Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Break for the Holidays: Who Wants to Talk About Business?

Back to creative thinking in business after the New Year.

For a holiday break, here's another children's story. As Daniel, 9, would put it, it's a tale only for those who understand what the different between the terms "figurative" and "literal".

Daniel is very wise.

Child Tested, Parent Approved: A Dedication

Anecdotal esearch (eg family, friends, total strangers in airports with screaming kids) suggests this work for all ages.

Barkthur is dedicated to those experts who helped in its development. Daniel was a very helpful literary critic in his approach to stories generally. Erin, (4) and Sarabeth, (5) find puns second only to complete nonsense in their hilarity. They told me which ones were funny. Wriquey (15) and Dylan (12) are big on Medieval stories of any kind, and Emily, Paddy, and Henry will laugh at almost anything (1 year-old each), and Julia and Oliver will like it, too, according to their parents who expect them in the Spring.

To that point, this is also dedicated Michael, Sue (over 29, shall we say) and to the parents who have told me that they have appreciated it most after about the ninth or tenth reading when getting their kids to bed.

But First, A Note on The Children's Book Industry

I've included details of the single drawing done for this piece by Ron Barrett (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Pickles to Pittsburgh, Old MacDonald Had An Apartment House). It was never completed because publishers (again) felt there was nothing new in it.

As with It's a Drag to Be a Dragon, feel free to share this with interested children. The only requirement is that it's read aloud (no kidding).

And Now To Our Story . . .

King Barkthur & The Nights At The Hounds' Table
(A Tail that Gives One Paws)

Once upon a time in a land called Canine-Lot, there lived a good, kind, and frisky pup named Barkthur. He fetched beautifully, spoke when spoken to, and washed his paws after every meal. He loved more than anything else to play and bark.

He sure wasn't the kind of dog that thought about becoming king.

Now Barkthur had a sister, named Dogbone Lamee. Dogbone was Barkthur's older sister, and everyone knows that older sisters are smart (if you want to check, just ask one).

In her heart of hearts, Dogbone Lamee knew that she was a natural leader of dogs. And because she could run with the pack and because she was smart, she knew that there was only one job for her.

She wanted to be Queen of Canine-Lot.

This is what happened instead.

One day, Barkthur and his friends were digging up the yard. Suddenly, Barkthur's nose hit something hard. It was a bone—a bone in a stone.

Barkthur licked his chops, took the bone in his teeth, and pulled it out.

The sky turned dark. Lightning flashed. Out of nowhere, an old shaggy dog appeared.

She looked around very slowly, and began to tell a shaggy dog story.

"I am the old sister of the old old king," she announced. "Before he died, he put this bone in this stone and he buried it here, deep deep in the ground. My brother said that whoever pulled the bone from the stone must be the next king.

Looking at Barkthur, she said, “Sorry, kid. All hail. In Dog We Trust.”

In a puff of smoke, she disappeared.

Barkthur knew that his days as a pup were over. He was now King Barkthur of Canine-Lot.

When Barkthur’s sister, Dogbone Lamee, heard what had happened, she howled with anger. "Whoever heard of becoming king simply from pulling a bone from a stone! What about brains? What about leadership skills?"

To be fair, she was right. Dogbone would make a great queen. There was only one thing to do. She headed for Canine-Lot to take the throne from her brother, the king.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, Barkthur appointed Furlin the Wizard as his advisor.

Furlin was the wisest animal in the kingdom. "If you listen to me you'll be a brilliant king. If you don't, you'll end up chasing your own tail."

And with Furlin's help, Barkthur did become a pretty good king.

But as we know, trouble was on the way.

Dogbone knew the name of every grumpy dog in the area. These dogs were bullies, and their gang was called the Ruff-Ruffians.

The Ruff-Ruffians chased smaller animals. They howled late at night when everyone else was trying to sleep. Ruff- Ruffians ran in packs. They upset every apple cart, and they dug up other people's lawns.

And so when Dogbone Lamee made her plan, she recognized right away that the best way to cause trouble for Barkthur (or throw a bone in the works, if you will) was to become the leader of the Ruff-Ruffians.

Dogbone arrived in the kingdom at midnight. Not being the sort to let sleeping dogs lie, she immediately got the Ruff-Ruffians all worked up. She rubbed their fur backwards, and made them chase their own tails.

With Dogbone Lamee at the lead, the Ruff-Ruffians jumped in lakes and shook their wet fur on everyone. They were taught to roll over and sit on smaller dogs -- in short, they learned every mean trick in the book.

Meanwhile, King Barkthur knew that something had to be done. Furlin wisely suggested Barkthur call the best and brightest dogs of the kingdom to help sort out the Ruff-Ruffian problem.

From all corners of the kingdom, dogs came running. Large dogs, strong dogs, dogs that could run very fast, dogs that could take orders, dogs that were loyal -- they all showed up at the castle and gathered around a large table to hear the king speak.

This was the famous Hounds' Table - perhaps you've heard of it?

Barkthur thanked them all for coming. He explained about the Ruff-Ruffians and his sister, Dogbone Lamee. It was a pretty good speech (Furlin wrote it).

When it was over, Barkthur asked the dogs if they would help him.

"I think you'd better keep your day jobs," he added, "just in case things don't work out." So from that day forward, the dogs began spending their nights at the Hounds' Table to protect the kingdom.

It was a big deal to be a Knight of the Hounds Table. One of the knights that everyone liked was called Sir Galahound. He was especially loved by the ladies. It was all he could do to keep them at bay.

Another popular pup was Sir Woof-A-Lot. Everyone knew when he was nearby. Sir Woof-A Lot woofed so much that he hardly ever heard anybody else. No one could even get a growl in edgewise.

Woof-A-Lot and Galahound were fun to play with. They became Barkthur's best friends.

And one day, Sir Woof-A-Lot's cousin, Kennel-Dear, came visiting from the kingdom next door. Kennel-Dear and Barkthur romped all over the place together.

They had such a good time that they decided to cut to the chase and get married. There were many milk toasts. It was a great day throughout the kingdom.

And guess what?

When Dogbone Lamee heard that someone else had become queen, she really became a mad dog! "This is so unfair, " she cried. "I'm the smart one. I know how to be a leader. I should be queen!"

So Dogbone made a second and better evil plan. There was a law back then with special claws, and the claws said that said anyone who traveled outside the kingdom was not allowed to return.

You see, there were fleas out there, and it was important not to wander off and then bring them back.

Dogbone Lamee told the Ruff Ruffians to steal Queen Kennel-dear's favorite dogbone and to throw it out past the kingdom's borders, with the fleas.

Poor Kennel-Dear stood at the edge of the kingdom and howled and cried and whimpered.

As luck would have it, Sir Woof-A-Lot wasn't woofing as much as usual (he was whistling instead). He happened to hear the Queen.

Because Woof-A-Lot was a very good knight, he ran outside the kingdom to fetch the bone. "But now I can't come back," Woof-A-Lot said, scratching at the fleas. "It's the law."

Kennel-Dear quickly trotted back to ask Barkthur to change the law. Barkthur thought that was a fine idea. But Furlin disagreed.

“If we change the law to make Woof-a-Lot happy,” he said, “we’ll end up making everyone else miserable. We’ll have fleas everywhere.”

And then Furlin repeated the word “fleas” a thousand times to show what he meant by a flea problem.

Several hours later, King Barkthur growled at his wizard," Thank you Furlin. I get your point." Barkthur lay down and put his chin on his paws. He thought and he thought and he thought. Finally, he raised his head.

"I know," Barkthur said. "I never wanted to be king in the first place. I'll let Dogbone become queen! Then Kennel-Dear and I can go off and play with Woof-A-Lot and Galahound. Everyone will happy!."

"Aren't you forgetting the fleas?" Furlin asked. Barkthur smiled.

"As my last duty as king, I command you to figure out a way to get rid of fleas. You're a wizard," Barkthur said. "You'll think of something."

And so Barkthur turned the throne over to his sister, who was very happy indeed. The first thing Queen Dogbone did was to tell the Ruff-Ruffians to behave. They did, and peace fell upon the land. She then moved on to agrarian reform.

Furlin put a magic spell on everyone's neckwear, thus inventing the flea collar. And since he knew that some dogs didn't like wearing collars, he also invented a magic flea powder that could be rubbed into the fur (Kennel-Dear liked this).

The flea law was abolished. Goods and services traveled freely between kingdoms from that day forward. And so did dogs.

And they all lived yappily ever after.

Copyright 2002 Annette Kramer; Images copyright 2002 Ron Barrett

Monday, December 19, 2005

Defining Leadership Skills: From the Classroom to the Boardroom

Over dinner, a friend (let's call him Ulysses) told me about a leadership elective he was teaching this semester to kids at a prep school.

Ulysses has maintained two careers in tandem. With a PhD from an Ivy League university, he teaches classical languages and literature while keeping a firm hand in high finance and philanthropy. He has very strong feelings about the qualities of leadership across contexts.

"The leadership elective is useless," Ulysses said. "It doesn't make sense. Leadership is not something you can recite or learn in the abstract."

After some thought, we decided leadership qualities in school and work combine charisma, expertise in an industry or subject, the ability to persuade, and confidence.

Confidence is particularly useful for some other necessary skills for leadership: the willingness to engage in meaningful conversation, to admit to being wrong, to learning what needs to change, and to make decisions even in the face of the unknown.

These are all disciplines very closely related to creativity in business. Instinct doesn't hurt either.

And So, In Short . . .

The necessary qualities for leadership must to be learned over time, outside the classroom as well as inside. Otherwise, "it's like an acting exercise," he said. You can look like a leader for an hour, but it won't work in off-stage.

My prestigious friend concluded that in order to integrate the work in different disciplines that combines to form leadership talent, both kids and adults need practice in different situations and to see what happens. Optimal results derive from integrating as many kinds of awareness and skill sets as possible.

But Wait, There's (Always) More

Another friend called Heather, a student and scholar of leadership and change, adds a provocative twist. After a careful study of the history and current divergent theories of business leadership, she concluded that the current climate is very much like the story in which a group of blind men mistook the parts of an elephant for the whole.

Where Myth and Management Meet

The story goes something like this: A group of blind men, all at different ends of an elephant, put their hands on the beast and declared definitively that an elephant is whatever they happened to touch.

One put his hand on the back and defined an elephant to be flat, dry, and wrinkly. Another touched the trunk and objected with great force that an elephant is long and tubular. A third stroked the leg, denied the first two claims, and definitively declared an elephant to be like a tree trunk. You get the point.

It's a remarkably astute observation on theory in general, and business leadership theory in particular. Pick a piece of the beast, and you'll find a different set of challenges and come up with a different set of solutions.

Heather has spent most of her life as a professional storyteller. Just another example of the ways in which crossing disciplines generates perspectives those too close to the elephant often miss.

For More On Thinking and Learning Generally

For related information on multiple intelligences vis a vis the discussion with Ulysses, see Howard Gardner's refelections on learning styles and capabilities. Howard Gardner is one of my heroes -- a neurologist by training who also studies the arts, corporate practice, and education.

As Frank McCourt has recently said in a talk at New York's 92nd Street Y, teachers themselves are never awarded the kind of prestige of any other profession. As McCourt points out, every TV panel on education contains a superintendant, a politician, and a professor of education but never someone who actually works in a classroom.

Howard Gardner has articulated for many educators’ ideas that no one would have heard otherwise. Of course, not to sell Gardner short, he also brings the perspective of a brilliant neuroscientist and scholar. Very useful for both credibility and making new connections.

All Kinds of Minds is an organization that provides resources for parents and teachers that works from Gardners' ideas, and is worth checking out as well.

For The Part the Elephant You Find in the Boardroom . . .

For another perspective on potential for thinking about business leadership in new ways, see Tom Harrison's book Instinct.

A biologist by training, Harrison talks about entrepreneurial DNA -- a useful metaphor for the potential to develop a collection of disciplines for effective leadership and innovation.

There's a lot of clearly articulated insight in Harrison's book, particularly in the way he offers new connections among old chestnuts.

My one caveat for Instinct: I am not big on quizzes because once there is an external standards, one tends to teach to (and learn for) the test. Exams tend to put one back into a passive way of thinking and to frame your thinking according to someone else's criteria.

If you take Harrison's tests, first make one up of yourself. Or use his as just the first in a series of new perspectives. What do YOU think makes a great entrepreneur and leader? What have you got that fits the bill? What have you got to learn? Where can you learn it?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reconceiving PR: Two Creative Perspectives

Insight always packs the biggest punch when it's demonstrated rather than discussed. It's a the biggest reason that the concept of Thought Leadership desperately needs an overhaul as a brand-builder. I'm certainly not alone in this view.

David Weinberger and Jerry Michalski are two great thinkers on the subects of business, marketing, and brand.

Check out their ideas about new conceptions of PR -- more on creating new connections, relationships, and conversations.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Financial Services, Part 2: Sustainable Growth through Creativity

In the context of sustainable solutions for creativity in business, it seems appropriate to offer a second part of a previously posted conversation with a Partner in a Financial Services Firm.

Curiosity and Tenacity: Key Factors in Hiring

This high-level executive looks for curiosity, tenacity, and the kind of education that offers underlying discipline and confidence for effective problem-solving.

Here's a bit more on how his firm channels creativity to improve the bottom line:

AK: What concrete business case do you have for requiring curiosity in employees?

P: It's an equation that works like this: Problem-solving is a by-product of curiosity. You’ve got to be curious enough to deliver an effective outcome. That's how you make money, simple as that.

It's harder to sustain than you might think. You have to make sure the people who work for you are supported in their curiosity.

AK: So you're saying success in business involves taking care of employees? There's a lot of rhetoric around this in the business world, but how does it work? And is it really profitable?

P: Absolutely. Sustainability in a business model that people pay for. So I’ll pay a bigger multiple of earnings if I think your growth and innovative capacity is going to last forever. If I think the employees are well taken care of and earn stock, if they are supported, it's a big part of my decision to invest.

There are other issues as well that might help me make a decision. If the company has great corporate governance, if the management is super ethical, if they don't dump chemicals or kill trees, all these things are meaningful to investors.

These things were all overlooked for a while -- the economy was chugging along, but the world becomes increasingly complicated and interconnected.

AK: I'd like to hear more about how you support your employee's curiosity to sustain innovation and grow your business.

Would you elaborate on the ways your firm encourages or demands that employees find new ways of looking at the world to this end?

P: Sure. We put a lot of effort into providing opportunities to learn, and not just directly related to finance per se.

We support our people in going back to school and get advanced degrees, or take classes just because they're interested in a subject. The courses feed their curiosity and also provide ways to do better due diligence in the subject area.

In the end, we see the benefits for our company and our investors.

AK: Your employees get higher degrees in subjects other than straight business or economics? Can you give me an example?

P: Sure. There may be someone here who is fascinated by technology. He’ll go to a professor in NYU and learn how all the latest, hottest applications work. In the process, this person is also learning about the current state of industry, which products work, and how companies do customer service -- the whole gamut.

Once they get degrees, this employee is not just a finance guy -- he's also technologists. He can go out and question the industry and make investment decisions with having a real knowledge about what to ask. He has a sense of what's credible -- in your words -- and useful in a way that someone who just studies business would never get.

AK: Are there other benefits?

P: Sure. Knowing how to do this in one field is transferable to others. Like you said, learning is associative -- once you learn a process in one context, you can apply to a field that's unfamiliar. That's very useful to us.

AK: You said earlier that looking at patterns in one field can trigger curiousity in another about what doesn't fit and requires more investigation. Can you elaborate?

P: Here's an example. If you have a public company that declares its earnings, you have to understand that there are different possibilities of what’s true. Presentation of information that looks credible may have something behind it other than what it seems.

The specifics change from situation to situation. It's important to be able to be flexible and curious enough to investigate patterns when the data changes -- it's a creative process.

AK: This seems to go back to what we were saying about the value of making new connections among seemingly familiar pieces of information.

P: Right. This is an evolving industry on Wall Street. I mean, look at values-based research, for example. It's socially responsible investing -- looking at companies and their compensation and corporate governance and employee healthcare which typically people didn’t look at before.

More and more, there are research firms doing off pieced research products. This can tell you so much more than the basic income statement, value sheet, earnings, growth, and all that that we’re used to seeing.

AK: So what these firms are tying to do is get people to look at the market in a new way, to see it new.

P: Short-term thinking doesn't work long-term. Sophisticated investors understand that, and we help our clients recognize the value.

At the end of the day, a company's earning growth is not sustainable if it hasn't got good corporate governance and doesn't support its employees.

Monday, December 05, 2005

More Sustainable Practices to Support Creativity in Business: Conflict, Part 2

In consultant fashion, my writing often begins with a problem brought to me by someone in a bit of a pickle.

The Weekly Pickle

This week, a writer friend (let's call her Jane) told me about her frustration with the way conflict is handled at work. Jane is tremendously bright, has a great deal of experience as a writer and thinker, and works in a department that generates insight papers for a large corporate concern.

Jane's Challenge

When conflict arises -- either in a planning meeting or in an interview -- those controlling the agenda insist on eliminating tension as quickly as possible.

It's a rather counterproductive tendency aimed at restoring a level of emotional comfort and a sense that everyone's on the same team. In conversations designed to uncover new insights, polite discussion becomes the priority over exploring new territory.

If necessary, consensus is achieved by force -- contradictions are denied, and the higher-ranking people at the table change the subject or claim resolution without actually achieving it.

An Alternative Strategy

Someone else my friend and I both know (let's call him Max) does a beautiful job at turning this sort of situation around. When conflict arises, Max calmly refuses the be turned away from the original topic at hand.

Sometimes square in face of hierarchical convention, Max highlights the manner in which viewpoints diverge or conflict after the subject has been dismissed. However, he also offers ways to explore the relationships among opposing perspectives.

When resolution is impossible, Max encourages the room to be curious about contradiction and suggests that this fact is as much a topic worthy of investigation as any particular point of view.

See Max Run

It must be said that part of Max's ability to do this comes from the fact that he is a man. When he speaks, he is heard in a way that my other, female friend is not.

On the other hand, this does not take anything away from Max's accomplishments. He is willing to be curious aloud in the face of longstanding business convention that sees contradiction among peers as a problem.

Max persistently, quietly insists that opposition is not to be feared but instead must be acknowledged where it lies. Otherwise, how can writers reach the real inisights the company seeks?

Max's Methods

Max's methods are various: charisma, brilliance, gentleness, persistence, and gravitas. However, his greatest strength is that he reframes the conflict in terms that take away the emotional acrimony -- or fear of it arising.

Debate can generate as much emotional as cerebral investment, and in a business context, feelings can be uncomfortable. In addition, positions start to feel personal -- conflict can imply winners and losers, and who wants to end up giving ground? Max stands back from the situation and allows others to do the same. It leaves everyone freer to be curious.

Sometimes it doesn't work -- the people you work with have to be willing to see things new, or even the most persuasive voices will not move them. Being open to new ideas works best when it's rewarded from the highest levels of any business.

So Where Does This Lead?

Sometimes talking things through can allow a group to see that they actually agree or find a new, better idea generated collectively. Conversation can an excellent discipline for finding the overlap in seemingly disparate perspectives.

However, it is childish to believe that there is only one right answer, that all contradiction can be resolved, and that everyone can come to agree about issues around which they have vastly different experience. Lines of reasoning often run parallel or at angles to each other, and the feelings that support intellectual positions will not disappear even if they are forcibly dismissed.

And So?

If opposition is inevitable, why not use the abundant energy it generates for discovery? Discomfort is part of the game sometimes -- after all, embarking on new journeys can be very disorganizing. On the other hand, how can you uncover new insights without exploring what you don't already know?

Monday, November 28, 2005

More on Conflict and Creativity

I've been considering the wider value of conflict for creativity after the last post. Through what processes can value be derived from something so uncomfortable in contexts other than the arts?

Fight, Flight, or Something Else?

Here's a start: conflict is as much heartfelt as it is intellectually-based, and debate itself implies a winner and a loser. This in itself often affects one's willingness to entertain an alternative viewpoint. Giving ground only happens in battle when there is no other choice.

On the other hand, emotional engagement can be turned to the advantage of innovation, if competitors in business or a classroom can entertain a common goal at the same time as their conflicting positions. Emotional impulse is essential for inspiration, and if, regardless of discomfort, one is looking for new connections and ideas, what better place is there than conflict to find some?

The trick is to entertain an awareness of immediate emotional impulses and the larger picture at the same time. Knowing that feelings pass, change, transform over time, one can train oneself to step back from defending them with eyes closed to being curious about them, their causes, and their alternatives.

Harnessing the Value of Opposition

Clearly, conflict without discipline and an understanding of how to apply its principles will generate stagnant or (worse) growing acrimony. However, what is not done with love can be done with discipline. The same components that go into effective thinking are necessary to generate useful solutions, even if the result solves a problem separate from the conflict at hand.

Conflict is useful when it can be part of a conversation, either internal, external, or both. This exchange must balance the relationship among critical thinking skills, observations, analyses, and emotional engagement. Above all, it requires awareness of process.

Improv: More Than Just for Mimes

There's no trick, there's no formula, and it’s improvisation. Each case is different and participants need the drive to be curious about what's new across contexts. Traditionally, improv is famous for the willingness to entertain an attitude of "Yes AND" rather than "Yes BUT" for long periods of time -- and to just see what happens. It requires endurance, discipline, empathy, and the creativity to see value in situations over which you only have a small amount of control.

This empathy requires courage -- to stretch from a comfortable and long-held stance and exchange it for an unknown -- and perhaps uncomfortable or long-opposed -- point of view. This allows new patterns to emerge, regardless of the last stand you decide to take.

Without opposition, nothing new will emerge. Change is hard because it is unfamiliar, but comfortable, familiar situations rarely breed new ideas.

Chaos Out of Order: The First Step

Improvisation becomes more comfortable with practice. It's harder than it sounds, and requires a great deal of discipline to be curious, to wonder about new patterns, even when the context is unfamiliar.

Those who recognize that a certain amount of chaos is a necessary part of the creative process tend to enjoy it and engage in it more than those who don't understand that learning is disorganizing. You're inevitably walking into unfamiliar territory if you let go of the existing order to find something new.

Take responsibility for creating this kind of chaos, see it as living in disorder as part of a process, and it becomes increasingly easier to remain curious -- even in a hurricane of opposition -- as you gain confidence in your own ability to make new order when the storm has passed.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Conflict: Should It Always Be Resolved?

Conflict can be uncomfortable, no question. How many corporate dollars and hours go into workshops that aim to resolve it?

What happens if you allow conflict to continue exist, even as you apply curiosity and analysis to it?

Getting away from explicit approaches to creativity in business, l found this approach startlingly useful in another context.

A Little Background

Groups like the Creative Arts Team (CAT) in New York do a great service by teaching conflict resolution in schools and giving voice to seemingly contradictory positions to develop empathy and better social relations. It's not news that kids and adolescents can feel particularly confused about their feelings -- and about ways of showing them, articulating them, and behaving when under their influence.

CAT demonstrates that the value of drama here is not theoretical. The group offers ways in which conflict and creativity can develop new insights. Check them out if you know of a school that can use them.

And by the way, their work is much more powerful than their website.

An Extreme But Specific Example

Through CAT, I was involved with in the first Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian adult theater collaboration after Oslo. This took place in New York, by the way. I had spent a few months the year before writing about such productions in Jerusalem, but all cast members in those cases were Israeli citizens. I had written one story for The Voice, and they offered me the chance to do another.

Through an actor with whom I worked with before and my own strong feelings about theater, I gained the trust of the rest of the group and was became the only reporter allowed in rehearsals by the Palestinian Authority.

It was a remarkable experience in its extreme focus on the question of whether or not it's possible to resolve conflict and the kind of creativity required to remain curious about the question, both personally and professionally.

Like the Palestinian/Israeli productions about which I had previously reported, individuals were forced to simultaneously sustain their emotional histories as citizens while as professional actors they had expressly come to collaborate with those they considered the enemy for artistic reasons.

All of the Israeli participants had served in the army and continued in the reserves. Many had lost family and friends to these wars. All of the other participants had lost at least one family member as well to the Israeli armies.

What made it more complex is that even those of the same nationality didn't agree on politics or share the same socio-economic background. Artistically they differed as well -- the Israeli acting style was more European and naturalistic while the Palestinian and Jordanians had a more presentational approach.

Rehearsals were built on each cast-member's stories. Although the specifics varied widely, they all shared a great deal of pain from trauma that felt fresh. Clearly, there was a desire to move forward or none would be working on the show in the first place. However, in each case, there had been a history of both nursing specific grievances and of healing them.

The national stories and mythologies complicated the interactions further, and arguments broke out regularly. However, as days past and everyone began to understand each other's perspective, respect and genuine affection grew amidst the anger and pain. One comment I heard a lot: "I love these individuals, but I hate their countries."

Amazing Insights But Bad Theater

Ultimately, the play's story comprised a fictionalized collective history of the group. Unfortunately, the production was a lot less complex or interesting than the rehearsals to which only I was privy.

However, I don't think it's for the reason Tristan Tzara says in Tom Stoppard's Travesties: "the odd thing about the revolution is that the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art."

Most of these artists were heavily influenced by theater more abstract than Anglo/American contemporary work, so the social constructivist sort of art they produced was not really what any had in mind when they started.

It seemed that the energy it took to come to a common language among themselves made it important to be clear about their intentions onstage for themselves as much as for the audience. The internal disagreements and conflicting national loyalties remained side-by-side with the personal connections and affection each felt for the other. They had come too far in their respect for each other's differences to harbor any ambiguity of purpose when it came to the production.

Still, A Creative Coup

However, there were remarkable creative insight that could only have resulted from this deepest-felt constant conflict, pain, and argument. It was the emotional understanding that each gained into the otherwise abstract principles and experience of the others they considered enemies. The fact that intellect and feeling could combine while holding opposing points of view -- enemy and friend -- simultaneously was the insight that came out of this work.

Unfortunately, it's one of those experiences that might be hard to understand on a gut level without having lived through the details. My point is that conflict can generate insights creatively that would be impossible to discover otherwise.

After all, inspiration is the meeting point of intellectual and emotional insight. The ultimate results -- good art, bad theater, applicable solutions, theoretical impossibilities -- come from the skill with which one works with other necessary elements for innovation. This usually holds true across contexts.

More in future posts.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

One More Thought On Sustainable Solutions

After a stimulating conversation with an admired colleague who is both an ethnographer and business executive, it seems a shame to abandon the notion of sustainable solutions for innovation where it was left yesterday. Based on our discussion, I'd like to add something that occurred to both of us.

Even if there is no time immediately to go into schools where learning starts -- and this is something I recommend highly -- sustainable solutions for innovation can be achieved by crossing silos within the business community alone.

Creativity is the ability to learn continuously across contexts. Begin with culture, research in situ and find out what works in the language of each discipline or field. Present the results on film, through blogs, on radio -- in whatever medium has the most immediacy for those involved. Then take the various languages of different cultures and translate what works across contexts.

Cross disciplines and see things new. Then leverage the resources that have been available all along but hidden in foreign languages and cultures.

A Note on Best Practices

Professional researchers should oversee and analyze the various processes who have no direct allegiance to any of the cultures being studied. Although there is no such thing as objectivity, it's important to have analysts who do not directly benefit financially from any particular process among which the different cultures are negotiating.

The Sustainable Part

As with learning of any kind, the discovery and introduction of new ideas is only the first step. Persist, develop, experiment, collaborate over time with diplomats from each culture continuing conversations both in person and through further research.

As new ideas become old hat, introduce new voices, unfamiliar disciplines, surprising alliances to force yourself to see things new. Patterns and processes will emerge as a kind of cross-disciplinary literacy that can sustain innovation across contexts.

What Happened Next (And Why It's Important)

In the first workshop at the primary school conference, participants went around the room offering names, experience, grade level, and reason for attending.

As the other teachers introduced themselves, it became clear that they all knew each other either because they taught together or because they shared colleagues elsewhere. Typical dialogue went something like this: "Hi, my name is Sophie, I teach third grade in Bedford, and I'm here to find out how to get my kids to like writing." You'd then hear, "Oh, Bedford -- I worked with your first grade teacher on phonics." And so it went until it was my turn.

Crossing Silos

I was the only attendee who consulted to teachers rather than who currrently occupied a classroom of my own. I gave my name, and said, "I taught at Brown for five years and am here to investigate the reasons for which my students were so sophisticated in certain thinking skills and so weak in others."

For a moment, I was afraid I had insulted everyone in the room. However, I was immediately flooded with handshakes and enthusiastic welcomes --none of these primary school teachers had ever spoken to someone who taught on the college level.

I was stunned -- and it raised this question:

How can a primary school teacher prepare her students to be effective writers and critical thinkers if she has never spoken to a university teacher about the standards and demands for which her students are headed? And worse yet for employers, how can future workers gain the skills necessary if no one is talking to them from the beginning of formal education?

Although there are exceptions, the situation turned out to surprise me even further: No teachers of any age group speak about common goals to the teachers in the next school to which they directly hand off their classes.

In other words, pre-school teachers don't seem to talk to primary school teachers. Primary school teachers don't talk to high school teachers, high school teachers didn't talk to university teachers, and university teachers don't talk to the people in business who would provide the context for these graduates learning lives ever after.

Sir Ken Robinson claims that our current education system is an elongated preparation for university -- to create university professors. I would agree that this is the implicit principle, but even without taking into consideration preparation for employment, even Sir Ken's idea is not well executed.

Cultural Silos are the Norm

According to these teachers and some in England with whom I've worked, there are exceptions on the academic level. Districts sometimes bring teachers together, although their priorities are often so different that there need to be special meetings just to find common ground.

Businesses, too, create forums in which they speak to students -- about careers, about particular business needs, and other topics that concern them. But these business leaders don't speak to teachers.

In fact, it's administrators who remain the only connections among learning environments -- from primary school through their first jobs.

A Sustainable Solution: Start with Culture

To understand the obstacles to conversations among key stakeholders, it's first essential to investigate the cultures that keep each group of isolated from the others when it comes to developing sustainable practices for innovation. The language high school teachers use to express successful thinking is quite different from that of business management, but the concepts are strikingly the same.

Once cultures were studied and investigated, what if there were regular conferences to which college professors and business leaders came together with primary, middle, and secondary school teachers -- and employers -- to discuss their expectations, needs, and challenges?

What if the cultures were discussed explicitly -- and common challenges and needs translated into common terms -- to leverage the resources of multiple fields all aiming toward the same goals?

If we could keep the conversation going among the key stakeholders perhaps we could crack this dearth of critical and creative thinking. Understand how to translate process among cultures, and this problem can be solved.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Innovative Thinking: Working Toward a Sustainable Solution

In three plus years of conversations, leaders across contexts articulated the process of successful thinking somewhere within the parameters of the creative process I outlined in the last post. This sample included prominent educators, psychologists, small business owners, parents, and corporate giants.

So if international leaders -- from primary school teachers to CEOs -- want to develop the same innovative capabilities in their charges, why are creative thinkers said to be so scarce?

Conversation as Best Practices

The first step is for stakeholders in different fields to begin conversations about common needs and find a sustainable solution together.

Let's start where learning begins formally. It became strikingly clear to me that crossing silos can be a sustainable solution to innovation when I attended a primary school conference on writing skills in a New York suburb last year.

Why a Conference on Teaching Writing?

For those of you who have never had the challenge of teaching communication skills, writing is one of the hardest processes to model or teach. It involves the complex network of creative thinking skills which are challenging to develop and sustain.

They are exactly the skills sought by business leaders.

What Makes Writing Hard

Writers need to feel a sense of ownership and purpose, and often in a classroom, the subject matter or process doesn't offer obvious connections to personal connections. Mentors need to offer frequent and rich feedback over time to develop a process can internalize and use across contexts.

Furthermore, effective writing requires the ability to think clearly and then articulate those thoughts in a form whose importance hasn't been emphasized outside of schools, particularly since the advent of email. If any further evidence of this challenge is required to persuade other than everyday living, the language of Edward R. Murrow in the recent Goodnight and Good Luck makes it clear enough when compared with that of today's television broadcasts.

Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

Writing is hard to teach because developmental issues and goals can be muddy. At what age do you emphasize grammar and at which age free expression without formal constraint? Teachers, too, must help their charges succeed on tests that require no more than a five paragraph essay with rigid requirements of evidence and format. By the time most students reach high school, they are taught to make patterns on a paper in order to fulfill the needs of an assignment.

If that weren't challenging enough, persuasive writing also demands fluency of grammatical and stylistic conventions often overlooked in spoken language. The process can intimidate both teachers and students, and the result is often that ideas are discussed while the mechanics are neglected.

And Back to Our Story . . . .

For connections between all this and innovation, please see the next post.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Creative Thinking: In Business and Elsewhere

A banking executive told me recently that she's having a hard time hiring people who can "really do the job." In addition to having industry knowledge, she wants to find "types" who are creative thinkers. But she couldn't define exactly what that means.

I considered this challenge in the context of other recent conversations, particularly with two impressive CEOs and a Senior Partner in a financial services firm. This is what I've concluded:

Creativity is often thought of as a singular quality -- an attractive intangible, a soft skill, a gauzy perspective. At worst, it's thought to preclude common sense or practical application.

In fact, innovative thinking is not nearly so obscure. Most obstacles to creativity seem to come down to a breakdown of one of the following practical behaviors or skill sets:

Curiosity -- In order to see things new, it's essential to sustain a drive to investigate.

Emotional Connection -- Own the ideas about which you feel passionate and in which you feel engaged. Inspiration and curiosity are driven as much by emotional as intellectual impulses. Thinking is associative, so it's easier to create connections with the unfamiliar when you can connect it with an inventory of information to which you already feel an explicit connection.

Strong Critical Thinking Skills -- Observation and Analysis --Observation requires the ability to see what's in front of you, without looking for answers or drawing conclusions. Analysis involves wondering about the patterns and their meanings in the raw data. Each skill requires practice separately. When used in conversation effectively, they provide innovative perspectives that are practically applicable.

Awareness of One's Own Learning Process -- Familiarize yourself with your own learning process through observation and acceptance. What engages you? How do you stimulate your curiosity when it flags? Are you stuck because it's time to find a fresh perspective? What helps you see things new? Or do you just need a break?

Persistence -- Coming up with new ideas requires trial and error over time. It requires space to observe, reflect, and engage. Curiosity can drive you, but discipline works, too.

Braving Change -- In order to learn something new, you need to let go of the familiar. Curiosity can help because fear is rarely present when it's fully is engaged. Confidence also results from repeated and successful forays into the unknown.

An Environment that Supports the Learning -- If immediate solutions are what you're after, there won't be room for creative thinking. Demands for immediate answers don’t leave room for process and discovery. Burnout will inevitably ensue.

The Doppler Effect

Observing your own process changes it and allows it to evolve. Every new and useful connection makes another connection possible. This is true for at least three reasons. First, each new idea allows others ideas to be built from it. Second, clarifying the strategies that help you innovate make it easier to do the job well. Last, each succesful solution builds the innvovative skill sets and the confidence to try again.

Conclusion: How Do You Make it Work for You?

Creativity is the ability to learn continuously across contexts. It demands a curiosity about where meaning resides across situations -- coming to understand and then revisiting the places where significance might lie in different situations.

Creativity comprises a kind of conversation among your own processes and the world outside in which you listen carefully and respond effectively. Once you've identified patterns and arguments, you can construct new perspectives by reframing the terms.

By activating a series of behaviors and tendencies -- curiosity, critical thinking, persistence, awareness, and engagement -- it's almost impossible to avoid creating new connections among familiar ideas. Sustaining and developing these behaviors offers a road to innovation.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Change Management: This Time With Feeling

I had a conversation about process improvement with David Firth, successful and inspired change management consultant in England.

In our discussion, David told me about some work he did with a multinational manufacturer around challenges with their supply chain. Teams of highly intelligent people were not working well together, primarily because they were not communicating effectively.

Leadership called him in to research the problem and to solve it. In that context, I wondered about if he found similar challenges to process improvement across industries.

AK: What do you find to be the biggest block to effective thinking when change is required in businesses?

DF: Here’s an anecdote: I sat down to lunch with a guy from the group from [the multinational manufacturer]. He proudly told me that just before the course, he and his team had been through the Meyers-Briggs test and found that not one of them – in a team of about 15 or 20 people – had an F score.

So they hadn’t any people in their group who tested with emotional characteristics. None at all. The attitude was proudly, “And that’s a great thing, isn’t it?"

AK: What did that tell you?

DF: I was so struck by the sort of analogy of the computer people in the early 1990s -- I know from working in a lot of IT-related industries or IT parts of organizations that there was a heck of a strong culture that sustained rigid attitudes.

AK: How would you describe that culture exactly?

DF: I think it’s a very masculine culture, even if it the employees aren't all men. It’s about gathering things round you, it’s about keeping the tribe together, it’s about being against the world.

AK: Against the world?

DF: Yeah, that’s maybe a bit strong. I’m thinking about what they did in the Wild West movies when the Indians came to attack them . . . ?

AK: They circled the wagons.

DF: Right. I always thought about that in IT departments. It’s a pride in their own language, in the way they do things . . . .

AK: But what does that have to do with not using emotional strengths -- or emotional intelligence? The idea of hunkering down, and being against the world?

DF: The analogy between the IT department is that we’re right as we are, we don’t need to change. This guy was saying, “Not only are we fine as we are, I’m born this way. You can’t change me."

AK: But it also sounds like what you’re saying is that the way that you prove that you’re right Is by demonstrating that there are no emotional components to your decision-making process.

DF: Yes. It’s about being right. And being right demands that you use only your head and deny that there are emotions involved. Somehow it's believed to be not only possible but necessary.

Look, the goal is to get to the right answer. The path is to eliminate everything that they feel doesn’t belong to them because it isn't comfortable.

AK: So as I see it, what you're saying is that this group feels that by limiting their perspective, they are strengthening it. Entertaining the value of new ways of seeing or learning is absolutely out?

DF: Exactly.

More on connections between obstacles to effective thinking at work and creativity in other contexts in future posts.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Some Thoughts on Credibility and Handling Change

How flexible is your organization's ability to expand its brand as the market changes? How do you gauge the persuasiveness of your value proposition as priorities shift?

Expectations are a moving target. Ideas that seem shocking at first can become second nature with repetition. If you want to keep your market's attention, it's essential to determine on an ongoing basis in what regard belief systems hold up over time.

Credibility is what you need for a strong business case, so look at what constitutes credibility where you're sitting right now.

The Russian Formalists Again

Boris Tomashevsky offers a useful vocabulary for this phenomenon. He suggested that conventions (or structures whose meaning we take for granted) have a life cycle whose length often diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of exposure they get.

First, back to Viktor Shklovsky:Convention is by definition what is taken for granted.

Every situation in which we find ourselves constitutes a collection of conventions.

Every situation implicitly defines value through relying on a collection of conventions and by rejecting others.

Put another way, every situation is built on a series of arguments. These arguments support certain behavioral, linguistic, and environmental cues while ignoring or devaluing others.

Conventions contain value propositions that define the look and meaning of power and the possibilities for shifting control. They also define what constitutes credibility.

A kind of situational literacy, then, is necessary to understand how meaning is constructed in any particular environment. Identifying conventions and the arguments that support them is the first step to understanding what constitutes credibility. Once literate, it's possible to respond with an effective (aka persuasive) business case.

As in all learning, this sort of literacy combines emotional and intellectual intelligence that is difficult to parse in one go. However, a vocabulary is helpful to begin.

An Example: In the Jaws of a Dilemma

Horror movies provide a good way of looking at convention in Tomashevsky's terms.

When Jaws first introduced shark-as-immediate-threat, the market can be said to have been naive in relation to the convention. The first film had vacationers genuinely nervous about going into the ocean.

By the second film, audiences were more sophisticated. The shark might have been scary in the context of the film, but the strings were beginning to show. With enough exposure in multiple viewings and ads, the shark began appearing primarily as an object of parody in places like Saturday Night Live.

Parody is a clear indication that a convention has lost its intended value or meaning. If people can laugh at something they once found frightening, the implicit argument ("this shark is scary") has lost its credibility. Tomashevsky called this last stage of a convention's lifestyle "decadence."

Example 2: The Break-Down of a Business Case

I'm introducing this example to make a point about brand, not about politics per se:

It's not entirely due to recent disclosures that the Bush administration has stopped making references to "Weapons of Mass Destruction" as a phrase.

The convention that the US went to war with Iraq was introduced to a market naive, in Tomashevsky's terms, because it had never heard the rallying cry before. Most people took at face value its meaning -- and the implications that combine to make up the convention.

Eventually, through repetition, the words crept into the national vocabulary, and the phrase became one with an argument for war. The country was sophisticated to the convention, in Tomashevsky's term because they took its meaning for granted.

However, like the shark, this convention also had a life cycle. Overexposure began to drain the words of value, and the convention it represented suffered its first bout of decadence. If the words don't have impact, the argument also loses its punch.

Accronyms demonstrate that the sum value of its individual words can be taken for granted. So the Bush Administration created a new term -- WMD -- to reinvigorate the convention and thereby the argument for its political position.

These days, no one takes the argument the phrase represents for granted. It's used more by people like Bill Mahr than by the Republicans. Part of this, of course, comes from new evidence that the argument was not true in the first place. Nothing like being caught in a lie to destroy credibility.

But part of the fault for the fall from grace of WMDs lies in the failure of the Bush administration's to watch over the life cycle of the conventions that together comprise its brand. Overexposure and rigid adherence to a single phrase ran the convention through its life cycle, and its implicit argument couldn't hold up when decadence set in. Markets are conversations, and you have to listen as belief systems change.

As Jonas Karlsson recently pointed out in the September issue of Vanity Fair, "Some people don't like change. Change doesn't much care."

Monday, October 24, 2005

Good Thinking For Financial Services

What does out-of-the box thinking entail? What makes creative problem-solvers effective in business?

I spoke to a Partner in a money management firm who talked to me about the qualities of mind he thinks are most important in financial services professionals.

AK: What do you look for in people you hire?

P: All of the Partners had an interesting conversation about this yesterday. I said, "Listen, we hire analysts right out of business school, and that's what everyone else does, too. So how are we going to get a different view of the world than the competition?

AK: What sort of person would you recruit instead?

P: An ideal person for me would be a journalist. Success in Finance is less about number-crunching than the tendency to be curious and analytical. I can get all the numbers I want from the internet.

AK: Why a journalist?

P: What I need is for someone to interpret data in a way that's different from the next guy. A lot of industry knowledge can create blinders. But if you're a journalist or a psychologist, you'll probably see the big picture in a way I hadn't considered.

AK: So what is the most important skill you're looking for?

P: Curiosity is number one. You have to ask a lot questions and not simply accept what you're told.

Public companies are always going to give you a rosy picture, so you have to really dig in and ask good questions.

AK: What's number two?

P: The second most important quality is tenacity. You have to get on a plane and see a supplier or competitor rather than just taking the latest research at face value.

Curiosity isn't enough in business without an outcome. That comes from tenacity -- trial and error.

You need to be creative -- business is an art.

AK: Do you think curiosity and creativity are heredity?

P: A lot of curiosity and tenacity depend on confidence. Your environment either supports the act of asking questions or it doesn't.

Tools -- particularly education -- helps, too, but not necessarily for reasons most people say.

It's not the actual data you learn in classes that's most important per se.

If you have a good liberal arts education, you've developed a lot of strategies to support your curiosity. And that will help with confidence as well.

So a liberal arts education would be more useful than a business degree in many cases. You've got experience in a variety of disciplines asking questions about things that are entirely unfamiliar to start. . . .

A lot of people don't have the background to support them in this way. I might be the most curious person in the world, but I might not say a word if I am afraid.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Your Company Line: Is Anyone Listening?

Business leaders, brush up your conversational skills and those of your managers. It may be time to stop talking and start listening.

See Harvard Business Review's excellent article on The Passive-Aggressive Organization .

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

What's In the Box?: Mixing It Up with the NYPD

Cross Disciplinary Thinking

If The Box's square footage is defined by ideas that your people take for granted , place your Box next to the contents of someone else's.

Our brains make patterns automatically. When we provide it with data points usually seen in different contexts, new and useful connections emerge.

Cross-disciplinary thinking defamiliarizes ideas that we otherwise consider commonplace and can make us aware of assumptions we otherwise ignore. This awareness, in turn, can lead to new insights and innovative problem solving.

Not to mention very effective business cases.

Here's what I was told by James Shanahan, a retired New York City cop:

JS: I have a martial arts background, and I teach a technique called Verbal Judo .

Law enforcement is usually thought of as aggressive. A martial arts perspective, on the other hand, wants to prevent conflict. . . .

AK: How is Verbal Judo different from other training?

JS: The purpose of Verbal Judo is to "generate voluntary compliance." In plain language, it means getting people to do what you need them to do while allowing them to think it was their idea.

AK: So you're teaching cops to create a business case to resolve conflict?

JS: Exactly.

AK: Why Verbal Judo?

JS: You don't think of talking as a kind of Judo. So I the name gets the attention of my cops but in language they would accept. Obviously, martial arts make sense to people going out to risk their lives every day.

Verbal Judo sits at the meeting point of Eastern and Western philosophies. The combination creates a new approach for old conflicts that might otherwise seem unsolvable.

AK: What problem are you trying to address?

JS: A lot of cops need to remember that the first reaction to a challenging situation doesn't necessarily have to be reflex. They learn from their experience, sure, but they also have to learn to really notice what's going on -- here and now. The individuals they confront are people, just like them.

(Interrupts himself)

You have to understand, these law enforcement students of mine have had lots of time on the job. You get attacked, it's going to influence you the next time.

AK: How does Verbal Judo work?

JS: I don't ask the cops to forget what they know about dangerous situations. Instead, I say, "Just don't GO IN expecting the same thing to happen again." I try to help them to remember to really look at the next situation as NEW.

That can be challenging because all of a sudden a cop can be in the middle of something out of nowhere. So they need to look around and see what they're dealing with NOW. Assess the situation, and try not to jump to conclusions.

If it's possible, I remind them to start talking -- starting a conversation usually works better than shouting. They know it, but most cops start get worn down by experience. In a way, it's all about empathy.

AK: How do your students respond?

JS: They like my class because I understand where they're coming from and am really trying to help. They work hard. But it's a challenge. People who have been in the field for a long time tend to jump to conclusions because it can ultimately be safer for them than trying alternatives.

This means that the cops have to be ready to change tactics at the same time they verbally engage without assuming the worst. On the other hand, they have to get tough if they see that they're in real danger.

It's a tough job. No way around it.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Good Thinking: What Is It Exactly?

Do CEOs value the same qualities of mind as leaders from milieux other than Big Business?

Are there similarities among the kinds of deliverables they demand, strategies they employ, and challenges they encounter?

Over the past three years, I've interviewed scores of executives, educators, entrepreneurs, and creative leaders to find out.

A Starting Point

The impulse for this study was a CEO interview about brand-building conducted three years ago.

In response to a question about brand strategy, my subject responded angrily:

Why is it so hard to find people to think out of the box? I've met thousands of people, hired at least a hundred, and it's impossible to find creative problem-solvers in the numbers you need.

In fact, effective thinking was consistently his biggest challenge as CEO of not one but three multinational corporations.

The more we talked, the more similar my subject's experienced echoed the challenges I faced teaching students from nursery school through university.

It seemed worth looking into.

Some Questions

The first step was to identify some common criteria for successful thinking, regardless of field or cultural/business context. I wanted to know:

  • Do those in charge think about how people learn? (They do.)

  • Do they feel it's easy to cultivate effective thinking? (They don't.)


  • Can they articulate what they're keen to find? (It's often a struggle.)

    More about what I found in future posts.
  • Friday, October 14, 2005

    Pinter ? Wins a Nobel Prize?

    I happily admit to appreciating some of Harold Pinter's early plays. When they were new, they disrupted expectations about identity, relationships, behavior, and safety.

    Most of all, they were fun to teach -- stylish proofs that structure determines meaning. Very good for shaking up a university student's attachment to Cats.

    But a Nobel Prize?

    Expectations are a moving target, and Pinter did the same thing over and over. Even the most radical statements become mundane with enough repetition. Today Pinter's devices seem mechanical and quaint rather than shocking, and the plays seem like a series of acting exercises.

    If you're looking for an intellectual maverick heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett, doesn't Maria Irene Fornes pack more of a punch? Better yet, why not move beyond fantasies of apocolyptic landscapes -- real and emotional -- to something new?

    Julie Taymor, for example, has created a new kind of theater performance.

    Taymor's characters are not quite prop and not entirely human either. Actors strike a surreal balance between abstract and literal representation for an effect that is hard to describe but immediately clear on sight. Pretty radical stuff for the American theater these days.

    And she got Disney to pay for it.

    Wednesday, October 12, 2005

    Crossing Disciplines and Seeing Things New

    The value of working cross disciplines is the possibility it offers to see things new . If insight is what we're after in business or in a classroom, this is one way to find it.

    How Does It Work?

    Psycholinguistics teaches that thinking is associative and meaning changes with context.

    Our mind sees the world in metaphors, as Doc Searls puts it. Our assumptions about individual objects, places, and people are often unarticulated, and as important, they are often culturally consistent.

    We don't much notice of a can of soup in a grocery store. We either eat canned soup, or we don't, and in most cases we don't question the reasons for our choice.

    Seeing New Possibilities In Relationships

    The value or meaning of an object, place, person, etc. is not fixed or irrevocable. It can expand simply by putting it in a relationship with some other object, place, person etc. The objects don't change, but the ideas we usually attach to the objects can.

    The mind craves narrative, a colleague's voice mail used to plead when asking callers to leave a message. When presented with an unfamiliar or incomplete set of data points, we simply create a new pattern.

    A Familiar Example

    What if some nut took that soup can we didn't notice -- or a urinal, say -- and put it in a museum?

    If the pairing is surprising enough (it was), we take time to consider the distance between our expectations and the current juxtaposition. The image becomes symbolic as well as literal.

    Where once it was invisible, we give new attention and meaning to the object, function, image, and environment as well as the relationship among the group.

    Because thinking is associative, the mind finds connections or constructs conceptual bridges between two objects it hadn't consider alike before. In that process, we can find insight into new ways of seeing each member of the pair as well as the pair itself.

    Translate "ways of seeing" as "value," and you've got a strategy for researching and building brand.

    Monday, October 10, 2005

    A Note on Conventional Wisdom

    CEOs and teachers alike complain about a lack of out-of-the-box problem-solving. One approach is to reconsider the way we think about learning.

    What does it take?

    Creative thinking that has practical application requires discovery, careful observation and analysis, trial and error -- usually over a period of time.

    It's also is handy to find a vocabulary that works across contexts so that processes from one discipline can be applied to those in another.

    Here's one that my students found useful when working on critical thinking skills.

    Convention is by definition is what we take for granted.

    Every situation in which we find ourselves constitutes a collection of conventions --of dress, language, behavior, and so on. We operate every day within sets of rules without thinking much about it.

    How do we know when we're experts?

    We tend to define fluency by the automatic nature of our reactions and behaviors within a particular situation.

    In other words, we know we can drive when we don't have to think about it anymore. We are adept at speaking a language, hitting a baseball, or drawing conclusions when we don't have to apply conscious thought.

    Clearly, in some cases this is necessary. Better to be on the road, for example, with those who can avoid accidents without too much pondering than with someone who reexamines every move.

    On the other hand, if we want to satisfy our demand for creative problem-solving, we need to expand our criteria for intellectual accomplishment beyond begin safe and comfortable.

    After all, what hope is there for innovation if the ultimate goal of learning is to stop thinking altogether?

    More on practical applications of post-structuralism in later posts.

    In the meantime, there's nothing like a Russian Formalist to dig you out of a rut. See Vicktor Shklovsky's philosophy on defamiliarization.

    Friday, October 07, 2005

    If You Build It, Will They Come?

    If leading business voices shout into cyberspace and no one hears them, do they make a sound?

    If your organization is not already considered a key source of valuable insight, how do you persuade others to engage with you? Until the market regularly visits your website and other information channels, it's a good idea to invest some effort proving (not saying) that there is value in changing this habit.

    Here are some things to consider:

    Articulate a tight value proposition, and make sure your insights support it. Don't try to be all things to all people. Allow the market to hear that your analysis is both distinctive and new so that your voice is remembered and respected.

    Collaborate, don't compete, if the market respects other voices more than yours right now. Go where the market is if it's not coming to you. Strengthen your credibility and raise your visibility through partnerships. Join discussions with the publishers, electronic content developers, and other experts that your market finds impressive already. If the conversation remains stimulating, the market will follow your distinguished thinkers back to your turf.

    Relationship development requires credibility. Don't leave the it to a PR firm or even to communications professionals within your own organization unless they can discuss insights and strategy on the same level as the really smart people you want to join your team. Choose a high-level thinker for the job.

    Alliance-building can yield surprising benefits, regardless of industry or type of business. I've worked with with non-profits, corporations, arts organizations, and publishers at different times in my career. In all cases, choosing alliance-building over competition allowed each organization to leverage resources. One collective voice became much more resonant than the sum of its parts.

    Two organizations who are great content-development partners on the corporate side are Knowledge@Wharton and HBS Working Knowledge. They're both worth investigating.

    Wednesday, October 05, 2005

    What CEOs Could Learn from Teachers

    Business leaders could learn a lot from educators about the art of communication.

    How do Children Learn? The Same As Adults.

    Most people recognize a great teacher, even if it's hard to explain why. We may not have the words because we think of learning as an intellectual exercise.

    But it's our gut, not our abstract principles, that recognizes greatness.

    We recognize these Great Ones through their engagement and treatment of us as partners in a dialogue. They speak and listen to us individually, even in a packed room. They adjust their content and pace according to the way we listen.

    Great teachers foster discussion by considering our comments -- by learning how we think. They encourage us to make meaningful connections between what matters to us and school. They challenge themselves to contemplate the points we're making and come up with provocative questions that keep us thinking.

    Strong educators work from the assumption that there's always something to learn on both sides of the dialogue. They keep an open mind to our point of view and encourage us to do the same for theirs. They give us astute feedback and challenge us to argue. They consider not only the raw information but also the context, source, and impulse from which it comes.

    Most of all, great teachers make us want to learn. Their genuine engagement in our experience inspires us. Their passion is contagious.

    A Model for Corporate Internal Communications

    What if businesses shaped their internal communications around the model of successful learning in schools?

    If each side believed the other was listening, the results could be much more useful than the usual prepared speeches or training courses. What better way to derive insights that are applicable exactly to your particular business at this particular moment?

    The benefits would be long-term and worth considering. Wouldn't it be cost-saving to design a development program that incites its participants to dig deeper after the a training courses are done? Isn't it more likely for businesses to retain employees if they sparked an interest in learning?

    What if executives everywhere hired and reviewed managers, at least in part, on their ability to do exactly that?

    Monday, October 03, 2005

    Thought Leadership As Bait: Why Should Anyone Bite?

    A friend high up in the world of global tech marketing recently sent me a note to continue the conversation about Thought Leadership. He doesn't think much of Thought Leadership as a model for developing markets:

    Thought leadership as a concept has become the enticing fly on a trout pond cast out with a practiced hand by the fly fisherman (marketer). This bait stares tantalizingly and whets a CEO's hunger for knowledge or a middle manager's insecurity that he or she might not know something.

    Then the fish takes the bait -- you click, register, read and you're on the hook. You immediately realize you've been duped and that juicy fly turns out to be regurgitated content written around the theme of the day. . . .

    Thought Leadership can be simplified as this: it's a perspective (not necessarily an insight) that has gone through some preliminary validation but has never been implemented. So being a Thought Leader is quite a cushy role. You get paid to have a point of view but never have to deliver on it . . . .

    Thought Leadership has value to most companies until it hooks the big trout but until then it is a lure or a punt. No one follows for long.

    Metaphor aside -- Tantrums, rants, points of view or thought leadership are the not all the same?

    My high-level executive friend concedes that the only Thought Leader -- if there is one -- is Peter Drucker.

    Right -- Drucker doesn't rant. He begins, joins, and participates in robust conversations by inviting non-profits into management discourse usually reserved for Big Business.

    It's an ongoing discussion that's very useful for both sides should they decide to really listen.

    Friday, September 30, 2005

    Conversations As Best Practices

    The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. --C.G. Jung

    If you're chasing after Thought Leadership, you're probably missing a key strategic insight.

    Rather than talking AT your customers, entertain for a moment Doc Searls' and David Weinberger's Cluetrain argument that Markets Are Conversations.

    Conversation as a communications strategy has clear implications for your bottom line. Engaging customers is the key to winning them, and what better way than interacting?

    Conversation as Ongoing R&D Methodology

    What better way to shap your insights, services, products and approach than a meaningful relationship with markets?

    Consider enlarging the conversation beyond focus groups which are somewhat over determined by your own expectations and the moderator's skill. The results also constrained by the artificial context -- you're asking people to remember their experiences rather than describe them as they happen.

    Emerging media work well as alternatives to keep the dialogue accessible, and so does research that's conducted in home environments. The question is how engaging can you be, and how well can you listen?

    Conversation as a Model for Learning Across Contexts

    Conversation works as a flexible tool because learning is associative. We understand what we know in relation to what is unfamiliar and learn by using what we know as a standard against which to consider other options. It works, however, only for those who are effective listeners.

    It's something any good teacher could have told the business community if only someone had asked.

    Conversation works as an effective model for research both academic and of the business variety. It's increasingly recognized as a useful tool to sustain and develop internal business culture and explains the rising trend in business coaching and the effectiveness.

    The trick is that you have to be willing to play. Effective conversation requires giving up control, entertaining unfamiliar possibilities, and allowing yourself to be wrong. As in any kind of learning, in order to find new insights, you might have to get lost for a while.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2005

    In Search of (Thought) Leadership

    Dean Landsman and I have been talking lately about the recent rise in volume from business leaders about the value of thought leadership.

    Here's the logic of this model:
    With electronic media, everyone has more opportunity than ever to get your clients' and prospects' attention. You'd better have something impressive to say that they haven't heard before.

    Thought Leadership -- What Is It?

    The terms Thought Leadership implies a collection of valuable and original insights into business matters that have stumped less visionary thinkers. More important, it suggests that the people who developed these insights are worth following -- aka hiring -- to help top businesses think through their toughest problems.

    Thought leadership is really part of a long-term brand-building strategy that offers client's proof of concept. Format depends on market -- surveys, white paper, essays, even blog entries can count, as long as in addition to data they contain the key insights and analysis everyone is looking for.

    Of course, before you start disseminating insights, it's essential to have a clearly articulated value proposition or you're probably wasting your time.

    Effective examples demonstrate the superior value of your business capabilities over that of your competitors. In fact, the most effective thought leadership eclipses the existence of competitors with its blinding insights. Clearly, it's much more effective than insisting you're great in marketing language that no one really believes anyway.

    How Much Do You Need?

    Electronic media have created expectations of continuous updates in a manner unheard of in the days when the time and cost of printing made it prohibitive. This can present a challenge because although electronic delivery methods makes access to information immediate, it doesn't actually speed up the rate at which we can come up with new ideas.

    Depending on your business and the expectations and needs of your clients, a weekly, monthly, or quarterly schedule might be fine for the Big Thought pieces with more frequent smaller insights sprinkled in. Regardless of frequency, however, it's essential that you keep producing if you expect to compete.

    What Does This Mean To A Bottom Line?

    If you're in a business of strategy, there's no question that you need to invest heavily in your brand. Thought Leadership should be one of the most important parts of this strategy, so expect it to require capital. No way around it: no immediate ROI. But long-term brand development is more important.

    How Should Thought Leadership Be Distributed?

    Your website should have some good examples of recent insight pieces in any area for which you're pitching business. On the on the other hand, take down all those white papers and surveys from two years ago -- the world has changed, and old news says more about you than no news at all.

    If You Build It, They Still Might Not Come

    If you're not already top of mind as a thought leader, research shows that people might not come to your website even if you provide brilliance every day.

    So show up with your genius in unexpected places.

    Write a book, use push technology, create a high-profile relationship with someone who your market already respects. Go where your market is, and if your insights are fresh, frequent, and persuasive, they will follow you anywhere. And so will your ROI.

    That's how you'll know you're a thought leader.

    But this is only part of the story. It assumes that those who don't speak have nothing to say of value.

    What might you be missing?.

    Monday, September 26, 2005

    How Do You Know You've Got a Business Case?

    What's the difference between a business case and a rationalization?


    Winning business depends entirely on the ability to constitute credibility in a given situation. If those you're pitching accept your argument, you win. If they don't, you have to go back to the drawing board.

    Rhetorical fluency is one of the best examples of a direct application of a liberal arts education to successful business practice.

    I particularly like Stanford's website for a variety of definitions as well as blogs on the topic.

    Thursday, September 22, 2005

    It's a Drag to Be a Dragon

    I've found that some children feel relieved to learn that dragons, like them, can be misunderstood and have their feelings hurt.

    There's something about the cross-species nature of the problem that helps. After all, an outside perspective on a familiar obstacle often allows new insights.

    I continue from the previous post . This children's book never made it to the shelves. There's another you can try if you like this one, too. Feel free to share either one, as long as it's read outloud and doesn't cost any money.

    It's a Drag to be Dragon

    It's a drag to be a dragon,
    When people run and hide.
    A dragon can't go shopping,
    Unless the aisles are wide.

    A dragon on a city bus,
    Can never get a seat,
    He burns big holes in peoples' clothes,
    And steps on peoples' feet.

    A dragon's tail gets in the way,
    On sliding boards and swings.
    The jungle gym is not for him.
    He can't play on these things.

    A dragon in the classroom,
    Rarely fits in well.
    The desk is small for one so tall
    He'd rather eat the bell.

    And dragons in the movies,
    Are scary on the screen.
    Except when one sits down in front.
    It makes the people mean.

    Can dragons play badminton?
    Can dragons swing a bat?
    You know they can't play hide and seek.
    They're way too big for that.

    A dragon at a swimming pool,
    Can find it hard to swim.
    His bathing suit is such a hoot,
    That people laugh at him.

    So what's the deal with dragons?
    So what they're big and green?
    All right, okay, they're in the way,
    But are they really mean?

    A dragon can prove handy,
    At a cookout or a roast.
    Their savoir fare is beyond compare,
    But they don't like to boast.

    Or did you know that dragons,
    Can dance like Fred Astaire?
    They lumber when they rumba,
    But their tango has a flair.

    A dragon at a party,
    Can tell two thousand jokes.
    They often juggle porcupines,
    To entertain the folks.

    Trick-or-treat with dragons,
    Will knock you off your feet.
    Door-to-door you'll get much more,
    Than you could ever eat.

    And what if Dad goes on a trip,
    And forgets to take his lunch?
    A dragon there up in the air,
    Would really help a bunch.

    Dragons live forever,
    Which makes them very wise.
    They also play the tuba,
    With very bulgy eyes.

    A dragon in the country,
    Is such a useful thing.
    He makes the perfect diving board,
    When he is not a swing.

    You can live without a dragon,
    A lot of people do,
    But they're such fun to have around,
    And awfully cozy, too.

    Copyright 2002 Annette Kramer
    Picture copyright 2006 Ron Barret

    Wednesday, September 21, 2005

    A Word About the Children's Book Industry

    As a big fan of children's books from childhood, I was saddened to discover that many publishers seem not to have met any actual children.

    It's a strange phenomenon that I've heard about from friends who were forced into writing for grown-ups. After all, this audience has the distinct advantage of having books selected for them by people their own age.

    The rumors of a generation gap seemed disturbingly supported by my short stint as a picture-book writer. A few years ago, I drafted a few manuscripts for my own pleasure and for that of some children I know who liked increasing numbers of stories before bed. Their parents couldn't keep up with the demand, so I thought I'd pitch in.

    Clearly, this is a field for professionals only.

    "Rhyming books don't sell," said one editor. I wondered if I'd missed the backlash against Dr. Seuss by the kindergarten set when I didn't read the morning paper.

    "Children don't like dragons," said another editor. This, too, was a fact of which both I, and many young friends of mine were quite unaware.

    I was less distressed that my stories wouldn't be widely available than I was concerned about the people making decisions about what kids have a chance to read.

    My favorite picture books -- those by Ron Barrett -- have long been out of print excepting the two about the land of Chew and Swallow. Ron's books are playful and full of puns, visually and verbally, and are a huge hit with both parents and kids for whom I can secure used copies through the internet. I was starting to understand why they had disappeared.

    Not all publishers were polite enough to give a reason for rejecting the books, and indeed, I even had one taker. An executive at Scholastic, not in the editorial department, I might add, enthusiastically passed one on to someone who is.

    The Scholastic editor informed me, however, that there is nothing really new in it.

    See if you agree by reading the story -- and if you don't, please feel free to read it to any kids you happen to know, regardless of age.

    For a very different take on the same sort of problems with children's book niche marketing, please see my colleague Richard Gilder's via facilis.

    Monday, September 19, 2005

    Some Big Questions

    Big Questions are always useful to help explore expectations that get people stuck as learners and teachers, both in schools and at work. Here are some to consider.

    What’s the difference between:

    A student and a child?
    Do we treat young people differently when we consider them in one light or the other?

    A student and a worker?
    Why don’t we think of ourselves as full-time students, even when we’re done with school? When do we drop learning as a priority? What would happen if we didn't?

    Training and learning?
    Is there a difference in technique and expectation, or are they the same? Are the results similar or different?

    What constitutes successful learning across contexts?
    What do guardians of school and work have in common when they look for successful people in their groups? Are these qualities essentially habits of mind or in-born talent?

    Sunday, September 18, 2005

    Learning is Disorganizing

    One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
    --Andre Gide

    If you want to come up with something new, resign yourself to periods of feeling very uncomfortable. The Eureka! moments almost always require you to feel lost for a while.

    Having few guideposts– often not even knowing if the process will get a desired result– can be scary, although my research indicates children often find learning less frightening than adults. In either case, to get the joy or satisfaction from new perspectives, you often have to sustain yourself through the fear (and who said learning isnÂ’t an emotional experience?). There are a variety of ways of doing this:

    1. Don’t expect creativity to yield specific results. Edward de Bono talks about this quite a bit and is worth looking into.

    2. Whether you need results or not, being aware of the fear is the first step. Getting comfortable with it is the next. Expect anxiety that comes with not knowing where you are or the relationship between where you are and where you were when you started. If you’re not the sort to fear getting lost, then enjoy it.

    3. You can look at this part of learning as a kind of meditation. Make observing the discomfort a regular part of your learning process.

    4. If you are a teacher, help others under your guardianship be willing to accept discomfort in their process.

    If you are not a teacher but know children, help them to articulate and understand the nature of their experience, both from their perspective and from that of an adult. However, don’t judge and help them to do the same.