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.

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

03 September 2009

The Strength to Lead, the Courage to Die

According to Be, Know, Do: The U.S. Army Leadership Manual:
"Leadership starts with what the leader must be; the values and attributes that shape the leader’s character. Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do."
A boots-on-the-ground example of what that really means comes from a story told at an early Masters Forum session by David Kirk Hart, former professor at BYU's Marriott School of Management:
"When the British pulled out of Israel, the Israelis went to war with all the Arab nations. A small Israeli raider company became trapped in a very bad firefight, 70 men against 1500. The raider commander said, 'We've got to retreat.' In a retreat, you call upon somebody to stay behind and cover the retreat. The commander of the Israeli unit was a man named Naham Arieli - you should remember the name - and Arieli gave the retreat order which later became the creed of the Israeli officer corps. The retreat order was, 'All of the enlisted men are to withdraw; the officers will cover the retreat.' One officer got off the hill alive. In an age of golden parachutes, in an age of sacking and pillaging the firm to be sure the CEO and the second financial officer are okay before announcing Chapter 11 bankruptcy, that's noblesse oblige."
  • Name a person whose courage has inspired you. Explain.
  • What heroic qualities do you possess? What scares you?
  • What is the most difficult ethical or moral decision you've ever had to make?
  • What do you continually get away with?
  • What was a significant crossroad in your life? What path did you take and why?
  • What would you be willing to die for?
"Perhaps because warfare has played a central role historically in the development of our conceptions of leadership and authority, it is not surprising that the ancient linguistic root of the word 'to lead' means 'to go forth, die.'" - Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers
"There comes a time in the life of every human when he or she must decide to risk “his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor” on an outcome dubious. Those who fail the challenge are merely overgrown children, can never be anything else." - Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
"You can be obsessed by remorse all your life, not because you chose the wrong thing - you can always repent, atone - but because you never had the chance to prove to yourself that you would have chosen the right thing." - Umberto Eco