Entries in Creativity Central (5)


The four key questions you should ask yourself everyday.

In 2007, the late Arthur B. (Andy) VanGundy wrote one of the seminal books of his career, Getting to Innovation: How Asking the Right Questions Generates the Great Ideas Your Company Needs.

In my career as an innovation and creativity coach, questions have always been the sine qua non of innovation and equally as important in leadership effectiveness.  My guiding principle at Inotivity is that innovation isn’t simply what you know, but how you think.

One of my favorite stories comes my friend and colleague Kevin Murnane, adjunct instructor at Kellogg Graduate School of Management and founder of Behtrics.], Inc.  At Kellogg, he helped design the first Leadership Coaching Class for MBAs and Executive Coaching.

We were talking about decision-making and smart questions. He told me about an executive who wanted to change careers.  She wanted to leave a career in corporate America and become a professional comedian.

Together, Kevin and his client dived deep into the pros and cons of making such a dramatic change.   Ultimately, the client was on the fence.  Kevin looked at her and said, “I know what you are willing to give up to make this happen, tell me what you aren’t willing to give up?”

This single question cut through to the heart of how smarter decisions are made.

Recently, I read Susan Scott’s terrific book, Fierce Leadership. (By “Fierce” she doesn’t mean menacing, cruel, and threatening but rather robust, intense, and strong.) 

She advises executives and managers to ask themselves four basic questions:

1.  What’s the most important thing I should be talking about today?

2.  What do I believe is impossible for me to do, that if were possible, would change everything?

3.  If nothing changes, what are the implications?

4.  What’s the conversation that has my name on it? The one I’ve been avoiding for days, weeks, months, and years?  Who is it with and what is the topic?  When will I have it?

Imagine what you could accomplish if you asked these questions everyday?


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Marissa Mayer, Creativity, and Productivity. The Yahoo Paradox.

Last May, Clive Thompson wrote a wonderfully provocative article in Wired about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and the infamous work at work what hitting the long tail stage.

“When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned her employees from working at home earlier this year, she sparked a culture war over How We Work Today. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the head of Yahoo HR wrote in a memo. “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together.

Pundits and executives said Mayer was nuts: Telecommuting offers family-friendly flexibility, and research shows that people who work remotely are far more productive, right? Others shot back in her defense, citing the “water-cooler effect”: You only get innovative, breakthrough ideas when staff work face-to-face and exchange ideas serendipitously…”

Thompson summed up the problem in simple four words: "…both sides are right. Telework makes you more productive, and working together makes you more creative. And therein lies a paradox. The real challenge for people who run modern organizations is understanding what type of thinking they want to do, not where to do it.

He sites a study Isaac Kohane, a professor at Harvard Medical School, who looked at 35,000 biomedical papers published from 1999 to 2003, each with at least one Harvard author. Then he measured how influential the papers were, based the frequency of citations by other academics.

“Geography trumped: The physically closer that the first author listed on the paper was to the last, the more influential their paper became. “It’s whether we can chat and have extemporaneous talks,” Kohane says. “It’s serendipity.”

He also writes about an Arizona State team studied three tech firms using “sociometric badges” that monitored location and proximity to track employee interaction. “Again, face-to-face won out. On days the teams were most creative, they were also closest to each other and most physically active. “

Thompson makes the case that organizations also need productivity—six hours of mental peace to finish a single complex piece of work. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom took employees at a huge Chinese travel agency and randomly assigned some to work from home while others worked in the office. The result? The stay-at-homes did 13 percent more overall.

Productivity and creativity aren’t always found in the cube farm.

Thompson continues: “The trick here is for groups to employ a new skill: metacognition. That’s thinking about thinking. Rather than obsessing over the apparent dichotomy between productivity and creativity, managers and employees need to assess what type of mental work they’re doing on any given day and gravitate to where it’s best suited. Doing Mad Men–style “aha” groupthink? Stay in the office. Need to crush that 90-page memo on paper-clip appropriations? Seems like the kind of thing best handled at home, possibly in your underwear. One-size-fits-all policies—like the one at Yahoo—are too crude for today’s white-collar toil.”

My experience in working at home was in Los Angeles working on financial clients for a direct marketing firm.  Because my daily commute was over an hour,  (The company moved to the hinterlands after I started working there) working at home was a privilege and a blessing. I worked longer hours to ensure I wouldn’t lose the privilege.

I was also a freelance creative for advertising agencies.  I worked on deadline and got the work done. Typically, the less time I spent at the agency, the more productive I was.

I don’t think Mayer’s initiative is wrong. Yahoo needed a dose of adrenaline and sense of purpose.  And I do think that creativity can thrive at the individual level.  It is matching the talents, strengths and working styles of individuals and allowing the opportunity to put them where they add the most value. 

It’s a question of trust and human nature. 

Thompson sums up the dilemma of either/or with and.

“The smartest organizations will be the ones that understand these subtleties and flow with them. The only way to win this culture war is not to play.”




Dan Pink's To Sell Is Human: A review.

Arthur Miller created the archetype of the insecure, self-deluded traveling salesman in his Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Death of a Salesman. I have my own Willy Loman story.

When I was in high school, I earned extra money by lugging around a sample case of candles and selling door to door. There were, of course, the easy marks; my parents and the next-door neighbors.  Beyond the comfortable confines of my immediate neighborhood, it was a teenager’s view of hell – doors slammed, fingers wagging no from behind lace curtains, and the one-hour pitch that led to “I’ll have to think about it.” 

Like most Americans, I have a rather dim view of salespeople.  In fact, it is usually ranked among the most distrusted professions along with stock traders, politicians, dentists, and lawyers.

Which is surprising, because Dan Pink, the author of the new book, To Sell is Human; the Surprising Truth About Moving Others was a lawyer.  Pink, the author of such best sellers as A Whole New Mind and Drive takes a fresh and engaging look at the art and social science of selling.  In fact, his thesis is that in one way or another, we are all salespeople.

Pink begins with some provocative statistics – the result of his study with Qualtrics, a research and data analytics company.  The study, What Do You Do At Work?, revealed “that people are now spending 40 percent of their time at work engaging in non-sales: selling – persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don’t involve anyone making a purchase. Across a wide range of professions, we are devoting roughly twenty-four minutes of every hour to moving others.”

The book makes a compelling argument that “we are all in sales now” because while the existing data show that 1 in 9 Americans work in sales, the new data reveal so do the other 8 in 9.

In all of his books, Pink (Like Malcolm Gladwell) uses behavioral economics and science to illuminate a subject – in many ways, counterintuitive to what many of us believe.

For example, he cites a 2008 experiment where researchers simulated a negotiation over the sale of a gas station.  (I assume this was before the great financial meltdown.)

“Like many real-life negotiations, this one presented what looked like an obstacle: The highest price the buyer would pay was less than the lowest price the seller would accept.  However, the parties had other mutual interests that, if surfaced, could lead to a deal both would accept.”

Pink continues, “One-third of the negotiators were instructed to imagine what the other side was feeling, while one-third was instructed to imagine what the other side was thinking.   (The remaining third, given bland and generic instructions, was the control group.)”

The result?  The empathizers (feeling) struck many more deals than the control group, But the perspective takers (thinking) did even better: 75% of them managed to fashion a deal that satisfied both sides.

The authors of the study, Adam Galinsky, Joe Magee, M. Inesi and Deborah Gruenfeld and another study by William Maddux showed that “Empathy…was effective but less so, and was, at times a detriment to both discovering creative solutions and self-interest.”

Pink also dispels the myth that extroverts make the best salespeople in today’s economy and that the “Ambivert” – someone who is somewhere between an extrovert and an introvert is the rising star in moving people.

If you’re familiar with the classic Alec Baldwin uber-salesman scene in David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross you’ll know that the ABC scribbled on the chalkboard means, “Always be closing.”  (For movie fans, Mamet wrote that scene for Baldwin and is not in the original play).

Pink has rewired and rethought the ABC of the new world of selling and it’s Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity.  Like his other books, he complements each idea with relevant case studies, strategies and a number of insight exercises. 

He offers six successors to the standard elevator pitch.  Shows you why problem finding may be a smarter strategy than problem solving, and how skills in improvisation can dramatically improve how to move people.

All of which makes To Sell Is Human – a delightfully useful read.  Essentially, Pink is reframing what “selling” is all about.  We are all salespeople because everyday we are selling ideas, positions, and strategies to other people.  I highly recommend it.

I know Dan personally and marvel how there are very few pictures of him without a purple shirt and he doesn’t disappoint in To Sell Is Human.   So, I requested a preview copy and bought my own Kindle version as well.

I first met him at a book signing at BIF (Business Innovation Factory) and what impressed me is that he didn’t simply sign books; he had short, meaningful conversations with everyone.   I think he’s a reluctant salesperson.  Dan is more interested in sharing information and ideas than selling you a product or service.

And ultimately, that’s the foundation of the new age of sales – how to move others, by moving yourself.

Finally, for anyone wishing to sell candles door to door, the Praying Hands cylinder candle was a big hit.

Click below to find book at Amazon.  


Or check out Dan's website:












Get Unstuck & Get Going

Sometimes creativity and practicality come together and the result is impressive.  A few years ago, I found this sweet spot in a book called Get Unstuck & Get Going by Michael Bungay Stanier. 

Last Summer, I had the opportunity to talk with Michael about his newest book, Do More Great Work.  (See bottom of this blog for a link).  Get Unstuck & Get Going is a gift disguised as a book.  Its unique spiral-bound design allows the reader to create 50,000 combinations of provocative quotations, stories, models and questions.

The premise is simplicity itself.  “People feel stuck because they can only see one way of doing what they want to do -- and they don’t like that option.  But possibilities get you unstuck.  If you can create possibilities, you can have more than one option.  And with more than one option, you have a choice.”

He opens the book with an Action Acceleration Sheet (Also available as a download] that helps you define your challenge (identify where you’re stuck) how to evaluate new ideas, and then transform ideas into action.

The book is divided into three flip pages -- so you can see at glance an inspiring story, a provocative quote and a powerful model.  What elevates Get Unstuck and Get Going beyond an ordinary aggregation of quotes and stories is Bungay Stanier’s questions that follow each entry.

To show you how the book works, I selected three flip pages at random. 

The Inspiring Story was about a coffee shop called Cherry Bomb -- that has a least 10 competitors but succeeds because of its ASAP philosophy.  That’s not ASAP (As Soon As Possible) but ASAP in [As Simple as Possible.]  “They’ve removed every barrier they can to help get your coffee fast -- from the pricing to the line up process.” Michael follows the story with two questions:  “What’s the simple thing to do?  How are you overcomplicating things?”

The provocative quotation is an Indian Proverb. “The cobra will bite you whether you call it cobra or Mr. Cobra.”  The questions:  Who are you showing too much respect?  Who might bite you in this situation?

The Powerful Model section is an excellent catalyst.  I selected #9 “Any situation can be put into one of three different buckets:  Something you can control, Something you can influence and Something you can neither control or influence.

Michael’s questions:  What can you control about this challenge?  What can you influence?

 What makes the book such a useful tool is that each three panel page creates a synergy of questions and ideas. Change a single panel and a new synergy is created.  In the example above, the insights are about simplicity, respect, and influence.

If you change a panel in the quotation area, you might find a question about rallying support or recruiting an ally. The new dynamic is simplicity, developing alliances and influence. You can focus in on any one panel or see the entire page a blueprint for thinking about your problem.

If you’re looking for book that will rattle your cage and help you do more great work, I encourage you get Unstuck & Get Going.









The Way We're Working Isn't Working: A Review

Think Rule #5.

Alan Webber, co-founder of Business Week, wrote that change is a math formula. Change happens when the cost of status quo is greater than the risk of change.  C(SQ) > R(C).

Tony Schwartz has written a provocative book that takes a serious look at the one area in business that seems immune to change -- the human costs of doing business in the digital age, Schwartz, the co-author of The Power of Full Engagement provides a proven prescription for making positive changes in the way we work.

The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working makes a compelling case that we’re neglecting four core needs that energize performance. The book is an extension of the ideas Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy introduced in the Harvard Business Review in 2007. (Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time.)

Their premise is deceptively simple: “The furious activity to accomplish more with less exacts a series of silent costs:  less capacity for focused attention, less time for any given task, and less opportunity to think reflectively and long term.”

In other words, less energy. And perhaps more importantly, less sustainable energy.

The insights that Schwartz and his colleagues at The Energy Project bring to The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working are based on their experiences working with such organizations as Wachovia, The Cleveland Clinic, the LA Police Department, Sony and Ernst & Young and IBM.

Like Dan Pink’s book, Drive, this book challenges the notion of what truly works in today’s business environment.  While Pink focuses on motivation, Schwartz challenges the idea of how to enhance the performance of employees -- and much of it is counter-intuitive to how we do business.

“A growing body of research suggests that we’re most productive when we move between periods of high focus and intermittent rest.  Instead, we live in a gray zone, constantly juggling activities but rarely fully engaging in any of them -- or fully disengaging from any of them.”

Within the first 10 pages, Schwartz makes a persuasive case.  “Most organizations enable our dysfunctional behaviors and even encourage them through policies, practices, reward systems and cultural messages that serve to drain our energy and run down our value over time.

An increasing number of organizations pay lip service to the notion that ‘are our greatest asset.’ But even among companies that make that claim, the cast majority off-load the care and feeding of employees to divisions known as “human resources,” which are rarely accorded an equal place at the executive table.  As a consequence, the needs of employees are marginalized and treated perquisites provided through programs that focus on topics like ‘leadership development,’ ‘wellness,’ and ‘flexibility’ -- all largely code words for nonessential functions.”

Again, think rule #5.

How willing are executives today willing to change the status quo?  Products are being made.  Services are being rendered.  But at what cost?

The four core areas that energize great performance are sustainability (physical needs) security (emotional) self-expression (mental) and significance (spiritual).  Schwartz makes the case that we’re at our best, not when act like computers running at high speed for long hours, but when we pulse rhythmically between expending and regularly renewing energy across each of our four needs.

The value of the book is enhanced by downloadable tools to help you evaluate your current situation and how to begin addressing the four core areas to enhance the ability of your company to harness the energy of all your employees.

If you want to make positive change in your organization and want to move beyond the status quo,  The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working -- is a working blueprint for any company’s future. I highly recommend it.

You can find it at Amazon in hardcover and on Kindle.


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