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.

28 May 2010

How Did You Do That?

Aubrey Daniels, founder and chairman of Aubrey Daniels International, is an expert on behavior in the workplace. In a recent interview he talked about the cynicism that develops when managers try to use one complex technique after another to reinforce and shape worker behavior:
"You know, a lot of the Dilbert strips go over my head, but I use my all-time favorite in one of my seminars. The boss is giving a performance appraisal. He says, 'I'll raise your appraisal from four to five if you eat a bug.' The employee says, 'What?' The boss says, 'Eat a bug. How much clearer can I be?' Then the boss says, 'I didn't have much luck with the other management techniques, so I'm kind of winging it now.'"
Daniels believes the answer is to use measurement to find out the few simple things that really work to shape behavior, and then employ them in an open, honest way. One of the things he's found that works is a very simple idea that can lead to very big results. Kathryn Cramer of The Cramer Institute remembers Daniels describing it in a presentation she attended:
"Our research shows the most reinforcing question you can ask somebody is, 'How did you do that?' It's reinforcing because it helps the person who just did something right pause and reflect. If you ask yourself or someone else that question, almost always people will pause and say, 'Well, I don't know exactly. I just did it.' It prompts you to think it through, step by step. This is a great way to help the integration process, where we really have a deeper knowing of what we did. We get confidence as a bonus."
  • What management fads or techniques have driven you nuts?
  • Some experts believe annual performance reviews should be abolished because they do more harm than good. Do you agree or disagree?
  • How do you feel when you sense someone is using a technique to interact with you?
  • What is the best way people can compliment you on your work?
  • How do you handle compliments?
  • How do you compliment others?
"The man who carries a cat by the tail learns something that can be learned in no other way." - Mark Twain
"Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen." - Louis L'Amour
"How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that brings good news, who proclaims peace and brings glad tidings of good things." - Isaiah 52:8
"Don’t ever cuss that fiddle, boy, unless you want that fiddle out of tune." - Willie Nelson

21 May 2010

How Good a Stranger Are You?

Italian film director Sergio Leonne selected Clint Eastwood to play the lead role in his Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns: A Fistful of Dollars (1964); For a Few Dollars More (1965); and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). All three films were hits, and Eastwood became a star playing the role of a stranger who was simply called, The Man with No Name. The plot in all three of these movies was essentially the same. A stranger arrives in town. He finds evil and drives it out. He leaves without telling anyone his name, where he is from, or what brought him to town. He doesn't even pause to be thanked.

There are many people who enter our lives as strangers, make their mark, and leave the way they came. Most often, these outsiders help us in simple, yet meaningful ways.

A case in point comes from StoryCorps, a company whose mission is to help people share their stories with others. The story is about a young man, Julio Diaz, and is titled A Victim Treats His Mugger Right. The story was featured recently on the NPR's Morning Edition:

March 28, 2008 · Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner. But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn. He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

"He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, 'Here you go,'" Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, "like what's going on here?" Diaz says. "He asked me, 'Why are you doing this?’”

Diaz replied: "If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome."

"You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help," Diaz says.

Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth. "The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi," Diaz says. "The kid was like, 'You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'"

"No, I just eat here a lot," Diaz says he told the teen. "He says, 'But you're even nice to the dishwasher.'"

Diaz replied, "Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?"

"Yea, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way," the teen said.

Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. "He just had almost a sad face," Diaz says.

The teen couldn't answer Diaz — or he didn't want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, "Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you."

The teen "didn't even think about it" and returned the wallet, Diaz says. "I gave him $20 ... I figure maybe it'll help him. I don't know."

Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen's knife — "and he gave it to me."

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, "You're the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch."

"I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world."

  • What is the role strangers play in our lives?
  • How has a stranger helped you?
  • How good a stranger are you?
  • How good a one would you like to be?
"I like Clint Eastwood because he has only two facial expressions: one with the hat, and one without it."- Sergio Leonne
"Some strangers become more important to you than family, maybe because you’re not expected to love them. You can leave them whenever you want to. Every moment together is a choice." - Walter Kirn, Thumbsucker
"The techniques of opening conversation are universal. I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be lost." - John Steinbeck

14 May 2010

How Can We Fail to Succeed?

Poka-yoke is Japanese for fail-safe. The term was popularized by Shigeo Shingo, who made the notion an integral part of the Toyota Production System. The sense of this is patently obvious: ask ahead of time what could possibly go wrong in whatever it is you are trying to do, and figure out what you can do to keep it from happening or minimizing the damage if it does. An example of a fail-safe device is having fighter planes go to full power as they land on the deck of an aircraft carrier so they can take off again if the catch wire fails in some way.

VUCA is an acronym the U.S. Army has been using for over a decade to describe the world in which we are living. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

In a VUCA world, it is virtually impossible to predict the future. As a result, it is nigh unto impossible to develop strategic plans - including business, career, and life plans - that we can play out to a certain end as we were able to do in a more static world. But, plan we must. Or as the great philosopher Seneca said:
"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable."
To deal with this conundrum you can employ the idea of poka-yoke to fail-safe your plans on the front end. Here's how. The plans you create answer the question:
"How can we succeed in getting from point A to point B?"
Most planning stops there. But to build a fail-safe device for your plan, you must ask and answer a second - and seldom asked - question:
"How can we fail to succeed?"
The best idea on how to answer this question comes from Gary Klein, a research psychologist and author of The Power of Intuition. He suggests that when our plans have been etched in stone, we conduct what he calls a PreMortem. This means holding a conversation in which we look out into the future to speculate on how our plans might meet an untimely demise. Here's what to do in Gary's own words.

  • Preparation. Team members take out sheets of paper and get relaxed in their chairs. They should already be familiar with the plan, or else have the plan described to them so they can understand what is supposed to be happening.
  • Imagine a fiasco. When I conduct the PreMortem, I say I am looking into a crystal ball and, oh no, I am seeing that the plan has failed. It isn’t a simple failure either. It is a total, embarrassing, devastating failure. The people on the team are no longer talking to each other. Our company is not talking to the sponsors. Things have gone as wrong as they could. However, we could only afford an inexpensive model of the crystal ball so we cannot make out the reason for the failure. Then I ask, “What could have caused this?”
  • Generate reasons for failure. The people on the team spend the next three minutes writing down all the reasons why they believe the failure occurred. Here is where intuitions of the team members come into play. Each person has a different set of experiences, a different set of scars, and a different mental model to bring to this task. You want to see what the collective knowledge in the room can produce.
  • Consolidate the lists. When each member of the group is done writing, the facilitator goes around the room, asking each person to state one item from his or her list. Each item is recorded in a whiteboard. This process continues until every member of the group has revealed every item on their list. By the end of this step, you should have a comprehensive list of the group’s concerns with the plan as hand.
  • Revisit the plan. The team can address the two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to discuss ideas for avoiding or minimizing other problems.
  • Periodically review the list. Some project leaders take out the list every three to four months to keep the spectre of failure fresh, and re-sensitize the team to the problems that may be emerging.
"Argue as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong." - Karl Weick
"It often happens that a player carries out a deep and complicated calculation, but fails to spot something elementary right at the first move." - Grandmaster Alexander Kotov
"Anticipation is the heart of wisdom. If you are going to cross a desert, you anticipate that you will be thristy, and you take water." - Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War

07 May 2010

A Sense of Place

According to a Russian Proverb:
"Every peasant is proud of the pond in his village because from it he measures the sea."
That old saw is a reminder of how important it is to reach back every now and then to touch both the place we were first rooted, and the people who did so much to shape us. And, while it's not always possible to make the physical journey back home, it's very possible to travel there mentally. What follows is a vehicle for making the trip, and bringing some others along for the ride.
  • Get together with two other people
  • Think back to the house you lived in between the ages of 3 and 9. If there was more than one, pick the one that holds the fondest memories for you.
  • Draw a floor plan - blueprint - of the house, labeling the rooms and positioning furniture, wall hangings, etc. as you can best recall.
  • Take turns. Use the floor plan to take the others on a tour of the house. Go through each room. Share some of the things you associate with particular rooms or places in the house: people, events, conversations, feelings, colors, smells, etc. Encourage them to ask questions to fully understand what you're remembering and why.

When you have finished touring, you will most likely be back in touch with some of the most important and deep-seated lessons you ever learned. You can bring them into sharper focus by sharing your answers to the following questions:
  • What did you learn in that house about expressing love? Anger? Sadness? Joy?
  • About trust? Honesty? Loyalty? Deceit? Cheating?
  • About how women are? Men? Children? Old folks?
  • About how good you are? Smart? Athletic? Musical? Creative? Likable? Lovable?
  • About family? Other relatives? Neighbors? Friends? Teachers? Merchants? Law enforcement officers? Strangers? Others?
  • About God? Religion? Church? Spirituality?
"Each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered lavishly, every morning, whether or not you have ever dared to be happy, whether or not you have ever dared to pray." - Mary Oliver
"In New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and the misfits and the one-lungers and the has-beens and the might've-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home." - Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel
"And all of it is as it has always been: again, again, I turn, and find again the things I have always known: the cool sweet magic of starred mountain night, the huge attentiveness of dark, the slope, the street, the trees, the living silence of the houses waiting, and the fact that April has come back again. And again, in the old house I feel beneath my tread the creak of the old stair, the worn rail, the whitewashed walls, the feel of darkness and the house asleep, and think, 'I was a child here; here the stairs, and here was darkness; this was I, and here is Time.'" - Thomas Wolfe, Return
"The thought was banal, and yet somehow, as happened every now and then, it took him by surprise and profoundly disappointed him. It was absurd, but underlying his experience of the world, at some deep Precambrian stratum, was the expectation that someday – but when? – he would return to the earliest chapters of his life. It was all there – somewhere – waiting for him. He would return to the scenes of his childhood, to the breakfast table of the apartment of the Graben." - Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
"A city man has a home anywhere, for all big cities are much alike. But a country man has a place where he belongs, where he always returns, and where, when the time comes, he is willing to die." - Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
Video: A great performance by the Irish group Celtic Thunder