Thursday, 28 July 2011

On Assignment: The Garrison Bar, July 27, 7:00pm

Last weekend, I read an article about a book with an interesting premise: To capture everything a friend knows. To do this, she invited this friend over for coffee a couple of times a week. "He would start talking and she would start typing." The outcome of these meetings is their book, "The Chairs Are Where the People Go."

I was curious about what Misha knew and how Sheila had transcribed it. Fortunately, they were having a book launch event at a downtown bar on Wednesday night. I had never been to a book launch before and saw this as a great opportunity to do some research.

When I arrived at The Garrison, there were about 15 people dispersed in the front bar. I could see that there was an adjoining larger space with a second bar and microphones set up on a stage. I also saw a table with stacks of books on it - I was at the right place. Being in a bar alone is no fun so I quickly went to the table and bought a copy of the book.

The cover was as fun as the title. As John Bradley said in an earlier post, "The cover and title is 80% of it." The table of contents was even more intriguing.The 72 chapters were eclectic, ranging from topics like "Everyone's Favorite Things and Unfavorite Things are Different" to "Failure and Games." They made me want to read them. Being in a bar alone made me want to read them immediately, so I did.

Luckily, I saw one of the two authors as he walked by. I said hi, shook his hand and congratulated him on their book. Misha was friendly and humble. We talked about his life since the book came out and the promotional tour they had almost completed. I didn't say that I was writing a book, and I later questioned why I hadn't. I think I am a little shy about my writing adventure until a publisher takes a chance on what I have written. I will work on this.

Sheila Heti and Misha Glouberman
About an hour later (fortunately, I had something to read), Misha, Sheila and a moderator friend, Carl, walked onto the stage. The crowd had now grown from 15 to over 100. Sheila read her foreword and Misha read a chapter of the book. Then Carl asked a few questions followed by questions from the audience. The mood was upbeat and all three speakers were very funny.

The book signing followed, at a second table beside the one with their books. It felt strange waiting in line to have the authors sign my book. I didn't know them and had only read a few pages of the book (bar lighting is terrible for reading). However, I was on assignment and wanted to experience the whole event. When I got to the front, I saw two friends having fun, signing their names to something they created together. It felt good to see them up close and happy. Maybe that will be me some day. 

So, what did I learn? I jotted down some thoughts while waiting for the launch to begin:

- Launching a book is a celebration
- Always arrive early if you want to speak at length with presenters
- You only need one publisher to say yes
- An interesting book needs a hook - something to draw people in
- Humour makes books more interesting
- When an opportunity appears, take it without second thoughts
- It's not so bad attending an event alone when you have something to read 

The assignment was a success and now it's time to get back to my writing. Tonight before I go to bed I am going to read chapter six: "Don't Pretend There is No Leader." The assignment continues.



Friday, 22 July 2011

Stating the Obvious

As I move into the writing phase of my book, questions about the relevance of my content are flooding my mind. "Would this be valuable to my future reader?" "Should I include something that appears to be just good common sense?"  "Am I stating the obvious?"

From my experience, many change initiatives run afoul because the basics of good design or project management are not in place. Some aspects of the start-up phase are overlooked in the interest of 'getting on with it.' These oversights can even happen to organizations that know better based on past experiences. In 2000, Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert Sutton published a book called 'The Knowing-Doing Gap'. They explore "why knowledge of what needs to be done frequently fails to result in action or behaviour consistent with that knowledge." Just because you know something doesn't mean your actions will be guided by it.

For example, when I helped implement a new 'Cadillac' commercial strategy process that was linear, thorough and well-suited for the business. We knew that simplicity leads to easier adoption, however, the methodology required 22 templates to be filled out. Twenty-two is a big number and the thought of teams around the world filling out all of them should have set off a warning flare.

Throughout the launch, leadership teams from around the world expressed concern over the number of templates. They responded in three ways: some businesses chose not to implement the process at all because their teams "did not have the time to fill out 22 templates!" Others dutifully spent months completing every template. And the remaining businesses created custom processes that used a self-selected subset of the templates. 

The varied approaches limited the benefits of the new strategy process because many of the them were tied to consistent application and roll-up across geographies. A design oversight, that in hindsight seems to be just good common sense, had significantly compromised the value of this 'state of the art' change program.

So, how does this shape my thoughts around content for my book? I have decided not make assumptions about what is just common sense or obvious. They are relative terms, which are based on context. My perspectives are different from my readers' based on the different experiences we have had.

I will include everything I know about successfully leading an organizational change. Some parts may be just good common sense and some may be obvious. And that's O.K.


Friday, 15 July 2011

Is it worth a second thought?

I have noticed a fundamental change in my behaviour since starting my sabbatical three months ago. I now think about things more before acting on them. This holds true for physical tasks, like reversing my car out of a parking spot, and mental ones, such as providing options to a friend with a problem to solve.

This change didn't happen over night. It emerged slowly over time like a rising tide or emerging sunrise. I only became aware of it when I caught myself pausing before responding to a question - I usually am a 'jump in with my first thought' type of person.

Is this a good or bad change? My vote goes to 'good'. I have found that quick responses, although necessary at times, can give you the opposite outcome than what you wanted. Like the time I was at the Singapore airport a couple of years ago. I remember furiously typing an announcement that needed to be posted before I boarded my plane, well after the 'last call' reminder came through the airport lounge speakers. By the time I was able to send the note, I was in a frenzy, shoving my still on laptop into my bag and grabbing my jacket as I broke into a jog to the gate. The gate numbers around me were in the high 30s, which was not a good sign given mine was in the low 10s. I remember starting to perspire and pant as I ran past the shops and booths, trying to avoid everything and everyone in my path. It seemed like an eternity until I could see the end of the terminal, which meant I was close to my destination. Or so I thought. I hadn't taken the time to look at the map or the gates that I ran by. In my haste to get to my gate as fast as possible, I ran past the corridor where it was located. When I realized my error I was out of breath, soaking wet and desperate. All I could do was backtrack as fast as I could (which wasn't fast at all). Fortunately, once I got to my gate I was greeted by an airline attendant's smile (and look of pity) and was able to board my plane.  I was lucky that time.

Phil's Run at Changi International Airport

My airport run is an extreme example of a high-paced environment where action can precede thought. When you think there is no time to spare, you can forget the carpenter's adage, 'Measure twice and cut once'.

Now, I am exploring the 'think twice and act once' approach. It may lead me to the outcomes I am looking for. It also may cost me a few opportunities by not moving as quickly as I have been in the past. For everyone, it's a choice you have to make. And like I am finding, things may be worth a second thought.


Friday, 8 July 2011

Moving With the Times?

My friend Mel says there is a music analogy for everything in life. Over the years she has proven her insight by citing points in a band's history, referencing song titles or quoting lines from lyrics. It's incredible how this holds true, even for organizations that are going through significant change  to become better at what they do.

An example materialized as I was running last week. I had loaded my iPod with an old album that had been given to me but I had never listened to. It was the last album by the group Styx before they broke up in the mid-eighties. 

My first exposure to Styx was in 1976 when they were the opening act for a group called Bad Company, of 'Can't Get Enough' fame. Styx had just released their Equinox album, which included two radio hits - Lady and Lorelei. Their 45 minute live set was incredible and overshadowed the lead group, even though they weren't allowed to play an encore, much to the crowd's disappointment. They had a fresh sound that fit well within the progressive rock genre popular at the time and a stage presence that was electric.
S Styx went on to release five more successful albums that expanded on their progressive sound. Their following and final album, 'Kilroy Was Here,' however, was quite different. The band members tried to move with the times by adopting a more 'New Wave,' dance-friendly format that was hot in the early eighties. While trying to capture the current sound of the day, they also tried to hold onto their sound of the past that had made them successful (change management lesson here). The blended songs didn't sound like the new groups that were dominating the air waves or the old Styx. By having one foot in the past and one in the present, they didn't have a cohesive sound, and therefore didn't appeal to either group. The tensions created by this experiment contributed to the group breaking up the following year.

This phenomenon happens often with large change initiatives. The desire to move forward and stay the same leads to disappointing business outcomes, confusion around strategic direction, and concern over leadership capabilities. Recovering from this situation usually takes a new leadership team to reset the course and rekindle colleagues' engagement to follow it.

Bold strategic moves can redefine an organization's position in the market and unlock new opportunities for growth. This is what Charles Hardy referred to as achieving the 'second curve' in his book 'The Empty Raincoat'. Attempts to do so while keeping hold of current platforms or ways of working typically end in disappointment.

Styx reformed years later and are still on the concert circuit playing their 'old,' loved songs. They are more fortunate than most organizations that have tried to change and stay the same. They can choose to boldly go into the future or capitalize on a current niche market. They just can't do both at the same time.


Friday, 1 July 2011

Learning from the Best - Part II

Cicero and I disagree on his comment that  "Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself." There is always something to be gained from other people's perspectives, even in areas in which you have a lot of knowledge. And for areas that are new to you, experience-based wisdom is essential.

This rang true earlier this week when I got together with John Bradley, accomplished author of "The Foul Bowel, 101 Ways to Survive and Thrive with Crohn's Disease" and "Cadbury's Purple Reign: The Story Behind Chocolate's Best-Loved Brand".

From the first day I met him at the chocolate factory, John always has been generous in sharing his wisdom and advice. His perspectives on writing have helped me better understand my choices and the approaches to make them. Here are two short video clips that capture many highlights of our conversation. I learned so much in these 3 minutes!

John, thanks for your help. I appreciate it.