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.

24 December 2009

The Touch of the Master's Hand

Myra Brooks Welch was born in 1877 in La Verne, California, a little city not too far from Anaheim. She was born into a large Christian family. All the children in the family sang and played instruments; Myra learned to play the organ by age 7.

By 1921, she was married and had her own family. She was also so crippled with arthritis that she was confined to a wheelchair and could could barely use her hands.

After attending a church conference one Sunday, she was inspired to write a poem. And, as difficult as it was, she finally managed to write the words down with a pencil on a pad of lined paper. When she was finished, she submitted it anonymously to be printed in her church's news bulletin. She felt it was a gift from God and didn't need her name on it.

From there its fame spread far and wide, though no one knew the name of the person who had written it. Then, one day, the poem was read at an international religious convention; the speaker - as usual - said that the author was unknown. But, when the speaker finished, something unusual happened: a young man in the audience stood up and said, "I know the author, and it's time the world did too. It was written by my mother, Myra Brooks Welch." The rest, as they say, is history. The poem is titled The Touch of the Masters Hand.
Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
Thought it barely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But he held it up with a smile.
'What am I bidden good people,' he cried.
'Who'll start the bidding for me?
One dollar. One dollar. Do I hear two?
Two dollars, who makes it three?
Three dollars once, three dollars twice, going for three ...'
But no,
From the room far back a gray-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin
And tightening up the strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet
As sweet as the angel sings.

The music ceased and the auctioneer
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said 'What am I bid for the old violin?'
And he held it up with the bow.
'A thousand dollars, and who'll make it two?
Two thousand! And, who'll make it three?
Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice
And going, and gone,' said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried,
'We do not quite understand
What changed its worth?' The man replied:
'The touch of a master's hand.'

And many a man with a life out of tune,
and battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd,
much like the old violin.
A 'mess of pottage,' a glass of wine
A game, and he travels on.
He's 'going' once, and 'going' twice,
He's 'going' and almost 'gone.'
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that's wrought
By the touch of the Master's hand.
  • Can you tell a story about a person who helped you discover a gift or strength you didn't know you had?
  • Can you tell another one about a person who helped you believe in yourself again after you had lost faith?
  • Is there a person in your life that has a gift that you can see, but he or she doesn't?
  • How can you help him or her discover it?
  • Is there a person you know that you think needs a lift to get his or her life back on track?
  • What can you do to help that person?
"At times our light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." - Dr. Albert Schweitzer
"In 1967, I had a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr., at an educational conference. An African American had just presented a paper entitled, if I remember correctly, 'First, Teach Them To Read.' King leaned over to me and said, 'First, teach them to believe in themselves.'" - John W. Gardner
"If we wish to succeed in helping someone reach a particular goal we must first find out where he is now and start from there. If we cannot do this, we merely delude ourselves into believing that we can help others. Before we can help someone, we must know more than he does, but most of all, we must understand what he understands. If we cannot do that, our knowing more will not help. If we nonetheless wish to show how much we know, it is only because we are vain and arrogant, and our true goal is to be admired, not to help others. All genuine helpfulness starts with humility before we wish to help, so we must understand that helping is not a wish to dominate but a wish to serve. If we cannot do this, neither can we help anyone." - Soren Kierkegaard

08 December 2009

And then . . . Jesus Wept

Near the beginning of The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth ....
Jesus was delivering the sermon to His disciples, and a large crowd. He was in the role of teacher. They were students. What you just read is part of the Beattitudes. The rest of His sermon covered: the metaphors of Salt and Light; the reinterpretation of the Ten Commandments; a discourse on ostentation; the Lord's Prayer; a discourse on judgementalism; and a discourse on holiness.

That's a lot to learn in one sitting. The disciples did it, though, and spent the rest of their lives carrying the Word to world.

For a moment, imagine the disciples responding to Jesus' teaching in a slightly different way that day on Mt. Zion.
Simon Peter: "Do we have to write this down?"
Andrew: "Are we supposed to know this?"
James: "Will this be on the test?"
Philip: "What if we don't remember this?"
John: "The other disciples didn't have to learn this."
Matthew: "When do we get out of here?"
Judas: "What does this have to do with the real world?"
Jesus wept.

Many years ago, I was trying to figure out why people listening to the same presentation could react so differently. I was perplexed because the feedback we collected from the audience after each of our Masters Forum sessions varied so much. For example, some would say a particular session was valuable. Others would say it was not. Some would say the ideas could be easily applied. Others would say they could not. And, even if the lion's share of the audience gave the session the highest rating possible, there would still be a few that gave it near the lowest. Jim Collins was a speaker in our series at the time I was scratching my head over this, so I took him aside just before he went onstage and asked him what he thought. He said:
"It doesn't matter so much where the speaker is speaking from. What really matters is where the audience is listening from."
Why didn't I think of that? I guess that's why he's one of the shining stars in the guru universe, and I'm not. There are many other reasons for this, of course.

Jim's answer cleared up some other things as well. For example, once in awhile we would a get comment like, "The room was too cold." Another was, "The speaker struck me as sexist, so I didn't listen to a word he said." Still another, "The speaker didn't say how I could apply her ideas to my specific situation."

Another star in the guru universe is Peter Block. He says that this type of feedback indicates that there are members of the audience who show up with the notion that they can simply sit and listen; that the speaker is responsible for their learning. As a result, they fail to engage. And, as a result of that, they fail to learn. Peter has devised an antidote to deal with this sort of attitude and behavior. At the beginning of almost every presentation he gives, he asks each member of the audience to answer the four questions that follow, and then share their answers with two or three people sitting near them:
  • How valuable an experience do you plan to have over the next hour or few hours? Rate it from lousy to great.
  • How engaged and active do you plan to be?
  • How much risk are you willing to take?
  • How much do you care about the quality of the experience of those around you?
Peter says that even if some people respond negatively to all of these questions, at least they go forward with their eyes open. And, in all fairness to the speaker, must assume responsibility for not learning as much as they might have.

  • How do you typically show up for meetings? Are there any exceptions to your habitual ways of being in the room? What is it about those meetings that create the aberration in your behavior?
  • Which of Peter's four conditions for showing up are you least likely to meet? Expecting to receive value? Being active and engaged? Taking risks? Helping others learn? Explain.
  • Do you see a reason to show up differently at meetings you attend in the future? If so, what will you do and how will you do it?
  • How would you like people to show up for meetings you are conducting? Is there a way you can make it happen?
"That same day, Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him so that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: 'A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where there was very little soil, and they sprang up right away, since there was no depth to the soil. But when the sun arose, they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds yet fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.' " - Matthew 13: 1-9

30 November 2009

Sir Winston's Wisdom

Sir Winston Churchill's leadership methods have been sliced and diced for over a half a century by experts looking to unearth his secrets. One of them is Karl Weick, a social psychologist and Rensis Likert Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

At a leadership conference in June, 2000, Weick discussed one of Churchill's great strengths: his willingness to face his mistakes and correct them. To illustrate, he told of a time during WW II when Churchill discovered that Singapore was vulnerable to a Japanese land attack. He quoted Churchill:
"I ought to have known. My advisers ought to have known and I ought to have been told and I ought to have asked."
To figure out why none of those things happened, Churchill employed a debriefing protocol:
  • Why didn't I know?
  • Why wasn't I told?
  • Why didn't I ask?
  • Why didn't I tell what I knew?
By asking and answering those questions, Churchill got a clear picture of what went wrong. From there, he was able to create safeguards to make sure it never happened again.

  • Tell of a time when you were blind sided as Churchill was
  • Answer the four questions of his debriefing protocol
  • List what went awry, and safeguards you might have created at the time to make sure the same mistakes were not repeated in the future
  • Are there safeguards you can put in place today that reduce your chances of being blind sided tomorrow?
"Look for what's missing. Many advisers can tell a President how to improve what's proposed or what's gone amiss. Few are able to see what isn't there." - Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense
"Far be it from me to paint a rosy picture of the future. Indeed, I do not think we should be justified in using any but the most sombre tones and colours while our people, our Empire and indeed the whole English-speaking world are passing through a dark and deadly valley. But I should be failing in my duty if, on the other wise, I were not to convey the true impression, that a great nation is getting into its war stride." - Sir Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 22 January 1941

26 November 2009

Sorcerery with an IPod

A great way to randomize a search for ideas is what I call Sorcery with an IPod. Here's what to do.
  • Generate a play list of at least 50 songs. Choose songs that tell a story and conjure up vivid images, emotions, memories, etc.
  • Have someone describe a problem or opportunity. He or she should provide background information, explain why it is a problem or opportunity, list what has already been thought of or tried, and paint a picture of an ideal solution.
  • Push the Shuffle or Random Play button on the IPod and listen to the song that plays.
  • Generate ideas from the song.
Here are some songs I'd pick:
The links I have listed will take you to You Tube and video versions of the songs. For Sorcery with an IPod, I would suggest audio tracks. This will allow you to create your own mental pictures to illustrate the stories told by the songs.

  • How does music factor into your life today? Was there a time in your life when you would have given a different answer?
  • Who performed at the best live music event you ever attended? Is there a story you can tell about why that particular concert stands out in your mind?
  • Is there a song that has special meaning for you? Why?
  • Have you ever dreamed of being a superstar singer and performing in front of thousands of adoring fans? If so, how does your dream play out as a story?
  • Have you ever done karaoke in public? How did it work out for you?
"There is a general place in your brain, I think, reserved for 'melancholy of relationships past.' It grows and prospers as life progresses, forcing you finally, against your better judgment, to listen to country music." - Kary Mullis
"Country songs have always told the best stories and no one -- really, no one -- has ever done it better than Nashville. All my life I've admired guitarists like Chet Atkins and Roy Clark who touched me through their sound, but it was those Nashville songwriters who got to me through their words." - B.B. King, blues guitarist and singer-songwriter
"The way I see it, we're actors, but musical ones. We're doing it with notes, and lyrics with notes, telling a story. I can take an audience and get 'em into a frenzy so they'll almost riot, and yet I can sit there so you can almost hear a pin drop." - Ray Charles
"Close your eyes and you can hear her even now. It's 1960 and you're parked at the Steak n' Shake in your red and white Chevy convertible and on the radio, Connie Francis is singing Where the Boys Are. It's a love song to a time and a place. And as you tip the curb girl a dime, you close your eyes, and dream about pointing that Chevy right down Route 45 to Fort Lauderdale." - Roger Ebert, review of Where the Boys are '84 for Chicago Sun Times

22 November 2009

Nurse Bryan's Rule

In our book See New Now: New Lenses for Leadership and Life, Jerry de Jaager and I offer 24 lenses designed to communicate vital business and interpersonal concepts simply and memorably. Their value lies in the fact that they help individuals see things differently, inspire groups to breakthrough insights, and can change the way entire organizations think. They are based on a simple fact, once stated simply by Peter Drucker: "Insights last; theories don't."

An example of a story we might develop into a full-blown lens comes from Drucker himself. I am quoting here from page 160 of The Essential Drucker:
A focus on contribution (italics mine) is a powerful force in developing people. People adjust to the level of demands made on them. One who sets his sights on contribution raises the sights and standards of everyone with whom he works.

A new hospital administrator, holding his first staff meeting, thought that a rather difficult matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction, when one participant suddenly asked, “Would this have satisfied Nurse Bryan?” At once the argument started all over and did not subside until a new and much more ambitious solution to the problem had been hammered out.

Nurse Bryan, the administrator learned, had been a long-serving nurse at the hospital. She was not particularly distinguished, had not in fact ever been a supervisor. But whenever a decision on patient care came up on her floor, Nurse Bryan would ask, “Are we doing the best we can do to help this patient?” Patients on Nurse Bryan’s floor did better and recovered faster. Gradually, over the years, the whole hospital had learned to adopt what became known as Nurse Bryan’s Rule; had learned, in other words, to ask: "Are we really making the best contribution to the purpose of this hospital?"
Drucker goes on to point out that even though Nurse Bryan had been retired for ten years at the time the staff meeting was held, the standards she had set still commanded the attention and respect of the organization she had served so well.

The Nurse Bryan story - if developed fully - would certainly meet all of our tests for a good lens.
  • It's quick: it can be read and appreciated in just minutes
  • It's powerful: it is hard-hitting and memorable
  • It's sticky: the story and its lessons will stay with you for a long time
  • It's deep: it makes the complex simple without losing anything in the translation
Why not take a look through this mini-lens to see if you can come up with a different - and perhaps more valuable - take on the notion of contribution?

  • What is this story about for you?
  • How does it intersect your life or work at this moment?
  • Is there a word, a phrase, or an image here that speaks directly to something important to you?
"There are many books I could have written that are better than the ones I actually wrote. My best book would have been Managing Ignorance, and I'm very sorry I didn't write it." - Peter Drucker
"Oscar Wilde did not dive very deeply below the surface of human nature, but found, to a certain extent rightly, that there is more on the surface of life than is seen by the eyes of most people." - J.T. Grein, Sunday Special, Dec. 9, 1900
"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion – all in one."- John Ruskin
"When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul." - Rachel Naomi Remen, Jewish World Review 10/23/09
"We should give as we would receive, cheerfully, quickly, and without hesitation; for there is no grace in a benefit that sticks to the fingers." - Seneca
"To encourage, to comfort, to awaken, and to stretch those who find themselves riding this big ball as it screams thru time in the silence of space. To be a bridge, not a barricade. To be a link, not a lapse. To be a beacon and a bolster; not a bragger or a bummer. To help bring the corners of life's lips to their summit. To be a friend to those who find their fit a little awkward in this chaos society calls living." - Vess Barnes III

18 November 2009

The Doctor Is In

When the name W. Edwards Deming comes up today, most people think immediately of the system of measurement - statistical process control - that he learned from Walter Shewhart of Bell Labs, and began teaching to Japanese business leaders in 1950. Some also remember that there is an award given in his name every year - The Deming Prize - to a company that has successfully advanced the quality of its products. Still others associate his name with a checklist - The 14 Points for Management. And, while these are the leaves - and maybe the tree - of Deming's work, they are certainly not the roots. In Deming's own words:
"The prevailing style of management must undergo transformation. A system cannot understand itself. The transformation requires a view from outside. My aim is to provide an outside view—a lens—that I call a System of Profound Knowledge. It provides a map of theory by which to understand the organizations that we work in. The 14 Points for Management follow naturally as application of this outside knowledge."
There are four parts to Deming's System of Profound Knowledge:
  • Appreciation of a system: how disparate parts work together to produce a result
  • Knowledge of variation: the ranges and causes of variation in quality
  • Theory of knowledge: concepts explaining knowledge; the limits of what can be known
  • Knowledge of psychology: concepts of human nature
Systems thinking? Variety? Epistemology? Id, ego, super ego? Yes! All that ... and more. Deming was first, and foremost, a management philosopher.

Deming's notions have been applied almost exclusively within large, for-profit businesses; most often in manufacturing operations. But if you really stop to think about it, you can begin to imagine ways you might apply them in much smaller, non-business groups such as:
  • Your family
  • A youth sports team you are coaching
  • A class you are teaching
  • A civic or church group to which you belong

Here are a few of Deming's 14 Points. For each point listed, have a discussion centered around how to apply it to better a family, a team, etc. And, remember to think metaphorically - not literally.
  • Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and stay in business, and to provide jobs
  • Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company
  • Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  • Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
"Without theory, there are no questions." - W. Edwards Deming
"Making mental connections is our most critical learning tool, the essence of human intelligence: to forge links; to go beyond the given; to see patterns, relationship, context." - Marilyn Ferguson
"There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun." - Pablo Picasso
"The most important lesson I’ve ever learned is to understand and to trust abstractions. If you can learn both to see and to believe in life’s underlying patterns, you can make highly informed decisions every day. For example, everyone in high tech is familiar with Moore’s Law, which states that computer-processing power will double every 18 months. Now, Moore’s Law isn’t a law in any physical sense, but it has driven and will continue to drive our industry’s development. Yet very few people and very few companies really take this law to heart because really embracing it leads to seemingly nonsensical projections. Five years ago, when I told people that we’d have the processing power that we have today, lots of them even those who said they believed in Moore’s Law thought I was being ridiculous." - Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer Microsoft

06 November 2009

We're All Just Cavemen with Briefcases

Muhammad Yunus is a Bangladeshi banker and founder of Grameen Bank, which trades in microcredit or small loans. These loans are given to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. In 2006, Yunus and Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for efforts to create economic and social development from below."

During an interview aired November 22, 2006, on PBS' The News Hour Yunus said:
"All human beings are entrepreneurs. When we were in the caves we were all self-employed ... finding our food, feeding ourselves. That’s where human history began ... As civilization came we suppressed it. We became labor because they stamped us, ‘You are labor.’ We forgot that we are entrepreneurs."
Primeval memories of our entrepreneurial nature are being stirred as we speak, though. Dan Pink has poked at us with his book Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself.

And, Richard Florida believes the sooner our inner entrepreneur wakes up and gets moving the better, because the new world of work will be dominated by those with an entrepreneurial spirit and creative juices flowing in their veins. In The Rise of the Creative Class he says:
"Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking."
Companies agreeing with Florida will battle hammer and tong to find and keep top talent. But, does getting the best-of-the-best to pull up a stool at your saloon matter all that much? Why not save a little time - and more than a few Benjamins - by hiring next-to-the-best talent? One answer comes from Nathan Myhrvold, former chief scientist for Microsoft:
"The top software developers are more productive than average software developers not by a factor of 10x or 100x, or even 1,000x, but 10,000x."
Another from Ed Michaels, author of the The War for Talent:
"Steve Macadam at Georgia-Pacific … changed 20 of his 40 box plant managers to put more talented, higher paid managers in charge. He increased profitability from $25 million to $80 million in 2 years."
If you decide you want to attract and keep the best-of-the-best, you'll have to ante up the following just to get in the game:
  • great job
  • great location
  • great company
  • great compensation and benefits
  • great boss
  • great coworkers
  • great everything
Beyond that, you must provide a convincing answer to the question Stan Davis and Chris Meyer say superstars will be sure to ask, and keep asking; it's from their book Future Wealth:
"If I invest my mental assets with you, how much will they appreciate? How much will my portfolio of career options grow?”
If you already have some of these folks on board and want to keep it that way, you should have the following conversation with each of them on a regular basis.

  • How are you being challenged? What other responsibilities would you like to assume?
  • How fast are you learning new things? How important are the things you've learned?
  • What are you best known for today? What else? Another?
  • What would you like to be able to add to that list by this time next year?
  • What are you doing to gain public recognition for your capabilities and accomplishments?
  • How many significant names have you added to your list of contacts in the last 6 months?
  • What changes have you been able to make in your resume over the last year?
"Why was Solomon recognized as the wisest man in the world? Because he knew more stories (proverbs) than anyone else. Scratch the surface in a typical boardroom and we’re all just cavemen with briefcases, hungry for a wise person to tell us stories." - Alan Kay
"The real source of wealth and capital in this new era is not material things ... it is the human mind, the human spirit, the human imagination, and our faith in the future." - Steve Forbes
"For a moment he was completely befuddled, but this is a condition which can never exist for long in a mind like Khaavren's, a mind which acts like a fallow field, in which it is only necessary for a seed to touch it before this seed will sprout, although with what fruit is not always apparent." - Steven Brust, The Phoenix Guards
"Intrinsic motivation lies at the heart of Deming’s management philosophy. By contrast, extrinsic motivation is the bread and butter of Western management. A corporate commitment to quality that is not based on intrinsic motivation is a house built on sand." - Peter Senge
"Creativity comes from freedom." - W. Edwards Deming

29 October 2009


My friend Josh Klein, young hacker of everything, told me I'm not too old to twitter. I decided to give it a shot. That was three and a half weeks ago. I've managed six tweets. I'm struggling. But, I'm optimistic. I've already got 40 followers. Is that good? No, but it's a start.

In addition to telling me my age should not stop me from jumping on the twitter bandwagon, Josh suggested that I start off by using twitter as a scanning tool for new ideas. Huh? "Simple enough," he said. "Just find some really smart tweeters and start to follow them." That made sense to me, so I asked him how to separate the smart tweeters from the not-so-smart ones. "There's no one way to do it," he said, "but if I were you I'd pay special attention to the ones who have the most followers." And so I did. Here are some of the folks I'm following:
Whoa! What is that all about? Almost 620,000 people following something called shitmydadsays? Can't be true! And yet, it is.

Some background. shitmydadsays debuted on August 3rd. For those of you who are counting, that's not quite three months ago. As of today 64 tweets are posted. The tweeter is Justin (no last name mentioned). Here's how he describes himself and what he is doing:
"I'm 29. I live with my 73-year-old dad. He is awesome. I just write down shit that he says."
That's it? Yep. "Well then," you say, "his dad must say some pretty smart things to attract so many followers." I don't know about that. Here are a few examples. Judge for yourself.
"You're being fucking dramatic. You own a TV and an air mattress. That's not exactly what I'd call a lot to lose."
"You need to flush the toilet more than once...No, YOU, YOU specifically need to. You know what, use a different toilet. This is my toilet."
"It's just a fucking june bug, calm down. Jesus Christ, what happens when something bigger than a testicle attacks you?"
"I like the dog. If he can't eat it, or fuck it, he pisses on it. I can get behind that."
Rather bawdy, wouldn't you say? How about brilliant? Maybe. Maybe not. Funny? Yes and no.

How about 620,000 followers in less than 90 days? That's the important question here, and in the answer you're likely to unearth some secrets to building a highly recognizable and attractive brand.

  • Justin used just four words - shit ... my ... dad ... says - to both name and position his offering. Can you do the same for yours?
  • Justin used earthy language to communicate with his audience. Do you think he would've attracted as many followers if he'd cleaned up his act ... if he had said pearls of wisdom from my father - or something akin to that - for example?
  • Can you use the same approach and language to build your brand via social media that you did using traditional media? If so, how so? If not, why not?
"If we left brand differentiation to most CEOs, most companies would stand for "quality, service, and innovation," and there would be even less differentiation than there already is." - Blaise James, Gallup global brand strategist, as quoted by Gallup Management Journal
"'Can't please everyone' isn't just an aphorism, it's the secret of being remarkable." - Seth Godin, writing in his blog
"In every generation there has to be some fool who will speak the truth as he sees it." - Boris Pasternak
"The course of every intellectual, if he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough, ends in the obvious, from which the non-intellectuals have never stirred." - Aldous Huxley
"I have to tell it again and again: I have no doctrine. I only point out something. I point out reality, I point out something in reality which has not or too little been seen. I take him who listens to me at his hand and lead him to the window. I push open the window and point outside. I have no doctrine, I carry on a dialogue." - Martin Buber

25 October 2009

Life Is Short. Wear Your Party Pants.

This is Loretta LaRoche. She is an author, PBS TV personality, humorist, and stress management consultant. She appeared in our 2004 Masters Forum series. She talked about how to reduce stress in our lives by changing the way we look at things and learning to laugh, especially at ourselves. She was a stitch! We laughed until we hurt. We learned many lessons in the process. Here are some of them in Loretta's own words.
"We define ourselves by how much we have to do and how stressed we are. We are now a nation of human doings, not human beings. People would rather tell you how much they’re doing. The person who’s listening doesn’t care, because they’re practicing in their head how they’re going to counter how much you’ve done. So they’ll say, 'You think you have a lot to do? You should see what I have been doing!' Now, you haven’t won yet, so you have to add physical problems. You might say, 'I’ve been having headaches, backaches, frontaches.' What a sad commentary on life! We’re only here to distract ourselves until we die. That’s what this lecture is really about: Get a grip. You’re going to die. Don’t you want to live before you die? Don’t you want to be juicy? Don’t you want to thrive? Don’t you want to throb with delight every day? We’re all going to suffer - why practice?"
"The media wants to constantly remind you that you’re not enough, that something’s wrong, that there’s terror amongst us, that your lips should be fuller. Nothing is right, nothing. There are so many products on the market today that you can’t even get in your shower sometimes."
"So much is about structure: we have to have rules: 'I can’t have pineapple until 4:00; I can only eat meat at 11:00.' Who cares? Be quiet. Why don’t you tell me about something else? Wouldn’t it be fun to hear somebody say, 'I'm learning how to speak Chinese'? How much time are you taking doing these things and then complaining about it?"
"How many moments of our lives do we spend complaining and talking about what is not instead of what is? You know, we should go up to somebody and say, 'May god, my hair looks damn amazing today!' The pleasure concept of life is very important. This does not give pleasure - to always feel like I’m on the edge of not being okay. We spend so much time being careful about what we eat, but inside we’re dried up because we aren’t getting any pleasure. Put it on your tombstone - 'Was thin, died anyway'."
"People impose the tyranny of the should and the must on themselves. So at night you might be lying there shoulding on yourself, 'I shoulda done this, I shoulda done that'; or you might be going over what you must do in the morning, 'This is what I must do, this is what I must do' - that’s called musturbating. And we should on other people, too, because the nature of the mind is to be a saboteur. The Buddhists talk about the monkey mind. The monkey always wants a banana. The insistence is to keep talking to yourself in terms of not having what you need, or what you didn’t do, or what you should be doing. Isn’t that the way a lot of us are living - we’re waiting to finally get the accolades from 'they,' so we can feel okay. Perfectionism is a lot about shoulds and musts."
"The brain is not capable of multitasking. We are trying to teach ourselves something that’s impossible to achieve, because somebody came up with that word and now we think it should be part of the culture. No wonder people have lower productivity in workplaces: there’s all this baloney going on, all this fake stuff, and you believe it. What is the mission statement? It should be, 'We're here to have fun, first, and to create community.' Community and fun would be the mission statement, and then everything else would follow."
"How would an optimist behave? First of all, optimists see the world as a way to foster resiliency. Consider savoring all that you do. Have abundant pleasure in your life every day. Yesterday’s history; tomorrow’s a mystery; and today’s a gift - that’s why they call it the present. The other things optimists do is laugh a lot. They laugh at themselves in particular, because they know they’re the joke. Everybody in this room’s a joke; some people don’t get it. Don’t you hear this a lot: 'Do you know who I am?'? When I hear that I say, 'No, do you? You must be an idiot'."
"The most important thing an optimist can do is allow themselves to be playful with everyone they come into contact with. As you lighten up, so will the world. This is because your energy goes out into the world. Everything you do is felt by others. Even your thoughts manifest an energy that is picked up by everyone."
"Get a funky hat. Become as bizarre as possible. They’ve found that eccentric people live twenty years longer and go to the doctor rarely, because they’re living their bliss."
"If you think the worst and get the worst, you suffer twice. If you think the best and get the worst, you only suffer once."

My suggestion is to kick some of Loretta's ideas around and see what insights come your way. A couple of questions you can start with are:
  • Do you have a monkey mind?
  • If so, what is it you always want?
"The future masters of technology will have to be light-hearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb." - Marshall McLuhan
"The distrust of wit is the beginning of tyranny." - Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
"The entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things, but enjoy the right things - not merely industrious, but to love industry - not merely learned, but to love knowledge - not merely pure, but to love purity - not merely just, but to hunger and thirst after justice." - John Ruskin

A short clip of Loretta LaRoche

21 October 2009

Six-Word Memoirs

There's a literary legend that the great American writer Ernest Hemingway was once challenged in a bar to write a story in six words. He wrote:
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
A couple of years ago, Smith, an online magazine dedicated to personal storytelling, picked up on the Hemingway legend and started a contest in which people - celebrities and just plain folk - wrote and submitted six-word stories of their own - as memoirs. The magazine received over 15,000 stories and selected a few hundred to publish in a book, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. Among those published are:
"Longed for him. Got him. Shit." - Margaret Atwood

"Well, I thought it was funny." - Stephen Colbert

"Liars: hysterectomy didn't improve sex life." - Joan Rivers

"After Harvard, had baby with crackhead." - Robin Templeton

"Seventy years, few tears, hairy ears." -
Bill Querengesser

"Found true love. Married someone else." - Anonymous
  • Do you think it's possible to sum up your life in just six words?
  • Are there some possible statements, questions, or ideas that speak to who you are?
  • Can you think of a single poignant moment, for example?
  • Is there a song - or movie, poem, book, story, speech, quote - that is particularly meaningful?
  • Can you recall a time when you were at a crucial juncture in your life, and the decision you made then? How might your life have turned out, if you'd made a different choice?
  • What is your six-word memoir?
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." - Albert Einstein
"The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers." - M. Scott Peck
“Only barbarians are not curious about where they come from, how they came to be where they are, where they appear to be going, whether they wish to go there, and if so, why, and if not, why not.” - Isaiah Berlin - The Crooked Timber of Humanity
"I didn’t have a 'mission statement' at Burger King. I had a dream. Very simple. It was something like, 'Burger King is 250,000 people, every one of whom gives a shit.' Every one. Accounting. Systems. Not just the drive through. Everyone is 'in the brand.' That’s what we’re talking about, nothing less." - Barry Gibbons, former CEO

17 October 2009

Pattern Recognition Rules!

In an earlier post, I featured the questionnaire that James Lipton uses on his television program Inside the Actor's Studio. I said I was intrigued by it because it allowed me to view his 200+ guests through a single lens. And, by holding the lens constant, I was able to see the differences between and among them.

I actually ran into this idea many years ago. I was introduced to it by one of my early mentors in the leadership development game, Dr. David W. Merrill, co-founder of what is now known as The TRACOM Group, and a true genius in the fields of individual, management, and organizational behavior.

Dave showed me a series of questions companies might use in the first step in the hiring process; he called it a patterned interview. The idea behind it was simple: hold the interviewer constant by asking the same questions - in the same order - to a group of candidates, thus making it possible to see the variety in both their answers and their behavior. This is important because if the approach of the interviewer varies, it becomes much more difficult to get a true reading on the differences between and among the candidates. In other words, the candidates' responses become the constant. Dave's simple explanation of this was, "Put 'em on stage. Ask a question. Be stoic and listen." In my view, Dave's questions can also be used as the basis for a conversation in which you and another take turns answering them. The end result is that you will know each other much better than before.

  • Will you please tell me what you'd like about such things as your educational accomplishments, work experience, personal interests and career goals?
  • What is your greatest success in life?
  • What is your greatest failure?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What are your weaknesses?
  • If I asked your friends what five adjectives describe you best, what would they say?
  • What is your philosophy of life?
  • What is the most important thing we can do to help you succeed with us?
  • If we were to have any difficulty helping you succeed here, what would it be?
"People don't change much. As a result, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If you were to pin me down, though, and ask me to give you the reasons why people change when they do, I would give you three: traumatic life experience, religious conversion, and prefrontal lobotomy." - Dave Merrill
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
- William Stafford

19 September 2009

The Impossible Dream

Dale Wasserman is an American playwright best known for writing the story on which the celebrated musical Man of La Mancha is based. The story was inspired by the life of Miguel de Cervantes, author of the 17th century masterpiece Don Quixote.

Man of La Mancha is best known for a song, The Impossible Dream. But, that's not the title of the song. Wasserman explains in an excerpt from his 2003 book, The Impossible Musical:
"Once upon a time I invented a phrase, 'the impossible dream.' People think it comes from a song, but it doesn't. It's from my original television play, 'I, Don Quixote.' The phrase has gone into the language and traveled far and wide. It's been used (and abused) countless times, and will continue into the future. I invented it simply to explain Don Quixote's quest - indeed the song's proper title is 'The Quest.' But the public seized upon the eponymous phrase and won't let go. The odd thing about the phrase is that everyone seems to misunderstand it. 'The impossible dream' is customarily applied to ventures that may be somewhat difficult but perfectly possible. A pennant for the Mets. A new spike in the company sales chart. An even faster computer (who needs it?) or possibly the latest burp in technology. When I see these references - and I see them every day - my impulse is to holler, 'Pay attention, damn it, the operative word is not 'dream,' the operative word is 'impossible!' Of course no one listens. But 'impossible' is exactly what I meant: the dream, to be valid, must be impossible. Not just difficult. Impossible. Which implies an ideal never attainable but nevertheless stubbornly to be pursued. A striving for what cannot be achieved but still is worth the effort. As, for instance, peace on earth. Or a gentleness for all who breathe, and breathing, suffer. Or a hope that we may mitigate the horrors paraded for us on the news every hour of every day of every week. That we may reduce the tidal surge of wars, crimes, cruelties to humans and to animals, and the orgies of atrocities that sicken the earth. These are impossible dreams. Still, quixotically, they must be dreamed."
  • What is your impossible dream? Explain.

The lyrics to The Quest by Joe Darion:

To dream the impossible dream,
To fight the unbeatable foe,
To bear with unbearable sorrow,
To run where the brave dare not go.

To right the unrightable wrong,
To love pure and chaste from afar,
To try when your arms are too weary,
To reach the unreachable star.

This is my quest,
To follow that star --
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far.

To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march
Into hell for a heavenly cause.

And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will be peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this,
That one man scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage.
To reach the unreachable star.


The Quest by
Brian Mitchell Stokes at the 57th Tony Awards.

15 September 2009

Are You a Hammer or a Nail?

The Hammer and Nail - created by John Provo of Reitaku University in Japan - is an exercise designed to encourage abstract thinking. It also presents the opportunity to see ourselves from many odd and interesting angles, and helps the others come to know us in new and different ways.

Conversation: From each of the following pairs of words, pick the one you think best describes you and thoughtfully explain why you feel that way. Are you:
  • Hammer or nail?
  • Child or old man or woman?
  • Sun or moon?
  • Cube or ball?
  • Present or future?
  • Yes or no?
  • Physical or mental?
  • Pencil or eraser?
  • Question or answer?
  • City or country?
  • Dictionary or novel?
  • TV or radio?
"Speech is the mother, not the handmaid, of thought."- Karl Kraus
"How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?" - E.M. Forster
"Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind." - Emily Dickinson

11 September 2009

Splatter Vision

In their book Peripheral Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals that Will Make or Break Your Company, Paul J.H. Schoemaker and George S. Day describe a method the FBI uses to scan large crowds for early signs of trouble:
"The FBI trains its agents to use a scanning approach called splatter vision. This involves scanning a crowd for would-be assassins by looking into the distance and not focusing on anyone in particular. Once the agent fixes a general gaze, he or she looks for deviation or change. Is someone restless, looking around too much, slowly putting a hand into a coat pocket? From among hundreds of faces, the agent seeks a lone assassin; suspicious activity then triggers a more intense focus. By balancing directed and undirected scanning, a single agent can spot signs of trouble across a fairly large area."
This technique is not new; it has been used for centuries by Native Americans to track game in the wilderness. It is also used by fighter pilots in air-to-air combat situations, and in top driver training schools.

Roch Parayre
is a partner with Shoemaker and Day in Decision Strategies International, and a Fellow at the Aresty Institute of Executive Education at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. In a recent Masters Forum presentation - Scanning the Periphery - he said a figurative version of this technique can be used by companies to pick up weak signals of impending threats or opportunities in their environment. He added that those who do this successfully will gain a significant advantage over competitors who are late to arrive at the table. To do an initial scan, he suggests:

  • What have been our past blind spots?
  • What is happening there now?
  • Is there an instructive analogy from another industry?
  • Who in our industry is skilled at picking up weak signals and acting on them ahead of competition?
  • What important signals are we rationalizing away?
  • What are our mavericks and authors saying?
  • What are our peripheral customers and competitors really thinking?
  • What future surprises could hurt or help us?
  • What emerging technologies could change the game?
  • Is there an unthinkable scenario?
"The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little that we can do to change, until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds." - R.D. Laing
"Planning for the future without a sense of history is like planting cut flowers." - Daniel Boorstin
"Illusions mistaken for truth are the pavement under our feet. They are what we call civilization." - Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
"Often do the spirits of great events stride on before the events, and in today already walks tomorrow." - Friedrich Schiller
"The punch that knocks a man out is the punch that he doesn't see. Have you ever seen the pea in the shell game? The man who works the game must have the ability to direct attention to the wrong area. That's what happens in boxing." - Cus D'Amato, boxing trainer and manager.

07 September 2009

Are These My Students?

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to work with most of the world's great speakers. At the very top of that list is Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.

There are many things that have boosted Ben to the top of the speaker leader board. First, he is a true genius and his thoughts on how to better our lives, relationships, and organizations are practical as well as profound. Second, he is a remarkable performer. He shares his ideas with great warmth and joy. He also plays the piano, tells poignant stories, and involves his audience in ways that make his points jump to life. These things alone make Ben a lock to receive a standing ovation and the highest possible ratings whenever and wherever he speaks.

But, there is something else - an X factor if you will - that brings Ben even higher regard: he always shows up as the caring, interested human being he is, and not as a celebrity or the star of the show. To illustrate:

In early 2000, I was involved in planning and conducting a three day conference for an international bank. We hired Ben to give the opening keynote, which took place right before dinner on the first night. Ben's presentation was a rousing success, of course. But, it was what happened before he even registered at the hotel that clearly demonstrates what I mean when I say he shows up as a human being.

I met Ben's limo when it arrived at the front entrance to the hotel. After he stepped out, we exchanged pleasantries, corralled his luggage, and headed for the lobby. Once inside, we bumped into 20 or 30 of our conference's attendees who were milling around as they waited to register. It was what Ben did at that point that helped me understand why he moves people so deeply. He said - out loud so that everyone could hear -
"Are these my students?" When I confirmed his notion, he said "Ahhh! There you are!" He followed that by wading into the crowd and asking folks to tell him their name, where they were from, and so forth.

There is a great lesson here that should not be missed. Whenever we walk into a room full of people - or simply greet one other person - we have a choice: we can feel, think, and behave in a way that says, "Here I am!" or we can do it in a way - Ben's way - that says "Ahhh! There you are!"

  • Do you know someone who shows up like Ben Zander? How does that person make you feel when you are with him or her?
  • How are you most apt to show up with others? How do you want to show up?
  • When you meet someone for the first time, what are you most interested in learning about him or her? What do you most want that person to know about you? Which comes first?
  • Are you more attracted to people who seem fascinated with you, or to people who fascinate you?
"You can make more friends in two months by becoming more interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you." - Dale Carnegie
"When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life." - Brenda Ueland, author