When a Story Becomes a Game-Changer

 

If you ever needed proof of the power of story to set a direction for an industry, take a look at The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone by Brian Merchant, just released this week. (You can read a long excerpt here.)

Creating a story about technology and the future is risky. But it’s all the more risky when it means taking on a titan like Steve Jobs. Jobs had a narrative driving his strategy at Apple that didn’t include creating a phone or dealing with telephone carriers. “We’re not very good going through orifices to get to the end users,” he said referring to phone companies. He stubbornly refused to expand on the success of the iPod by building an iPod-like phone.

As competitors began building phones that looked increasingly like the iPod, members of the executive team at Apple argued for the merits of building an Apple phone. Jobs didn’t see it.

Yet in the top ranks of Apple were engineers and executives with the courage to go toe-to-toe with Jobs and argue for an alternate story about what was about to happen in the market and the industry. They backed their arguments with data, designs, prototypes, chutzpah and a big vision of the future. They created a more compelling narrative.

Jobs finally changed his story and launched the top secret project (code name “Purple”) that produced the iPhone. What ensued had all the passion, drive, jealousy, cunning, secrecy, rivalries and obsessions of a Puccini opera. The project would make careers and break marriages.

Fun reading for those of us interested in the origin stories behind companies and game-changer products. I’m looking forward to reading the whole book. But today’s takeaway is simply this:

Big stories shape what people can imagine and what gets done.

What stories are you shaping as you think about the future?

Of course, not all stories about the future get it right. For a little fun: here are some failed predictions about technology:*

1876: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not.  We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office.

1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — William Orton, President of Western Union.

1966: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” — Time Magazine.

1995: “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” — Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com.

2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.

*Source: Forbes Worst tech predictions of all time by Robert J. Szczerba.

 

Are you rolling the rock uphill? (Or Sisyphus in the garden)

From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube

Do you ever feel like you’re just rolling the rock uphill?

As I face that huge to-do list of things-that-have-to-be-done, I’ve been thinking about Sisyphus, the hero of Albert Camus’s famous 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus described Sisyphus, a mortal in Greek mythology, who offended the gods and was punished by being condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Each time Sisyphus reached the top of the hill with his rock, its weight would send it cascading back down the hill. For Camus, the myth demonstrated man’s existential plight, and the absurdity of having to do work that is futile, day in and day out. (Watch Peter Dronen’s animated film here.)

That’s how I feel in the springtime when life and all the weeds return to my garden. The gods warned me (through a number of gardening colleagues) not to plant such a huge garden, but I, as a proud, inquisitive, and energetic mortal, decided to defy them. I created something way bigger than I can manage. During the springtime, I weed one area one day, then move on to the next, return in a week to the first, to find, guess what? A new set of weeds has taken over and my work must begin again. Like Sisyphus, I will never get it all done.

Should I just throw in the spade and crumple into a pile of (unwanted) buttercups?

 

 

An actress friend of mine from New York City has a different take on the matter. When she heard how overwhelmed I was feeling trying to manage our property, she laughed. “Oh, you get used to that living in New York City. Every day there’s so much you can do in The City, but you realize that you will never do most of it. You get used to knowing that what you do will only be a smidge, compared to what you can’t do.”

A lightbulb went off! I saw that I had been believing that I should get it all done. It was as if my life was constructed around a huge game called “accomplishing all there is to do.” But I had forgotten that I’d chosen the game. Maybe there’s a different game out there called “it will never be done and much of what lies ahead of me will never get finished.” Sure, there are responsibilities in life, like mine to my family and clients, that have to get done; I am accountable for managing these. There are consequences for not doing some things. Yet I’m the one who chose many of the obligations on this man-made mountain I have chosen to climb.

Awareness may be the first step in recovery. But I still need strategies that can help me navigate the absurdist drama before me. I’m experimenting with these.

Stop and smell the roses. Or the peonies. Or the unwanted buttercups.

The peonies are blooming in the garden and they are luscious beyond belief. Their intoxicating perfume lifts me out of my hopelessness about the garden. The weeds can wait. Checking into my here-and-now sensory experience, helps me bypass my mind’s diagnosis of “there is too much to do.”

Get some perspective.

Have you ever been sick, really sick, when even doing the simplest task seems out of reach? When I’ve been laid low by sickness or hurt in an accident, one of the gifts I’ve received has been to watch the list of what I expect from myself miraculously shrink. When I am able to leave my bed, I delight in what I can do, such as make my first cup of tea, in the face of all that I can’t.

I want to remember that perspective, that gratitude, as I get swept back into the rhythm of regular life.

Track your real accomplishments.

On the surface, this can seem like returning to the land of the ever-present to-do list, checking things off the list, and watching how new items magically spring up to replace what you’ve checked off. But I’m talking about a different kind of reflection.

This week, I discovered a little software app called “Idonethis.com” that allows you to track accomplishments. (It’s free in its hobby-personal version , and requires almost no learning curve.) You can either list tasks and check them off (the old way) or pause a moment, reflect, and record what you accomplished that matters most to you.

For example, my big accomplishment on Tuesday was not tied to any goal. It was a surprise insight that came out a conversation with one of my former podcast guests. “Don’t try to write another career book about working in the 3rd act of life. Connect working with the kind of questions of meaning that show up in writers like Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr.”

One five minute insight meant more to me than a mountain of to-do’s done. And taking a moment to record this was very satisfying, a glimmer of meaning I could take from my work.

Meditate. Become more mindful.

This is a longer-term strategy, so I won’t write about it here, although I know it’s the door into a way of being that is not dependent on the world becoming fixed, ordered, or behaving as it should.

From animated film by Peter Dronen on YouTube

 

Camus was interested in finding meaning in an absurdist world where the tasks of life seemed overwhelming and futile. (And if you need to practice feeling the absurdity of life, just turn on NPR and listen to the news out of Washington, D.C.)

He thought the world was godless. I don’t agree, but I appreciate his wrestling with the question “why bother” in the face of the craziness of life. His essay closes with Sisyphus accepting his fate and the absurdity of his work, finding, within his choice, the possibility of happiness.

Accepting that part of life that may always seem a bit futile, absurd, and at times overwhelming, seems wise.

Take that you forest of weeds.

How to (not) Play Squirrel

Some years ago, I was walking my beloved Springer Spaniel, Lady, to the dog park. She was pretty well trained to heel off-leash, and sat calmly beside me as we waited to cross a busy arterial and enter the dog-friendly area on the other side of the street.

Bad choice. Before I knew what happened, I saw a brown and white bullet race across the street, into the heavy traffic. She’d seen a squirrel. I screamed “LADY” at the top of my voice, hoping to startle and stop her, but she continued to run right into the trajectory of an on-coming car. Then I heard her hit.

Mercifully, the god of small animals was with us that day. She hit the tire of the car from the side, and bounced off. One moment sooner and she would have been under that tire. She limped to the side of the arterial, shaken, but miraculously alive and intact.

I never let her walk off-leash near busy city streets again. Her primal instinct for SQUIRREL was stronger than any command I could give.

How we all chase squirrels

Dogs aren’t the only squirrel-chasers. We humans, too, have our own versions.

We sit down at the computer, primed with our to-do lists, and set about our work, (spoken as one who works, with some freedom, for herself). But then the squirrels come out, with messages sent to tempt us. Is Meryl Streep really dead like that click-bait notice says? Does Brad Pitt have a new girlfriend? And the President just tweeted…whaaaat?

Yep, it’s SQUIRREL time!!! Before we know it we’re charging ahead, off-leash, forgetting our erstwhile priorities, mumbling, “I’ll just check this one little thing.”

SQUIRREL isn’t just about the Internet. It could be any distraction we know we shouldn’t take on. Maybe it’s a committee we could join, a tempting invitation from a friend, that extra piece of research, or a magazine that just arrived. The challenge with SQUIRREL is when something else starts driving our brains.

Not that we always have to be rational. We don’t. It’s just that SQUIRREL can lead us into an alternative reality from which we emerge minutes or hours later, with nothing to show for it, frustrated with ourselves and what we haven’t been able to accomplish.

There are a few ways to put ourselves into obedience school.

One, is to get clearer about our intentions and what really matters, taking time to focus before we plunge into our work, or our day.

Second, we can use those handy-dandy Internet tools like Freedom that block websites and apps while we know we need to be working. These are great for writers or others interested in doing deep work. A New York Times article summarizing science research suggested that we’re happier when we can stay focused on one activity rather thinking of something else.  (And yes, there’s a new psychological diagnostic code called Internet addiction.)

Third, we can allow ourselves to play SQUIRREL, but with intention. Give yourself a finite period of time and web surf, catch up on all the Facebook traffic you missed, or feast on click-bait. Until your time is over. (Maybe set a timer.) SQUIRREL loses its power when it’s played with intention.

Finally, you can just call the game for what it is. My husband and I will sometimes disappear in the evening into our respective offices “for just a few minutes.” As time clicks away, it may take one of us calling out, “Are you playing SQUIRREL???” to break the trance. We laugh at how easy it is to be seduced.

I’ve heard that awareness is the first step in breaking any habit. Lady couldn’t reflect on her habits. But we can. Which I plan to do. Right after I find out if Angelina might take Brad back.

Finding the essential in aerospace and art

Credit: Blue Origin

I recently had an opportunity to tour Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ privately-funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company. Tucked in an industrial area near Seattle, with no signage divulging its name, Blue Origin felt to me like a cross between the National Air and Space museum, a state of the world design/manufacturing plant, and Disneyland.

Inside the facility, we were invited to enter a version of the shiny projectile-shaped spacecraft described by Jules Verne in his 1865 classic, From the Earth or the Moon. Elegantly furnished with hardwood paneling and Victorian-era memorabilia, the elegant four-chaired sitting room takes you back to a period when space travel was only a fantasy. Now, if company staff members want to refuel their imaginations, they can hold a meeting in the small chamber.

A thrill for me was sitting in a mock-up of the space capsule, currently under construction, which will someday take six passengers for a ride up into space and back. As I climbed into one of capsule’s six reclining, contoured seats, shaped to protect me from the gravitational thrust of a launch and landing, I had a mini-flight experience. I heard the roar of the launch, felt the capsule shake, and watched a video simulation of what I might see out of the large window to my right on a real flight. (Watch a video simulation here.)

Don’t expect to fly economy class any time soon!

Like all visitors, I was sworn to not divulge any other amazing stuff I saw at the facility. But imagine this hypothetical scenario: What if you were the second richest man on earth and had a dream, which you could personally fund, so you were able to hire some of the world’s best and brightest engineers and manufacturing professionals and support them to have fun as they designed and built a piece of the future? Without investors, you wouldn’t need to pressure staff to be profitable from the git-go, yet your staff would inevitably make some incredible discoveries as they worked at the edge of science, engineering and manufacturing. And, chances are, some of those discoveries would be useable in as yet unimagined ways.

That would be an out-of-this-world opportunity! No wonder staff at Blue Origin seem so jazzed to be working there. (Need an energy booster yourself? Watch what 400 crazy-happy rocket scientists look like.)

As I toured the company’s foyers, I saw numerous displays of aerospace memorabilia as well as bold and inspiring quotes.

This one by Antoine de Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince, and himself an aircraft designer, really caught my eye:

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” *

That phrase applies both to engineering and to art.

The art of taking away

For ten years, I’ve been a beginning student of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, “the Japanese art of flower arranging”—to use a poor but literal translation. Ikebana International calls Ikebana “a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. It is steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature.”

Instead of arranging flowers by filling a vase Western-style, (which I admittedly still do when my garden is in its abundance), you focus, in Ikebana, on form and movement, line and mass, and highlighting empty space, often pruning material until the essence of an arrangement is revealed.

For as long as I study, I will be training my eye to see “when there is nothing left to take away.” My amazing Japanese teacher, Nobuko Relnick, is able to see what I cannot. Even with fifty years of teaching, she continues to study and approaches her creations with a mix of humility, reverence, delight and art. For me, this is about more than flower arranging: it’s a practice for life.

Four questions for you

Last week, I shared with you that I am starting on a book project (gulp!). Thanks to those who sent encouraging words. I realize that in adding a big project to my life, I may need to simplify, and look for what is no longer essential that I can prune away.

In the spirit of paring down this post, I leave you with these questions:

  • What is essential to you right now?
  • What clear lines, patterns or forms are revealing themselves in your life?
  • What is happening in the invisible or unsaid (or as an artist would say “negative space”) as well as in the visible and spoken aspects of your life?
  • What would your need to prune to heighten the beauty and purpose of your work or life?

 

(*As a quote checker, I think the translation by Eric Raymond may have slightly embellished, but I’ll let it stand as it was on the wall at Blue Origin.)

How to Birth a Dream—Gently

Before a dream can be transformed into a project in the world, it has to be born.

We talk about “making” dreams come true, but isn’t that a bit pushy for something as tender as a dream? Many books and articles on entrepreneurship explode with archetypically male images about making things happen, straining and striving for success, competing and winning, and being the best.

Let’s add another, gentler perspective.

How about including a few more classically feminine images to describe the process of bringing an idea to life, especially as it just starts to emerge into the world? Words like midwifing and birthing come to mind. Dreams are delicate, especially the ones that we have held deep in our hearts, for many years, waiting until the time was right to bring them forward. Turning a dream into a project, whether it’s a business, book, or some other creative form, requires some tenderness.

After all, you are asking your dream to leave the warm, liminal space where it has been living in your imagination and confront the light of day. That’s risky business.

We need to honor the transition of taking an idea from its secret place in your mind into the world.

When a woman is pregnant, much anticipation and preparation precedes the birth. Selected friends and colleagues are informed; there may be a celebration. The mother prepares herself over the months as she experiences her baby in the womb; the family prepares the baby’s room.

It’s a time for joyful anticipation, not for making decisions about who the child is going to be, and whether she or he should go to Harvard, the Colorado School of Mines, inherit the farm, or become a baker. Parents may hold off picking a baby’s name until they sense the nature of their precious offspring. As the baby is born, no one is grading or evaluating it. (At least I hope not!) The baby needs time to grow, discover his or her nature and find a place in the world.

Don’t new projects need a little time to grow and find themselves, too?

Midwifing the start of a book

I’ve decided to start writing a book. Maybe you’re cringing as you read this, knowing how many people you remember who have said, “I’m going to write a book someday.” When it comes to writing, I believe that either you are writing a book (interesting to me), or you’re thinking about writing one (not as much). I want to move quickly into the former.

I’ve been thinking about the idea (without announcing it) for several years. Not every dream wants to come to life. I have lots of ideas, and I can only sink my time, spirit and resources into a few of them. With this project-idea, I asked myself:

  • Is my dream begging to come forward?
  • Do I love it?
  • Do I believe that it’s needed?
  • Is this something I feel I have to do?

It took a while to feel certain, but when I heard my “Yes,” the journey of birthing my project began.

Now, as I midwife it into action, I find myself on a journey where I want to learn and share about how we navigate the very delicate, early stage of a creative project. It’s that time on a project when you put in a lot of effort, yet have very little to show. It’s a time for trusting and holding the course until you start building momentum and see the work start to bare fruit.

How my idea started

The genesis of my big idea began five years ago when I turned 60. I became inspired, even haunted, by the question: “What does it take to re-invent your career/work/life at a time when your friends are beginning to retire?” What I came to believe is that our second half (or “third act”) of life may be our most creative period of life, if we honor our sense of calling and design our work/lives to support what we believe we are meant to do. In this day and age, I think a lot of us are want, or need, to work, paid or volunteer, long after we turn 65.

Do I know what kind of book this should be? No. Am I sure my idea has to become a book? No. Will I self-publish or seek a publisher?  Who knows! I want the dream to have a little time to walk about in the world and I need to get better acquainted with my project by writing.

So here’s my plan for the very early, early stage of birthing a dream into a project:

Speak about it – with caution

It’s a big deal for me to tell you what I’m doing, but speaking it helps to make the project real for me. I see my own words flowing on to the page and I learn about them. I watch my friend’s eyes light up when I say what I am doing. Sharing helps me to take my idea out of my head and bring it into the world.

I’m NOT announcing to everybody, including the few friends I have who have a strong evaluative sense and will want to “help” by telling me whether or not it is a good idea. That’s not the feedback I need…yet.

Play with it and let it move

I want to do lots of free-writing and research and let my book-child wander about while I observe the paths that she follows. I want to know what she (the book) is asking of me. I also want to learn about my beloved, potential audiences and how they respond to what I’m creating.

Create some structure to support me

My life is full. LOTS of elements compete for my attention. I need a structure to insure that the book moves forward. Step one: spend a chunk of change on an eight-month program for writers who wish to create compelling books. There’s nothing like spending money to help me put a stake in the ground. I trust that the reinforcement of being in a community with a structured program will be very helpful.

Build daily practices that support the work

I’m still working on this one. Have any hints for me from your experience? Write every morning? Periodically dance what I am discovering? Create some touch points when I will check in with friends, thus giving myself mini-deadlines? To be discovered!

Celebrate the pregnancy as well as the birth

The book may take a long time to complete. I can’t wait that long to celebrate. Maybe I need to start by celebrating that I’m swinging out, daring to feel vulnerable, feeling uncertain, and, at the same time, ecstatic.

Thanks for letting me share the dream with you as it moves into the world. I hope I can do the same in return for you. Do let me know!

Why Some Meetings Fail Before They Begin

If you work in an organization or business, or volunteer regularly in the community, how many hours do you spend weekly in meetings? Count them up and I think you’ll agree, meetings are America’s growth industry! And because of this, improving meetings is the low-hanging fruit for bettering our productivity.

What if we could shift just ten percent of them from gross to great?

Have you ever had the experience of crashing to finish your work, end that telephone call, or put aside something you really wanted to do, in order to rush to a meeting? Then you arrive, watch people straggle in and spend their time waiting, day-dreaming, gazing with false fascination at their cell phones. The meeting leader isn’t even there. And the place feels like a morgue.

That meeting is probably dead before it starts.

We humans are highly adaptable and we shape our expectations based on experience. We learn that the weekly planning meeting for “Project Y” is going to start late (so don’t come on time), its purpose will be cloudy, and conversations will zig this way and that. Or maybe the group will be ramrodded through the agenda like an army platoon marching in lock-step, people will not offer what they really think, and the meeting will end in confusion with no clarity about who is going to do what. We learn to expect the worst and then our low expectations are met!

As I prepare to teach a workshop on facilitation to faculty at a local college, I’ve re-discovered a secret truth: the key to a successful meeting often lies outside the meeting itself. To quote a consulting colleague of mine, who used this phrase as if it were a quote from the Bible, context is king. What he meant is that the set-up of a meeting will determine its success. Elements include having clarity about its intent, knowing how a meeting fits into the organizational landscape, understanding how results will be used, and choosing the right structure.

Here are a few things to think about before you sit down to craft an agenda or launch a meeting:

Why do you need to have this meeting?

Do you need to report out on new developments? If what you’re planning to share can be read, spare me the agony. I can read far more quickly than I can listen. And never read me the treasurer’s report or the secretary’s report, (our garden club used to think this was necessary), unless you have the dramatic flair of a stand-up comic. Nothing deflates meeting momentum like listening to someone read an information document (exceptions allowed).

But it doesn’t have to be like that. A great meeting is a way to build relationships, inspire synergy, increase engagement through participation, learn from a variety of viewpoints, get everyone on the same page, make essential decisions, and even have fun!

What decisions, coming out of the meeting, will make your heart sing?

Or, if not sing, at least beat happily. Be clear on what you need to do or decide, but don’t get greedy. If you try to do too much, and end up having to jam your agenda with decisions to be made every five to ten minutes, (more about that in a future post), I know your meeting’s not likely to work. (If decisions were that easy to make, why aren’t they already made?)

Is there a hidden agenda?

Be honest. Sometimes I’ve entered a group in which there were so many elephants in the room, you could smell the poop. A frank discussion with your planning team or facilitator about the background of experiences people will be bringing to the meeting, and what’s at stake, is critical. Don’t surprise your facilitator (I speak from painful experience).

What format will work best?

Sometimes we get stuck thinking we need to have a 90-minute monthly meeting because we’ve always scheduled a 90-minute meeting. What if the heart of the work could be accomplished in ten minutes? Or maybe a deeper discussion could be better done in a two-day offsite retreat?

Who needs to be there, really?

Don’t sweep the organization inviting everybody, (unless going to a meeting is the core work of your organization), but do make sure that the right people are there. Even if people are “required,” why not treat them as volunteers and make it attractive and alluring to attend? Market your meeting. Enroll people in the benefits. Treat them as if they have choices about what to do with their time (they do), rather than as drones. (Maybe a poor choice of words these days.)

My colleague, visual facilitator extraordinaire Claire Bronson, created a series of fun cartoons we attached to emails in advance of a retreat we were co-directing. Even though participants had already registered, we wanted them to feel jazzed about coming.

Where will you meet?

Typically, you’ll meet close to where participants work, maybe down the hall in the conference room. But that cavern-like dungeon of a meeting room without windows at the back of the building? Not so good. Environment matters. (Look for good light, air, and quiet.)

Occasionally, it may help to go off-site. I worked with a group of executives who went brain-dead when they met in the executive conference room or similar white table-clothed hotel room. They needed to break the routine, be able to walk about, and slump in comfortable chairs. We started meeting in peoples’ homes and at a beautiful retreat site; conversations improved immeasurably leading to a marked difference in the group’s performance.

Do you need a facilitator?

Often not. You, as board chair, program manager, vice president, or volunteer, may be perfectly capable of running a good meeting. But if it’s not your strong suit, it’s OK to ask a member of your team to facilitate the meeting, or bring someone in from outside, so you can be free to participate with the group.

A facilitator can be particularly useful when issues at a meeting are likely to be contentious, stakes are high, and competing factions will be attending. Or sometimes you may want a facilitator to give your off-site a special boost. If you’re unsure whether you need a facilitator, I’m happy to help you think it out.

(Truth in lending, I do this professionally).

What’s next?

The above is just for starters. I haven’t talked about how you plan the meeting, run the meeting, or order muffins. We can talk about this later! Just make sure that your meeting has its best possible chance for success, before it even starts.