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 email@example.com.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 20, 2015
Frequently Asked Questions About My Forthcoming Book on Storytelling
1. WHO IS THIS BOOK FOR?
Anyone interested in the power of personal storytelling to awaken, inspire, and communicate a meaningful, memorable message -- especially around "moments of truth" on the job. It's also for forward-thinking business leaders who want to elevate the conversation in the workplace and radically increase the odds of peer-to-peer learning happening on a daily basis.
2. WHY IS THIS BOOK TIMELY?
Because the story being told, these days, is predominantly bad news. Terrorism, war, greed, corruption, political infighting, and corporate collapse rule the airways. But something else is also happening and that "something else" too often remains unspoken -- individual stories of insight, breakthrough, kindness, courage, innovation, learning, and wisdom. The more these stories are told, the faster the world's story will change. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, "The world is not made of atoms. The world is made of stories."
3. WHY IS STORYTELLING SO POWERFUL?
For the same reason why the sun is powerful. It sheds light, gives warmth, and sustains life. Storytelling is the simplest, most direct way to deliver a meaningful, memorable message. Deconstruct any scripture or holy book and you will discover that story is the DNA. Story is how our ancestors, since the beginning of time, communicated their wisdom. And story is how we teach our children. In the business world, where "time is money", storytelling is the most cost-effective way to cut to the chase.
4. WHY DID YOU WRITE THIS BOOK?
Because after 27 years of being an innovation provocateur to a wide variety of Fortune 500, mid-sized, and small companies, I realized that the most effective way to spark the innovation mindset was to tell stories. And while there is always a place for case studies, data dumps, pep talks, and PowerPoint shows, it is storytelling, I have discovered, that gets to the heart of the matter in the least amount of time.
5. HOW DOES STORYTELLING SPARK INNOVATION?
Innovation only happens when a critical mass of inspired, committed people go beyond the status quo in a sustained way. For this to happen, their minds need to be open and their ability to translate thought into action needs to be fully functioning. Story is the fuel for this creative fire -- the direct transmission of soulful soundbytes of wisdom that change individual behavior and, by extension, entire company cultures.
6. I'VE GOT A BUSINESS TO RUN. HOW CAN STORYTELLING IMPROVE MY BOTTOM LINE?
I've got a business to run, too. But all businesses, whether they are Fortune 500 companies or start-ups require an engaged workforce. One of the simplest ways to engage your workforce is to give them vital opportunities to inspire each other. And the simplest way to do that is to encourage them to share their life changing insights via personal story telling. Instead of breaking the bank to bring in "the experts", allow your people to share their deep expertise with each other. Where is their expertise hiding? In their stories -- in the rarely spoken moments of truth that happen to them on the job.
7. HOW CAN MY COMPANY LEVERAGE THE POWER OF STORYTELLING?
Simple. Launch Wisdom Circles, lightly facilitated small group gatherings where open-minded people get a chance to share their insights, best practices, and wisdom with each other. Facilitating Wisdom Circles is easily learned via onsite or online training. 90 minutes is all an aspiring Wisdom Circle facilitator needs to get in the zone.
8. CAN YOU GIVE ME SOME EXAMPLES OF WHAT YOU MEAN BY MOMENT OF TRUTH STORIES?
I'm From Woodstock. Yes, I Am!
The Afghan Cab Driver
It All Began With Balls
Follow Your Feeling, Not the Money Trail
The Uptown Beggar
The Brilliant Complaint Department
Real Moments of Truth on the Job
9. WHAT ARE PEOPLE SAYING ABOUT YOUR BOOK?
"I truly LOVE this book! The last time I read anything this good was Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and that was 25 years ago! With Storytelling At Work, Mitch Ditkoff has delivered a modern classic on how to communicate with wisdom. Kudos!" -- Rowan Gibson, author of The Four Lenses of Innovation
"Mitch Ditkoff's powerfully written book shows us how storytelling, well done, humanizes the world of work. But even more than that, it helps us pause, go beyond convention, and tune into the deep well of timeless wisdom within." -- Tim Gallwey, Author of The Inner Game of Tennis
"Storytelling at Work is filled with Eureka moments that will spark your creativity and ignite your motivation. Mitch Ditkoff has a magical ability to elevate the routine work of everyday life. Original and deeply insightful!" -- Marshall Goldsmith, author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal #1 Best Seller, Triggers
"Mitch's storytelling reminds us that the truth is rarely in the bottom right corner of an Excel spreadsheet. It's already inside of us." - Jon Bidwell, Chief Innovation Officer, Chubb Insurance
"Mitch Ditkoff is a master storyteller, weaving tales that not only draw you in, but invite you to see the world with wider eyes. This gem of a book lovingly inspires us to step a little more bravely outside our box." - Susan Stiffleman, Author of Parenting with Presence
"I suggest you read Storytelling at Work with a pencil so you can record the great story ideas that pop into your mind! Storytelling requires rituals of story finding. Because Mitch offers his own true stories with application ideas that answer "So what?" and "Now what?" your mind is magically compelled to reciprocate with your own story and application ideas that will speak your truth, in your style, to achieve your goals." -- Annette Simmons, Author of Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins
To receive an email alert on publication day
Storytelling at Work keynotes
PS: The book should be out by 11/12!September 19, 2015
BRAINSTORMING: The Power of Three
Every brainstorm session you will ever facilitate or attend, like any good movie you will ever see, can be divided into three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. No matter what the topic, who's in the room, or how stale the muffins, you will cycle through the same three phases again and again. How well you will cycle through these phases is another story.
Three. Not two. Not four. Not one. Three. The more attuned you are to threeness, the more likely it will be that the sessions you facilitate will be successful. Here's a quickie overview:
1. THE BEGINNING: This is the "foreplay" stage of brainstorming -- the mood and context setting effort that will either make or break the session.
While the specific "look and feel" to the beginning may vary from session to session, the outcomes you are aiming for will not: 1) Establishing a sense of relaxation and rapport; 2) Agreeing on ground rules for participation; 3) Clarifying the history and current reality of the topic to be brainstormed; 4) Framing the challenge in the most powerful way; 5) Establishing yourself as the facilitator of the creative thinking process.
2. THE MIDDLE ("Divergence"): This is the heart of the matter -- why people were invited to the session in the first place -- to think outside the box and generate compelling ideas.
What you actually do in the middle phase of your brainstorming session is up to you. I recommend the right mix of "group geometry" (solo, dyad, triad, or full group), creative thinking triggers, and the skillful application of facilitation savvy.
Remember, the goal of this phase is an abundance of ideas -- not just discussion, debate, philosophizing, or long-form storytelling.
3. THE END ("Convergence"): Just like most people would prefer to plant a garden than weed it, the end game of a brainstorm session requires more "roll-up-the-sleeves" effort than most facilitators want to deal with -- the application of some left-brain mojo after the right brain has had its say.
The end game of creative thinking is all about jump starting the process of making order out of chaos and clearing the way forward.
Depending on the amount of time you have, this order making stage might include: idea review, idea evaluation, idea selection, identifying idea champions, clarifying next steps, and deciding who's going to generate a brainstorm report -- and by when.
There's no need to make people cranky by trying to do too much convergence during this closure phase, but it's definitely good to get things grounded as a prelude to whatever follow up effort will be made.
Three phases to a brainstorming session. Three.
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.