Ode to the Karate Kid

I just saw a  funny Facebook video of my good friend Phil leading what looks like a wedding party in a group “dance” called “Shake Your Foot.”

 

Strangely, I had started this post yesterday, having had some weird dreams about the very same dance the night before… call it coincidence, but I think it’s a deep universal connection that forms between anyone who has ever participated in this whacky ritual.

I’ve used this as an icebreaker or warm up during group leadership events and have shared it with hundreds, nay thousands of people over the years, including a large group of Microsoft executives on retreat in Alaska. More recently I even incorporated it into my “welcome” presentation on my first day at a new job (but that’s another story!).

I credit the great Joe Pounds of YMCA Storer Camps fame for introducing, and perhaps inventing Shake Your Foot. Phil and I learned it about the same time when we were working in the Adolescent Leadership program there. While delivered with the gusto that only Phil can muster, one thing missing from his recent wedding video is the portion fondly known by devotees as the Karate Kid Interlude.

As you may recall from the movie, young Daniel (played by Ralph Macchio) is schooled by martial arts master Miyagi (played by Pat Morita) in an effort to overcome bullying at school. Perhaps the most memorable moment in the movie is the “wax on, wax off” scene, but I digress. We found the “crane kick” in the penultimate fighting scene more inspiring and worthy of endless mimicry, and so it was inserted into Shake Your Foot in lieu of the finger snapping “too cool for school” interlude.

Karate Kid Crane Kick

Standing on one foot with my arms spread wide, crowing like a rooster came pretty easily to me, so I must say I really didn’t get why it was both funny and challenging to most of the people we engaged in this effort. That is until recently, when I was dealing with intense shoulder pain due to a small rotator cuff tear. Suddenly I could barely lift my arm, let alone hold it steady in the uplifted crane position.

Now, feeling a bit ashamed of my lack of empathy for those who struggled with this, I do daily stretches just to stand straight up without pain. I am happy to report that I’m nearing full motion in both arms and am starting to regain some of my former flexibility. Thus my recent re-discovery of the Karate Kid Interlude… it’s nearly impossible for me to stretch my arms up without the catchy Shake Your Foot song invading my focus. It brings a smile to an otherwise arduous exercise so I just go for it… all by myself.

Now if only someone can explain why I’m standing in my bedroom on one foot, crowing like a rooster to my kids…

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Innovation or hubris?

I just finished reading a great article by Austin Carr in Fast Company. He tells the long and sordid story of a multiyear, billion dollar effort by Disney to “overhaul the digital infrastructure” and “change the fundamental nature of Disney’s park experience” for customers. Now that’s an ambitious and exciting call to action! The article struck a chord for me because I just got back from a 5 day vacation at Disney World with my family for our Spring Break.

Disney Crowd

I’ve been to Disney parks more than a handful of times since my kids have been around, starting about 15 years ago. I have to say that I did not experience any appreciable change in this last visit that I would classify as an “overhaul” or certainly not a shift in the “fundamental nature” of the experience. I did notice a few new things here and there and was quite curious about the effort it took to replace paper tickets with an electronic pass. I saw people entering with wrist bands, but my family had little plastic cards like you find in most hotels. I found out you have to be staying in a Disney hotel to get one of the bands. Oh well. They didn’t seem to do anything different than the cards and I didn’t have the kids bugging me to buy yet another little Disney item to stick on them.

The dominant aspect of my experience was waiting. Waiting in lines for rides, waiting for the crowd to move so I could get where I wanted to go. Waiting for the Park Attendant to re-set our cards because the Fast Pass names didn’t align with the fingerprint names recorded within. We discovered this problem when we tried to split up on two different rides and we all got blue signals when we tried to get through the Fast Pass gate. We had three great ride entry experiences each day where the Fast Pass shortened our waiting by as much as an hour (down from 90 minutes to something like 30). We also had to wait for transportation… wait for the Monorail, wait for a bus, wait for a boat. All the waiting made my Disney experience something I had to tolerate on behalf of my 4-year old niece who is currently in the Princess Sweet Spot. But it did not really make me happy.

It was very fun to watch my niece’s eyes light up with all the magic, and my daughters really enjoyed taking their little cousin around and experiencing her joy together. I wonder about princesses as role models, and have some vague concerns with the Disney gender stereotypes, but I’ll leave that for another time. Mostly, Disney is good clean fun and overall I’d say I’m a Disney fan, but I was very glad when the trip was over.

cinderella_laugh

The Reinventing Happiness article made me recall many observations and thoughts I had about how Disney World seems to be falling behind, or appears out of sync with today’s ideas of entertainment. It’s quaint, it’s cute, but it’s aging drastically. In Tomorrow Land I rode gasoline powered cars on the Speedway and experienced a traffic jam as the ride ended (more waiting). My son and I sat there breathing in the gas fumes and listening to the “lawnmower” engines revving and I thought, “This is not Tomorrow, this is Yesterday! Maybe they should partner with Tesla to create a driving experience that’s ahead of our time, showing how solar power can be converted to a quiet, smooth, and exciting new driving experience. That would be cool.

I liked the Disney World mobile app for the map showing ride wait times, and a way to keep track of my Fast Passes, but noticed there was no “digital layer” where I could interact with the rides. Now that I’ve read they recently overhauled their digital infrastructure, this is actually startling. While in line (waiting) with my daughter for the Expedition Everest ride, we used Google to look up “tallest coasters” to see just how scary this might be for us. In the line for Thunder Mountain, we Googled a story on the Chilean miners who were trapped for a month, and talked about why there was a canary in the tubes. These were both interesting discussions to help pass the time while we were in line and both digital (Google) experiences were triggered by the rides themselves. I remember thinking that someone should use the Disney story telling prowess to create a companion experience. I’ve been around app building enough to know it wouldn’t cost that much to make something really cool.

At the Animal Kingdom we discovered the “Up” inspired Wilderness Explorers program. It took some searching, but we found a place to get the book and my younger kids got fully engaged in “earning” the badges. I like workbooks as a learning device, and it was cool to see them with pencils stuck over their ears meeting the various “ambassadors” who shared interesting tidbits with them. But again, I started to imagine many ways a digital companion experience could be designed to make the program more powerful and to connect beyond the Park. I even thought a start-up could have a cool partnership with Disney around storytelling and animal conservation… perhaps linking to Kiva or another micro-financing service to put wells in South Sudan. Could they connect with Salva Dut? That would be really cool!

Lastly, I found it humorous and a bit sad that you can purchase a “chip enabled” mug at Blizzard Beach so you can get an “endless soda” for the day. We tested the machines with our water bottles and found that only an activated cup will make the soda flow. I enjoy a corn dog, an ice cream bar Mickey, and a churro as much as the next guy, but endless soda is simply out of sync with public health and basic wellness. A cool digital experience, but completely wrong from a family entertainment standpoint. Maybe they could do a partnership with Fit Bit or Withings or JawBone or Nike…

Unlimited Soda 2

I did experience Test Track, and even without a Magic Band I could use my “magic” card at the touch points of that ride. It was a good ride and the shortening effect on the line was real for me too. A nice step in the right direction. But I don’t think Disney can claim victory on “reinvention” or “transformation” or “fundamental change” from their billion dollar initiative. Not even close. It’s even worse hearing that they think they are leading with creativity and innovation. They are clearly not. That’s why they had to buy Pixar. They do have a great marketing engine though.

I think they demonstrated many of the reasons why many companies fail at innovation. In fact this would be a great case study article (thanks Austin!) on what NOT to do if you want to address transformation. Starting with a leader who mandates “This better work!” and then puts executives in a “bake off” to see who will win the future CEO job, and ending with a bevy of “back up” consultants costing $100 Million.

From my cheap seats on the sidelines, I think the MyMagic+ team attached to the bracelet idea too early and then set about hammering it in to place. This was not innovation, it was a desperate attempt to remain relevant. So they bounced around with a million ideas from every direction and got overwhelmed by internal politics. Innovation requires a compelling vision to overcome that kind of resistance. Innovation is driven from the “outside in” starting with deep insights into the customer experience and emerging via a disciplined process involving intimate collaboration. I’ve talked about innovation many times before, so I won’t go into it further now.

Waiting in lines and messing with paper tickets are pain points for Disney customers, so you could call that a customer insight. But removing an obvious pain point with solutions that are found everywhere, does not qualify as innovation. It is simply keeping up.

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Love is a two-way street

trains-railroad_00389817

[this post appeared previously on the Bulldog Drummond blog]

Oh Love

Why do you love someone? Not the specific aspects of a specific person, but the broader reasons underlying love. I think it’s because of things like respect, trust, passion and reciprocity. Love is built on deep values shared by both people. This is not a wedding, so I won’t get all religious here, but suffice it to say that love is not about control, it’s about mutual admiration and devotion. If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free.

So why is it that so many businesses rely on intrusion, persistence and repetition to win your love? I think it’s because businesses rarely love their customers the way they expect their customers to love their brands. They are on a power trip. Yes, there are a small number of companies who truly love their customers and provide genuine reciprocal devotion. But not many. In a loving human relationship, there are many things that partners do for each other that have practical value. Like taking out the trash (without complaining) or picking someone up at the airport (a binding social contract according to Jerry Seinfeld). Surely, products have practical value in your life. Isn’t that the whole point? Tide helps you clean your clothes and Toyota helps you get to work… for a fair price.

A practical exchange of value is on the level of paying an employee to do a job. It gets the job done, but is “strictly business.” You pay for the detergent or car, and the company delivers a product that meets your specific needs. But love is on a whole different level. You might even “love” the way your car drives, or the way your detergent smells, but that’s not being in love with the brand. Being in love with a brand requires a deeper, more meaningful relationship… one that goes beyond simply exchanging money for a product. Similarly, being fully engaged in your work requires much more than fair pay for the effort you invest (What is employee engagement?).

Any business that wants to move past a business transaction and into a loving relationship has to start giving more than a product or service. You can’t have it both ways (for long). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a transactional business relationship. This only applies when a business has decided that love is a better strategy to run their business than a series of practical transactions. But there’s a pile of evidence that love leads to good things.

Elevation

In most businesses, a series of repeated purchases are far more profitable than a revolving door of new customers coming and going after only one try. The Loyalty Effect and Customer Lifetime Value are smart ways to think about evaluating customers over the long term. And Saatchi and Saatchi established the ideal of love marks as the “future beyond brands.” According to them, a love mark “delivers beyond your expectations of great performance and reaches your heart as well as your mind, creating an intimate, emotional connection that you just can’t live without.” So in order to win customers for life, it makes sense to elevate your aspirations and aim for love.

Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, but the stakes are high. You can’t just offer points for repeated purchases as most loyalty programs require. That’s controlling and obvious. Imagine if you only gave your partner a back massage if they take out the trash 20 times without complaining. That looks more like manipulation, and would be a red flag on the health of your relationship.

Every Day is a Winding Road

Both partners have to give fully “above and beyond” the practical value of their existence together to make a loving relationship work. Loving a brand is not all about devoted customers. It’s also about a devoted company. Brand consultants Wolff Olins recommend “thinking less about selling people, and more about enlisting them.” In a Wired interview with former Wolff Olins CEO Karl Heiselman suggests “Unlike the parent-child relationship of the past, or the top-down relationship in the past, companies and people are meeting as equals. It’s much more like a one-on-one relationship you would have with another person. It’s based on reciprocity and honesty and trust” (Check out the Wolff Olins/Flamingo full report).

So what does devotion look like for a brand? It starts with a clear set of values and a strong sense of purpose. Patagonia has stated that they want to save the planet from consumerism. An apparent contradiction for a company that makes clothes and puts out seasonal catalogs to get customers to buy more stuff. But in loving relationships, contradictions are something to embrace and explore together, not to be hidden or avoided. Clearly Patagonia is doing a lot to improve their impact on the planet, and being transparent about their intentions and owning up to their faults builds trust with customers. In an open relationship, there’s no hidden dark side or eventual “gotcha” moment where the truth comes out. There’s an honest, open dialogue about how they can be better.

Being honest and transparent is a great way for brands to demonstrate love for their customers, but there are other great ways. Instead of making every interaction a product push, brands can offer inspiration, insight, or support to their customers between and around purchases. Giving customers something they value beyond the specific product doesn’t have to cost a lot, it just has to feel right to the customer. Sometimes you can just make it easy for a customer by sharing good information or good advice instead of presenting a special offer or feature highlight. This approach to customers is nothing less than a complete re-engineering of advertising from a constant sales pitch to grab your attention, to helpful advice, aducation and inspirational content.

Fools in Love

Sometimes love requires breaking rules based on empathy for a customer’s situation. My family recently took a vacation to France, and while away my Mother-in-law became very sick. She was seriously ill when we left, but had an unexpected setback that suddenly threatened her life. My wife had to return home early, and called Air France to rearrange her flight. Of course this late notice change of plans caused a substantial fare increase of over $1500. The airline was under no business obligation to honor the original fare, so they didn’t. They offered to waive the $150 change fee if she got a letter from the hospital indicating her condition.

This is not love. This is war. We do not fly to France every week, so getting the highest fee for a one-time transaction might be good business. But, I would guess not many people love Air France, which means they’ll choose another airline if given the option. A loving brand would offer support and condolences and make sure she got home quickly with little resistance so she could be with her dying mother.

Brands can be more lovable by setting their customers free to “live their brand” in ways that align with the brand’s values. That’s more than getting people to drink a soda like Mountain Dew or wear a Van’s shoe. Mountain Dew and Vans both show that a real personality attracts a special type of customer into a deeply committed relationship, where they build the brand together into an authentic lifestyle.

The Power Of Love

It’s up to each business to decide if they want to pursue a loving relationship with their customers, or stick to a more businesslike, transactional approach. For some it may be too expensive (or maybe they’re just not ready yet). But there is plenty of research to show that customers actually want to love brands.

A long-term study by The Spending Group found that 48% of American consumers fall into a group they call the New Economic Order (NEO). The research shows that these “NEOs” value factors like design, authenticity, and experience higher than cost. The other 52% fit into a group they call “Traditionals,” who make buying decisions based mostly on the short-term value of a transaction. Both groups are substantial and should be met in an appropriate manner by businesses. But the kicker of the research is that NEO’s account for 77% of consumer spending, which is especially important during difficult economic conditions.

NEOs see products and services as an extension of themselves and seek authentic relationships and meaningful experiences. To win their affections, brands must work hard and offer more than a simple transaction. In the service industry, this is talked about as “surprising and delighting” customers at every turn. Just as you would bring flowers to a friend for no reason at all, brands must provide authentic, non-paying opportunities to connect with their customers if they want to earn loving status. There’s no way these efforts can be a disguised ploy to push product, or it will feel fake or forced to customers. It has to be no-strings-attached, genuine giving.

It’s not easy, but it is possible to establish long-term, committed relationships between companies and customers. And these types of relationships are great for the business and great for the customer.

All You Need Is Love.

Discography:

Oh Love (Green Day, 2012)
If You Love Somebody Set Them Free (Sting, 1985)
Elevation (U2, 2000)
Love Is A Many Splendored Thing (The Four Aces, 1955)
Everyday Is A Winding Road (Sheryl Crow, 1996)
Fools In Love (Joe Jackson, 1979)
The Power Of Love (Huey Lewis & The News, 1985)
All You Need Is Love (Beatles, 1967)

 

 

 

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The innovation 2 step

2stepOne of the longest standing designers at IDEO, Jim Yurchenco recently retired, and they posted a great video of him sharing some of his career lessons.

Jim Yurchenco : Reflecting on 35 Years at IDEO

The part that grabbed my attention was Jim’s statement that you should “never accept done for good, or good for excellent.” He continues by encouraging us to always ask someone you respect to look at what you are doing and say, “What do you think? What could we do better? Does this make sense?”

Innovation is a team sport, never a solo endeavor

While Jim’s first statement is a pithy, memorable bit of wisdom, the second contains the secret to innovation. Innovation is a team sport, never a solo endeavor. Innovation is a creative, iterative, collaborative process that takes place over time… not a single moment of brilliant insight. Sure, there are many insightful moments punctuating each journey, but without input from others those moments drift away, wither into nothing, or fail to hatch.

Input from multiple perspectives is imperative for innovation

Put simply, input from multiple perspectives is a requirement of innovation. It’s not that “aha moment” you have in the shower that’s the key. It’s how you share that idea with others and allow it to be shaped from an insight into an actionable idea that matters.

But even that secret is not sufficient to produce innovation in a reliable manner. You know the go-and-get-feedback routine… you create a first draft, sketch a concept, or even build a working prototype. Then you run it by a bunch of people to gauge their reactions. Some provide good ideas you hadn’t thought of, some just say “cool” and others give you feedback that just doesn’t seem to fit.

Most people take the good reactions as a sign to move forward, discount the worst comments, and perhaps choose a small improvement to add to their idea so they can get on with their plans. But this process doesn’t really transform the idea––it perhaps rounds off a few rough edges, but mostly serves to keep you in your comfort zone with this new idea. The first round of feedback is like an appetizer that gets the party started, but doesn’t really fulfill your needs.

True innovation develops through sharing information and opinions

After watching hundreds of great designers and entrepreneurs go about their daily routines, I’ve noticed they dance with an idea until it becomes something wholly different than what they started with. Sharing the “thing” you’re working on to get reactions, advice, guidance, etc. is just the first of two steps of sharing. The best innovators share the knowledge they’ve gathered in the first step with another set of people to compare the input and make sense of it. Then they start over with the first step and repeat the cycle many times.

The first step is for reactions and ideas on the thing you are working on. The second step is a meta-level “input on the input” discussion where the innovator gains a much deeper level of critique and synthesis that reshapes and improves the input. Instead of just gathering a bunch of single points and comparing them, the best innovators facilitate a spiraling dialog that might look something like this:

Innovator: Why did you say it should be round, but he said it should be square?

Person A: Well, I hadn’t thought about making it square. That’s an interesting point he’s made.

Person B: Yes, I’m sure it must be square because the technology you need won’t fit otherwise. But I see how round would be more appealing now.

Person C: I see how the technology won’t fit, but I really think the user will appreciate a different form. This feels like a compromise. We had this same problem on another project…

Innovation is the relentless pursuit of solving trade-offs until you reach a breakthrough. It’s not easy, and generally not efficient. It takes time, and most importantly, it takes input from others. Don’t hide your ideas and early concepts—get out there, ask for input and ask again (and again) until you refine and shape your idea into something truly excellent.

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Culture is a capability

A culture defines the normal way people behave in a particular group. It provides the cues, boundaries, guidelines and encouragement that help individual members of a group know what is right and what is wrong. Culture guides decisions that result in actions. The best way to understand a culture is to pay attention to actual behavior and study evidence created by the people of a particular group. It’s also great to compare groups in order to discover similarities and differences in their cultures, which is what the field of Anthropology is all about.

Image by David Rowan

Image by David Rowan

Get Specific

In the context of a company, I often hear people say things like, “We have a winning culture here,” or “We’re building a culture of innovation,” or “Our culture is defined by our values,” etc. These could all be true statements, but they are not very useful as descriptions of their particular cultures.

To describe a culture you need to identify specific, notable ways that people interact and find evidence that these ways are useful by the members of that particular group. If a company has a culture of innovation, we should be able to observe characteristics and behaviors by the people there that result in innovative outcomes. We should find artifacts of that behavior that are cherished and celebrated as the great examples of what the call innovation.

If the culture is strong there should be stories about how a certain leader did something unusual or even strange to other companies that resulted in a great outcome. This is why “founder stories” are so important to young companies. They describe the key insight or heroic behavior of the people who start a company and allow others to act in similar ways to get similar outcomes… resulting in a consistent pattern of behavior (culture!).

There is no “best” culture

I’ve had the great privilege of working in some of the world’s most innovative companies (as defined by Fast Company magazine) including IDEO, Charles Schwab, Levi Strauss, and Hulu. One thing I can say about all of them is that leaders there believe their cultures are a significant reason for their success. Another thing I can say, having been up close and personal in all of them, is that they are each distinctly different from the others. So while they may all have “winning” or “innovative” cultures, there is not a common culture across them. Behaving one way at Levi Strauss could actually get you fired at Hulu and vice-versa.

To understand what is innovative at IDEO, you just have to listen to the stories they tell each other about great moments in the company’s history. In fact, so many people ask IDEO about their culture, nearly any person who works there can point to examples of their innovative behavior that resulted in breakthrough product designs like the first Apple mouse or the Crest Neat Squeeze toothpaste tube.

What every leader should know about culture is that it has to be defined, built and actively managed if you want it to help your business succeed. In most cases, culture should be defined in response to a business problem, not in advance of one. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as “the best” culture that could be built first and then applied to any business problem. So just like a supply chain for making shoes would be different than a supply chain for making cars, each culture should be constructed to address the unique challenges of the business at hand.

Culture is not a statement of ideals

Culture should not necessarily be a reflection of the founder, CEO or executive team—although leaders must behave in accordance with the culture or it is unlikely that others will follow. Lip service to a value like customer service, followed by actions that don’t treat customers well will not build a customer-centered culture. All of the advertising dollars in the world will not make airline customers feel treated with respect if they are dumped from flights for unexplained reasons even if there’s a video of the CEO pronouncing that he personally cares for every customer who flies with them. A founder is often an architect of the cultural blueprint, but cultures are dynamic and change over time. What worked for the original 20 team members may not scale and should be adjusted to the demands of the business over time. Retain the essence but refine the whole.

Culture is not simply a values statement or a manifesto. Culture is a capability that provides direction and support to every member of an organization in order to achieve a strategic objective. Great leaders understand that culture  should be carefully managed to achieve their organization’s full potential.

[This post also appears in the Bulldog Drummond blog Uncommon Sense]

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Get addicted to curiosity

Feedback is dead. Long live feedback! Here’s some feedback for you: feedback is a red herring. Feedback is an elusive, somewhat repulsive, and sometimes destructive tactic to direct employees towards higher performance. Managers have been schooled for the past 25 years to make feedback a central aspect of their people practices, under the great intention of helping workers see where their efforts are on track and where they are not. It’s often presented under the guise of “development” where employees grow and improve in their careers by knowing what they are not doing right. For the most part, I believe these efforts are intended to help people perform better, but I think the whole concept of feedback is a wild goose chase… a fallacy built on outdated concepts of people and work.

Feedback is a machine language

The root of the problem is that most companies are designed in the industrial model of work where they don’t care much about what their people think of them. Henry Ford (who will serve as our poster child) is famously attributed with the quote “Check your brains at the gate” because he supposedly wanted people to simply follow established procedures and not mess up the assembly line. This worked really well back then to get consistency, scale, and efficiency but has some serious downsides for current organizations that depend on knowledge, creativity, and communication.

We’re now clearly beyond the Industrial Age and smack in the middle of the Idea Economy. And since ideas come from people (not machines), we should adjust our language and use better terms to describe how people behave while working together.

Feedback is for robots

According to Marshall Goldsmith, the top guru of the executive coaching world, there are only two problems with feedback: 1. People don’t want to hear it, and 2. People don’t want to give it. Well, that explains why we have formal processes and lots of rules to make sure feedback is given in a typical company. In his book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, Goldsmith provides lots of good advice and useful tips on how to manage feedback successfully. In it, he agrees that the term “feedback” should be changed, so he suggests we use “feed forward.” (Pardon me, and I mean no disrespect, but there’s got to be a better term.)

Feedback is not a human word—it’s a machine word. It emerged as a verb in the mid-1860s in descriptions of mechanical processes and in 1909, Physics Nobel laureate Karl Ferdinand Braun used the term “feed-back” as a noun to refer to undesired coupling between components of an electronic circuit. It jumped into the language of business organizations in the late 1970s as systems thinking began to influence management practices.

You might think it’s just semantics, but to get a more human and less robotic understanding of this situation, let’s start with the terms we use to describe key roles people play at work in a typical industrial organization: executive, manager and employee. Executives set direction, managers direct implementation, and employees accomplish tasks. This is a “top-down,” or hierarchical structure, that works exceptionally well when a market opportunity is clear, a product is established, and execution at scale is the primary function of the corporation. Feedback is what happens when a manager tells an employee that his work is not aligned with the plan. This is a method of control and mimics the operations of a mechanical process perfectly (i.e. a thermostat is a feedback mechanism for a furnace).

In business or life situations where creative output is required (i.e., direction is unknown or ambiguous, a sufficient answer has not been found to solve a problem, or existing tactics are no longer working effectively) a mechanical process is ineffective because there is nothing to control. These situations require human power to discover and invent a path forward—or create.

Curiosity is a positive addiction

So here’s another analysis of feedback. There’s only one problem with feedback: it doesn’t describe what creative people do at work. Creative people are curious. In fact, they are addicted to curiosity. They never stop asking questions and they use what they find out to explore the world, to learn and to grow. They can’t help themselves. As a direction is being laid out they get antsy and before you know it, their hands go up and a question blurts out. Growth is exciting and releases positive chemicals in your body that amp you up. Often the effect comes from a simple question like, “Why?” In a hierarchical organization, this is shut down and the person is considered a problem because they are challenging authority. In a creative organization, questions fuel forward progress.

Being curious is an easy thing to imagine yourself doing. Being concerned about doing a good job, helping others, and making a difference in the world comes naturally to most of us because they are fundamental desires of being human. On a more basic level, being curious about how you are perceived by others is key to social survival.

Here are some examples of questions curious people ask: What do you think? How can we make these things happen? Do you have any suggestions for how I could do this better?

Curiosity is something that is innate to everyone; it’s an attitude, a mindset, or a drive to explore and discover. However, being effectively curious does take some focus and practice.

Being effectively curious

First, recognize that you can be curious along a spectrum, from immediate to long-term, and the types of questions you might ask are different for each end of the spectrum. Immediate curiosity is “in the moment” and long-term curiosity is more reflective and periodic. In the moment, you ask very specific questions and explore options for next steps as a result of an immediate action. A question as simple as, “How does this feel to you?” will bring you new insights from others in the same moment. Or you can play a little game called “likes and wishes.” What do you like about this? What do you wish about this? The intent behind these types of questions is to explore and expand, not to confirm or deny. That’s being curious versus being defensive or obsessive.

Occasionally, you step back to see if you are making progress toward a longer-term goal by asking questions about patterns in your experience. This is the long-view about big picture things in your life or business. In this mode, you are asking, “Is this really what I should be doing with my time?”

Second, you need to make it easier for others to satisfy your curiosity. Nobody responds well to sharp inquisition or challenging questions without a little context. A question like, “Why’d you do that?” Can actually shut somebody down and provoke an answer like, “None of your business!” When you ask a question, help people answer you by expressing your goal, desire, or intent. This converts people to collaborators who are helping you solve a problem versus give you the answer. It also ensures that the advice you get is aligned with where you want to go. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Without some intention, you will get such a broad array of input from others that you can’t make sense of it.

Finally, recognize that sometimes people are shy about sharing their thoughts because they aren’t sure why you really need their advice, and there’s some social risk in their sharing critical opinions. What if you get offended and your relationship is damaged by their critique? What if they get a reputation for being a jerk? Or perhaps they haven’t noticed any issues with your approach, and they can’t think of anything to offer. So it’s very helpful to provide an invitation to the discussion. This serves as an opening in your own thinking and encourages others to offer more than a platitude like “looks good!”

You’ve probably heard someone ask, “How am I doing?” only to get a simple response like, “Fine!” This is not a valuable learning exchange, and the burden to improve it is on the asker of the question, not the provider of the answer. Curiosity drives you to a more involved exploration. If you want to know how you are doing, you have to help someone share her opinion in a sequence that leads to a meaningful exchange:

1. Express intent (I’m trying to…)

2. Disclose a concern (but I’m concerned that…)

3. Invite input (can you help with this?)

4. Explore with curiosity (how would you do it?)

Do this with several people and you’ll have a rich set of ideas to help you make good decisions and accomplish your goals, which will lead you to an ever-stronger addiction to curiosity.

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Grow or die

This is the irrefutable lesson of open systems, and an important key to understanding trends in your life.

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Open systems

First let’s establish the basic parts of an open system so I can easily refer to them throughout this post. An open system is any complex thing like a plant, animal, or organization. In each of these systems, there are sub-systems that interact among themselves (like breathing and blood flow, the sub-systems have components that do stuff (like lungs pulling oxygen from air), inputs to the system (like air), and outputs of the system (like bad breath). Inputs frequently have an impact on the outputs (like eating garlic), but sometimes are unrelated.

It’s important to remember that the environment surrounding a system changes over time, causing the system to deal with those changes by either adapting or ceasing to work. This circumstance is the basis of the statement, “grow or die.” Other words for growth might be adapt or evolve, but growth has the nice connotation of positive change and forward progress, so I like it better. What might be a good source of supply to a system today could totally disappear tomorrow, causing a complete breakdown of the system (like how jumping into a pool removes access to air for your lungs).

Or perhaps the inputs contain elements that are good and necessary (like oxygen) but also contain things that are harmful (like cigarette smoke or asbestos). Our lungs are able to process the good things and keep our bodies functioning well, but gradually the bad things reduce that capacity or grow into negative subsystems like cancer. Oxygen helps our bodies grow in size and capacity, but the negative elements reduce or limit that growth in trade-offs between good and bad.

So now let’s consider the idea of growth over time and science (i.e. the study of millions of open systems) gives us the S curve.

Growth curve of a bacteria colonyThe S-Curve is often referred to as the Growth Curve because the vertical axis represents the change in size, volume, or some other capacity as time moves forward on the horizontal axis. Consider this chart showing the growth of bacteria in several phases. In many open systems the stationary and decline stages stretch out over a long period of time and look more like a wave. There are alternating periods of growth and decline as the system adjusts to environmental changes like food or some other important input.

Humans can grow in so many different ways it’s hard to keep track of them all.  Our bodies grow physically from birth to adult maturity and ultimately death.  Our relationships grow from inception (did she just wink at me?) to maturity or demise.  Our understanding of the world grows from simple pattern recognition as babies begin to understand speech to complex reasoning and philosophical imagination as graduate students or senior researchers.  Together these aspects of being human combine to indicate our growth as a person.  A simple way to group them all is Mind, Body, and Spirit, remembering that these categories are interdependent, not operating on separate tracks.

Learning is growing

It’s pretty easy to understand how the growth curve applies to the Body aspects of our lives.  As babies, we start out tiny and grow exponentially, rather quickly until we get adult sized.  Then most of us alternate between being fatter and skinnier for the rest of our lives as we struggle with our food intake and exercise (output).  It might be harder to notice, but this same scenario plays out in our Mind and Spirit aspects as well.

The learning sub-system of us humans has components like your brain, your senses, and your emotions.  It has inputs like data, knowledge, information, advice, opinions, and sensory stimuli (like heat, texture, etc.).  And it has outputs like behavior, action, habit, opinion, advice and insight.  None of these examples is a complete list, but hopefully you get the point.

As babies and children we learn rapidly by taking in billions of data points and bits of information through their eyes and ears.  Then as students we read and listen and study to take in facts and information to deepen our understanding of the world.  Even as young professionals we still have to learn quickly to develop practical skills and insights about our chosen area of work.  Then after decades of constant learning we start to stabilize and gradually decline as our experience gets stale and the world around us starts to move on to new ideas and practices that we haven’t kept up with along the way.  We even call this aging process being “over the hill” which I think aptly describes tipping over to decline phase on the curve.

For nearly 800 generations of human history (about 60,000 years), our lifetime learning curve mapped pretty well to our lifetime body curve.   As we got older and started to decline physically, we could also retire and decline mentally.  The world around us wasn’t changing all that much so we didn’t really have to “relearn” anything in order to be at the top of the curve in a relatively stable phase.

But not any more!

According to Alvin Toffler in his seminal book, Future Shock we passed an inflection point in the rate of change in human culture towards the end of the last century.  At that point, people had to start relearning things and adapting to changes in our world or start falling behind rapidly.  Past the inflection point of technological change, we can no longer count on things we learned in childhood being true anymore.  We have to recheck things as science and technology advance human understanding and practices to new levels at an increasing rate of speed.

When my grandmother was born, people couldn’t fly.  When she died, there had been men on the moon.  When I was a kid, there was a planet called Pluto.  Now it’s not a planet.  The periodic table I memorized in high school had 106 elements, now it has 118.  My own kids have already seen unbelievable environmental changes in their lives resulting from mobile phones morphing into powerful computers with cameras.  My mom has an iPad and is the most active person on Facebook I know.  It makes her life better to connect with friends and family scattered all over world.  She doesn’t have to sit in her kitchen and wait for people to stop by, they can play Words With Friends together in different time zones and she can dial them up on video chat to see their smiling faces.  Instead of wishing for the “old times” and falling behind, she has learned new ways to interact and grown healthier as a result.

Toffler called the problem of relearning “shock” because adults were not prepared for rapid change and felt we would suffer in our reactions to it.  The adults of the Baby Boom may have been shocked, but I think people coming of age today are ready for constant change.  Our great ability to understand the world is a natural and agile open system.  The inputs may have changed, but our ability to process them into creative outputs is very resilient.

Breathe!

When you jump in a pool you have to hold your breath while you are under water or else you will drown. But if you realize you are stuck in the pool you come up for air and start to swim (or quickly learn how!).  This sink or swim reaction is a perfect example of grow or die.  So don’t hold your breath and hope the world will stop changing, take a breath and engage with all that is new around you so you can move up the curve not down it.

Sink or swim!

photo from Flickr: TX Erickson Family

 

 

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How to avoid the busy trap

 

Sand trap

Humans thrive when we get stuff done. But not just any old stuff, stuff that matters. People are born to create. And to accumulate results into a body of work they can be proud of. Conversely, we get depressed when we are simply “going through the motions” with repetitive or mundane tasks that just keep us busy. You’ve probably heard of “make work” which describes pointless tasks that keep someone busy but do not result in any progress towards something valuable. While keeping busy appears a lot like working, the lack of progress on anything meaningful is dispiriting.

Progress is the single most important event leading to positive inner work life, according to the Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School. She describes a positive “inner work life” as the continuous stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations that people experience throughout their workdays. And we all know that a positive attitude leads to better efforts and better results.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who get paid for being busy, meaning their output is measured by activity not by value created. Busy people come in earlier, stay later, and never have time for chit-chat in the company kitchen. They are often admired for their work ethic, and praised for their heroic commitment to the company.

But being busy is a trap… as you put more and more effort into something you steadily get less and less out of it. And as you get less out of work you get bored, overwhelmed, sick, and tired. Working a 70-hour week is an amazing feat, but it doesn’t signify any sort of progress. This is a problem that is plaguing American businesses according to a recent study by Mercer consulting that noted, “Diminished loyalty and widespread apathy can undermine business performance, particularly as companies increasingly look to their workforces to drive productivity gains and spur innovation.”

Funny, I just realized the term business, is actually busy-ness.

Business is often managed with policies that force people to work during certain hours and count their vacation days, yet don’t acknowledge the evening or weekend when the employee has dedicated “extra hours” to complete a project or prepare for a big presentation. Business requires such policies because people don’t like to perform make-work.

But much of the work businesses accomplish is not make-work; it’s real work, just not that interesting or challenging. It’s routine, mundane, and predictable. And there’s not a lot of autonomy provided in routine jobs, which is another source of frustration. So are we supposed to submit to “the man” and punch the clock, work for the weekend, and find our joy outside of work? That’s not what successful people do.

A quality frame of mind comes from vision and focus

In order to get meaning out of work, you must have vision and focus. With vision and focus, every moment becomes a quest for quality. A quality frame of mind sparks your energy to engage in the difficulties of real work. As observed by Robert M. Pirsig, in his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, A person who sees quality and feels it as he works, is a person who cares.

The quality frame of mind is approached from another angle by Victor Frankel, who illustrates the power of personal choice in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. If a prisoner of war can find joy in a daily routine despite his most terrible circumstances, then I believe it’s possible for anyone to avoid the busy trap or become a victim of a bad job.

But how do you “see quality” as Pirsig suggests? First you have to know what you want from your work. Is it to pay bills? To learn something? To prove something? To fulfill an ambition or desire?

Simply “being present” in a work setting will not result in real work being accomplished. Answer this question and you will have an end in mind, which is habit #2 of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. But with the end in mind, you still must have the discipline to focus on only the things that carry you toward that vision.

Despite the value I find in Covey’s Seven Habits, I think for most people there’s still something missing. Vision and focus are necessary to meaningful work, but they are not sufficient to sustain long efforts or overcome difficult circumstances. There’s another more fundamental trait involved here called grit, which I’ve described before. And Jonah Leher of Wired magazine has a similar post.

In reading that post, I discovered a point I hadn’t noticed before in the U.Penn study, which is that many people find deliberate practice not fun. They have a hard time sticking to their planned routine and suddenly find themselves bored or tired, and ready to quit.

So even with a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, and despite great focus on doing the right things to get there, most people still end up in busy mode, going through the motions of routine tasks, but not making any progress (sigh).

Play it out!

According to play expert Brian Sutton-Smith, “Play (is) a kind of transcendence. Play is not just fun, not just pleasurable for its own sake. Play makes it possible to live more fully in the world, no matter how boring or painful or even dangerous ordinary reality might seem. Play is not the opposite of work it’s essential to work.

The successful people I know always say not to do things unless you are having fun doing them. And if you look closely at successful people, they do a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem very fun. So the secret here is not in picking fun work, it’s about making work fun. A grand vision is important to spark greatness, but for many people it’s too far away, too big, and too abstract to keep them energized through routine, repetitive or physically draining activity. A playful heart to go along with your quality mindset brings fun into any routine.

Playing while working is about having small goals built into routine tasks that lift your energies and light your soul. Craftspeople take pride in the precision of a cut, the straightness of an edge, or the smoothness of a surface. This is vision and focus at work. But having the grit to complete a huge floor with hundreds of cuts and thousands of repetitive arm swings takes playful energy.

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Play can simply be about practicing fundamental skills that will help you be a better person. Or it can be more like a game you play with yourself or a work mate to see who can “one up” the other. With a quality mindset and a playful heart, you can dig a hole for no other reason than to dig straighter walls and move bigger shovel loads at a faster pace. When you set parameters and add constraints to challenge yourself, boring work feels like fun a game.

Personal growth is a natural result of meaningful work

When you zoom in to the moment with a quality mindset and play it out during deliberate practice, even the dullest of activities becomes fully engaging, as every new cycle is slightly better than the previous one. You feel real progress and get better results. As I learned through my experience at IDEO, working in this way is a form of prototyping. And prototyping is a great method for discovering breakthrough ideas.

Prototyping yourself leads you to discover things about yourself you’ve never noticed before. These new discoveries are what I learned to call “Blinding Flashes of the Obvious” (BFO’s ) when I worked the ropes course circuit. In these unexpected moments, you catch yourself being yourself, which is the first step in personal growth.

This is an added bonus to avoiding the busy trap. You get better results in your work, but you also get a better self. And it’s fun along the way? What are you waiting for?!

ADDITIONAL NOTES:

Work:
English Wircan “to operate and to function.” Action involving effort or exertion…negative connotation has stuck with the word throughout the history of the word.

Also: a noun describing good deeds, a literary or musical composition.

Play:
Dutch Pleien “to dance, leap for joy, rejoice”… English plegian, “to exercise/frolic”
Amuse or divert. Carry out or practice, perform or execute a movement.

Fun:
Middle English fonnen “befool”… trick, cheat, hoax

Main point: Focus + Vision + Play = Meaningful Work

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Working Human

[In case you didn’t catch it… this is a re-post from my guest blogger contribution to the Bulldog Drummond blog on June 19, 2012]

Does this look engaging? (photo by jurvetson via Flickr)

For far too long, we’ve been operating under management philosophies that undervalue being human. The Industrial Revolution did a lot of good things for the world, but the organizations designed to support manufacturing businesses common in that era are not one of them. They are hierarchical and rigid and have little allowance for human variation. Even in their friendliest form, they are paternalistic, placing the burden of responsibility on a select few in positions of authority.

Mechanistic terms and phrases used to describe people and how they work together like: creative engine, mental horsepower, well-oiled machine, weakest link, and human capital are woven through our everyday language. I’m all for the creative use of metaphor, but I think in linguistic terms, the ubiquity of these terms points to an underlying framework that is decidedly not human. At the heart of the industrial view of the world is a reductionist philosophy that leads people to break everything down to the component parts and attempt to optimize the fit and performance of each item in isolation. The problem is humans are not that simple. We can understand how molecules stick together and how synapses fire, but they don’t actually work in isolation of each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. People have soul, and heart, and passion.

The effect of not having a human-centered framework for workplace design is decidedly negative. According to the Gallup Management Journal, only 29% of U.S. workers are engaged, while 56% are not engaged, and 15% are actively disengaged. That is, when people are treated (even subconsciously) as machines, they don’t perform at their best. They might do what they are told until they no longer have to, but they are not inspired to create, build, or serve in ways that leverage their full potential and deliver great value.

Join the Human Revolution

Most organizations we know today are built to be stable and predictable, using rigid specifications honed by financial metrics. But there is increasing evidence that this type of organization doesn’t do well in environments that are transforming, ambiguous, or complex (Think: Dinosaurs). See more on this comparison in The Connected Company by Dave Gray. So this is a call for organizations of all types, whether they are businesses, governmental agencies, community groups, schools, or sports teams, to rethink their fundamental principles of organization and shift from industrial age thinking to a human-centered design that helps people thrive.

This shift is intimidating. It’s about losing control and building trust. It’s about helping people grow versus boxing them in with rules and boundaries. It requires a belief in the innate greatness of human kind versus a bureaucratic defense against slackers and cheats.

But the rewards are substantial. Organizations of all types struggle with low creative output, poor service, and declining productivity. Optimization and consolidation can only squeeze performance on the margin so much. For sustainable high performance in service, innovation, invention, or productivity, people must be at their best. And to be at their best, they must be well.

Even in stable environments, where companies make big investments in predictable consumer patterns (like retail or automotive), people perform better when they are treated like people, not cogs in the machine. The Gallup/Healthways Well-Being study demonstrates a very clear economic advantage of employee well-being when you understand the impact of absenteeism, illness, and low engagement on a company’s bottom line.

Before Engagement

Progressive organizations are already committed to the idea that employee engagement drives high performance. But many of these companies still approach engagement with command and control tactics. In response to a slippery company culture concern, I recently heard a very successful business leader say, “Give me 120 minutes with our managers and I’ll tell them how this is supposed to work.” Sorry, but you can’t order people to be good leaders. Or be creative. Or give good service. Or invent a new technology. They have to want to do it themselves and make very difficult emotional, social, and intellectual trade-offs to get there. See a comprehensive view on this point by Daniel Pink in his book Drive.

So while engagement is a great leading indicator for high performance, it’s a lagging indicator of wellness. That is the capacity to give discretionary effort and highly valuable contributions depends on individual wellness. If you are not well, it’s very difficult to be fully engaged.

Viewing wellness as a foundation for high performance makes it more clear what things an organization should have in place to help people perform at extraordinary levels. This is where things start to get messy, because in the traditional relationship of employee and employer many of the requirements for wellness are considered private or “none of your business.” But if learned one thing in graduate school, it came from professor Charles F. Luna: Things that matter are messy.

photo by sanchom via Flickr

Being Fully Human

Many people associate the term wellness with physical health. It’s not hard to understand that proper nutrition, rest, and exercise lead to higher levels of energy. So let’s just start there: What is your organization doing to help your people in these areas? Do you have recess? Do you make people take time off? Do you provide healthy food options as snacks?

But don’t forget that physical health is only one piece of the wellness puzzle. Well-being is about being fully human, which also includes dimensions of mental, social, spiritual, and emotional health. Philosophers have worked on the definition of “being human” since the beginning of recorded history, and probably before then. Aristotle, Maslow, and more recently a slew of companies like Daily Feats, Me You Health, and Kairos Labs have outlined broad models for well-being.

The desire for wellness is not a new phenomenon for us humans. Conventional wisdom is dripping with advice for how to live a good life. Phrases like an apple a day keeps the doctor away; peace (complete with two finger gesture); never go to bed angry; early to bed early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise; etc. are “rules of thumb” developed over generations to show the way to balance, fulfillment, and happiness. Research on happiness has boomed recently. I’ve even seen it stated that happiness is the new currency.

So wellness is not new, but it’s very elusive. For many of us it’s very hard to pay attention to all aspects of wellness simultaneously and adjust our habits to get there. Worse, much of the conventional wisdom or common sense tactics for living well are not tested, and some are quite simply wrong. See more on positive habit formation by Timothy Wilson in his book Redirect.

Work is Life

I think the biggest failure by organizations in this regard is the separation of “work” and “life”. Work, as we’ve defined it for centuries, is a burden to bear, not a form of pleasure. And Life is something you do when you are not working. So we “work for the weekends” and then “live it up” only to “get back to the grind” on Mondays. Shoot me now.

Certainly many people along the way have enjoyed their careers and found joy in their efforts. But the dominant mindset of corporations and institutions is to root out all “softer” elements of working under the banners of focus, optimization, and efficiency. Office cubes, assembly lines, warehouses, and even schools and hospitals have been designed to remove critical human needs like friendship, beauty, and laughter, so workers can focus and get shit done. Most corporate policies, procedures, practices, and routines are built on the same blueprint of efficiency and optimization. But all work and no play, makes Jack a very dull boy (Check out this great scene from The Shining to see what I mean!).

There is hope in world of work. Companies like 3M, IDEO, and Google are famous for their humanistic values and have great results to show for it. Zoom out and this transformation seems overwhelming. So you’ll probably just stay the course and ride this out until retirement sets you free.

Zoom in and focus on just one thing you can do tomorrow to start working like a human. Take a walk in the middle of the day. Eat grapes instead of a bag of chips. Personalize your desk with a plant or drawing from your favorite 5 year old. Every little thing counts, but you can’t count unless you do something.

Okay, get moving!

 

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Being Successfully Controversial

In a recent social media frenzy, I stumbled upon a great insight: the link between controversy and innovation. I had just finished my post about how innovation is a natural result of being human, and Lisa Kaye tweeted a quote from actress Eva Le Gallienne, stating that “Innovators are inevitably controversial.”  When I think of controversy, I immediately think of courage.

That same day, innovation guru Diego Rodriguez posted a TED talk by Bryan Stevenson encouraging us all to be courageous.  In his talk, Bryan touches on how we are all inspired by people who are the first to stand up, speak up, lead the way, draw a line, or refuse to budge on principle.  Rosa Parks was an icon of courage for civic innovation and equal rights.  John F. Kennedy was an icon of courage that spurred innovation in science and technology.  Ronald Reagan was an icon of courage for global unity.

Kennedy Space Center (Photo from Smalling Studios)

To make change, it is essential that we stand up for what we believe is right. Courage is one part vision of what could be and one part frustration with what is. Courage is the spark that ignites change and inspires others to join the process and tip from old to new.

Linking controversy and innovation makes it sound like innovation is a struggle against resistance.  Which gets me thinking about resistance as a strengthener.  People do push-ups, lift weights, carry medicine balls, or use elastic bands to build muscle.  You push against gravity to improve yourself.  So it makes sense that pushing against normal is a great way to improve the world.

Courage is only half of the equation

I’ve learned through many, many, many failed attempts, that courage is necessary, but not sufficient in successful innovation.  Courage is only half of the equation.  With only courage, you can come off as righteous, contrarian, or antagonistic.  A thorn in the side.  You face immediate rejection by the established way.  Succeeding only at creating more resistance. It’s really something to speak up, but not enough to leave it at that.  Controversy can end with polarization and gridlock (take the U.S. Congress… please!).  Or controversy can be the beginning of a better world.

The other half of the innovation equation is creativity.  By creativity, I’m not talking about the Crayola-artsy-black-turtle-neck type of creativity.  I’m talking about the well-that-didn’t-work-so-let’s-try-this type of creativity.  Lateral thinking that produces a never-ending stream of ideas and alternatives to test and explore until the right thing happens.  The way Thomas Edison tried hundreds of filament-gas-tube combinations to get the light bulb.  The way Abraham Lincoln tried running for office multiple times before finding his way to the Presidency.  They were successful innovators because they had both courage and creativity.

Against means together?

For most big problems, there is no silver bullet. No single invention.  Innovation is an unfolding, iterative, extended effort that takes place against the normal way of doing things.  So innovation is inevitably controversial, requiring us to act with both courage and creativity to achieve success.

As you may already know, “contra” is a Latin root meaning against.  And “verse” means turn. Literally, “turning against.”  Being interested in linguistics and natural human behavior, I poked around the origins of contra and found that the prefix con- is a variant of com- which means together.  This makes sense if you consider against in this usage: The ball is resting against the wall (they are sharing the same space together).

So perhaps controversial really means, “turning together.” And we humans are designed to work together and constantly improve our condition.

Bottom line: to be successfully controversial, consider your mission as a strengthening exercise you do with a bunch of other people, not a war against the other side you must win (or else!).

 

 

 

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