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 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