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.

29 January 2010

Are You Learning as Fast as the World Is Changing?

The late Peter Drucker once said:
"My ancestors were printers in Amsterdam from 1510 or so until 1750, and during that entire time they didn't have to learn anything new."
That sure wasn't the case in 1972 when I was hired by The Wilson Learning Corporation to be a sales rep and workshop facilitator. On my first day on the job, Larry Wilson - founder and CEO - handed me two things: a Mickey Mouse watch, which was to serve as a constant reminder that work should be fun; and a copy of the book Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. Further, he directed me to a page in the book where Toffler described a Survival Kit for the Future. Toffler said that in order to survive the shattering stress and disorientation that is induced in us by subjecting us to too much change in too short a time, we need to do three things: learn to learn, learn to choose, and learn to relate. He went on to say:
"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."
Hmmm, I thought. I'd better get on that. I think I'll start tomorrow; I've got too much going on to think about doing it today. And, of course, tomorrow came and I was so busy that ...

I don't see myself as an exception to the rule here. I think most people view learning much as I do - or at least as I viewed it until a few years ago: as something that can be put off. Why? Because I'm smart; I'm educated; I'm experienced; I've got a job; I'm good at it; I'll get promoted; I'll make it to the top; I'll retire here. Besides that, I'm busy; I've got meetings; I have to answer my email; business is great and we need to get out there and ride the crest; business is in the tank and we've got to spend every waking minute figuring out what's wrong. Want more? I'm already learning. I surf the web; I watch TV; I read the Wall Street Journal; I subscribe to the latest and greatest business magazines; I practically camp out in the business section of the bookstore; I listen to podcasts; I get RSS feeds from my favorite bloggers; I attend industry conferences; etc. If that ain't learning, I don't know what is.

Sound convincing? I think so, and if you are doing all those things, you are certainly learning something. But, are you learning the right things?

When Richard Pascale appeared at The Masters Forum a few years ago, he said our knowledge can be sorted into three different containers:

First there is what we know we know. In this container we can put things where we know both the questions and the answers. Learning here is about finding better answers or fine-tuning.

Second there is what we know we don't know. Here we know the questions, but don't have the answers. Learning here is about finding answers to questions or problem-solving.

Third is what we don't know we don't know. Learning here is a search for new and relevant questions.

He went on to say that successful companies are usually very good at gathering the knowledge they need to do better and better at fine-tuning and problem-solving. Then he issued a warning:
"Nothing fails like success. The more successful you are the more apt you are to confine your learning to the first two containers; you turn inward and focus on making your economic engine run as smoothly as it possibly can. This is most often where trouble begins, because while you are concentrating on fine-tuning and problem-solving, you miss the early signs that the world around you is changing in a fundamental way. And one day you wake up to find that the you are no longer relevant."
  • What percentage of your learning efforts are focused on fine-tuning and problem-solving vs. trying to figure out what you don't know you don't know?
  • How important is finding the new and relevant questions?
  • Timothy Leary said there are three ways to increase your intelligence. First, you should continually expand the scope, source, intensity of the information you receive. Second, you should constantly revise your reality maps, and seek new metaphors about the future to understand what's happening now. Third, you should develop external networks that allow you to spend much of your time with people as smart or smarter than you. Are you purposely doing any of those things now? If not, why not? If so, how is it going for you?
"Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow." - Woodie Guthrie
"We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn." - Mary Catherine Bateson
"Given the fast-changing and ever increasing complex nature of the world, gaining insight into how patterns are forming and structures are developing represents the most powerful way of managing in the new economy" - Winslow Farrell, How Hits Happen
"It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be...This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking. - Isaac Asimov
"Don't confuse the edge of your rut with the horizon." - Gary Hamel

22 January 2010

Knowledge Arbitrage

Rich Karlgaard is publisher of Forbes Magazine. In a blog post from 2004 he said:
"Most business books are big fat bores, except for those that are skinny bores - those trite little tomes involving whales and cheese and lessons learned from kindergarten. Unless I know the author personally, I won't read a business book. If I do know the sucker, I like to drop the book on the pavement - in his presence - and back my car over it. I spent too many years reading such piffle, underlining and highlighting 'salient' points, taking notes and promptly forgetting everything I'd read within a week. Lessons from business books never stick. Much better learning tools are novels, history books and biographies. For me, at least, these can really teach. Why? I suppose it's because when your imagination is engaged, when you dig the lessons out yourself and connect them to your own life, the learning goes much deeper."
Then he named the best book on entrepreneurship, business, and investment he'd read in quite some time, and it wasn't a business book per se; it came from the field of religion. The book is The Purpose Driven Church. It was written by Rick Warren. Here's what Karlgaard says about it:
"Warren - in 1980 and from scratch - launched Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif. Under his leadership, the church has become the fastest-growing one in America. (Saddleback is a Southern Baptist evangelical church, by the way.) Weekends bring in an average of 15,000 worshipers. Saddleback has spawned dozens of so-called daughter churches throughout the country. Were it a business, Saddleback would be compared with Dell, Google or Starbucks."
He went on to underscore some of Warren's advice for growing a church, substituting the word business for the word church as he went along. For example:
  • Don't try to make your business grow. Instead, work to make your business healthy. Because if it's healthy, it will grow.
  • Don't compete for market share. Instead, compete with non consumption. "The church [business] must offer people something they cannot get anywhere else," Warren says.
  • Full list here.
In the example above, Rich is using the simplest form of an idea that is best tabbed knowledge arbitrage; taking ideas and concepts that work in one situation and applying them to another. A second example - this one spectacular - is described in a 2007 article in The New Yorker by Atul Gawande, M.D. The article is titled The Checklist. It tells the story of how a young critical care specialist from Johns Hopkins Hospital, Peter Pronovost, borrowed the idea of a pilot's checklist - originally conceived by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1935 - and used it as a vehicle to remind the doctors and nurses working in the I.C.U. of the steps they needed to take in order to avoid infections when putting a line such as a catheter into a patient. The results? According to Gawande:
"Pronovost and his colleagues monitored what happened for a year afterward. The results were so dramatic that they weren’t sure whether to believe them: the ten-day line-infection rate went from eleven per cent to zero. So they followed patients for fifteen more months. Only two line infections occurred during the entire period. They calculated that, in this one hospital, the checklist had prevented forty-three infections and eight deaths, and saved two million dollars in costs."
You must be a curious sort to apply the concept of knowledge arbitrage. If you are, begin by scouring the non-business landscape to find an individual, organization, or idea that has been singularly successful. You should roam far and wide. In fact, the further out you get, the better the chances you'll make a connection your competitors wouldn't think of in a million years. Here are a handful that jump out at me:
When you land on one, study its history to learn as much as you can about the reasons for its success, and then ask yourself if there is anything useful you can import to your situation.


You can do knowledge arbitrage by yourself, but it's usually much more fun and fruitful when you involve others. Here are some suggestions for working as a group.
  • Find an unusual place to hold the conversation. Use your imagination.
  • Create intentionality by working on a big problem worth solving, creating a new business or reinventing an old one, transforming your culture, or some other such thing.
  • Let the conversation create the path on which you travel. Roam far and wide, think abstractly, make up your own words, try not to use business jargon, make absurd connections, have fun, laugh, etc.
"A great thought begins by seeing something differently, with a shift of the mind's eye." - Albert Einstein
"I try to vary my reading diet and ensure that I read more fiction than nonfiction. I rarely read business books, except for Andy Grove’s Swimming Across, which has nothing to do with business but describes the emotional foundation of a remarkable man. I re-read from time to time T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an exquisite lyric of derring-do, the navigation of strange places and the imaginative ruses of a peculiar character. It has to be the best book ever written about leading people from atop a camel." - Michael Moritz, venture capitalist

15 January 2010

Challenging Convention

Gary Hamel is one of the world's leading experts on strategy and innovation. He has penned countless articles and several tomes on these topics, including his latest, The Future of Management.

At The Masters Forum one year, Hamel talked of how convention stifles innovation. To illustrate, he focused on banks and asked - rhetorically - what might change in terms of day-to-day operations and/or strategic planning if two banks were to swap top management teams. His answer: nothing. Why? Because the banking industry has conventions - principles, practices, and protocols - which are followed by 99.99% of all banks and bankers. These conventions have been passed from one generation of bankers to the next, and their very deep roots virtually insure that any major innovations in banking will come from outside the industry.


For banks or bankers who want to challenge the conventions of the industry, Hamel suggested holding a conversation centered around these questions.
  • What are 10 things you would never hear a customer say about a bank or bankers?
  • What conventions do these statements represent?
  • If we overturn these conventions, what new opportunities or new ways doing business emerge?
This is a very useful framework. You can use it in the same way to challenge the conventions of your industry, and you can use it in a variety of other ways. For example, you can ask what 10 things you would never hear a visitor say about your website, and go on from there.

"To know what everyone knows is to know nothing." - Remy de Gourmont
"Engineers brought up and living in affluent Japan have no chance of understanding the needs of the next billion." - Fumio Ohtsubo, Panasonic president, as quoted by Financial Times
"Not only do we as individuals get locked into single-minded views, but we also reinforce these views for each other until the culture itself suffers the same mindlessness." - Ellen J. Langer
"The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of “ideas,” of fears and defenses, prejudices and repressions." - Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
"Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility." - Pablo Picasso
"Tunnel vision is a disease in which perception is restricted by ignorance and distorted by vested interest." - Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker

08 January 2010

Take a Metaphor and Call Me in the Morning

I love metaphors! They open our eyes by showing us how something we can't understand is pretty much akin to something we can. For example, Albert Einstein used a metaphor to explain the difference between two communication technologies:
"The telegraph is a kind of very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and he is mewing in Los Angeles. Radio operates in exactly the same way, except there is no cat."
And, if you ever watch the television show House, you'll find the show's lead Dr. Gregory House - played by Hugh Laurie - using metaphors of all shapes and sizes to help him and his team diagnose and treat one mysterious illness after another. This one is from an episode titled Autopsy:
"The tumor is Afghanistan, the clot is Buffalo. Does that need more explanation? OK, the tumor is Al-Qaeda. We went in and wiped it out, but it had already sent out a splinter cell - a small team of low-level terrorists quietly living in some suburb of Buffalo, waiting to kill us all. It was an excellent metaphor. Angio her brain for this clot before it straps on an explosive vest."
Metaphors also help us to remember ideas and concepts. Here is an excellent example from Paulo Coelho's December 19, 2009 blog post. It's The Story of the Pencil taken from a work of his titled Like a Flowing River.
A boy was watching his grandmother write a letter. At one point he asked: "Are you writing a story about what we’ve done? Is it a story about me?"

His grandmother stopped writing her letter and said to her grandson: "I am writing about you, actually, but more important than the words is the pencil I’m using. I hope you will be like this pencil when you grow up."

Intrigued, the boy looked at the pencil. It didn’t seem very special. "But it’s just like any other pencil I’ve ever seen!"

"That depends on how you look at things. It has five qualities which, if you manage to hang on them, will make you a person who is always at peace with the world."

"First quality: you are capable of great things, but you must never forget that there is a hand guiding your steps. We call that hand God, and He always guides us according to His will."

"Second quality: now and then, I have to stop writing and use a sharpener. That makes the pencil suffer a little, but afterward, he’s much sharper. So you, too, must learn to bear certain pains and sorrows, because they will make you a better person."

"Third quality: the pencil always allows us to use an eraser to rub out any mistakes. This means that correcting something we did is not necessarily a bad thing; it helps to keep us on the road to justice."

"Fourth quality: what really matters in a pencil is not its wooden exterior, but the graphite inside. So always pay attention to what is happening inside you."

"Finally, the pencil’s fifth quality: it always leaves a mark. in just the same way, you should know that everything you do in life will leave a mark, so try to be conscious of that in your every action."
A reader of the post added a sixth quality:
"The pencil continues to serve its purpose till its last bit. Time and age does not affect its basic characteristics and its ability to leave a mark. You do not have to stop being yourself or act any different just because you’re growing old!" - Amruta
  • What is a metaphor for the way you live your life?
  • The way you approach your work?
  • The contribution you and/or your business makes to others?
  • The value you place on your most important relationships?
  • The way you deal with obstacles, hardships, or fear?
  • The way you handle acclamation or success?
  • The legacy you want to leave?
"The highest human capacity is the capacity for metaphor." - Aristotle
"By indirections find directions out." - William Shakespeare, Hamlet II
"You don't see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it." - Thomas Kuhn
"The American mind is not even close to being amenable to the ideogram principle as yet. The reason is simply this. America is 100% 18th Century. The 18th century had chucked out the principle of metaphor and analogy - the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD. It can see AB relations. But relations in four terms are still verboten. This amounts to deep occultation of nearly all human thought for the U.S.A. I am trying to devise a way of stating this difficulty as it exists. Until stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can't exist in America. Mere exposure to the arts does nothing for a mentality which is incorrigibly dialectical. The vital tensions and nutritive action of ideogram remain inaccessible to this state of mind." "With most cordial seasonable wishes for you and Mrs. Pound." - Marshall McLuhan, in his 1948 Christmas letter to poet Ezra Pound
"If an organization is narrow in the images that it directs toward its own actions, then when it examines what it has said, it will see only bland displays. This means in turn that the organization won't be able to make much interesting sense of what's going on or of its place in it. That's not a trivial outcome, because the kind of sense that an organization makes of its thoughts and of itself has an effect on its ability to deal with change. An organization that continually sees itself in novel images, images that are permeated with diverse skills and sensitivities, thereby is equipped to deal with altered surroundings when they appear." - Karl Weick
"I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than anything else in the English language - and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music." - Hunter S. Thompson