What I Learned from 10 Chemical Salesmen and Some Masking Tape
As a person infinitely more interested in alchemy than chemistry, not once during my formative years as a young entrepreneur did I ever, once, aspire to sit in a room with 10 middle-aged, overweight chemical salesmen from New Jersey -- modern day Willy Lomans driving 100,000 miles each year to call on purchasing agents from Maine to Virginia in a heroic attempt to sell more of their company's product and, eventually, win the "President's Award" that would be bestowed on them, at their year end pow wow, in the Oakwood Room or the Bellmore Room or some other vapidly named meeting space in a modestly priced hotel still trying to figure out how to reduce their high rate of employee turnover.
But that's exactly where I found myself.
Somehow, their boss, my client, a Regional Manager responsible for convincing upper management that this year was going to be a banner year -- had gotten my name and asked me if I could help his people get out of the box and increase sales by 20%.
While my more politically correct friends chided me for choosing to work with a chemical company, I had absolutely no problem with my choice -- having long ago made peace with the fact that every business, no matter what industry or how skillful its PR department was in raising its perceived value, had something wrong with it.
Unless I wanted to be a potter in Vermont, there was always going to be something unseemly about the marketplace. And besides, I had a wife and two young kids to support.
The morning session with the ten chemical salesmen was all they hoped it would be -- an upbeat opportunity to bond and brainstorm. The ideas were flowing and so was the coffee. Everyone was happy.
During the lunch break, I stayed back to set things up for the afternoon session -- one I was planning to begin with a hands on activity that required me placing a 20 foot length of masking tape on the floor, parallel to the entrance, which I proceeded to do without a second thought.
At 1:00, the time I had asked everyone to be in their seats, the room was totally empty. Just me and the briefcases they had left behind.
Maybe I had the time wrong.
I looked at my watch. I looked at the clock on the wall. Both of them had the exact same time: 1:00, the time the afternoon session was supposed to begin. Then I looked at the door. It was open, but all ten of the chemical salesmen were standing outside the door, in the hallway, unmoving, as if they were waiting for a bus.
"C'mon in guys", I called. "It's time for the afternoon session to begin."
"We can't", they replied, standing their ground.
I walked across the room and asked them why.
In unison, they pointed to the 20-foot length of tape on floor.
"Hey it's OK, guys. It's just a piece of tape -- just part of an activity we'll be doing in a little while. It's no big deal."
But they just stood there, looking at me. Frozen in time. As if the tape was electrified. As if they were about to do something very wrong. As if they were going to make a BIG MISTAKE they would, somehow, later regret.
It is now 20 years later and the image of those 10 chemical salesmen, unmoving, convinced they were not allowed to step over the line, is still very much with me, burned into whatever part of my brain is reserved for moments like this.
I owe these gentleman an eternal debt of gratitude because they helped me understand a part of the human psyche that I had never seen as dramatically before -- how the decisions we make about what we can do and what we can't do are often utterly arbitrary, ruled more by the meaning we ascribe to phenomena than by any intrinsic, irreversible Laws of Nature.
The chemical salesman saw the masking tape on the floor and interpreted it as meaning STOP. Their conclusion was a function of their collective generalization of past experiences they had about lines -- unbroken white lines in the middle of a highway, property lines separating neighbor from neighbor, and countless "B" movies where the tough guy draws a line in the sand with a stick and dares anyone to cross it or "else."
Yes, of course, some lines serve a purpose. I'm glad that the guy driving 75 mph in the oncoming lane doesn't cross the line. That's a good thing.
But the moment with the chemical salesmen was not the interstate. It was just a piece of masking tape on the floor in a hotel meeting room. No game was being played. No rules had been set. There was absolutely nothing to lose by stepping over it.
Wherever I go in corporate America, I see this same phenomenon playing out in a thousand different ways -- less visible, perhaps, than my moment with the chemical salesmen, but just as limiting.
What are we so afraid of? What line are we afraid of stepping over? What imagined consequences paralyze us at the threshold and prevent us from moving forward?
One of the reasons why innovation is inert in so many organizations is because masses of intelligent, innately creative people are interpreting tape on the floor as lines that cannot be crossed. We are fabricating boundaries where none exist. We are drawing lines in space -- lines that separate, isolate, and marginalize. Lines between us and our customers. Lines between the past and the present. Lines between what's possible and what's not.
The bottom line?
All obstacles are no more than 20 foot lengths of masking tape on the floor. Whether you put them there or someone else puts them there, they have no power other than the power you attribute to them. If the lines are no longer useful, remove them. If you try to remove them and you are besieged by a raging hoard of anxious people trying to convince you to stop, it may be time to move on. Find another company with less lines. Or start your own.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
On an 8 X 11 piece of paper, napkin, wall, or extended stretch of sandy beach, make two columns: Column #1: "20 Foot Pieces of Masking Tape I Haven't Yet Stepped Over" and Column #2: "What I Will Do This Month to Step Over Them."
If, having done so, you still aren't inspired to step over the line, contemplate the following quotes from some of my favorite steppers over lines.
"Don't be afraid to take a big step. You can't cross a chasm in two small jumps." -- David Lloyd George
"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." -- Goethe
"Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." -- Helen Keller
"It's not because things are difficult that we dare not venture. It's because we dare not venture that they are difficult." -- Seneca
"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go." -- T.S. Eliot
This story is excerpted from my forthcoming book, WISDOM AT WORK: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life. If you are a publisher or know of a publisher who would resonate with this kind of material, email firstname.lastname@example.org.September 23, 2015
20 Awesome Quotes on Beginning
1."Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius and power and magic in it." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
2. "There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth -- not going all the way, and not starting." - Buddha
3. "Be willing to be a beginner every single morning." - Meister Eckhart
4. "All great ideas and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning." - Albert Camus
5. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." - Lao Tzu
6. "Beginnings are always messy." - John Galsworthy
7. "When there is a start to be made, don't step over! Start where you are." - Edgar Cayce
8. "So many fail because they don't get started -- they don't go. They don't overcome inertia. They don't begin." - W. Clement Stone
9."Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end." - Seneca
10."The beginning is the most important part of the work." - Plato
11."The beginnings of all things are small." - Cicero
12. "What's well begun is half done." - Horace
13. "Every exit is an entry somewhere else." - Tom Stoppard
14. "The person who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." - Chinese Proverb
15. "No good ending can be expected in the absence of the right beginning." - I Ching
16. "Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step." - Martin Luther King
17. "Beginning is easy -- continuing hard." - Japanese Proverb
18. "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning." - Louis L'Amour
19. "The greatest masterpieces were once only pigments on a palette." - Henry Hoskins
20. "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible." - St. Francis of Assisi
Thanks to Val Vadeboncoeur for locating these quotesSeptember 15, 2015
The Art of Sparking Innovation
When my mother was alive, she told me she had no idea what I did for a living. Around the canasta table, she would tell her friends I was a "motivational speaker", no matter how many times I explained what I actually did. The slide show below is dedicated to her and to YOU, too -- especially if you're wondering what the heck goes on in one of Idea Champions' innovation-sparking workshops. Best to view full screen.
September 11, 2015
20 Awesome Quotes on Humor, Play, and Creativity
1. "To stimulate creativity one must develop childlike inclination for play and the childlike desire for recognition." - Albert Einstein
2. "If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play." - John Cleese
3. "If you lose the power to laugh, you lose the power to think." - Clarence Darrow
4. "The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect, but by the play instinct arising from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves." - Carl Jung
5. "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny!'" - Isaac Asimov
6. "Serious play is not an oxymoron; it is the essence of innovation." - Michael Schrage
7. "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing." - William James
8. "Humor has bailed me out of more tight situations than I can think of. If you go with your instincts and keep your humor, creativity follows. With luck, success comes, too." - Jimmy Buffett
9. "Keep your sense of humor, my friend; if you don't have a sense of humor it just isn't funny anymore." - Wavy Gravy
10. "Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place." - Mark Twain
11. "Play so that you may be serious." - Anarchasis
12. "When truly creative people come up with a new idea they don't reject it immediately because of its flaws. They play with it, looking for strengths and sliding over weaknesses." - David Campbell
13. "I'll play it first and tell you what it is later." - Miles Davis
14. "All work and no play doesn't just make Jill and Jack dull, it kills the potential of discovery, mastery, and openness to change and flexibility and it hinders innovation and invention." - Joline Godfrey
15. "If I had no sense of humor, I would have long ago committed suicide." - Mahatma Ghandi
16. "Humor is by far the most significant activity of the human brain." - Edward de Bono
17. "Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious." - Peter Ustinov
18. "The number one premise of business is that it need not be boring or dull. It ought to be fun. If it's not fun, you're wasting your life." - Tom Peters
19. "It's no accident that AHA and HAHA are spelled almost the same way." - Mitch DitkoffSeptember 04, 2015
HOW TO MAXIMIZE IDEA POWER FOR FREE: A 3-Minute Video Tutorial
Need powerful, new ideas to grow your business, solve a problem, or find a better way? Don't want to go to yet another meeting to figure things out? Start paying attention to the ideas you are conceiving away from the workplace. And encourage others to do so, as well. Here's WHY and HOW.September 02, 2015
HOW TO SPARK INNOVATION IN OTHERS: A 5-Minute Video Tutorial
Here's a little known secret: Organizations don't innovate. People innovate. Inspired, creative, committed, collaborative, self-motivated people. What can YOU do to help people innovate? A lot. This 5-minute video tutorial tells you how.