Our systems — be they companies, government agencies, schools, churches or healthcare organizations — become brittle, rigid, bureaucratic, and sometimes even dangerous when there are no rebels or change makers who have the courage to say, “This isn’t the right way.” Look no further than General Motors’ recent debacle. This inspirational post reflects on what might happen in a world without rebels.
I’ve heard people rave about the SXSW Interactive, Film and Music conference for years, and never understood why it’s such a cult-like experience. Though I hate huge crowds, long lines, and managed chaos, I found the people and ideas absolutely fascinating in their diversity, honesty and generosity. While I bumped into a couple of people who missed the point and were shilling their companies, most people were there to learn, share, question, and play. No doubt, the playfulness created the conditions for learning much.
Oh brother, after five days I became sucked into the cult. I may never be able to go to a typical business conference again.
Here’s a summary of my SXSW highlights:
A danger for everyone at work — particularly us change makers — is becoming obsessed with our own agenda.
When we’re focused on pushing our agenda forward come hell or high water, we get blinded from taking in potentially valuable new information and from enjoying and learning from our colleagues.
When our agenda has us, we are handicapped from being effective change makers. Or effective period.
There is one week every September where I fully immerse myself in ideas, possibilities and new people. Last week I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s annual innovation conference. Here’s what I learned and was reminded of:
1. Show up more. (Or better, always.)
When we lay bare our vulnerabilities and dreams, we connect with people in rich ways. As author and venture capitalist Whitney Johnson said, “There are no regrets when you show up, and when you show up your dreams can find you. Dreaming is at the heart of disruptive innovation.”
2. Good questions start good ideas.
I’ve attended every BIF conference and have noticed that innovators ask good questions, and those questions get people thinking in new ways. One of my favorites this year were what educator Angela Maiers uses to challenge high school students as part of the Choose2Matter movement: What breaks your heart about the world? What can you do about that? What do you need?
3. Do the work, the path will appear.
Food geek Scott Heimendinger kept his day job in technology and on weekends and nights wrote a food blog and started experimenting with sous vide cooking. Acknowledging that it’s OK to be risk averse, which he is, Scott just kept working away on his love for molecular gastronomy as a side project. Eventually, he found his new path as director of applied research at The Cooking Lab. Innovators just start without knowing what the outcomes should or will be.
4. Nothing is too big to change.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, has created a new higher ed approach, aimed particularly for disadvantaged, often marginalized adults who want to get ahead at work. For just $1,250 people can earn an associate’s degree and learn the competencies they need to get a promotion and access the social mobility needed to have a better life. Rather than tweaking the traditional higher ed model or continuing to engage in side issues like student loan rates, SNHU created a new model that goes to the root issues: people want to learn competencies in new, affordable ways so that they can get better jobs FYI: Fast Company has named SNHU one of the worlds’ 50 most innovative companies.
5. Oh, God.
Speaking of not being too big to change. Just as Pope Francis’ stunning interview urging The Catholic Cburch to preach more about mercy and less about dogma was published last week (Hallelujah!), Rabbi Irwin Kula was speaking on stage about the urgent need to un-bundle wisdom and practices from the people who own them, and to make sure that our moral enhancements keep pace with technological enhancements. “Religion is just a tool box,” he said. “It’s time to consider blending practices from all religions and make love and empathy the source of what we are designing for the world.” Amen.
6. “A network is worthless if you do not give it away.”
The wise and generous innovation adviser Deb Mills-Scofield reminded people that it matters not how large or extensive your network is if you do not use it for good, sharing it with others to open up possibilities for them.
7. The fastest way to change is…
The easiest and fastest way to create more innovation in an organization is to accelerate generation change, said Bruce Nussbaum, former Business Week editor and now professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design. My thought: how do we help Baby Boomers share their wisdom and transition to new roles so that younger people can step in and create more of the change that is so needed?
8. Sleep is not over-rated.
Towards the end of the week after many consecutive 16-hour days of intense listening and provocative conversations, I was reminded of how much I value sleep and quiet think time.
9. Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion.
The huge value of empowering the rebels inside organizations seemed to resonate with many, as did Carmen Medina‘s belief that optimism is the greatest form of rebellion and positive change. Rebels at Work see possibilities, not insolvable problems.
10. Oh joy...
Playfulness, joy and unexpected silliness are essential to our humanity. Erminio Pinque, founder Big Nazo Lab, creates big, funky, life-sized foam creatures for parades and for their own special Big Nazo Shows. Erminio told me that the surprise of the creatures and costumes opens people up to being people. While going through airport security recently, the TSA screeners pulled the foam creature masks out of the suitcase and yelled across to their colleagues, “Hey Joe. Check this out.” Everyone in line forgot their frustrations and frantic schedules and laughed together. Like children in awe of the world’s wondrous surprises.
11. Digital handshake, in-person hug.
Tim McDonald, director of communities for the HuffingtonPost, and I sat together during the conference. As we said our goodbyes he gave me a big bear hug and explained that he sees meeting people via social media as “the real world,” and when he gets to meet them physically he likes to give big hugs. I love his approach to digital handshake, in-person hug. Talk about connecting.
12. Control is for beginners.
The life of Carl Stormer‘s wife was upended when she had a massive stroke at age 43, and they learned to keep going and find meaning in a life that is not what one would choose. Carl’s wife believes that control is for beginners. And that, dear friends, was my greatest takeaway of an intense week of learning.
When life slows down during the summer I notice more, read more, and reflect on changing trends and emerging opportunities. Here are some of my random observations.
Chief Communications Officers/Chief Marketing Officers:
There are a lot of C-level titles in companies and one that is slowly fading away is the Chief Communications Officer. The duties of that position are increasingly being folded in under the Chief Marketing Officer. SAP, FedEx, IBM and other companies have all recently made this change. Much of marketing and communications is similar, particularly the shared goal of building the company’s reputation. But reputations need to be earned, not just communicated, and therein lies customer experience, product and service, front line employee engagement, customer service and a host of other factors that fall largely into the marketing bucket. There are still some special communications skills distinct and separate from marketing but do they warrant a C-level executive and another organizational silo?
Press releases/one or two sentence explanation:
Not to pick on the PR profession here, but I am on a distribution list where I get press releases and pitch emails, most of which seem kind of dumb. Most are irrelevant to me and written in such gobbledygook corporate-speak that I don’t know what the point is. Please tell me in a straightforward sentence or two why your idea or news is relevant and worth me taking a closer look at. You can also skip writing those phony press release quotes that no one publishes and probably lengthen the review process inside the company . If you use a formulaic press release style I just hit “delete.”
Less reading/ more tweeting:
As people spend more of their discretionary time on social networks they seem to be reading fewer books. I’ve talked with people of all ages this summer who told me they “just don’t have time to sit down and read a book” and yet their Tweets and Facebook posts are voluminous. While I find great value and enjoyment from social media, what I learn from reading a book is of much greater value, from learning and spiritual perspectives. Is there a future for both?
Newspapers at the end of the driveway/tablets:
When I walk down to the end of the driveway at 5:45 a.m. to pick up my New York Times in its blue plastic bag and The Providence Journal in its clear bag I look around at my neighbors’ driveways and realize we’re one of the few houses that still subscribe to the paper editions. My ritual of reading the papers and drinking one good cup of strong coffee before the house wakes up may be ending. The online iPad editions of newspapers are becoming good reading experiences, perhaps even better than the paper versions. (And I do know that trudging through the snow and ice in the winter to get the paper is miserable.)
Focus groups/unstructured data + communities:
A client recently asked for a focus group to better understand a situation. I was kind of shocked that he thought getting 10 people around a table for a couple of hours would be worth the time or money. There are so many easier and less expensive ways to quickly tap into the wisdom of the crowds and get a read on an issue or an idea. And the insights are likely to be better than the old facilitated focus group format. By polling people in one of the company’s communities we had 140 thoughtful considered responses within 24 hours. Cost? A few hours to design the questions and analyze the results. For meatier issues where it does make sense to get people together to think more deeply about a topic I see the opportunity in the Art of Hosting type approaches.
Suburban McMansions/neighborhoods, co-housing:
With the middle class being squeezed financially and the Baby Boomers aging, the appeal and maintenance cost of big houses is diminishing. People are beginning to choose new options — smaller homes in neighborly neighborhoods and co-housing communities, like this one in Vermont that I recently toured, and this one in Rhode Island, focused on the arts and agriculture. Or moving into cities and embracing the no-car life, like in new city centers like Brickell in Miami. The real trend, however, may be that people want to be part of communities with people, not just living next to people.
Large scale shopping malls/e-commerce, neighborhoods, Makers:
Those big sprawling shopping malls are starting to sag as people look to shop in areas with smaller stores and more of a neighborhood feel. The headline in Neilsen’s recent “Brick by Brick: The State of the Shopping Center” report — Go Big or Go Small — captures the trend. The WalMart and Target super-centers are thriving, but the days of the shopping mall are waning. E-commerce continues to grow, as do smaller, more neighborhood-like lifestyle centers where you shop, eat, go to a movie, and take a walk. The big trend to watch, however, are inidivdual DIYers and craftspeople creating products and new markets for selling them, like the Maker Movement and its Maker Faires and marketplaces like Etsy, a personal favorite.
Less consulting/more job seekers:
The hardest work of a consultant is developing business opportunities, and many marketing consultants I know are looking for positions with agencies or inside companies for this reason. I have a hunch too that it’s just much more rewarding to work with a team than work solo. It’s similar to the desire to live in a neighborhood with people vs. living on a three-acre lot in a big house where you never see people. People are longing for people. Many employers don’t look favorably on resumes where people have been self-employed for a while; they haven’t been on a neat track. Keep an open mind, there’s some tremendous talent available if you change your lens (and don’t rely on those resume keyword scanners.)
Tans/diet & exercise:
Seeing people coming out of the tanning salon next to my dry cleaners with the goggle marks still around their eyes, makes me go, “Hunh?” People with those deep, dark Coppertone tans seem as trendy as people who smoke. Fortunately, tans are fading. (excuse the pun). The opportunity: people who eat healthy food and exercise seem to have a healthy glow, much more attractive than tans. While at a recent yoga retreat I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful women at all ages, up through the 70s, looked sans makeup. And tans. (Or maybe I’m just envious that I haven’t been able to get to the beach this summer and am justifying my longing for a wee bit of a tan from swimming and body surfing.)
Enjoy the rest of your summer, and keep on noticing the slow shifts that are opening up new opportunities in every field, as well as signaling what to let go of.
We can’t do it alone,
whether it’s changing things at work
or living through personal challenges.
I have often written about the need to find allies at work to accomplish change and stay positive.
While I know this to be true, I have been guilty in trying to go it alone. I am the fire-starter, the organizer, the person who gets things done. My husband has a similar mindset. So when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease two years ago, we found one of the most renown Parkinson’s neurologists, got the medication, read the books, and decided that we wouldn’t let Parkinson’s define our lives.
It was with great apprehension that we went to a five-day a “wellness retreat” with 57 other people with Parkinson’s and their care partners last week at Kripalu, the yoga and spiritual center in the hills of Western Massachusetts. Since the program was sponsored by the National Parkinson’s Foundation, we thought that we would learn a great deal from medical experts about research, symptoms, medications, resources, and what to be aware of as the condition progresses. And we did.
But what I really came away with is less anxiety and more confidence that I can do this, no matter how wonky the disease may affect my husband. The wisdom, practical know-how, and generosity of those 57 people in the retreat was a stark reminder that it’s better not to try to take on difficult situations alone. There’s always much to learn from people who know more and have experienced worse. One self-less act really brought home this message.
Selfishly I wanted my husband to participate in a noontime event called Yoga Dance, open to everyone at Kripalu not just the PD folks. It’s like a wild-ass dance party with great music and free form dancing. Makes me feel like 19 again. I asked each man in our PD wellness workshop if he would go to yoga dance, explaining that if a bunch of guys went my husband would too. They all agreed, including Ray who was having a particularly tough day with his PD.
Ray and his partner Richard went into the big dance room, music blaring, lots of athletic yoga people dancing like joyful fools. Feeling very uncomfortable Ray told Richard he needed to leave, his body just couldn’t move to the music. They left the room for a few minutes and came back, where Ray tried again. He and Richard soon left a second time, and then they came back in for a third try.
Ray was upset that he couldn’t move. Richard was upset that Ray was upset. It was a horrible, unsettling incident that reminded them both of the realities of Parkinson’s.
While they struggled my husband and I danced like young lovers. Ray and Richard didn’t know, but it was our 30th wedding anniversary.
Genuine collaboration is what Ray did coming to that lunchtime yoga dance. He came from a deep well of thoughtfulness and wanting to help me. Even though it was so, so hard for him.
As I reenter the “real” world on Monday, I keep with me a new question:
What would Ray do?
An incident last week jolted me awake about women in the workplace.
I participated in two days of new employee orientation for a financial services client. About 70 percent of the 40 people in the class were women, the rest men. As part of a group exercise the instructor asked for a representative from each table to stand up and share the group’s work. A man spoke for every group but one, that being my table where I stood up.
I was shocked and saddened. Why are women letting men dominate, even in non-threatening situations like work orientation games?
When I was in my 20s we women boldly stood up and spoke up, knowing that our views were as valuable as the guys, oftentimes even more so. We weren’t very good at slinging the bull shit like some of our fearless men friends. So our responses were often more considered and thoughtful.
We knew we had to speak up. Trailblazers like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzeg had worked hard and sacrificed much to help us move into the corporate world. We wanted to pay it forward by succeeding and helping other women in their journeys. Having a say and being heard was essential.
When I was working at AT&T early in my career I was promoted into a job where I made $22,000, taking over for a man who hadn’t been performing so well at the job but had been making $48,000. More than double what I was paid for the same responsibilities. I raised this disparity with HR, which told me that the man had more experience, and, confidentially, “if you keep speaking up like this you could hurt your career.” I loved telling that story, and I more loved seeing the pay gap between women and men shrink.
We’ve made such gains over the 30 years, but apparently not enough.
Aside from my fear that women will continue to not get promoted as quickly or make as much as men if they do not speak up and believe in themselves, I worry about businesses being able to adapt and grow. Research shows that the more diverse the thinking an in an organization, the faster and better it can solve problems. If women are submissive, organizational performance will suffer.
I was recently planning a conference with a wonderful, enlightened European man. He recruited the first 12 speakers. Eleven of the 12 were men. When I pointed out this imbalance, he was taken aback. He hadn’t even noticed that he had invited almost all men. I am pleased to tell you that this conference is now equally represented.
Today the Fast Company blog had a story that caught my eye, “Eight Successful Entrepreneurs Give Their Younger Selves Lessons They Wish They’d Known Then.” When I clicked on the story all the entrepreneurs were men. Really? The writer couldn’t find one successful female entrepreneur?
Let’s call the media on this imbalanced view of business.
Let’s also get back to supporting and encouraging women in the workforce.
I don’t know about you, but I thought we had come farther. I thought my diligence in helping and promoting women had worked and now I could move on to new issues.
Just as Sheryl Sandberg is doing with her LeanIn.org, we need to help women stand up and be heard for their considerable talents and perspectives. If they don’t speak up confidently they will be overlooked for promotions and for increased compensation.
Worse, we wont be able to solve the complexity of today’s issues without the equal voices of both women and men, and not just women and men. But people who think differently from one another. Believe me, no one has the answers figured out in any industry.
PS — this Hay Group study just came out yesterday.
“The Cardinals are tired of reading about financial corruption, sexual improprieties and infighting at the Vatican. They want a Pope who can get things under control,” explained Father Thomas Reese to Tom Ashbrook on his NPR “On Point” radio show today.
When there are calls to “get things under control” there is no hope for control.
Whether it’s trying to control clergy in the Catholic Church, parents angry over school policies, or customers tweeting unfavorable product reviews, there is no control.
When I hear “get things under control” I know it’s a situation that can only be addressed by getting at root cause issues. It’s not a “handling” or crisis communications issue, it’s a systemic issue requiring that the real problems be addressed.
No new Pope can get the Catholic Church “under control” without addressing some deep seated issues.
No business leader can get customers under control if customers hate the products or customer service.
No school official can get parents under control if they feel their children are not being served.
No politician can get voters under control if they believe the politician is more interested in getting elected than representing their views.
No good can come from trying to control.
“Mum, if you’re so interested in this folk metal band, why don’t you come to the concert with me on Friday night,” my 17-year-old son asked as we watched the band’s YouTube videos.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “All that screaming and headbanging and moshing. Do you know how old I am?”
Later that night I thought, why not? What might I learn if I went? Who might I meet and what kind of story might emerge?
The next morning I read a post by Seth Godin, “Ridiculous is the New Remarkable,” in which he wrote:
We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.
Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.
Generous, daring, creative and silly? Mmmmm.
Then yesterday a big city mayor’s chief of staff called and asked if I could lead a retreat the Saturday after Christmas for front-line city managers who are burned out and frustrated. “Their jobs are never going to get easier, but maybe you could help them get re-energized and see that they’re part of something bigger.”
Again, my first thought was, “That’s ridiculous. I planned on taking a week off. I have no time to get my head around this. I don’t know any of these people, and I’d be giving my time away.”
So I agreed to do it.
This afternoon I have a call with a former editor at Random House about editing a book that I’ve been too afraid to push out into the world, and yet feel needs to get into the world. I’ve decided to self-publish the book, which seems ridiculous. Will anyone take it seriously if I self-publish? With Guy Kawasaki’s new book as my guide, I’m going to do it. (The books is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How To Publish Your Book.)
You see, I’ve decided to make “ridiculous” a strategy for 2013.
When presented with situations that my gut screams “RIDICULOUS!” I am going to say yes. Ridiculous will be a filter for making decisions on how I spend my time, how I learn, and how I challenge my own assumptions.
Since I made this strategic decision yesterday, the year ahead feels quite exciting. Perhaps even liberating.
People often ask me how I make decisions about my business and my own professional development. In fact, last week someone asked about how I make decisions to support my “personal brand.” I hope I didn’t offend the woman when I burst out laughing and then told her why I think obsessions around personal branding are self-limiting. Perhaps I should write to her with a more considered response, “My strategic filter for my career development in 2013 is ridiculousness.”
I don’t know where this adventure will take me, but I am confident I will learn much, laugh much, and become a more creative and empathetic person.
Warmest wishes for a holiday season that’s ridiculously happy and rich in possibilities.
Lisa was cutting my hair and talking about how she fixed her own toilet.
“The worst thing about hiring guys is that they talk so much about the job,” she said. “They get to your house and start talking about all the things they need to check, all the things that could go wrong, and how the project is probably doing to stretch out over a few weeks because the distributor might not have the right parts in stock.
“In the time it takes a guy to tell me all this I was able to go Home Depot, buy the toilet kit and finish the job.”
Empowered by her success with the toilet Lisa was now building a deck in her backyard.
“The standard sized boards made the project straightforward,” she said, “but the challenge was the screws. Have you ever walked down the screw aisle? There are hundreds, maybe thousands of different sized screws. To make matters worse you need different kinds of tools for different screws. I mean, c’mon, how many different kinds of screws do we need? Why can’t I build my deck with one or two types of screws? I really resent the screw aisle. Why do people make things so complicated?”
I closed my eyes as she started cutting again.
Screws. Financial investments. Health care plans. Government legislation. Business strategies. “Expert” advice. Diet plans. 15-step proven methodologies on everything from marketing to living a better life.
Over-complicated, over-thought and so overwhelming that most of us just freeze. The paralysis numbs us and dumbs us. Making us reliant on experts, products and services that we may or may not really need. Or, like Lisa, just making us resentful, angry and suspect.
Has marketing become the screw aisle?
I fear that it has.
While choice is a wonderful thing, have we gone too far in product extensions?
Have ‘content marketing’ emails started to sound like the guys who drive us crazy yakking about how complicated the job will be, how tough it might be to find the right parts, how they’ll have to come back again to measure and that’s going to be tough because….”
Are too many preying on people’s fear, uncertainty and doubt? Exacerbating anxiety to sell more than a person really needs?
Is our marketing building a screw aisle or making it easy — and maybe even enjoyable — for Lisa to build a beautiful deck?