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.

30 August 2009

Cowell and Candor

American Idol judge Simon Cowell is thought to be mean-spirited for saying things like:
"You have just invented a new form of torture."

"Shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would make a great female impersonator."
Simon also gives plenty of pats on the back ...
"I don't say this lightly, what I'm about to say. That performance was on a par with Whitney Houston ... Celine Dion ... seriously."

"At five seasons, you are the best male vocalist we've ever had."
... but hardly anyone notices, or thinks of him as nice.

Why? His candor - especially when he is being brutally honest - is so out of step with the current conventions of social discourse that it stands out like a sore thumb. Simon understands this ...
"I think you have to judge everything based on your personal taste. And, if that means being critical, so be it. I hate political correctness. I absolutely loathe it."
... but there's a method to his madness:
"I haven't done anything particularly harsh. Harshness to me is giving somebody false hopes and not following through. That's harsh. Telling some guy or some girl who's got zero talent that he or she has zero talent actually is a kindness."
Maybe this is why he says:
"I am poor, misunderstood Simon. I'm really the nice one and no one gets it yet. But, they will."
Whether you agree or not, it's worth examining his premise more thoroughly.

There is a show in the U.K. similar to American Idol. It's called Britain's Got Talent. Simon is a judge there as well. Watch the following clip from the show. Here is what you'll see. A six year old girl steps onstage to perform. She is vying for a spot in the finals. She sings. The first two judges sing her praises. Simon is last to speak. Pay close attention to his words and - more importantly - how he frames them.

Here's Connie:

There are at least two things worth noting. The first is to recognize Simon's credibility as a judge. Little Connie, her parents, the audience and the other judges were all holding their breath as they waited for Simon's assessment. This is because they knew - based on his previous behavior - that he could be trusted to give her the rating he thought she had earned - nothing more and nothing less. And, they were afraid that he might not have liked her performance all that much.

The second is more subtle. When he said "Connie, I'm going to talk with you like an adult because I think it is important," he was deliberately making it clear he was going to hold her to the same standard as everyone else in the competition. If he hadn't framed it that way - and simply told her she was terrific - she might have thought he was just being nice to her because she was only six years old. As a matter of fact, odds are great that most of the feedback Connie had gotten up to that point in her life had been qualified as in "She's really good ... for someone who's only six." Instead, Simon gave her a true gift: feedback she could take to heart. It didn't matter that she was only six, she was good ... period.

But would he have been straight with her - or mean in the mind of most - had her performance been poor? In all likelihood, yes. It's also likely he would've taken her age into account and cushioned the blow as best he could. In other words, he would've tried to balance courage with consideration.

As a leader or manager or coach or mentor or teacher or spouse or parent or friend or neighbor or whatever, you should feel obligated to give the folks who wander in and around your life any feedback you think would - or even just might - be helpful to them. There are times, of course, when it is easier - and correct - to say nothing, or color the truth in some small way, to avoid hurting someone's feelings or getting into an argument. But, don't be too tempted to take the easy way out. Be like Simon. Care for people instead of taking care of them. There's a big difference.

Morris Schectman lays out the difference in his book Working Without a Net:
"Caretaking is when you bother me a little bit, and I do just enough. I feel better because I think I took care of you. That is not any good to you at all. You may be in fact an alcoholic and I just gave you the money to buy the bottle that kills you. But, I feel better and go home."
"Caring is actually stopping and dealing with the human being, trying to understand enough about them to genuinely make sure you improve their life, even if you have to start with a conversation like, 'If you will quit drinking, I will help you get a job.' This is a lot harder than saying, 'Here's a buck or 5 bucks. I hope it helps.'"
  • How do you tend to have either a caretaking nature or a caring nature?
  • Can you think of a situation(s) in which you were a caretaker? What did you do? What was the short-term result? Long-term? How was what you did either fair or unfair to the other person involved?
  • Can you think of a situation(s) in which you were caring? What did you do? What was the short-term result? Long-term? How was what you did either fair or unfair to the other person?
"He who praises everybody, praises nobody." - James Boswell
"Speech devoted to truth should be straightforward and plain." - Seneca
"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names." - Confucius
"Beware how you take away hope from another human being." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

22 August 2009

Where Is Mr. Hooper?

This is a story that comes from Sesame Street a program created by The Childrens' Television Network. Some of you may remember the incident even though it happened several years ago.

What happened is one of the cast members - Will Lee - who played a character called Mr. Hooper died. This had never happened before, so the producers of the show had to come up with a way to explain the concept of death to their audience of 3-4 year old kids.

The first thing they did was consult with experts; they talked to pediatric psychologists and others who might know what to do, and came back with a set of ground rules, albeit no specific answers. The ground rules were simple: they had to face the issue – they could neither avoid it nor ignore it; they couldn’t deal with the religious aspects of death - the kids were too young to understand; they couldn’t do a eulogy – that’s an adult thing; they couldn't say he went to the hospital because a lot of folks go to the hospital, but don’t die from the experience.

With those notions in mind, they turned to the cast members and said:
"Here are the boundaries - the things you need to keep in mind. Now, we'd like you to get your heads together and figure out how to break the news to the kids."
The cast met, and created a short segment that got the job done. The scene opens with Big Bird walking onto the set with a big sheath of papers in his hand. He approaches the other cast members who are sitting around a table and says:
"Hey, everybody! I’ve drawn some pictures of you. I want you to see them."
Then, Big Bird starts passing out the pictures, and the cast members start talking among themselves about how wonderful the pictures are. Finally, we see that Big Bird has one picture left. He holds it up and says:
"Where is Mr. Hooper? I want to give him his picture."
One of the cast members casually approaches Big Bird and says:
"Oh, don’t you remember Big Bird, Mr. Hooper died."
Big Bird thinks for a second or two and then says:
"Geez! That’s right. I’ll have to give it to him when he comes back."
Another cast member stands, looks directly at Big Bird, and says:
"No, Big Bird. Don’t you remember? When people die, they don’t come back."

The episode was aired on November 24, 1983 - Thanksgiving Day - and was quickly selected by the Daytime Emmys as one of the 10 most influential moments in daytime television history.

Bob Waterman, the McKinsey partner who authored In Search of Excellence with colleague Tom Peters, told this story at one of our first Masters Forum sessions. He used it to illustrate a management approach he was recommending called Directed Autonomy. His notion was simple. Instead of telling your employees what to do and how to do it, you should instead:
"Establish rules, boundaries, guidelines to create a solution space, and then give them the freedom to work within that space to solve a problem or a come up with a way to take advantage of an opportunity."
  • Are you more apt to tell others what to do and how to do it, or to create a solution space that gives them freedom to be creative?
  • If you are in the habit of creating solution spaces, tell a story about a time it worked. Tell another about a time it didn't work. What, if anything, made the difference?
  • If you habitually tell others what to do and how to do it, how do you think they are able to take pride in their accomplishments? How do think they feel about working for you? How would you like to work for you?
"The real creative ideas originate hither and yon in the individual members of the staff and no one can tell in advance what they will be or where they will crop up." - Frank B. Jewett, organizer and first head of Bell Labs
"When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied: 'Only stand out of my light.' Perhaps some day we shall know how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things we can do for creative men and women is to stand out of their light." - John W. Gardner

18 August 2009

See New Now

Where has the time gone? I haven't posted here for a time because I've been busy working on fine-tuning and publishing my first book - See New Now: New Lenses for Leadership and Life - with my friend and co-author Jerry de Jaager, but I didn't realize until just now that more than two weeks has passed. Well, as they say, "Time flies when you're having fun."

In the most basic sense, See New Now uses story and metaphor to help people at any level in any organization think in fresh ways about fundamental business issues such as strategy, innovation, diversity, and collaboration.

When I put my metaphysical hat on, though, I think of the Buddhist masters who say there are three steps on the path to enlightenment. First is having the "right view." Second is having the "right intention." Third, is taking the "right action." See New Now is the important first step, of course, because both your intentions and actions will be wrong if you insist on trying to solve today's problems with yesterday's seeing.

You can learn more about the book - and perhaps even purchase a copy or two - at seenewnow.com. You can get a sense of the topics we cover, discover some ways you might put our ideas to work for you, learn a little more about the book's two rogue authors, and read some things that some best-selling authors and top business leaders have said about it. For example:
“This small book will expand your thinking and equip you to thrive in an unpredictable future as much as any other book you might read. Its elements—images, stories, ideas, and cool related stuff—are masterfully woven together for maximum impact in minimum time.” —Ben Sherwood, author of the New York Times best-seller The Survivors Club
“This is superb learning technology for today’s busy leaders and their busy organizations. Fun to read and easy to digest, it still packs one heck of a wallop.” — Steve Kerr, former Vice President of Corporate Leadership Development and Chief Learning Officer, GE
“Once in a great while someone figures out how to transform the confusing complexity of the business world into beguiling simplicity, without losing anything in the translation. This delightful and intelligent book has that quality from cover to cover. Highly recommended!”— Steve Lundin, co-author of the New York Times best-seller Fish!
You can also read an article about the book on John Reinan's blog at minnpost.com.

"The innovator's dilemma is in his head. Well, first it's in his eyes: not seeing what you don't believe is possible is the first problem; not believing what you're seeing is the second; not being able to imagine it as a threat is the third; not responding to it in time is the fourth." - Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator's Dilemma
“To do things differently, we must learn to see things differently. Seeing differently means learning to question the conceptual lenses through which we view and frame the world, our businesses, our core competencies, our competitive advantage, and our business models. It means finding new eyeglasses that will enable us to see strategies and structures taking shape, even if we feel that we are on the edge of chaos; it is a matter of survival in the new world of business.”- John Seely Brown, former head of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center
“Have I given anyone insight? That's what I want to have done. Insight lasts; theories don’t. And even insight decays into small details, which is how it should be. A few details that have meaning in one’s life are important.” - Peter Drucker