Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

"Strategy is overrated. We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things". – Herb Kelleher

Monthly Archives: February 2012

Be “Abundant” – The key to success is giving

In a post in SmartBrief last month, Lorne Rubis, President and CEO of Ryzex, talked about something he calls the “Character Triangle”. The Triangle defines the three key values and attributes that leaders and team-members need to exhibit and embody for peak performance, supporting optimal teamwork and learning. Two of the values – Accountability and Respect – almost go without saying. Naturally, accountability and respect are essential to teamwork and on-going success. But the third value surprised me – and got me really excited. The third value is Abundance. I love that.

You need to be abundant. Cool. What does that mean? Well, abundance is extremely plentiful, it’s an overflowing fullness. Abundant people have presence, confidence, and vivacity. They don’t need to take anything from other people to be successful. They’re literally overflowing with energy, ideas, spirit and drive.

How can you demonstrate your abundance?

Give away your ideas.
This is a controversial concept. I’m in a creative business, so one’s ideas are how he or she gets judged. If you give your ideas to others, aren’t you giving away the opportunity to profit from them? And shouldn’t you be wary of all those people who steal ideas, who claim ownership of things they didn’t do, who hog credit?

Well, this is all wrong. Instead of reserving your ideas, holding them tight, and not letting people hear them, build on them or collaborate on them, you should be sharing them. First, ideas get better when shared. Secondly, when you give them away, you then need to come up with more, newer, better ideas. This keeps you filling your idea tank. And when you openly share your ideas, other people will want to share theirs’ with you. The more you give, the more you’ll get – it’s like idea Karma.

Give your time.
Here’s another counter-intuitive concept – the less time you have, the more you should give to others. How’s that? We’re all pressured for time, running around crazed, working 24/7, wishing there were more hours in the day. When someone asks for your help, do you say you don’t have time? Well, find the time. Because when you give your time to someone else in need, it somehow makes more time for you. How? First of all, it makes you feel better – which gives you satisfaction, and energy. Don’t underestimate the power of feeling good. This can help your productivity. Secondly, spending time helping someone else just may be the work break you need to help you turbo-charge your own productivity when you return to your work. And finally, your help now will return back to you when you need it most.

Be happy when others succeed.
It’s a fact – our natural reaction when we hear someone else has had a major success is to feel jealous, and a bit bummed. How can they be doing so well? What are they doing that I’m not? What’s wrong with me? Etc. But that’s extremely small minded. And illogical. The better response is to be happy for them.

First of all, as competitive as the world is, we aren’t competing with our colleagues or acquaintances for our success. Success is not a zero-sum game – our colleagues’ success doesn’t limit the amount of success left for us. If you’re confident in yourself (and “abundant”), you believe that you will experience success by doing what you are doing, as well. Plus, others’ successes can be good for you – in the contacts, connections, insights and inspiration it can give you access to.

Instead, practice the Buddhist concept of Mudita – which is “the pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s well-being rather than begrudging it.” I call this “the opposite of Schadenfreude”.  Relish their successes as you would your own.

Give the benefit of the doubt.
I’m sure, to most of us, work can seem like a full-contact sport. Ideas are “killed”, people “fire back” at each other, there are “opposing” viewpoints, people have “detractors”. We quickly size up situations, develop assumptions and react, respond, and strike back. All this can lead us, incorrectly, to assumptions of bad intent.

No doubt, things will always go wrong. People make mistakes. Communication goes awry. However, don’t assume the worst of people. Remember Hanlon’s Razor – “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”. Or poor email etiquette. Or an errant thumb on a text. Or, simply a brain-f*rt. Instead of getting angry and lashing out, give the benefit of the doubt. Take a moment to gain understanding. Nine times out of ten you’ll find no bad intent. Just bad emailing.

Be a “Radiator”.
I’ve talked about this before (in the post “Be a Yes-Person”) – “Radiators” are the opposites of “Drains”. They radiate energy, enthusiasm, and possibility. So, naturally, abundant people are Radiators – charging up others with their cornucopia of plenty. Don’t be a Drain.

Well, what do you think? Is abundance a quality we need? How do you demonstrate it?

Please Criticize Me – Hearing criticism is a desirable thing

“Criticism is something you can easily avoid by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” Aristotle

No one likes to be criticized. You’re feeling good about your work, your ideas, or your behavior – but, instead of praise, you hear critical, negative comments that make you question your work and yourself. It can be hard to deal with. People can feel attacked, undermined, stabbed in the back.

Let’s face it, it’s hard receiving criticism. But worse than receiving it is when you either defend yourself relentlessly, dismiss it out of hand, or worst of all, throw the criticism back at the critique-er.

Because criticism is actually good. It can give you a perspective or insight into things you don’t, can’t, or even refuse to see. Criticism comes from the Greek word kritikos, which means to judge or discern for the sake of improvement. That’s pretty positive. “Criticism is information that will help you grow,” says Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D, psychologist, and author of “The Power of Positive Criticism.”

Receiving criticism is a sign that you are doing stuff, opining about things, taking stances and making things happen. That’s a good sign. And, if we can only view criticism positively, we can use it to help us become better people.

1) The fact is, most people dont receive enough feedback.
We go through our days and our lives viewing the world through our own eyes. Criticism helps us see ourselves, and the world, more realistically, says Shirley Garrett, Ed.D. It opens us up to seeing our mistakes, our imperfections and our blind spots. You may not always like what you hear, but you’ll wish you heard it earlier, and more often. And when you defend your position or argue tenaciously, you discourage people from giving you more helpful criticism in the future.

2) Criticism forces us to THINK
One reason people don’t tend to respond to criticism well is that they react emotionally. Well, stop doing that. Instead, respond intellectually and rationally. Just stop and listen to the criticism. Keep your mouth shut. And then, respond with your brain and your reasoning. Think about what you’re hearing. Think about this new perspective and point-of-view. Do not think about who the person is, why you originally did what you did, or how much effort the criticism would require for you to address it. Remove all ego from the equation. Just think about the feedback. This is healthy, and it’s potentially powerful.

3) Criticism helps you improve
When you receive criticism, as I mentioned, you are getting a different point-of-view and perspective than your own. It’s an insight into something you didn’t think, didn’t see, or had a different idea about. And it’s a view into yourself that you cant see. Hearing these different perspectives will contribute to you – adding to your world-view, as well as your view of yourself. Take it all in – and consider ways to adapt, evolve, and improve your product and yourself. Ask questions, seek clarity, request more information. Whatever it takes for you to understand and consider a plan to improve.

You see, no one and nothing is perfect. And you should never aim for perfection. Thus, everything can be improved. Usually, insightful criticism is the fertilizer for that improvement.

4) Criticism keeps you humble
Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things. Winston Churchill

Receiving criticism can be an eye-opener, especially when it’s not expected. Someone has pointed out a flaw, an error, a mistake or a less-than-optimal view of you. However, there’s another side-benefit beyond the learning you can get from it – you’re forced to show some humility.

You’re not perfect, and you’re not always right (nor should you expect to be). And you won’t always be praised or rewarded for success. Criticism teaches you not to be driven only by those goals.

There are, however, two caveats to criticism being “good”. First of all, the criticism has to be about something that you have control over and can actually change. Being told “your nose is too big”, “your college was lame”, or “your work history is pathetic” is neither helpful nor changeable. Secondly, the person giving the criticism has to be willing to provide tangible and credible support for improvement – i.e. at a minimum, clarify, expound and give context to the comments. As Lincoln said, “He has the right to criticize, who has the heart to help.

So, don’t fear criticism – accept it. And encourage those around you to keep on providing it. You’ll be better for it.

What do you think?

Don’t Be a Hater – Why ‘hating’ is over-used

I was watching the Grammy Awards last week, when Kelly Clarkson came on to sing a song. As she began singing, I said out loud to my wife and daughter, “I hate her.” I had seen her sing maybe once before (on ‘Saturday Night Live’, I think), and found the songs she played awful. But my wife, sensing that my comment was an overstatement, asked me why I hated her. She was surprised that I even had enough knowledge of Ms. Clarkson to have such a strong feeling.

My wife was right (she usually is). I don’t really hate Kelly Clarkson, despite the fact that she’s clearly not my cup of tea. And recognizing this, made me do some thinking about hating, in general. I tend to say “I hate that” a lot – I even wrote a blog post about a few of my hates. I have strong opinions, it’s true. The things I like I really like, as well – in fact, I say “I love that” just as often.

But do we really hate the stuff we say we hate? And should we? Hate is a deep and emotionally extreme dislike. It’s passionate and intense. It requires energy. Is disliking Kelly Clarkson really worth all that energy? Do I really need to invest all that commitment to it? The answer, of course, is no. In fact, there are probably very few things worth that kind of commitment and energy – like racism, pollution, Newt Gingrich, to name a few.

There are several other problems with hating, beyond the commitment and energy it requires. First of all, it prevents all further discussion. When you say “I hate that thing”, people who like it can’t even talk to you about it. It’s a conversation check-mate. In fact, it’s a hate-mate.

It also closes you off to experiencing any further experiences with the hated thing. If you’ve determined that you hate something, then you’ve made up your mind, with conviction. The amount of energy it would take to reverse that hatred is considerable. So you close off your mind to new information about it. You refuse to review the data you’ve used to come up with your decision. You avoid updates, can never discover news or have any new experiences with the thing. And you never allow yourself to see the other side of the argument. You’re hate-locked.

Plus, once you’ve decided you hate something, you never ask someone who likes it why they do. What do they see in it? What’s good about it? The truth is, there probably are things about Kelly Clarkson that are good – and I should be interested in hearing what they are.

And you never again question yourself about why you hate it. You simply do. I hate so-and-so, always have, always will. That’s just the way it is.

So, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that hating was often not a good thing. That there’s a BIG difference between “I don’t like” and “I hate”. So I decided I was going to reserve the big hate for when it’s deserved.

Instead, I’ll say “I don’t favor that”. Or “I’m not a fan”. Or “I’m really not interested in it”. So, I’m here to say, I don’t think people should be haters. This is probably the only thing I’ve ever agreed with Sarah Palin about. Because, to be honest, I hate her.

“Healthy” Skepticism – Why doubting is good

“The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively not by the false appearance of things, not directly by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by prejudice.Schopenhauer

The world tends to have contempt for skeptics. They view them as “rejectors”, as cynics, as grumpy curmudgeons who disbelieve and disavow any new idea. They call them “Doubting Thomases” – people who are never open to ideas or new thoughts. And they cast them in movies with Jack Lemmon.

But this couldn’t be further from reality. Skepticism and doubt are both positive, rational traits that help us find the truth. In fact, the word skeptic derives from the Greek skepsis, which means examination, inquiry, consideration. Skepticism is the application of reason to any and all ideas. Thus, skepticism and doubt are methods or approaches – not positions.

Thus, the skeptic is very open to possibilities, but demands some evidence. And this requires the vigorous exercise of the scientific method and one’s critical thinking muscle to validate them. No wonder the term “healthy skepticism” – all that exercise is good for you!

So, what should you be skeptical of?

Be skeptical of certainty
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” Voltaire

As thinking, rational beasts, we gain knowledge from our experiences in life. And that’s good. But, as I’ve discussed before, being knowledgeable and “knowing” are two very different things. Just because we’ve experienced a similar situation before doesn’t mean we can be certain what is right for this one. We should, instead, recognize we don’t really know the answer, and be open to learn.

The problem with certainty is that it all about the “knower” and his self-esteem, vs. being about the reality and the truth. And, certainty prevents additional inquiry, testing, or further learning. When you’re confronted with someone who is certain, consider using the Socratic method – ask a few questions and try to stimulate some critical thinking.

Be skeptical of the majority
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain

It’s hard to argue against what everyone else believes. When one person posits a belief, there can be disagreement or debate. But when more than one agrees that it is truth, this often shuts down our own inquiry. But that’s even more reason to question. As Edmund Burke stated, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Don’t do nothing.

Be skeptical of yourself
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” William James

Oftentimes, the person you need to be most skeptical of is yourself. You don’t even realize it, but there are millions of things you have made your mind up about without much proof or rationale. Force yourself to doubt your immediate impulses, your deep-seeded beliefs and all the things you “know”. My guess is that you’ll find you’ve been wrong a large percentage of the time.

It’s also important to be skeptical of your in-going biases and prejudices. We often disagree with an idea because we don’t “like that kind of thing”. When you face those knee-jerk biases, you’ll likely learn you aren’t as closed off to them as you thought.

For leaders, it may feel odd to doubt yourself. But, believe me, it’s healthy. One way I demonstrate a touch of self-skepticism is by saying “I have an ‘alleged idea…” when positing a thought. This shows that I’m not so sure of myself, and I’m open to any and all rational scrutiny.

Be skeptical of conventional wisdom
“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.Stephen Jay Gould

Someone said that conventional wisdom is often neither. However, most people take conventional wisdom as gospel, and don’t take time or energy to probe it. But conventional wisdom must be questioned and scrutinized – because it is usually either out-dated, contextually irrelevant, overly vague or just plain wrong.

Personally, I love things that turn conventional wisdom on its head. “Freakonomics”, “Moneyball”, Malcolm Gladwell, you name it. All it takes is one thinking person who faces the “truth” with substance and depth. As Galileo said, “the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

Be skeptical of what seems convenient
“When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.” Thucydides

Everyone’s job is tough enough. So it’s natural that we tend to agree with whatever helps us solve our immediate problems and makes our lives easier. We like research when it validates our ideas, listen to experts when they’re supporting our beliefs, see patterns in the data that help us sell our programs. But force yourself to exercise that skepticism muscle anyway. Odds are, you’ll find that the truth is just as helpful. And much more believable

So, as Socrates and Descartes say, be skeptical of everything. Except what I just said. And the last thing I said. And… well, you get the picture.

Mashup! – Leveraging the power of combinational creativity

“Creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected” – William Plomer

Creativity is hard to define, and even harder to make happen. The act of generating something new that has never existed before is tricky. Is it alchemy? Magic? Lightning striking?

According to Edward de Bono, “creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.” Often, it’s a new approach to something old. This type of creativity – called “combinational creativity” – can be powerful, arresting, and surprising. Combinational creativity refers to combining existing or known information in some new and novel way. For example, Gutenberg (Johannes, not Steve) took a wine press and a die/punch and made the printing press.

So, basically, we’re talking about “mashups”. Think about it – what makes mashups so interesting is the surprise that happens when two things you already know are combined to create an entirely new, and even better, entity. One of the first great mash-ups, Dangermouse’s 2004 bootleg album “The Grey Album”, was new music comprised solely of samples from The Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “The Black Album”. It was both shocking, and revelatory.

Well, you can leverage the power of combinational creativity and the mashup, too. Here are three ways.

1. Actively pursue knowledge spillovers”.
Attributed to urban theorist Jane Jacobs, “knowledge spillovers” are when ideas are exchanged from one person, company, industry to another, via unintentional contact and communication. Jonah Lehrer talked in his New Yorker article about the incredible creative spillovers among the variety of tenants of Building 20 at MIT that led to many seminal research and development projects in the 1950’s through the 1990’s, from the emergence of the field of linguistics to the creation of the worlds’ first video game.

How can you foster these knowledge spillovers?

  • Leave your office. As I’ve written before (per Tom Peters), “managing by wandering around” has tons of benefits, one of which is all the random conversation and sharing that happens as you meet people along the way.
  • Bring fresh, new thinkers (“zero-gravity thinkers”) into your teams and meetings to add new perspectives and take advantage of their divergent experiences.
  • Bring in experts from other departments, companies, even fields to talk about their experiences. Leverage meetings with vendors, sales people, and field teams to gain from their “spillover”.
  • Live a little. You can gain from spillover from things you do, see, read, and experience outside of your day job.

2. Practice “Random Links.
Purposefully following random links will lead you to discover associations that you probably never would have explored intentionally (this is a tool we sometimes use at Starcom).

  • Develop links. Choose random objects, photos, ideas or people, and find connections between them and your objective or problem. This can help you define your problem, or develop your solution in a very new way that doesn’t rely on the tired old Category lingo.
  • What would Steve Jobs do? Consider how a successful leader might solve your problem. Think about the problem through Steve Jobs’ or Richard Branson’s eyes, for example.
  • “The Space Beside”. Another tool we sometimes use, “The Space Beside” examines parallel brands or categories for learning that can be applied to your brand. Look beyond your category for inspiration here. E.g, how would Target, or Facebook approach it?

3. Steal with pride.
As I referenced last post (courtesy of Bill Taylor and his HBR blog), the best source of new ideas for your field can be proven, old ideas from unrelated fields.  Don’t think that leveraging these ideas are “stealing” – remember that the simple act of making the lateral leap to your category and your specific problem can be a highly creative, revolutionary act.

What are your favorite mashups? How do you spur creativity on your teams?

Sorry, Brainstormers, But There ARE Such Things As Bad Ideas.

We’ve all been there: sitting for hours in a window-less, air-less conference room with a collection of colleagues, “brainstorming” ideas for some project. The folks in the room are taking turns spouting half-baked, half-witted concepts that wouldn’t solve the original problem, even with the largest budget on record. But no one is stopping them, correcting them, even pausing to question. That’s because they’re all subscribing to the key rule of brainstorming, as developed by Alex Osborn in the late 1940’s – the absence of criticism and negative feedback. “There are no bad ideas,” the facilitator continuously states. “Oh, yes, there are,” you think.

Thankfully, there is a growing evidence that suggests that old-school brainstorming is ineffective. An article in the New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer points to studies by Charlan Nemeth that suggest the ineffectiveness stems from the very thing that is held most sacrosanct – the absence of critical thinking. “Debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas, but, rather, stimulate them,” Nemeth said. As more and more creativity is being done by groups, the old rules of brainstorming are outdated.

So, what are some more appropriate rules for collaborating and brainstorming for creativity?

1) It’s not a numbers game
Don’t think that collecting “as many ideas as we can” is a good goal. Instead, focus on getting a few good ones. So often, the goal for quantity overwhelms our desire for usable, executable, or relevant ideas. Less can be more.

2) Allow criticism and debate
If an idea can’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s likely not a very good one. Conversely, if you give a germ of an idea some critical thinking as fertilizer, it can really sprout into something. Negativity in a brainstorm might take away some of its feel-good vibe, but it will also add some creative conflict, adaptation and lateral thinking. As Nemeth says, “criticism allows people to dig below the surface of the imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable. The power of dissent is the power of surprise. After hearing someone shout out an errant answer, we work to understand it, which causes us to reassess our initial assumptions and try out new perspectives.” Allow yourself some judgment – this will also save you time later

3) Be bad on purpose
Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) points to a tactic he discovered early in his career as a television writer, called the “bad version”. When you know there’s a creative solution but can’t come up with it yet, you start with a bad version of the idea – if only to stimulate others to come up with the good version. In this scenario, people don’t applaud the bad version like a bad answer on “Family Feud” (“Good answer, good answer”) – they, instead, critique it and find a better version.

4) Assign pre-work
One tactic for better brainstorming would be to assign people with homework to arrive with ideas. This serves a couple of purposes. One, they have some uninterrupted, private time to do some thinking, with no in-room pressure. And, two, it forces individuals to be a bit more critical of their own ideas, hopefully ensuring a higher quality of ideas from the get-go.

5) Steal good ideas from others
Often, a great source of ideas can be “proven” ideas from other, unrelated disciplines, categories, industries. Moving these everyday ideas from one category to a new one can turn them from standard operating procedure to breakthrough and revolutionary. Bill Taylor, in an HBR Blog article, points to Lexus’ leveraging of Apple’s and Four Season’s approaches to the customer experience as one example.

6) Punt, early and often
Don’t waste time trying to turn every bad idea into a good one. Sometimes your time is better spent by simply brooming them, and moving on. Yes, many times bad ideas can help lead you to good ones, but that won’t always be the case. So be judicious in your time spent on the baddies.

Do you agree? What are your brainstorming beliefs?

Be Un-Cool – why you should never aim for cool

Everyone is seduced by cool. I know I can be. Cool gets attention, gets buzz, wins awards, and even can make careers. And, after over 50 years in use, the word ‘cool’ still remains the best way to describe when something is, well, cool. I find myself using it regularly, to describe work, ideas, people, things – there’s no other way to explain things.

And it’s one of the highest achievements in work (at least my line of work) – to do something that’s cool. That people on your team are super-proud of. That make people in the industry say, “wow,” and “I wish I’d done that.” And, most importantly, that engages consumers in a gigantic and novel way. That’s totally cool. And, in a large part, should be everyone’s ambition.

But I’m here to tell you, cool is dangerous. Shooting for cool is never a good thing, because it will lead you astray. Cool should never be your goal – although it should be an outcome of your efforts.  Here’s why:

Cool forgets
What was our objective again? What are we trying to achieve? Who is our main target? These simple facts can be completely forgotten when people get seduced by cool. Teams can do things that are 180° off-base, just because they can’t seem to help themselves.

Cool blinds
When you choose to pursue doing something that’s “cool”, you may not notice aspects of it that are odd, off, errant. Or you’ll miss the fact that the partner is untrustworthy. Or the costs are way out of whack with the value. Or you’ll not see that key aspects of its execution are not-thought-through or sub-standard. Because, in the bright light of cool, all other aspects may be hard to see.

Cool is self-involved
Cool pursues its own agenda. The folks who push for something because it’s cool do it for their portfolio, their CV, their pride or their friends. But the brand, the consumer and the results are not part of the equation.

Cool has it’s own GPS
If you decide to follow the cool, and you may find you end up in completely different territory than you intended. One thing leads to another, and you’rr addressing a completely different problem than you set out to address.

Cool is wreckless
Once you choose to go cool, there’s no turning back. You say “damn the torpedoes”.  The gales of reality blow against you, but you refuse to give in to them. You spend wildly, you spin resources, you take your eyes off the ball. Cool has you missing deadlines, ignoring facts, de-prioritizing actual priorities.

Don’t get me wrong – cool is awesome. And doing something that is smart, effective, successful AND cool is the ultimate win. However, never do something because it’s cool. But hope like hell you did something well that was cool.

What are your thoughts on cool?

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