Why remember Columbus?


Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, Florentine astronomer 1474 projection of the Atlantic Ocean geography (shown superimposed on a modern map), which directly influenced Columbus’s plans.

I’m happy it’s Columbus Day, not because I’m a believer in the myths surrounding Columbus, rather because the results he achieved remain impressive on a global scale.  If you take the perspective of 1st mover, as in 1st to arrive you miss the point. Likewise, unlike discoverers who know what they have discovered, Columbus up until his death argued with navigators over the identity of the lands he found.

Columbus is a story of failure due to incomplete as well as misinterpreted information, dissipated urgency that only political prudence and luck turned around.

Columbus’ “successful”  1492 voyage, opened the door to Europe’s active exploration to the west, but not for the reasons Columbus claimed. He failed in his prime objective- securing a shortcut to the Far East.

Luckily, the Americas were rich in other resources, which other explorers with political allegiances to countries other than Spain soon claimed.  In 1497, flying England’  flag,  Newfoundland was “discovered”.  This paved the way for England’s extensive colonization of North America, while Spain continued explorations and claims to  Central and South America.

Yes, history is rewritten by the victors and the district of Columbia bears the mark of anti English sentiment and ,   part of his myth……..

Learning from Failure

Everyone experiences failure in one way or another. Recently, I read a wonderful blog post why projects fail by Tom Toohey and Mike Kellim of Envision-Business Consulting. They go beyond the  general takes by the business community, to describe why it’s difficult to face up to project failure. The post lays out the general variations, quotes a Harvard Business Review study, Gallup data and then does something wonderful. It makes clear why projects are difficult. This isn’t a simple lesson in dealing with uncertainty, the authors leverage the reality of elapsing time and situations between when initiating project decisions are made and completing the work necessary to move the project forward.

In the days of Columbus, geographic distances were impossible to traverse quickly and safely, whether it was news or goods. Everyone suffered the same constraints and information varied in quality and authority. To be a mariner or a trader uncertainty was perhaps attributed to natural law—if you remember your history, these events predate Copernicus and Kepler,  and centuries before Darwin upsets the notion of natural order.

According to historian Edmund Morgan, in Wikipedia

Columbus was not a scholarly man. Yet he studied astronomy, geography, and history books, made hundreds of marginal notations in them and came out with ideas about the world that were characteristically simple and strong and sometimes wrong, …[23]


Columbus and his self guided studies left his knowledge unchecked and the urgency to find an alternative safe, and speedy sea passage to the Far East fueled his overconfidence. Project management works the same way with many estimations left unchecked, and unchallenged in spite of considerably greater access to information and in a more timely manner.

So what does Toohey and Kellim say and recommend organizations do to avert inevitable failures?  They don’t just advocate for better Leadership, or better Project Management methodology or reduce excuses to my personal favorite, the unforeseen circumstances. Their experiences recognize these are merely substitutes for poor communications. They suggest a closer inspection will turn up another common cause—one or more gaps between what people know and their skills/experiences doing that same thing.  Just like Columbus, competency appears to be grossly underrepresented, while confidence remains  greatly overstated.

Depending on whether organizations make use of post or pre-mortem analysis of the project, several support mechanisms will increase the chance of project’s success. Face it, circumstances and situations don’t always remain in sync with what you know, or your experience making uncertainty about the future ever present and luck will always be a factor in meeting future expectations.  The question is what else are you relying upon to make your investment generate value?

If you want to learn more about Columbus, Wikipedia is pretty good. I also recommend that you retell his story to your team and find parallels to test your own assumptions, of course, I’m happy to facilitate.  Either way let me know what you learned, or better yet changed to improve your odds of success.

Are we there yet?

This morning the fresh thoughts in my head needed to get out. Rather than pick up my phone where plant where automated notifications lay in wait, I found myself the reliable pen and empty pad.

Why reliable? Because my hand scribbles could keep up with my thoughts, and nothing interrupted the  flow of idea from head to its external representation. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like and I use technology and find it are in credibly effective. I also am aware that both its utility and benefits remain on evenly distributed. It’s because the intention of makers have yet to work out the options that please permit users and receivers to choose and prioritize their needs. 

For example when I want to write, I have a choice of software. Each application has it’s merits and there are some standard features among them. Each application however remains subordinate to an operating system of the device. Each application has to specify rules of its use. Yes these include the terms of service but they also include a default that integrates with other software and plays well on different hardware. These defaults preserve the integrity of the users work, make it safe from unauthorized editors or readers, and store the bits as they appear. Some of these settings can be dictated and controlled by the user and some not. 

Makers of software have learned to pay attention to how their creation gets used. In addition to the functionality they make digitally possible, great care is given to optimize the users experience. The less steps between a users intentional use and actual engagement, the better. The hardware and its operating system improves its value to end users with every new feature and application. 

Software vendors who play well with multiple applications may improve user experience and vice versa. my problem is the operating system that allows other applications to distilupt my experience. This is especially painful when I’m focusing and the last thing I need is an interruption. For example in writing this post, not only did I get a notification about a news event, but a text from a friend and a bill payment interrupted me and so did my calendar. 

When I write on paper that doesn’t happen. The ambient environment can influence and distract if I let it however it doesn’t pop up in the center of my attention. 

We’re still making lots of trade-offs when it comes to working smarter. When I use technology, wider distribution becomes effortless, but it cost me attention and focus. 

Not every request for my attention deserves immediacy. And simple on or off options don’t help. I definitely don’t open my settings to turn off notifications before starting a focused task and when I don’t it’s as if I’m working in Grand central station where any and every interruption as possible. 

So no I’m not fully using technology as well as I could. I’m still using old-fashioned tools non-digital devices when I need to focus. what solutions have you found work to keep you focused when you need?

How can you stop short term choices from crippling long-term value?


As more bad news about Wells Fargo’s practices emerge,  the stain transcends CEO Stumpf’s  reputation. Warren Buffett opted to wait and comment knowing that he himself needs time to sort through his own internal review process.

It’s not just Stumpf who needs to believe that the “cancer “found in the retail bank was its source. The Gr8 prorgram setting very high bars for growth with 8 interconnected accounts per customer delivered results but discovery of the ill effects  proceeded much slower.  It took years and then the decision to remove the malignancy—firing of low level employees and managers—what made management believe this toxic behavior didn’t spread?

Well that’s naïve, if not ridiculous, isn’t it? Elizabeth Warren made clear that an organization must remain accountable to its customers more than its shareholders, no matter how large or successful it becomes. Somewhere along the line Wells Fargo, Samsung, Chipotle, VW, and GM all made similar high profile mistakes.

Speed to market may appear an appropriate competitive response but not if short-cutting quality results in shortchanging business value.

Bottom line the antenna in a business can’t be only tuned in for reward especially since it often means the business misses the risk signals. The obsession for rapid growth isn’t just blinding good judgment shows in ignorance of the environment and its complexity.

Interconnected digital networks absolutely create a speed advantage. But speed needs to be managed, and adjustments made to acknowledge the additional risk it creates. Ask the NASCAR drivers what precautions they take that are absent in other environments, or the Samsung engineers who knew they hadn’t done enough testing to properly advise the risk management team with information that prepared them for the inevitable fire.

Pull not push

The Internet made it easier than ever for consumers to find anything, anywhere, and at anytime. Businesses and sales people need to adjust and adapt to accommodate these more informed buyers. At the same time management goals or quotas must recognize changes in the environment, but looking more broadly at the inevitable interactions and the change in likelihood that they will occur.

It may be a cliché, but it isn’t true that what got you here will get you farther. What worked in the past works differently today and will work in another way in the future. The trick is to find the part that is essential and remains critical. Water does seep to the lowest level, but technology advances have created stronger more resilient and resistant containment mechanisms that alter the impact.  Don’t wait to understand them until it’s too late.

Start by answering these questions to the satisfaction of your leadership team and board.

  • How does your management team leveraging or limiting the new levers of change?
  • How does social media, sensor networks, big data and cloud computing alter the behavior of your customers?
  • What risks to your bottom line do they introduce?
  • What steps have you taken to mitigate and or adjust your targets to assimilate them?

How Framestretching adds clarity


This morning on Twitter @Bedtimemath posted the image above with the caption that read: “A natural distribution spotted in the wild! The wear on a weight machine reveals where people place its pin.

Though we experience life using multiple senses-sound, taste, touch,scent and sight, how much do we actually use to understand our place and actions?  Consider this two dimensional picture, the visual more than likely drives the meaning we make. Did the words add any more meaning to what you understood in looking at the picture?

Last Friday, the strategy discussion I lead monthly talked about visual thinking and I realized how readily my business training reduces most if not all of the perceptions available through my five senses down to only one or two.

At work, we use words or numbers and rarely put both together as well as this tweet and accompanying image.  This visual asks you to interpret the worn out paint or coating and recognize a normal distribution , which is a statistical explanation that adds another dimension to our understanding.

Could you plot a graph with the information you obnormal-sampleserve?  How about wear vs. weight?  That’s only two dimensions, with weight values on the x or horizontal access, and wear shown on the Y or vertical access.  It might look like the two dimensional graph on the right.

Does this representation tell you anything more than  the original image? I assigned numeric values to the different amount of chipped coating. Do you connect the current location of the weight on the machine as  170 across and  estimate as I did 20 up?

Both image and graph show, but don’t tell as much as we assume.

Where’s the context? Do you know the amount of time it took for the paint to chip or relative distance between observations, or usage of the machine itself?  We know nothing about the users of the machine, or its location and yet we do don’t we? The rust itself takes time to form and we can infer that more users choose at least 50 pounds, and the most users 90 pounds.

More than meets the eye

Next time you view a two dimensional graph–ask yourself what’s missing?  Try to voice and articulate the context that you’ve assumed. Yes even if you do it alone, as hearing your thoughts activates different processing.  When you do it in the company of others you will be surprised at the differences in your understanding.

I happened to see that DataScope analytics, a Chicago Based Data science firm had posted a request under data science on Reddit.  They asked “What data skills do you wish non-data people you worked with (e.g. managers, PMs, marketing, HR, etc.) have?  The responses on Reddit were quite fascinating.

Personally, I couldn’t help but notice how the replies typified the  constant challenge and struggle that any information or data presents to everyone.  What does the data mean, what is it’s significance?

The same themes arose in the conversation among business people exploring the challenges of visualizing data, in which we quicly recognized that few people see the appearance of data and instinctively look to explore it, versus others whose interest in data are for the sole purposes of confirming what they know.

The questions and process with which anyone approaches data obviously informs how it gets used and thus represented too.  Too often we use only one or two dimensions as suggested by the graph of the interpretation of the photograph.  I created the variable wear based on my interpretation of frequency approximated by the degree of chipped paint.

In contrast, the two dimensions suggest more than they reveal about how the world works.  Economists, for example, plot  supply and demand curves that look like a large X.  Supply being the first line that descends vertically, and demand the second line that Ascends.  The vertical access is Price and the horizontal access quantity.

What else is  assumed in this representation?  Geography? Time?  what about probability and or frequency?  Accuracy or specific observations as in the photograph are not the point of the representation.  It’s merely to create a general understanding of the relationship between price and quantity from two different perspectives.

The economists are exploring  and not predicting behavior, they are merely seeking ot make sense of the world not necessarily profit from it.

Further explorations that southt to clarify the assumptions led to the evolution of the  behavioral economists and  their additional perspective enahances general  understanding  of people’s beyond the one dimensional buyer or seller role and expanded the representation.  The inclusion of additional dimensions of probability also introduce additional complexity in exchange for greater understanding.

My own training as an analyst has led me to begin with exploration, and interrogate rather than merely to extend or convert  the representations. There’s always ore than meets the eye when it comes to understanding what we see.




Changes we notice and changes we choose 

I suspect you are a mobile addict. You don’t have to be obsessed and have the device in arms reach at every moment to qualify. You merely have to rely on its always connected capabilities to keep you “plugged” in to your connections, and by default the world. 

The speed at which mobile technologies have been adopted has been unprecedented, and I am less interested in its occurrence, and more interested in unraveling its meaning and understanding what changes will unfold next. This post invites you to consciously evaluate the range of activities that tether you to this device, and the choices you can make next.

An overwhelming number of people check their device for “messages” within their first waking moments. In the not-too-distant past, messages waited to be picked up in the variety of places where they were left.

A missed caller could leave messages on answering systems, that replaced secretaries who made and pass a note. This task was automated by machines who accurately recorded the caller, and refrained from edits or shorthands. The machines soon became embedded into answering systems with retrieval now possible remotely.  You could call in to learn who had called.

Email, a desktop computer application, was faster than the post office, and quickly displaced the fax machines for sharing documents or lengthier detailed messages.  Cheaper computing, networks expanded Email from an office communications system to personal. Not only was it faster than regular mail, it was significantly cheaper than calling and more convenient. 

Now, all messaging systems are neatly available in your single mobile device, and your messaging interests and practices routine, if not obsessive.

How does this capability to be more on top of your communications make you feel?

Does this combination of access make you feel more effective, responsible, efficient  or something else? Are the experiences and emotions associated with interaction or the anticipation of the interaction? when and why does the experience become distracting or chaotic? 


I’m asking this questions, because I have a hypothesis that needs testing. I believe it’s the small stuff we change that leads us astray from our original purpose or focused intent.

Distractions come in many forms and largely occur when our attention wanders. Driving for example, our focus should be on the road, the vehicles and conditions. Instead , we’re typically multitasking while driving, Whether the division of our attention happens by listening to the radio, engaging in conversation with a passenger, or on the phone ,  or just the flow of other thoughts.

Diversion is candy to the brain. It’s how small stuff easily adds up. The sideways glance that misses what’s ahead robs our attention,  scatters our focus, can delay our progress and mar our effectiveness.

Any efficiency we built in to our process are quickly filled by the abundance of new opportunities, the change in process enables.

Here’s the rub, it’s at the moment of learned efficiency that we choose either to keep learning or we move on to a new domain.  In both cases, we have reached a level of effectiveness and masters keep moving up while the rest of us begin a steady ascent of decline.  This has been documented as the learning curve aka the efficiency curve, and it’s that pivot moment that interest me.

My hypothesis is that it’s in those moments of awareness of the pivot point that innovation begins.

Process changes: Innovation, Invention or Improvisation

I invite you to consider the value of anticipation, or the expected emotions that flow in a particular situation. For example, we want a celebration event to end on a happy note.  Likewise we want our decisions to also produce positive outcomes, but that’s the problem, not all of our behaviors result from conscious decisions.  When driven by habit, the small stuff that changes escapes our notice. That’s both good and bad.

For example,  no matter where you live on the planet, the time of sunrise and sunset changes daily and we generally don’t notice or feel those effects. We do experience the differences relatively over long periods of time, such as the longer days of one season vs. shorter days in another.

The same is true over the little changes we make every day in the use of our mobile device. Perhaps you have grown aware that you are using it differently than you did a year ago, but you don’t know exactly why or what you are doing differently.  Of course some of the changes have been controlled by the businesses who are using agile methodologies to constantly release improvements in the look, speed and functions available on the screen.  The more these businesses issue changes, so does your behavior.

So, have you taken the time to reflect and assess your own set of personal habits and processes?  Have you considered the cumulative effect on your employees of these external changes and its effect on their productivity, their effectiveness and your overall efficiency?

I did, and reflect on my processes pretty regularly. It’s the bane of being a consultant, I need to understand and tinker with things in order to keep up to date and provide relevant information to solve client’s business problems.

I always asked lots of questions, the biggest difference in my process happens to be the research process.  In the past, I was a very avid reader of the New York Times and dutifully ventured to my front door half asleep to pick up the paper and begin scanning the headlines.  Later I went to the Wall Street Journal and slowly opted to skip the chore of recycling the old newsprint, and read the headlines on my phone through the convenience of their respective apps, or use my desktop.  The thing is, the biggest change? Neither one of these newspapers remains my #one information source or morning view.  In fact, I stopped reading the New York Times entirely for a while, because as email habits led me to click open the inbox, other publications had more interesting headlines and their content became a more interesting set of sources.

Better still, the minute I opt to share an article with a colleague, I’m no longer in email but a new application that the team chose to use less to keep our inbox clear, but to insure we were finding and able to keep and organize the messages.  Naturally some of our remote global team members would notice I was online and would shout out to me via Google Chat.  Those who were using the proprietary platform we built, would post and the site would automatically trigger an email notification to encourage other members to respond.

I discovered that my own process, work habits and overall effectiveness ebbs and flows with the connected capabilities of the underlying platforms I find myself using.  I’m not suggesting that having one is a good idea, but I also know that it’s valuable to impose some discipline and standards for the teams in which I work.  It’s way too easy to be online, for example this post began as a voice transcription using my phone.  The longer it got, the sooner I had to move to a bigger screen and so I jumped to my desktop to continue.  Inevitably, there was a sync delay. Later, I  had to reconcile the two versions on the two separate devices.

I would welcome thoughts on if and when you personally, or your team revisits your work processes and to what extent efficiency or effectiveness plays a role.  Please share, and if you would be willing to be part of larger research drop me a line.


Retail impacted by digital finally changing business models

Supply chain software, and a minority stake at that, wrote Loretta Chao to WSJ readers made it clear that Nordstrom definitely is intent on preserving their advantages.  As a retailer, they definitely get what digital business means–they are actively engaged in shifting distribution and inventory control, not merely adding data points to track, but redirecting their fulfillment.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal also reported shifting focus by big mall developers, who have leveled the mall spots once anchored by top retailers to make room for a new wave of experience magnet attractions. Fewer and fewer people respond to traditional retailer marketing and sales cycles.  Ron Johnson’s early insight that shoppers were ready for greater transparency was ineffectively translated and instead of turning JCPenny’s into a winner, he managed to accelerate its decline.

In a 2013 blog post following a peer discussion of this strategic failure, I wrote:

“The days in which stores stood between buyers and consumer good manufacturers are dwindling. Location or proximity to the consumer may still have an edge but your competition’s ability  to insert themselves into the face to face transaction has dramatically altered the sales dynamic. Mobile communication devices  make it easy for sellers to find buyers anywhere anytime; and yet, the playbook  for many stores , from department stores to specialty retailers,  fail to keep pace with the change in buyer behavior, perception and thus fail to live up to  increased expectations.”

(Click the link for the full post:  For JC Penney and Ron Johnson experience counts, but which one will deliver growth? )

The realization of end-to-end digital retailing has been slow to arrive. True to form, it has not materialized evenly. The latency, or the time interval that separates store buyers’ pre-order of seasonal merchandise, and its staged manufacture, delivery to warehouses and distribution centers before making it to the store created more than one headache for retailer. In a stable environment, where information was as limited as resources , retailers may have been better at holding customer’s captive and thus been more effective in their ability to  forecast, price, track and sell in keeping with customer demand.  The once innovation of a sale to prime the pump, by Ron Johnson’s time had become a fixture in the sales cycle.

Was it really Amazon who introduced the idea of “Drop shipping?” No, as far as I know, Amazon merely managed to take advantage of Chris Anderson‘s description of Long tail distributions as it applies to supply and demand on the internet.  Amazon’s platform that made it easier for interested buyers to find a supplier no matter how rare or plentiful the good. In other words, Amazon freed consumers from the restraints of retailers merchandising and elaborate distribution schemes.

clip_image002Drop Shipping Loretta Chao explains doesn’t merely reduce retailer’s inventory storage and management costs.  Instead it enables retailers to reinvent their old process for securing product and putting it in the hands of consumers. This lets them compete directly with e-commerce players like Amazon and gain the same, if not greater advantage than Amazon’s platform provides.

Personally, I’m just really excited about what else will emerge, and realizing that DropShipping is just one element of the changes that are here but just not evenly distributed. For example, remember why Kickstarter exists? On one hand it represents the unshackling of constraints forced by manufacturers who limited what designs made it to the mass market.  New designers share their idea and get people to pre-pay and pre-order which makes it possible for more alternative goods making it into production.  The presumption of scale still embedded into the calculations that the manufacturers would need a minimum order to make production worthwhile.

Democratizing design is one thing, but imagine a non-inventory business model, one that puts goods in the hands of consumers faster with more control and choice.I recently heard a panel entitled Rethinking the Design Process at a thoght leader summit sponsored by soho house, Samsung and surface magazine, entitled Intersection 2016. Scott Wilson , original maker of MNML design, spoke with Charles Adler (founder of Kickstarter), Jesse Harrington , designer at Autodesk and Dean DiSimone , creator of Othr dedicated to minimizing the environmental footprint of remote manufacturing.

Direct to consumer, suggests that retail as it has existed for the last few centuries is finally catching up to technology, are at least some retailers. If you want to see who, check the panelists recommended you look at the following: Rapha –a completely different sales model; Tesla back to the pre-order and customize and personalized delivery; and finally Story–who boasts “Point of view of a Magazine,Changes like a Gallery, Sells things like a Store.”

If you have any other evidence of the shift, I’d love to hear about them.


Insight, the counter factual to what we know

dot dot dot

A belated response to a package I unexpectedly left for a friend who apologized for not acknowledging its arrival sooner. ended with

” more importantly , I am at a loss for words.  Truly I don’t know what to say . ”

My return reply was this:

Its ok,

“it’s possible to talk about something and have the words themselves not be very telling”

associations ..the dog that didn’t bark?
I stole the quote, but it’s applicable
We live in strange times, and life is strange.
Obviously i was feeling a bit spunky…just looking at the word, makes me laugh.

to exchanges robbed of words but positive sentiments
you are very welcome.

His response:

“Riddle me this.”

I share this as example of human to human conversations.
There’s no chance that a cheeky chatbot would have written such a response. It’s why people are less predictable, making their every move less certain and the exciting part–capable of learning–both to be good or to be bad.

This was my reply.

riddle suggests you want an answer,
don’t have a personal one,
here’s what I’ve been reading and thinking
One. Roger Schank’s latest blasts courtesy reminder from another cognitive scientist acquaintance I made recently:
(Roger writes some great pieces on this…if you find it interesting as I do, here’s another series
Two, the dog that doesn’t bark? Shorthand for a famous turn of the phrase by Conan Doyle ascribed to Sherlock holmes seeking to solve a crime in which it was the absence of information that he cleverly used to solve the crime.  (see the short story  The Adventure of Silver Blaze). He collected the data, framed it in context to get information and then  use the counterfactual to obtain the insight.  What happened, what did you see or hear? When do dogs not bark?  when they recognize someone they know, so obviously it was the trainer….
[note this reference appears in The Big Short  too…great movie!]
Three, Comment I noticed by Leda Glyptis who is now at Sapient…what a great bio!
Extracting value from a wealth of structured and unstructured data, however, is not as much a technical problem, as a business problem. Technical heavy lifting will undeniably be needed to get you from having a ‘data lake’ to being a data-driven organisation but fundamentally: saying ‘there are 10,000 species of snake in the world’ is data; ‘there’s one under your seat’ is information; ‘it is asleep right now, so you can get up and walk away’ is actionable insight.

The whole interview is here:   http://www.femtechleaders.com/europe/leda-glyptis/

My point –make the time to be human, take the time to notice and connect to more of what you know.  The payoff? Surprising insights will be yours


How Doing, stopped my was and they thinking

I suppose, in highschool I first imagined being a writer, but I never committed.Adjusting Sensibility allows me the opportunity to practice, rehearse and communicate more effectively.

This morning Bruce Kasanoff’s  suggested “repetition is powerful, use it wisely.” It was a point I emphasized in my Goldilocks is a genius talk last week.  After spending my weekend struggling to write, it also reminded me that practice  always helps, but it’s not enough.

Purpose matters, and the ability to see differences yourself that yields progress.

I never learned grammar rules well. They annoyed me, they got in the way of my thinking aloud and desire to be creative, and imaginative in my writing.  Today, I read a note aobut courage and another about It’s more likley that unconsciously I was insecure, less confident about everything.  I did many things, and the easy stuff that came and most naturally, happened out of school in organizations and with people.

Today, maybe there’s a university that grants degrees in leadership, especially since so many claim to be effective teaching the subject. Personally, I fought taking on the mantle and continue to enjoy being a collaborator. I now know that leadership terrifies me, becasue I beleive leaders need to be clear in their vision, confident in their situational assessment and unwavering in their commitment to their team and the mission.

Several  times I held project and team leadership responsibilities, I found myself sabotaged. My team didn’t challenge me or push back, it was my associates and peers in other roles or parts of the organization, and even at times my own boss.It wasn’t that they disagreed. More often it was the changes that the success of my intiaitve implied for them, changes they didn’t want to make, even if the changes actively improved the organization’s positioning.  Now occassionally, they had better sight lines than I did. Just as often however they didn’t want to ponder the implications and preferred to shut down the intitiave, impede changesthat disrupted the smooth steady flow of their own projects.

Professionally, and personally, I had been taught not to speak out of turn, and that it was best to find the right time and place to raise objections.  In other words, a public meeting may not be the first time to challenge a colleague or a superior.

Many people are surprised most by the passion and persistence that occassionally emerges when I do feel in command of my subject. It rouses and inspires them.  Unfortuanately I don’t feel that consistently, so many who know me, see and experience something else. That voice needs confidence to speak, it needs purpose.  I may love an idea but until I know what to do with it, then it’s just a vague notion.

At present, in particular this post, I decided to share how using my voice in prose also helped me overcome confusion and reconcile inconsistencies in my thoughts and actions.

It’s not what you know, but what you practice that counts

Grammar annoyed me. It was a dull subject with seemingly annoying rules and my bad experiences stopped me from learning. I did well in school but not as well in English, becasue I  never fully assimilated the basic lessons. Rather than learning how to improve, I got angry at all my mistakes and lost my confidence and along the way muffled my voice too.

I recognized great writers by thir prose and persuasive narrative but never saw the effects of the underlying grammar unless, the author exaggerated it for affect.  My inability to see these signs meant I didn’t try and work them out for myself until decades later.  My writing remained less effective, less convincing and less committed.

In contrast, my graduate professor in statistics challenged my lack of commitment to learning and excelling in her classs.  I spent hours in the math library learning the notation to keep up with the matrix algebra that execeeded my formal math studies in basic calculus. I learned to feel the different effects that only practice produces. Likelihood tests and probability colors my thinking and establishes clarity that today I appreciate as akin to the effects of active prose.

Our will, our intention and our purpose expresses the likelihood of our followthrough.My senior year in highschool I took an advanced literature course from an english teacher my oldest brother revered. I like to think she drummed out the word I from my prose.

For decades, the pronoun One replaced I. Yes, it was gender neutral and I think that was its one saving grace. In additio to the distance it added to my voice, I no longer expressed my thoguhts or feelings but rather the thoughts, feelings or actions by those omnipresent, or omnicient–the ones.

It’s fine to use third person. After all, this voice appears most most commonly in storytales. Goldilocks does, so do the bears, and so does Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel every other character. What makes the story work for me is it’s use of active voice, that allows the reader to play along AS IF they too were that character. It’s in the active, direct prose that I now recognize but missed understanding and thus failed to practice.

More directly, my present experiences and payment for writing made me up my game.  It made me commit to learning and understanding.

Let me correct that. The faith of the marketer who offered me the job, in fairness had seen some of my writing but he also demonstrated the value of great prose.  After submitting a very hasty first draft long on creativity and very short on grammar, I got a single request.

“Tighten it up.”

I had no idea what they meant,what I needed to change or where to begin. The last thing I needed to do was show my incompetence, so  I turned to my colleagues of experienced writers to guide me.

One buddy asked “what’s your process?” I couldn’t answer that questions which led to a series of additional questions on both sides. The more I didn’t know the sooner I realized the depth of my inexperience.  The downside of blogging? It’s the absence of direct feedback that makes you a better writer.  Conceptually I knew about thesis statements but had never consciously tried to use them in a cogent, organized fashion.

Suddenly, years of prompts and suggestions made by lawyers and other active readers of my writring flooded back to me.  My arguments were delayed, I had been a weak communicator becasue I overwhelemed the reader with detail and never disclosed my purpose clearly up front.

After struggling mightily alone, a friendly call arrived just in time.  Another friend and occassional collaborator offerd to coach me through.  She held my hand, read my prose and succinctly pointed to examples of indirect reasoning and endless rationalization; that could be summarized in a short direct phrase. She helped me see how my sentences would benefit from  better grammar practices.  Her beautuiful quick examples used the active voice. Another lightbulb helped me see more clearly what I needed to do and how to do it too!

Suddenly, I could see my poor grammar, my awkward phrasing, and my habits encircling  a point and take the steps needed to correct them.

Tighten became a directive for simplicity. I could see where I confused presenting a fact and thinking aloud. My readers didn’t benefit from learning  my situation that led up to the analysis, they cared about the analysis.

In closing, it’s easy to read good writing and it’s easy to understand too. If you know what you want to say, then you can write it, and you shouldn’t be shy about it either.

If you don’t then whatever you write will waste yhour reader’s time.

Blogs are fine for thinking out loud, exploring what you want to say. Do yourself and your readers a favor, before you hit publish, take your closing points and put them at the top.  Then reread to be sure the prose you keep follows and supports that point.

Aat the very least, maybe, like me, it will allow you the practice needed to improve your writing.  Why else do you blog, if not to communicate your thinking more effectively?


Are you looking for a recipe or a map?

Problems are like Puzzles, both I think are well named, because there’s no implied process.  No approach that everyone instinctively finds or consistently produces a quick result.

Most common approach to problem solving suggests that it gets broken into smaller pieces.  Why? Does a pattern emerge? Or, can you determine a relationship between the different pieces once separated? It sounds like a puzzle, doesn’t it?

A jigsaw puzzle, it turns out defies this process.  At an early stage of our process, after just a few attempts, we recognize that finding the edges first makes assembly of the puzzle easier.

rubrics cubeRubrics cube, or its predecessor the four cubed puzzle–Instant Insanity, and its multi-dimensions add degrees of difficulty. The individual variation in the blocks make the solution difficult. Conceptually the puzzle’s solution includes deciding on the pattern to produce, and then setting the sequence in the cube face to match.

Crossword puzzles, one of those things that people take great pride in their ability to be fast at completing.  This type of puzzle is multi-layered patterns.  One its’ the pattern of answer to match the clue, and there’s an insider advantage from practicing, the other is the words that fit the number of empty boxes, or has a particular letter in a particular place that allows it to leverage words it crosses.

Now look at a map.  It has edges that easily extend, if it’s a mobile dynamically linked map or not, or you know connects to a larger representation that’s known.  In other words, maps help you see a larger reality in a glance. It expands your view of a landscape or a system.  Maps and blueprints both lay out another perspective.  We apply many rules to create and understand the representation. For example, scale, the ratio of an object’s drawn size to the object’s size in reality helps us visualize the inter-relationships of objects from a different perspective. One inch can represent a mile, or a thousand meters.

Creating maps are more of a puzzle than reading them.  The same is true about a recipe. If you know what you want to make, then a recipe provides the list of necessary ingredients and the instructions for assembly.  It too incorporates a scale, so much of each ingredient when combined will create x number of servings.  Most recipes scale easily you can increase the number of servings by apply the same factor to each ingredient.  A recipe that serves 2, doubled now serves 4.  Retaining the proportions of scale allows us to zoom in or zoom out to see more or less mapped details.

Process, the method or approach that literally advances our thinking our understanding or activity turns out to be a bit of a puzzle.  It’s exactly why framing a problem matters.  As I learned last week, when asked to assemble into an 8×8 array 64 small tiles with white and black geometric patterns. There was one rule. Each edge of the tile must match the colors on its adjacent edge face. This was not a solitary task. My team effort comprised people who sat nearby but were strangers. We had 30 minutes. In addition, we were to estimate our progress at 15 minutes, and use the same estimation method at 30 if we were unable to complete the task.

The objective was clear as day. Our team of six suggested that the task sufficiently resourced to tackle 64 pieces. The thirty minute timetable sounded reasonable.

That was until we realized we had no methodology, no way to organize the six people and their skills, perspectives or background. We also lacked the means to identify what this particular challenge needed, and therefore we had no experience to assess the amount of time needed to complete the task.

Brave and trusting souls that we were, we didn’t waste any time before everyone began to move pieces in front of them. Each of us set out to understand the task by doing.  Quickly, suggestions began to spoken aloud. “We could assemble a small section, and then attempt to put the sections together.” Quickly, the group determined that approach too challenging. Instead, we opted to lay out one edge and build out the array.  Well we didn’t finish in the 30 minutes.

Did we fail? Not really, because each of us learned something new about process. More accurately, we paid attention to one aspect of process–one that generally we overlook, but proves essential to the solution. When breaking bigger challenges into smaller pieces, we don’t pay much attention to how those pieces once connected. These interfaces, or places and mechanisms that connect the pieces turn out to be essential to building on ideas, a recipe, a structure, a machine or even a city.

“How” different or even the same things fit together isn’t straightforward. It definitely helps to have an objective. Highly specified objectives make the solution easier to recognize and more difficult to achieve. Loosely specified, sparsely details objectives generate a greater number of solutions and may create a new problem, selection.

There’s an art to balancing the specificity of an objective and the skills and possibilities available. Each of us leans on our past experience and know-how to face new tasks and tackle new problems. For a new or unfamiliar task, we may find comfort in narrow specifications, easily achieved and successful solutions recognizable. Its part of why we often try what we know before trying something new.

Thankfully, we also get bored with too much repetition. We enjoy variety but also willingly engage in many routine tasks to save ourselves time and energy. Accepting the trade-off of early or later specification changes the difficulty of the task and our ability to solve it efficiently and effectively. It’s what differentiates innovation from improvement, learning from reacting and leading from managing.

Try it with different materials with your own team and discover more about your own internal how thinking and motivations. I encourage using play things—spaghetti and marshmallows with the instruction to build a tower, or small groupings of identical pieces like Lego that you invite everyone to build their own tower. Assign the open, but limited time task. Give people an opportunity to share what they did and engage a wider conversation about process dos and don’ts. It’s not just a great team building activity, it’s also great leadership and management development exercise. I’d love to hear back what you did and what happened as a result.

The right message, or influence

Joe Fig, Jackson Pollock (2008) Copyright of the artist and Cristin Tierney Gallery.

“There is an alchemy of delivering the right message to the right person”, Maurice Levy (CEO of Publicis) suggested in his recent Bloomberg interview about Business Innovation.


Contrast Jackson Pollack’s Alchemy to anything you discover online. As the image above shows, Pollack’s aggressive style and posture shown above matches the work, and if like me, you had a visceral reaction to seeing it in person was that the message he had in mind? By contrast, the image shown online loses that quality, not because the photographic rendering was less than precise but because the online medium transformed our perceptions, placing it at a distance.

In person, our clothes reflect our personal style as often as the default expression on our face.  Think attitude and what if anything you do that distinguishes you when people meet you.  Is it a small gesture that you actively put forward, or the less overt  passive way you carry yourself that make people forget and fail to remember your name?

When you want to impress others, how much do you know about the person you wish to impress and does it affect your preparations? Similarly, does the setting dictate and direct the choice of clothes, accessories, hygiene etc?  The same questions, by the way,  apply to your representation online.

Professionally, it’s difficult to not have some online presence. A client, and well schooled friend whose PhD in sociology remains unaffiliated with an organization. He created an informal editing business for himself. He charges small sums to people who seek him out by reputation and word of mouth. In other words, his only clients are referrals from people with whom he worked before. Nothing wrong with organic growth, but he asked for my help to figure out how to scale what he did. His low level visibility online left me dumbfounded.

That’s what prompted this post.

I realize my strategy for online presence has not been well thought out too. I always considered PR to be a specialty and not something I needed to do for my business. Like my friend, I thought being me, would be enough, which is pure silliness or ego.

My investigations turned up plenty of marketing strategies that made my head spin. AT the end of the day, I wanted to understand how reputation gets built and grows, which happens to be the purview of marketing but not theirs exclusively. m

Actions have always been the singular make or break of a reputation.   If you don’t do as people expect, then that’s how you will be known–unpredictable, unreliable, or maybe unexpected.  I enjoy being unexpected, that’s what my efforts in framestretching has always been about.

The challenge, comes back to what Maurice Levy says, not every person seeks the unexpected. When you are hungry, or thirsty a great idea or a leaky water bottle that unexpectedly strands you is far from welcome.


If there’s any trick to effectively communicating, it’s about understanding your audience, and establishing an even representation of yourself. Naturally, people learn to expect that things or people don’t change, what we see is what we believe is all there is, even if that representation appears unconventional. Professional demeanor proves recognizable when our profession dictates our actions consistently, even if the profession may be less conventional.

The trick isn’t in how to be consistent, it’s in choosing what defines you. Once defined, committing to its use over time will slowly affect how others perceive you.  The actions you take are not embodied in words, or the design of your logo–though they definitely impress many of us on some level.

John Maeda, former Dean of Rhode Island School of Design, spends his time understanding differences between commerce, design and art, as well as the perceptions that make us differentiate so many things.

In his work, he has helped people recognize that regardless of the content, perceptions often cloud the meaning of what we see, dictate how we will feel and decide what we sense.

John Osborne, an artist did a take on Maeda by reshaping the written words in his book into a tree, and at the same time expressed making his own meaning and then reshaping it.  Word of mouth is in fact the internal translation of what we know and then share with others about people. It’s how story became a conventional mode of transmission.

As a little girl told me over the holidays, she recalled the questions I had asked her about Goldilocks a year earlier. The questions had made her stretch her frame of reference and think about possibilities that really stuck, which was my point and purpose. Her Dad, just grinned, after all he knows my reputation as a framestretcher and it thrilled him to see his 8-year-old thinking critically, considering the parts .

So what representation do you want others to share, what stories can you help them tell better?