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.

26 March 2010

Jim Collins Is Curious George

I interviewed Jim Collins - author of the best-selling books Built to Last and Good to Great - after a Masters Forum session and asked him what drove him to put several years of research into writing each of his books. This was his answer:
"The ultimate driving force is curiosity and contribution. And the curiosity part really ties into this notion of what we jokingly call the Chimp. Be like Curious George, start with a question and look under the yellow hat to find what's there. To see, to truly understand, and go 'Ooh, that's really interesting.' And then second, to make a lasting contribution."
I might add that instead of doing research, writing books, and giving lectures to make enough money to live the good life, Jim writes books and gives lectures to fund his next research project and make his next contribution.

Two years after Built to Last became a best-seller, Jim was asked a question - by a management consultant during a dinner in San Francisco - that spawned Good to Great:
"What advice do you have for mediocre companies that want to dramatically improve themselves? Are they doomed forever to second-class performance?"
Jim rephrased the question slightly:
"How can I help people and companies go from mere goodness to greatness?"
And, set out to find the answer.

First, he set up a research lab in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Incidentally, the lab is housed in the same building where he attended grammar school and his conference room is his old first-grade classroom.

Then, he assembled a research team - made up of young graduate students from the University of Colorado - to walk with him on what turned out to be a five-year journey to answer his question. But, he didn't simply pick the first warm bodies that showed up on his doorstep; he chose bold, curious students - like himself - who wouldn't settle for just any answers. The team he chose took on the name Chimps, because of Jim's chimpanzee-like ways. And, it wasn't long before pictures of Curious George began to show up around the lab. In total, some 20 Chimps worked on the project at a rate of four or five a year. Their work involved: analyzing stocks, conducting interviews, collecting and coding articles, and fact checking numbers in the book. They were - to a person - fully and passionately committed to the idea of greatness. They were - as a team - willing to take full responsibility for the conclusions they drew from their research.

In addition to curiosity, Jim was looking some other characteristics in the people he hired to be Chimps. They had to be:
  • Smart
  • Willing to death march
  • Genetically encoded to be irreverent
  • Willing to tell him when he was wrong
  • Which, if any, of the five traits Collins looked for are also important to you? Why?
  • If any, some, or all of them are important to you, how are you making sure this is accounted for in your recruiting and selection process?
  • If you are able to find and hire people who possess the traits you say are important, are you capable of leading and retaining them? Are you sure?
  • If not, what can you do to either develop the necessary capabilities, or make sure you are not hiring people you can't keep?
"Curiosity, especially intellectual inquisitiveness, is what separates the truly alive from those who are merely going through the motions." - Tom Robbins
"Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity." - Albert Einstein
"An accident is perhaps the only thing that really inspires us. A composer improvises aimlessly the way an animal grubs about. Both of them go grubbing about because they yield to a compulsion to seek things out." Igor Stravinski, Poetics of Music
"Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking;" - Leo Tolstoy

19 March 2010

The Power of Stories

A recent speaker at the Masters Forum said that having a story to tell about our product or service can add value for customers and be a differentiator in the marketplace. He went on to say he was recently influenced to buy a product called Big Tattoo wine because of the back story he found on the label. Here's a slightly expanded version of that story; it appears on the company's website:
Two Brothers Winery, a partnership between brothers Erik and Alex Bartholomaus, released their debut wine, Big Tattoo Red 2001, in autumn of 2002 as a way to raise funds for cancer research and Hospice care in memory of their mother, Liliana S. Bartholomaus.

Alex Bartholomaus, President and C.E.O. of Billington Wines in Springfield, Va., created this unique blend in Chile. Alex then teamed up with his brother Erik, an established world-traveling tattoo artist, to design a fun label that would remind the two of their mother. Erik designed the label and they named their creation Big Tattoo Red.

Fifty cents from every bottle sold was donated to the Hospice of Arlington, Va., and other breast cancer research foundations in the name of Liliana S. Bartholomaus. The two sold 13,835 cases of the 2001 debut vintage and raised $83,010 to donate to Cancer research and support. The 2002 vintage was released in June, and the brothers were able to raise $300,000 in donation money. Erik and Alex have decided to make some of the donations on a state-by-state basis. This has helped them convince many distributors across the country to join in matching donations from Big Tattoo Red sales and giving even more money to local charities.

In an effort to expand this project even more, the brothers are now producing Big Tattoo White, a Riesling blend from Germany and a Syrah from Chile.

It was the Bartholomaus brothers' goal to honor their mother, who lost her battle against cancer in 2000. They wanted to do this in a creative and beneficial way. These fun wines boast a label with a Fleur de Lys, Liliana's favorite symbol, and their labels stand out on any retailer's shelf. The popularity of the wine soared during 2003, popping up on wine shop shelves and restaurant wine lists nation wide.
Because of this touching and powerful story, the brothers have raised $1,305,100 for their cause as of today's date.
At the Masters Forum, we've focused on the power of stories from the beginning. In fact, one of our founding principles says it’s stories - not data or information, no matter how well or cleverly presented - that are the principle driver of learning that sticks in the human brain. Or, as the author Rudyard Kipling said:
"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
Accordingly, we have always selected our speakers not only for their great new ideas and unique ways of seeing, but also for their knack of saying what they have to say in the form of highly compelling, entertaining stories. In addition, we have held several sessions over the years on the subject of storytelling as a leadership and culture-building tool.

One of my favorites featured journalist and storyteller extraordinaire Roger Rosenblatt, whose first words to us were:
"I believe we're here to tell one another stories."
From there on, Roger's talk was simply a string of stories, along with a handful of suggestions on how to live. Anecdotes from his travels as a journalist, to Africa and Asia. Memories of growing up in the Gramercy Park neighborhood in New York. People he has interviewed over the years. Stories he has read. Quotes that stand out in his mind. He encouraged us to think of our lives and our stories. Many of us were straining though to connect the idea of stories with the challenges of doing business.

Writer Mike Finley, who authored the summary of Roger's session for us, was one of those scratching his head:
He's a professional storyteller. But what do stories mean for those of us making a living light years from the New York Times Magazine?

In business it may mean that we must identify what our story is. Chances are it is not something that has been percolated down in corporate communications. It may include, but does not center on, the plucky tale of the company founder and what he learned to do with baling wire and chewing gum.

The story may focus on the struggle to get inside your customers' problems and solve them. Or the individual lives of employees, their dreams and their difficulties. The challenge of being a decent employer, a good neighbor, and still returning a favorable yield to investors. Or the brave face you put up against competition that threatens at times to blow you away. It is the culture of the company, and how it is built upon sweat and care, and what it expects of people. It is the struggle against chaos that packs each day with new tensions. It is coping with the story itself, and the unavoidable arc that takes a company from early growth to slow decay.

The story changes every day, and the best you can do is to be sure that on any given day your story is as true as you can make it. The worst is to live a lie.

  • What is the story of your company's birth and formative years? What was its raison d'etre? What were its guiding principles?
  • How has its story unfolded over the years? What has changed? What is unchanged?
  • Does your company's official mission statement inspire you? If not, what story would you write to replace it?
  • What stories do you tell new colleagues to let them know how it is to work here? Are they the same stories you would tell them if you were forced to toe the company line?
  • Does your company need to create a new story to compete more effectively in today's rapidly changing world? If so, what is the story you think needs to be written?
"Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story—a story that is basically without meaning or pattern." - Eric Hoffer
"Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it . . . and change it as times change, truly are powerless because they cannot think new thoughts." - Salman Rushdie
"But do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know." - J.R.R. Tolkien
"'I would ask you to remember only this one thing,' said Badger. 'The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each others memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations.'" - Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

12 March 2010

Are You Lucky?

When he appeared at The Masters Forum, author Dan Pink told of a conversation he had with an HR executive he met at a conference. When talk turned to unusual interview questions, she shared her favorite:
"Are you lucky?"
Dan immediately thought, "I'm so going to steal that." And, he did.

I heard a great story about luck several years back. It came from Cliff Havener and concerned a consulting project he had just finished at 3M. Cliff included the story in his book - Meaning: The Secret to Being Alive - which was published two or three years hence. I quote from the book:
The general manager of 3M's Occupational Health and Safety Products Division once asked me to conduct a broad-scale study. The flagship of his line was disposable face masks.

The two questions he wanted answered were: Why was this product successful? and Will it continue?

If you didn't know how and why it would work, how did you get into the business?

Here's what he told me:

Once upon a time there were two R&D scientists experimenting with a technology to mold paper into various shapes and have it stay that way. Once they got it to work, they asked each other, 'Now what can we do with this?' One suggested paper dresses. 'Nah!' said the other, 'That's been done.' But, being on the subject of women, he added, 'But what about paper bras? A woman could wear the bra for a few days and throw it away. She'd never have to wash it.' That was their idea of the product's reason for being. Each asked his wife what she thought. Being supportive, loyal wives, they answered, 'Oh honey, you're so smart. What a great idea!' They just didn't mention they wouldn't wear one on a bet. Having completed their market research, the two convinced management to build a pilot plant. It consisted of die-cutting machines stamping out everything from 32As to 44Ds.

They named the product, packaged it, and gave it to the sales force that called on department stores. These guys usually called on the stationery buyer about tape and such. They made a detour to see the lingerie buyer, who, of course, was a woman. The roars of laughter that erupted from the lingerie buyers' offices caused the sales guys to slink out without bothering to open the door. With bright red faces, they called headquarters: 'Did you clowns ever check this out? That was the worst experience of my life.' The home office cheered! One possible application of the technology had been eliminated. They were one step closer to finding a home for it.

'O.K., the bra idea didn't work. Now we've got all those die-cut machines. What can we do with them?' someone asked. 'Well, if we cut the bras in half and add rubber bands, we'll have face masks,' someone offered. That's what they did. Industry bought them, like crazy. That's how we got into this business. The thing is, we don't know why industry bought 'em like crazy - or if they're gonna keep buying them like crazy.

What I found out was that while Tweedledum and Tweedledee were playing with the bras that became face masks, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) changed its primary focus from accident prevention to air quality. Manufacturing plants found themselves equipping workers with canister masks. Canister masks are heavy. They restrict breathing, induce fatigue, and interfere with vision. Morale and productivity plummeted. Adding insult to injury, plants had to sterilize the masks every night further increasing costs.

Into this situation blindly stumbled a product that was lightweight, induced far less fatigue, and interfered less with vision. It provided a way for companies to comply with OSHA’s regulations without destroying their profit. That’s dramatically superior usefulness. No wonder industry bought ‘em like crazy.

The company had provided dramatically superior usefulness – without consciously intending to do it, knowing how to do it, or knowing it had done it.
This is also a story of prototyping. Send something into the market. Find out if it works. If it does, great. If it doesn't, regroup and try again. Typically, though, a company will make a much smaller bet on the front end.

  • Are you superstitious?
  • Do you believe in karma?
  • Are there some people who are just plain lucky and others who are unlucky?
  • Who is the luckiest person you know? Unluckiest?
  • How has luck - good or bad - made a difference in your life and career?
  • Is good luck simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time? If so, how can you know when you're standing in the right spot?
  • What can you do to increase the chances you'll be lucky?
"No matter what our character, no matter what our behavior, no matter if we are ugly, unkind, murderers, saints, guilty sinners, foolish, or wise, we can get lucky." - Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather
"Luck or tragedy, some people get runs. Then of course there are those who divide it even, good and bad, but we never hear of them. Such a life doesn't demand attention. Only the people who get the good or bad runs." - John Steinbeck
"My luck is getting worse and worse. Last night, for instance, I was mugged by a Quaker." - Woody Allen

05 March 2010

Alex Haley: On Assignment for Playboy

In 1976, Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The following year, Roots was made into a television mini-series that reached a record-breaking 130 million viewers. In 1979, ABC aired a sequel titled Roots: the Next Generations.

Until then, Haley was best know for writing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was published in 1965 and was later named one of the ten most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Alex was the speaker for the kick-off session of our 1991 Masters Forum series. He arrived fairly early on the cold and snowy Minnesota evening prior to his appearance. We had planned dinner together. But he called and said he would just as soon spend the rest of the night trying to get warm, and wondered if we might have breakfast early the next morning instead. I chuckled and said "not a problem." We agreed to meet at the hotel's coffee shop at half past six.

I was really anxious to meet Alex. I had become familiar with his work several years before he became famous. I was in college at the time and had attended an on-campus lecture by George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell's hate-filled presentation stopped me cold. I had grown up in a small town in Minnesota, and though I was familiar with the civil rights movement, I'd had no first-hand experience with it. Rockwell blew the fog away; he gave bigotry and hate a face and voice I'll never forget.

At roughly the same time, I got hold of an issue of Playboy magazine that featured an interview with Rockwell, and though I was not surprised to find him saying pretty much the same things he said in his speech, I was surprised when I learned that the interview was conducted by an African-American writer named Alex Haley. "Why in the hell did he do that?" I thought.

I had a chance to ask Alex that question as we sat having breakfast on the day he graced our stage. The story he told me was fascinating. He phoned Rockwell to set up the interview. Rockwell asked him if he was Jewish. He said he was not. Rockwell apparently didn't think to ask him if he was Black. Alex didn't bother to tell him either, and said there were a bunch of surprised Nazi's when a cab deposited him at their front steps on the day of the interview. He said Rockwell went ahead with the interview nonetheless, but kept a loaded pistol within his reach the entire time. You can read the interview here.

After he finished telling the story, I had another question for Alex. He had been quoted as saying:
"In all my writing, as much as I could, I tried to find the good and praise it."
I asked him what good he found in Rockwell. He answered:
"I found a very rich lesson for myself in my conversation with George Lincoln Rockwell for the Playboy interview. Whatever else, he was intelligent. I found that he had become a Nazi because of a series of frustrations in his life. He wasn't the tough, tough man he presented himself as being; he was actually a poignant, in-trouble human being, surrounded by ignorant haters - that's all they had sustaining them."
That answer rendered me speechless for one of the only times in my life. The best I could do at that point was suggest that I pick up the tab for breakfast and that we head to the auditorium where he would be giving his presentation. He was all for it. Before we left, however, he asked if he could have the two pieces of bacon I had left on my plate. I said "Sure!"

I have reflected on the notion of Alex finding something good about Rockwell many times since. I think there are two very important lessons to be learned.

First, research tells us that if we don't see the good in someone, we can't effectively manage or lead that person. Alex Haley reminds us that there is something good about virtually everyone, and if we can't readily see it, we simply need to dig a little deeper to uncover it. The key to the dig is listening to understand, or listening in a way that allows others to tell us their own stories in their own way and in their own time. Once you've done this a few times, you'll understand what Will Rogers really meant when he said:
"I've never met a man I didn't like."
Most people think he said it because he was an eternal optimist; I think he said it because he made it a habit to take the time to get to know people by listening to their stories. If you are a leader, you should make it a point to do the same with your colleagues.

Second, "find the good and praise it" is the by far the most important rule of giving effective performance feedback. But, it's not the only rule. A leader must also point to what is wrong with performance periodically. I learned this early in my career from Fran Tarkenton, who was both a quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings and a business consultant at the time. He remains a consultant today. He said that there needs to be a positive to negative ratio of 4:1 in giving performance feedback. He called the concept "laying the one," and said it's the one negative stroke in five that gives the four positive ones their credibility. James Boswell, the 18th century Scottish author, summarized this idea very succinctly when he said:
"He who praises everybody, praises nobody."
He could just as well have said:
"He who praises everything, praises nothing."
The idea didn't really come alive for me, though, until my oldest son landed on a 6th grade traveling basketball team coached by a guy named Joe Crawford. This could be a long story in itself, but suffice it to say that Joe was willing to "lay the one" at a time when every parent, teacher, and coach was being told they could only pat kids on the head and say good job; to do otherwise would damage their self-esteem. Joe took some heat on this. Coaches were also being "encouraged" to give equal playing time to everyone on the team, and not be concerned with winning or losing. Joe took more heat here, especially from parents whose kids were sitting on the bench at crunch time. In fact, at one point in the year, those particular parents tried to get Joe fired. They failed. But Joe didn't.

Joe did three things for the kids on that team during the three years he coached them. They were lessons which will last a lifetime.

First, he taught each and every kid how to play basketball. And he was really good at teaching basketball. This is in contrast to some parents who volunteer to coach youth sports to help their kid and their kid's friends and no one else.

Second, he established a high performance culture; kids earned their playing time and the right to be on the court when the game was on the line through attitude, hard work, and results. My son was one of those end of the bench kids at the beginning, and he earned more playing time as the year went along. One thing he knew for sure, though, was that when he was on the floor it was because he had earned the right to be there, not because of some equal playing time rule. This is how true self-esteem is developed: through true accomplishment.

Third, he taught them to honor the game. He showed them - by example - how to play by the rules, how to win with humility, lose with dignity, and show respect for teammates, opponents, game officials, and parents.

The bottom line for Joe and his kids? They lost the state championship game in triple overtime that first year. They won it the next, and lost in the finals again in the third. I still see kids who played on that team today, and to a one, they say that Joe was by far the best coach or teacher they ever had. Today Joe is running the national AAU basketball program. The AAU couldn't have made a better choice.

The bottom line for leaders? Spend most of you time looking for what's right with performance and praise it when you see it. And don't forget to "lay the one" once in awhile to bolster your credibility.


  • What about Haley - what inner strength or life view or studied means of detachment - made it possible for him to sit down and listen to try to understand someone who was so filled with hate for him and all others of his race?
  • How was he able to absorb Rockwell's rhetoric long enough to get a even a glimpse of the good he eventually saw in him?
  • Besides the gun - though I don't think it was an issue - how was he able to refrain from arguing with Rockwell or striking back in some other way?
  • Haley said he found a very rich lesson for himself during the conversation. What do you think it could possibly have been?
  • Have you ever had an experience that mirrors Haley's in some way, shape, or form? If so, please tell the story of what went down, and touch upon any lessons you learned.
"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." - M. Scott Peck
"One has not only the ability to perceive the world, but an ability to alter one's perception of it; more simply, one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them." - Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
"In the perspective of every person lies a lens through which we may better understand ourselves." - Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning
"When a man begins to have a vision larger than his own truth...he begins to become conscious of his moral nature." - Rabindranath Tagore
"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Our greatest pretenses are built up not to hide the evil and the ugly in us, but our emptiness. The hardest thing to hide is something that is not there." - Eric Hoffer, Passionate State of Mind
"It's by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life." - Joseph Campbell
"You can't study the darkness by flooding it with light." - Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

From Roots: Alex Haley Meets with George Lincoln Rockwell