Can Innovation Be Taught With a Children’s Story?

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Creativity, Features, Leadership On the Edge | No Comments

New PictureHow Stella Saved the Farm: A Tale about Making Innovation Happen is a delightful foray into the challenge of innovation in organizations.  From two of business’s prominent thought leaders, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, this short read tells a compelling story, a la Orwell’s Animal Farm, about a once successful farm that needs to reinvent itself in the face of intense competitive threats. Sounds like an everyman’s story these days, doesn’t it?

The authors touch on the common and key challenges that any new product or service effort faces in an organization. Resistance to new ideas, territorial behavior, departmental feelings of superiority, premature judgments, and so on. In a very simple way, they manage to paint a vivid picture of a treacherous innovation landscape using dry humor to keep the story light and fast paced.  It’s refreshing to see a pair of serious academics present their research and experience in a genre akin to a children’s story.

At the end of the book the authors provide a useful set of questions that help you draw broader and deeper conclusions about your own innovation efforts and challenges.  And then they offer their important lessons.  These lessons are based on the authors’ deep research and experience and lead-in nicely to their in-depth leadership book, The Other Side of Innovation:  Solving the Executive Challenge.

Proactive leaders will resonate with the context and subtext of How Stella Saved the Farm. Reading between the lines, you’ll gain a greater appreciation as to why a pragmatic, disciplined focus on execution and getting things done is at the core of successful innovation.  The book shows that by managing the micro-politics and diverse relationships within an organization can be the difference between “betting the farm” and “saving the farm.” As the authors say, “in any great innovation story, the idea is only the beginning.”

Don’t expect this book to solve all your innovation problems. Think about it as an innovation story that everyone in your organization can understand and follow. You don’t need an MBA, nor would you even need to have majored in business to understand the challenges and situation that Windsor Farm faces. Use it exactly as what it is — a metaphor for helping people in your organization understand the challenges of innovation and to understand the different perspectives that exist in a changing environment.

What are you Seeing?

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Managerial Competence, Political Competence | No Comments

lensPerhaps the most powerful sense we have in business is our ability to see.  By observing our products in action, our customer’s habits, and our supply chain and vender’s facilities we get a huge breadth and depth of information.  Arguably, seeing how your business works provides you with the most control over how you interpret the information you are presented with.

Yet how many of us spend the majority of our days holed up in our offices, sitting in meetings, and waiting around in conference rooms? Even when were active we’re probably running to catch the right train or hurrying to get home by a certain time.

You can always monitor interactions and relationships from your office in part, but how can you expand your view of business opportunities?  Can you really make good decisions when you rarely see your customers shop for and experience your product or service?  Can you generate “out-of-the-box” growth opportunities when most of your time is spent “inside your box?”

Is your world view unnecessarily limited because you are not seeing the world?  It is so easy for us — from entrepreneurs to corporate executives to professional service people — to fall into this routine. And it can be stifling your organization.

Designers and other creatives understand this more than anyone. Indeed, the very best creative people “see everything” and are constantly looking at everything. They know that through their eyes will come their next big idea or inspiration.   They have a sense that the more they see and the broader they see, the more they can inspiration they can tap into for future projects.

Managers, executives, entrepreneurs, and professionals need to adopt this mindset to be effective and innovative in today’s environment. You need to see more. You need to look wider.  And you need to look deeper. Your sense of sight will transform you, your organization, and, perhaps, your industry. If you remain planted in your Aeron chair (itself a product created by several very talented leaders who used their observations to create an innovative seat for the modern worker) you will never be able to grow, learn, or change.

This week do yourself and your organization a favor. Step out of the office.  Go someplace you haven’t been. Go see your customers or products in action. Go observe something new and really consider it. Keep those observations in the front or back of your mind. Do it the following week and see how it changes the way you lead.

Picture cred: Andrestand

5 Productivity Tips From Mark Twain

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Proactive Stories | 2 Comments

mark twain

Popular pictures of Mark Twain show the American man of letters in a relaxed slump, enjoying a cigar, and sheepishly scanning a warm summer afternoon in a comfortable, white linen suit. A calm, restful smile resides on Twain’s lips and his wild, white hair appears to have recently departed from a goose feather pillow.

On first glance, Twain doesn’t seem like a very productive soul, but you can’t judge a book by its cover.

The fact is Twain was a steady, consistent, and productive writer who tirelessly worked on his craft. There’s a reason why Hemingway called Twain’s most popular book, Huckleberry Finn, the root of all modern American literature.

Twain’s impressive work rate is the result of his happy outlook on life and his unique principles. Even if you aren’t a writer, the following list of Twain’s productivity tips will help you work harder and smarter:

1. Don’t be a perfectionist:

Twain observed, “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.” Twain didn’t let misspellings and rules of grammar get in the way of his storytelling. He believed in telling simple, humorous tales. Twain left the editing to the editors. This carefree attitude spurred his creativity and let him develop his own style that wasn’t beholden to established rules of fiction

Don’t waste all of your time editing and making things perfect. Give yourself time to be sloppy, creative, and messy. It gives you the opportunity to express yourself without barriers. You can edit, retool, and tweak later.

2. Mind your company:

Productivity isn’t always about waking up early, setting a schedule and trying your best to ignore your email and phone. Sometimes it boils down to confidence and Twain believed only certain people inspire self-assurance.  Twain writes, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Ignore the naysayers, the cynics, and the folks who are always sucking their teeth whenever a new idea is brought up. They are the “small people” and all they want from you is to join them in their misery. You must associate with people who allow, encourage, and demand big dreams.

3. Laugh at work:

Everyone has their favorite Twain joke. Mine is, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.”

Twain knew that humor, jokes, and laughter soothed many headaches and ills. “Humor is the great thing,” Twain writes, “the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.”

If you have a mountain of work and stress dogs your daily life than take time to seek out humor. Laughter will help you relax. Once you’re relaxed you can get back to work with more clarity and focus.

4. Develop good habits with incremental steps:

Twain knew that good habits are hard to acquire. While it’s easy to say you’ll get up early and visit the gym, it’s another thing completely to obey your screeching alarm clock before the sun begins its day.

Twain had a hack to instill good habits and it goes as follows, “Do something every day that you don’t want to do; this is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.”

He went on to observe, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by man, but coaxed downstairs, a step at a time.”

Twain knew that one can’t simply pull a positive habit out of the blue. Good habits have to be worked at incrementally.

Twain also writes, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex and overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”

Don’t jolt your system into new, better habits. Gradually work your way into them so they stick.

5. Don’t follow conventional wisdom:

Twain didn’t believe in dieting or maintaining a healthy lifestyle. He smoked cigars, he drank, and he didn’t believe in abstaining from fattening foods.

When it came to cigars he had an especially large appetite. He writes, “I ordinarily smoke fifteen cigars during my five hours’ labors.” It is not exactly a habit one should replicate, but it illustrates that Twain allowed himself small pleasures while he went about his work.

There’s no rule forbidding yourself from small pleasures while you toil over your projects. Faced with a monumental task one should bear down and get to work while allowing for the odd indulgence.

After all, Twain writes, “There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.”

From Inc: Can You Manage and Lead?

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Managerial Competence | No Comments

pipeAs an academic I love dichotomies. They stretch the imagination, help us avoid subtlety, and enhance focused debate.

The problem with dichotomies, however fun, is that they are overt and sometimes misleading oversimplifications. But in the real world tidy constructs become messes, and dichotomies become continuums. The real question is: Where are you on the continuum?

And the answer is: It depends on the situation. You may be a transactional leader one day and a transformative leader the next. You may be internally directed one day and externally directed a week from Tuesday.

And then there is what I consider to be the ultimate knee-jerk dichotomy:

Are you a manager or a leader?

Read the rest of my piece at here Inc.

From Inc:How to Play the Doomsday Strategy

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features | No Comments

As January 2 looms ever nearer, leaders in Congress are feeling the pressure to make a deal before we go over the so-called fiscal cliff. The cliff represents budget cuts and tax increases that will automatically go into effect, as well as the economic and social turmoil that would result, if Congress and the President can’t come to a budget agreement.

There is a certain tension generated by the idea that the clock is ticking, and that, unless it can be stopped, doomsday is at hand. Propagating the belief that we’re at the eve of destruction and can avoid doomsday only by conscious action is a proven leadership tool. Bringing a situation to a head has an acknowledged place in negotiation theory, with a distinguished place in foreign diplomacy. For those who remember it, there is probably no better example of this than the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This brinkmanship mindset, with the dramatic emphasis on the cliff, is one way that leaders, in frustration and desperation, use crisis as a way of forcing action. Often, it has the added benefit of giving negotiators political cover: They can legitimately say that they had no choice. Their actions may have been distasteful, and maybe they would not have been acceptable at another time, but this was different: “If we didn’t take action, then we would have gone over the cliff.” Or the bomb would have gone off.

Leaders who use brinkmanship have to be very careful. This tactic, if indeed it is a tactic, has to be used carefully and strategically. Misused, it can have precisely the consequences that everyone is working to avoid.

Before you use brinkmanship as a call to action or as a way to force a decision, keep the following in mind:

  • Make sure there really is a cliff. People grow tired of the Chicken Little routine. The Mayan calendar ends on December 21, and so does humanity, allegedly. If you see and report on the impending doomsday too often, your leadership credibility will suffer.
  • Do not bluff. Although bluffing is a negotiation tactic, it is not part of the brinkmanship strategy. In the do-or-die scenario, the cost of having your bluff called could be catastrophic. You may be forced to go over the cliff and live with the consequences.
  • Be willing to compromise. Going to the brink means that the winner-take-all option is off the table. Once it is clear that everyone has something to lose, you as a leader must come to grips with your capacity to compromise creatively.
  • Keep the collective interest in mind. For brinkmanship to be effective, you need the support of those who will be affected. It is critical that stakeholders and supporters do not see brinkmanship as a self-serving exercise in opportunism but rather an effort to solve a problem that negatively affects all parties.
  • Avoid creating a panic. Hanging out too long at the end of the cliff without coming to a deal may create anxiety and panic. That can have the same result as going over the cliff. That is, you may unwittingly create a stampede that takes all parties over the edge.
  • Don’t use brinkmanship on small issues. If something can be solved fairly easily and creates a win-win, don’t create a false crisis. That’s not the way to the best outcome.

From Inc.: Leadership Lessons from Moby Dick

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features | One Comment

Captain Ahab, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, wasn’t the only one with a singular obsession that hounded his thoughts and kept him up at night. Entrepreneurs often have their own white whales, causing them to pace their offices thinking of only that one thing.

Your concern may lack the drama of whale hunting, but whether you’re worried about keeping up with the competition, building your business, implementing a new idea, or making sure your vision is realized, you must avoid falling into the Ahab syndrome. There is a thin line between dedication and unhealthy obsession.

Whatever your goal, don’t let it turn you into an Ahab. His obsession lost him his ship, most of his crew, and ultimately his life. And the whale got away.

Here’s how you can avoid the Ahab syndrome:

1. Don’t be obsessed by vision. I’ve always argued that visions don’t make great leaders. Great historical leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, FDR, and Mandela all had strong visions, but what set them apart was their ability to make adjustments, fine-tune their tactics, and adjust their direction. They weren’t fixated on their vision to the point of inaction. They were negotiating, creating coalitions, and moving forward.

2. Avoid the cult of personality. Personality isn’t your most reliable leadership tool. Ahab was able to establish a strong psychological bond between himself and his crew. They believed in him. The problem was that they so believed in him, and were so energized by him, that they never really questioned his ideas and became yes-men. Enamored with his personality, they were incapable of seeing his weakness.

3. Beware of groupthink. Organizations want to have a culture that embodies their values and mirrors their norms. They want likeminded people working together to produce efficiently. But if you have too many people on the same page, you’ll have too many with the same ideas. Outliers and people who see things differently can help you get a better perspective on your goals and ideas.

4. Listen to your team. Captain Ahab was deaf to his crew. He didn’t hear what they wanted. He only promised them gold if they found his white whale. It was incentive enough, but as the journey grew perilous, Captain Ahab wasn’t able to heed the warnings from his crew. He stayed focused on his goal and met his maker.

5. Take note of the failures of others. Ahab was fully aware of the harm that Moby Dick could cause. Two sister whaling ships had fatal encounters with the whale, but this did not stop Ahab from carrying on with his dangerous quest. Ahab could not view his goal and weigh the risks with clarity. He wanted to harpoon Moby Dick, but never considered that the whale would drag him down. Not learning from the experience of others is a common trap of the Ahab syndrome.

6.      Remember there’s always another white whale. There will always be another opportunity, another goal or target to shoot for, and always something to work toward. In the final analysis there is always another whale, so don’t waste all your resources and deplete your political and pyschological capital on an obsessive dream or goal.

Read more of my pieces from Inc. here.

Why He Won: A Lesson in What People Really Want in a Leader

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features | One Comment

The leadership lessons learned from Obama’s re-election yesterday are more subtle than those from 2008.  For his first Presidential election victory, the ingredients were dazzling—charisma, hope, aspiration, and vision.  His campaign rallying cry said it all: “Fired up, ready to go!”

It would be hard to argue that President Obama fired up anyone this time around.

What we saw this time wasn’t leadership with a big, spectacular “L.” It was leadership with a small “l.”  This style of leadership isn’t dramatic.  Its fundamental characteristic is pragmatism and accommodation to reality. In Obama’s case, it wasn’t always pretty. But one of the unappreciated truths about real leaders is, they often inch their way to success.

Read the rest here