Toeing the Line
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.
Illustration: Jesse DitkoffMay 02, 2014
Pixar's 22 Rules for Storytelling
April 30, 2014
What Are the Benefits of Storytelling in Business?
There's a new growth industry in town -- ORGANIZATIONAL STORYTELLING -- half art, half science and totally fascinating.
It's roots go back... let's see... um... er... 100,000 years -- long before written language -- the time when our ancestors stood around the fire and shared their wisdom in small groups. Not a tweet or YouTube video to be seen. Only wooly mammoths.April 09, 2014
Storytelling in Business Infographic
Storytelling in Business Infographic
April 05, 2014
The Afghani Cab Driver and the $250 Million Dollar Salty Snack Food
I am getting into the back seat of a yellow cab, as I've done a thousand times before, having just tipped the too-smiling bellboy too much for holding open the door and inviting me, as he had been trained to do just last week, to "have a nice day."
Here, 1,500 miles from home, at 6:30 am in front of yet another nameless business hotel, I settle into position, careful not to spill my coffee on my free copy of USA Today.
In 20 minutes, I will be arriving at the international headquarters of General Mills, creators of Cheerios, Wheaties, and the totally fictional 50's icon of American motherhood, Bette Crocker.
My mission? To help their product development team come up with a new $250 million dollar salty snack food.
It's too dark to read and I'm too caffeinated to nap, so I glance at the dashboard and see a fuzzy photo of my driver, his last name next to it -- an extremely long and unpronounceable last name -- as if a crazed bingo master had thrown all the letters of the alphabet into a brown paper bag, shook, and randomly pulled them out in between shots of cheap tequila.
Where he was from I had no clue.
"Hello," I manage to say, nervous that my driver with the long last name would end up getting us completely lost. "I'm on my way to General Mills. Do you... know where that is?"
"Oh yes," my driver replies with an accent I assume to be mid-eastern. "I know."
Small talk out of the way, I now had three choices -- the same three choices I have every time I get into the back seat of a cab.
I could check my email. I could review my agenda. Or I could continue the conversation with my driver -- always a risky proposition, especially with cabbies from foreign lands who were often difficult to understand, tired, or, seemingly angry at Americans, which, I am not proud to say, often led me to become way too polite, overcompensating for who knows how many years of my government's pre-emptive strikes -- a response, I'm sure (mine, not the government's), which even the least sophisticated cab driver could see through in a heart beat.
"Where are you from?" my driver asks.
"Woodstock," I reply. "Woodstock, New York. And you?"
Deep as we were in the middle of that war, I am stunned, my own backseat brand of battlefield fatigue now gathering itself for the appropriate response.
"Afghanistan?" I reply. "What brought you here?"
I could tell by his pause -- his long, pregnant pause, that things, in this taxi, were just about to change.
"Well..." my driver says, looking at me in the rearview mirror, "I was out for a walk with my 10-year old daughter when she stepped on a land mine."
I look out the window. Starbucks. MacDonalds. Pier 1 Imports.
"So I ripped off my shirt and tied it around her leg to stop the bleeding. Then I went running for a doctor. But there was no doctor."
For the next 20 minutes, he goes on to tell me about his three-day journey through the mountains of Afghanistan, his bleeding daughter on his back, slipping in and out of consciousness.
Villagers took them in, gave them food, applied centuries worth of home remedies, but no one knew of a doctor.
And then... a break. A man on horseback told him of some nurses from the Mayo Clinic who had just set up an outpost just a little way up the road.
With his last bit of energy, he got there and collapsed -- the nurses managing to keep his daughter alive and flying her, the next day, to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where, three days later, he and his wife were flown to be by her side to enter into a year long rehabilitation process with her, so she could learn to walk with her new prosthetic leg.
"That will be $27.55", my driver announces, checking the meter.
Somehow, I find my wallet, pay, and hug my driver, lingering with him as long as I could in that early morning light.
I enter the well-appointed lobby of General Mills, get my security pass, and make my way to the room where I am supposed to set things up for today's salty snack food brainstorming session.
An hour later, fifteen 30-somethings walk in, checking Blackberries.
I have a choice to make.
Do I dismiss my journey from hotel to headquarters as a surreal preamble to the day -- one that has nothing to do with the work at hand?
Or do I realize that my journey here this morning is the work at hand -- a story not only for me, but for everyone in the room that day?
March 21, 2014
To be continued in my new book: WISDOM AT WORK: The Power of Personal Storytelling to Spark Insight, Breakthrough, and Lifelong Innovation.
The World Is Made of Stories
March 16, 2014
How to Spark Wisdom in the Workplace
Dear Heart of Innovation Readers:
If you have received any value from this blog and would be interested in supporting my next, big project -- now launched as a GoFundMe campaign -- click here for a 3-minute video of me describing it and a written description of what the whole thing is all about -- a venture which includes the writing, publication, and promotion of a new book, Wisdom at Work, along with the launching of WISDOM CIRCLES in organizations around the world.
Whatever support you can provide is very much appreciated, Plus, you will be sent a copy of the book when it's published, if you want.March 10, 2014
Writing Speeches, Saying Nothing
Henry Miller wrote 10,000 pages before a single word of his was ever published. Richard Bach had to endure Jonathan Livingston Seagull being rejected 18 times before it went on to sell 60 million copies. Salman Rushdie, after the publication of his Satanic Verses, spent a lot of time wearing disguises so he wouldn't be executed by a pissed off Ayotallah Khomeini and an entire nation of Fatwa-obsessed Muslims.
Me? My writer's come-uppance came in the form of a 24-hour ATM at Laguardia Airport.
But first, the back story...
When I was pounding the streets of Denver, Colorado, as an aspiring free lance writer, I once wrote a feature article for the American Humane Magazine. The story was well-received and inspired the Executive Editor, Eric Brettschneider, to send me a glowing letter of acknowledgment.
I kept his glowing letter of acknowledgment along with a few others I received, but since I couldn't eat them, decided to move to New York City in an attempt to reignite my stalled writing career.
The first call I made upon arriving in the Big Apple was to my one and only local fan, Eric Brettschneider.
Eric was not in. In fact, Eric was never going to be in, explained the woman who answered his phone. Eric, she went on to say, was no longer with the American Humane Society. He had "moved on". Precisely where she wasn't at liberty to say, but she could give me a forwarding number, which she proceeded to do.
Eric, answering his own phone, remembered me fondly and explained that he was now the Executive Assistant to the Borough President of Queens, the Honorable Donald R. Manes.
"Shit," I thought to myself. "Another dead end."
Eric, however, saw it very differently.
"Our speech writer is leaving next month," he explained. "Why don't you take a shot at writing Donald's State of the Union address? The pay is good and it'll give me a chance to see if you've got the right stuff to be our next speechwriter."
Yes, indeed, the pay was good. And so was the feedback. The Honorable Donald R. Manes was pleased with my work and so were the good people of Queens, happy to know that their not-yet-indicted Borough President had an excellent grasp of all the major local issues.
Months passed. I did some brochure writing for Citibank (boring), wrote an article for New York Magazine (rejected), and ate a lot of beans (kidney).
And then, like an unexpected tax refund from the Great State of New York, the new Executive Assistant to the Borough President of Queens called.
"Good news!" he exclaimed. "Our speechwriter just quit. Come in tomorrow for an interview with Donald if you want the job."
"This," I thought to myself, "is going to be one very short job interview," knowing how pathetically apolitical I was.
Yes, I knew that each state had two senators and that jaywalking was illegal, but after that my knowledge of the inner workings of government had some major holes in it.
My job interview was, indeed, short. But not in the way I expected.
Here's how it went:
1. Eric escorted me to the well-appointed, corner office of the Borough President of Queens.
2. I knocked and the door opened, revealing several American flags and a nicely framed photo of Mario Cuomo.
3. Donald Manes spoke: "Eric tells me you have a good sense of humor. True?"
4. "Yes," I replied.
5. Donald Manes smiled, "Good! You're hired."
That was it -- my initiation into the halls of power. I was not grilled about the Federalist Papers, not asked about my position on gun control, not invited into a dialogue about New York City's budget. One question. That's all I was asked -- probably the only question I could have answered at the time: Did I have a sense of humor?
Thus began my two-year career as a political speechwriter.
While many soul-sucking experiences happened to me during that particularly surreal time in my life, none of them came close to the existential meltdown I had when I was asked, one average spring day in Queens, to write about the opening of a 24-hour ATM machine at Laguardia Airport.
I mean, really, what is there to say about that?
"Good people of Queens, I am proud and privileged to be standing here with you today, just three feet away from Laguardia Airport's first- ever Automated Teller Machine."
"Only in this great, great borough of ours, could such a groundbreaking, historical event take place."
"As the elected representative of more than 2,000,000 technologically savvy citizens of Queens, I am honored to be the first elected official to withdraw $25 from this state-of-the-art ATM."
OK. So a young Albert Einstein once worked in a patent office and an older Wallace Stevens worked as an insurance agent. Great. I got it. But... this... THIS... this speech writing for a man who, rolled up almost every speech I wrote and used it as a pointer while he spoke off the cuff?
Was it karma? Destiny? Was it God's wicked sense of humor? Had I taken a wrong turn on the Queens Expressway of Life? Was there something I was supposed to be learning beyond the fact that I could recite Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English?
Like the long gone speechwriter before me and the one before him and the one before him (or her) in a succession of 50 generations going all the way back to the first masters of hieroglyphics being asked to inscribe, on the inner chambers of the pyramid walls, how great the pharaohs were for reducing famines and plagues by 30%, the human drama I now found myself in was a seriously timeless one -- one that went way, way back.
The real question, though, wasn't how I got here. The real question had nothing to do with cause and effect. The real question was this: What story was I going to tell about the events that were taking place in my life? And what choices would I make in response to the story I was telling -- a story that would likely have been constructed very differently by someone else?
Did I need to hunker down and plumb the depths of the experience that was waiting for me in the Queens Borough President's office? Or did I, like the speechwriter before me and the ones before him, simply need to read the ATM on the wall and move on to higher ground?March 07, 2014
Your Money or Your Life
For the life of me, I cannot remember the name of the financial services company that left me an urgent voice mail message asking that I call them back immediately about my availability to lead their annual leadership retreat on a island off the coast of Florida.
All I can recall was how generic sounding their name was -- something like National Investment Services... or Consolidated Financial Brokers.... or The American Banking Alliance -- kind of like the corporate equivalent of John Doe.
Somehow, they had heard of me and, with their big company pow wow coming up, were looking for someone, with a track record, to help them "become more innovative."
Never having heard of them before, I googled their name and, 1.73 seconds later, found myself on their website, slickly designed, I imagined, by someone with a special fondness for iStock photos of earnest looking models impersonating business people -- models who must have just moved to L.A. to pursue acting careers, but found themselves, at 24 or 35, working part-time as waiters and jumping at the chance to pick up some easy money wearing a suit and a smile for a day.
Easy for me to say -- me being the proverbial pot calling the proverbial kettle black with my big ass mortgage, family to feed and young entrepreneur's dream of making it big so I'd actually have enough moolah, one day, to invest with a financial services firm. Not to mention all the time in the world to write my best-selling book.
My first meeting with the client was pleasant enough. They talked. I listened, choosing not to interrupt them every time they made their point with an acronym I probably should have known if I only I hadn't spent my formative years living as a hippie, poet and monk.
OK, so they weren't a solar energy company. So they weren't asking me to help them end AIDS. I got it. This was business. The money business. The big money business -- and I was in it, no matter how much Rilke and Rumi I read on the side. Money. This was about money. Money and the VP of something or other inviting me to meet with him and his team the following week on the 57th floor of a building on Wall Street. There would be a badge waiting for me at the security desk, he explained. All I needed to do was show my ID.
Thrilled? Was I thrilled? Not exactly. But this was a possible gig and I needed the bread, so I went.
The VP and his team on the 57th floor looked nothing like the iStock photos on their company's homepage, though they did have a real nice view of Manhattan and a large mahogany conference table.
Our conversation went well enough. I asked all the right questions. They gave all the right answers. They sprinkled the conversation with football metaphors. I nodded. They gave me their business cards. I gave them mine. But on the way home, I began to feel a creeping sense of dislocation and dread -- like I was auditioning for a movie I wasn't quite sure I wanted to be in -- a movie being produced by a very fat man, sitting poolside, cell phone and martini in hand.
So when they called me back for a third meeting, I was betwixt and between. Do I simply trust my instincts and tell them I'm not their man? Or do I let go of my all-too-obvious self-righteous judgments and focus on the possibility that I might actually be able to help them get to higher ground?
Eternally the optimist, I chose the latter and decided to meet with them a third time -- a meeting, sad to say, which only confirmed the fact that I didn't like them very much and didn't like myself for sitting in a room with them and enabling their collective hallucination of themselves as a service organization when all they really wanted to do was make more money. Lots more money.
More chit chat. More coffee. More "run it up the flagpole" platitudes that littered our conversation like hidden charges on a credit card bill.
This was the moment of truth.
My client-to-be, apparently satisfied with what was about to become his decision to engage my services, cut to the chase and asked me to quote him a fee.
The honorable thing to have done, at the time, would have sounded like "John, I wish you the best of luck at your offsite, but after deep consideration, I don't think I'm the best possible fit for your company's needs."
But since I hadn't yet mastered the art of speaking my truth I took the easy way out and doubled my fees, thinking that they would now be so ridiculously high it would be the client's decision to end the relationship, not mine.
"That sounds about right," the client exclaimed, extending his right hand to seal the deal.
Fast forward six weeks later.
It's 8:30 a.m. and I'm on stage, in the Oakwood Room, on a beautiful island off the coast of Florida. Looking out at the audience, I notice that four of the gathered troops are sleeping, heads on the table. Someone in the front row explains to me that last night had been a "late one" and they'd all stayed up, drinking, until 4:00 a.m.
I tap the mic and begin speaking, trusting that the sound of my amplified voice would be enough to wake the dead.
Two of them snap to attention. The other two don't, still lightly snoring.
I signal the people sitting next to their sleep-deprived peers to poke them, which they do, shooting glances at me as if I am a substitute algebra teacher.
This is, as far I could tell, not a leadership offsite at all, but a college fraternity weekend -- big men on campus with stock options, golf shirts and a very high opinion of themselves. The collective attention span in the room is somewhere between a tse tse fly and a lizard. Nothing I say lands. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Only one thing is clear -- I am the highly paid warm up act before another night of drinking -- a small typographic box they can check off next quarter to prove they have done "the innovation thing."
I may have missed the moment of truth back at my client's office six weeks ago, but I wasn't going to miss it today.
"Gentlemen and ladies," I announce. "It's obvious that some of you don't want to be here. It seems you'd rather be golfing, napping or checking your email. I have no problem with that. So... we're going to take a 20-minute break. Only return if you really want to be here. Otherwise, you'll just be dead weight, screwing it up for the rest of us. Kapish?"
Twenty minutes pass. Everyone returns. Every single one of them.
And while the rest of the day didn't exactly qualify as one of the great moments in the history of innovative leadership off sites, at least it wasn't a total loss. Some good stuff actually happened. People woke up. People shaped up. People stepped up. And I learned a valuable lesson that would serve me for the rest of my life: Follow my feeling, not the money trail.
March 01, 2014
This story excerpted from my forthcoming book: WISDOM AT WORK: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life.
Follow Your Feeling, Not the Money Trail
Sometimes, you just gotta follow your feeling, not the money trail. A new article of ours just published in the Huffington Post.
Storytelling and the Creative Process
This is bleeping brilliant. Not only WHAT its says, but HOW it's presented. Two minutes on what it takes to really do creative work. Inspiring. Truthful. And in your face like a fresh arctic wind off a lake you've been waiting too long to sail on...
December 15, 2012
I'm from Woodstock. I Am.
I'm from Woodstock. Yes, that Woodstock, the famous Woodstock -- the most famous small town in the world, some people say.
Former home to Bob Dylan.
Jimi Hendrix lived here for a summer in the house right across the street from where I live now. John Sebastian still lives here, as do a ton of other musicians, artists, writers, healers, therapists, car mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and just about anyone else you'd expect to live in a small town.
Other than winter lasting six weeks too long, I love Woodstock. I've been a resident for 18 years and I'm proud to call it my home.
That being said, in the early days of starting up my consulting business, I noticed a curious phenomenon about Woodstock, or at least my relationship to it, whenever a client or prospective client asked me where I was from.
If I declared myself to be resident of Woodstock, I ran the risk of not only being stereotyped as a counter culture whack job, but being in cahoots with an entire generation of freaks for whom the word "corporation" was second only to "military industrial complex" on the list of buzz kills -- a moment fully capable of leaving my inquisitor with the impression that I was either dangerous, highly unqualified to be of value to their company, or a candidate to be paid in 100 pound bags of chickpeas.
So, I decided to take the low road.
With a big mortgage and a family to support, I saw no reason to scare away potential clients -- especially potential clients who, when push came to shove, were asking where I lived just to break the ice.
"Two hours north of Manhattan" was my standard response. "Upstate New York" was my backup, followed by "The Hudson Valley", "65 miles south of Albany", and the always dependable "Foothills of the Catskill Mountains".
So there I was in Munich at the International Headquarters of Allianz, one of the world's leading financial services institutions, with 142,000 employees and billions in sales.
My task? To lead a workshop, the next day, for the company's hard driving senior leadership team in an effort to jump start the launch of a company-wide effort to "gain a competitive edge through increased innovation".
Corporate speak? Of course it was. But it didn't matter to me. I didn't care what euphemisms my clients used to frame their business challenges. If I sensed even the smallest willingness on their part to become more innovative, I was there.
There, in this case, was the well-appointed, pre-dinner reception for Allianz' Senior Team and a handful of outside, consultants, like me, who had been flown in from God knows where to help the company reach its ambitious business goals.
The dress code? Business casual. The bar? Open. The client? Dutifully introducing me to anyone he could collar.
And so it went, the small talk, the head nods, the firm handshakes -- me patiently waiting for the waiter with the pizza puffs and the inevitable moment when the "Where do you live?" question would head its ugly rear.
Somewhere, in between my first and second glass of chilled 1987 Riesling, standing next to three large German men I had just been introduced to -- Guenther, Heinrich, and Hans -- the question was asked.
I opened my mouth to say "Two hours north of Manhattan", but out came "Woodstock".
Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the cumulative affect of the past ten years of mouthing geographical euphemisms. I don't know. But whatever it was, I knew this was going to be an interesting moment.
For three very long seconds, no one said a thing. The word just hovered in the air like some kind of Superbowl Blimp.
Guenther was the first to speak.
"Wow!" he announced. "Did you actually go to the festival?"
Hans smiled broadly. "My older cousin went. Lucky bastard. I was too young."
Heinrich just stood there, expressionless, saying nothing. Then he raised his right hand and gave me a rousing high five.
"I love Joe Cocker!" he announced.
Somehow, I got the feeling that tomorrow's innovation workshop was going to be just fine.
Excerpted from my forthcoming book, WISDOM AT WORK: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life.