Surprise, Transformation & Excellence through “Spontaneous Discovery”:
A Personal Saga

FYI, this is a revision of an antique—but arguably more relevant than ever (PDF version also available):

"Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You simply must ... Do things."—Ray Bradbury

"By indirection direction find."—Hamlet, II. I

"To be playful is to allow for unlimited possibility."—James Carse

"No one rises so high as he who knows not where he is going."—Oliver Cromwell

"What are [aircraft designer Burt] Rutan's management rules? He insists he doesn't have any. 'I don't like rules,' he says. 'Things are so easy to change if you don't write them down.' Rutan feels good management works in much the same way good aircraft design does: Instead of trying to figure out the best way to do something and sticking to it, just try out an approach and keep fixing it."—Eric Abrahamson & David Freedman, Chapter 8, "Messy Leadership," from A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder

"This is so simple it sounds stupid, but it is amazing how few oil people really understand that you only find oil if you drill wells. You may think you're finding it when you're drawing maps and studying logs, but you have to drill."John Masters, The Hunters, (Masters was a wildly successful Canadian Oil & Gas wildcatter.)

 
Summer 2009 was the summer of brush clearing.
And, it turned out, much more.

It started as simple exercise. After a day or two, scratches from head to toe, and enjoyment, I set myself a goal of clearing a little space to get a better view of one of the farm ponds. That revealed something else ... to my surprise.

At a casual dinner, I sat next to a landscaper, and we got to talking about our farm and my skills with clipper, saw, etc. In particular, she suggested that I do some clearing around a few of our big boulders. Intrigued, I set about clearing, on our main trail, around a couple of said boulders. I was again amazed at the result.

That in turn led to attacking some dense brush and brambles around some barely visible rocks that had always intrigued me—which led to "finding," in effect, a great place for a more or less "Zen garden," as we've taken to calling it.

Which led to ... more and more. And more.

 
To make a long story short:

(1) I now have a new hobby, and maybe, ye gads, my life's work for years to come. This winter I'll do a little, but I also plan to read up on outdoor spaces, Zen gardens, etc.; visit some rock gardens—spaces close by or amidst my travels; and, indeed, concoct a more or less plan (rough sketches) for next spring's activities—though I'm sure that what I do will move forward mostly by what I discover as I move forward. (What discovers itself may actually be a better way to put it—there's a "hidden hand" here.) As I'm beginning to see it, this is at least a 10-year project—maybe even a multi-generation project.

(2) I proceeded by trial and error and instinct, and each experiment led to/suggested another experiment (or 2 or 10) and to a greater understanding of potential—the "plan," though there was none, made itself. And it was far, far better (more ambitious, more interesting, more satisfying) than I would have imagined. In fact, the result to date bears little or no relationship to what I was thinking about at the start—a trivial self-designed chore may become the engine of my next decade; the "brushcutting project" is now leading Susan and me to view our entire property, and what it might represent, in a new light.

(3) I was able to do much more than I'd dreamed—overall, and project by project. "Systems thinking"? It would have killed the whole thing. (Don't get me started. Or do: Re-read the epigraphs at the top of this essay.)

(4) Is "everything connected to everything else"? Well, sure. But I had no idea how everything was connected to everything else until I began (thank you, Michael Schrage) "serious play." 

(5) Note (more of the same): I got a pacemaker for Christmas a couple of years ago; the #1 no-no is using a chain saw. (The magnetic field is fearsome.) Taking that warning a step farther, I decided to do this project entirely with hand tools. Of course that means more exercise—a good thing. But the "great wonder," again unexpected, is that the resultant slowness and quiet is the de facto engine of my entire spontaneous discovery process.

(6) Note: Some of you will have discovered my implicit debt to the economist-of-freedom: F.A. Hayek. His stunningly clear view of market capitalism as a "spontaneous discovery process" is my intellectual bedrock, my "context" for three decades in Silicon Valley, and now even for my recreational pursuits (which are, as noted, becoming so much more than that).

(7) To some extent, the fact that you are reading this is because I've been "on the map" since coauthoring In Search of Excellence in 1982. That book at its heart featured "Eight Basics of Excellence." One item obviously has to come first, and it'd be even "more first" if I updated the book today. Namely "A Bias For Action." In part in 1982 we were reacting to companies that were in deep trouble, in large measure due to losing touch with the reality of what they made and the "real people" (front-line employees) who made it. They had become too reliant on the Holy Strategic Plan. We pushed "Get out in the field, leave the plan behind, and get on with it ... right now."  The "get out in the field" imperative was couched in terms not only of that "bias for action," but also our favorite 4-letter prescription, stolen from a then vibrant Hewlett-Packard. Namely: MBWA. Managing By Wandering Around—get out of the office, leave "MBA thinking" behind—and feel your way around the Real World—i.e., do a little "spontaneous discovery." Which, of course, to repeat, is the heart of this little essay—and indeed the centerpiece and soul of my life's work to this day.

A TEN-POINT “NO OPTION” MANIFESTO: RE-IMAGINE. EXCELLENCE. INNOVATE. NOW. OR PERISH.

Herein the outline of my presentation to PAI Market Partners Conference on 05 December in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic:

1. "Software is eating the world."—Marc Andreessen. "It" has been coming for a long time. But "wait 'til next year" is done. Radical—very radical—technology-driven changes, featuring robotics-executed surgery, algorithms that dominate the world's financial markets, the "Internet of Everything," and the like are upon us, and the time-to-adapt is well within the five-year mark. Alas, what is making you successful today may get in the way—usually does get in the way—of imperative radical revisions. Customer experiences in retail in 2019, for example, will bear little resemblance to the world of 2014. Could I be wrong? Sure. But the odds of my being right are sky high. No, virtually none of you (in my PAI partners audience) compete directly with Walmart, but remember their "little" (1,500 folks!) Silicon Valley shop is creating a Richter 7.0+ tech-driven earthquake in customer experience; the aftershocks will be felt 'round the world.

2. "Be the best. It's the only market that's not crowded."—George Whalin. There are modest-size companies in any industry you can name—that make you shake your head and blink 10 times they are so far out front of the pack. Larry Janesky's Basement Systems Inc. of Seymour, CT, is reinventing the very nature of, yes, our basements, increasing their utility almost beyond measure. (Can you believe it? $80,000,000 in revenue and growth to die for says Mr. J is onto something.) Then there's Joel Resnick's Red Carpet Store in Flemington, NJ—observe red carpets at a major celebratory event like the Oscars, and TRCS probably did the job. Add in Bronner's Christmas Wonderland of Frankenmuth, MI—sporting 6,000 Christmas ornaments and 50,000 trims (featured in Whalin's amazing Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best Independent Stores in America). And: W.A. Coppins, the sea anchor superstars from wee Motueka, New Zealand, providing hyper-high-tech products for the likes of the U.S. Navy and the government of Norway. There is room for stunning differentiation in any and every marketplace! The likes of these companies—and hundreds, thousands like them, which I call "Niche-/Micro-niche Dominators"—should give us hope and hard evidence that crazy-cool imagination, passion, and drive can lead to dominance in anything anywhere. Why not you?

3. "Insanely great." "Radically thrilling." C'mon, why shouldn't you shoot for the moon—reminiscent of those measures used by Apple and BMW? As Jack Welch put it as he re-imagined gigantic GE: "You can't behave in a calm, rational manner. You've got to be out there on the lunatic fringe." (Frankly, I look at Jack W's "command" as an imperative—for close to 100% of us.)

4. "Ready. Fire. Aim."—Ross Perot. My 48 years of watching and participating in major organization change lead me to conclude that, in effect, at the end of the day there is only one way to cause a revolution. Just keep trying stuff, almost recklessly. "Move fast. Break things."—Facebook. "Fail. Forward. Fast. —High-tech CEO. "You miss 100% of the shots you never take."—Wayne Gretsky. In summary, my Golden Rule: "WTTMSASTMSUTFW." Whoever. Tries. The Most. Stuff. And. Screws. The. Most. Stuff. Up. The. Fastest. Wins. Call it simplistic, that's okay by me, but I swear by it. Consider that Bloomberg Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal claimed that the #1 trait of enterprises that adapt is: "Experiment fearlessly." "Relentless trial and error." To which I say: Amen!

5. Value added through radical strategic services enhancement. UPS for decades emphasized the "P"—the parcels. Now it sees itself in the "S" business (Services—with a capital "S"); rather than just give you a package fast and reliably, now UPS wants to get inside your business—big time—and become your partner and even the captain of your entire supply chain. IDEO, the superstar design firm, is now doing more, much more than product and service design—including implementing fullscale systems of innovation for its clients. In my opinion, such an approach—radical service enhancement by strategic partnering with your customer—is effectively available to any business of any size.

6. "You know a design is good when you want to lick it."—Steve Jobs. "Only one company can be the cheapest. All others must use design."Insights, Design Council, UK. Value added by emphasizing-obsessing on design (a la Apple, Starbucks and a growing number of others) and developing a great customer experience are almost "musts" for any and all of us. My point of view—see #1 above—is that the entire shopping process is in the midst of a once-in-10-lifetimes transformation. And you can be a principal partner (that p-word, "partner," again) to your client in his or her design/experience quest for transformation.

6A. "Forget China, India and the Internet: Economic Growth Is Driven by Women."Economist. One more thing: You are indeed in the "experience business"—and that shopping experience is very different for women than men; the male shopper's experience is still the default position for many, even most, firms. And yet it is an unimpeachable fact that women are the premier purchasers—of damn near everything. (My message: Wake-up-ASAP-and-smell-the-enormous-opportunity.)

7. Little BIG Things. There is big mileage to be made from apparently small adjustments—dramatic change need not be accompanied by a whopping upfront investment. A Vegas casino changes the shape of its driveway, and twice as many customers come to the front door (the impact of that micro-adjustment can be measured in hundreds of millions of $$$). Walmart "merely" increases shopping cart size—and watches small appliance sales soar. Johns Hopkins' Dr. Peter Pronovost introduces a simple checklist, swiped from pilots, into ICUs—and begins a process saving thousands of lives. These sorts of "little BIG things" are lying in wait, ready for the plucking, in every nook and cranny of the experiences we concoct, can be tested quickly, and carry a low price tag. (So let's quit the strategic overthinking, and get on with that "relentless experimentation"—see above.)

8. Go "Social." "Social," that is, full-fledged use of the new media, is not the provenance of the "big guys."  It's available to all of us—today. Consider this from the social-media primer Youtility: "Today, despite the fact that we're just a little swimming pool company in Virginia, we have the most trafficked swimming pool website in the world. Five years ago, if you'd asked me and my business partners what we do, the answer would have been simple, 'We build in-ground fiberglass swimming pools.' Now we say, 'We are the best teachers ... in the world ... on the subject of fiberglass swimming pools, and we also happen to build them.'" Ready to follow this path? The answer, more or less, must be "Yes."

9. "Business has to give people enriching, rewarding lives ... or it's simply not worth doing."—Richard Branson. The smaller firm is even more dependent on stellar talent than the big guys. Find that talent and help each and every employee grow each and every day. I like to summarize it this way: "EXCELLENT customer experiences depend … entirely … on EXCELLENT employee experiences! If you want to WOW your customers, FIRST you must WOW those who WOW the customers!" As superstar movie director Robert Altman put it: "The role of the Director is to create a space where the actors and actresses can become more than they've ever been before, more than they've dreamed of being." In my mind, that holds as much for the local car dealer—and you and me—as in the world of Hollywood.

10. Pope Francis as model and clarion call to radical action. The new Pope is in his late '70s—and aims to change the world on his watch. You and I are not on a religious mission, but the new Pope offers heartening and unassailable proof that big waves can be made fast—and the wavemakers need not be the wet-behind-the-ears youth of Silicon Valley.

Good luck—go for it! (FYI: You really have no choice.)

[Get a PDF of this blog.]

Dominican Republic

This may be the first time Tom has ever gone to the Dominican Republic. He‘s in a town beautifully named Punta Cana, speaking to a group from Payment Alliance International (PAI) at their 2014 Market Partner Conference.

The PPT files can be downloaded here. Enjoy!
PAI Market Partner Conference
PAI, Long Version

Podcast: Perspectives and Predictions

From all reports, Tom had a good time talking to former associates and good friends Robert Thompson and Mike Neiss. The topic of the podcast was Perspectives and Predictions, and the talk got started with the subject of Social Business. That discussion led to a conversation with Cheryl Burgess, coauthor of The Social Employee. The podcast can be found on Thompson's website, leaderinsideout.com ... we suggest you go there to listen in for other perspectives and maybe a prediction along the way.

12 Whirlwind Days in Japan

One essayist ungrammatically called Japan "uniquely unique." Ungrammatical or not, it is perhaps accurate. In addition to jet lag following a 13+ hour flight from Boston to Tokyo, the intrigue of Japanese culture per se gripped me instantly. My wife, Susan, is a tapestry weaver, textile designer, and avid gardener, and this was her first trip to Japan. Soon we were off on a whirl of garden and temple tours. As luck would have it, the leaves were rapidly turning and the scarlet blanket of astounding Japanese maple leaves took our breath away time and again. Among the many stops, perhaps my favorite was the dry garden (15 perfectly placed stones amidst carefully swept gravel) at the Ryoanji Zen temple in Kyoto. Among other things, the Ryoanji garden is said to have been a major inspiration to Steve Jobs who, in general, was greatly influenced by Zen and Japanese culture. Though not particularly aesthetically well-tuned, I can nonetheless readily understand the garden's allure—I was mesmerized.

Following a glorious—and exhausting—10 days of touring and cultural absorption, we headed to Tyoko (more accurately, Chiba) for two days of seminar-giving on my part. The first day's audience was about 1,500 pumped up Japanese SME execs. Giant companies everywhere are staggering under the weight of accelerating change—Japan is no exception. And the future, I fervently believe, is universally in the hands of small and medium-sized enterprise. While Japan has been gripped by stagflation for two decades, the attitude among the entrepreneurs I crossed paths with could not have been more upbeat.

In any event, a terrific two days—the 2nd, a dawn-to-dusk seance with 100 senior entrepreneurial-firm execs, ensued—personally as well as professionally. Many thanks to my newfound colleagues in Japan for your hospitality and attention. I'd add that my hosts at Learningedge, Japan's largest business seminar organizer, are all pros of the first order!

You will find here the PowerPoint presentations for each of the two events:
16 Nov, Japan, Re-imagine Excellence: Innovate or Perish
17 Nov, Japan, Re-imagine Excellence: Talent, Value Added, and More

Video: Tom on Mittelstand

Tom recently had a chance to talk to CNBC on a subject that's dear to him: Germany's Mittelstand. Medium-sized companies that are a driving force in the economy. He's been a champion of the phenomenon for years, so it's good to see that others are joining the discussion. Watch the video to get in on the secret.

RESPECT++ IN 140 CHARACTERS

Respect is not "earned." Respect given is automatic—though you may upon occasion discover that it was not, alas, merited.
Respect is the default position. Disrespect must be earned.
Respect is the greatest motivator of all.

Every human being has an interesting story. You'll find it if you give a shit. (And listen.)
Everyone has a great story to tell ... if only you'd shut up.
Listening intently is the greatest act of respect.
Repeat: Respect is the greatest motivator of all.

The virtuous (business) circle:
Respect.
Intent listening.
Motivation.
Engagement.
Happy colleagues.
Happy customers.
Profitability.

Twitter respondent: "What happens after you've 'listened' is what is actually important."
TP: Somewhat disagree. The listening [intently] PER SE is what matters most. [Which is kinda the point.]

My favorite quote (or, one of them): "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle."—Philo of Alexandria (I constantly remind myself of this.)
The things mindless optimists say sometimes make me want to vomit, such as, "All you need is a positive attitude." For some, life sucks.

Related Aside:
Me, at the airport, BWI, 6:45AM, to bus driver who pulls up to the curb: "Is this the bus to the rental car lot? "
Driver, with a broad smile: "Don't we begin conversations like this with 'How are you this morning?'"
(Me, to myself: "What a total jerk I am. What a wonderful reminder.")
Me, to bus driver: "You are absolutely right, and I am so sorry for my rudeness. Oh, and I hope you have a great day."

Some people "get straight to the point." Some stumble and fumble. The former are persuasive—and invariably wrong.
Definition of "get straight to the point": Arrogance and gross oversimplification.
"I'm gonna tell it like it is." Life is complex, multi-variate, non-linear. No one has a clue as to "like it is."
"I'm gonna tell it like it is.": I am going to expose you to all of the data incompleteness and prejudices and biases and distortions and shortcuts in my information accumulation and analysis process.

(We have also attached these comments as a PDF.)

Guadalahara

Tom's chosen topic for his appearance today in Guadalahara is "Innovate ... or Perish." If you were in the audience and would like to have the slides he used, you can download the PowerPoint presentation here. There's also a long Web-only version if you want more in-depth coverage of the topic. Enjoy!

The Project Leadership EXCELLENCE 42
Revision, 27 October 2014

What follows is a slightly revised version of the Project Leadership Excellence 42 list from my presentation last week to the PMI Leadership Institute confab. We have also attached this list in both PDF and PowerPoint formats.

1. Politics as nuisance-distraction vs. "Politics Is Life. RELISH It."
2. IQ > EQ vs. EQ > IQ.
3. Buttoned down to a fault vs. "I am a dispenser of enthusiasm."—Ben Zander
4. "We don't have time for niceties" vs. CIVILITY. ALWAYS.
5. "There's always some damn thing" vs. Live for the madness per se.
6. "This is a time of enormous change, which must be reflected in our work" vs. "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."—Albert Bartlett
7. Linearity/“waterfall" vs. Non-linearity/circularity/high tempo-lightning fast "O.O.D.A. Loop"/agile.
8. Step-at-a-time vs. "Demo or die"/“Serious Play"/“Ready. Fire. Aim."
9. Optimistic-or-bust vs. UNDER-promise or bust.
10. In the office vs. Out of the Office/NO OFFICE.
11. Nose to the grindstone vs. "This is a blast—as cool as it gets."
12. Meetings as agony vs. MEETINGS AS LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITY #1.
13. Small leadership circle vs. Inclusive leadership circle.
14. Formal customer-vendor relationships vs. "No barriers"-fully integrated partnership with customers-vendors.
15. No time to waste, isolation is the norm vs. welcome to the Age of SOCIAL BUSINESS.
16. Information as needed vs. WILDLY "over"-communicate with EVERYONE.
17. Confidentiality often necessary vs. Confidentiality 99% nonsense/Inform everyone of everything.
18. Email/IM vs. FACE-TO-FACE/frequent-flyer miles.
19. Over-scheduled vs. 50% unscheduled time.
20. Latest tech vs. Paper checklist.
21. Lunch with colleagues/Lunch as respite vs. LUNCH as #1 Networking Opportunity.
22. Suck UP for Success vs. Suck DOWN for Success.
23. Fend off enemies vs. Recruit and nurture ALLIES ALLIES ALLIES.
24. Silos are inevitable vs. INTENSIVELY MANAGED "XFX"/Cross-Functional eXcellence.
25. Not our fault vs. WILDLY over-respond to screw-ups/Apology as Relationship Building Mainstay.
26. Recognition-as-deserved vs. Constant recognition, especially for "little stuff"/Celebrate-every-damn-milestone-imaginable, make ’em up if need be/“BIG MO" rules.
27. Talk vs. LISTEN/Listening-as-Strategic Tool #1.
28. "Here's the deal" vs. "WHAT DO YOU THINK?"
29. "We want people who know what they are doing" vs. "We want people with an insatiable thirst for growth."
30. If we hire good folks, little need for training vs. Training = Investment #1 (Even on a BRIEF project).
31. Noisy vs. Quiet (Introverts are probably under-represented on your team—fix it).
32. "Millennials are different" vs. Millennials want stuff smart "people-1st companies" (e.g., Virgin, Southwest) have been giving non-millennials for decades.
33. Supervisors are 1st and foremost paid to "keep on top of things" vs. Supervisors are in the "people development business."
34. Bosses aim to "help people be successful" vs. Bosses help people GROW. (2014: "Grow or die.") (Holds on even BRIEF projects.)

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LEADER/CORPORATE MANDATE #1 2014: Your principal moral obligation as a leader is to develop the skillset, "soft" and "hard," of every one of the people in your charge (temporary as well as semi-permanent) to the maximum extent of your abilities. The good news: This is also the #1 mid- to long-term ... profit maximization strategy!

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35. Lieutenants & captains & majors vs. Sergeants, sergeants, sergeants.
36. "Gender balance" an important goal vs. Women are the best leaders. (And usually primary end-users.)
37. Concentration/“no nonsense" vs. Daydreaming/READING/ "Freak Fridays."
38. Kaizen vs. WOW-ification/“Insanely great."
39. Design is important vs. "You know a design is good when you want to lick it."—Steve Jobs (Design supremacy/Market Cap: Apple > Exxon.)
40. Minimize "TGWs"/Things Gone Wrong vs. Maximize TGRs/Things Gone Right.
41. Make a damn good product vs. Good product PLUS greatly enhance the (transformative) "INTEGRATED SERVICES ENVELOPE."
42. "Good work" vs. ... EXCELLENCE!

Project Management Institute
The Project Leadership EXCELLENCE 42

Tom is speaking in Phoenix (+63F temperature shift from Vermont) to the Project Management Institute's North American Leadership Institute Meeting 2014. "I am excited beyond measure--I've been waiting 48 years for this," he says. "I got my construction engineering masters degree from the civil engineering department at Cornell in June 1965. My thesis was on something very new--PERT/CPM. That is, Program Evaluation and Review Technique/Critical Path Method. Oh, and there was RAMPS/Resource Allocation and Multi-Project Scheduling. The statistical methodology was intimidating, but my brain was then supple, and I nailed it with a document on, more or less, the impact of varying standard deviations of critical path events. Gauss, Bayes, and others were my lodestones. Then off I went to practice civil engineering--as a U.S. Navy Seabee (from Construction Battalion) Ensign in Vietnam in 1966. Whoops. Though building complex structures such as bridges and fortified Special Forces Camps, I didn't need a lot of PERT/CPM/RAMPS. But I sure as hell could have used some people skills--not to mention a little time behind a bulldozer or grader's control panel. I.e., I was loaded for bear academically re project management technicalities, but AWOL on the 'last 95%'--'PAP'/People and Practicalities. I was royally pissed off at Cornell, and let my faculty advisors know it when my deployment ended and I went home for a bit of shore leave prior to returning for Vietnam deployment #2. Little did I realize that the 'missing 95%' I was so irritated at Cornell about was what I'd research and write on 16 years later in a book titled, In Search of Excellence. (Remember the ISOE battle cry: 'Hard is Soft. Soft is hard.' The 'hard' numbers are flabby/soft as hell; and the so-called 'soft' 'people stuff' is the true enterprise bedrock/'hard stuff.') Book or not, I've never given the lecture I wanted to give on project management--until now. You'll find here the PowerPoint I used, 'The Project Leadership EXCELLENCE 42.' You'll also find a PDF version of the PLE42 PowerPoint. I've also attached two related papers, 'Getting Things (THAT MATTER) Done Against the Odds and in the Inky-black Shadow Cast by the Guardians of the Status Quo,' my implementation summa; and 'Systems Have Their Place: SECOND Place,' which argues that systems only achieve their potential if the culture of the organization is appropriate and well imbedded; culture, that is, is the lead variable. To put you in the appropriate mind set, I'll share here the first slide of my PMI presentation. Peter Pronovost is the Johns Hopkins doctor who brought the checklist into healthcare. It has saved a staggering number of lives. Peter quickly ran into a stumbling block in the road to implementation. Hospital culture usually had to be dramatically altered for the checklist to work. For example, nurses had to be fully empowered to stop the process in train if the doctor skipped a step; that is, 'simple' checklists were predicated on true teamwork. Peter wrote about it in his superb book, Safe Patients, Smart Hospitals. Herewith, the extract that served as the text of my 1st PP slide: 'When I was in medical school, I spent hundreds of hours looking into a microscope--a skill I never needed to know or ever use. Yet I didn't have a single class that taught me communication or teamwork skills--something I need every day I walk into the hospital.' Hope you find this stuff of some value.

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