start losing ground, it is really hard to get back in the game.

How do we de-commit? Is it our attitudes? our actions? our inactions? I would say yes to all of these. Is it our commitment? I would say not so much. Is it our vision or lack of vision? Is it leadership? In my estimation and experience, there are many committed people in organizations that work diligently, but often toward the wrong goal. Maybe a better way to say it is that too often they work toward a goal and not a vision.

Rick Wagoner explained in many ways that GM lost touch with its customers. He says you can have the best product in the world but your company will fail if customers do not want to buy it. "If you don't have the best product, you will not be here in the long haul," he said. And, he added that today's best product will not be tomorrow's best product. You have to innovate and be thinking about your customer's needs and desires five years from now. In other words, you have to work at staying relevant and designing all things around that. And, you have to be timely. It will be interesting to watch along with the world to see if GMs liquidity will stretch to cover its innovation (product to market) cycle.

What do your customers want and expect from your organization?
What changes in the current marketplace must you consider and design into your ethos?
What is the value-added that you offer?
Are you relevant, giving your customer what they want and need in the way they want to receive it?
Would your customers recommend you to others?
Is innovation a part of your culture?

No business, regardless of the industry, is immune from this analytical framework.