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?