Pre-Natals vs. Post-Mortems

So often, when a project or product doesn't go well or fails, organizations do "post-mortems" - they go over what went wrong, why, sometimes rushing to blame people first instead of looking at processes.  

What if we started doing pre-natals instead of post-mortems? What if our cross-functional teams, at various steps in project or product development, examined why, what and how they were doing, what was working and why, what wasn't and why, and discussed all the things that could go wrong from that point on and why they could go wrong and how they could mitigate or eliminate those risks?  Then they could prioritize all that based on probability and possibility, make sure they are on top of those and do this regularly throughout development.

This isn't a fail-safe, but chances are a lot of problems could be caught, corrected and learned from before they happen and the more you do pre-natals, the better you'd get! 

Worth a shot isn't it? 

A Biologist, Computer Scientist & Historian walk into a....

It is through eclectic, diverse, and seemingly random relationships, interactions and friendships that we learn and then change the world.  Andrew Kaplan eloquently sums this up in his post below he wrote right before graduation.  So much of our learning is from each other and I have learned so much from him over the past 3 years. Thank you, Andrew.

To an old house on Angell Street*

As I sit writing this at my kitchen table, a housemate walks into the room and sits down next to me.

“How do you define religion?” he asks as he combs his unruly left sideburn with bunched fingers.

“What?” I respond.

“Just answer the question.”

I live in an old Rhode Island house on Angell Street with five other seniors. Our floors are sinking and our walls are thin; an open floor plan helps a whisper from the basement be heard in the third-floor attic. The house smelled of fresh paint the day I moved in.

Among my housemates are a neuroscientist, a biologist, a philosopher, a computer scientist and a historian. Or, looking at them another way, they are a dancer, a drummer, a basketball player, a teacher and a founder. And they are the blood pumping through the veins of this house, imbuing it with life.

Because I am about to graduate, people often ask me to describe my time at Brown. They expect tales of hallowed professors pronouncing truths in packed lecture halls. They expect memories of heartfelt conversations about the meaning of life on the quiet greens where foliage helps you spin nascent life philosophies into the early mornings. They expect stories of finding romance in the dining hall and losing it into the wild night. And I’ve had my fair share of those experiences.

But the old house on Angell and the people who live in it symbolize what has made my Brown experience unique. One of the greatest pleasures of the past four years has been discovering things I never thought I would simply by being around people who are so infectiously enthusiastic about topics I never thought I’d learn about.

When I think about my time at Brown, I think about one of my housemates working on a computer science project, describing the mystery of the deep web and the power of torrent — and blowing my mind in the process. Or when another inspired me to take NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” by sketching out an action potential’s effect on the nervous system. Or when yet another sat down next to me and asked me to define religion, prompted by a class project on religious law.

This is for them and for what they represent. And this is to thank the countless Brown students with deep-set passions who have passed in and out of my life, many of whom I consider my friends. Watching a fellow Brunonian’s eyes dance with excitement when discussing a subject they love is a truly special experience, one that makes this place so exceptional.

So here’s to a group of housemates brought together by a university that cultivates passions ranging from the microscopic to the universal to form a microcosm of my Brown experience as a whole. Here’s to falling down an intellectual rabbit hole and emerging hours later with a better understanding of what drives my fellow classmates. And here’s to acknowledging one of the reasons why Brown is so special: Each member of the Brown community has the ability to awaken that same curiosity and passion in you.

Lastly, thank you to the place I associate with that type of enthusiastic learning: an old house on Angell Street with an open floor plan and sinking floors.

Andrew just graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors Degree in Political Science. He was a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action, which he co-founded with Sam Gilman. Andrew is moving back to NYC joining the Urban Fellows Program to pursue his passion for public service, especially for the homeless.

*Originally published in the Brown Daily Herald, May 21, 2015 and republished with permission by the author.

What's Missing?

When we are looking for patterns, trying to understand or discover customer needs, trying to learn something in general, we tend to look for what’s there.  We look for what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste – for what we observe.  This can take time and focus.  Sometimes we have to look at the negative space as well, the empty space around the ‘thing’ we are observing.   Negative space is used a lot in art and optical illusions.  For instance, look at this key, the logo for the American Institute for Architects in New York:

It looks like a key, right? But look at the cuts in the key’s blade – it’s the NYC skyline! If you took a quick look, you might not notice that it’s a skyline, let alone NYC’s.  So when we are looking, it’s important to look at the equivalent of the ‘negative space’ around the ‘thing’ we are observing.

But what if we ‘looked’ for what’s NOT there? What if we looked for what was missing?  This sounds strange – how can you look for something that’s not there?  Maybe we’re not actually ‘looking’ in the literal sense, but we are trying to see what is missing – what should/could/ought to be there but isn’t.  In Episode 7 of Serial*, one of the lawyers says, “That’s what we’re not seeing.”  Those few words stopped me in my tracks. 

What we are NOT seeing!  We are so used to looking and making sense of what’s there that we rarely stop and look at what’s NOT there… at what’s missing.   Ok, so you can’t see something that’s not there – but maybe you can!  Maybe you can ‘see’ what is normally, typically, usually there in a certain situation or circumstance.  Its absence should raise a flag.  If you question and examine, you’ll ask why something isn’t there, or isn’t there in a way it should be.  Ask Why.  Why didn’t this happen? Why wasn’t that there? Why wasn’t that used? Why wasn’t that tightened? Why wasn’t that next to this?

So the next time you’re observing to learn – to build a new product or service or feature, to understand a customer segment or need – ask yourself what’s missing.  Ask yourself what should be there that isn’t and ask why.  Who knows what you will discover!


*If you haven't listened to Serial yet, you must! Aside from the 'entertainment' value which is very high, the lessons on looking, observing, over-looking, ignoring, missing are applicable to so much of our lives - personally and professionally.

Have you figured out what’s missing in the picture of the robots at the top? Do you want to know? If yes, keep reading.  If no, STOP!

(Look at Robot Robbie's center graphic with the gears; there's only 1 red ‘canister’ on the right).

8 Great Ways to Learn

So honored to host Frank Sonnenberg on my site!!! Wow! His new book, Follow Your ConscienceMake a Difference in Your Life & in the Lives of Others, is just out.  Get it! His wisdom is powerful and practical!

8 Great Ways to Learn 

Learning requires more than attending lectures and regurgitating what you’ve heard. It requires you to be both teacher and student, to learn from books and personal experiences, and to be able to apply lessons learned to real-world situations. Here are a few ways to learn:

Act like a kid. When we’re young, we continually ask “why?” When we get older, however, we get defensive and feel inadequate if we don’t have all the answers. It’s time to learn like a kid again.

Broaden your world. Surrounding yourself with “yes” people is like talking to yourself. Listen to people with viewpoints other than your own. Try to see their side of the issue instead of living your life with blinders on.

Break out of the rut.  Everyone likes routines. Learn by breaking them. Cover the same ground from different angles. Take a new route. Speak to new people. Get information from different sources.

Request feedback. Are you getting ready for a presentation or an interview? Don’t be shy . . . request feedback from a colleague. Most people would be honored to help you. Remember, it’s a lot better to learn in a non-threatening environment than when it’s “game time.”

Learn from mistakes. Do you have twenty years of experience or one year of experience repeated twenty times? If you’re blind to your weaknesses, you may be repeating mistakes rather than correcting them. Remember, practice makes perfect — unless you’re making the same mistakes over and over again.

Critique your actions. Football teams spend countless hours watching game footage to determine how to improve individual performance and build a winning team. Take the time to reflect on your experiences and learn from them. For example, ask yourself, if you had the opportunity to perform an activity again, how would you do it differently?

Increase your expectations. If you want to become a better tennis player, play with someone better than yourself. The same is true in other areas of your life. You’re not going to improve if you don’t accept challenges and learn from them. Step out of your comfort zone to “up” your game.

Success is a journey, not a destination.  Winning is not a black-and-white experience in which losers explore ways to improve and winners receive a bye. Even winners should identify ways to improve on their performance.

This is adapted from Follow Your Conscience: Make a Difference in Your Life & in the Lives of Others By Frank Sonnenberg © 2014 Frank Sonnenberg. All rights reserved.


Frank is an award-winning author. He has written five books and over 300 articles. Frank was recently named one of  “America's Top 100 Thought Leaders” and nominated as one of “America’s Most Influential Small Business Experts.” Frank has served on several boards and has consulted to some of the largest and most respected companies in the world. Additionally, FrankSonnenbergOnline was named among the “Best 21st Century Leadership Blogs.” Frank’s new book, Follow Your Conscience, will be released November 2014. © 2014 Frank Sonnenberg. All rights reserved.


The Economic and Social Impact of Language

With the rise of China, India and other Asian countries, what languages do we teach in school? Bengali? Punjabi? Nope. Think this is a bit of an issue for our economic and political future? Ayup! So does Amelia Friedman.  That's why, she founded and runs the Student Language Exchange. As she starts her senior year at Brown, her sense of urgency is should ours! This has profound implications for our innovation and economic success and national security. You can read more here about the impact of not changing our education and economic systems.


Six months ago, I decided that I wanted to learn Bengali. It’s not offered at my school, nor is it offered at any other college or university in Rhode Island. There’s no Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur or Livemocha or BBC Languages or Babel or LingQ. I’ve resorted to Skyping with a tutor in Dhaka.

Maybe you’re not shocked. Nobody learns Bengali.

In 2009, 97 American undergraduates studied Bengali, the 7th most spoken language in the world. Translation? Less than 100 American students were studying a language spoken by 193 million people in the world. Consequently, we aren’t being prepared for engagement in a country with a $2,100 per capita GDP. Some major news stories about Bangladesh have reached my Twitter feed in the past few months: A factory collapsed and over a thousand lives are lost. Hundreds of thousands are suffering due to groundwater contaminated by nuclear waste. Hundreds died in a killing spree committed by police and other government officials. We can report on these tragedies in our news outlets with some interpreted interviews, and perhaps send basic aid, but we face a stiff language barrier when we communicate with those that are most affected. And, without open and honest conversations, is it appropriate for us to try to help?

Bengali, Javanese, Lahnda (Punjabi), Telugu, Vietnamese, Marathi, Tamil. A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of some of these languages. Now I know that they’re among the 20 most spoken worldwide, and they’re not offered at most American universities. And, in 2010, Arne Duncan announced that 95% of American college students in language classes were taking European languages.

This is paralyzing. It doesn’t promote growth in our global economy, it’s not supporting global politics and communication, and it’s a major concern for our nation’s security interests. We are also not preparing to engage with some of the world’s poorest populations.

But what does that mean for our future?

95%. That does not reflect the skills the next generation will need as we face the political, social, economic and environmental battles of our shared future 

What do you care about?


World peace?


Gender equality?

Access to water?

Education and literacy?

Our generation faces a society that has adopted English as a global language, but we cannot forget that learning other languages initiates deeper connections and more trustful relationships between diverse communities. Language is more than a pragmatic communication system. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Through shared language, students can become sensitive global activists and pursue productive community partnerships.

You may ask yourself: Why should I learn one of these underrepresented languages? Why should my child be studying Vietnamese instead of French? Guaraní instead of Spanish? What is the value of learning Punjabi or Bengali when the educated elite already speak English?

For a moment, discard the notion that everyone speaks English. Ask yourself: Who is “everyone” in that scenario? In many of these communities, the people who would most benefit from an outreached hand aren’t the people who learned fluent English in school.

For one final comparison, compare our map to a map of the Human Development Index:

Languages Taught:

 Human Development:

In these maps, we see that most American students study languages that are associated with high human development indices.

How are we going to contribute to solutions without communicating with those who are most affected? How will we even be able to identify the struggles that plague these communities? Will we be able to understand how to find sources of problems and support communities as they seek change? Can we empower communities with a hand up instead of a handout?

In 2004, the Modern Language Association noted a sense of crisis in higher language education driven by what was called “the nation’s language deficit.” Students are not learning languages at a rate that supports global interests, even those labeled “critical languages” by our State Department— Bengali, for example, is among these 13 languages. How can we begin to address this deficit if we cannot even find opportunities to learn these underrepresented languages?

Right now, there are people across the world who are left out of the conversation. They’re forgotten. It is time for us to transform our perception of language, culture, and engagement in this ever-shrinking world.

Spread our message by sharing this blog post, sharing our Facebook posts, retweeting us, or just emailing out our website! If you want to learn more, email




What Value Do I Bring?

I'm honored to host this guest blog by Elizabeth Weber about her summer interning at a financial firm in Hong Kong.  The lessons she shares at age 20 are ones many of us don't even learn in our 40's, 50's or our lives.  She's bringing these lessons home, as Co-President of the Entrepreneur Program at Brown.  Please learn from her, share and impact others.

Summer in Hong Kong

I followed a curiosity this summer, and worked at an unfamiliar profession. I’m a rising junior at Brown University with a passion for supporting entrepreneurs and understanding how businesses develop. The University provided me with an exceptional opportunity - to work in Hong Kong at a financial company in their asset management and private equity divisions. For more than two months I became a proud member of Hong Kong’s colorful, cultured, and ambitious community.

My journey began with a conversation with a kind older woman. In Hong Kong, I lived at the Helena May, a historical woman’s hotel dating back to 1916. In dormitory fashion, I stayed with 24 women between the ages of 18 and 65 years of age, four of whom were eating breakfast the morning of my first day of work. The older woman sitting beside me must have noticed my apprehension because she asked if today was important. I raised my eyes to smile and told her I was beginning an internship today. She gave me a knowing smile and said, “You’ll do fine, just remember the importance of relationships.” And then she added, “Think hard about the value you bring to the company, and if you’re not sure what it is don’t be afraid to ask.” Midway through my internship, the woman approached me at breakfast again and asked if I had discovered my value. I started speaking, and after a few sentences I stopped, realizing that I still didn’t have a good answer. I was working hard at the company; I was last to leave and first to come in each day, and I was doing good work. I had two mentors; one of whom was knowledgeable beyond measure with an entire library encasing his desk area. But it wasn’t his knowledge that was so striking but rather his genuine compassion for sharing that knowledge. I was comfortable around him, comfortable enough to show my vulnerabilities. When I asked him the older woman’s question, “What value did I bring?” He said my value comes from, “The questions I ask and my eagerness to learn.” I hadn’t expected this answer; I had anticipated it would be my research or a presentation I had done. Something more tangible. Then I thought back to the woman’s first statement about relationships and began to understand. The best relationships are those in which, we share ourselves – our genuine beliefs and our thoughts. Even in business, defined by coveted numbers and profit expectations, relationships are what matter. I formed a strong relationship with my mentor not through my research, but through my questions, through showing weakness, and working hard. I learned the best relationships are honest and genuine.

My final lesson took me awhile to fully understand. Much of my work for the company revolved around identifying business opportunity. Through research, I learned what metrics and patterns to look for in a company’s financial statements, and what traps and common misconceptions to avoid. I became curious about process, what to look for first, then second, and then third on the income statement or balance sheet. I was becoming a process thinker. I realize this logic is not singular to investing but rather something I can apply to all aspects of my life. As humans, the first way we empower ourselves is through our thoughts. By constantly improving our thought processes, we can improve our working intelligence and translate that into work performance. At school, I’m head of the Entrepreneurship Program. I connect my peers with advisors, and potential investors to help them become entrepreneurs. Reflecting on my work this summer, I’ve realized a flaw in the Entrepreneurship Program. The organization puts more resources into rewarding success than it does into teaching the process. It’s human nature, to strive for the end product; parents wish success for their children, CEOs desire profit for their company but these end goals cannot overshadow the path to achieve them. The path is sometimes long, ridden with mistakes and struggles, but for the patient teachers and persistent workers, the process is worth far more than the end product.

While cultural differences separated me from my Cantonese co-workers and friends, I believe truths like these hold us together. Cultural differences – how to hug, how to politely eat a meal, and what to give as gifts – seem inconsequential in comparison. These can be learned by reading a book, but to become a person of the world, one needs to understand genuine relationships and respect how others think and learn.    

Also published in Echoes of LBI (Long Beach Island) Magazine.

The Anti-Recommender

You know how Amazon, Netflix, and everybody else have a ‘recommender’ service? Based on what you’ve bought, browsed, read, listened to, they suggest things you may like. 

But if I’m always being told about things that are “like” what I like, how will I discover new and different things?  It could constrain opportunities for serendipity and luck (which I’m pretty dependent on).

I’d like an Anti-Recommender Service

Do you remember playing the “which of these is not like the other” when you were a kid? That’s how we learned and developed preliminary pattern recognition skills.  Somewhere along the way, it switched! We were taught to look for “which of these is like the other” (the old “don’t compare apples & oranges” routine).  Having been raised in a home that thrived on cognitive dissonance, I find this incredibly frustrating.

My ideal anti-recommender service will tell me about ideas, concepts, books, music, art, sites, bloggers, periodicals, tweeters, etc. that don’t fit into the ‘nice neat stereotype’ that’s been created about me.   It will point me to:

  • Blogs that may disagree with my viewpoint making me think and question assumptions;
  • Music I wouldn’t necessarily listen to but end up liking (from Massenet to Kevin Chesney) opening new harmonies and stories in my mind;
  • Books that wouldn’t have picked up but am now a sucker for (e.g., Nordic/Swedish crime novels) making me use my brain differently; and
  • People I wouldn’t normally cross paths with who bring new experiences, viewpoints, tastes, flavors, cultures, and ideas that greatly enrich my life, and others.

There is nothing inherently wrong with recommender services – except for lack of a counterbalance.  We need both to learn and grow – ourselves, our people, and our organizations.  We need both to innovate.

So, who among you would like to build an anti-recommender service? I’ll sign up to be an alpha, beta, whatever customer and I’d be willing to pay for it!  Or, if you know of one, please please share it! Thanks!

Intangible Loss of Outsourced Innovation

Today’s New York Times front page features “How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work” about the loss of American jobs overseas and the implications for our middle class.  I’ve been thinking about the 2nd, 3rd order effects of outsourcing, especially now that some companies are either doing or seriously considering insourcing. 

In November, I spoke with Bernard Charlès, CEO of Dassault Systèmes, (DS), creator of 3D simulation products for manufacturing to life sciences. Insourcing is a key component of Dassault and Bernard’s personal values: a company’s role includes contributing to society and the economy through the business itself.

I’ve wondered about the cost-benefit equation of in vs. outsourcing for a while.  Most cost-benefit analysis focuses on tangibles: lower labor rates, higher freight, etc.  Are 2nd and 3rd order effects accounted for in the equation: benefits of training and professional/career development, adjacent businesses in manufacturing or services, other opportunities?  I don’t know.  And what about innovation?

I agree with many who believe we learn by doing.   Many innovations arise by trying to do something one way and figuring out a better way or an entirely different way to do it.  If we’ve outsourced the ‘doing’ doesn’t it follow that we’ve outsourced the ‘learning’?   I wonderful how many opportunities for innovation we’ve lost because we weren’t ‘doing’.   In the NYT article, Apple’s executives said the reason for outsourcing went beyond cheap labor; overseas factories could scale faster and workers were more flexible and skilled than in the USA.  Perhaps because they learned to?

While ‘learning from doing’ is not easy to quantify and add into the equation, it needs to be.   Isn’t that an important part of the ‘business case’ for insourcing?  Perhaps it wasn’t viewed as important in the last century, but it sure is for this one. As we rapidly move from knowledge stacks to knowledge flows, per John Hagel, the ability to capture and apply learning becomes one of customer, and competitive, advantage, if not survival – of companies, economies, societies.

So, have you tried to quantify your ‘learning by doing’? Have you made it part of any business case for out/insourcing?  Please share – these are important and valuable lessons.

Innovation in the Hopper

Edward Hopper is one of my favorite artists, so I was excited to see all his Maine works on exhibit at the Bowdoin Museum of Art.  A lot of his time in Maine was on Monhegan Island, a noted artists’ colony for over 150 years, close to us in Pemaquid. Hopper’s experimentation and evolution of style and technique remind me a lot of how we innovate.  I’ll explain in a minute.Monhegan Rocks and Seals (1916-19)

Hopper’s paintings became more realistic and less impressionistic over time.  His early paintings (1916-19’s) were very impressionist with deep texture and detail in the brushstrokes, such as Monhegan Rocks and Seals (1916-19).

And yet, Hopper goes back and forth between realism as in Captain Upton’s House Captain Upton's House (1927)(1927) and a bit of impressionism in my favorite of all his works, Pemaquid Light (1929), as he experiments and integrates the various styles and techniques (you can see the influence of Manet and Degas).  After this several year experimentation with impressionism, Hopper returns to his comfort zone: darker colors and more realistic representation – as in his very famous painting of a bar in Greenwich Village, Nighthawks (1942).    I get lost inPemaquid Light (1929) these paintings – I hear the men at the Pemaquid Light discussing their latest catch, where the stripers are running; I eavesdrop on the couple’s conversation at the bar.

As we innovate over time, our style and technique also evolve and blend.  The ways we interact, write, design and communicate shift as we have more experiences and relationships.   The shift is rarely linear – a few steps forward, a few backward, a few sideways, a few perpendicular.   Why? Because we are experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t work, blending aspects of both into new forms and Nighthawks (1942)techniques.  Think back to how you have approached business and life as you’ve matured.  Our perceptions of the world, of others, of global events have all changed and hence, impacted our view of needs, problems and solutions.

So, how has your perspective changed over time? What have you learned through the varied experiences and relationships of your life that you can apply to when, how, where, why you innovate? How can you turn those learnings into solutions that impact lives as much as paintings impact souls?

Your Greatest Asset? ROF: Return on Failure

Innovation and failure go hand in hand.  So, what is failure? When things don’t go according to plan or expectations, ending up with unexpected and/or undesired outcomes.  The key is ‘undesired’ – because if they were desired and not planned or expected, that would be great!  But, as we will see, failure is a terrific way to learn.  Maybe we could measure learning as Return on Failure: ROF.  And many of these learnings are intangible, but as the 21st Century is proving, it’s the intangibles that matter.

We’ve heard the phrase “fail often, fail cheap, fail fast” or “it’s ok to make mistakes, just make different ones.” So, can we do a better job of learning from failure?  We’re not built to do this easily, either by learning from others’ failures or our own.  There are many ways to learn from failure, so what I’m suggesting is just one way.

One way we could start learning from failure is through a simple 3-step process (bear in mind, simple ≠ easy!):

  1. Identification of the Failure(s)
  2. Analysis of the Failure(s)
  3. Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping based on the learnings from the failures

So, and check my ‘math’, ROF = Failure Identification + Failure Analysis applied over (and over…) Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping.  That’s the framework (for now).

Failure Identification is proactively identifying what went wrong, what failed.  Systems and processes can help capture this information for sharing with those who need to know now and in the future.  Feedback loops with employees, customers, and suppliers are also important (and who else?).  Most companies are complex entities which make getting and sharing information difficult.  Also, most cultures don’t tolerate failure too well so we learn to play the blame game.  And of course, there are a lot of other reasons we’ll get into in further posts.

Failure Analysis is not playing the blame game but discovering the Why.  When a plane crashes, the NTSB goes over every inch of the site.  They don’t blame; they use a formal, objective process to discuss, analyze and learn.  Try a model like this.  Be objective, don’t personalize or blame (not as easy as it sounds).  Organizations also succumb to confirmational bias; we become inured, not realizing we’ve fallen into that trap.  The “blame game” makes doing the necessary forensic work challenging because it can be hard to trust our colleagues.

Iterative Experimenting & Prototyping involves creating a well designed experiment so we can limit and test the variable (ideas) and prototype.  Test where we think we could fail, try what does and doesn’t work.  The more we experiment, the more we learn, the greater the chances of success.  Do small, inexpensive experiments and prototypes (they don’t have to be grand).  Do virtual and thought experiments.  There are many ways to experiment and prototype today that are not expensive or lengthy so try it.  Why don’t we? How many organizations are structured for experimentation? Not many (remember the scientific method? Bet not).  And culturally, we don’t incent, reward, recognize our people to experiment – we incent being right, not trying to be right!

What do you think? Does this make sense? Are you trying to learn from failure in your organization?  What have you learned that you’ve been able to apply?