Top 10 Reasons why you should NOT go to STORY 2018

In September, I’ll once again have the opportunity to share several days with some of my most creative and brilliant friends at STORY 2018. Having been at numerous previous STORY gatherings, I know I can’t begin to imagine the ideas, insights and new relationships I’ll have upon leaving this year’s conference.

But there is one emotion I know I’ll have—one regret and it’s this, “Our lives, business, country, whatever, would be so much better if more people could have experienced what I just experienced.”

It’s almost a creative remorse. Why can’t more people be like the group I just left? Why must we settle on the mundane status quo so many of us live? We don’t.

But just in case you aren’t sure why you should go to STORY 2018, let me share with you the


10 – Your idea of a good conference is boring slides and monotone speakers

I’ve literally been to hundreds of conferences of all sizes. Like many of you, I’ve wasted countless hours trapped in the middle of a row, listening to a speaker drone on about something of no interest to me (and apparently to them), all the while looking for a way to escape. If you like this kind of setting, don’t come. The people who share at STORY are credible and passionate about their craft. They are humble and approachable. They offer unique insights that can’t be found elsewhere. For me, STORY is by far, the best conference I have EVER attended. In fact, it’s less of a conference and more of a purpose filled gathering.

9 – Your story (or your business’ story) needs no improvement

If you or your business have all the attention you need, if your message resonates with your audiences and they are inexplicably drawn to you, then you probably don’t need to come. But I know from being in the business world, there are very few personal and business storytellers that are nailing it every time.

8 – You think sameness is the spice of life

If your office has a framed version of “Whether it’s broke or not, don’t fix it” you’re not likely to enjoy story. I’ve been in business for decades. I would have thought I had it figured out. Each year at STORY, I walk away with not one, but dozens of immediately business applicable ideas and tips I can use. I can look back on my presentations and messaging and see the change STORY has made year to year.

7 – Smiling makes you freak out

You may not believe it, but humor makes ideas memorable. It’s not that STORY is a comedy club, but some of the most rewarding moments I can recall are surrounded by transparent emotion. Sometimes it was a laugh and other times it was a heartfelt reflection brought on by a passionate story being shared. If you don’t like being around people smiling, laughing, reflecting and just feeling…you’d probably have a better time if you spend these two days in a sensory deprivation tank.

6 – The only color you like is gray

Just look at the website. Look at the images from previous STORY gatherings. Everything about STORY is color and visually exciting. Gray is good, but I think it serves to accent the world of color around us.

5 – You don’t like surprises

Every year I try to imagine what I’m going to learn at STORY. My first year was like any business conference, I went with a well-defined set of objectives and a clear target for what I was going to learn and how I was going to apply it. While knowing where your gaps are is good, I’ve learned it’s best to come with a blank sheet of paper (actually a whole tablet) and be open to what is given. In the evenings and after the conference, I’ve found I could reflect on what I heard and experienced and the applications of that knowledge jumped out at me. I look forward to the surprises.

4 – You don’t want to change

STORY will change you. Enough said.

3 – You don’t care about yourself or others

Everyone at STORY, the participants, staff and speakers can best be described as having a servant heart. Every time I speak with Harris and his team, I am amazed of their humility and clear sense of responsibility to serve others. This message carries through to the entire conference. This is not one of those “compete and be better than everyone else” kind of gatherings. You’ll certainly be lifted up, but in the process, you will be lifting up others.

2 – You’re not human

STORY is about the most human aspects in all of us. It’s about the potential and spark that lives in each of us. It’s about something bigger than us as individuals. It’s about humanity.

1 – You’re dead

Extend your right forefinger and middle finger. Turn your left palm upward. Gently press your right outstretched fingers onto the upper-middle of your wrist. Do you feel any beating? If you don’t, move your fingers around a little bit. Feel anything yet? If not, don’t come to STORY. Seek medical help.

If you don’t identify with these Top 10, then I would encourage you to go to and reserve your place. I look forward to seeing you there.

As for the rest of you who won’t be there, I’ll be lamenting for you as I leave STORY this year.

What is STORY? from Istoria Collective on Vimeo.


You can tell a person by their covers

What's on your shelf?

Yesterday I was on a video conference with one of my favorite people, Jeremy Waite. As we were discussing big ideas and small words, we each started pulling books off our shelves to share with one another. This afternoon, I was pondering. Now that’s a word you don’t hear often. And in doing so, I glanced at my book shelf.

Each of my books hold a particular meaning to me. Some I’ve had for many years. Some are autographed by the author. But each one has helped shaped who I am, how I think, and how I serve others. As I was reading the titles, I saw a story emerge. So I challenged myself to list my top 40 book titles (that I currently own and have read) and then work them into a couple of paragraphs that describe who I am and what I do. Here’s the result (with links to books):

I might best describe myself as a conversational optimist. I believe in the creativity of individuals and the collective genius of teams. During my career of working with executives around the world, I’ve learned that graphic storytelling and visual narratives are the linchpin to selling the dream. Some of my brightest moments and weird ideas that worked have come from a spark ignited during a casual conversation on the back of a napkin. I’ve learned the rules for revolutionaries are different and when one is clearing the mind for creativity, you sometimes have to ignore everybody. When I’ve been willing to unthink what I know and develop a whole new mind about a specific problem or opportunity, I put myself in the element I need for making ideas happen. I’ve been honored to speak around the world to organizations and leaders who are trying to find where good ideas come from and with each engagement I am reminded of the desperate need for our businesses to switch from a culture of education to one of enchantment. My dad told me, “If you know how to do something, you’ll always have a job. You’ll be working for the person who knows why.” As a leader, I believe it’s important to find your why. Believe me, the one thing we cannot afford in this age of cognitive surplus is to drive ourselves and others toward mediocrity. I enjoy helping companies and organizations take a reality check and discover how to drive your competition crazy. I accomplish this by helping individuals and teams rework the way they present their message so they resonate. We work on putting stories to work, achieve presentation zen and repeat the remarkable. I help business professionals do the deep work that generates out of our mind innovative ideas that are made to stick. To sell is human, but our goal should not be to get people to buy, but rather get them to believe. If they believe, they will buy (or follow you), but the converse is not often true. By demonstrating why leaders eat last and how to start with why, I’m able to help creative individuals learn how to orbit the giant hairball of stagnant complacency. Let me know how I can be of service to you.

What does your bookshelf say about you?

“We’re gonna need that”

Considerations for corporate leaders when faced with disruptive competition

In the Pirates of the Caribbean movie “Curse of the Black Pearl” there is a scene where the heroes are aboard the HMS Interceptor and are being chased down by the aggressive Capt. Barbosa aboard the faster Black Pearl.

Faced with how to respond, a plan is made to race the Interceptor to the shoals ahead because their ship can operate in shallower water than the Pearl.

A command decision is made to lighten the ship for both speed and displacement. The order is given, “Anything that we can afford to lose, see that it’s lost.”

The crew begins jettisoning all manner of cargo and anything that doesn’t immediately aid them in their flight.

But Will Turner looks back to the Pearl and sees they are deploying oars that will certainly result in the Pearl overtaking the Interceptor before it reaches the safety of the shoals. As he’s making this observation a sailor nearby is about to push a heavy deck cannon overboard. Will stops him and says,

Realizing their flight is not enough, Will demands, “We have to make a stand. We have to fight. Load the guns.”

The Captain realizing they’ve thrown their cannon balls overboard asks, “With what?”

Will replies, “Anything. Everything. Anything we have left.”

In the end, with a clever tactical maneuver and the firing of silverware, our heroes escape.

It’s a great story. But it’s one that is being played out in many organizations today. And some, I fear, will not be as fortunate as those aboard the Interceptor.

Large, historically dominant corporations are being threatened by faster and more agile upstarts. Like the Interceptor, they’ve survived on being the fastest ship around. But not any longer. Executives in board rooms are looking over their shoulders at the approaching competition and making some the same decisions from our story.

Perhaps they can speed up by lightening their load. So, orders are given, and well-meaning deck hands begin jettisoning projects, policies and people that on the surface appear to be unessential in the current goal of speed.

But like Barbosa, the competition often has untapped skills and tactics that can nullify a plan based on flight and speed alone. There will be an inevitable fight. At some point, these companies will have to make a stand.

For me, the best line in this scene is when Will Turner realizes the current course of action is not enough and a fight is needed. It’s at that point he tells the deck hand not to jettison the cannon because, “We’re gonna need that.”

If your company or organization is being threatened by Barbosa-like aggressive competition, lightening your load for speed is not ill advised. But you need to take care that in the confusion, you don’t lose your cannons. You will eventually have to fight. And you will need weapons.

For instance, you may have projects that aren’t immediately adding to your revenue stream but are positioning themselves to be the differentiator you need in upcoming competitive battles. Maybe you have policies that reflect your culture that are difficult to defend in flight mode, but over time form the very culture and organizational value that makes you unique. And perhaps the person who you consider to be past their prime, might well be the holder of the insights and experience you are going to need to win against younger and more naïve upstarts.

I know corporations, and the executives that lead them, are required to make hard and difficult decisions. And I am of course aware that change is not only inevitable, but also necessary. I abhor stagnant environments and embrace well-designed change. My hope is that reorganizations, changes in policies and direction are not solely focused on the short-term survival of flight, but that those in command are carefully considering what and who they are tossing overboard. They may be the very cannons they are going to need to survive.

This article was also posted LinkedIn

Stories for a change

The more I learn about the power of Story, the more I am convinced the organizations, the companies, the governments, the leaders, the individuals who are going to make an impact in improving our world, is going to do it through the habit of Storytelling.

In conference rooms, event halls, street corners and board rooms, I’ve heard the constant rhetoric of fact and figures. “I think this is right…” and “Here are the reasons why…” are most often followed by sanguine narrative that when finished, you just want to respond, “Say what?”

Next time someone gives you an opinion or expresses a perspective that you can’t quite get your head around, ask them, “Can you tell me a story about how that would work?” or “Give me an example of that playing itself out in real life. What would that look like?”

“If you can’t say it simply, you don’t know it well enough.” – Albert Einstein

To take an idea and tell it in a simple story may not be easy, but it’s impossible if you don’t have a clue about what you are saying.

And just because someone can give you a valid story, doesn’t make their point valid. But it will give you additional insights you may need to form an opinion or offer an alternative perspective (story).

You can tell a culture by listening to its stories. You can change a culture by changing its stories.

Listen for stories. Create better stories.  #StoryMatters

And if you’re interested in stepping up your story game, join me at Story2017 in Nashville.

Story 2017 – An uncommon creative community

Come join us!

You are a creative. Notice I didn’t say “If” you are a creative. We are born creative beings. For some, our environment and education has suppressed our creative awareness. For others, we’ve been blessed to be around other creatives and been placed in situations where we had to exercise our imagination to survive. My website’s name is testimony to my concern and resulting passion to revive the creative spirit in myself and others. Like a hospital patient, our world, business and families need an infusion, a steady drip of creativity. But to help that process along, I’ve found a booster shot.

I have the most amazing opportunity this fall. I am honored to be presenting at Story 2017. When you go to their website, you will be amazed at beauty and awe of what they properly describe as an uncommon creative community.

On Sept. 21-22 in Nashville, they will be holding their annual conference. I attended last year. And while people say things like this as an exaggerated superlative, those two days changed my life. As a Chief Storyteller for IBM, I have the privilege of attending and speaking at a large number of conferences. Without a doubt, Story 2016 was the most impactful conference I have ever attended. Some conferences have great topics and speakers. Others have great venues. Some are a showplace for the atmosphere of sets, music and themes. While some are just a unique gathering of characters that you don’t want to miss. Story has all of this.

It’s not even close to the real experience, but you can get a taste from this highlight video of Story 2016.

The Story 2017 theme is Carnival of Curiosity. Go to their website. Be curious. Look around and see what you can discover. And don’t let the low-ticket price fool you. Most of the corporate events I attend have prices 4 and 5 times that of Story. But those are playing to the senior executive at large organizations with a deep budget. I deeply appreciate Story’s love for the art and craft which drives them to make sure even the individual storyteller has the opportunity to attend. By the way, if you’re an aforementioned corporate exec with deep pockets, consider purchasing a box of seats and offering them to your creative customers. They will love you for it.

If you have any questions, contact Story or ask me. I may not know the answer, but I can probably find someone who does. And if you decide to attend, let me know. I’d love to meet you there.

BTW…I don’t know how long this will last, but if you go to you can discover a coupon code for a $100 discount on the Story 2017 ticket price.

Story matters!

Be a pickpocket

light touch with high impact

Here is a great example of a brilliantly executed corporate story. Watch this before proceeding with the rest of this post.

What I like about this kind of story is that they don’t let the technology get in the way of the story. The technology is just a supporting actor in the unfolding story.

I’ve seen many technology demonstrations done in a story style, but the technology is called out as the focus. The actors dialog is just a bit of glue designed to get us from one feature demo to another. Usually it’s because the emphasis on building the story has been the product features rather than a compelling and captivating storyline. The result is usually a good demo of technology capability (facts) but not a story that will be remembered. People will often forget you and the facts you present, but they likely remember your story and the way you made them feel. From the video story shown, how well could you recount the story? How many product features can you remember seeing?

Great corporate storytelling is not about the performance.
It’s more like picking someone’s pocket.
They don’t know what’s happened until later (if ever).
But instead of taking something, you have instead provided an insight, touched an emotion or sparked their imagination.

As you watched this story unfold, you probably noticed technology was being used, but it was done in a subtle way to support the story…not vice versa. And if you watch it a second time, look for the technology inserts. They comprise only 40 seconds of on-screen time (only 20% of the video duration) and show eight different features (search using text string “park with ancient gate in lahore” to find the gate’s name; search to find the food type “what is jajariya”; search using geographic relationship “oldest sweet shop near mochi gate in lahore”; search “fatal sweets lahore”; google map with vendor names; search for India visa requirements; search for weather in destination; search for arrival time by flight number.)

People will forget what you said and they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
– Maya Angelou

Think about how you felt when you saw the Google story unfold. If you’d didn’t get emotionally connected, check your pulse.

Frank Luntz, Chairman and CEO of Luntz Global in his talk to the Milken Institute titled “Words That Work: It’s Not What you Say, It’s What People Hear” started his talk with this statement, “All you business people in here, you have no heart. You have no emotion. You have no passion.” Although it was cut from his video, I believe one of the ads he shared was the Google ad above. He follows the ad showing by saying,

“Why don’t you people in the business world talk that way? Why don’t you relate to people that way?”
– Frank Luntz

The most common answer: There is no story!

Businesses and organizations have facts and figures. They have references and polls. Some have products and features. But they are missing the story.

People are no longer buying goods and services. They are buying stories, relations and magic.
– Seth Godin

Take a look at your latest communications. Pull up that presentation you’re planning to give. Record yourself doing that product demo or pitch and play it back. Are you educating or enchanting? Are you talking to them or sharing with them? Are you selling or giving them the opportunity to buy?

We are all in the business of story. What’s your story?

If you need any assistance discovering or refining your story, let me know. I would be honored to assist you in whatever way I can. #StoryMatters

The Story of a Presentation

The science and art of sharing your story

As the Chief Storyteller for IBM Watson Work and IBM Watson Talent, I’m often asked about how I create my presentations. I’d like to offer a quick story of a presentation from concept to delivery.


At some point, either through some insight, a challenge or an invitation to share, I am faced with the need for a new presentation. For this story, I was asked to speak for 20 minutes as the keynote for the IBM New Way To Work Tour. My instructions were as follows:

  • We don’t want a product presentation. We want something insightful to kick off the event.
  • The technologies we want to introduce are Cloud, Social and Analytics
  • The audience will be people from Finance and Marketing as well as Business Analysts
  • We want them engaged and challenged so they will get the most from the breakout sessions


Those familiar with music recognize most song lyrics have a hook. It’s a turn on a phrase, a surprise twist or something catchy you’ll remember. To make something about products, NOT appear to be about products, you have to offer a different perspective. So we chose “The Perfect Storm”.

A storm is the coming together of two forces. The two used here was Culture and Technology.


Most audiences are capable of remembering 2-3 points. Any more and they’ll begin forgetting some or most of them. So I look for 3. Since culture was my point of entry and technology my exit, I needed to find a thread to follow. Here’s what I decided on:













You may note the cultural issues and what is needed all begin with the letter “c”. When I’m able to do so, I try to select key points that relate to one another. Beginning character or rhyme or parts of an object being used as an analogy (tires, engine, seat) help it stick with the audience.

Don’t announce “I have three issues and needs and they all begin with the letter ‘C’”. Let them figure it out. We enjoy connecting things and as you uncover the points, they will begin to connect them and get a bit of a “I solved that” rush that serves to further implant your points in their memory.


I’m a big fan of Garr Reynolds and his book Presentation Zen. A major lesson I learned that totally reformed the way I create presentations was this:

Don’t start your presentations by opening PowerPoint.
Start with Post-It Notes. Start analog then go digital

I began my work on this presentation in my home office. So I got a pad of 3×3 Post-It Notes and used my white board as my working surface. An office wall, a large table, even a window will work. I can’t tell you how many hotel windows I’ve used as surfaces for my storyboards. The challenge with windows is the view can sometimes be distracting. But at night, it works well. Note, if you are on the first floor near a sidewalk, this will cause people to stare.

I put my title ideas on one note. Then I put my main points, each on a separate note and attach them under the title note.

Now I begin writing notes that serve to illustrate each of the points and put them in the appropriate column.

If you have too much information to fit on a Post-It Note, it’s probably too much for a single slide

If you have a number of related things to say, instead of using a bulleted list, consider separate notes (and slides).

Here is a picture I took of my initial notes.

Like many of you, I travel a lot and you can imagine this creative process of designing and building a presentation usually isn’t a one session thing. In fact, I’ve found that breaks in the process can help me see things in fresh ways. I’ll come back to a work in progress and think, “Where was I going with this? This doesn’t make sense.” Which is likely what my audience was going to think. So use breaks as needed.

For a mobile person, I strongly suggest an iPad app “Post-it Plus”. It’s also available on the iPhone, but I found it hard to use on the smaller form factor.

This app takes the picture I shared above and captures the individual notes as editable and moveable objects. It doesn’t do character recognition, but it will find each note and save the image as the content. So from a mobility perspective, this is quite liberating. For this presentation, I took the photo in the app and was able to work on my presentation while on a plane. (Last August I wrote a posting about this process Slices of Genius)

The app also allows you to replace the photo captured with text. Which I often do as I alter the words as the idea refines. There is a free version which does most of what I need, but for a small upgrade fee I was able to use features like color coding the notes. For this story I used colors to designate slide types. Here is a pic of the nearly completed storyboard:

The image here is just to illustrate the flow.

  • The light blue slides are title and set up thoughts.
  • The green slides are audience questions.
  • The red slides are the ones I want the audience to feel or question something. Hopefully this leads them to want an answer.
  • The orange slides are the three cultural forces
  • The blue slides are stories or examples that help them understand the need (the previous red slide).
  • The dark pink slides are stories or examples that illustrate the solution (the previous red slide)
  • The closing pink slides are specific instructions and challenges for the three audience groups (Finance, Analysts, Marketing) to prepare them for the breakouts to come.
  • The tan slides in this example are transitional. They might be a story or something light. It helps to let their minds relax for just a bit. If you constantly try to keep them excited, they attention wears out quickly.


From the picture you should notice the presentation has rhythm and cadence. And most importantly a purposeful design.

When you are introduced to present, most audiences go into “educate me” mode. They shift their brains into a mode of listening with the possibility of learning. Most people who are well rested and laser focused can take in information in “educate me” mode for maybe 10-15 minutes. And remember, most of your audiences aren’t usually well rested and laser focused, so the time is much shorter.

Keeping your listener’s minds engaged with a purposeful variety of left and right brain activity will result in them investing their attention for your entire message.

So after the intro (blue slides) I ask a series of questions (green slides). Even in large audiences, I seek answers from the crowd. Many speakers pose a question and then continue with stating the possible answers. If you get the crowd involved their brains shift out of “educate me” mode into either “I have a response to that” or “what if he calls on me” mode. Either way, they are engaged.

While their minds are engaged (and open), I introduce the main point (first red slide) “We’re at a point where the forces are requiring us to find a new way to work.” Now downshift a bit and let that sit. “Let’s look at the cultural forces” Their minds are shifting back to “educate”.

For each of the cultural forces I do an introduction (orange slide) followed by transition and then back to a question to snap them back out of “educate me”. I try to keep the questions light and conversational. This isn’t about solving a puzzle (that’s a different part of the brain that if used too much can also wear out an audience). What I’m looking for is for them to personalize the question and imagine their particular answer. This makes it emotive and real for them. Now that I have them feeling something, the brain is open again. Time to introduce the solution.

By itself, the solution statement is often informative and maybe a bit provocative, but often it’s just a statement. To solidify it in their minds, I use a story or an illustration that gets them to picture something. Most statements are not tangible. You can visualize the words, but they are like all other words. The related story implants a picture of something tangible on which they can attach your statement. The more relative the story can be to the audience the better. That’s one reason I love to use stories involving children as they are easy to relate to. Popular movies, common work experiences, stories from books and even current events can be used. But consider your audience and don’t risk alienating them by using an illustration that is irrelevant or worse yet, insulting to their culture or world view.

I then close each topic with an example and story of the solution in practice. For those of you who are in sales, I like using customer stories. Please note, I didn’t say customer references. Don’t just insert a customer reference slide here. If you have a customer example and fact filled slide, take it and find the one thing most impressive about the story. Find the one thing that made it stick for you. Then put that on a slide with a big picture that is relevant to the topic.


I am privileged to do a lot of presentations. Some might say I have a lot of time I can dedicate to doing what I’ve described above. While I may have a little more than some of you, I can tell you that I spend a lot of time (if you want to call it outside of work) pondering, practicing, and refining presentations. It is worth the investment. I believe the way in which we communicate our message is key to our success. And if you do that poorly, it will be the main reason for your failure. So take the time to question and improve your presentations and messages.

It’s not what you say that matters. It’s what your listener understands.

You have an outstanding story that deserve your best efforts in presentation.


Below is a video of me presenting this material at the Social Business Forum in Milan. This was an event separate from the New Way To Work tour, but their theme was “Digital Disruption” so a version of the “Perfect Storm” fit perfectly for their keynote.

I hope this has been helpful. Please let me know your thoughts and let me know if I can ever be of service to assist you in your efforts.

Also, I’d invite you to invest 20 minutes viewing this video from David Phillips. Whenever I am called upon to provide presentation tips, what he shares in this video is top of mind.

The Triangle Story

"and a little child will lead them."

When my children were quite a bit younger, our family found ourselves at numerous pre-school plays and programs. It was during one such Christmas pageant that I was schooled by a 4 yr. old boy.

If you have kids and have been to such programs, it’s a familiar scene. The teacher stands off the front of the stage and an aide aligns the kids in a single file across downstage center. The purpose is so every parent can have a clear view of their little darling’s performance.

They began by singing a couple of Christmas carols. Well, mostly they scanned the audience for their families and waved. Once that was accomplished they settled into singing.

At the close of one song, the teacher’s aide brought out a cardboard box and walked down the line of anxiously awaiting kids. It was rhythm instruments. For those unacquainted with pre-school symphonies, rhythm instruments consist of small implements designed to make noise. They range from castanets, maracas, sticks to hit together, straps with jingle bells attached and yes, a triangle which ended up in the hands of a small lad at the end of the row.

They proceeded to sing a few more carols that were unrecognizable because their melodies were hidden by the exuberant instrument playing. It was a beautiful and joyful thing to behold.

Then it ceased. The proud teacher turned to the audience and said, “We want to thank you for supporting your children and our school by attending to our Christmas pageant. We’d like to close by singing two more familiar carols and welcome you to join in with us.” Then she turned to face the kids, nodded to the pianist, and the music began. But there was a problem.

All the kids looked perplexed. Obviously in practice, the aide collected the rhythm instruments before the final songs, but here they stood, three and four year old kids with these ‘things’ in their hands. Things that shouldn’t be there. One by one each child got rid of their distraction. Some put the sticks into their pockets. Girls tucked the maracas into their dress sashes. But the kid with the triangle. He looked down the line and saw what the others were doing, so he attempted to put the triangle into his pants pocket.

He started with one corner, but as he pushed it in the width of the triangle prohibited it from going in far enough to stay in. So he rotated it to another corner only to discover the same results. You could see and feel his angst. This was a problem he must solve.

By this time, most of the parents in the audience were focused not on the carols, but on the dilemma of this boy as he continued to rotate and struggle to make the triangle fit. You could almost hear the thoughts “That’s not going to work. Just put it on the floor.” Then it happened. It’s the first time I can admit to really observing a stroke of genius.

His countenance changed from confusion to confidence. Then he pushed the beater (yes that is what the striking stick is called) into his pocket. This left a portion sticking out of his pocket onto which he simply hung the triangle. Then he humbly stepped forward and joined his classmates in song. He was unimpressed with his brilliance.

Most of those watching were like me, amazed at the solution. We didn’t think of that. A majority of us sighed in relief and a few lightly clapped in congratulations. It was such an audience reaction that the teacher turned slightly to us to see what was going on. The song wasn’t over. Why were we reacting?

This scene happens every day in your organization.

No, you don’t have a kid with a triangle. But you have someone who is struggling with getting their weekly status report in on time. They look around at their co-workers and they seem to get it done, but for their work, it just isn’t easy. They are struggling. They try countless approaches, yet each week it’s not enough.

Then it happens, this individual discovers a macro that greatly simplifies the compiling of the spreadsheet report. It saves them hours of work and allows them to hand in their report alongside their fellow peers. But here are the missed opportunities.

The other performers aren’t paying attention. They might find great benefit from this new solution. This macro might shorten their process and save them valuable time. But they don’t notice because they are too focused on getting it done the old way to experiment and discover new approaches.

And like the little boy with the triangle, the creative problem solver may not appreciate their own accomplishment and simply step back in line and join the chorus. They may have an idea that would revolutionize a specific process, but like their lemming brothers, they focus on getting back in step rather than sharing their discovery.

And worse, their manager (the teacher) is so caught up in the big picture that they don’t even know their worker was struggling and that they discovered a brilliant solution to a common concern. They are too focused on managing and measuring that they neglect to mentor.

If you are a worker, take a moment to pull your nose off the grindstone and look around. Check out what others are doing. Be inquisitive and interested in learning new ways and experimenting.

If you are a manager, remember your job is not to get the thing done. Your job is to take care of your people, who get the thing done. Focus on your people. Come alongside them. Make them feel safe and appreciated.

And if you are a creative (which includes everyone), take the time to share your ideas and innovations. There is likely another kid struggling with a triangle that could use your insights.

Learning to Orbit the Giant Hairball

My ongoing journey as a creative soul in IBM

orbiting-picSeveral years ago I was introduced to a little book titled “Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace”. orbit-bookIt’s only available in hardcopy and there is a good reason, it’s filled with little doodles and art from the author, Gordon MacKenzie. In the 224 pages, Gordon describes his journey as a creative in a corporate environment.

It would be unfair to go much further about my own journey without describing the concept of orbiting a hairball. And to do that, I’d like to use Gordon’s explanation (page 33):

Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mind set, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards”—all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.

To find Orbit around a corporate Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the institution.

If you are interested (and it is not for everyone), you can achieve Orbit by finding the personal courage to be genuine and to take the best course of action to get the job done rather than following the pallid path of corporate appropriateness.

To be of optimum value to the corporate endeavor, you must invest enough individuality to counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity, but not so much that you escape that pull altogether. Just enough to stay out of the Hairball.

Through this measured assertion of your own uniqueness, it is possible to establish a dynamic relationship with the Hairball—to Orbit around the institutional mass. If you do this, you make an asset of the gravity in that it becomes a force that keeps you from flying out into the overwhelming nothingness of deep space.

But if you allow that same gravity to suck you into the bureaucratic Hairball, you will find yourself in a different kind of nothingness. The nothingness of a normalcy made stagnant by a compulsion to cling to past successes. The nothingness of the Hairball.

That single page of text has changed my approach to being a creative in a large corporation.

I’ve had the pleasure of serving with more than a dozen companies in roles that span graphic art, software development, tech publishing, consulting, sales and marketing. The companies have ranged in size from 20 people to 400,000+ and crossed many industries. With the exception of a few, most of these companies held a common, yet unspoken tendency toward the safe harbor of normality. Standardized processes, procedures and policies were regarded as the ultimate safe-harbordestination for efficiency and profitability. While some served a purpose in time, most just became a hitching post to which tired and unimaginative people could tie themselves for safety.

I’m not much for hitching posts or safe harbors. Real life is on the trail and open seas. For that reason, I’ve always liked mantras over mission statements. You’ll get more from me if you give me guidelines rather than a set of rules. So in my zeal for creative freedom and unique impact I began to address issues in very different ways. After all, why should I attend weekly cadence calls (a corporate standard) when I could do more by taking that time to be in front of customers? Why even consider the standard messaging and assets coming from our product team when I knew I could produce and deliver better and more customer relevant materials?

spiral-outBut I learned that my approach—the “ask forgiveness rather than permission”, the “stand aside and let me show you how wrong you are” resulted in me and my work totally escaping the gravity of the Hairball and I found myself alone in the nothingness of space.

While I delivered on my goals, I was punished for not “owning it”, which is shorthand for “you didn’t align to our way”, so my accomplishments were ignored. And my approach was not a path to be followed because it led to discipline.

I serve on a worldwide team, so I serve our sales teams, business partners and customers. One desired outcome of my work was to bring others along—to help enable them in a way they could reuse or remix my materials to meet their needs. What I found was my presentations and sales materials proved to be so effective that I quickly became overwhelmed with requests to speak and work with customers. Mostly because I was the only one able to deliver the material I created. I use big pictures and few words in the actual presentation and rely on spending a great deal of time in preparation. Most of our sales reps are overwhelmed (many by Hairball requirements) and can’t, or don’t invest the time needed. chasmSo the assets I was creating were unusable by most of our sales teams.

I was so far outside the gravitational pull of the Hairball that much of my efforts were irrelevant.

I learned I needed to come in closer to the Hairball. Not become a part of it, but close enough to have impact. To do so I began looking at the corporate procedures I had mostly dismissed and examined them for creative ways I could leverage the better parts to remain within the spirit of the Hairball. I found I didn’t have to attend every meeting or conference call, but I did attend the most important ones.

I considered “why do we have meetings anyway?” and determined a significant benefit was the communication and awareness of activities among the leadership team. So I began using our corporate social network to document and share my work. This way managers could see what I was doing and my peers could leverage my work as well. I began developing content designed for “remix”. The resulting interaction has been a valued source of insights and feedback, which has resulted in more effective and reusable assets.

But the Hairball constantly changes. Companies like IBM reorganize often to fit the demands of an ever changing marketplace. And once again, IBM is defining a new era of Cognitive Computing. Add in cloud, digital sales and a host of other evolutionary business practices and you’ve got an ever adapting organization. As the organization changes, so must your orbital calculations. For me this has meant remaining flexible and observant to the changing infrastructure of the Hairball. Roles and departments I once counted on for gravitation pull could lose their significance and mass. I’m having to watch for new opportunities and markets that are reaching critical mass and sufficient enough to have the Gravity need for orbiters like me.

So if you feel you’re caught in the Hairball, it’s not too late. If you’re so far from the Hairball that you are irrelevant, there is hope. But in each case, it’s up to you to change—you, not the Hairball. The Hairball is NOT going to easily adapt to fit your style.

Elephants can dance, but they are still elephants. They’re fun dance partners, but watch your distance and mind your toes.

Happy Orbiting.

And I would encourage you to get a copy of MacKenzie’s book. It’s engaging and enlightening. It’s one of my most popular giveaway books. For anyone who knows me, you can tell why just by looking at the TOC.orbiting-toc