Saturday, February 23, 2013

The original "Think Different" guy

My winter reading this year has been "Don Quixote." What has struck me about the book and the character are the parallels between Don Quixote and successful entrepreneurs and innovators. Quixote sees the world a a radically different way, so much so that he is ridiculed by almost everyone he meets - rich or poor, educated or ignorant. Yet he believes so firmly in his vision that he draws others into his world, where they freely impersonate characters in the stories his mind creates.

All the innovators, dreamers, etc., whom Steve Jobs referred to in Apple's legendary "Think Different" campaign owe a debt of gratitude to Don Quixote, the first and foremost.

The illustration at top is a pastel trompe l'oeil showing Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, the windmills, etc. This was on a sidewalk outside of the Mexico National Art Museum in Mexico City, where I was last week.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Eagles reunion concert set right by a mistake

We watched the fascinating Showtime documentary "History of the Eagles" on Sunday night. I was never a big fan of their music, but for someone born in the 1960s, songs like "Take It To The Limit" and "Life In The Fast Lane" are an inescapable part of life, like the smog in LA.

And, of course, the band's story is as crazy and extreme as their music is mellow and polished. That fact alone makes the documentary great cinema. [The footage of Glenn Frey and Don Felder going at each other verbally during the band's final 1980 concert is shocking and priceless.]

Part 2 of the film takes up the band after they reunited for a concert tour in 1994. The first concert was a huge affair, to be broadcast on MTV. As the band takes the stage, the members, in voiceover, talk about how nervous and tight they were, it being 14 years since they played in front of an audience. And then, a few songs into the set, lead singer Don Henley forgets the words to one of their new songs.

And, rather than disintegrate, the band laughs at themselves [disclaimer: the following transcribed from memory and there will be errors].

"I can't believe you forgot the second verse," says Glenn Frey, smiling. "I thought you would forget the third verse."

"I know the third verse," Henley says, also with a smile on his face.

"Well, this is for television, so we get to do it until we get it right," Frey says.

And, from that point, the band relaxed and was comfortable playing together. For as professional and tightly-wound band as the Eagles, a mistake enabled them to forget their anxieties and enjoy the moment.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

When stuck creatively, "try to do some BAD work"

Excerpt from a letter by the artist Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse. Hat tip to Gwarlingo.

Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be…

This quote gets me thinking of deliberate mistakes - actions you take counter to your ingrained thinking, to explore your boundaries and challenge your assumptions. For creative people, this is great advice. But for those who don't think of themselves as "creatives," are there times when this attitude can be helpful? I wouldn't recommend telling your boss to take a flying f--- or stroll into a meeting 20 minutes late just to see what would happen. But, perhaps there are things you can do:

  • Write your status report as if you were explaining to your teenaged child what you did this week.
  • Consider one area at work that has always bugged you, and write down four suggestions for fixing it.
  • Put yourself in your subordinates' shoes - what two or three things would you want your boss (you!) to do to support you and your work?
  • Sort all your responsibilities into three categories: Investment activities that enhance your long-term career and personal objectives; Neutral activities which are necessary to do well but don't require "A" grade work; and Optimize activities for which C-grade work is fine and excellence won't yield any incremental benefit. What percentage of your time are you spending on each category? (See my resolutions post for more on this.)

What would you recommend to make your work "anything you want it to be"?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

CEO must change to counteract "a string of disappointments"

I like this very straightforward story of mistakes, realization and change from Alison Rimm at the Harvard Business Review blog network, about the struggles of a new CEO:

New to his role, he felt he needed to be personally involved in everything under his purview — which was everything. He was consistently overbooked, even though his assistant tried to convince him not to accept every meeting request. He was always running late, and he began to develop a reputation for being unfocused and unreliable. The day he failed to attend a meeting with a trustee subcommittee, the chairman of the board insisted he get control of this problem. That's when we started working together.

In our first meeting, I asked Michael why he had pursued the CEO position and how it compared with what he'd hoped it would be. He confided that while he was in the trenches, he'd often believed he had a better handle than the former CEO on what the company needed, and he relished the chance to be the chief decision maker. But he wasn't comfortable letting go of the details, so now, as chief executive, he showed up at meetings where he wasn't needed and missed meetings where his input was required.

When he disappointed his colleagues, he disappointed himself. Where he once felt the pleasure of daily victories, he now lived under a cloud of dissatisfaction with his work and home life.

The last thing he needed was to be reminded of yet another responsibility, but the truth was that he wasn't fulfilling his key obligation to use his talents wisely. What's more, he was standing in the way of his staff's ability to fully utilize their own gifts. He needed to trust his people and let go of trying to control everything....

Finally he agreed to back off and let his VPs lead their initiatives independently. That allowed him to reclaim dozens of hours for tasks that were clearly in his domain — one of which was making it home for family dinners at least twice a week.

The above story describes diagnosing and dealing with a pattern of mistakes, which I discuss in the Mistake Bank book. One of the most difficult tasks in this process is stepping away from day-to-day activities long enough to recognize the pattern. Michael needed a "precipitating event" - the board chairman's directive - to realize the problem, and an executive coach to help him gain a full understanding of the issues and how to solve them. If you don't have the resources to employ an executive coach, do you have relationships you can trust to tell you the truth and help you plan a way forward when you are struggling? If not, start developing them now.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Great music is "perfected imperfection"

Adam Gopnik wrote recently in the New Yorker ("Music To Your Ears" - subscription required) about the challenge of recording music in "3D" - sound reproduction as if we were hearing music made right where we stood. Of course, this being a New Yorker article, the piece digressed into a discussion of music, science, and human perception/sensemaking. Two scientists fulfill the hero roles: Edgar Choueiri of Princeton University, who researches how we experience music and how to simulate the microscopic sensory disconnects that occur when we hear music performed live; and Daniel Levitin of McGill University, who studies how our brains experience expressiveness and style in music.

One paragraph stopped me in my tracks:

There was one truth, though, that connected the McGill music men's work to Choueiri's: the vital role of the not-too-perfect in our pleasures. The two expressive dimensions whose force in music Levitin had measured and made mechanical were defections from precision. Vibrato is a way of not quite landing directly on the note; rubato is not quite keeping perfectly to the beat. Expressiveness is error. Just as, at a subliminal level, Choueiri could make music come alive in space by introducing tiny errors into the amplitude and timing of the XTC wave, Levitin could show that what really moves us in music is the vital sign of a human hand, in all its unsteady and broken grace. (Too much imperfection and it sounds like a madman playing; too little, and it sounds like a robot.) Ella singing Gershwin matters because Ella knows when to make the words warble, and Ellis Larkins knows when to make the keyboard sigh. The art is the perfected imperfection.

I recently had an experience that underlined this point. While deciding what music to put on the system in my office, I chose an album that I very much liked a few years ago, "Leaves in the River" by the musician Sea Wolf. For some reason it sounded a bit sterile, muted, not quite as I remembered it. Then I realized I had another Sea Wolf item in my collection, a live podcast from that same time. I listened to that, and it sounded richer, more organic. More enjoyable.

The Sea Wolf podcast was recorded live, so it was imperfect, less constructed, "looser" both in tempo and intonation. Many of the terms we use to describe music, Gopnik points out, such as rubato and vibrato, are actually descriptions of tiny imperfections. Musicians also experience technical limitations the inability to sound a pitch perfectly, or a certain way of strategically leaving out notes in a difficult passage. All these, added together, become something we call "voice." Voice is what makes one person's playing instantly recognizable; the mistakes make all the difference.

[Thanks to Cynthia Kurtz for pointing out the article.]

Bonus: here's a "perfectly imperfect" newer live song from Sea Wolf:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Documentary director: The more I let subjects speak for themselves the better

This exchange between interviewer Terry Gross and movie director Michael Apted says a lot about learning from mistakes and experience. Apted is the director of the "Up" series of films, that have followed a group of 14 people through their lives, with one edition every seven years. The first, "7Up," appeared in 1964 and interviewed the group as 7-year-olds. The latest edition, "56Up," is just out.

GROSS: So what was it like you? What's it been like for you every seven years to drop in on these people's lives and, you know, ask them about the landmark events that have happened in the seven-year interim?

APTED: What can I say? I mean, it's the favorite thing that I've done, the thing that I'm most proud of. It's nerve-wracking because you always think you're going to blow it, and you'll wreck the whole thing. It seems fragile. And I've learned a lot of lessons about it. I've made mistakes on it and had to correct those mistakes.

You know, particularly I got into a situation, I think, early on when I became judgmental about people, that if they didn't agree with my standards of success, failure, happiness, whatever, then, you know, that I would feel that they were lesser for it. And also I tried to play God. I tried to predict what might happen to people and sort of set it all up for that.

And I did that, and that was an embarrassing mistake. And I think what I've learned all the way through is the less I do, the better, that the more I let them speak for themselves because what's so interesting about the films to me is that they're all different.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Admitting Failure's "Fail Forward" initiative among 24 finalists for HBR/McKinsey prize

We referred to Admitting Failure (part of Engineers Without Borders Canada) in a prior post, and now the group announces that its "Fail Forward" initiative is among 24 finalists for the Innovating Innovation Challenge sponsored by Harvard Business Review and McKinsey.

Fail Forward's IIC page features three "Failure Reports," annual reports outlining failures and lessons from them for 2010, 2011 and 2012. These reports are excellent documents on embracing and learning from failure, and I recommend you check them out.

Congratulations to Ashley Good and her colleagues at EWB Canada on this honor, and best of luck in the finals!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Managing negative emotions is "vital to entrepreneurs and business leaders"

Historian Nancy Koehn wrote a fascinating article about the parallels between Lincoln's presidential experience and the pressures on modern business leaders. While very few will experience anything like Lincoln's ups and downs - election to the presidency, Southern secession, military setbacks, public anger and derogation, the loss of a child, victory - all within a few short years - how he handled these can serve as a lesson to anyone.

What lesson? Koehn writes this:

The ability to experience negative emotions without falling through the floorboards is vital to entrepreneurs and business leaders. Ari Bloom, a strategic adviser to consumer-related companies and a former student of mine, put it this way: "Nothing prepares you for the emotional ups and downs that come with starting a business. There will be obstacles, big and small, that come at you every day, from personnel issues to supplier delays, to late payments or even hurricanes." Throughout, entrepreneurs must maintain their professional composure while staying true to their vision and their integrity, he said.

"Lincoln is striking because he did all this under extremely difficult circumstances," Mr. Bloom said. "Some of his ability to navigate such difficult terrain was about emotional intelligence and the deep faith he nurtured about his vision. But some of it was also about how he gathered advice and information from a wide range of people, including those who did not agree with him. This is important in building a business because you have to listen to customers, employees, suppliers and investors, including those who are critical of what you are doing."

It's true. Running a business successfully means navigating a maelstrom of emotions and experiences. Grounding, faith, resilience, vision and confidence - but not arrogance - are critical. Mistakes will happen. As will defeats. How will you respond?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Release data from failed experiments! #2

Sam Loewenberg has a great opinion piece in the New York Times today that extols something we've advocated on this blog before: information from failed experiments must be shared rather than hidden.

His subject is an ambitious public-health project in Mumbai, India, run by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and University College London. The project was not successful in driving meaningful infant-health improvement in the city despite trying a number of approaches. The researchers, to their credit, published their findings on the web, concluding, in part, "Facilitating urban community groups was feasible, and there was evidence of behaviour change, but we did not see population-level effects on health care or mortality."

Loewenberg's message:

What is noteworthy is that when the project did not work as planned, the team reported it openly and in detail, providing potentially valuable information for other researchers.

The risk is that too few people will follow. Especially in tough economic times, the pressure is on to show that they are getting bang for their buck. Last year an Obama administration official called on the aid community to adopt a “permanent campaign mind-set,” in which fund-raising and promotion are on the front burner. This creates an incentive to go for easy victories, highlight successes and bury failures. Even with the new fad in the aid world for metrics and impact assessments, their public reports are rarely forthcoming about missteps.

Here's a quotation we used in our previous post: "Science is very inefficient. You try an experiment, fail, try again, fail, try again, it works. And what works is what you publish. All the data about failure is wasted.”

Very true. Let's hope others follow the lead of the Mumbai government & UCL, and not reserve for publication only those projects that succeed.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Peter Sims learns from poorly-received public speaking experience

"Little Bets" author Peter Sims wrote a post on public speaking that appeared on the HBR Blog Network. Sims did a great job in the post of illustrating how a painful mistake helped him understand and process advice he had received years earlier from former New York governor Mario Cuomo:

[Cuomo] graciously shared the story about how he started speaking publicly in law school and was a terrible speaker until he started 1) talking about things he believed in passionately, and 2) knew his material extremely well.

When he was first paid to speak, at the time of his first book's publication, it didn't go so well. Sims' agent received a kind but brutally-critical email from the conference organizer, which said in part:

Peter did well overall, but it would have been nice if you would have shared that he never spoke to college students or in this type of setting. I think he was more focused on this being the start of his book tour versus personalizing it to the students. Not sure if this was a miscommunication between the two of you or his focus. I, and some of my committee members, felt it was overpriced for the experience. Would have paid $1500 for what we received. I have a limited budget and this could have been spent better. You were a little misleading but maybe you haven't seen him present before.

And it goes on from there. Sims explains that his first reaction to the email was (as should be expected) defensiveness:

I'd been going through a difficult time in my life! I did have doubts about the usefulness of my ideas to college students. Of course when I didn't know the answer to a question, I would turn it back around to the students and ask them! How was I supposed to know how they should manage college roommate conflicts?

But eventually Sims got past his emotional reaction and realized that he hadn't done well, and it was time to put Cuomo's earlier advice into action. Eventually, his speaking experiences had changed significantly:

As the audience came to see that I was just being me and trying to share and teach them, quirks and all, they stopped analyzing and judging me, and could just enjoy the moment. That's how I feel at least, noting how the energy in the audience now seems to shift about a quarter or a third of the way into each event. It's an experience for us all, not a lecture. When I can just be me, it gives the audience to just be themselves, and that human experience is what ultimately unlocks and empowers creativity, my ultimate goal. It has taken me thousands of hours of practice — and reams of hard-to-hear feedback — to improve.

This story is a great illustration of a couple of Mistake Bank points. One is that bad experiences can be great teachers. The second is that valuable lessons often take time (years, in fact) for us to absorb and process.