The Upside of Impracticality: Or Why I Left Congress for Brooklyn

Caitie Whelan recently gave up the prestigious job of a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress to move to Brooklyn, NJ and write. Ayup! (Yes, she hails from the great state of Maine).  Why? She wanted to make a dent in the universe (something she's done before). Read on.  Be inspired. Think, ponder... and go make a dent.
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This is not a practical story.

Three months ago, I had a great job as a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress. I had a great boss, a great dental plan, and a great city to call home. But something wasn’t great. And it came down to three words:

Doubt. Fear. Convention.

I saw too many people deflated by doubt, fear, and convention. Qualitative data was everywhere: deferring dreams for safe jobs, working for the weekend, resisting risk and reinvention. In short, too many of us felt too stuck, too small to  - as Steve Jobs said - “put a dent in the universe.” It was as present in DC as it was in Delhi or Detroit.

I know what it’s like to feel trapped and tiny. I also know that with the big challenges our world holds, we can't afford for people to play it small.  

I believe in many things: public libraries, underdogs, finding blue lobsters. Above all, I believe in the power of one person to make a dent. I’d seen that power undercut; I couldn’t respect my beliefs and not do something about it.

Policy’s one way to effect change, but I knew it wasn’t where I could be most effective. I liked writing and storytelling. I hadn’t done much of either. But I figured raw passion was a pretty good foundation to build from

I also figured since I had a lot to learn, I should surround myself with masterclass writers and creators. So, in March, I left my great job, my great dental plan, and my great city and I moved to Brooklyn to write, build a website, and make my dent in the universe.

In April, I launched The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. It features striking stories and great ideas from all over to remind us that we matter and that improving the world is our matter. All in a two-minute read.

I’m 30. I’ve never written for a living, managed a website, or lived in Brooklyn. Noah Webster would have good reason to put this under the definition of ‘impractical.’

Why ditch practicality? Three reasons.

1.  I believe in it.

Our world is shot through with pain.

Chad is short on food. The Middle East is short on stability. California is short on water. We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. But we don’t have all hands

Many of our hands are tied up, doubting that we matter, fearing that we’ll fall short, or convention telling us to stay on script. It’s deflating enough to make us forget what we’re capable of.

The Lightning Notes is my reminder that doubt, fear, and convention may be big, but we are bigger. And we are made of tougher, more impactful stuff.

I believe in that.

2. Respect.

I’m a white belt again.

I could fall on my face, which would hurt. But not as much as never going in the ring. My gut was hollering, “Go for it.” When our gut hollers, that deserves respect.

And so do the people we serve

As Deb says, put yourself in your customer’s shoes. The Lightning Notes has no ads or paywalls. I wouldn’t want that as a reader; it doesn’t feel respectful for me to force it on another reader. Instead, I ask people to donate.

There’s plenty of free content out there. Why should people donate

They don’t have to. Yet, some already have. If 1,000 people give $8 a month, after Paypal fees and taxes, The Lightning Notes is financially viable. I’m giving myself one year to make it happen; I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Is there a faster way to make money? Yup. But I’m not doing this to be fast.

I’m doing this to respect that untamed part of myself that - despite doubt, fear, and convention -  hollered, “Go for it.”

And I’m doing this out of respect for the untamed part in each of us that’s hungry to contribute, to be a part of something bigger than we are, to put a dent in the universe.

3. Risk.

When I watched the Kentucky Derby, there was a moment where American Pharoah and Firing Line were neck and neck. And I thought to myself, “I know that feeling: it’s exactly where my excitement and fear are.” Such is the experience of risk.

But life’s inherently risky. Why not fill it with the risks, as Deb says, we believe in? I don’t want to take a bunch of dreams to my grave. So, I’m taking this one to the streets.

This is not a practical story. But neither is a world where doubt, fear, and convention are writing the narrative.

Let’s rewrite the narrative. Let’s live all the life we have in us to live. Let’s make our dent.

Caitie Whelan is the Founder/Noter-in-Chief of The Lightning Notes, a short daily post to help us move the world forward. Prior to the Lightning Notes, she was a Senior Foreign Policy Advisor in Congress, co-founded a school in India for lower caste musicians, and raised pigs in Italy. She is a graduate of Brown University, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, and is co-founder/chair of the Salt Alumni Board. She is a 2007 Truman Scholar from the Great State of Maine. Follow The Lightening Notes on twitter.

No Compelling Value Proposition? No Business Needed!

Alex Osterwalder & team have created the definitive easy-to/must-uses guide on how to create a compelling value proposition - Value Proposition Design.  Yes, definitive.   Any business is first and foremost about the customer, even though it seems so many have forgotten that.  If you don’t have a compelling value proposition, you don’t need a business model because you won’t have a business. 

Value Proposition Design (#VPDesign) clearly teaches how to discover customers’ real needs – the needs they have for and by themselves, not the needs we want them to have or the needs we want to solve…even if they aren’t really the customers’.  The VPDesign toolkit – which is easy to follow, use and adopt – makes it difficult to retain your own biases and see reality.

It’s not just the words. The fabulous visual and symbolic style of the book makes it easy to follow, to use as a handbook and daily tool for prototyping, testing, iterating and creating meaningful and valuable solutions for customers. The icons are memorable and can become part of your team’s lexicon for thinking about customers. Just as in Business Model Generation, this book is a tool to use daily to think about your business – internally and externally. I’ve used the VPDesign extensively with entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and for customers outside the organization and inside the organization.

So, you MUST get this book (and Business Model Generation) and start using it.  It will change how you view your business, your customers – for the better, in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.

In full disclosure, I helped co-create Alex & Yves’ first book, Business Model Generation, was a pre-reader for Value Proposition Design book and is a friend of Alex's.  And that's why I know, first-hand, how incredible and necessary these books are! Get them!!

 

Why Higher Ed Needs Flying Lessons

Anita Verna Crofts is a Flight Instructor at the University of Washington.  © Tony Asgari PhotographyYes, you read that correctly. She wrote this post last year and it's only appropriate to repost as we start the new academic year.  Anita is one amazing lady who is taking education to new heights - Flying Lessons. There is hope for higher-ed!  Thank you Anita! Come meet her at BIF-10!!

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The University of Washington Announces Flying Lessons

I have never flown a plane or sat in a flight simulator, but I’ve been teaching people how to fly for years. This spring the Department of Communication at the University of Washington made it official by naming me their Flight Instructor.

Everyone has wings. Sometimes you need to be reminded to use them.

Choosing to be named the Flight Instructor reflected my approach to teaching, which encourages students to lead and soar higher than they ever imagined possible, inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to the classes I teach, my punch card includes:

  • Encouraging students to see their education as an opportunity to build knowledge and relationships that spread their wings. A degree isn’t just about making the grade, it’s about making a network that lasts a lifetime.
  • Reminding students, faculty, and staff to seek the perspective that comes with altitude gain. The broader landscape looks different and reveals patterns that are invisible from the ground.
  • Supporting faculty efforts to move students from co-piloting planes to taking over the controls themselves. Everyone has the ability to pilot their own plane.
  • Championing opportunities for students to lead in class, on campus, and in the community. The sky’s the limit.

© Tony Asgari PhotographyThe vision for my role reflects the entrepreneurial instincts of the Communication Leadership graduate program, where I teach and serve as Associate Director, and the department as a whole. Our program houses two unique degrees in digital media and community/networks, both aimed at creatives who are on the frontlines of shaping superb communication strategies through story-driven content, audience engagement, and insightful analytics. The freedom faculty, staff, and students enjoy to dream, build, and grow is my fuel.

As the Flight Instructor, I help students navigate takeoffs, weather turbulence, and stick their landings. Last week an incoming student tweeted to me, “I would love to talk to you about my flight plan.”

Buckle up. It’s time for takeoff.

Fly the friendly skies with Anita on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and avcrofts.com.

Create Your Own Luck

You know how much I believe in serendipity & random collisions (a la Saul Kaplan!).  Meet Samir Rath (bio below).  I met Samir when he was in the 2nd cohort of the IE-Brown E-MBA while simultaneously investing and starting companies all over the world, including Chile, because, doesn't everyone? Read Samir's thoughts on serendipity, luck and entrepreneurship - and join in!

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Innovation is serendipity, so you don't know what people will make.- Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the World Wide Web.

How often do we hear our friends and family say “Oh! She is so lucky. She moves in the right circles”. Or “He is so lucky. He is always at the right place at the right time”. Beyond the tinge of jealousy that such messages communicate, also hides a subtle ring of despair. May people feel that no matter how hard they work or how capable they are, their spate of bad luck just keeps messing things up.

Luck is nothing but an attitude. Richard Wiseman, the author of “The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind”, defines luck as the outcome of how we deal with chance and that some people are just much better at it. ‘Unlucky’ people tend to be very apprehensive of the future, uncomfortable with change and want to control their circumstances. They tend to have set pre-defined expectations of how a situation should play out, often leading to disappointment. This is inevitable given how bad we are at predicting the future. ‘Lucky’ people, on the other hand, embrace the randomness of life with open arms and accept that change is the only constant in the equation of life. Serendipity becomes a way of life, with happenstance encounters evolving into friendships and business relationships. The ‘lucky’ ones make it much more likely that they will stumble on incredible events and be at the right place at the right time with the right people. Sometimes things work out.

Todd Kashdan, a psychologist at George Mason University, observes that getting lucky gets much harder as we get older and wiser, not because the game of life has changed but rather because how we play the game has. We get wiser with age and armed with experience, we form very strong convictions on how the world works. This applies to companies too. AT&T, which traces its origins to original Bell Telephone Company, could not anticipate a change in behavior, blinded in part by its domain expertise in telecom infrastructure. A young startup, Whatsapp, figured out that we have changed the way we communicate and want to share images, video and audio media over the internet across multiple platforms. At the start of the year, Whatsapp had more than 450 million users, all built and supported with a team of just 32 engineers.

We will be engineering some serendipity for the launch of our forthcoming book No Startup Hipsters. With the common thread of building technology companies that focus on real problems, we will be connecting tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, investors and enablers. Each person would login through a social network and a twitter style 140 characters description of what they are working on. Curated profiles from across the globe will quickly zip by in a “hot or not” style and when both sides choose to connect - Boom!. So, come create some luck by signing up at ThunderClap and get the book for free too.

SAMIR RATH is a financial technology entrepreneur and angel investor working with technology startups globally from over 20 countries. He helped build the Asian operations of GETCO LLC, one of the worlds largest trading technology firms, listed on New York Stock Exchange today as KCG. He began his career as a Macroeconomist for the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book titled "No Startup Hipsters - Build Scalable Technology Companies”. [www.nostartuphipsters.com]. Twitter: @Samir_Rath

#Whatif We Valued Trying?

We humans love to divide the world: yes, no; either, or; black, white; true, false; winners, losers; successes,Arianna Huffington, Co-Founder Huffington Post (designed by behappy.me) failures.  Yet little in life is really that nice and tidy, despite how much we want it to be.  And our world is not going in that direction anymore.

Many of us know that new discoveries, the disruptions, the innovations are found in the grey – in between the extremes, by recombining what is out there through And and Both instead of Either and Or.  As someone with a head of black, white and grey hairs, believe me, I live it!

Perhaps one of the most dangerous of these artificial constructs is that of successes or failures.  This has insidiously permeated so many of our systems – especially the language of entrepreneurship and innovation.  We don’t allow a middle or blended path.  When we look at the successful entrepreneurs, how many of them were successful the very first time? How many had overnight successes that truly were overnight, instead of years? Very few. 

What if we start talking about Tryers (which obviously means people will go to the opposite extreme of Non-Tryers) instead of just winners or successes?

What if we started encouraging and supporting those who try, over and over, be it the same or a different venture. 

What if we helped the Non-Tryers to understand why they didn’t try? Perhaps it is fear, time, who knows… but perhaps we could develop a support structure to allow them to become Tryers, in their own time?

What if we started to infiltrate our education system with tools, lessons, examples, opportunities to Try so that our children could become Tryers at earlier and earlier ages.  And What If we rewarded them for it? And What if we rewarded our teachers for teaching smart Trying?

While a full societal adoption of the Trying construct certainly will take time, you can start now! There are many ways you can start embedding Tryers into your organization’s lexicon.  So What If you, tomorrow, asked one of your people to Try and What if you back her or him up when she/he raises objections for why something couldn’t be done?  What if you just started with that?

Thank you to @mattmurrie for helping me more fully embed “What If” in my lexicon.

January's Top 5 Posts

The top 5 posts for January includes 1 from 4 months ago! Yes, Hanna McPhee's post on Design & Science is still a top post - as it should be!! Here are the top 5:

 

Benefits of Being a Young Entrepreneur

The Founder Project is a new type of venture fund run by students investing in students' startups to create a global student startup ecosystem.  The founder of Founder Project, Ilan Saks, did a guest post and asked me to return the favor, which I did here.  Currently, Founder Project is only in Canada - Montreal & Toronto, but Ilan has plans to expand to the USA... I sure hope so!!!

 

 

Want to Learn How to Fly?

Jessica Esch (frequent poster here) introduced me to Anita Verna Crofts a© Tony Asgari Photography couple of years ago at BIF.  This is one amazing lady who is taking education to new heights - Flying Lessons. There is hope for higher-ed!  Thank you Anita! Come meet her at BIF-9!!

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The University of Washington Announces Flying Lessons

I have never flown a plane or sat in a flight simulator, but I’ve been teaching people how to fly for years. This spring the Department of Communication at the University of Washington made it official by naming me their Flight Instructor.

Everyone has wings. Sometimes you need to be reminded to use them.

Choosing to be named the Flight Instructor reflected my approach to teaching, which encourages students to lead and soar higher than they ever imagined possible, inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to the classes I teach, my punch card includes:

  • Encouraging students to see their education as an opportunity to build knowledge and relationships that spread their wings. A degree isn’t just about making the grade, it’s about making a network that lasts a lifetime.
  • Reminding students, faculty, and staff to seek the perspective that comes with altitude gain. The broader landscape looks different and reveals patterns that are invisible from the ground.
  • Supporting faculty efforts to move students from co-piloting planes to taking over the controls themselves. Everyone has the ability to pilot their own plane.
  • Championing opportunities for students to lead in class, on campus, and in the community. The sky’s the limit.

© Tony Asgari PhotographyThe vision for my role reflects the entrepreneurial instincts of the Communication Leadership graduate program, where I teach and serve as Associate Director, and the department as a whole. Our program houses two unique degrees in digital media and community/networks, both aimed at creatives who are on the frontlines of shaping superb communication strategies through story-driven content, audience engagement, and insightful analytics. The freedom faculty, staff, and students enjoy to dream, build, and grow is my fuel.

As the Flight Instructor, I help students navigate takeoffs, weather turbulence, and stick their landings. Last week an incoming student tweeted to me, “I would love to talk to you about my flight plan.”

Buckle up. It’s time for takeoff.

Fly the friendly skies with Anita on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and avcrofts.com.

Summer Hits to Start the Fall..

The Fall is upon us - routines, school, 'hectivity' of life returns...so enjoy some remnants of summer by some Endangered Puffin off Eastern Egg Rock, Maine fabulous people! These were the top posts of August (mine was this...just kidding...kind of)

I'm off to my 'retreat' at home in Maine on Friday September 6th and heading down to BIF9 on the 17th. If you haven't yet signed up - do so now! And don't forget to sign up for #Innospirits on the 17th

April's Top 5

May already! And finally some gorgeous weather! No surprise that in April's top 5 reads, Jessica Esch's post was tops again! (See a pattern here!) and, proudly, with only being up two days of the month, my daughter Chana's post was a top read as well! Thank you Dorie, Tanveer, Jessica and Chana for guest posting!

  1. Dorie Clark's What's Your Leadership Narrative?
  2. Tanveer Naseer's It's Time We Develop a New Relationship with Work
  3. How to Stay Relevant and Have Impact
  4. Jessica Esch's It's Obvious
  5. Chana Scofield's Planting SEEED's of Innovation

Lessons from Amazonian Culture and Ecology for Talent Management

Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie are the founders of one of my favorite startups ever, Runa. We drink the tea in our home all the time.  Runa is a wonderful example of a B-Corp, doing well and doing good.  Their business model is unique and there are so many lessons for our businesses and organizations from their story.  Tyler shares their story about talent with us.  Go buy some Runa Tea, enjoy, and learn.  Thank you, Tyler.

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I studied indigenous Amazonian languages and Ethnobotany in college and managed to avoid taking any math, science or business courses (yes, I went to Brown University).  Starting a business, let alone a beverage company, as an undergraduate was not something I had planned on doing.   As ill prepared as I was, my passion for creative communication and intercultural exchange gave me a unique basis for becoming a manager and running what is now a 70 person organization in only 3 years.

Runa is a now vertically integrated beverage company that creates livelihoods for indigenous Amazonian farmers. We produce beverages made with guayusa ("gwhy-you-sa"), a “Super Leaf” from Ecuador that has as much caffeine as coffee and double the antioxidants of green tea. We’ve built our entire supply chain from the ground up and are the first to introduce guayusa to international markets.  We sell our bottled beverages and tea boxes in over 3,500 of the top retail accounts in the US from Whole Foods to Vitamin Shoppe and are generating over $100,000 / year of direct income for 2,000 indigenous farming families in Ecuador.

My business partner, Dan MacCombie, studied Marine Biology, so he was equally inexperienced in the art of management (unless we decided to employ invertebrates).  We knew early on that building a strong team and bringing in key leaders would be essential for our growth.

More specifically, we decided to model our staffing approach from two examples: one cultural and one environmental.  Traditionally, indigenous communities wake up together before dawn to drink guayusa. They sit around the communal fire drinking gourds full of guayusa until sunrise. During this time, the community members recount dreams, tell myths, and discuss hunting techniques, politics, and weather patterns. Every time I used to get up and drink guayusa with the Kichwa communities in this way, I was struck by a seemingly simple realization: the foundation of this entire culture that has thrived for thousands of years stands on this simple cornerstone: waking up, drinking tea, and sharing with each other. My theory may sound reductionist, but witnessing the strength it builds in these families and communities is what convinced me of this tradition’s power. 

As we began envisioning our business, we thought that if we could get a community of different partners from managers to farmers to government officials to consumers to collaborate, we could build a thriving organization. This spirit or exchange, respect, and transparency became essential to our strategy for building partnerships and learning from industry “elders” who had walked the path before us.

The second example that reinforced this strategy for us was our understanding of Amazonian ecology. The average sugar, corn, or tea farm is very weak ecologically – in being dominated by one specifies, the flow of nutrients is stifled, natural water flows are hindered, and soil structure becomes degraded, requiring heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.  In a forest ecosystem, no intervention is needed. The diversity of species naturally cycles nutrients, protects the soil, and manages insect populations.  Thinking about how this might relate to our organization, we saw that a team of Tylers and Dans would be tremendously weak.  This analogy for me is the most concrete rationale for the true value of diversity I’ve encountered.

Our first hire in Ecuador was a great man named Fausto. We met Fausto through a friend of a friend of a friend. He was an experienced forestry engineer who had managed a number of different cacao and coffee projects in the region. A driven man who had a natural ability to lead, Fausto gained our confidence. We decided to empower him as our Regional Manager, and give him the freedom to be entrepreneurial in building his team. We let him pick the communities we were going to work with, hire his staff, partner with other local organizations, and develop his own research programs.  Fausto helped us grow from nothing into a team of 15 people and about 500 farmers, at which point Fausto’s leadership started to falter. What I learned in working with Fausto was that Entrepreneurship, Management, and Leadership are three very different things that often get lumped together. Fausto was an inspiring leader, a creative entrepreneur, but a poor manager.  His contribution early in our growth allowed us to take the first step, but as our focus shifted and we began thinking about how to scale, tight management became more of a priority.

After he built his team and was more responsible for reporting, planning, and overseeing a team, he outgrew his job and we had to replace him with some one who was less creative but much more diligent, personable, and attentive to details. When thinking about new job descriptions and interviewing candidates for positions, we use this lens of “Entrepreneur, Leader, Manger” to assess our real needs and where an applicant’s skills truly are. 

One level below Fausto, we hired a team of “técnicos,” field staff who directly recruit, train, and coordinate farmers. These técnicos are a key lifeline of our organization, because they are the direct point of contact between Runa and the farmers that grow the guayusa.  Early on we found 3 técnicos who were charismatic and natural leaders in their communities. They leveraged their relationships and reputations to recruit farmers to commit their time and productive resources to grow a crop they had never commercially sold to some young gringos who had no local credibility. Their ability to inspire farmers and know what they cared most about is what made them successful.

Over time, the intimacy of their relationships with farmers came to be a weakness, in a way, for the institutional capacity of Runa.  Once we caught a técnico driving his company motorcycle while drunk and fired him immediately. This meant that we lost our direct connection to 100 farmers whose homes in the jungle we could barely locate.  We recognized the need to value, but not overly depend on, the técnicos’s relationships. As our reputation as a legitimate organization grew, farmers knew us as “Runa” and less as “that organization that Fernando works for that we sell guayusa to.”  We’ve instituted a system where técnicos rotate into different areas and take detailed GIS coordinates of all the farms.

Recruiting new técnicos has been a further bottleneck to scaling. We adopted a tactic I learned from Andrew Youn, Founder of One Acre Fund, to counteract this pinch.  One Acre puts dozens of farmers through a multi-week training course to become field staff, even though they only have a few job openings at a time. The genius of the model is not that they get to pick from a large pool of candidates and analyze their capability over an extended period. The real value is in the aspiring applicants that don’t get the job, and return to their communities with a substantial amount of knowledge (that they then share with the rest of the community) and an even deeper connection to the organization. This training program has worked well for Runa and helped us scale more rapidly.

We’ve now copy-pasted this strategy in the US with our internship programs. This summer we’ll have over 20 interns. We have a great track record of hiring interns for new job opening (which is part of the reason we receive so many applications), but most don’t get jobs. The ones we hire will have been vetted for 3 months and already trained by our staff, while the ones we don’t hire will continue to be our biggest advocates and promoters at their universities and in their local communities. 

Transitioning from being a scrappy start-up to a more stable organization, while not losing our personality, is a major challenge.  In Ecuador, we’ve developed very strict rules and very high standards for our team and our suppliers, working against the tendency of people to see us as just another NGO that is “here to help” (aka doesn’t take our work seriously).  If anything, being “mission-driven” weakened our ability to be respected and listened to early on.

Keeping the inspiration alive becomes the next challenge, especially when most of our staff in the US spends their time negotiating promotions in supermarkets. To keep everyone engaged, we frequently have Skype calls between farmers and our sales reps in the US, field staff and our Board of Directors, and consumers and our regional managers.  Every other month we send detailed updates between each one of our entities (non-profits and for-profits), keeping every staff member aware of the progress we’re making and the challenges we face.  We’ve also committed to sending all of our team members in the US who have been with us for more than 1 year to Ecuador to visit the farmers and experience our work on the ground.

In retrospect, studying anthropology and linguistics might not have been the worst way to enter business (though the language of Balance Sheets and Cash Flow Statements is still fairly lost on me).

Learning from the communities that we aim to support as mission-driven businesses can not only inspire us to do good work, but even influence our business models and talent management strategies.

Nextsensing: Aspire and Ye Shall Find

I am so thrilled my friend, Joseph Pistrui, agreed to post on my site.  Joseph is Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain and in the IE-Brown Executive MBA program as well as Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. He just started a must follow blog, Nextsensing, to help entrepreneurially minded leaders make sense of "disruptive ambiguity".  One of the things I admire about Joseph is his ability to simply and clearly communicate the complex and ambiguous.  Enjoy! I know you will and definitely follow him at @nextsensing.
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All business leaders say that they want their businesses to be competitive. It’s not unusual to hear that they have set “ambitious,” “aggressive,” or even “audacious” goals for their companies. That’s great — as long as they are also aspiring.

Aspiration, however, is tricky when it comes to management. The reason for that is in the root definition of the word. To aspire inevitably leads you to the word hope, and you’ve probably either heard or spoken the phrase “hope is not a strategy.” Yet, the state of the business world today is one of enormous disruptive ambiguity, an incoherent jumble of trends, headlines, opportunities and threats.

In such a state, it’s increasingly difficult to answer even the most basic questions about your own business. The marketplace seems, to many, a swirl of new competitors (is Apple soon going to be making wristwatches?), new risks (will the price of oil plunge or soar?), and new challenges (what new government regulations will we face next month?). As a result, few, if any, business leaders speak with rock-hard confidence about the probability of success for their own firms (other than on some public relations platform). One reason for this is that few business leaders seem to feel certain about the integrity of their customers’ baselines for probable future success. Simply put, whenever someone’s future is ambiguous, their mind is usually disrupted by fears.

So, they set goals. And, sometimes, they hope.

Which is why I found Deb’s thoughts on the HBR Blog Network so compelling: “Hope recognizes the reality that failure happens, success is not assured, the laws of physics don’t change and prudence is needed to discern when to persevere — and when to pivot. Hope doesn’t demarcate a linear path, but it does guide us through twists and turns. Hope views the glass as half full, not half empty. Hope supports realistic optimism, a necessary component of success.”

In fact, hope can be a winning asset when viewed as an aspiration to do something extraordinary, to discover something new, or to generate a key insight that can set new actions into motion with enough confidence to persevere. Hope is also a required ingredient when one is engaged in nextsensing.

Nextsensing is a process that I have been refining for several years. It’s a structured yet open-minded way for leaders to think forwards, not backwards. Too often, people confront a problem (such as defining a credible business strategy when the future is a haze) by trying to solve it by facing backwards. The default impulse for many leaders is to employ techniques learned in the past, to come up with solutions designed to return to the way things were before they had to confront a new and challenging future. For example, if sales are sagging this year, many executives fall back and use the same techniques they used last year when sales were more robust. (“Let’s do what we did last year — only faster!) It’s as if, when lost while driving, they can get back on track simply by increasing their speed.

However, thinking backwards lacks aspiration and, as a consequence, blocks (intentionally or otherwise) the necessary foresight to keep pace with changing times and to find new ways of doing business. It’s a form of wishful thinking rather than novel thinking.

Remember Napster? It introduced a platform for users to trade digital music files across the Internet, and the recording industry scrambled to shut Napster down. Instead of recognizing the critical digital shift in the world of music and attempting to find a way to capitalize on that new reality, the industry sought to stop file sharing.

By contrast, the industry could have engaged in a process that (1) honestly and objectively observed conditions as they are, not as one would wished them to be, (2) organized these observations into patterns and insights — pivot points for moving in new directions, and (3) originated a novel point of view, one that listed any and all interesting and emerging possibilities. These three steps (observing-organizing-originating) are the heart of the nextsensing process, which strives to leverage our cognitive, emotional and social capacities to unravel new meaning from current data and events.

When engaged in nextsensing, we are interested in unlocking the meaning hidden in the ambiguity of a promising opportunity. In short, nextsensing is about converting confusion into clear thinking. Only then can business leaders evaluate the full range of potential opportunities inherent in an evolving market.

Imagine how the state of things today might have been different if the recording industry had invented first what the world now knows as Apple iTunes. The recording industry then — and many other industries now — will never succeed by driving their status quo vehicle faster, by setting goals that attack their problems in a backwards way, and by deep discounting the hope inherent in aspirations.

Thus, the counterweight to disruptive ambiguity is opportunity foresense. I urge leaders and their management teams to use a simple Opportunity Canvas that reduces their critical need to observe-organize-originate to a one-page thinking exercise. The amount of paper needed to catalog new thinking may be slight, but the task itself is as big as the available collective knowledge base and imagination reach.

This is why I urge leaders to aspire whenever they set goals. When the hope for something new or something better (even something that may never have been done before) is integrated into a disciplined thinking process, finding one’s next is a hopeful process of discovery.

The Risk of Not Taking Risks

My friend, Doug Sundheim’s new book, Taking Smart Risks, is an early winner for 2013 Must Reads.   Before I get to how great the book is, the story of how Doug and I met starts with taking a smart risk!  Doug had read a post of mine about my wonderful client, Menasha Packaging and asked if I would be willing to introduce him to them for a book he was writing.  Of course, I did a bit of due diligence into this Doug guy and said yes.  I’m so glad I did!

Part of the problem with risk today is how it’s defined and ingrained in our society.  Take the definition, “exposing oneself to the possibility of loss or injury.”  The definition talks about what can happen as a direct result of risk – the ‘output’ of risk but definitely not the outcome, which is what Doug eloquently supplies – “exposing oneself to the possibility of loss or injury in the hopes of achieving a gain or reward.”  For many people, though, “the emotional cost of not risking and having to live with that regret [is] much greater …than any career or financials … costs.”

By reframing the definition of risk, Doug shows the power of smart risk taking.  We rarely look at the risk of NOT doing, of NOT innovating, of NOT trying.  In essence, it a different perspective of opportunity costs – the opportunity cost of NOT doing something.  I see this everyday in my work – organizations that see innovation as a risk instead of seeing not innovating as a bigger risk.  Doug makes the costs of playing it safe very clear: we don’t grow, win, create and we lose confidence and bluntly, don’t feel alive and meaningful.  If we can get this to change, imagine the positive power that can be unleashed.

Which gets to another key point in Doug’s book – the paralysis of security.  We create an illusion of security around us today, one that is heavily dependent upon our other illusion of control.  The issue isn’t going from security to insecurity.  We’re already not secure in terms of ‘stuff’ whether we recognize it or not.  We’re already not in control of our circumstances whether we recognize it or not.  However, we can be secure in who we are and what we stand for and in how we control our own reactions to life. A key to smart risk taking is, as Doug says, the ability to “increase our tolerance for uncertain circumstances.” If we are secure in who we are, what we stand for and how we will react, we can welcome uncertainty for the opportunity it really is.   That is why I truly believe that entrepreneurs, for instance, are not more risk-o-philic but fundamentally define risk like Doug does.

The book’s practical wisdom, advice, and tools for how to take smart risks are critical.  This is uncharted territory for many and Doug’s practical guidance will make it easier for us to learn how to and actually take smart risks.   This is particularly important for some of the hardest areas of smart risk taking – our own ego and our ability to communicate.  Through stories about humble leaders and constant communicators, like Mike Waite, Doug demonstrates how critical the ‘soft’ skills are in successfully taking smart risks…and in the payoffs.  These are truly fundamental to taking risk. 

It’s been almost exactly 1 year since Doug and I met for breakfast in NYC and talked about his book and how I could help.  That was the start of our friendship!  I introduced him to the incredible leaders at Menasha Packaging and Thogus, my 21st Century manufacturing client.  The result of Doug’s taking the risk to “ask”?  He got some very real and powerful stories of leaders we can emulate and learn from, I got two of my fabulous clients in his book, and we all now have a field-guide for the New Year and beyond to help us take smart risks.  I look forward to seeing the great things that will happen because of it!

Growing a Startup: 3 Guys & a Bear

More wisdom, insight and learning from Gen-Y.  I'm honored to have worked with Wyatt, Jack and Shahab since last November as they prepared, won and established their company.  Wyatt won Oberlin College's Creativity & Leadership Fellowship of $30,000 to start the business after graduation. Below, the three share their lessonsWindow: Wyatt; Corner: Shahab; Jack in blue learned so far.  Optimism for this generation rules!

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Wyatt Hayman: After winning $30,000 from the Oberlin College Creativity and Leadership Fellowship our startup team set up in Lake Tahoe, California to build a business.  The idea was to live in relative isolation while developing a platform for businesses to engage customers and collect their feedback.  Here are three lessons that my two partners and I have learned while trying to create a growth-oriented startup straight out of college.

Jack Kearney:  When you've got the skills and team to start building a product, it's really easy to get carried away and just 'go'. Unfortunately, that sort of mentality can lead to a lot of wasted lines of code. We learned a hard lesson this summer: make sure the product that you're trying to build is really needed BEFORE you start building it.

 Sometimes, we'd sit down and talk about how the product would be used -- the subtle emotional connections a user would have with a particular UI element or the exact feeling they would have when they pulled their phone out of their pocket. After these discussions we'd spend time coding and let these phantom users guide the development. The problem with this sort of thinking is that you aren't your user. You can't know how someone will use your product (or even if they'd use it at all) until you put it in their hands. But building is tough, and often expensive. Learning to test your ideas as cheaply and efficiently as possible is a skill that we have only recently begun to develop.

Looking back, we should have spent the first several weeks of the summer focused on validating our initial assumptions. We should have really profiled who our product was targeting, and talked to as many people who fit that description as possible. If they responded negatively, we could understand why. If they loved the idea, they would likely give great feedback on how to make it better.

At this point I think the worst mistake we could make is to view this summer as lost time. We've built a product that we can now use to validate these assumptions -- maybe it took us longer than it could have to start doing this, maybe what we've built now is a perfect tool for the job. More importantly though, we grew so much as entrepreneurs, coders, and friends. We'll hit whatever comes next with the same enthusiasm as before, but let caution and experience guide our development.

Wyatt Hayman: Everyone told us how important it is to have well defined roles. This summer I learned how important it is to know when to forget these.

During the summer I noticed that I was clinging to my role as our leaderIn the middle of the summer we decided to rethink our strategy.  I showed up to the brainstorm wearing my captain’s hat and it was surprisingly difficult to take it off. 

While I may have been our leader, the reasons I had this role were not relevant to the discussion.  The attitudes of the group reflected my inability to shed this role.  My partners resented me for acting like their superior when it wasn't appropriate.  Through interactions like this, I learned that if a role doesn’t apply to the task at hand, it needs to be put aside.

To start a company you have to wear many different hats.  I think there needs to be more emphasis on the surprisingly difficult task of taking them off.

 

Shahab Raza: I wouldn’t have expected that the subject of my one take-away from immersing in a startup project would be about collaboration. But it takes some collective skill to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Working in a startup means working with the people you’re living with, and consequently seeing every waking hour of the day. Decisions must be made under the stress of uncertainty, and the pressure of every decision being critical to the prospective success of the project.

  Yes, you must communicate effectively. But how do you deftly and skillfully manage to persevere in the face of a stalemate? Why, mathematically of course! A disagreement is a pair of conflicting conclusions. In your respective belief structures, there must be some sequence of successively inferential statements that lead to your conclusion. You find some common premise, and then make your respective arguments.  Soon you’ll get to a point of divergence. THAT pair of statements, as opposed to the pair of conclusions, is what you need to contest.

Of course rising tensions and resentment don’t factor into this game of deductive logic. That’s where it’s worth actively being able to detach your person from your belief. So that an attack on your belief is less hurtful, and you’re less defensive. In general, there’s much to be gained from losing the ego and the self, in the wake of a greater cause, quite apart from the functionality of it all.

 It’s one of the most exhilarating things I’ve experienced. And that’s from a summer where I went on my first ever hike and learnt how to swim!

Wyatt Hayman: We are thrilled to have been given the opportunity to pursue our dream while learning incredibly valuable lessons along the way.  These lessons are just the tip of an iceberg that is constantly growing.  We continue to put ourselves in positions to learn and, as the Second City team taught us at the Business Innovation Factory conference, we continue to say, “yes, and” to the possibilities.  So far we have traveled from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, to Oberlin, Ohio, to New York City, to Providence, to NYC, to PVD, and we still have a trips to Madison, Wisconsin, and Oberlin before heading back to San Francisco.  There is no doubt we will have seen a lot and learned even more before settling in the City by the Bay.  Whether or not we have started a successful business by the time we arrive is another question.  But I can promise you we will be searching for the answer.