Thinking aloud or stealing the show?


I blew it. I broke my first rule and failed to control my ego.

Not sure what the lovely woman I met at my 35th graduate school class reunion felt, but I’m certain she hadn’t expected the slight and unfiltered commentary that poured out of my mouth.

In my haste to catch up with my classmates, I spotted one across the room standing in a small circle.  Had I interrupted an earlier conversation? I’m guessing that’s why this stranger to me raised the topic, that brought out my less admirable qualities.

This very poised and polished woman expressed her enthusiasm for a storytelling webinar she had heard.  Coincidentally, I too had participated in the same webinar.

The mistake was my response to her comments in which I undid any credibility I hoped or once had.  I blundered in,  may have even tossed my head and rolled my eyes expressing annoyance.  of course, I can’t really explain what happened or why.  For example, I’m guessing that I behaved and acted badly to someone’s eagerness to “learn” how to tell stories–the most natural of human behaviors.

Now in the quiet of my home, the emotions calm, the memory distant, the source of my annoyance is clearer to me.

I’ll admit, I’m lazy when it comes to learning. It’s considerably less work, requires less effort when I ask someone else to tell me the key ideas that will make me successful.

It’s probably why I had bothered to sign up for the storytelling webinar IDEO offered.  And it’s probably why I was so bothered that IDEO had attracted an even wider audience of participants.

When we ask someone else to give us the gist or spare us from sifting, sorting and working out what’s important, we take the magic beans approach to learning. i-072

The magic beans reference is to a fairy tale in which Jack, the main character, is framed as a fool.  Why would I mention a fool’s tale?

Don’t worry if you don’t recall the fairy tale, because the story is only a device to help you remember the message.  I assume, like me, you too take pride in what you know.

Take a moment. Think about the effort, time and attempts you spend acquiring knowledge that pleases you and makes you proud.

By chance, if you’ve got a recorder nearby play along for a moment. Or open the audio or video application on your phone and hit record.

“Repeat after me.”

“Do what I do.”

Let me be clear, I’ve given you an instruction and now your ability plus your will needs to work out a response.  That last bit, the work out? It mixes conscious and unconscious processes.  It coordinates the central nervous system receptors and transmitters that pass on the fight/flight triggers that route, interpret, select and cue whatever you do.

Your decision, answer or activity turns out to be a reactive bundle that rapidly assembled in response to my instructions.


Watch/and or listen to your recording.

Were the phrases the same? what differences, if any did you notice?

I presume that you too are calm reading what I’ve written.  Do you know the reason I asked you to record this little activity and ask you to compare them?  I’m guessing you are also still wondering how any of this relates to magic beans, bonus points if you are beginning to connect all these little messages together.

Congratulations if you are aware of the following:

  1.  The power to learn and adapt is innate in all of us.
  2. Reflection and replay increase our understanding as it invites us to turn our focusing lens on ourselves and notice what we do as well as what we don’t do.
  3. Deeper learning occurs when we expend time and dedicate effort to learning any task or understanding someone or something.
  4. Thinking releases other chemicals and changes how we feel.  Circumstances dictate whether we feel drowsy or anxious and the extent of triggered connections.

Back to the real world

with respect to my own failure, and the story I mentioned at the onset of this post, I now get to the purpose and intention behind this posting.

Personally, I spend more time thinking and less time doing. To think through a problem or even identify its root cause requires different skills than applying the fresh thinking or even deeper understanding.  True, situations and circumstances vary. Social factors, in particular, affect our behavior often ahead of our awareness.

In my social scenario, I reacted emotionally with little or no thought, intention or consideration for others in my presence.  When this happens, I’m less clear and much less effective as I’m reacting to a narrow set of cues.  Of course, this is a considerable improvement over my previous habit of interrupting people before they finished telling me anything.

When does my intention to know differ from my hunger for magic beans? Our behaviors give us away.  What blew my ego’s cover, was my belief that I knew more than what was being said and I was impatient enough to prove it.

What I didn’t do was practice active listening, use my knowledge to ask questions and honor what others may or may not know.  Magic beans are always worth less than you pay for them unless you exercise a little critical thinking.

Earlier I gave you some simple instructions and then used more than the three instructional words to explain what I was doing.  What informed my purpose, my intention and lent credibility to make you consent and participate?

The only way to test what you know is to repeat it, think and then write it out.  It’s why the teacher in me knows that I’ll be better after I’ve had the chance to think things through.  When I just start talking I’m thinking outloud.  In some situations that’s appropriate, as in when you want to collaborate. But if people cut you off, then chances are your learning or recitation isn’t worth much.

The best way to apply what I know is to practice and test it, not by giving a lecture but by applying the learning in a demonstration of its meaning.

What about you, do you have any suggestions or ideas for how I can get out of my own way, be open to more possibilities?


Success–Are we there yet?

This perennial refrain seems to be cropping up everywhere.

There yet? The question implies trouble of being here, now.

Forgetting to experience or notice the journey can undermine the value of achievement. Stock market analysts know the difference between easy targets and more challenging ones that require more than luck to make happen.

Yes, results matter, but so does process. Every moment contributes to the resulting experience and offers learning opportunities which stick with us whether we remember them or not.

Great sports matches are often remembered by a pivotal play that resulted in subsequent win or loss.  Distance (here vs. there) and time (now vs. not now) can represent opportunity as well as additional risk to the end game.  They don’t merely differentiate success and failure.  They also color our perceptions of how cross-organization functions interact and their perspective role in three often confused activities: strategy, planning and execution.

If you are seeking to realize and sustain positive results, I suggest changing the playbook you use to compete, and recognize that of these activities two are necessary but only one sufficient to your larger purpose.

High  performing organizations both understand and differentiate themselves in strategy planning and execution. General Electric, known for six sigma, IDEO’s design thinking or Wal-Mart and its supply chain optimizations represent examples of learning institutionalized throughout an organization.  But in each of these organizations their culture and associated process orientation masks the underlying interplay of strategy , planning and execution that account for their ongoing success and growth.

If growth is the magic elixir that you and your organization crave, then I’d like to suggest you let go of certain associations that naturally arise when your team meets.

The linearity and suggested sequence implied in visual representations and schematics of value may block creativity and obstruct alternative points of view.  Sure, there’s a value chain associated with Roger Federer’s success in Tennis.  Wouldn’t be surprised to find a strategy pyramid in the offices of the top NFL teams.  But for everyday fans these would seem superfluous models and that’s my point.

Can you get in the zone?

Take your organization and re-imagine them as a dance troupe, or different departments as a basketball team who plays zone defense.

Got it?

OK, now we can begin to think about the role of parallel and coordinating actions and the interplay of strategy planning and execution.


For whom, why, when and where does what you do matter?   If you can answer that question, then you are on your way to understanding the role of strategy in your organization.

Strategy assesses capacity and capabilities  of your internal resources and then evaluates opportunities to capture market value relevant in the time and place you choose to operate.  Identifying what is worth your time, energy and materials implies that you have already evaluated the value of those things.

Economic value emerges where needs meet resources capable of satisfying them.  There’s some mystery or error in calculating value because:

1.  Not all needs and resources are known, let alone the strength of desire to satisfy them.

2.  Not all resource or needs recombination prove mutually satisfying.  Not much demand at the moment for three handled coffee cups, or expert photography chemists who can create and develop film.

3. Time and distance not easily controlled. Produce’s value varies by the timing of its freshness.


with purpose firmly established by strategy, planning focuses on effectiveness and coordination.  Planning commits and communicates resource allocations to insure timely coordination and delivery.  Using a sufficient plan, versus identifying a necessary set of steps, can lead to different levels of performance.  Leaving some fluidity in the process insures that the inevitable error or surprises that arise don’t stop the organization cold but merely result in delay.

Adaptive organizations keep their purpose in mind and may buy insurance but also include some wiggle room.  In short, they naturally permit on the spot adjustments.  Really great organizations communicate and share the learning throughout the organization.  Keeping track of the readjustments enable downstream teams to reposition and insure proper handoff, passing or maybe even bypass.

Deployment or execution.

Readiness and a focus on efficiency means the resources are both ready and able.  Trained, incentives and motivations well aligned, materials where they need to be, and  in the condition that fit the task.  This is the stage most closely associated with process and yet as the preceding steps specify, different types of process are creating value at different stages.

Let’s go back to the metaphor of the basketball team.  The General manager and coach may have generated the strategy that resulted in the assembled team that is now playing, but they are taking note of every play and to make adjustments.  Likewise, the planning that the coach and his practice schedule and offline support crew provide leads to the readiness of the players and their ability to adapt in real-time.

One more thing

Alternatively representing functional areas as a series of coordinated teams may be hard to depict. Jonathan Cagan and Craig Vogel have done a reasonable job  presenting an integrated new product development model (see Creating Breakthrough Products). But they stop short of the assumed responsibility for parallel tasks of Strategy, planning and execution  in every functional department. The willingness of an organization to realize that problem solving skills are not strictly aligned with a particular functional role.  These skills when nurtured and developed across the organization with accountability up and downstream offer enormous benefits.

Higher value emerges when diverse perspectives interact.  Given opportunities to share their capabilities and illuminate the blind spots in each other domains can lead to breakthroughs in performance, add functionality or develop new functionality and entirely new concepts.

Ever try to picture your ideal target customer?  Finance may provide their spending attributes. Marketing may share their demographic characteristics.  Design may describe how customers use the product or service. And Engineering may demonstrate the qualities customers find distinguishing.  Suddenly, a more holistic set of tangible representations emerge that allow more consistent evaluation of cost saving opportunities, or even better, help reconfigure functionality.

Valuing innovation and creativity throughout the organization and giving cross-organization communications higher priority, new value opportunities surface. This may seem unwieldy and impractical; but, once again think of coordinated zone defense or a dance troupe.  Sure, mistakes are bound to happen. When they do, your players will be more responsive and better position to support each other, pick up the slack and  more handily facilitate success.

Should every action be susceptible to questioning and revision?  Change procedures make sense, and are an appropriate part of planning. They insure that large changes and investment decisions are well-coordinated or strategy driven. The idea is to avoid making surprising changes during execution that ripple and produce more problems later.  Having an open line down and upstream in your process AND a line into planning makes it easy to resolve the situation, and arrange if, and when,to make the change.  Deployment may be downstream from planning but its voice must be actively part of upstream assessments by both planners and strategists.

So how are you integrating your strategy, planning and execution?  How effectively integrated are your organizational functions?  I’d love to hear of your experiences and what benefits if any you experienced.