A tale of two people: The art of personal engagement

A few years ago, I walked into a mega-bookstore when they were still flourishing.  I approached the information desk and started to ask about a particular book. The clerk did not gaze up.

I said, “I have a question about a particular book.” He still didn’t look up – his eyes engaged with the monitor. I finally said, “I will wait.” The clerk responded, “Go ahead, I’m listening.” I finally said, “You’re listening, but you’re not engaging me, I am eye-contact guy.”

When did common courtesy become less common?

Fast forward to today. I know two people, let’s call them A and B. Whenever I talk to A, she turns her chair around and focuses on my question or comment. No matter what she is working on, she is in the moment for me.  B, on the other hand, never turns her chair around. She continues to type and look into the monitor or leaf through paperwork.

This isn’t a single observation of A and B, but one gleaned over time. 

They are both equally nice people. It may be that B isn’t able to disengage from her work as easily. But the result is that I will always go to A first for a question or a conversation. I will recommend A higher than B to people.  And I have learned a great lesson from A, how to turn my chair around and engage.

It takes only a second to engage, but the effects last for much longer.



Cage-rattling Question #44: The ultimate ban on meetings


Like the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, each new year brings the usual article on the wastefulness of meetings in business.  This is typically followed by an article that proves with an agenda and leader, meetings can be productive. Over time these two ideas fade in the real work of work and true inertia sets in.

But let's try anyway.

In the Harvard Business Review, Michael Mankins wrote the astonishing results of research on one major company's time spent on executive meetings. "My colleagues and I gathered data about time use at one large company and found that people there spent 300,000 hours a year just supporting the weekly executive committee meeting.

And according to the software company, Atassian, "31 hours are spent in unproductive meetings, and most employees are attending 62 meetings a month."

In one of my favorite books, 75 Cage-ratting Questions to Change the Way You Work, #44 wants to rattle the meeting cage:  "What would happen if your company instituted a one year ban on meetings?"

The hypothesis is not that companies don't need meetings, but that there are too many of them and most are poorly run.  Think about the best meeting you've attended in the past few months and the worst. Think about how many hours you've spent in unproductive meetings.  

Your next meeting should be about meetings.  What is working, what isn't.  Can you make a compelling case (as you would any big initiative) for banning or reducing the typical meeting? Will anyone listen?

Create the unmeeting.  









I first wrote about the Neural Tripwire and Mr. Rogers a few years ago.  I recently rewatched Mr. Rogers testimony in Congress on YouTube. It hasn't lost its power or its resonance.  

Humility and business aren't frequent bedfellows but David Marcum and Steven Smith, authors of Egonomics,have made a compelling case that maybe they should be.

Does your ego help or hurt you in business?  

When your identity is continually fused with your ideas -- any perceived threat to your ego turns on your autonomic nervous system and you chemically you begin to hear less and defend more.

Marcum and Smith tell a great story about Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger's Neighborhood) when he appeared before a senate committee to help prevent the cutting of government funding for National Educational Television (PBS) in half. The hearing was chaired by Rhode Island Senator John Pastore.  

You can watch the actual testimony below, but here is a portion of the transcript and some telling insight from Marcum and Smith.

Pastore:  (Challenging) All right, Rogers, you've got the floor.

Mr. Rogers  (Holding a document he was asked to submit)  Senator Pastore, this is a philosophical statement and would take about 10 minutes to read, so I'll not do that.  One of the first things that a child learns in a healthy family is trust, and I trust what you've said, that you will read this.  It's very important to me.  I care deeply about children. My first--

Pastore:  (Interrupting)  Will it make you happier if you read it (Said sarcastically and with a slight condescending tone. (The audience and press nervously laugh).

Marcum and Smith interrupt the story to give the reader a look at the dynamics that affect our interactions.  "At this point, Rogers had two things working against him. 1) The surge of his own ego working to 'protect' him and someone else's closed mind. To understand how our ego affects our intensity and intent behind a discussion, let's look at what wold likely be going on inside our head if we were Fred Rogers.

When we are threatened, our response to a threat becomes physiological.  Dr. John Gottman calls this escalation of emotion "diffuse physiological arousal (DPA).  Dr. Daniel Goleman calls it the "neural tripwire."  Among other things. we start secreting adrenaline, chemicals that cause our heart to race up to 30 beats per minute faster, arteries constrict, and perspiration increases. (Essentially the flight or flight response).

"When we're in DPA on the inside -- and acting like we're not on the outside -- things  happen in the brain that cause tunnel vision and we can't hear what is being said."  DPA literally affects our hearing.  The brain reacts and we there is a physiological response to challenges or a perceived attack on ego and identity (values, character, beliefs, our sense of what we consider to be right or wrong etc.)

Let's go back to Rogers and Pastore.

"Consider the timing of Pastore's sarcastic remark to Rogers.  Not only was it condescending and filled with excessive ego, (or as I see it a dismissiveness) it was delivered at the very moment Rogers shared what was most important to him."  How we manage and channel the intensity of our own internal experience determines whether ego works for or against us.

"The weld between our identity and or ideas is sometimes so tight that we don't separate the two, or we can't separate the two, or we can't separate them easily when questions or perceived threats present themselves."

The  key here is that if we can't distinguish who we are from what we do, what we have or who we do it with, we won't see past our titles or tenure in a discussion.  If we say to ourselves or others, "I'm the vice president or I'm the CEO ... then we are parading our identity and take the conversation personally."

Let's go back to Rogers.

Rogers:  I'd just like talk about it, if that's all right --

Pastore:  (interrupting again) All right, sir, Okay.

"Rogers began to discuss the state of television, the role violence plays in television, and how it undermines the the emotional development and health of children. At first, Pastore appears to patronize, acting as if he is listening, but his body language sends a different message  But the transformation that occurs is visible. Within minutes, Pastore turns increasingly sincere, asking questions about Roger's program. Despite Pastore's early contempt, Rogers remained devoted to progress." In the intensity of debate, humility helps us from making the debate personal. 

My goal as a manager Innovation consultant has always been to channel intensity from identity to ideas.

I have found that many managers and clients begin to go into the DPA brain mode because they are defending identity.  You can see this played out in the body language and attitude of Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld in virtually any cabinet meeting of the early Bush years.

My question to readers is how has your experience been in the workplace.  Are you identity mode or idea mode? Has the DPA brain heating you up or are you in the moment?  I hope you will contribute comments and experiences. (Either from the comment section below or directly to me at inotivity@gmail.com.) I will add my experiences. If you wish to remain anonymous, put that into your message.

Here is Mr. Rogers in Congress


Wishcraft: A foundational approach to ideation.

Note: 35 years ago, Barbara Sher and Annie Gottlieb coined a wonderful title for their best-selling book, Wishcraft:  How to get what you really want.  While the book's focus is self development, it was instrumental in helping me develop more effective ideation techniques.

At the end of this entry, I will show you how to get a free copy of this classic.

“I imagine what would happen if everyone turned their regrets into wishes, went around shouting them.”

                                             ― Nina LaCour

My mentor, Dick Potter, taught me his variation of Synectics as developed by George Prince and J.J. Gordon.  

The process was developed from recording and analyzing the results of meetings and experimenting with obstacles to success in the meeting. (Success was defined as aligning on a creative solution that a group was committed to put into action.)

A critical element in creativity is embracing the seemingly irrelevant. Emotion is emphasized over intellect and the irrational over the rational. Through understanding the various emotional and irrational elements of a problem or idea, a group can be more successful at solving a problem.”

 One of tenants of Synectics is to begin with the problem as given (PAG).  What Dick added was a wish component.  For example, a problem as given might be “how might we increase sales of product X,” we would begin with wishes – extreme wishes that needed no path to viability.

A wish might be…that everyone would be required by law to buy X.  We would catalog all the wishes of the group over multiple rounds.  Then, we began to list the barriers to making the wish come true.  The next step is to ask, “What might we do to overcome these barriers.”

The whole process is designed to bypass the intellectual need for viability and to introduce indirect ideas that may spark new possibilities. 

Marty Neumeier, Director of Transformation for Liquid Agency, a branding agency headquartered in San Jose, California, has written a new book, The 46 Rules of Genius: An Innovator's Guide to Creativity.  Wishing is Rule #2.

"Wishing is like a warm-up sketch for problem solving. When you let your mind wander across the blank page of possibilities, all constraints and preconceptions disappear, leaving only the trace of a barely glimpsed dream, the merest hint of a sketch of an idea. To start wishing, ask yourself the kind of questions that begin: How might I...? What’s stopping us from...? In what ways could I...? What would happen if...? From there you can ask follow-up questions like: Why would we...? What has changed to allow us to...? Who would need to...? When should I...?”

So, why begin with a wish?

Like Neumeier, I believe that in the beginning of ideation, there is no reason to place limits on you wandering.  Is it the notion that you’d like to see reality sooner?  That you are wasting time?  Are you going down the possibility of an unproductive path? 

“Wishing allows you to leave the realm of limitations, if only for a few moments to imagine a future worth pursuing.”

Synectics comes from the Greek and means, "the joining together of different and apparently irrelevant elements.  A wish can be the foundation of seemingly irrelevant elements.

In one of my early sessions with Dick Potter, we asked the question, “What is the smarter choice, to sell a Visa card with a free Shopping discount card or to sell a shopping discount card with a free Visa card?

My first wish was that “I wish that there didn’t have to be two cards.” That wish led to single card called Super Visa.  

So a wish cannot only help solve a current problem, it can help a group reframe the problem.

To start wishing, Neumeier offers a starter list of questions:

How might I...?

What’s stopping us from...?

In what ways could I...?

What would happen if...?

From there you can ask follow-up questions like: Why would we...?

What has changed to allow us to...?

Who would need to...?

When should I...?

Link to Marty’s book, The 46 Rules of Genius: An Innovator's Guide to Creativity:


To download a free copy of Wishcraft, click the link below.










How to turn cliches into innovative thinking

I think of a cliché as a truth that’s reached its jump the shark moment.  It doesn’t mean that the cliché it isn’t true, but that it’s been so overused, we can’t discern the original truth from equally true incarnations of the idea.

Identifying clichés is one of the foundational paths to disruptive innovation.

In his new book Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable To Spark Transformation in Your Business, Luke Williams, shows how you can develop the habit of disruptive thinking by working through a five-stage process beginning with crafting a disruptive hypothesis.

Williams, a fellow at Frog Design, is a leading consultant and speaker specializing in disruptive thinking and innovation strategy.

‘A disruptive hypothesis is an intentionally unreasonable statement that gets your thinking flowing in a different direction,” says Williams. “ It’s kind of like the evolutionary biology theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” which states that evolution proceeds slowly and every once in a while is interrupted by sudden change.

Williams adds, “In our fast-changing world, when business certainties are no longer certain, the ability to imagine things as they never were and ask, “What if?,” is an essential part of every executive’s skill set.”

The goal is to start generating hypotheses that will enable you to radically reinterpret topics that everyone else in your industry has probably taken for granted.

One classic example is the Pompidou Center in Paris. “What would happen if we put the plumbing, electrical services, and air vents on the outside of a building instead of the inside?”  (Unconventionally attractive).

The same cliché busting method is what the advertising agency Chiat Day used to create what they call disruption day.   They catalogued virtually everything a company did to see what worked and what could be disrupted to the benefit of the company.

“The point is to get those tired truisms on the table so you can confront them later. Often, the more established and obvious the cliché, the greater the impact when it’s challenged.”

The multi-billion video gaming industry is a good example. Two giants dominated video consoles: Sony with its PlayStation and Microsoft with its Xbox.  Both were driven by several clichés.

“First, that the world is split into “gamers” and “nongamers.” Second, that gamers mostly care about faster chips and more realistic graphics. Third, game consoles are expensive. And fourth, that people play video games sitting down, barely moving anything but their fingers.

Then, Nintendo, a distant third player, turned the gaming industry’s clichés on their head. Nintendo’s Wii is relatively cheap, has no hard drive, no DVD, has weak connectivity, and comparatively low processor speed. But, within weeks of its launch, Wii became a hit with consumers, thanks to its innovative motion controller, which integrates players’ movements directly into the game.

“Wii killed the idea that a video game was something you played without breaking a sweat.”

Here are some of the disruptive thinking ideas, Williams recommends:

Make a list of your competitors and make a list of the clichés that keep everyone doing the same thing, competing the same way, or operating with the same set of assumptions.

Look at product clichés: What are the cliché features and benefits? What are the cliché product attributes that are advertised (convenience and reliability, for example)? Where are the cliché areas where the product competes (typical customers, typical geographies, and typical market size)?

Interaction clichés: What are the cliché steps a customer experiences when buying and consuming their products and services? Is the interaction face-to-face? How frequently do customers purchase or use? In the rental car business, for instance, the prevailing interaction clichés include the following: face-to-face interaction with a service agent, completing a lot of paperwork, and renting vehicles by the day.

Look at pricing clichés: What are the typical ways companies price their products and services and charge customers? Are they packaging products and services together or pricing them individually? Are they charging the customer directly or through a retail partner?

Are they offering discounts or other incentives? In the magazine industry, the dominant pricing paradigm is a subscription-sale model, whereby the magazines offer a hefty discount (often more than 50 percent off the cover price) for annual subscriptions.

For example, buying a subscription is 50 percent less than buying from a newsstand. Then, along comes a startup lifestyle magazine called Monocle, and instead of the traditional subscription-sale model, it created a subscription-premium model. The disruption? “Buying an annual subscription is 50 percent more than the cost of buying from a newsstand.” That high-priced subscription also gets you exclusive access to premium website content, signature products, social events, books, and audio programs. That high-priced subscription also gets you exclusive access to premium website content, signature products, social events, books, and audio programs. In its first year, the magazine’s circulation was already 150,000, and it’s currently sold in more than 50 countries.

You can call it cliché or current business practices, but the key is finding how you can think what no one else is thinking and deliver an unmet customer need. (Often, a need that even customers didn’t know they had.)

Thought Experiment:

This experiment only takes 5 minutes. Set your timer and write down as many clichés as you can about a competitor.  The product. The service.  The price. And the marketing. 

Then, simply pick one cliché you can trump. What can you do that they don’t?  This is the start of a disruptive hypothesis. Don’t worry about cost or viability – the goal is simply to begin a habit of disruptive thinking.

My thanks to Luke Williams for sharing.

Check out his book on Amazon:





The Decline of Eloquence 

This post is dedicated to Mark Brady, who passed away recently.  Mark was a friend and a remarkable writer who commented often on this post -- which I originally I wrote for BakerMuse Wordpress.

One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is understandably overlooked. Like a tiny ship, these five words are swamped by such iconic leviathans as:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question”

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.

And, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

The line comes from Polonius -- an obsequious, windbag of a man who has been sent to spy on Hamlet by the King.  According to scholars, in the first quarto Polonius was called “Corambis’ -- which is derived from Latin and can be roughly translated as “reheated cabbage.”

Polonius speaks a numbing eleven lines including “brevity is the soul of wit.” The wonderful irony is that there isn’t even the hint of brevity coming from him. He doesn’t talk, he spouts.  Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, finally interrupts him with the words, “More matter, with less art.”

Ay, there’s the rub.

Most of my writing career has been an attempt to find that delicate balance of matter and art.

No, eloquence is not dead. You can find it in the works of people like David Quammen -- who writes elegantly and perceptively on nature.  Or in the ruminations of Nicholson Baker -- who writes extraordinary things about the ordinary. Or in virtually everything Joan Didion puts on paper.

But in its apparent rareness, I see the slow and precipitous decline.  Can you imagine the Declaration of Independence being crafted by today’s congress?  Would the brevity and brilliance of the Gettysburg Address seem unfit for such an august and solemn occasion today?

Over time, eloquence has been elevated out of the expected.

It almost feels baroque and suspect when it finds its way into print, into a speech, or worse, into ordinary conversation.

Eloquence feels like we are continually gilding the lily.

I don’t believe eloquence is about verbal virtuosity.  To me, true eloquence is about hitting the right chord of context, insight and artistry.

Eloquence can be found in sublime brevity.  Hemingway, who raised simplicity to an art, demonstrates eloquence in the last six words of his novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

You can only appreciate this line in the context of the novel’s long journey. This cynical and slighter bitter line also surprisingly poignant because it reveals the truth of a relationship that is more dream than reality.  It is the recognition of the impossible.

Norman Maclean’s opening line of his story, A River Runs Through It, may be one of the most eloquent beginnings of a story I have ever read.  “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

In Neuromancer, William Gibson opens his novel with “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

And in the screenplay of Doctor Zhivago, Robert Bolt puts a surprisingly eloquent line into the mouth of the antagonist Komarovsky.  Outside an upscale restaurant, a crowd of demonstrators and revolutionaries sing The International.

Inside the restaurant,  there awkward silence falls over the diners.  Then Komarovsky comments, “No doubt they’ll sing in tune after the revolution.”  The crowd laughs and for the briefest of moments, the revolution doesn’t seem so inevitable.

E.B. White once wrote eloquently about spring.

"One never knows what images one is going to hold in memory, returning to the city after a brief orgy in the country.  I find this morning that what I  most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands -- she with a couple of of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip.

Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists -- just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts."

There is eloquence in the spare prose of Cormac McCarthy.  In Joyce Carol Oates’ insightful book on boxing.   And in the sports writing of the late and irreplaceable Jim Murray.

This is not a plea for more eloquence or even a desire for it to permeate our daily communications.  But it is a small wish.  Please don’t let eloquence become so extraordinary that it becomes the pejorative.  Find the art in the matter.

When in doubt, err on the side of eloquence.



BIF10: Why the heart of innovation is personal.

Innovation is personal. 

It is, by nature and nurture, an inevitable human enterprise that begins with a terrible itch to scratch.  That itch may begin as simply as a mere annoyance or as profound as confronting cancer.

All of this was the heart of the BIF10 (Business Innovation Factory) annual summit.

After 10 years and three hundred and twenty innovator/storytellers, BIF continues to amaze, enthrall, and inspire the audience of 300 who make the pilgrimage to Providence, Rhode Island each year.

Let’s begin with the amaze and enthrall. 

One of the innovators is Camille Beatty.  She is 14-years-old and just started her first week in high school. 

The amazing part?  

She just started her own Robotics Company with her 12-year-old sister Genevieve.  This summer, Camille and her sister were invited to the White House by President Obama to demonstrate their robots at the White House.

Her quest began with an itch -- an unquenchable desire to understand how things work and how to turn ideas into machines.

Another innovator is Dr. Rupal Patel – a speech scientist at Northeastern University.  Her itch was to help give a voice to people without one.  Patel is working on creating individualized synthetic voices that match a person’s gender, age, and even emotions, rather than the one-size-fits-all computer generated voices that seem to dehumanize the articulated sounds of the person.

Then there’s David Moinina Sengeh, a Ph.D., candidate at the MIT Media Lab, President and co-founder, Global Minimum Inc. Sengeh, a native of Sierra Leone grew up during that country’s brutal, 11-year civil ware that has left 50,000 dead and 4,000 who had limbs crudely amputated as a form of political terror.

His itch was to understand how to mitigate the suffering and pain of prosthetic devices by combining medical imaging, 3-D printing, and individualized insights to create the next generation of prosthetics.

And there’s Arlene Samen.  Her itch was to help at-risk mothers and children.

She is the Founder, President and Executive Director of One Heart World-Wide.  She was among the first nurse practitioners in the field of high-risk obstetrics.  She was profoundly moved in 1997 by a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama who told her “she must go to Tibet and help women safely give birth there.”

Samen moved from Utah to Nepal and started an organization that has helped save hundreds of lives and will continue to have an impact on the lives of thousands in Nepal and beyond.

Ultimately, these singular itches, desires, and challenges are elevated to innovative ideas that move from the personal to the collective. The collective can be a small as single supporter or a network of hundreds that rally to the potential.

Let’s end with the inspire part. 

All the innovators at BIF tell their unique story.  But that story fills our minds and hearts with a renewed sense of purpose and drive.  Some resonate more than others. 

But ultimately, the singular becomes plural and we all share in the truly remarkable results.

Thank you BIF.