About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

12 March 2010

Are You Lucky?

When he appeared at The Masters Forum, author Dan Pink told of a conversation he had with an HR executive he met at a conference. When talk turned to unusual interview questions, she shared her favorite:
"Are you lucky?"
Dan immediately thought, "I'm so going to steal that." And, he did.

I heard a great story about luck several years back. It came from Cliff Havener and concerned a consulting project he had just finished at 3M. Cliff included the story in his book - Meaning: The Secret to Being Alive - which was published two or three years hence. I quote from the book:
The general manager of 3M's Occupational Health and Safety Products Division once asked me to conduct a broad-scale study. The flagship of his line was disposable face masks.

The two questions he wanted answered were: Why was this product successful? and Will it continue?

If you didn't know how and why it would work, how did you get into the business?

Here's what he told me:

Once upon a time there were two R&D scientists experimenting with a technology to mold paper into various shapes and have it stay that way. Once they got it to work, they asked each other, 'Now what can we do with this?' One suggested paper dresses. 'Nah!' said the other, 'That's been done.' But, being on the subject of women, he added, 'But what about paper bras? A woman could wear the bra for a few days and throw it away. She'd never have to wash it.' That was their idea of the product's reason for being. Each asked his wife what she thought. Being supportive, loyal wives, they answered, 'Oh honey, you're so smart. What a great idea!' They just didn't mention they wouldn't wear one on a bet. Having completed their market research, the two convinced management to build a pilot plant. It consisted of die-cutting machines stamping out everything from 32As to 44Ds.

They named the product, packaged it, and gave it to the sales force that called on department stores. These guys usually called on the stationery buyer about tape and such. They made a detour to see the lingerie buyer, who, of course, was a woman. The roars of laughter that erupted from the lingerie buyers' offices caused the sales guys to slink out without bothering to open the door. With bright red faces, they called headquarters: 'Did you clowns ever check this out? That was the worst experience of my life.' The home office cheered! One possible application of the technology had been eliminated. They were one step closer to finding a home for it.

'O.K., the bra idea didn't work. Now we've got all those die-cut machines. What can we do with them?' someone asked. 'Well, if we cut the bras in half and add rubber bands, we'll have face masks,' someone offered. That's what they did. Industry bought them, like crazy. That's how we got into this business. The thing is, we don't know why industry bought 'em like crazy - or if they're gonna keep buying them like crazy.

What I found out was that while Tweedledum and Tweedledee were playing with the bras that became face masks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) changed its primary focus from accident prevention to air quality. Manufacturing plants found themselves equipping workers with canister masks. Canister masks are heavy. They restrict breathing, induce fatigue, and interfere with vision. Morale and productivity plummeted. Adding insult to injury, plants had to sterilize the masks every night further increasing costs.

Into this situation blindly stumbled a product that was lightweight, induced far less fatigue, and interfered less with vision. It provided a way for companies to comply with OSHA’s regulations without destroying their profit. That’s dramatically superior usefulness. No wonder industry bought ‘em like crazy.

The company had provided dramatically superior usefulness – without consciously intending to do it, knowing how to do it, or knowing it had done it.
This is also a story of prototyping. Send something into the market. Find out if it works. If it does, great. If it doesn't, regroup and try again. Typically, though, a company will make a much smaller bet on the front end.

  • Are you superstitious?
  • Do you believe in karma?
  • Are there some people who are just plain lucky and others who are unlucky?
  • Who is the luckiest person you know? Unluckiest?
  • How has luck - good or bad - made a difference in your life and career?
  • Is good luck simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time? If so, how can you know when you're standing in the right spot?
  • What can you do to increase the chances you'll be lucky?
"No matter what our character, no matter what our behavior, no matter if we are ugly, unkind, murderers, saints, guilty sinners, foolish, or wise, we can get lucky." - Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather
"Luck or tragedy, some people get runs. Then of course there are those who divide it even, good and bad, but we never hear of them. Such a life doesn't demand attention. Only the people who get the good or bad runs." - John Steinbeck
"My luck is getting worse and worse. Last night, for instance, I was mugged by a Quaker." - Woody Allen

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