I am closing in on my 69th birthday having spent the last 40 of those years helping people attain their work and life goals, build real relationships and lead consequential lives.
You could call me a speaker and writer of sorts. I wrote a monthly column for a Minneapolis paper a few years back and co-authored a book, The Million Dollar Parrot.
In 1987, I co-founded a business lecture series, The Masters Forum, and led it from cradle to the grave in 2010. From program design to finding experts in what I came to call "tomorrow's ideas for today's leaders," it evolved in a way I never could have imagined. Paying strict attention to hits and misses, I adjusted as I went along.
I had a wonderful time swapping ideas with the most innovative business thinkers of the past three decades, including Rosabeth Kanter, Peter Drucker, Jim Collins and Clayton Christensen. It also put me face-to-face with some shining stars from outside of the "business" world, such as Alex Haley, Malcolm Gladwell, Scott Adams (who featured The Masters Forum in a 2010 Dilbert cartoon) and talk radio's Dennis Prager.
What did I learn from these individuals? Here are a couple of lessons and stories.
Common Eyes to Seeing Eyes
A little more than 13 years ago, Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor and author of The Innovator's Dilemma, came to The Masters Forum bearing great news: He found the key to the vault where the secret recipe for innovation had been stored since the beginning of time.
The secret, simply put, is that we must see anew to create anew. The problem we face in light of this secret is that fixed seeing habits are difficult to change.
Christensen's secret was the most important, far-reaching idea ever presented at The Masters Forum. It explains most business failures and the calamities that occur far beyond the walls of business. For example, this dilemma explains the collapse of civilizations: Rome, the Mayans and Easter Island. It also tells us how Hitler came to power in Germany and Stalin in the U.S.S.R.
Each catastrophe could have been identified before it was too late, even though those who could have, or even should have, seen them might argue the point.
There are no silver bullets to kill off an old way of seeing and easily solve our own Innovator's Dilemmas. However, just knowing that unexplored perspectives are out there should give you plenty of incentive to create a new solution by seeing things differently.
No Answers ... Just Stories
We are hard-wired to think in metaphors and learn from stories. David Kirk Hart, an ethics professor at Brigham Young University, recently spoke at The Master's Forum about this exact topic.
During World War II, a British war correspondent had gone into Normandy. He was particularly disgusted by generals living in mansions and estates while ordinary citizens were in the line of fire. The reporter was especially upset upon hearing that the Nazis had positioned two Panzer divisions near Cannes, and a Scottish division was to face the worst of the Panzers the next morning.
"The reporter went immediately into one battalion, and asked the sergeant major, ‘Where's the lieutenant colonel?' only to be told that he was in the back of the lines with the general. The reporter became angry and said, ‘Well doesn't it infuriate you to know that you attack in the morning and your colonel is back there with the general?' At that point, the sergeant major drew himself up and said: ‘Sir, when the time comes for dying, he will be with us."
What would you give for your people to say that about you? What would you have to do to make it happen?
Conversations Spark Creativity and Innovation
Informal conversations in which participants fire off metaphors, swap stories and bounce ideas off each other are the principal drivers of learning and innovation in today's organizations. They carry news, spread intellectual capital, create meaning, spark creativity and strengthen personal relationships.
Steve Jobs understood this. Many of his breakthrough ideas sprung out of ordinary conversations. Here is an example from The Innovator's DNA by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen.
"Jobs talked with an Apple Fellow named Alan Kay, who told him to ‘go visit these crazy guys up in San Rafael, California.' The crazy guys were Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray, who headed up a small computer graphics operation called Industrial Light & Magic (the group that created special effects for George Lucas' movies). Fascinated by their operation, Jobs bought Industrial Light & Magic for $10 million, renamed it Pixar and eventually took it public for $1 billion. Had he never chatted with Kay, he would never have wound up purchasing Pixar, and the world might never have thrilled to wonderful animated films like Toy Story, WALL-E and Up."
Another fascinating conversation took place in a Detroit supermarket circa 1956. A Toyota employee named Taiichi Ohno watched a woman grab a box of Post Toasties from the shelf. A minute later, he saw a stock boy replace the box with another from the stockroom. The man approached the boy and asked what he was doing. The boy said he was simply following the store's policy of immediately replenishing what customers had actually purchased.
Suddenly, Ohno had an "aha" moment: What if Toyota could develop a system to efficiently build and deliver cars the same way? When he returned to Japan, he set about creating the world's first Just in Time production system.
Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express, understands the value of this kind of conversation as well. He has a practice of asking, "Who is the most interesting person you've met in the last 90 days and how can I get a hold of him or her?"
It might not be a bad idea to try on for size.