Michael Baer's Stratecution Stories

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

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Smart is Over-Rated

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A number of years ago, I worked with a client that had a Marketing Director who was very difficult. My team felt that nothing could satisfy him. Meetings were contentious. My people felt victimized and blamed. The work was started and then killed. And we were stuck – we didn’t end up doing anything. I mentioned this to the senior client, the VP of Marketing, and I still remember what his response was – “He (the Marketing Director) is incredibly smart”. As if that excused it all. I remember thinking “smart” is not the be-all-and-end-all. That, in almost every business that has people working together to accomplish things, smart is but one piece of the puzzle. And, perhaps, a small one, at that.

Since nearly every business is a team sport, there are a number of other attributes, traits and behaviors that are more important than smart. Smart is a great starting point – but it needs to be coupled with the following.

Listen more than talk: One negative aspect of smart can be a propensity to want show how much it knows. But listening is just as important – and is as often undervalued. Listening shows you are interested in the other person, it expresses and builds enthusiasm, and it demonstrates respect. And you know what? You may end up learning something your smart self didn’t know.

Happy to be wrong, vs. need to be right: I’ve said this before, but it needs to be said again (and again and again) – it’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to be right. “Smart” people often feel they need to be right – and resist doing, hearing or thinking things they already believe aren’t. But it’s way smarter to be open to new ideas, new thoughts and new possibilities – even if (or especially if) they end up being incorrect. Again, the learning you’ll get from being wrong will make you even smarter.

Clear over clever: Because smart people often want to show they’re smart, they can over-complicate ideas with cleverness. But it’s always more important to be clear, to get the point across, to ensure everyone understands and is aligned – than it is to score points with creative word plays.

Long marches, not bold strokes: At the end of the day, the secret of genius tends to be doggedness rather than god-given intellect. And, similarly, almost everything a leader does will be a process of steps and stages, implementation, and steady progress. Success or failure will be determined by the coordinated management of people and process. So, while smart people may want to issue dictums and proclamations, real leadership manages for the long haul.

Help others to understand, vs. demonstrating knowledge: Smart can sometimes be found pontificating or showing off its knowledge (a speedy string of acronyms and insider terms is a dead give-away). However, if indeed you are a smart person, then your real role when working on teams is to help your teammates understand things better to help them (and the team) achieve goals. Period.

Grit and resilience: Anyone who knows me knows that I place the trait of scrappiness in high regard. Similarly, I believe grittiness is second to godliness. Grit and resilience are the ability to recover from stumbles and bounce back, the ability to persevere through adversity, and the ability to stick around longer (“A hero is one who knows how to hang on one minute longer” Novalis). Unfortunately, grit is not always correlated highly with smart. Because smart often believes it “knows”, so will either chart a safe course that doesn’t challenge much. Or it simply proclaims and then delegates. But, as Seth Godin said, while smart folks may desire accuracy, it’s grit and resilience that are the “best strategy for those realistic enough to admit that they can’t predict the future with more accuracy than others”.

Stories over facts: Facts are important to everyone, but especially to the smart. Data, information, numbers and research are their currency. But while these are critical foundations for business, creating stories around them is even more important. What does the data mean – and, even more importantly, where can it take us? What possibilities does it open up? What other ideas can we come up with? These stories will help a smart person drive success better than the cold, hard facts, any day.

Emotional, instead of rational, intelligence: The overly intellectual can be, well, too intellectual and rational. But to achieve anything, you need to influence and inspire others. So understanding people, and what they need or care about, is critical. That’s why “emotional intelligence” is as important as smart. Because success is as much about people as brains.

To a Perfectly Imperfect 2014 – Why aiming for perfect is a terrible idea

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Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend” Ann Lamott

Back in my school days, I used to call myself “B+ Guy”. That’s because I believed that doing very well was important (FYI, my college GPA was 3.35 – a dead-on B+) – but that the amount of additional time and effort it took to move a B+ to an A was not a worthwhile investment. Better to understand the topic, dig into it and do very well, and then spend whatever time was left over on other things – other classes that needed the attention, other interests, or whatever.

Well, I’m pretty sure I was on to something, because I still basically believe it now. And in today’s new normal, this concept has never been more timely. Now, to be clear, this isn’t an acceptance of shoddy, half-thought-out work full of errors and laziness. And, yes, you’ve got to put in the requisite heaps of work and effort. But when it comes to new ideas, new work, innovation and launching things, a B+ is darn good. In fact, “good enough” is often a good enough place to start – or, as Facebook puts it (and plasters it all over there offices and press), “done is better than perfect”. It’s better to get off and running with something good… and begin learning and improving it, live.

Which is why I’m starting the year with a diatribe against perfection. It’s time to toss the idea of striving for perfection onto the scrap-heap, and move into a more nimble, iterative approach to building things. The problem is that the idea of being a “perfectionist” has a positive connotation to it – overachievers who are obsessed with quality and demanding of positive results. And organizations LOVE perfectionists. They work incredibly long and hard, they demand great results, they reduce errors and failures, and they drive others to do the same. What’s not to like, right? However, there’s a helluva difference between a healthy pursuit of excellence and a neurotic perfectionism. And I’m here to tell you that perfectionism is a negative, and actually gets in the way of productivity and happiness.

The benefits of killing your perfectionism are manifold:

You will do more:  As David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.” Waiting for things to be perfect is a perfect recipe to stop moving forward, stop creating, stop doing things. Plus, no amount of perfectionism upfront can possibly prepare you for all the potential complexities and curves thrown at you in the real world – so better to get out there and address them live, as prepared as you can be. You’ll get much more benefit from launching than waiting – as General Patton said “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”

You won’t miss opportunities or lose momentum: In the words of the software entrepreneur Roni Einav “I tell people that if they are looking for the perfect idea, for the perfect gap in technology, they will never get there.” In fact, even if you finally achieve what you consider “perfection”, it might be so late that you’ve lost your momentum and your competitive advantage. A perfect example is AT&T and cellular technology. Even though Bell Labs invented and received patents for cellular telephone technology as early as 1946, its demand for “perfection” in quality before making it commercially available led them to cede the industry to other players for years.

You will be willing to make mistakes (thus will learn and succeed more quickly): Perfectionism may protect you from making some mistakes – but those mistakes can also lead you to learnings that cause even greater breakthroughs. It’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to right or perfect. And let’s remember, there are no “right” answers, anyway – especially in areas that demand creativity and innovation.

You’ll know when to let go: Since you’ll know that there is no such thing as perfect, you’ll understand that there will be a point where the work is good – and that more time controlling and perfecting it won’t make it better. You’ll know that no amount of pre-work can predict all possible real-world outcomes – so you’ll do the work that you can do, and be prepared to iterate and improvise afterwards. As the wife of jazz musician Carl Stormer said, “control is for beginners”.

You will recognize that the good and the great are NOT enemies: I’ve worked before with people who turn their nose up at “good” work, saying they demand greatness. But this is silly. Not only are the “good” and the “great” not enemies, but that they are good friends. The difference? “Good” just arrives on the scene earlier – and warms up the place for the “great”. It’s much easier to turn good into great in real life, than try to create great in a lab setting.

You will learn to trust and respect yourself and your partners: Like a jazz musician, you will rehearse what can be rehearsed – but know that you’re creating something new, which by definition has some spontaneity and improvisation to it. So you’ll need to respect the fact that you, and your teammates, all know what you’re doing – and trust each other as you go.

One interesting note: as Greg McKeown points out in his blog post “Today, just be average,” the word “perfect” has a Latin root, whose literal translation would be “made well”, “done thoroughly,” or “complete.” But today, we always use it to signify flawlessness. Let’s all make a new year’s resolution to take perfection back to it’s Latin roots – and eradicate modern perfectionism for the good of all.

“Creative” Is Not Just a Department – Creativity is everyone’s responsibility*

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“Everybody has creative potential, and from the moment you can express it, you can start changing the world” Paulo Coelho

When I tell people I work in advertising, they invariably ask, “are you a creative?” I have always struggled to answer this appropriately. On the one hand, no, I am not in the creative department. On the other, I have always felt responsible for the creativity of the thinking and work on the teams and accounts I have led. While I don’t normally come up with the creative ideas for ads, I help my team generate them, I foster them, I direct them, and help build them. I also help sell them in and help realize and activate them. So, yes, I am a creative. And I believe everyone in business needs to be one, too.

Because, contrary to popular belief, everyone is capable of creative thought and new ideas – it’s not just the bailiwick of a select group or type. And creativity can and should blossom everywhere across your company – not just in the “creative” areas. As a leader, you need to find ways to foster it with everyone, especially those who function further away from the typical creative arena. Here’s how.

Stop “ghetto-izing” creativity
“Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right or better” John Updike

As I mentioned, most leaders don’t expect creativity from finance, operations, HR, project management. There’s this belief that “some people are creative, but most are not.” But it’s just not true – some of the most effective and productive creativity can come from those beyond those most directly generating the creative work. You must get everyone to view their jobs as critical to the delivery of great work, no matter what they do. In this way, they’ll always be thinking of ways to enable and facilitate it, in order to make it more and more successful.

For example, research/planning creativity, on Milk, helped them look at what life would be like without milk, vs. simply researching how people consumed the product. This led to a completely new way to showcase it – showing how lacking some of our favorite things (peanut butter, chocolate chip cookies, cake) would be without milk.

You can also be creativity with budgeting. On LEGO, we took a different approach to our client-given budgets – by grouping budgets by targets – enabling a more macro-/top-down approach that drove greater creativity and more big ideas.

Embrace uncertainty
“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties” Erich Fromm

It’s been proven that people and organizations often fear creativity and innovation because they tend to increase uncertainty. But uncertainty is a given – as I’ve written before, most issues are so complex, multi-faceted and dynamic that the dialectic of “right vs. wrong” is inappropriate. Instead, you’ve got to get comfortable with ambiguity – and preach that shades of grey are expected. As Andre Gide said, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

This is one of the reasons I advocate holding interim “tissue sessions” when developing ideas. These sessions give permission to everyone to not have all the answers yet. And to begin with a bunch of hypotheses to build, or kill, along the way.

Provide clarity in objectives and purpose
“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” David Ogilvy

While there’s no avoiding ambiguity, you can help stimulate creativity with a clearly defined brief and with crystal-clear objectives. Define the problem as laser-sharp as you can. Provide the details, structure, realities, constraints, etc. – so folks can think inside the box.

For example, when I ran Porsche a few years ago, we found that 911 sales were off. We believed it was a combination of recession-related factors that made affluent people not want to show off in this atmosphere, as well as “green” sentiment suppressing demand. But rather than briefing against a broad set of issues, we did research that enabled us to hone in the reason – a negative “value” perception due to people not seeing the cars as daily-drivable. This tight brief led to the Effie winning “Everyday Magic campaign.

In addition, clarify your purpose so everyone can rally around it. It’s incredibly motivating when employees believe in their company’s mission and genuinely like what they do. If your teammates and employees have passion, just try to stop them from being creative!

For example, when I worked on Wisk Detergent, we reframed the business we were in, from simply selling products that cleaned clothes, to being a brand that promoted a lifestyle that embraced diving in to life. This purpose turbo-charged creativity across the entire team.

Fight against conformity
“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”Edward de Bono

When surfacing new and groundbreaking ideas, your team may end up challenging long-held company beliefs or ways of doing business. So you’ll need to attack insider thinking that restricts creativity – by benchmarking other companies and industries, by bringing in fresh thinkers, and by diplomatically saying, “we might be wrong”. And, you, too, have to be open to ideas that break rules or shatter your in-going preconceptions. This is often a lot harder than it sounds.

This is why it’s very important to instruct everyone involved to react viscerally and naturally to ideas first – thinking like a real person, a consumer, a non-insider. It’s too easy to kill things that feel “off” to your corporate eyes and ears – but make sure your consumer would find it off, as well.

Take responsibility
“Creativity is a highfalutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday” Ray Kroc

Whether you are leading a project, a team or an organization, only you ultimately are responsible for the creative output. Regardless of the fact that you aren’t directly doing the “creative work”, you’ve got to do a tremendous amount of effort to enable it. This requires attitudinal work, interpersonal work and quite a bit of physical work.

First, you’ve got to aspire to produce great work. Give a damn. Have the ambition to set the world on fire, and make that fire contagious. Secondly, you’ve got to develop the types of relationships across your team that generate trust, instill courage, and deliver collaboration. This allows you to help build on ideas as they are developed, question them and iterate on them, unconditionally and without fear.  And finally, you’ve simply got to do the work. Remember that quote about “…99% perspiration”? It’s true. You’ve got to ask questions, make tons of connections and lateral leaps, and help distill initial ideas and re-build them. And get out and read, do, see, act – as Einstein said, “the legs are the wheels of creativity”, so keep ‘em moving.

Reduce fear
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes” Scott Adams

As a leader, one of your key jobs is to reduce the fear of failure and mistakes. This is the natural enemy of creativity. As a leader, you should be encouraging failure. Let it be known that there won’t be blame or backlash. That failure means movement and learning. That it’s an important step along the way to success. If you’re not failing every now and then, you’re likely not trying, doing anything new or advancing much.

Give time and space
“Lying around doing nothing is an important, nay critical, part of the creative process” Tom Hodgkinson

It’s been said that time pressure creates great creativity. But it simply isn’t true – studies show that people are the least creative when fighting the clock.

In addition, people need time to work through the predictable to get to the unexpected. To make further and more lateral-leaps. To iterate. And, to put the work down, look away for a bit, and let things percolate. So make sure you have enough time for your creativity.

This is another reason an interim, “tissue session” during idea development is helpful. It allows those brainstorming ideas to spend their time thinking them up, not perfecting yet.

If you take these actions, you will no longer look to a “creative department” for all you ideas and creativity. You will seek creative thinking from Finance, Research, Data/analytics, operations. And you’ll find that, lo and behold, your entire, cross-functional team is filled with Don Drapers.

*This article ran previously in the Troyanos Group November Newsletter.

Insight, Schminsight – What you’ve been calling an “insight” isn’t one

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US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said he could not define pornography, but he “knew it when he saw it”. That’s the way most people seem to think about insights. The problem is, they don’t get to see them very often. That’s because what parade around as insights, in most cases, aren’t. And that’s a problem.

Insights are the catalyst for nearly all marketing activity. Nearly everything is based on them, from business ideas to marketing strategies to activation. Without insights, most ideas remain superficial, bland or generic. So it’s natural that everyone in the business talks about insights. Go ahead and Google “Marketing Insights” and you’ll get 139,000,000 results. Every strategic brief has a “Key Insight”. All processes are said to be grounded in consumer insights. And every strategist promises to be expert at digging them up.

But the problem is, as I mentioned, they’re very likely to be anything but true consumer insights – instead being facts, observations, truths, learnings or any other such observable or known piece of data. Though data and facts are important, they are by no means insights.

Insights are important. They are springboards for the new, unique, creative. But that is the heart of the issue – true insights, too, need to say something new. That’s why the perfect response from hearing an insight is “a-ha”.  And that’s why one definition of insight is “seeing what others don’t”.

Some key aspects of true insights:

An insight likely won’t be matter-of-fact — instead it should feel challenging. Often insights shed light on a tension between what is perceived and what is reality (“While people think x, in reality y is true” or “people think they care about x, but instead behave y“). These can be powerful, because they help brands speak in a way that is closer to the real way consumers feel, vs. some expected category/manufacturer-speak.

A gap
Many times, an insight comes from something desired by people that they don’t have. Again, there is the tension that comes from perception vs. reality, or what is wished for vs. actually experienced.

A known thing seen in a new way
Sometimes an insight IS an observation or truth, but it’s flipped on its head. Or it’s connected to something else unexpected. For example, in the book “Seeing What Other’s Don’t“, Gary Klein describes a police officer on routine patrol who sees a driver in a new car flick his cigarette butt inside the car. Ordinarily, that might not be terribly noteworthy – but the combination of the cigarette flick and the fact that the car was a new BMW led the officer to arrest a car thief.

Or it could be something that is hidden “in plain sight”, in that it seems so patently obvious that it’s discarded or dismissed. In this case, the a-ha is something that makes you say “I can’t believe I didn’t notice that before”.

A creative thought
Insight means, literally, an “inward sight”. So, you’re not just observing externally, but looking inside your own mind for new ways to think about things. To do this right will likely require more than just researchers or strategists – it will require different folks with different skills and thought processes to dig into it.

And an insight takes work – you don’t just find one, as many think. You “craft” an insight. And they take time. So don’t expect to nail it in one short sitting.

It leads to something
This is a key part of an insight – an insight needs to lead somewhere. It should feel dynamic, electrically charged, and motivate action. It’s fresh-ness of spirit, it’s tension, and it’s creativity grounded in truth should make you want to do things with it. Create things. Build off of it.

And a true insight leads to change – it changes the way you understand things, see things, feel about them and how you understand. So a real insight changes you, too.

Ideas are a-dime-a-dozen. What are you going to DO with yours?

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As seen on TV, er, in TalentZoo, check out my newest article (also in its entirety below), on ideas – and what needs to happen AFTER you have a good one.  Without the hard work of distilling, developing, iterating, and “stratecuting” it, your idea doesn’t stand a chance of success. Would love to hear your examples, comments and rants below. And please share!


I think most people would agree that ideas make the world go around. Ideas can move mountains, ideas are the lifeblood of business, and they’re worth their weight in gold. But what if I told you that ideas are over-rated. That we spend too much time rhapsodizing over them, perfecting them, and paying homage to them? Because, while ideas can be sexy and exciting and even amazing, they’re really a-dime-a-dozen. Who hasn’t had a good idea? And how often has that brilliant idea led to great success?

Ideas are really just a starting point – they’re part of the means to the end, but most definitely not an end in themselves. The key is what you do after having one. How you distill it, communicate it, develop and iterate it, and then get-it-done.  Here are some keys to successful ideas:

Don’t have just one

Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. Emile Chartier

People get attached to their ideas and stick to them like white on rice. They hold on tight and don’t let go. They refuse to question them, they defend them all costs, they resist input. They suffer from confirmation bias.  However, it’s critical that you be open to feedback, to evolution and iteration, and to conflict. Question your assumptions. Welcome tough questions. Invite opposing views. Not every idea is a home run, and not every one is great right out of the gate. But if you’ve only got one, you won’t allow yourself to think that way.

Ideas need to be shared

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” Lee Iacocca

A good idea needs to be communicated – so simplification and conviction are key. Distill it down to its essence, make sure you can convey it, and demonstrate your passion.

And dispense with all the confidentiality, privacy, keeping others out. Ideas need transparency and input. Share early and often.

Ideas need followers

“A mediocre idea that generates enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one.” Mary Kay Ash

I don’t care how unique or novel your idea is, if it doesn’t gather momentum and get people excited, it’s likely not going to work. It needs to spark something in others for it to be helpful. It needs to create acolytes, advocates, believers and dreamers.

Ideas require hard work

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” Thomas A. Edison

Having an idea is just the beginning of your work – what happens next is much more important. That is, the “stratecution” – the strategic and creative activation and execution of the idea. Without it, an idea is simply a theory or hypothesis. So an idea needs to begin to work through the who, what, how, when of the idea. The what-it-might-look-like, how it might begin, where it might be going.  What does success look like, how will we measure our performance, what results are we looking for? This process requires both dreamers and doers – those to figure out what the idea could be, and those who can make it a reality.

It’s been said that a great idea that is poorly executed fails, but a mediocre idea well executed succeeds at some level. This is true. For years, this was the hallmark of Proctor & Gamble‘s marketing. Average ideas, blasted out across every channel, connecting from top to bottom of the funnel, and driving across everything the brand did. Nothing anyone ever went “aha!” or “wow!” over; but always successfully making the cash register ring.  A brilliant idea has, no doubt, a multiplier effect on great execution – but it does not nor cannot substitute for it.

The most important part – Get ‘er done

“Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” Alfred North Whitehead

The final key to ideas is making them happen, with speed and iteration. Stop perfecting them and get them started. The devil is indeed in the details, so start developing them – and be open to adapting as you learn. You’re always better off starting and learning in the real world than waiting and trying to perfect what, in essence, is a hypothesis.

Ideas aren’t magic. Ideas aren’t silver bullets. And ideas can’t be walk-off homers. They’re a starting point for the real, hard work that it takes to be successful. So, what do you think of my idea?

Get outside your bubble – and stop the echo-chamber thinking

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“Lesson number 2: Don’t get high on your own supply” Elvira Hancock

Today’s business world is in need of “groundbreaking ideas”, innovation, creative breakthrough, and disruption. But so many companies can’t get out of their own way. Instead, like Tony Montana, they’re getting high on their own supply. They live firmly inside their own bubble, they believe all their own b.s.,  and they never even question themselves. And while it’s hard to break this habit, we’ve got to try.

Smash your echo-chamber
Whether we realize it or not, we all create our own bubbles. We seek ideas and outlets that align with our pre-existing opinions. We naturally tend towards friends with common backgrounds and personalities. And the modern web further reinforce our own echo-chamber – and is making it smaller and smaller. Sites and search engines recommend content that matches your behavior and history; data on our browsing leads to more content like we’ve already viewed; we follow those with similar POV’s; and our friends and loved ones curate the web for us – all of this discouraging diversity.

But there is tons of evidence that diversity of thought is hugely beneficial to problem solving, creativity and decision-making. So we need to step outside our bubbles to get external perspectives, new ideas and opposing viewpoints.

  • Go out into the real-world. Go on “field-trips” with your teams, go see your brand and consumer in action, in real life contexts. And, while using “big data” is hugely helpful – the “little data” of real life examples and anecdotes can set your imaginations, and creativity, on fire.
  • Study your competition, open-mindedly. It’s easy to take a flat, uni-dimensional approach while looking at your competition and their actions. It’s all stupid, baseless and misguided, right? Well, not so much. Open your mind to what they’re doing – they may be approaching the same situation you are, but with different, and perhaps fewer, in-going assumptions and biases.
  • Get outside your category for case-studies and examples. Oftentimes an example of a brand, team, person working in a completely different category and context can provide infinitely more inspiration than one that is facing the exact same issues you are. Take a cue from David Bowie, who “spreads the net so wide … (to) create something so new with what they find“.

Challenge your company’s thinking
While nearly all people and all companies say they want new thinking and new ideas, they rarely actually do. It’s uncomfortable and difficult to achieve. In fact, it’s been proven again and again that people generally tend to stick with the familiar and comfortable – from music to strategies to ideas. And companies are trained to follow the leader, avoid conflict, and go with the flow. To break out, you have to challenge yourself and your thinking.

  • Say “we might be wrong” regularly. Those simple words will cause you to re-look at your assumptions, reflect on your ideas, question your strategies. Critiquing your ideas can only make your thinking better. As Margaret Heffernan describes in her wonderful TED talk, “create conflict around theories” as a way to build them – seek to disprove as much as to support existing thinking.
  • Take the opportunity to challenge the status quo. Diplomatically ask questions that no one seems to want to ask or that make folks uncomfortable – an indicator of echo-chamber thinking. Ask “why?” a lot – and, even more importantly, “why not?” and “what if?
  • Leverage outsiders or fresh thinkers.  Generally, those who have not been “drinking the Kool-aid” for years and years can provide a real fresh perspective – if an organization is open to listening. Hire diversely, create “Red Teams” to help find holes in a core team’s thinking, etc.

Eat some broccoli
As I mentioned, the world of media can become a self-curated echo-chamber, in which you read and watch and share the ideas you already have. In a way, you choose to read the “candy” all the time, but not the vegetables that might be good for you but less obviously pleasurable. At least, that’s the way Siva Vaidhyanathan describes it. He says that we need to eat some content broccoli, too.  A little less cat videos and HuffPo. A bit more Scientific American and opposing viewpoints.

What do you think? Is there echo-chamber behavior going on at your company? How have you helped to challenge it?

THINK small – Big ideas only work when you also think small

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Letter To a Graduate – Some rules to live by

My son recently graduated from high school. This was extremely difficult for me to process – our first child, a person we’d brought into the world and cared for, was now moving on to independence from us.  Living on his own, making his own decisions, becoming his own person. In trying to work out what this meant (to me), I put some of my thoughts down on paper on making this transition (and special thanks to Mike Figliuolo and a post he wrote about a similar letter his dad had given him more than 20 years ago) – and sent my son these ideas and beliefs on what it takes to be a good man and a good person. I’m hoping he finds them applicable and helpful over time (his first response was a bit of a grunt and a “yeah, great”) –  I think they’re fairly universal as themes for adults, leaders, etc, too. This is what I sent to him.


Hey Buddy!

Congratulations – you’re a High School graduate! I couldn’t be any prouder of you. It’s been wonderful to watch you grow –you continue to develop into an amazingly wonderful person and a great guy. The great work/success you’ve had, the way you talk, the way you interact with people – it’s impressive. As you make this giant transition from young-adulthood into being an independent adult, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you on being a good man and a good person. Many of these thoughts and ideas you’ve heard me “Rain Man” rant to you before, so you’ve probably learned how to tune them out or say “here he goes again”.  But it’s beginning to be time for you to start thinking about who and what you want to be (metaphorically speaking) – so I’d be interested in your thinking about these ideas, digesting them, and, over time, adding your own thoughts and ideas to them. Or feel free to tell me you think I’m crazy, you disagree, or want to discuss – god knows, I don’t have all the answers. Just don’t ignore me…!

Always be busy. You can easily recite the two things I hate the most – lying and laziness – as I’ve said this to you all your life. And it’s easy to understand why I say this. Being busy stimulates your mind and body. It generates energy and productivity. It makes you feel good, physically and emotionally. It opens you up to new things and creates new possibilities. And it gives you new ideas and makes connections. So force yourself to always stay busy.

School has been hard and has required significant work and attention – and life will continue to to get harder with college and real-life. Of course, downtime, rest and tuning out is important, Mr. X-Box. But, after some “chill time”, fill your time with stuff, both productive and frivolous. Interests, friends, creative pursuits. You’ll find yourself more energized. And you never know where these things will lead.

Don’t be afraid of what you’re not good at.  Casey, you excel at many things. And it’s natural (and wise) to focus on and leverage those strengths. They are, and will continue to be, an advantage for you. But you (as most people do) also tend to shy away from the things that don’t come easy to you. Fight those tendencies. Don’t write off all activities that “aren’t you”. It’s so much better to muscle through the initial discomforts, awkwardness or unease. You will find that life expands. You ultimately may not love these new activities, ideas or things – but you’ll understand them better. And they will no longer be an excuse for avoidance or failure.

Laugh at your mistakes; but learn from them. You’re going to make mistakes. That’s what life is about. You’ve made some already (we don’t need to get into them here…). And I’m here to tell you that you’ll make many more. Don’t bemoan them, don’t avoid them, and don’t start living life in fear of making more of them. But the key is to learn from them. Ask yourself how you could have avoided them; what can you do differently next time? That way you can always say that mistakes and failures are the necessary steps towards greater success.

“Respect the game”. Remember the first year when you played “Night League” basketball, and you told me you and your friends put the ball in your jerseys and ran around on the court during the game? You thought it was funny – but I was disappointed. I told you that you had to “respect the game”. There are rules, referees, and other teams involved. The other team had come out to play basketball, and you were disrespecting them, too. There are times when silliness and randomness are fine – but again, only when the game calls for it or allows for it. Recognize that whatever you are doing, there are other people, other contexts, other agendas involved. So always be respectful of them.

Similarly, whatever you’re playing, you should always bring your “A” game. Give your best effort, try your hardest, be your best you. Never say afterwards that you could have done more. Failure is fine – except when it’s due to lack of effort.

Stay hungry for learning. You are an amazing learner. Lately, I’ve been so impressed at how you retain and play back information about the brain and the body that you’ve learned in Anatomy and Psychology. Now, try to take that awesomeness beyond the information that is part of your structured learning into your unstructured life. Read about stuff, follow things, be interested. Know about your government and your world. Form opinions about things – but be willing to change them as you learn more. Avoiding things because you “hate them” (as in “I hate politics”) is no way to be – ignorance isn’t acceptable because of disinterest. Knowing about things gives you power – to converse, to have opinions, and make intellectual connections between things. And it’s a lot more legitimate to say, “I’ll tune out this stuff,” when you know about the topic.

Give a sh*t about things. One of the great things about you is that you are grounded, even-keeled and easy going. Your laid back approach lets you address the things you need to in a matter-of-fact, in-control way. This is a very good trait for when life gets harder and more stressful.

At the same time, this laid-back approach can seem blasé. As if you don’t care a lot. I think it’s important to show you give a damn, that you’re committed, all-in. And this goes for things beyond the big work stuff. As mentioned above, give a shit about the world, your interests, and other people. This makes life much more interesting and involving.

Don’t be a dick. You’re one of the most empathetic and compassionate people I’ve ever met. You understand others’ emotions. You’re the first to console those in need. You point out when you think other people are being jerks. So this maxim shouldn’t be difficult for you. Apply it to your behavior all the time – in school/work situations and in social ones, as well. Don’t make jokes at others’ expenses, don’t take advantage of other people, don’t pile on when someone’s down. Always be a stand-up guy, always make sure you are being fair, never cheat or bend the rules. Don’t hog credit, don’t be the first to blame, don’t succeed by bringing others down. I think the maxim “don’t be a dick” says it well.

Look presentable. But have style. You care about how you look. You’ve begun to develop a personal style, which is great. Keep it up – because, like it or not, how you look is important. That doesn’t mean always look a certain way – setting, context, etc. play a role in what looking good looks like. But know that how you look says something about you, and also about how you feel about whom you are with. So always make sure your appearance says, “I care”. It can also say, “I’m confident”, “I am interesting”, and “I am unique”. But never be mute.

Don’t hesitate to be in the minority. We both have agreed we don’t like people who are too “Indie”, as you call it – who need to be different all the time, just for the sake of being different.  They choose black just because someone else is choosing white. However, I still believe strongly in the Twain quote, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect”. That means you should be purposeful in your decisions and strong in your convictions. Don’t simply follow the masses and don’t blindly follow trends. If something is considered “conventional wisdom”, it might not be either. So make sure you think about things and make your own decision. And always have the strength of character and purpose to go against the tide.

Slow and steady…? This may be the most boring advice of all – but slow and steady is a solid approach to success. You will enter into college, and into life, with a huge amount of enthusiasm and passion. You will be impatient for success and expecting speedy movement forward. But know that things can take time. And much of life is beyond your control – all you can control is how you deal with things. So keep plugging away, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves, and good things will happen.

You’re the man. I love you so much. Can’t wait to see you living your life.


Wrong is Right: It’s more important to be willing to be wrong than to desire to be right

make the wrong decisionwrong cartoonif loving you is wrong

Given a choice, who wouldn’t rather be right than wrong? That’s an easy question to answer. And with whom would you rather work? Someone who is usually right, no doubt. But more and more I’m finding that it isn’t so cut-and-dried. Because, while wanting to be right might be everyone’s natural tendency, I’m finding that a willingness to be wrong is the more positive attribute – and is more often correlated with success.

I’m not saying that being wrong is better – but that being open to it is a better starting point. In fact, today’s “new normal” demands it. And maintaining an old school approach that focuses on getting the answer right can be a hindrance to finding the necessary, new solutions.

One problem with focusing on getting it right is it leaves zero margin for error for even a single mis-step. This keeps the steps, as well as the lateral leaps and iteration, to a minimum. Which means you can forget about innovation, creativity and continuous improvement. To say nothing about serendipity and the creative process.

And a demand for the right answer, vs. a willingness to be wrong, drives an overwhelming risk aversion. It pushes an agenda of over-perfection, over-correction and sticking-within-the lines that ensures below-average-ness. It dampens action-taking and beta-testing and learning from experience. And forget about “fail fast, succeed faster” notions.

Needing to be right is what keeps people rigid, steadfastly and unthinkingly adhering to their views and beliefs – making it impossible to learn, stretch or grow. Being unwilling to be wrong makes you say “no”, makes you avoid new things, keeps you from experimenting. Let alone listen to others’ views, engage in debate, or change your mind, god forbid.

As Stratecution teaches, you need to understand that your work, your effectiveness, your product, and your knowledge, all improve over time. That you will be iterating according to real-world information, learning and evolution. And, that you will end up at least some distance from where you started and from where you’d thought you’d end up. Thus, you have to be open to the fact that your in-going notions aren’t exactly right. You have to be willing to be wrong.

As a leader, promoting a willingness to be wrong does lots of good things:

– Recognizes the essential truth of business – there are no “right” answers.

– Demonstrates humility.

– Shows a thirst for action and learning. You can generally gain more learning from being wrong than right.

– Drives a beta-test/agile approach that focuses on making things better.

– Shows a desire for growth.

– Demonstrates authenticity and integrity.

Being wrong isn’t fun, it isn’t enjoyable and it may make you look and feel vulnerable. But it’s time to start viewing that as a virtuous asset. Perhaps this could happen if we viewed “wrong-ness” as a more temporary assignation – “momentarily wrong”, e.g. Or, even better, if we viewed wrong as just on the way to being right. It’s “soon-to-be-right”, or “nearly right”. That could help. Or perhaps I’m wrong.

“The secret to being wrong isn’t to avoid being wrong! The secret is being willing to be wrong. The secret is realizing that wrong isn’t fatal.” Seth Godin

The Dis-comfort Zone – Getting comfortable with discomfort

jumpingtwilight zonecomfort zone comic

Watching the fiscal cliff negotiations over the past few months has provided us many valuable lessons. One might be, you should never give old, white men something important to do over the holidays. Another – it’s probably not a successful strategy to say “go f- yourself” to your negotiation partner. But perhaps the most potent lesson we have learned is that, to get any progress in life, you have to get outside your comfort zone. Welcome to the Discomfort Zone!

Why do I say this? Isn’t everything in life about achieving and living in comfort? Finding your comfort zone is a potent human driver. It’s where you feel most competent and able. You feel your strongest sense of belonging. Things are predictable, and you’re prepared for whatever happens. And you’re happy to stay there. But our comfort zones hold us back. Because, in the comfort zone, learning, progress, and innovation tend to stop. Change doesn’t occur. We can end up hitting all kinds of cliffs and impasses, fiscal and otherwise. We just say “no”, and stay in our bubbles.

The truth is, we are all wired to shun discomfort. It’s, well, uncomfortable. It fills us with fear – of not “knowing” things, of looking dumb or inept, of making mistakes, of failure. We’re filled with doubt. It’s the opposite of our comfort zone. And that is painful – so we avoid it.

But we need the discomfort zone – to improve, develop and challenge ourselves and do new things. But how can we get comfortable with discomfort?

Don’t panic. It’s natural to feel anxiety in the Discomfort Zone. There’s the stress of not knowing what you’re doing and the fear of the unknown. But panic causes you to freeze up – which in turn negates the possibility of learning and growth. On top of that, the unpleasantness of panic will likely cause you to want to avoid it the future. It’s easy to say, I know, but instead, try to relax and let go.

Provide support. When working in a group, it’s important to make sure your team feels safe. Develop a culture of mutual respect and support. Make sure folks feel that mistakes are expected and blame won’t be an issue. And that everyone is in it together.

Don’t think only in terms of success vs. failure. If you only view things in this binary way, you will likely avoid failure like the plague – by always staying firmly in your comfort zone. But, as I’ve stated before, failure can be a very good thing… and it’s generally the precursor to success. So face uncertainty with the passion of a scientist – knowing that all results are good, and learning comes from any experience.

Recognize that not knowing is the norm.  No matter how much experience you have and how much expertise you’ve gathered, every situation is new. So, whether you realize it or not, you’re constantly confronted with ambiguity and uncertainty. So get used to it.

Get out of the bubble. Spend too much time in your comfort zone and you can lose perspective. You can start to get high on your own exhaust. That’s why it’s important to push yourself out of your own bubble every once in a while, in both small and large ways. Take a new route to work, read different magazines or websites, try to understand things from another perspective. And, above all else, question everything, especially yourself.

Be willing to fall on your face. The number one thing that keeps us from venturing out into uncomfortable places is the fear of looking stupid. Of making mistakes. Of having people laugh at us. But that’s got to be challenged. Do your best to not take yourself too seriously – it’s unlikely that we’re talking about life or death. And when others begin to laugh at you, join in – and be the loudest laugh of all.

I’m facing 2013 with a renewed passion to force myself into discomfort. It’s something I will need to practice, to consciously seek and push myself towards. But in the words of Peter McWilliams, “comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort”.

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